Western Liberal Feminism Bad for Women?
The world’s boundaries have continually been challenged and reshaped throughout history yet more recently they seem to be undergoing notable pressure particularly from economic, political and cultural forces. The processes of so-called globalization have taken on new dimensions of late with increased technologies, speedier communications, and the increased desire for economic expansion (See Fotopoulos especially pp. 33-55). And, the “benefits” of the current system of globalization are not enjoyed by all parties involved. For some, entire ways of life have been devastated without the consent of the community members, some have been thrust into a even more dire poverty and lack of agency, and some once sustainable communities have been forced into dependency on other, more powerful states.
the interplay of this process of globalization and
post-colonization, some institutions and states, mainly focused in
the West and/or North, continue to retain hegemony around the
globe. The West has
arguably accumulated the most influence and power in defining the
economic, political and social processes that contribute to
it seems apparent that women and children have been most harshly
effected by such processes and lack equal bargaining power.
In such an unequal balance of power relations and
structures of authority, a universal system of just standards and
values seems most urgent in order to have a systematic way to
regulate and judge moral and political processes that are
occurring exponentially on a transnational level.
Yet, is a universal theory of justice possible that can be
applied to all human beings everywhere possible?
Or would such a universal theory some how be a bit
oppressive by being inherently exclusive to some?
Who has the authority to establish such a theory and how
would it be developed? Can
a feminist perspective inform such a theory to level out power
differentials and domination?
It seems to me that the trend, in the political arena at
least, has been to look to democratic values and human rights as
way (at least superficially) to secure a transnational or
universal just standard. But,
are democratic values the ideal values, which should and can be
embraced by all? Can
espousing liberal democratic values on to the world, in effect,
decrease women’s voice and political agency?
Should we revise democratic values to include a dialogic
ethic based on free and open speech and if so, how?
Although developing moral and political just standards that
can guide transnational judgments is an urgent issue, we
approached a moral and/or political dilemma in trying to formulate
and establish such standards. For, on the one hand there seems to be an urgent need for
universal standards in order to make moral and political judgments
that effect the lives of so many.
Yet, any universal theory seems bound to rely on specific
values and/or certain specific human capacities that are construed
as universal but in fact are not.
Universal theories are usually bound to the idea that all
humans are basically alike. And
so universal theories are incapable of taking into account the
plurality and difference that explicitly exists throughout the
world. Yet, on the other hand, making room for difference seems to
require taking into account billions of concrete contextual points
of view. And in so
doing, the ability to form standards, make judgments and criticize
actions seems compromised because no criterion of judgment seems
paying attention to particularity and to socially and historically
located individuals or cultures seems to risk falling into dreaded
relativism through which an unjust system of standards can
conceivably be supported equal to that of a just system.
Should we surrender completely our attempts to establish
universal standards or is it possible to pursue a somewhat more
innocuous avenue that balances the particular with the universal?
These questions are imposing and need continual reverent
attention. And so
cannot be adequately answered or even discussed within this paper
but demonstrate the backdrop in which the focus of this paper
rests (See Crocker).
questions resonate with the phenomenon of Western liberal
feminists’ preoccupation with liberating and helping the “poor
oppressed” women who live in non western and so-called “Third
cultures in order to bring justice to their lives. According to some liberal feminists, most women in so-called
non-western traditions are oppressed because they are denied
liberty, justice and/or equality on the basis of their sex or qua
being female. And in this light, they believe that it is possible
to critique “other” cultures on the premise that these
cultures victimize and hurt women by denying them their human
rights or ability to decide for themselves how to lead their
They belief that these cultures ought to uphold and instill
feminist liberal and democratic principles.
For they obtain that these principles are universally
applicable and beneficial to all women and all persons.
I would agree that this pursuit may be a helpful one. Yet, arguing
for liberal and democratic values, and speaking for these women
raises many difficulties. For,
are western feminists or western liberal feminists actually
harming those women they are intending to “help” or
example, Liberal feminists who take this position might be
assuming that their principles are more developed than the
“others’” and they be assuming prematurely that their
principles would suit these women and their ways of being.
So, even with well-meaning intentions, trying to help
so-called other, non-western “Third World” women is
problematic, even if it is in the name of supposedly neutral
liberal democratic ideals of liberty and equality.
In her essay, “The Problem of Speaking for Others”,
Linda Alcoff puts this point clear when she writes that, “…
certain privileged locations are discursively dangerous.
In particular, the practice of privileged persons speaking
for or on behalf of less privileged persons has actually resulted
(in many cases) in creasing or reinforcing the oppression of the
group spoken for.”
this paper, I will focus on two of Susan Moller Okin’s works as
a liberal feminist perspective.
I do not claim that her work is wholly representative of
liberal feminist thought nor that all liberal feminists agree with
her and her methods. Instead, I use her work as a focal point because her work is
compelling yet provocative and to demonstrate the manifold
difficulties in trying to speak for others on their behalf, in
ending the so-called global subjugation of women, and in
developing a universal theory of justice.
I will begin with a brief discussion of what liberal values are
and what liberal feminists often advocate.
This is not intended to be an all encompassing detailed
discussion of liberalism and liberal feminism, but instead one
that provides background information in order to guide our
thoughts on these terms through the upcoming sections.
