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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development (2000 - 2009), Governance (2000 - 2009)

Multiculturalism, Universalism and the Claims of Democracy

This paper explores the tensions between universalism and cultural relativism, and the role of democracy in resolving these tensions. It argues that cultural relativism is not a useful ally for feminism. While the social meanings and significance of cultural practices are best understood by those who engage in them, the social construction of preferences and aspirations can mean that those most oppressed by a particular practice become less able to recognize its inegalitarian character. A “hands-off” approach to cultural difference can then end up capitulating to unjust social power. At the same time, principles of justice and equality are always formed in particular historical contexts, and often reflect the preoccupations of more powerful groups. This means they must always be regarded as open to contestation, reformulation and change.

One implication is that both principles and policies should be worked out with the fullest possible involvement of all relevant groups. In seeking to establish which rights should be regarded as inalienable or which practices as inimical to equality between women and men, it is not possible to rely on simple deduction from supposedly universal principles. We always need the maximum possible dialogue to counter the false universalisms that have so dogged previous practice, as well as the “substitutionism” that has allowed certain groups to present themselves as spokespersons for the rest. The persistent under-representation of women in most of the forums in which these issues are addressed then emerges as a particularly pressing problem.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Dec 2001
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8186
    From: UNRISD