When multiculturalism clashes with women’s rights

Some forms of the multiculturalism many Americans favor can only intensify the challenge of reducing the various forms of gender discrimination still common in mainstream America. Consider the insistence by some groups that the cause of multiculturalism is best served by granting special “group rights” to cultural minorities (especially those composed of non-European immigrants) to help them preserve their distinctiveness in a society that emphasizes the white bread, homogenized, sitcom ideal of “real America.”

The problem is that part of the distinctiveness of these minority cultures sometimes stems from their traditional abuse of women by permitting oppressive practices such as forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and physical abuse. While we condemn atrocities done to women abroad, we largely ignore or rationalize discrimination at home.

Rosa Parks must have been spinning in her grave in 2011 when we learned that a Brooklyn public bus catering to a predominately Orthodox Jewish ridership had special rules requiring all women to sit in the back of the bus. Also, signs written in Hebrew and English directed women to use the back door during busy times.

Closely related, last month, a New York-to-London flight was delayed by an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man who refused to sit next to a woman because his religion precludes him from sitting next to a woman who is not a family member. The woman agreed to move. It wasn’t the only such incident of its kind. It’s another example of religious rights trumping a woman’s civil rights.

Apart from numerous instances of domestic violence and discrimination justified by religious beliefs and cultural practices, we witness the closing of the academic mind when Brandeis University last year rescinded its offer of an honorary degree to the Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali because of her scathing criticism of Islam.

She experienced it firsthand when she says she underwent female genital mutilation at 5 and was targeted by the same Islamic militant who murdered Theo van Gogh. A note was pinned to his body saying she was next because of her criticism. For sure, Ms. Ali, author of the memoir “Infidel,” is a controversial public figure who has spoken and written powerfully about the culture of oppression affecting women in the Islamic culture at great personal danger. But universities are supposed to be about learning more, not less, and entertaining dissenting views.

Any government action to preserve these discriminatory practices among minority groups living in America is no more defensible than officially sanctioning discrimination in any form. Such actions would interfere with the already too-slow process of weaning mainstream America away from its historical patterns of male-imposed discrimination against women.

Government should insist that everyone living in the United States observe and obey all American laws regarding human rights without regard to membership in certain cultural minorities, religious sects or golf clubs. In short, no special treatment for any group that seeks to defend its abuse of women because it’s part of the group’s cultural distinctiveness.

Put differently, immigrant cultures with ingrained behavior patterns that are contrary to prevailing secular humanist views about the rights of women should not be tolerated. Such groups should not be exempt from American anti-discrimination laws. Minority groups living in America should not receive special rights to discriminate against women as a means of preserving their cultural distinctiveness.

The special rights case for allowing U.S. minority groups to continue practicing their own brand of discrimination against women is claimed by adherents as being consistent with liberal principles. Their main argument seems to be that liberal values require (among other things) tolerance and respect for diverse cultures.

If such tolerance and respect are to have any practical meaning, the practices of these diverse cultures must be consistent with tolerance and respect for all people.

Indeed, one argument for expanding women’s rights in America could well be its potential for restricting the ability of certain religious or cultural groups to encourage discrimination against individuals for reasons such as gender, race, sexual preference, lifestyle or business practices.

Feminism, therefore, could turn out to be nearly as liberating for men as for women.

originally published: May 16, 2015

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