The idea that respect for cultural diversity conflicts with gender equality is now a staple of both public and academic debate. Yet discussion of these tensions is marred by exaggerated talk of cultural difference, leading to ethnic reductionism, cultural stereotyping and a hierarchy of traditional and modern. In this volume, Anne Phillips rejects the notion that 'culture' might justify the oppression of women, but also queries the stereotypical binaries that have represented people from ethnocultural minorities as peculiarly resistant to gender equality.
The questions addressed include the relationship between universalism and cultural relativism, how to distinguish valid generalization from either gender or cultural essentialism, and how to recognize women as agents rather than captives of culture. The discussions are illuminated by reference to legal cases and policy interventions, with a particular focus on forced marriage and cultural defence.
No-one should assume that the choices women make about their lives are forced on them by oppressive and patriarchal cultures, and governments should be wary about leaping prematurely into protective mode. A focus on women's agency can, however, lead to complacency, understating the cultural and other pressures operating on them and the sometimes urgent need for (even paternalistic) protection. The debate on this continues.