Liberal Feminism and Democracy
Liberalism is a tradition that has been born out of many ideas of several thinkers and of several social situations, but is most often characterized as part of the “western” tradition. Liberalism can be seen as a reaction to and attempt to reverse oppression which restricts people’s freedoms.
to this tradition, human beings are autonomous and individual
rational thinkers. Reason is a specifically human capacity which
distinguishes humans from animals and all else. Humans, according
to liberalism, are
basically unencumbered selves with the ability to think rationally
and make choices about their “own” beliefs about the good
life. Within this tradition, the self is viewed as a predominantly
atomistic and individual entity rather than an entity that is
fully encumbered in particular and community based and familial
attachments. And so,
fulfillment in life is achieved by thinking for one’s self and
developing one’s own rational capabilities.
According to liberalism, all humans have an inherent equal worth
or value based on their basically equal capacity to think
rationally. And it is
this basic equality of rational capacities justifies claims to
equal rights. (See Jaggar 1983).
is also a traditional value with which liberalism in concerned. Liberty, within a liberal framework, ensures that individuals
are free to seek to attain their own ends without interference
from others or the state. So,
liberal governments in theory limit intervention into the private
lives of individuals and attempt to remain neutral on ideas of the
good life. Of course,
the distinction between the public and the private is not so clear
and often overlaps.
The state is to only regulate the so-called public or political
sphere because advocating certain collective goals or ideas of the
“good” may be oppressive toward those who do not agree.
For, advocating one form of the good denies validity to
other forms of the good, which in turn denies the individual’s
right to chose for her or himself (See Jaggar 1983).
are granted civil and political rights to protect them from
oppressive government intervention and gain formal equality.
Political or human rights are ideally to be universally and
impartially applied, for the state to remain neutral and so
everyone basically enjoys the same rights.
Rights that are usually supported by liberalism are freedom
of speech, information, conscience, association, expression and
privacy. These political rights are suppose to be available to all
individuals regardless of group affiliation.
Claude Akes definition of human rights is very helpful; he
writes that, “It is that human beings have certain rights simply
by virtue of being human. These
rights are a necessary condition for the good life. Because of their singular importance, individuals are
entitled to, indeed, required to claim them and society is
enjoined to allow them. Otherwise
the quality of life is seriously compromised” (Ake, 103).
can be identified as a form of government which, at least ideally,
is controlled by all the people, each having equal access to the
privileges of the state and sharing equally in duties and
individual is supposed to participate in the governing and
decision making process, whether directly or through
values focus on political, legal and social equality and respect
for the individual. Such
values are supposed to relate to and/or promote the peoples’
democracy that encompasses the ideal has yet to be realized and is
most likely an impossible goal. So, in a not so ideal world, individuals obtain formal
equality through a representative democracy, where politics are
instrumental to private ends.
The hope is that representatives will serve the ends of
individuals and represent their interests without every individual
having to serve time in the legislature or having to make policy
decisions. And, a just representative democracy should also seek
to justly distribute society’s goods and services so to as
secure equal opportunity. Through fair and democratic procedures,
the liberal state is to ensure toleration, equality and freedom
(See Jaggar 1983 for a thorough and detailed discussion).
feminists agree with these concepts in principle but argue that
all societies, even those that are traditionally based on liberal
values, have often excluded women from participation in society
and the fulfillment of their rights.
And, they argue, therefore these societies have oppressed
women by restricting their freedom and their political rights.
Liberal feminists have embraced liberal principles, but
argue that women should receive equal political rights and status
with men. They argue
that women have the ability to reason equal to that of men and so
have equal moral worth as individuals.
Since they are basically equal to men they are just as
deserving of such rights. According
to them, women have been oppressed as a group and been limited and
restricted because of their sex.
Women have traditionally been discriminated against in all
areas of life especially the economic and political realms.
And so, liberal feminists advocate such things as
pay equity across the sexes and women’s economic
independence, because without these, women are unable to exercise
and enjoy their full political rights and to obtain equal
bargaining power with men. (Jaggar 1983, 173-180)
Alison Jaggar describes liberal feminists in, Feminist
Politics and Human Nature, and writes that they, “. . . want to
eliminate sex-based discrimination in all areas of life and
guarantee women equal opportunities with men to define and pursue
their own interests,” (Jaggar, 181).
end sex-based discrimination and for women to achieve real
equality, many liberal feminists argue that there are
preconditions for this equality that must be secured by the state.
Some of the preconditions for equality that are often cited
are the elimination of poverty (women are disproportionately
poor), strict laws against domestic violence, state shelters for
domestic violence victims, child care and child care centers
provided by the government, and more education and training for
women. These types of
state supported programs are hoped to bring women to a equal
starting point with men or to help establish and ensure equal
equal rights for women, equal opportunity for women and liberal
values in general might be a beneficial beginning to creating a
more just society and world. Yet, advocating liberalism as a
universalizable standard to guide international relations is
problematic and depending on the type of method employed, the
project’s original purpose of instantiating justice can be
contradicted or debilitated.
Susan Moller Okin: Liberal Feminist Critique of Third World Countries and an Argument for Human Rights for Women
Susan Moller Okin believes that liberal values are universalizable
to all women and people regardless of their culture, historical
situations and situated positions, she argues against the
universal oppression of women from men.
She argues that women experience a similar subjugation that
is universalizable to all women regardless of race, culture or
socioeconomic status. And
so she believes that women in the “First World” can
legitimately speak for all women and especially for the women in
the Third World in speaking out against this oppression. I argue
that, although we might have a duty to speak out against
oppression, I question whether Okin’s method of speaking for
women in the “Third World” and making vast generalizations
over the entire “Third World” which I presume includes at
least three continents, namely Africa, Asia and South America.
