When women are ignored


by Sunny
29th March, 2007 at 2:10 pm    

In an online article for Catalyst magazine (published by the CRE), Zohra Moosa has a short piece on how government policy of multiculturalism can negatively impact women. She takes the example of Canada, which after all invented the policy. The whole article is worth reading, if a bit academic in its language.

To summarise, she identifies two aspects to the Canadian approach:
1) The Canadian model presumes that the ethnic diversity dilemma posed by migrating people is about reconciling cultural differences. Its ‘solution’ is to develop strategies that harmonise these differing ‘cultures’ and mitigate tensions between them. This conceptualisation implies that culture is a discrete entity with specific characteristics: that it is bounded, homogeneous, and static.

This also applies here, when people who challenge that ‘culture’ (mostly women) are sometimes not supported by the liberal or feminist movements because the latter are not sure if they are ‘being authentic’. A good example is Germaine Greer criticising Monica Ali when the Brick Lane film controversy arose. What a farce that was.

2) The second pitfall of Canada’s approach to multiculturalism is that culture in Canada is treated as something that ‘other’ people have – namely non-white, non-English-speaking, numerically in the minority people. In the national discourse, it is French Canadians and Aboriginal people (including First Nations, Inuit and Metis) and non-white immigrants that have culture. It is their customs and language and foods and clothing – their ‘ways’ – that illustrate ‘culture’. White English Canadians are presented as the neutral backdrop against which ‘other’ people are different. Multiculturalism, then, is something that is needed for the racially different Other.

What this leads to in practice is the ‘game’ that women are forced to play in order to get help.

However, in order to make a convincing case, women may need to play into stereotypical, racist renderings of ‘their culture’. For example, South Asian women making claims sometimes have to rely on concepts that they are, as Sherene Razack says, ‘victims of exceptionally patriarchal cultures’ to convince officials that their lives are genuinely at risk. This then allows ‘white Canada’ to conceive of itself as the culturally superior rescuer of the Other from backward ‘cultural dysfunction’.

Similarly, a number of cases have been documented where ethnic minority men have been able to effectively use ‘culture’ as a defence when charged with assaulting their wives. Arguing that their abuse is ‘culturally appropriate behaviour’, men in these cases have been able to secure more lenient sentences in court. In one case, judicial comments claimed that an abusive relationship was sanctioned by the ‘South Vietnamese cultural backgrounds’ of the man and woman involved.

I’ve argued against this kind of ‘cultural understanding’ many times in the past. If someone is breaking the law by beating their wife or forcing their children into marriage etc, then the law needs to be invoked and they should be treated as common criminals like others. Cultural differences can be based on history, languages, food, music, religion and such like. But there should always be a commonly enfored and applicable law. When that isn’t applied, multiculturalism fails.

[PS - Zohra published Feminism and Islam on PP too last month. On Canada, it's also worth reading Ehsan Masood's recent trip there and describing its approach to Muslims.]


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  1. Anna — on 29th March, 2007 at 2:17 pm  

    The second pitfall of Canada’s approach to multiculturalism is that culture in Canada is treated as something that ‘other’ people have – namely non-white, non-English-speaking, numerically in the minority people. In the national discourse, it is French Canadians and Aboriginal people (including First Nations, Inuit and Metis) and non-white immigrants that have culture. It is their customs and language and foods and clothing – their ‘ways’ – that illustrate ‘culture’. White English Canadians are presented as the neutral backdrop against which ‘other’ people are different. Multiculturalism, then, is something that is needed for the racially different Other.

    Nah, the whole point of Canada is that everyone is an immigrant, or descendant of an immigrant, and that there is NO “neutral backdrop”. At least in the extremely multicultural part of Canada I’m from, that’s pretty much the way we think. That’s why Canadians in Britain find the whole concept of “defining Britishness” so weird.

    Obviously I agree on the legal front, but to again defend Canada-this issue of making legal exceptions for ethnicities is very much contested and in no way standard, or at the heart of any Canadian conception of multiculturalism. It’s pretty new, and it’s pretty contraversial.

  2. Kismet Hardy — on 29th March, 2007 at 2:31 pm  

    Now here’s a topic i can contribute to. Women always ignore me so I say it’s about time they got, as I like to say, ‘a taste of their own medicine’

  3. Arif — on 29th March, 2007 at 5:49 pm  

    Reading the article itself, I think it makes a fair point and sums up well that there is a gap between relativism and universalism in which threats to women’s rights sit.

