Multiculturalism vs. feminism


The war against the terrorist-harboring Taliban regime has brought the spotlight on a different kind of terror: that inflicted by the Taliban on women, who have been forbidden to work, go to school, or leave the house without head-to-toe covering. Of course, the purpose of our military action is not to remedy the plight of Afghani women—but it seems clear that they would be among the primary beneficiaries of the Taliban's removal from power.

Apparently, not everyone agrees. At a conference in Canada this month, in a speech denouncing the West and the United States in particular as the greatest source of evil in the world, one speaker sneered at "this talk about saving Afghani women," adding, "Those of us who have been colonized know what this saving means."

No, the speaker was not an ultra-reactionary religious fanatic; it was a women's studies professor at the University of British Columbia, Sunera Thobani. She went on to assert, "There will be no emancipation for women anywhere … until the Western domination of this planet is ended."

These grotesque comments hardly represent the feminist consensus. In fact, women's groups in North America and Europe have done some admirable work documenting and publicizing the horrific oppression of women under the Taliban. But Thobani, a former head of Canada's National Action Committee on the Status of Women, isn't a lone kook either. Her anti-Western rant was delivered at a feminist conference where, according to press reports, she received several standing ovations from the 500 delegates.

This incident starkly illustrates a basic paradox confronting the left. One of its most fundamental tenets, women's liberation, is irreconcilably at odds with another: multiculturalism and opposition to Western hegemony.

The West, to be sure, hardly has a perfect feminist record; it was less than a century ago that American women won the vote. But long before feminism, women in the West had more freedom and more rights than in any other major civilization. Feminism itself, moreover, is a phenomenon of unquestionably Western origin, and few would dispute that the improvements in women's status around the world in the last hundred years have been largely a result of Western influence.

Indeed, some argue that among the evils and corruptions of the West that so enrage the radical Islamic fundamentalists, liberated women rank pretty high. The leader of the Taliban, Mohammad Omar, rails against "ugly and filthy Western cultures" that "allow women to be insulted and dishonored" (for instance, to show their faces in public without being beaten with a stick). Osama bin Laden's outrage at the presence of American soldiers near holy sites in Saudi Arabia was reportedly exacerbated by the fact that some of those soldiers were female. To the fundamentalist extremists, the freedoms women enjoy in moderate Muslim countries are a detestable sign of Westernization.

The conflict between feminism and multiculturalism has emerged before—in the debates over female infanticide and genital mutilation in the Third World, and even on domestic matters such as the use of cultural difference as a legal defense for immigrant men who kill adulterous wives or force their underage daughters into marriage. Yet, all too often, left-wing feminists evade the issue—for instance, downplaying the contrast between the status of women in the West and in much of the world by focusing on the inequalities Western women still face, as if there were any real equivalency here.

During the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing, Time magazine columnist Barbara Ehrenreich wrote that the United States shouldn't get too smug about its women's rights record, considering that American women are still far from achieving parity with men in business or politics. Of course, women who risk being murdered by their "dishonored" relatives for the crime of being raped could only wish they had something like the glass ceiling to worry about.

In a recent newspaper column, Boris Johnson, editor of the British Spectator magazine and a member of parliament, wrote bluntly, "It is time for concerted cultural imperialism. They are wrong about women. We are right." Amen to that. For the multicultural left, it is heresy to say that one culture is superior to another (Western culture to non-Western cultures in particular). But anyone concerned with gender equality has to acknowledge that at least in this respect, the West, for all its problems, holds the moral high ground.