Her method might actually serve to silence the women for
whom she is speaking and in turn decrease the likelihood of
establishing real democracy and liberal values throughout the
world. In effect
Okin’s project might end up contradicting itself.
Susan Moller Okin, in her essay, “Gender, Inequality and
Cultural Difference”, is skeptical of some feminists’ claims
that any universal theory, even universal feminist theories,
inevitably excludes certain people.
She doubts that listening to every concrete voice is a
viable avenue to creating moral and political standards or a
coherent theory of justice. She
argues that women’s experience of oppression is generalizable
and argues that the conditions which women endure in poorer
countries are similar to, but worse than, the experiences of
western women in richer nations; she claims their problems are,
“similar to ours but more so” (Okin 1994, 8).
Okin believes that she can provide comparative evidence to
this end and substantiate the claim that western accounts of
gender inequality are universalizable to women across the world
even in light of tremendous cultural, political and economic
difference. (Okin 1994, 9). In
so doing, she addresses four issues which will purportedly provide
the evidence to support her argument.
She discusses the issues of attention to gender as
comparatively recent, the importance of paying attention to gender
inequality, justice in the family (or lack thereof), and the
policy implications of her findings.
argues that issues regarding gender inequality have been neglected
because the unit analysis for development studies and the like has
been the head of the household which has typically been the male.
The distinction between the public and private is assumed
correct so that development studies and theories of justice only
make reference to the public sphere and have tended to ignore the
justice theorists have employed so-called gender neutral terms
assuming them to be applicable to all people.
The difficulty is that these development and justice
theorists have used these terms even in relation to issues that
are not relevant to women. And
in this way women are not taken specifically into account and have
become invisible because their concerns are equated with men’s
or with the family’s and their concerns are never explicitly the
focus. (Okin, 1994,
to gender is important, according to Okin and I agree, because
inequalities exist between the sexes and women matter just as much
as men. In order to
balance out the inequalities, one has to pay attention to gender
related issues, especially since the inequalities many times have
fatal consequences for women.
And, gender inequalities have compromised equality of
opportunity for women and girls and so needs to be addressed.
She argues this is the case for women of the “Third
World’ as well as for “First World” women, but just that it
is a much more dire situation for women in the “Third World”.
I would argue that here Okin unfortunately does not question the
values of equal opportunity and her ideas of equality.
She assumes that these values are good and necessarily
universalizable. Arguably, women facing unproportionate deaths is wrong.
But, Okin’s more general assumptions about the value of
equal opportunity and equality are values that Okin should be
defending against her critics instead of assuming them.
This is the case because these are questionable values to
many people of the world and possibly to many women.
So, Okin should incorporate an argument for these values
rather than merely assuming them as goods.
She is speaking from a liberal feminist point of view and
so to some extent does assume or at least believe these values to
be true being a liberal feminist.
But much of her point in her essay is to defend these
values in light of her critics and so she ought not assume that
these values are necessarily good for all women and all people,
but rather ought to demonstrate how this is the case.
also argues that the family unit should be focused on in
development studies and theories of justice because it is “the
first and arguably the most influential, school of moral
says that people first learn how to interrelate with others and
how to be just or unjust within the family unit.
According to her, children witness the power differentials
within the family and will then go on to replicate them, which
usually means that males will wield the power over the females.
She writes, “They are likely to learn injustice by
absorbing the messages, if male, that they have some kind of
“natural” enhanced entitlement and if female, that they are
not equals and had better get used to being subordinated if not
actually abused” (Okin, 1994, 12).
And, Okin goes on to accuse many “Third World” families
of being worse than, “their developed world equivalents”,
(Okin, 1994, 13, emphasis added), at schooling their children in
values of justice.
think Okin is somewhat condescending to these communities by
generalizing over vast differences and by employing negative
stereotypes directed at various communities without any direct
wonders exactly about whom or which communities she is
actually speaking. She
paints a denigrating picture of the whole of the “Third World”
without real evidence to support it.
She assumes the privileged position as the norm and
ethnocentric universality of her culture and cultural norms while
she condemns whole communities, wielding blanket judgments of many
“Third World” families as if no difference in contexts and
historicities exists. (See Mohanty).
She explicitly says that the Western world is better at
schooling their children in morals and this also seems to imply
that the West has better morals than the whole of the “Third
statements are extremely difficult to substantiate and so stand as
biased judgment that support negative stereotypes of “Third
World” countries. I
am not arguing that women are not often abused in the countries
that are named as “Third World”, nor am I arguing that the
abuse does not occur at a greater extent than in the “First
World”. Rather, I
am arguing that Okin must be careful in stating such accusations
without substantiation especially when it can incur such negative
stereotypes of countless communities throughout the world and
invokes a air of post-colonial condemnation of these communities
as uncivilized or even backwards.
Okin might therefore be accused of ethnocentricism.
an example of injustice in the family, Okin uses the fact that
most of the work that women perform is unpaid household work and
that women face discrimination and segregation in the workplace.
(Okin, 1994, 13). She argues that this is the case for both Western women as
well as their “Third World” counterparts.
For, women’s work is most often less valued which
devalues women, gives them less power and are paid less than men.
So, they are often economically dependent on men.
This lack of power and their dependency on men lends women
extremely vulnerable and subject to, “physical, sexual, and/or
psychological abuse by the men they live with” (Okin, 1994, 14).
And, according to her, the situation is much worse in the
‘less developed’ regions of the world.
Again Okin assumes that generally “Third World” men
systematically abuse “Third World” women and this adds support
to the stereotype that “brown”
men abuse “brown” women more than white men.