    But it doesn’t end the argument, because if we are to side with universalism, then whose universalism shall define the rights of women? Within Amnesty International there are constant arguments about how lots of abuses which people feel are human rights abuses are outside its remit. And other abuses are privileged because they are the kinds of abuses Amnesty’s founders particularly abhorred.

    So those dynamics Zohra identifies in Canada, where asylum-seekers play up to mainstream stereotypes of escaping patriarchal cultures, are part of the dynamics of universalism: these kinds of human rights matter, not your concerns for cultural particulars which we do not understand.

    Relativists can come to the rescue by attempting to broaden people’s empathy, to recognise that our own values cannot be held as absolute or superior merely because they are our own and that other people hold their own values with equal certainty. And then we have the next obvious trap of whether to respect the values of bigoted patriarchs.

    I don’t think the next step is to fall back on fighting it out in the name of our own brands of universalism. I think it is something Zohra hinted at in her first criticism of Canadian multiculturalism. Giving people the choice of culture and subculture – you don’t like universalist culture A, come to universalist culture B, or C, or subculture AC, or set up your own community. The only restriction being that all members of your culture are also free to leave.

    So we can have an enforced universalist framework (no coercion to enter or remain in any community) which respects the insights from relativists that it is oppressive to impose your values on others. And lookie here, it looks a lot like a Libertarian/Liberal model.

  4. Twining or Black in Blue — on 29th March, 2007 at 6:04 pm  

    Forced marriages and domestic violence are still taboo subjects within the Asian community. I arrested an illegal immigrant some years back. He was Sikh. I caught him in the loft of a house, I could not turn a blind eye. If I had missed him by two days he would have been on his way to a new life in Canada. This man was not like the problem people we arrest day in day out. He was not a criminal per se. Sometimes I wish I had turned a blind eye.

  5. Gibs — on 29th March, 2007 at 9:07 pm  

    Re: That comment in Ehsan Masood’s article about there being “nothing wrong” with someone choosing to buy a house within 5 minutes walk of a parent or sibling – I couldn’t agree more.

    It happens all the time, all over England, to people of all races. For instance, my (white) next door neighbours live within a couple of doors of their daughter, who is also (surprise, surprise) white !

    So if this sort of “residential behaviour” is good enough for whites, it ought to be good enough for everyone else.

    However, in practice, sometimes in areas where one street contains several members of the same ethnic/religious group, an unfortunate side effect often is that they do not integrate with people outside their ethnic/religious group.

    However, if an area happened to be genuinely “multi” racial, rather than “mono” racial or “bi” racial, that would have the positive side effect that different ethnic groups would be obliged to integrate and interact with each other.

    Governments should NOT dictate the racial/religious make up of an area regardless of whether the intention is to enforce separation (as in aparteid South Africa) or to “enforce” integration.

    Nevertheless, the results of the “laissez faire” approach have not always been good for society. This could well be a situation to which there are no “good” solutions – just “least worst” ones.

  6. Clairwil — on 29th March, 2007 at 11:21 pm  

    ‘are sometimes not supported by the liberal or feminist movements because the latter are not sure if they are ‘being authentic’. A good example is Germaine Greer criticising Monica Ali when the Brick Lane film controversy arose. What a farce that was.’

    Indeed, a good but vastly over-praised book. As for the story, well the heart wants what it wants and if it can’t act upon it in fiction then we really are fucked up as a species.

    If art would just give representation and morality a slap on the bum, wink and say goodbye, the quality would increase overnight.

  7. zohra — on 30th March, 2007 at 10:53 am  

    Hi Everyone

    Anna, I’m also from the most multicultural part of Canada and so sympathize with what you’re saying about the feeling that the whole point of Canada is that ‘everyone is an immigrant’. That is definitely a common narrative in some parts of the country, and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of.

    I would argue that that’s very much on a personal level though. At the state and institutional level, which *is* the heart of a Canadian conception of multiculturalism (because that’s where we have the Multiculturalism Act for instance) it is different and there is evidence to back this up.

    Also, I’m not sure when ‘new’ begins, but the documented examples I used are from ten years ago.

    I totally agree about your point on Britishness btw. I’d go even further though: not only do I find it weird, I also find it problematic.

    Arif, I totally agree about the need to complicate universalist principles. I do think there is a line though, and part of our challenge is to negotiate this line, as you discuss. What makes this difficult in some contexts, including Canada and England, are legacies and realities of racism. Everyone isn’t negotiating from equal positions/power. This means that some voices aren’t heard or respected as much, but it also means that we sometimes have deference to difference as compensation or from guilt.

  8. Arif — on 30th March, 2007 at 12:06 pm  

    Zohra, I think understanding legacies is all part of understanding other points of view. Different women in the same culture can feel the legacies of racism, class background or patriarchy in very different ways.

