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Philosophy and Gender

Women's Issues and Multiculturalism

Judit Hell

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ABSTRACT: In part one of this paper, I offer a description of the main versions of multiculturalism, with its liberal interpretation among them. In part two, I give an outline of the changes that have taken place in women's social status in the course of history and of the various stages of their emancipation process. In the third part I examine the relationship between multiculturalism and women's issues in general. Finally, I explore the same in Hungary, and attempt to draw some general consequences. Does a minority group (e.g., Gypsies in Hungary) in a multicultural society have the right to maintain their traditional patriarchal culture? I argue that the liberation of women is not a "women's issue"; it is part of the persistent enforcement of human rights.

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My address is divided into four parts. In the first part I offer a description of the main versions of multiculturalism, with its liberal interpretation among them. In the second part I shall give an outline of the changes that have taken place in women's social status in the course of history and of the various stages of their emancipation process. In the third part I examine the relationship between multiculturalism and women's issues in general. Finally, in the fourth part I explore the same in Hungary, and attempt at drawing some general consequences.

(I) It is appropriate to distinguish between two types of multicultural societies-the traditional and the modern. In traditional societies, several ethnic groups may have lived together, which, despite their differences, basically belonged to the same civilisation. In countries which belong in the European civilisation, for instance, English and Scots, French and Bretons have lived together; in the territory of historical Hungary, Hungarians, Slovaks, Romanians, Croats, Serbs and Germans lived side by side for centuries. Even though their cultures were different from one another, all these peoples shared in the same Christian culture; the non-Christian exceptions among them were the Jews and the Gypsies-the latter having been formally Christian. The traditional societies in Christian Europe were patriarchal in character, which basically defined the status of women. Furthermore, the social communities in the case of non-Christian ethnic groups and/or those who arrived at a different stage of civilisation (Jews and Gypsies) were also male-centred, and when compared to the Europeans, the patriarchalism of these ethnic groups was of an even more archaic and rigid type. In his essays David Hume distinguished three historical forms of male dominance-barbarism in Asia, small-mindedness in the Antiquity, and courtship in the Modern Age in order to dominate through complaisance.

In modern societies, a new version of multiculturalism has evolved, which results from a break predominantly through immigration in a largely homogeneous society. In the first phase of the process, the immigrants mainly seek to be assimilated; in the second, they generally do not wish to be absorbed in the majority ethnic communities. On the contrary, they endeavor to preserve their language, traditions and identity and wish to be recognized as a minority, their culture to be maintained and supported as such (see Latin Americans in the US, Africans in Britain, Turks in Germany, Arabs in France).

Handling multiculturalism in modern liberal democracies presents itself both as a theoretical (political philosophical and ethical) issue and a specific practical problem, since there are many multicultural societies in the modern sense of the word; moreover, the decisive majority of the countries of the world have multinational, culturally plural societies, and enmity between the various cultural groups is pretty common. One fundamental theoretical problem which inevitably arises is how liberalism and multiculturalism can be connected; how, on the basis of individualist-centred classical liberalism, can the collective cultural rights of a minority be formulated in the interest of preserving the community and maintaining their culture when (a) all kinds of communities, traditions and allegiances to traditions present lesser or greater restrictions on the individual liberties of its members; (b) the State should remain culturally neutral for it is should not resort to discrimination (not even positive discrimination) among ethnic groups, religions, ways of life or cultures.

Claiming that the individual is always defined in opposition to community ties, the community-centred (conservative, socialistic, communitarian) ideas, on the basis of their reading of the liberal ideal of man, dispute the capability of liberalism to recognise the collective rights of minorities in the interest of maintaining their culture. Rawls and Dworkin offer an elegant solution to this problem. Both recognise ways in which collective rights can be accorded as additional to, and without infringing, individual rights. Both follow the same logical pattern. Collective qualities, they argue, can be acknowledged as values that can be chosen freely by individuals in a society built on the plurality of values. Rawls avers that an individual life plan is carried out by way of making free choices between alternatives, one of these alternatives being the potential presented by a particular cultural community. Dworkin suggests that in the free world of culture a free individual can freely choose between objectives (cultural objectives) and responsibilities (communal responsibilities). In this light, collective cultural rights may be ensured on a liberal footing by way of widening individual choice, meanwhile supposing that the different cultures embody values (self-value) of their own.