She makes this generalization, which is most likely an
exaggeration, across numerous regions of the world without any
real justification. I
think evidence is necessary for such a grand statement.
She also does not take into consideration the possible
effects of her position which can be understood as equal to a
colonizing gaze which treats “Third World” people as more
barbaric than their Western ‘counterparts’ because the people
of the “Third World” are less developed and uncivilized (See
Mohanty). Problematizing and speaking out against the abuse of
women and the barriers to women’s agency is necessary to
establish a more just global system, but Okin’s particular
method may not prove to be beneficial to the women she is trying
does not mention that work done by some women in some communities
of the “Third World” is not necessarily less valued and that
many times it is the instillation of a western system of a cash
economy and capitalism that has created, or at least exacerbated,
the inequality. Western institutions like the World Bank and
International Monetary Fund, have disrupted and distorted some
self-sufficient communities and have had great influence in
creating the value system which values the male bread winner as
the worker who goes out to make the money (See Fotopoulos).
Although it is true that in some places women are forbidden to
seek outside work, Okin forgets to analyze the West’s possible
complicity in this phenomenon. Jane Flax, in “Ethics of
Difference” writes that, “Okin’s argument relies on the
assumption that First World women are outside the social relations
that produce poor ones. This
mistaken belief functions as a defense against acknowledging the
social practices that constitute the Western observer and
relations between observer and observed.
It obscures ‘the complex interconnection between first
and third world economies and the profound effect of this on the
lives of women in all countries’,“ (Flax, 904).
non-Western cultures hold tight to certain value systems as part
of their tradition in attempts to keep Western influences at bay,
even if it might mean constructing relatively new values held as
traditional or devaluing women and their work (See Narayan).
One could argue that the West is therefore partly
responsible for the devaluation of women’s work in certain
places, due to colonization and imperialism.
This is something that must be taken into consideration
before Okin passes broad negative judgments solely onto the
“Third World”. This point also illustrates the difficulties of
Okin’s generalization over the entire “Third World” and her
lack of attention to contextual or specific histories and
policy implications or solutions Okin suggests are to challenge
the public and the private dichotomy and to focus on individuals
instead of households in theory and policy making. In dividing the
public and private spheres, Okin argues that the oppression and
inequality that occurs within the private sphere has been
obscured. For, it has been assumed that the public spheres of the
political or economic areas of social life are the true objects of
theories of justice and state intervention. Okin questions this
and argues that we need to look to domestic areas of the private
life and realize the tremendous injustice that often occurs within
it. She also urges
that we should focus on the individual and not the household for
studies and policy making so that women receive equal treatment
and that their inequality is recognized.
Okin is correct to investigate, problematize and draw
attention to the way women and other persons who have less power
within different cultures are treated and how their freedom might
be compromised within the group. I thank her for drawing our
attention to the fact that many injustices do take place in the
private sphere, most often against women, and so that state
intervention may be required to intervene in and regulate this
‘sphere’ of society as well.
Yet, it is questionable to what extent governments should
become involved in the so-called private sphere.
We have finally been able to bring domestic violence to the
forefront, at least in some areas of the world, and have it valued
as a crime and injustice, not just as domestic quarrels.
And, I believe this is a good thing.
But, how much further do we want governments or states to
intervene in the domestic lives of people? If every aspect of the
private sphere became the political, state intervention into
legitimately private matters could increase. I am not sure what
the answer is, because maybe the price is worth paying if it means
that women will no longer be victims of violence and robbed of
freedom. This is another extremely difficult question and needs to
be answered thoughtfully and democratically.
She also notes that her solutions are referring to both what
theorists and social scientists and policy makers need to do
(Okin, 1994, 17). Yet, she does not question the role of the
social scientists and policy makers and the effects of their
scholarship. For, as Mohanty argues, there is no apolitical
focusing on social scientists and scholarship, Okin’s solutions,
in effect, leave out the women whom she is trying to help or
protect. Aihwa Ong writes, in her essay, “Colonialism and
Modernity”, “For the privilege of making cultural judgments
which see their way into print, feminists often speak without
reducing the silence of the cultural Other” (Ong, 3). I think
any real change cannot be spurred solely from social scientists,
who tend to be Western Scholars, and policy makers.
Real change must come from active participation of the
people involved. Maybe
Okin is correct to remind social scientists and policy makers that
they must include women in their research and thinking about the
world. Yet, I argue that this is not enough for women, especially
women in poorer, less powerful regions of the world, to be
included. For, as Claude Ake argues:
"Development [or improvement in the lives of communities]
cannot be achieved by proxy.
A people develops itself or not at all. And it can develop
itself only through its commitment and its energy. That is where
democracy comes in. Self-reliance
is not possible unless the society is thoroughly democratic,
unless the people are the end and not just the means of
occurs, in so far as it amounts to the pursuit of objectives set
by the people themselves in their own interest and pursued by
means of their own resources" (Ake 105). (Brackets added).
seems to overlook difference in an attempt to arrive at a
universal theory of justice based on a shared oppression of women.
Yet, overlooking difference often means excluding those whose
lives are different from the specific aspects from which a
specific universal theory is based.
Some argue that a dialogic feminism, not very unlike Juerge
nHabermas’ theory of discourse ethics, is what is necessary so
that every women’s voice is heard.
