Multiculturalism and the politics of difference
One aspect of our contemporary reality to which feminists must now respond is multiculturalism. Increasingly, our societies are comprised of a great diversity of races, cultures and religions. This ‘factual multiculturalism’ is undisputed. What is more controversial is the normative claim that such diversity is a good thing and, more significantly, the demand that these groups must be accommodated within our public sphere. Multiculturalism has put a considerable strain on feminism. Increasingly, groups claim that the liberal democratic state should grant them autonomy in decision making that affects their individual members; they claim distinct rights even where these are, in many cases, inimical to the interests of women. These issues require feminism to go back to basics: what happens to categories such as ‘women’, ‘women’s interests’, and ‘feminist critique’ when they are restructured in conjunction with pressing categories such as race, culture and religion. This is an important question for politics because the most urgent demands for social and political equality are no longer exclusively or predominantly the preserve of feminism. It is also an important question for law because the legal regulation of equality has now moved beyond the traditional categories of race and sex and now extends to religion and some of its cultural manifestations.
Multiculturalism gives minorities in liberal democracies an unprecedented opportunity to live as equal citizens without suffering the worst excesses of forced assimilation. It is not, however, a panacea. It carries within it risks: the prospect of fragmentation of our political communities; and the risk of harm to vulnerable individuals within minority communities.
Multiculturalism is a wide term that requires some explanation. At a normative level, it includes the claim that different groups – defined along categories such as race, religion, gender and sexual orientation – can make legitimate claims for public accommodation of some of their practices. In this way, it challenges the classic liberal settlement of keeping the public sphere as a neutral space where citizens come together as equal citizens with recognized political rights. Of course, this classic liberal approach allowed minorities to flourish through guaranteeing individual civil and political rights, such as free speech, free association and free exercise of religion, but also provided an overarching framework that allowed minorities to pursue their way of life in the private sphere.
It is worth reiterating that multiculturalism is not only a normative claim but it is also a social and political fact. There has been a significant change in the form and content of the political claims made by minority groups in recent times. Many no longer ask for the ‘same’ rights as the majority. Some of the most compelling demands of minorities now take the form of calls for the accommodation of ‘difference’ in the public sphere. This social change is especially problematic for liberal multiculturalism. Claims for accommodation vary greatly: the categories range from race, culture and religion through to gender and sexual orientation and disability. Legal regulation – at the domestic, EU and constitutional level – covers all of these various grounds. I want to narrow the discussion by limiting my analysis to claims made by traditional groups whose claims may be framed in terms of racial, cultural or religious criteria. As I argue below, public accommodation of traditional groups raises a distinct set of problems for feminists and family law. Moreover, claims by traditional religious groups – for the public accommodation of their private religious identity – cause special difficulties. They challenge the most fundamental beliefs of secular liberals, for whom the public-private dichotomy is almost an article of faith: these traditional liberals will vigorously defend an individual right to religion in the private sphere whilst at the same time vigilantly guarding the public sphere as a neutral religion-free zone.
Minorities are no longer willing for their differences to be a matter of ‘tolerance’ in the private realm: they now demand political rights and accommodation in the public sphere. Feminists recognise this move immediately. Yet, at the same time, they also immediately recognise the way in which this challenge to the private-public dichotomy, especially by traditional cultures, is a threat to women, because processes of multicultural accommodation are likely to create specific risks to vulnerable group members. This is especially true where there is accommodation of traditional racial, cultural or religious practices which often and predominantly harm women. This is partly why the confrontation between feminism and multiculturalism is so painful. Feminism reflecting on multiculturalism often sees its own mirror image. Feminists are acutely aware that they have laid the foundations for a wider identity politics. However – as the ‘Is multiculturalism bad for women?’ debate confirms – despite this intimate connection, at the level of theory, the two movements are also often incompatible. In their most pessimistic moments, as they notice multiculturalism mutating into a threat, feminists have good reason to wonder if they have in fact created a monster.