Saturday, February 10, 2007

"Fathers not allowed" - Some dilemmas of feminism, gender segregation, & multi-culturalism

Ingrid Robeyns, a Dutch academic who posts on the group weblog Crooked Timber, offers this interesting case along with some thoughtfully perplexed reflections. Part of what makes this example useful as food for thought is that it doesn't immediately raise drastic issues of violence, censorship, ethnic or sectarian hatreds, religious-versus-secularist Kulturkampf, and the like. Those all have their place, but confronting them sometimes tends to spook people and shut down serious thought. Instead, this example quietly highlights some mundane but important dilemmas that arise whenever people simultaneously try to give due respect to the claims of gender equality and cultural pluralism. These dilemmas can sometimes be finessed in practice, but not entirely in principle ... as Robeyns concludes.

--Jeff Weintraub

P.S. The discussion in the "comments" thread following Robeyns's post is also pretty sane, intelligent, and usefully thought-provoking.
Ingrid Robeyns (Crooked Timber)
February 7, 2007
Fathers not allowed

In the Netherlands, children between the ages of 2 and 4 (which is the age at which compulsory schooling starts) and who are not attending nurseries, can spend two mornings a week together in so-called ‘playgroups’. These playgroups are run by the municipalities. There is also a ‘pre-playgroup’ for kids between 18 months and two years, which only lasts one hour and where they are accompanied by one of the parents (or another adult). This morning a neighbour asked me whether I wouldn’t be interested in enrolling my son for such a pre-playgroup. But, she added, it’s only for mothers, fathers are not allowed. Apparently the justification is that otherwise mothers from certain ethnic minorities, where gender segregation is an important issue, would not attend with their children.

What should we think about such policies? In principle, I would strongly condemn such policies, since they are plainly discriminating fathers, grandfathers, and male babysitters. In practice, I can appreciate the underlying goal of offering mothers from social groups where opposite-sex parental activities are entirely out of the question more options to socialise, and also the social and developmental benefits for their children; but it does restrict the options of more progressive heterosexual couples to equally shared parenthood, let alone the options of gay fathers and single fathers. Since the kids of these ethnic minorities tend to be among the worst-off in society and we can safely assume that they are benefiting from joining a playgroup, I’m trying to look at this from its positive side – but I really have difficulties convincing myself that this is, all things considered, a wise policy.