Incorporating a dialogic feminism into democratic
structures and interpersonal relationships, it is argued, will
allow people from subordinated groups or parts of the world to be
heard and to speak in their culturally specific ways. Ong writes
that, “I can suggest a few tentative leads for recognizing a
mutuality of discourse in our encounter with women in non-Western
societies. We can resist the tendency to write our
subjectively-defined world onto an Other that lies outside it …
feminist scholarship tends to be riddled with natural, sexual,
political and social categories when it comes to re-presenting the
Other. When we jettison our conceptual baggage, we open up the
possibilities for mutual but partial, and ambiguous exchange” (Ong,
378). These values, if practiced, will also allow others who are
not in a particular culture to understand better the experiences
of the members of that culture.
This, in turn, will allow for common bonds and awareness to
be formed ‘across difference and dominance’.
And this will hopefully increase inclusiveness and equal
status of individuals rather than exclude them. (Jaggar, 1999,
disagrees. She says that listening and discussing are commendable
and necessary for democracy, but, “If everyone were to speak
only from his or her own point of view, it is unclear that we
would come up with any principles at all” (Okin, 1994, 18).
Okin does not acknowledge that discussing, listening and
debating over values and standards does not necessarily entail
only thinking about oneself and one’s own interests.
Although we may never be able to escape our own standpoints
and never actually be able to understand fully what it is like to
be another person or what their exact needs and interest are (and
individuals may not even be sure about their own needs), we may be
able to respect others and take others’ needs and voices into
consideration as well as be able to change our own perspectives
and views. Even though David Crocker, in his essay Insiders and
Outsiders in International Development Ethics”, is primarily
speaking of international development ethics, I think what he says
can be applied to approaches to developing just universal
standards when he writes that:
approach to international development ethics is needed whereby an
ethicist from a “developed” society can become convinced that
a “developing” society offers some progressive ideas for the
ethicist’s own society; it could be something new and different
that substantially alters the foreigner’s ethical assumptions.
Each ethicist starts from but need not end with the ethics
inherited from his or her society. Genuine dialogue involves a
“continual reweaving” of the web of the desires and beliefs of
all those involved. North American and European development
ethicists need to understand their activity in such a way that one
upshot of international dialogue is that their own group’s
standards and practices might come to be seen as “bad”
development or “anti-development” (Crocker, 155).
feminism or ethics is not as unfruitful as Okin portrays it to be,
even though it is not without its problems and difficulties.
she recommends John Rawls theory of the veil of ignorance so that
we might reach an ‘objective standpoint’. This is important,
according to her, because the veil of ignorance enables people
(read Western academics and/or authorities), to take a critical
distance as a committed outsider. This better prepares people to
analyze and criticize social injustice from which “Third
World” women need rescuing. This is the case because, “we are
not always enlightened about what is just by asking persons who
seem to be suffering injustices what they want.
Oppressed people have often internalized their oppression
so well that they have no sense of what they are justly entitled
to as human beings” (Okin, 1994, 19). One problem with this
argument is that it is paternalistic and imperialist to the women
and cultures to which she refers.
Many of these cultures are deeply connected to religion and
so the women in these groups often believe and accept that they
are obligated to assume prescribed roles, even if it means
restricting their freedom. And,
these feelings and beliefs are extremely deep and powerful, so
much so, that often they are willing to sacrifice a great deal in
order to live in accordance with their religious beliefs even
their own autonomy. To claim that these women all have been
completely indoctrinated with false consciousness or brain washed
is extremely condescending and disrespectful and may actually just
Putting on a veil of ignorance may require us to consider
many different sides of a situation as well as many differing
traditions, customs and institutions so as to arrive at some type
of so-called Archimedian point or objective standpoint which is
fair and just. Yet,
it is questionable that this is possible theoretically or
it is impossible to fully step out of one’s own viewpoint and
understand fully positions and/or views of others, which was the
same difficulty that Okin cited against dialogic feminism.
And, theoretically, I doubt that it is possible for Okin to
really be able consider all types of customs and traditions
without previously ruling them out. Since she is committed, hitherto, to democratic and liberal
values of equality and justice, she already eliminates many points
of view, which conflict with her and Rawls’ views of justice. And, does Okin actually employ a veil of ignorance in her own
work on women in “Third World” when she excludes so many of
the women’s voices?
Yes, it is questionable whether or not women in such cultures are
truly autonomous and actually have the ability to chose to live
within their cultures. No one really chooses their culture, but
maybe after a certain age people can and do begin to question
their cultural values and ways of life, even as insiders (See
Narayan). And, yet a certain element of un-choseness still remains
in regard to being born into and raised within particular cultures
and communities. But
does this mean that all women within “Third World” cultures
are duped with false consciousness and are merely rationalizing
their oppression to make their lives bearable and thus need
rescuing from Western liberal feminists? I am not convinced of
this. Although this certainly may be the case at times, arguing
that it is often the case deprives these women of any agency at
all and may be worse. And doing so seems to be in direct
contradiction with Okin’s project of establishing autonomy for
these women, with democratic principles and with ideas of justice.
Not only does this deprive the women of agency, but Okin’s
assumes that autonomy is something that should always be preserved
speaking for others and “Third World” women, Western feminists
position themselves as the autonomous individuals and the
renders the spoken for less than equal.
