Introduction to the Symposium on Gender Equality and Cultural Justice
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- Baumeister, A. Res Publica (2008) 14: 145. doi:10.1007/s11158-008-9063-1
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The contributions in this symposium stem from a workshop on ‘Gender Equality and Cultural Justice’, which formed part of the workshop series ‘Toleration and the Public Sphere’ organised under the auspices of the Association for Legal and Social Philosophy and funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council under their Diasporas, Migration and Identities programme. The workshop brought together academics, practitioners and policy-makers to evaluate recent debates surrounding the potential tensions between a commitment to the norm of gender equality and demands for cultural justice, with a view to exploring the possibility of moving beyond a simple gender/culture dichotomy. While established cultural practices frequently discriminate against women, for many women their cultural heritage is not just a symbol of oppression, but also a source of value and meaning. Even where women are critical of established cultural practices, they often have simultaneously a wide variety of reasons for continuing with the practice ranging from the protection of their social identity and sense of self to practical and strategic advantages, such as protecting the standing of their community and the privileges this entails. Indeed to fail to take seriously demands by minority women for the accommodation of practices and norms that do not sit well with mainstream conceptions of gender equality may itself undermine these women’s rights, most notably the key feminist goal of a right to self-determination.
The symposium seeks to address the complex loyalties and multifaceted interests of women members of cultural and religious minorities in relation to two issues that have proven particularly contentious in recent years: the wearing of Islamic headscarves and debates about arranged and forced marriage. Monica Mookherjee employs an innovative, culturally-sensitive reconceptualisation of the concept of autonomy to develop a subtle defence of the value of arranged marriages, while criticising those that are forced. The response by Fariha Thomas reflects the insights of a practitioner working to promote the social welfare needs of women. Thomas’ experiences lend considerable support to Mookherjee’s argument, but also highlight the importance of separating culture and religion and the difficulties inherent in developing effective forms of education. The question of self-determination is also central to the contributions by Jill Marshall and Sharon Cowan. Marshall argues that the worries about the apparent tensions between freedom of religion and gender equality that inform recent judgements by the European Court in relation to cases involving the wearing of Islamic headscarves can be overcome if we adopt a more sophisticated conception of gender equality, grounded in the idea of enabling people to become what they want. She concludes that such a notion of gender equality sits well with jurisprudence on Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and that respect for personal autonomy, integral to Article 8, implies that we take the choices of women who want to wear Islamic headscarves seriously. Cowan, in her response, concurs that a legal ban does not constitute a viable solution to the issues raised by these cases. However, she remains sceptical as to whether Article 8, with its typically liberal emphasis on notions of individual autonomy, constitutes an appropriate reference point in this context. For Cowan, the concerns that underpin these cases are best addressed not through legal regulation, but via robust and real political debate. Taken together the four contributions present a strong case for a more nuanced conception of both gender equality and culture, and highlight the potential dangers of attempts to employ the blunt tool of the law to adjudicate in these complex and contested social arenas.