    If we are all to negotiate a universalist line together, not having a shared view of what constitutes the Legacy of X is going to be part of the negotiation.

    And the negotiation will be ongoing, but I think it would only be among people of goodwill, and it isn’t clear how many people that would be. Those who suspect the agenda of those negotiating will likely interpret themselves as being excluded and denied a voice.

    So in the mean time, in the spirit of opposing oppression and domination however it is experienced, the State could take a line which offers protection and security to people from any community to be part of any community and work on making the protection accessible to all. Multiculturalism can then continue with minimal judgment, ossification and interference. And dialogues negotiating universalist principles beyond this can go on forever developing in response to contemporary struggles.

  9. soru — on 30th March, 2007 at 12:20 pm  

    I think I’d probably either agree or disagree with arif if I knew what he meant.

  10. sonia — on 30th March, 2007 at 12:32 pm  

    arif makes good points.

  11. Arif — on 30th March, 2007 at 12:37 pm  

    Soru, most people would disagree with me if they understood what I meant, so i was hoping I could confuse people into agreeing with me in abstract terms without realising the implication.

    Boo to you for not playing along.

    I mean we probably can’t agree on what constitutes our universal human rights.

    I think while we argue the theories, we can still do things to protect women in a multicultural society.

    If the aim is to protect women from being treated in ways they do not agree with in the name of culture, the State should help them to escape from the social group which is being oppressive. Not by forcing them to be part of any other culture, but by – for example – having safe houses which can be easily accessed. By having information in all languages and in all kinds of media for different cultural groups. By having helplines in all languages, and police ready to intervene quickly in the event of a call.

    Then there are more arguable points, on whether the State should take broader responibility, perhaps the State should ensure a basic safety net to ensure people can survive, with health and meaningful social choices, outside of their community. Perhaps the State should ensure any grant-funded organisations also refer women to the protection programme as a condition.

    Anyway, that’s a flavour of what I meant. And of course, like all good feminist ideas, men equally need access to these protections. Whatever is required to make such protection immediate and meaningful should be discussed with grassroots organisations, just as the content of universal human rights should be discussed among activists and academics.

  12. Jagdeep — on 30th March, 2007 at 12:37 pm  

    If art would just give representation and morality a slap on the bum, wink and say goodbye, the quality would increase overnight.

    Clairwill, what do you mean by that? Because I think I know what you’re saying, but I’m not sure, and it sounds fascinating. Also, the slapping the bum metaphor excites me, and makes me think taht you were temporarily infected by the spirit of Kismet.

  13. soru — on 30th March, 2007 at 1:53 pm  

    mean we probably can’t agree on what constitutes our universal human rights.

    Maybe so, but universal agreement isn’t a necessary part of any political system other than Quaker meetings.

    Universalism versus relativism is a bit of a distraction – the issue is which moral questions should be accepted as settled at the national or state level, and which left to the individual, or voluntary association of individuals.

    The phrase ‘Monopoly of legitimate force’ has a consequence: there can be only one, so we have to share it.

    For example, the British state effectively holds a belief that witchcraft doesn’t exist (though I think tehnically the laws still exist, and someone was prosecuted as recently as WWII). Consequently the Biblical line ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’ has no moral force.

    Plenty of individuals and small communities would disagree.

    To systematically find good answers to that kind of question, you have to know what the state is for, whether it is a welfare state, a market state, a minimal civil order state, a war-fighting state, or something else.

    (and this is me trying to explain, not obfuscate. Honestly. Apologies if it is still gibberish)

  14. Arif — on 30th March, 2007 at 2:21 pm  

    Well, I am leaving the precise kind of State open (although limiting its range).

    I gave options which are compatible with a minimal civil order state and with a liberal welfare state.

    The State would not define universal human rights in terms of substantive rights – so there is a long Quakerly wait for that. But would in the mean time enforce procedural justice to protect the right to leave a community (as opposed to the right to gain and transfer property). People will be bound to the rules of their community to the extent that they consent to this. Given that consent can be revoked at any time, backed by the State, it would make some forms of community impossible.

    At what age does this become effective etc etc? I don’t know. I’m not giving a blueprint for a new society, but trying to think through the implications of being serious about cultural freedom (accepting the relativist case that no culture is superior over another) and freedom from cultural oppression (a constructed universal value, which I think even most relativists would support, unless they believe in monocultural States or no States at all).

  15. soru — on 30th March, 2007 at 3:48 pm  

    ‘accepting the relativist case that no culture is superior over another’

    Personally, I wouldn’t phrase things that way: I would say say brit culture is reasonably well-adapted to modern economic conditions, just as Inuit culture is well-adapted to the economic conditions of arctic hunter-gathering.

