Mary-Kate G. Smith


Is 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. 

Within 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 globalization.  And, 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 applicable.  And, 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).

     These 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 World”[1] 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 lives. 

   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 “save”?  For 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.”

     In 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.


Liberalism, Liberal Feminism and Democracy[2]


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. 

According 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.[3] 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).

Liberty 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.[4] 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).  

Individuals 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). 

Democracy 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 responsibilities.  Each individual is supposed to participate in the governing and decision making process, whether directly or through representation.  Democratic 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’ interests.  

A 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).

Liberal 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). 

To 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 opportunity.  (Jaggar 1983,183) 

Advocating 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


        Since 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.  

Okin 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 private.  And, development  and 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, 10)

      Attention 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.

    Okin 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 development.”  She 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. 

I 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 evidence.  One  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 World”.  These 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.[5]

      As 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 to assist.

      Okin 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). 

Often, 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 cultures.

      The 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 scholarship.  In 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 development.  Development 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).

 Okin 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, 326)

Okin 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:

An 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).   

     Dialogic feminism or ethics is not as unfruitful as Okin portrays it to be, even though it is not without its problems and difficulties.

    Instead, 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 be wrong. 

    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 practically.  Practically, 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 without question.

   In speaking for others and “Third World” women, Western feminists position themselves as the autonomous individuals and the authorities.  This 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).

   Wielding 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 domination differentials.  

   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).

 We 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 all.

  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 oppression.  Thus, 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.

  Okin 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 is true. 

   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, 14). 

   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.[6] 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.






Ake, Claude, “The African Context of Human Rights,” Africa Today, 34:1-2 (1987).

 Alcoff, Linda, “The Problem of Speaking for Others”, in Cultural Critique 0882-4371 (Winter 1991-92).

 Crocker, David A., “Insiders and Outsiders in International Development” Ethics & International Affairs 5 (1991): 149-172.

 Flax, 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.

 Fotopoulos, Takis, Towards an Inclusive Democracy (New York: Cassell, Wellington House, 1997). 

 Jaggar, Alison M., Feminist Politics and Human Nature (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld, 1983).

 Jaggar, Alison M., “Globalizing Feminist Ethics” Hypatia 13:2 (Spring 1998): 7-31.

 Jaggar, Alison M., “Multicultural Democracy” The Journal of Political Philosophy 7:3 (1999): 308-329.

 Mohanty, 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).

 Okin, Susan Moller, “Feminism, Women’s Human Rights, and Cultural Differences” Hypatia 13:2 (Spring 1998): 32-52.

 Okin, Susan Moller, “Gender Inequality and Cultural  Differences” Political Theory, 22:1 (February 1994): 5-24.

 Ong, Aihwa. "Colonialism and Modernity: Feminist Re-presentations of Women in Non-Western Societies." Inscriptions 3:4 (1988): 79-93.



[1] 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.

[2] 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.
[3] 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.
[4] 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).

[5] 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).  

[6] 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”.