According to liberal multiculturalism, no repression of any hue, including repressive culture, is to be tolerated. (Rawls and Dworkin also suggest that only liberal cultures should be supported on moral imperative.) One should also reckon that a number of cultures that repress their own members become even more repressive in a multicultural context-especially when their survival is uncertain amongst the new circumstances. They may force their members to turn inwards and to break ties with the outer world. The practice of binding the individual to a group may strengthen the conservative elements in a culture and may lead to generation conflicts. (These two possibilities are well exemplified in two excellent films-isolation in Sidney Lumet's A Stranger among Us and the conflict of generations in Norman Jewison's Fiddler on the Roof.) Emphasizing in general the significance of collectivity, liberal multiculturalism respects also non-liberal communal cultures, cherishes their language, literature, music and dances, meanwhile insisting on the defence of individual liberty in opposition to communal repression.

It may happen that a particular practice within a culture is said to be repressive amongst multicultural circumstances. A certain attitude towards women may be seen in a homogeneous culture in entirely different light than in a multicultural one which is especially sensitive to discrimination between sexes. The younger generations will presumably rebel against old practices, and the acceptance in their ranks by members of the majority culture is imperative. To sum it up-respect shown by liberal multiculturalism towards other cultures is conditional to the appreciation shown by the given community towards values (liberty, human dignity) that are heteronomous to their own value system.

(II) As regards the status of women, there are three stages of development to be distinguished in the course of history. - (1) Prehistoric stage. Evolution into man made women out of females (see menstruation, orgasm); the family was organised around the woman; women were free and emancipated-there was no matriarchal political system but there was the matriarchal family. (Certain archeological finds even testify to the existence of Amazons.) This has only survived in the Modern Age in the South Sea Islands, see Bronislaw Malinowski's description of the Trobriand Islands, e.g. the custom of katuyausi, the girls' ritual affairs, and yausa, the orgiastic attack by women, parallels to which can be found in Greek mythology in the behaviour of the Bacchantes. - (2) Early civilisations. Civilisation and State are men's make, both being rooted in hunting and warfare (see mythology-the great ancestral deities, Mighty Mother God and the Mighty Goddess of Love are all women, while the laws of the State are brought by gods, the only exception is Pallas Athena, which proves the rule, since she comes from a father only, Zeus). Women are the major spoils in warfare (cf. Fair Helena). This age is characterised by male dominance and patriarchalism. - (3) Sophisticated civilisation. Progressing periodically, it brings in each phase a gradual improvement (liberty or even libertinism) in the status of women, see Hellenic Age, Imperial Rome, Renaissance and Rococo, culminating in the Modern (and the so-called Post-Modern) Age.

What does all this entail with respect to the issue of women and multiculturalism? The role women have played in Western societies has undergone radical changes in the last 150 years. (See the vast body of relevant material compiled in the volume Le fait féminin, ed. Evelyne Sullerot, which was published by Fayard in Paris in the late 70s.) The change of role has been more extensive in this period than it was the aggregate in the previous five thousand years. The demands posed by women's emancipation movements starting out from North America were initially the following: (1) in culture and education-equal opportunities with men; (2) in labour-free choice of occupation, equal pay for equal work; (3) in law-full enfranchisement and activity for the wife; annulment of special criminal regulations affecting women; franchise for women; (4) in the social area-recognition of the high social worth of women's labour. Of the demands for equality in the public sphere, primarily those for university education, and for professions and public offices tied to such qualifications, have been realised. As regards franchise, women reaped their first successes in the West Coast in the US around 1920, which was also the time of the first wave of sexual liberation and the weakening of the proscription of extramarital sexual contact between the sexes. Feminism lost some of its momentum between 1930 and 1960. Though women take up labour in great numbers, amid the circumstances of relative well-being they still regard their home as the genuine scene of their life. The differences between men and women also receive greater emphasis; it is generally held that each sex has a different role to play in life; femininity comes into vogue again; male-female relationship is readjusted to the traditional pattern.

