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Gender, diversity philosophical problems and political reality: Configurations of feminism and multiculturalism

By Deen Chaterjee

I was recently invited to participate in an international conference and several workshops in Finland and Sweden in which feminist scholars from Scandinavia and Africa converged to examine the changing configurations of gender and diversity through the lens of identity politics.

What I found intriguing was that though their goal was the same-namely, to achieve equality for women and ensure their human rights-the focus and strategies of the Scandinavian and African feminists were vastly different.

Because Scandinavian countries consistently score the highest in the world on all indicators of women’s well-being and empowerment, feminism as a social and political movement is not very pronounced and urgent in the Scandinavian countries. Instead, they now focus more on the ethical dilemmas posed by multiculturalist demands to the self-understanding of liberal democracies.

The emerging multicultural challenge of difference in the highly homogenous Scandinavian societies is raising issues of equality and identity in a new light.

In contrast, the emergence of African feminism-especially in countries like Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania-is predominantly group-based. Unlike the liberal individualism of Scandinavian democracies, the African feminists make group and community affiliation the starting point of their feminism.

They have branded their feminism “nego-feminism,” based on negotiation and collaboration due to their strong tradition of group and community bonding. Their challenge is to preserve group identity, yet move from the particularities of groups toward the universalistic liberal ideals of equality and individual autonomy.

For the Scandinavians, on the other hand, the challenge is to go the other way around and yet preserve the neutrality of the liberal state.

What I found fascinating was that the Scandinavian and the African feminists looked at the American scene from two different angles.

The Scandinavians contrasted their welfare liberalism with the right-wing political ideology prevalent in the United States, where corporate interests trump public welfare. This makes average people, especially women, vulnerable and neglected. They cited feminization of poverty in the United States as an example of this trend.

African feminists looked at the United States from their nego feminism perspective. For them, everything in America is too confrontational and the issues too polarized and politicized, so only the powerful and the status quo win and the vulnerable groups lose.

For me, of course, the American experience is more nuanced and diverse.

The pluralistic liberal democracy of the United States is based on the constitutional guarantee of multicultural accommodation. In such a democracy, the fine line between group rights and human rights is continually negotiated through deliberative democracy, which is a challenging experiment.

The American feminist discourse is now reflecting this challenge as it tries to go beyond the uneasy alliance between feminism and multiculturalism.

Interestingly, in the American feminist milieu, I find the Scandinavian and the African feminist concerns played out with dynamic resiliency. This is because both the Scandinavian and the African critiques of the American scene are basically correct, so the American setting is ripe for a creative configuration of the Scandinavian and the African feminist perspectives.

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