This silences women from different backgrounds and from the
“Third World” and gives the appearance that these women cannot
speak for themselves. Okin must acknowledge and problematize these
power relations that are present in her discursive acts especially
since she is writing and speaking from a Western academic
standpoint. Her standpoint is privileged and part of the
Western/Northern hegemony. To ignore this diminishes the voices of
“Third World” women because, in so doing, the privileged
position is assumed as the norm and all others are marginalized as
less than equal (See Mohanty, Alcoff, Flax, and Ong).
sweeping judgments of these cultures and their practices without
really attending to the cultural contexts and the viewpoints of
individual and concrete women is as imperialistic and hegemonic as
traditional liberalism. It
represents the non-inclusive universalism that liberal feminists
complained of in regards to traditional liberalism. This approach
is imperialistic because in making such accusations about these
cultures, ‘Westerners’ or ‘Northerners’ speak in the voice
of the dominant I and ignore our own positionality as the supposed
‘unmarked observer’ who stands as the center or the norm to
which all other cultures are to be judged (Mohanty). And, forming
umbrella judgments based on a few practices, Okin in a sense
demonizes the Other. Her judgments are insufficiently nuanced and
portray these cultures as either all good or all bad.
Okin also seems to be assuming that humanity’s just entitlements
are better understood or more fully articulated by Western
(liberal) feminists or academics.
According to her, “Third World” women (again she uses
the term so broadly, assuming that poorer countries and the
“Third World” which includes a vast area of land and numerous
different cultures and communities are all basically the same,
less developed and less civilized), are often co-opted, duped or
infused with false consciousness as a “survival strategy”.
Although false consciousness may certainly occur, this does
mean that Westerns are the only qualified persons to speak for
them on their so-called behalf. Doing so robs these women of any voice or agency and does not
adhere to democratic values. She provides as proof that women in
the “Third World” are often co-opted by presenting the fact
that women perpetuate the process of foot binding, clitoredectomy,
and purdah. She assumes without question that these practices are
‘most cruel and oppressive’. She assumes without question that
Western views of the good life are necessarily better and are
universalizable, which is what she was trying to “prove” in
the first place but is merely assuming. These practices may not be
just or fair, but assuming so does not prove her point and using
them to condemn an entire way of life and or to silence women
within the relevant cultures flies in the face of her democratic
and liberal values. Should we westerners go into such countries
and fix things? Should we assume our culture is superior and
silence the voices of the actual people and women?
Okin’s comment, “What Moslem man is likely to take the
chance of spending his life in seclusion and dependency,
sweltering in head-to-toe solid black clothing?” (Okin, 1994,
19), is a compelling and important question, but one that must be
raised in dialogue with Moslem women and men.
And, not a question to be cast out to castigate disparate
communities and an entire religion with no regard to what the
women and men in these communities might offer in response.
Okin assumes forehand that her understanding of the
religion or these various cultures is accurate, her judgments are
more authentic or made with more authority, and her criterion of
judgment (i.e. a theory of justice based on liberal and democratic
values) transcend others’. These are all assumptions that she
never questions even in light of much feminist scholarship and
grassroots activism (from around the world) which advocate that
she question these assumptions in order to question power and
Okin forgets to put her own culture and values to the same
critical scrutiny. She assumes that liberal values are basically
good at the expense of some alternate values. I think what is
needed is a more careful and sufficiently nuanced method of
criticizing cultures. Encouraging an open dialogue, discussion and
argumentation, is a more appropriate avenue. In so doing, power
differentials, domination, and hegemonic systems can be called
into questioned and value systems can be constructed through
process and change. We must listen to the voices of all women and
hear their criticisms of their cultures as well as their criticism
of Western views. Flax writes that, …such positioning denies the
possibility that women in the First World have much to learn about
themselves and others by seeing through their eyes. Taking the
diversity of practices, locations, and meanings seriously entails
placing Western, White women as the objects, not just subjects, of
discourse. This approach is also more congruent with a commitment
to justice; it treats others as persons deserving of respect and
capable of exercising authority in their own lives and those of
others. It does not presume in advance whose judgments ought to
prevail when differences arise (Flax, 904).
should be more concerned, together with the women of the Third
World cultures, with creating a new range of options for women and
“oppressed” people in general. It is difficult to know what a
good or more positive range of options looks like, but it should
be created in a fair and democratic process, through the voices of
Okin admits somewhat that cultural specificity is important to
take into consideration at times, especially when one wants to
help “Third World” women understand liberal democratic values
and recognize their rights. She
quotes Papanek to this effect; “And Papanek, too, shows how
helping to educate women to awareness of their oppression requires
quite deep and specific knowledge of the relevant culture”
(Okin, 1994, 20) [italics added for emphasis].
Again, she does not recommend truly focusing on the specificity of
each woman or group of women and listening to their perspectives.
Rather, we should learn about any given culture in order to
understand how to relate to “Third World” women and to be able
to educate them about their oppression. Okin believes that Western
liberal feminists must teach “Third World” women of their
rights because these other women do not seem to understand the
injustices which they face. In Okin’s view, the Westerners must
help conceptualize these injustices for them.
Although I agree that people can always learn from others
and that Western liberals have something valid to share with
“Third World” women, Okin does not realize the paternalistic
(or maternalistic) and patronizing nature of her words.
In effect, it seems that Western feminists have already
done the work, or constructed the issues and priorities on which
all women should focus. And,
now it is up to them teach these issues to other non-Western
women. In this way, the West has already articulated feminist’s
interests for all women (Mohanty, 256-257)
And unfortunately, this has lead to a negative picture of “Third
World” women as helpless and without agency. Chalpade Mohanty
describes this negative picture when she writes that:
This average Third World woman leads an essentially truncated life
based on her feminine gender (read: sexually constrained) and her
being “Third World” (read: ignorant, poor, uneducated,
tradition-bound, domestic, family-oriented, victimized, etc).
This, I suggest, is in contrast to the (implicit)
self-representation of Western women as educated, as modern, as
having control over their own bodies and sexualities, and the
freedom to make their own choices (Mohanty, 258).