A logical consequence of equal rights in public life is emancipation in the private sphere. Women and girls in the 1960s already formulated their demand for a personal self-assertion. They feel they no longer can live a full life as merely wives and mothers; they seek full satisfaction in education, work, career and sex as well. In order to find their new identity they sometimes leave their husbands and children (see the film Kramer vs Kramer). From the 60s onwards, an exchange of roles between the sexes has taken place in modern societies, and the roles of spouses within marriage have been reformulated. Many welcome the advent of a new golden age for women; others say that the Amazons of our age contribute towards the disintegration of society; some speak about a renaissance (a rebirth in sexual behaviour) with respect to sexual revolution, others mention total anarchy. Youngsters and elderly people generally suffer, not so much from the disintegration of traditional regulations as, from a general absence of norms. In several works (primarily in The Sexual Wilderness, Loew and Brydone, London, 1968), Vance Packard points to the following forces at work behind the social transformation that has put the traditional male-female relationship out of joint: the role of scientific results; the social changes concurrent with technological development; higher educational standards; secularisation; the role of ideas in shaping society and strengthening emancipation; the mass media propagating sensual pleasures and the right to live for the moment, bombarding viewers with a vast body of sensory stimuli. Besides, fashion, dresses revealing more and more and always a different part of the body, as well as drugs and alcohol offers newer and newer adventures in promiscuity. The radical changes in fashion (wear, constitution, hair, jewels, scents) also reflect a dramatic change in sexual identities.

Women today are granted the same rights and opportunities in public life as men are; all professions and occupations are open before them. Even though men are still oriented towards professions promising big money and the feminisation of a profession is equal to a financial degradation, it is has been proved that the average performance of women is better in all areas (e.g. driving). Full changes can only be expected if women will occupy key positions in economy and politics. Owing to emancipation in private life, women can do whatever men can; independence and material circumstances may render this not only legally but also actually possible. This process (smoking-drinking-sex) is seen in traditional thought as moral disintegration (see Otto Weininger's famous and infamous theory, Dirne-Emanzipation).

How women's emancipation affects men is a much-disputed question. Some say it makes men uncertain, other say it liberates them, despite the fact that more and more women today realise that the extremes of feminism are dead-ends from which they should turn back. In any case a significant part of men feel they should fight today's Amazons, modern women, and that the changes in women's social and private status bring about devaluation in their own status. They suffer from an identity crisis and wonder what are the expectations the modern world puts to them-should they be 'manly' men or give up their sexual otherness. Many men think that nothing is more terrible than an emancipated, sexually aware woman. It is, however, a surprisingly novel idea that through women's emancipation men become emancipated as well: "In short, he no longer needs to put her on a pedestal, to hide his true self from her and to behave like a drone buzzing around a queen bee" (Herb Goldberg: "Feminism and male liberation", in Thomas A. Mappes-Jane S. Zembaty: Social Ethics, p. 148).

(III) As regards the interrelationship of modern multiculturality and women's issues, the question should be raised whether or not a minority group has the right to maintain their traditional patriarchal heritage if the subjection of women is part of that tradition, while from the viewpoint of liberal multiculturalism, cultivating traditions is on one hand to be desired and, on the other, a codified right of the minority; and finally, if the community wishes to practise these, claiming to preserve their identity.

