Saturday, November 21, 2009

Multiculturalism and Feminism

An interesting issue came up in the writing center the other day.  I was tutoring a Chinese woman who was writing an essay about motherhood, fatherhood, and marriage. She wrote that women have a "bounden duty" to have children because they have the right body parts.

Usually I don't argue with students when they say things that I don't agree with, but I couldn't let this one go by.  In part that was because I knew that her writing teacher would think this point of view odd; the teacher had assigned a lot of essays about gender issues and is presumably a feminist, although I don't know her and couldn't say that for sure.  Even if this were not the case, I thought it was my "bounden duty" to inform the student that this statement, presented as if it were self-evident and not defended at all, would strike most Americans as old-fashioned, if not downright offensive.  So I told her that in the US, we consider child-bearing a choice rather than a duty.

"A choice?"  she said, after a long silence. What a novel concept.

I was somewhat puzzled by her puzzlement, because I have met other young Chinese women students who are very career-oriented and don't want to be only housewives.  They don't seem to see child-bearing as a "duty," and I know that China has had a long-time policy of limiting births to one child per family.  The Maoist socialist revolution was ostensibly feminist also.

I asked the student if most people in China thought that women had a duty to have children. She said that they did.  Maybe she is from a different class or region than the women I had met before, who were graduate students at the University of Houston.

Anyway I posted a story about this on the email list for writing tutors at HCC, asking people what they do when a student writes something that is "politically incorrect" or possibly offensive to most Americans, especially when they don't seem to realize this is the case.  Almost always these un-PC statements are about the inferiority of women, or their proper place in society being firmly under the thumb of men.  Muslim and Hispanic male students, and some Asian men, are the usual offenders, but occasionally recent immigrants who are women express these un-feminist points of view, without defending them much, as if they are obviously true.

I was surprised that another tutor thought that it was inappropriate to some degree for me to argue with the Chinese student about her point of view. She said that some people think it is an honor to be pregnant, and that I was privileging the intellect over the body.  I wrote back that I thought being pregnant and giving birth were indeed very empowering, but that the body is not necessarily "honored" by pregnancy:  that in fact pregnancy changes the body in sometimes negative ways that can last the rest of a woman's life. (That's something that they don't tell young women.)  I also reiterated the familiar feminist point that honoring the body means giving its owner control over it, rather than assuming that its reproductive ability belongs to a husband, or a collective.  Women are not just baby-making machines, yo. 

I also said that when one becomes a mother, one is by no means giving up on the intellect:  being a good mother takes a lot of thought.

But there's another issue here: what are we to do with all these people moving to  our shores who bring with them pre-Enlightenment--ie medieval--ways of thinking?  Some European countries have had the policy of absolute tolerance of, say, Islamic fundamentalism, and the result is incidents like the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh.  Other countries like France have tried to assimilate Muslims by forbidding Muslim girls from wearing head scarves at school.  In the US, we haven't really decided what our policy is. Muslim girls can wear head scarves or even full body coverings to school (I've seen women on the Rice campus who are covered head to toe in black, to the point that you can't even see their eyes), and in most universities and colleges, faculty bend over backward to accommodate "multicultural" points of view, in order to be "post-colonial."   At the same time most academics would probably describe themselves as feminists, even while they argue that it's parochial for Westerners to tout Enlightenment values like freedom of thought and individualism! 

I just can't go there.  I am unashamed about valuing freedom of thought and individualism.  And I don't think that those values are at war with community well-being.  We don't have to choose between the individual and the community, especially when it comes to women's individualism:  development policy makers in the Third World know now that educating and empowering women is the single most important thing that an NGO can work on, to improve the overall well-being of a whole community.  (See Nicholas Kristof  and Sheryl WuDunn's new book Half the Sky.)

Also, if the Chinese people are so averse to individualism, why do they want to get rid of the firewall that their government has erected around their internet access?  How could Tiananmen Square have happened?  Some Western intellectuals seem to think that all political attitudes are created by one's society, and that they are all equally valid; but if that's the case, how does change ever happen?  How do people come to question what they've been taught?  I think that people know when things aren't right, and that individual thinking exposes oppression.  The freedom to talk about one's insights into oppression helps other individuals think more clearly about their situation, and that's how political change in the right direction of more freedom and equality happens.

So I will continue to encourage thinking and questioning of received opinion in the writing center.  I don't care if I'm not post-colonial enough.  I like the Enlightenment.

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