It may be the case that women qua their being female have
all experienced some sort of domination or oppression from some
men. Yet, this does not entail that women experience oppression in
the same way and that differences of power, race, class,
ethnicity, etc are not necessarily involved in women’s
experience of oppression. Many different influences factor in and
have extreme effects on the lived experiences of women that their
oppression is always experienced differently due to different
localities and standpoints. Experiences of race, gender, class,
and ethnicity interplay so much so that they may be inseparable.
Since Okin refuses to concentrate on any socio-historical and
cultural specificity, she is lead to inappropriate
over-generalizations or vacuous truths.
Women are constructed through cultural practices and
institutions and are always part of the process of constructing
these practices and institutions.
Women are also constructed through class, culture,
religion, belief systems and specific power relations (Mohanty,
262; see Ong’s discussion on p. 378; Flax). Ignoring this denies
the reality of the lives of women.
In “Feminism, Women’s Human Rights, and Cultural
Differences”, Okin seems to agree with, though not admittingly
and to a small degree, some of the feminist critics she previously
argued against. She argues again that women suffer a similar
women’s human rights are universalizable and necessary to help
end the subjugation of women.
Although this is true, she admits that these rights should
be established through dialogue, especially among women and
including "Third World” women. Okin’s writings yet remain
problematic and paternalistic.
argues that the difference between men and women’s lives must be
recognized so that women’s formal human rights can take on more
substantial meaning in their lives.
She argues that what have been commonly known as human
rights, have excluded concerns specific to the lives of women and
so have hindered women’s ability to enjoy such rights. Such
issues as maternity leave, pregnancy and women’s health care,
gender based violence and affirmative action for women in
education and employment are also necessary to focus on within
human rights discussions and deliberation. And I do not doubt this
She argues again that the accepted distinction between the public
and the private in formulating human rights doctrines and taking
the male head of the household as the referent, must be questioned
because not doing so has contributed to the neglect of women in
receiving human rights protections. For, private lives are
protected by rights, but the lives within the private sphere are
not. When only governments or nation-states are viewed as
violating human rights, the fact that individual people violate
others’ human rights is gone unnoticed, especially men violating
women’s human rights. She writes, “Part of the reason for the
“invisibility” of gender-based violations has been the neglect
in human rights talk of the private or domestic sphere. For it is
in this sphere that great numbers of the world’s women live most
(in some cases, virtually all) of their lives, and in which vast
numbers of violations of women’s human rights take place (Peters
and Wolper 1995, 2)” (Okin 1998, 36).
She goes on to argue that respecting cultural rights has
been understood by many as allowing for the denial of human rights
to many women. Issues of sexuality, marriage, reproduction,
inheritance and power over children are cultural issues which Okin
argues directly effect the lives of women and have not been
considered to be part of human rights. Women are also often
considered to be the custodians of cultures and religions so that
intervening in on issues which concern women ends up amounting to
a violation of the entire culture and of cultural/religious
rights. The precedence of cultural rights over women’s human
rights render women’s human rights as invisible, natural, or
culturally justified. Okin argues that paying attention to
women’s human rights as human rights necessarily involves not
allowing for cultural exemptions.
Okin takes into consideration Mohanty and others’
objections who state that universalizing a shared oppression
across race, class & cultures is ahistorical and impossible.
They also argue that Okin’s method denies women’s agency,
ignores contemporary imperialism and ignores power differentials
among women. Okin asserts in consternation that such projects of
anti-universalization inhibit the establishment of women’s
rights as human rights and so go against women’s claim to
equality and equal opportunity (Okin, 1998, 43-44).
Okin also argues that “Third World” feminist activists
agree with her. She
cites that many “Third World” feminist activists from many
different regions of the world have been holding conferences,
meetings and networking events with their own subgroups and with
other such groups from around the world.
She argues that in speaking with each other, “They found
discrimination against women; patterns of gender-based violence;
including domestic battery; and the sexual and economic
exploitation of women and girls were virtually universal phenomena
(Friedman 1995; Bunch 1994)” (Okin 1998, 44). Okin admits that
these women have not claimed that all women’s problems and
oppression are exactly the same. But she argues that through these
international conferences and women’s NGO’s, once silenced
women now are being heard. I
believe that these types of conferences are much needed in order
for women to voice their sufferings of oppression and to
problematize the different situations so that we can begin working
to solve such injustices.
Yet, Okin does not seem to realize that she is acknowledging that
the women, in the “Third World” or anywhere women face
oppression, do in fact need to be involved in the process,
possibly with some help from “outsiders”. And so she seems to
almost be agreeing with her critics’ arguments. For, here she
admits that these “Third World” feminists need to get
together, have a voice, problematize specific types of oppression,
and work together (possibly with the help of outsiders) in order
to battle such acts of oppression. And, she says that listening to
once silenced voices is very important in ending oppression. Okin
even admits that these women do not encounter the same experiences
of oppression. Each community, and each individual for that
matter, encounter any range of different experiences of oppression
in which class, race, culture, gender, and etc. are all
substantial factors. And so, maybe Okin herself, agrees that we
must listen to everyone’s voices in order to establish a more
just standard of principles and values. This seems to stand in
opposition to what Okin argued in her previous paper (see Smith,
Although I seemed to have been extremely critical of
Okin’s writings, I ultimately agree with her that liberal values
can serve as an appropriate starting point or basis to supporting
and developing a more just universal standard.
