Women, Multiculturalism And Identity Politics — A Perspective


Only a few days ago an American Muslim lady Najaf Khan, working as a dental assistant at Fair Oaks Dental Care in Virginia, was fired from her job because she wore a Muslim head scarf (hijab) at work. Another recent incident is when Nazia and Faisal Ali-an American Muslim were deplaned from their flight from Paris to Cincinnati, Ohio by Delta Air Lines for just uttering the word ‘Allah’. The stories are endless and such incidents area routine now in the so called age of multiculturalism and democracy. Such a trend against Muslims and Muslim women especially is a global phenomenon now.

While it is true that most of the Muslim women irrespective of literate/illiterate category desire change and are fed up of Fatwas and unneeded moral policing that are often more binding on them. However simultaneously there are crisis within the so called multicultural/secular social systems where every community is conscious of its identity and prefer their own codes rather than general laws which has now opened a big debate on Common Civil Code in the country.

The state also plays politics over such personal laws and keeps mum even in extreme human rights violation cases like Imrana rape case (2005, MuzzafarNagar) or Roop Kanwar tragedy (Derola, Rajasthan),etc,. The Muslim women’s movements or for that matter other women movements along with the idea of feminism receive a setback when even women instead of uniting for a cause resort to community codes rather than their own rights and empowerment. What forces them for such a reality is actually rooted in their socio-economic and cultural set up. They are more dependent and much regulated.

While multiculturalism theoretically demands respect for all cultural traditions and lays the foundation for peaceful coexistence and harmony, feminism respects only those traditions which deserve the respect. Cultural identity in the contemporary times has come to be viewed as a dynamic phenomenon and cultural practices and arrangements are recognized as sites of contestation as well. This is not wrong to maintain that majority of world cultures though multicultural still continue to be patriarchal and the case of India is not exceptional.

There are crisis with multiculturalism also like calls from cultural minority groups for greater recognition and rights inevitably raising questions about the proper scope and limits of such an accommodation. When cultural practices and arrangements that are protected by policies of multicultural tradition stand in tension with constitutional guarantees of gender equality, or when social practices are internally contested within communities like female genital mutilation continued as a cultural practice, crisis against intragroup marriages leading to honour killings (Khap terror), shame killings (Qandeel Bloch’s murder, female child abortions of infants), etc, the very pluralism turns to contestation and becomes nothing but a myth. Therefore, securing women’s rights by keeping in view their different backgrounds and identities and protect them from harm in multicultural societies is a bigger task before the states globally. The fact remains that women’s vulnerability has increased multifold due to political uprisings, violent conflicts, social tensions like riots, increasing sex crimes, decreasing sex ratio, poverty and politicisation of women’s issues, etc,.

Almost now everyday there is a news about Muslim women being fired for wearing Hijab or Muslims deplaned from flights even in America for saying the word ‘Allah’ or denied boarding for their looks. This is not multiculturalism but islamophobia.

Besides this, there are some complex intricacies with the concept of contemporary multiculturalism as well. When liberal democratic states attempt to limit, reform, or prohibit cultural practices and arrangements of ethnic and religious groups, their actions are perceived as a deliberate intrusion, or even oppression against particular groups or minorities. Not surprisingly, such intervention mostly backfire in terms of dissent and protest and even strengthen the customs or practices in question like the renewed commitment to the wearing of the veil, headscarf or chadar in North African communities in France and Turkey.

Although in some cases, state bodies make efforts to consult with the community in question but too often these overtures have a token quality to them and do not help to build lasting political trust. A minority community’s confidence in state-led reforms of their cultural arrangements is diminished still further when racism is pervasive in the broader social, economic, and political institutions. However, all the multicultural traditions are not beset to such complexities as the state and society has gradually absorbed the art of accommodation for all though not without exceptions and aberrations. Multiculturalism today is a reality in almost every nation however simultaneously it is equally true that most of the traditional cultures have historically oppressed women. Therefore, governments bear the burden of formulating policies that protect women’s rights within a multicultural framework.

There has to be a rethink on overall gender justice perspectives and policies at place though in the contemporary era there is a democratic tradition and a general commitment to protect the individual’s civil and political rights everywhere. Not just this but the followers of multiculturalism ideology should pursue feminist and gender-based alignments within cultural practices so that the society can realize the constitutional goals of universal equality, gender equality and justice. Women though many a time are victims of the personal laws but are always motivated by vested interests to follow community codes rather than work for their own emancipation and that is why we are still yet to have a common women’s movement.

Even history is testimony to the fact that women are not just victims in times of riots but also assist their men to perpetuate violence on other women or groups (Surat Riots). The case of ‘saying no to the second marriage’ does not apply only to Muslim women but any women on the globe have the inherent tendency for this choice. Personal laws/moral brigade/community laws must be paid attention unless and until they don’t compromise an individual’s basic human rights and women have to realise that acting as an agency of patriarchy and exercise power on other women is not their actual power but the biggest impediment to a united and successful women’s movement. Let us at least not justify rapes by people merely as political conspiracies (Azam Khan’s recent comments on rape comment) mistakes or link even molestations with dress code of women or favour community policing or so called moral brigades by linking to religions. Yesterday only in the Muslim dominated Kashmir valley, posters from some militant organisation were discovered giving an open threat to Kashmiri Pandits (Kashmiri non-Muslims) to leave the valley or be ready to die.

(Author is a Delhi Based Sociologist and Researcher at Sarojini Naidu centre for Women’s Studies Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Mail at [email protected]).

Dr. Adfer Shah

Dr. Adfer Shah, (Adfer Rashid Shah, PhD) is a New Delhi-based Sociologist and Social and Political analyst.He writes his columns for various reputed international and national media groups. He has been writing on South Asia's Socio-political realities especially on Kashmir sociology and Conflict Situation at Eurasia Review since 2012, where he is a Special Correspondent for South Asia Affairs and Associate Editor since January 2014. His recent publications include his three books (1)"Kashmir-Yearning for Peace: A Socio-Political history of Uncertainty and Chaos,2016" (ISSN: 978-3-659-55971-6), (2)'Social Science Research in Conflict Zones,2017' (ISBN: 978-620-2-47937- 0) and (3)'Tibetan Refugees in India: Struggle to Survive,2018' ( ISBN 81-8324-919-1)]..

One thought on “Women, Multiculturalism And Identity Politics — A Perspective

  • August 9, 2016 at 8:04 pm

    What a thought provoking and beautifully written article! Kudos to the author for his highly progressive views!My very warm congratulations!


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