Cultural diversity vs feminism

[Cross posted at Ariane’s Little World]

The global coverage of the horrific death of a woman from Delhi has certainly shone the light on the difficulties of navigating universal women’s rights in a world where cultures are not all the same, and are certainly not equal in power. As usual the Oz has lead the way in how not to discuss women’s rights in cultures other than one’s own.

Where are the beacons of truth and light to save Aboriginal women? Why do Aboriginal spokespeople persist in the same policies that have failed to civilise Aboriginal violence? (Like India, we must end misogyny - behind the paywall, but Googlable)

It’s tricky ground. On the one hand, if the white, Western world speaks up to condemn the violence (and by implication, the aspects of the culture that produce it), it’s the voice of the cultural hegemony. On the other hand, not speaking up is implicitly condoning the appalling status quo. I quite firmly believe that it’s not anyone’s job to force change on other cultures, but it is our job to enable the changes that are being called for from within. This is a rather grand and delightfully vague statement of position, I realise. It needs some practicality about it. The first step is one that people from all minorities have been asking for for the longest time – to listen. To hear the voices of the women oppressed, and when appropriate, repeat and amplify them, but not editorialise them. Not a big ask, but apparently one that Gary Johns from the Australian has not grasped. In answer to your question, Mr John, the “beacons of truth and light to save Aboriginal women” are right in front of you. They are Aboriginal women. The rest of Australia’s job is to empower them to save themselves.

Which brings me to the point of this post – I’ve been meaning to write about this for years. That empowering thing is also very vague, and it requires a lot more than listening. I doubt there is one approach that will work everywhere, but I’m sure it doesn’t come from policies. People always resist change imposed from more powerful groups – whether it’s from a dominant culture or government that has little daily relevance to the cultures it governs. However, that doesn’t mean that external cultures and governments can’t assist change. One model for this sort of change comes from Monique Deveaux. In a paper she wrote in 2003[1];, she outlines a deliberative democratic approach to helping cultures change themselves. The rest of the world only helps provide the framework, not the agenda. One of the most significant issues in interculture relations is whose voices are heard. A government may attempt to enable multiculturalism by granting or denying cultures specific rights, but Deveaux argues (fairly uncontroversially I would have thought) that this can’t be democratically legitimate unless cultural group members are involved in the decision making process. Further, acknowledging the importance of intragroup; relationships, representative members of all sub-groups must also be involved. Deveaux offers a complex model, in which pragmatism is more important than idealism. Representatives must argue on the basis of their own stakes rather than for the common good, to ensure that motives aren’t hidden. As a result, compromise and bargaining are encouraged over moral consensus.

This approach addresses a number of issues. With each party coming to the debate with a personal position, rather than a moral one, there is less chance of oppressed minorities perceiving the negotiations as a threat to their moral identity. With each sub- group personally represented, the decisions about cultural practices will be made on the basis of the “lived form of these practices” rather than that represented by group spokespersons or majority members. It also allows for each group to determine their own idea of gender equity – so there are no pointless arguments about whether an item of clothing is oppressive, for example.

Deveaux specifies that three criteria must be met for the process to be valid and effective: nondomination, political equality, and revisability. Very briefly, nondomination requires that no participants are co-erced in any way, political equality means “real opportunity for all citizens to participate” and revisability means that any decisions made may be subject to revision at a later date. Revisabilty acknowledges that change generally takes place gradually, and makes compromise more possible. Political equality clearly presents the greatest difficulty in a multicultural context, as Deveaux acknowledges.

Who can participate in political life is, for many, culturally determined. Often it is precisely the role and status of certain subgroups – for example, whether women ought to have a political voice – that is at issue. (p.793)

She proposes a range of solutions, such as state funding for cultural support groups and independent media to improve the general conditions for democratic involvement, as well as culturally specific solutions on a case by case basis. For example, in negotiations with cultural groups who specifically exclude women from political life, external women’s advocacy groups, preferably with demonstrable cultural understanding, may stand in place of the group’s women themselves. All of this seems eminently sensible, and importantly, quite achievable to me.

Deveaux was involved in implementing this in South Africa, where the process was used to negotiate dramatic change in customary marriage law. The process was designed primarily for the purpose of improving women’s rights. In the first round, amazing change was achieved, but nobody got everything they wanted. They were able to compromise, because testing and revision is built in. Women were afforded the right to own property, to initiate divorce and violence against women in marriage was outlawed. They didn’t win the right to take family law matters to the mainstream courts. Nevertheless, for a process of less than a few years, that’s amazing progress.

I really like the idea that no-one gets to claim the moral high ground, and that the process recognises both ongoing identity, and evolution of culture. I’m sure it won’t work in all circumstances, and needs a lot of support to work where it will – but it seems to me like a good way for external, probably dominant cultures, to assist oppressed groups within cultures improve their lives, without imposing ideas of what that improvement should look like.

I’d suggest this kind of approach could work very well within Aboriginal communities – the women know what they need, they just need a framework to enact change. It may work within the various subcultures in India too. It’ll certainly work better than white folks tut tutting at them.


1. Deveaux, M. ‘A Deliberative Approach to Conflicts of Culture’, Political Theory, 31(6), 2003: 780-807


Categories: ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, social justice, violence

Tags: , , ,

3 replies

  1. Excellent post, Shonias. It’s one of the most insidious aspects of kyriarchy, that those pointing out injustice/oppression from a moral position are often perversely unwilling to listen to the solutions offered up by the oppressed themselves.

  2. Really fascinating article – thanks for articulating such a complex topic. Might be worth noting that on December 8 the
    UN Climate Conference adopted a decision to enhance gender balance in negotiations, which seems to be in keeping with this point. Found this information in a fantastic timeline on Gender Equality steps taken in 2012 at

  3. Thanks Kat – it’s nice to see people are considering gender as a stake in negotiations. However, it needs to be more than just gender, all subgroups need to be heard.

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