    See Jared Diamond on

    In any case, I don’t think cultural superiority is a necessary assumption to allow the state to make moral judgements that some cultures wouldn’t agree with.

    Sometimes an answer, any answer, is better than no answer. If you have a non-violent mechanism to revise that answer, is that so bad?

  16. soru — on 30th March, 2007 at 3:50 pm  

    I meant ‘See Jared Diamond on the Greenland Norse’.

  17. Arif — on 30th March, 2007 at 4:49 pm  

    While some will a culture can be well adapted to particular conditions, others may argue it is undermining those conditions, or those conditions are being undermined by the actions of others. I think a relativist would probably say that your criteria are one of many possible criteria, and even if someone accepted cultural survival were an absolute value, I think they could only tell which cultural strategy has worked up to this point, not what will work into the future.

    If you are suggesting the State should judge the fitness of a culture for ecological conditions (or I assume from what you say you have other criteria, based on your understanding of economic conditions), then would that mean this is a more important consideration than, say, women’s rights to live free from domestic violence?

    I understand you bring this up more as an argument about the State’s role in promoting the co-existence of cultures, not as an argument that the State’s role is only to impose or promote a successful culture. But I came to my argument as a consequence of prioritising removal of oppression (as I understand it), and your argument seems to be prioritising adaptation to prevailing economic currents. So if “your” kind of State can also promote women’s equality and care for the vulnerable, then I think “my” kind of State can also promote adaptation to prevailing economic conditions.

  18. soru — on 31st March, 2007 at 12:29 am  

    then would that mean this is a more important consideration than, say, women’s rights to live free from domestic violence?

    I’d say that the prioritisation of those issues is something that should be worked through by a democratic political process, as opposed to a legal, bureaucratic or military one.

    prioritising removal of oppression (as I understand it), and your argument seems to be prioritising adaptation to prevailing economic currents

    I’m not sure how you can usefully distinguish those – a good adaptation is one that has the minimal possible oppression. Physical survival is rarely a significant constraint, it’s more about avoiding the novel cultural mistakes that are only possible with a modern economy: the slave trade, WWI, the Holocaust, etc.

  19. Clairwil — on 31st March, 2007 at 12:44 am  

    Jagdeep,
    What I’m after is the mind set free. Art and morality would get on far better and just ignored each other. Blank paper hums with possibilities -the only limit is human imagination. It’s the one space we can truly run wild in, don’t make it a slave to worthy causes or dreary representation politics.

    For heavens sake. People were getting all upset because the main character in Brick Lane had an affair with a young chap. Who cares if it was realistic? Not I. It made sense in the book. If I want reality I’ll leave the house, not pick up a work of fiction.

  20. Amir — on 31st March, 2007 at 1:45 am  

    I should have said something…

    Sunny,… this is a great blog entry. Well done. :-)

  21. Anna — on 31st March, 2007 at 2:05 am  

    Zohra, thank you for the kind response! Immediately my shackles are down to hear that these critiques are coming from a Canadian, as I tend to have a chip on my shoulder about Canadian multiculturalism not being properly understood in Europe (levels of identity and all that). As a Pole/Jew/Montrealer/Quebecoise/Canadian, I am awfully defensive of it, but I do take a lot of the points in your critique. Also while we’re at it-what’s your take on Little Mosque on the Prairie? I only saw adverts for it when I was home in December and I was sorry that I didn’t get a chance to check it out for myself.

  22. Jamestown — on 31st March, 2007 at 3:28 pm  

    Amazing how this “cultural” sensitivity doesn’t seem to apply to animal rights. I doubt Canada would be so “understanding” of an immigrant who beat and tortured the hell out of his pet dog and cited his culture as justification. All-out violent bigotry can only be excused when women and girls are not considered humans–or even animals.

  23. Olivia — on 1st April, 2007 at 11:24 pm  

    Hi Anna, just to let you know, I edit Catalyst and we are publishing an article on Little Mosque on the Prairie by a Canadian professor in the next issue of Catalyst (due out mid May), so please keep an eye out for that.

  24. anon — on 5th April, 2007 at 8:10 pm  

    I thought that the point of “Equal before the law” was that the same laws apply to everyone.

    So that if it is a crime for A to strike B, it is also a crime for B to strike A. Or C. Irrespective of the race, sex, culture, income, union membership, political party, family, etc of any of them.

    This tends to fall foul of “multiculutralism” precisely because it requires you to treat people the same way, regardless of culture.

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