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This article explores the concept of multiculturalism in “western” and “eastern/southern” societies with particular regard to the condition and problems of women. It points out the frequent contradiction between the policy of protecting the customs and ways of life of minority communities, granting them equality under the law and the principle of upholding the individual  rights of their members, especially those of the feminine gender. The article contrasts the various interpretations of multiculturalism in several countries of the Americas, Europe and Asia and highlights the risks of accepting all the traditional practices and mores of immigrant groups especially when they are incompatible with the values of modern democratic societies.




The debate on “multiculturalism” has assumed importance in the age of globalisation. Multiculturalism may be broadly defined as the “characteristics of a multicultural society” and “the policy or process whereby the distinctive identities of cultural groups within such a society are maintained or supported”. It centres on the thought in political philosophy about the way to respond to cultural and religious differences. It is closely associated with “identity politics”, “the politics of differences” and “the politics of recognition” apart from being a matter of economic interest and political power. The term multiculturalism is most often used in reference to Western nation states and has been the official policy in several of them since the 1970s, for reasons that vary from country to country. Many nation-states in Africa and Asia are also culturally diverse and are “multicultural” in a descriptive sense, although in some, communalism is a major political issue. The policies adopted by these states often have parallels with “multiculturalist” policies in the Western world, even though the historical background is different.


In the case of liberal arguments for the rights of groups, one needs to look at inequalities within the groups in general and between the sexes in particular. It should not be assumed that the self-proclaimed leaders of groups who are usually older male members represent the interests of all group members. What does all this entail with respect to the issue of women’s rights and multiculturalism? How far do women as a major subset within the group benefit from group rights? It is especially important to consider inequalities between the sexes, since they are likely to be less public and thus less easily discernible. Are women’s human and fundamental rights given priority in group rights? Do men ever sacrifice their individual rights to equal treatment to preserve or protect the cultural or religious identity of a group? There is a need for women, more specifically young women (since older women are often co-opted into reinforcing gender inequality) to be represented in negotiations on group rights, so that their interests are promoted and not harmed by the granting of such rights. The liberation of women should be in the spirit of the modern world and not a “women’s issue”—it should be part of the persistent enforcement of human rights. In this context, it is necessary to understand whether the policy of multiculturalism in the West is gender-neutral or gender-biased in favour of men. Many Eastern countries have been historically multicultural but not “officially” so. In South Asia, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka are officially secular while Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan are Islamic but historically and


culturally multicultural within an Islamic society. Against this background, this present paper studies women’s rights vis-à-vis multiculturalism in select countries of the East and the West.