What I have disagreed with was her method with which she
tried to argue for the establishing of liberal values world wide
because it lacked the due care and specific attention to contexts
that is required of such a grand project. So, I agree with Okin
when she says, “If it was not clear earlier, surely it was clear
now that bending over backward out of respect for cultural
diversity could do a great disservice to women and girls” (Okin
1998, 46). Yet, making grand generalizations and demonizing
numerous cultures is not the best way to “help” women and may,
in fact, deny women the agency Okin is trying to preserve.
I would advocate developing a more contextualized and
nuanced approach in a revised method, however complicated this may
be. More generally, what I have intended to demonstrate was that
arguing for seemingly good and just values systems has numerous
difficulties that actually may lead to certain injustices. And
this I think demonstrates the immensity of the problem of
establishing a universal standard of justice. Although it is an
extremely urgent issue, it cannot be “solved” without careful
attention and primarily open dialogue. The current structures of
globalization and global injustice are issues that are pertinent
to every person’s life and so, I believe that it must be
interrogated, questioned and analyzed by all. This must be done
through real democratic means in order to level out unequal levels
of powers and to give a voice to all rather than merely to the
elite or oligarchies that have retained most of the power and
decision making abilities.
Claude, “The African Context of Human Rights,” Africa Today,
Linda, “The Problem of Speaking for Others”, in Cultural
Critique 0882-4371 (Winter 1991-92).
David A., “Insiders and Outsiders in International
Development” Ethics & International Affairs 5 (1991):
Jane, “Race/Gender and The Ethics of Difference: A Reply to
Okin’s ‘Gender Inequality and Cultural Differences’ “ Political
Theory 23:3 (August 1995): 500-510.
Takis, Towards an Inclusive Democracy (New York: Cassell,
Wellington House, 1997).
Alison M., Feminist Politics and Human Nature (Totowa, NJ:
Rowman & Allanheld, 1983).
Alison M., “Globalizing Feminist Ethics” Hypatia 13:2
(Spring 1998): 7-31.
Alison M., “Multicultural Democracy” The Journal of
Political Philosophy 7:3 (1999): 308-329.
Chandra Talpade, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and
Colonial Discourses” in Third World Women and the Politics of
Feminism, eds. Chandra Mohanty, Ann Russo and Lourdes Torres,
(Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1991): 51-80.
Narayan, Uma, Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third World Feminism (New York: Routledge, 1997).
Susan Moller, “Feminism, Women’s Human Rights, and Cultural
Differences” Hypatia 13:2 (Spring 1998): 32-52.
Susan Moller, “Gender Inequality and Cultural
Differences” Political Theory, 22:1 (February
Aihwa. "Colonialism and Modernity: Feminist Re-presentations
of Women in Non-Western Societies." Inscriptions 3:4
I use the term, “Third World”, carefully to signify the
traditional use of the words and to show that they are
denigrating terms. These words typically refer to parts of the world that are
generally poorer and less industrialized than Europe and the
United States or the West/North.
I do not assume that all countries that are often
subsumed under this heading actually have any intrinsic value
that is less than any other country in the world as might be
signified by the word “third”.
Nor am I assuming that all of the countries within the
“Third World” are alike and have similar problems or similar
solutions to their problems.
In fact, it is the universalizing use of this term which
is criticized in this paper.
I use the term with critical cynicism and in order to
argue against it.
 Most of the discussion in this section is based on Alison Jaggar’s, “Feminist Politics and Human Nature” and some from my education over the years.
 The liberal idea of the self is most often contrasted with the communitarian view of humans as encumbered selves whose fulfillment is based on communal and cultural connections and interactions.
 This is often a point of contention for feminists. Where one’s political or public life ends and one’s private life begins is unclear. The division of public and private is evolving and changing and no clear boundary exists. For a beneficial discussion of the division of the public and private and the effects on women, see Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the public sphere”, in Justice Interuptus (New York and London: Routledge, 1997) and Martha A. Ackelsberg and Mary Lyndon Shanley, “Privacy, Publicity and Power: a Feminist Rethinking of the Public-Private Distinction”, in Revisioning the Political: Feminist Reconstructions of Traditional Concepts in Western Political Theory eds. Nancy Hirschmann and Christine Di Stefano, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996).
David Crocker distinguishes between two senses of ethnocentrism
and I think Okin can be accused of being ethnocentric in both
senses, but this is debatable.
He writes that, “It is widely believed, especially by
those living in rich and powerful countries, that appropriate
Third World and global development models, policies, and
projects should reflect Northern/Western development experience.
Increasingly this belief is seen, especially by those
living in the Third World, as ethnocentrism. Here “ethnocentrism” means two things. First, Northern/Western ethnocentrics employ their own
cultural norms in evaluating foreign practices.
In this firs sense, ethnocentrism is ‘a habitual
disposition to judge foreign peoples or groups by the standards
and practices of one’s own culture or ethnic group’.
Second, these ethnocentrics employ their standards to
make invidious comparisons. Foreign standards and practices are judged to be inferior to
those of the evaluator. In
this second sense, ethnocentrism is ‘a tendency toward viewing
alien cultures with disfavor and a resulting sense of (one’s
own) inherent superiority’ “ (Crocker, 150-151).
 Some dialogue may need to be closed to certain groups especially oppressed groups so that they can find common bonds and strength from each other in order to develop a language that problematizes their oppression and establishes routes to overcoming it. Yet, eventually these groups will have to engage in open dialogue with others in order for their voice to be heard and to hear the voices of others. See Alison Jaggar’s, “Globalizing Feminist Ethics”.