Sexual discrimination is a fundamental tradition in a number of non-European (Islam, Gypsy) cultures. In some Arab and Middle East countries where Islamic fundamentalism prevails, equality of women and general human rights that are also due to women will hardly be granted. Women are often denied education and labour, they are not allowed to walk in the streets unless escorted by a man, or to drive a car; they cannot divorce yet can at any time be dismissed by their husband; women's testimony is taken less seriously than men's, and so on. Female members of this culture probably cannot even make much of the statement "sexual discrimination is wrong", for it reflects the value system of a culture alien to them. The important question arises here whether equal human dignity can a priori be postulated when the female members of some homogeneous Islamic society accept and submit themselves to the practice of strong sexual discrimination and amid the circumstances of multiculturalism, however, from a liberal angle, the practice of repressive cultures, whether it is directed against women, individuals, anybody, is not to be tolerated. The circumcision of women, for instance, practised in some immigrant African communities, has caused outrage and shock in the majority culture in France etc. (Less an Islamic than an African tradition, it probably goes back to the age of the Pharaohs.) Protests in the name of humaneness, civil liberties and human rights need no explanation, and it is unlikely that the female members of the minority group undertake such traditions willingly. Recognising the inhuman character of the practise in a new multicultural medium, sooner or later they themselves will probably protest against it; for them, especially for the young who have been socialised in the new medium, the possibility of abandoning it, which the majority culture grants them, could be an attractive alternative.

(IV) In Hungary, owing above all to a moderate presence of non-European cultures, the problem of multiculturalism presents itself far less acutely as in the US or Western Europe. One sizable community(500,000 to a million) who wish to preserve their identity is that of the Gypsies (Romanies). They have lived in the country side by side with Hungarians for centuries; owing to their mobility they are found practically in all settlements, yet predominantly dwell in backward regions in segregated, ghetto-like settlements. Their educational standards are low; there are few with qualifications amongst them.

An interesting example which is specific to women occurs at physical education classes at school. In the value system of those Romany groups which are non-assimilated Gypsies who have kept their own mother tongue, and also of some Hungarian Gypsy communities, the traditional relationship between the sexes is violated at school in case adolescent Romany girls are required to wear gym clothes. According to Romany custom, girls aged 13 or 14 are regarded as women and are not allowed to reveal their body. Girls of this age are not to wear shorts or short skirts. At PE classes, however, they are confronted with the alternatives of either to undress or to face comments by their teachers and classmates. Even though the Law on Public Education ensures the right of students that their religion, world view or other beliefs and their national or ethnic identity be respected, this is not always done in practice. Teachers justify their intolerance of the cultural otherness of Gypsy girls by saying that allowing them not to change into gym outfit at PE class would constitute a discriminative act of sorts.

Another example is the question whether a 13-year-old Romany girls who cohabits with a young man of the same ethnicity is to be accorded legal protection. In the Romany value system, juvenile cohabitation occupies the same rank as matrimony, and is practised quite frequently too. However, Hungarian criminal law stipulates that sexual intercourse with a person under 14 qualifies a criminal act of perversion and is to be punished with detention from one to five years. The Criminal Code contains general norms that apply to all citizens. However, in the case of unsuccessfully integrated Gypsy communities, the influence of social modernisation is hardly felt, and therefore no adequate external circumstances exist for the process of women's modern age emancipation to take place.

Does then a minority group have the right in a multicultural society to maintain their traditional patriarchal culture? Members of a minority group are as good citizens as those in the majority. They therefore have the same rights. However, they also have the same duties. Maintaining traditions that violate civil liberties is not to be tolerated. Preserving the mother tongue or cultivating the arts is one thing, wearing chador or clitoral circumcision is an entirely different matter. If the female members of a minority group undertake to follow such traditions of their own will, they are similar to members of such sects as may go as far as committing collective suicide. In the majority of cases, however, coercion of some sort is present. The liberation of women, therefore, is in the spirit of the modern world not a 'women's issue'; it is part of the persistent enforcement of human rights.

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