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ICON Book Review: Gender Parity and Multicultural Feminism: Towards a New Synthesis

[Editor’s Note: ICONnect is publishing a series of book reviews that recently ran in ICON (Volume 18, Issue 2: July 2020) on “Law and Gender in the Literature.”]

Ruth Rubio-Marín and Will Kymlicka eds. Gender Parity and Multicultural Feminism: Towards a New Synthesis.  Oxford University Press,  2018 (hardback). Pp.  304. £65.00. ISBN: 9780198829621.

Reviewed by Ofra Bloch

International Journal of Constitutional Law, Volume 18, Issue 2, July 2020, Pages 644–647,

Gender quotas, once thought of as controversial, are now embraced across the world. Since the mid-1990s, countries in all regions have increasingly adopted gender quotas in their political decision-making bodies. Over eighty countries’ laws or constitutions now set electoral quotas for women.[1] Since 2000, this trend has been both proliferating and deepening. The familiar temporary quotas promising a minimum threshold for women of around thirty percent of the total in legislative bodies or on candidate lists are being replaced by more ambitious requirements for “balanced participation” and even parity, defined as comprising fifty percent of each sex. Such quotas are also expanding to cover more domains of decision-making. These trends toward greater participation of women do not occur in a void. They take place in heterogeneous societies, which are divided and stratified along axes of religion, nationality, ethnicity, indigeneity, and culture, and in which minority women tend to be particularly disadvantaged.

Against this backdrop, Gender Parity and Multicultural Feminism, edited by Ruth Rubio-Marín and Will Kymlicka, embarks on a timely inquiry into the relationship between what they identify as a “participatory turn” in gender equality and issues of multicultural feminism and the participation of minority women in norm creation. Chapter 1 serves as both an effective entrance to the field and a road map for the themes and questions informing this volume. Rubio-Marín and Kymlicka describe the participatory turn in gender equality in depth and delve into its normative justifications. They identify substantive equality and democratic legitimation as the primary rationales driving the parity trend. They then turn to their main subject of inquiry: the implications of this participatory turn on issues of multiculturalism. More specifically, they explore contexts that involve some degree of minority autonomy and forms of self-government, which proliferated alongside the gender participatory turn. The growing recognition of multicultural legal pluralism and the autonomy and accommodations it entails, often places minority women in jeopardy—subjecting them to patriarchal norms they had no part in crafting and increasing the risk of their rights being infringed upon. Critics have warned against this risk, often referred to as the “paradox of multicultural vulnerability,”[2] and some have suggested it was a reason to limit or even reject the turn toward legal pluralism.[3] Yet Rubio-Marín and Kymlicka do not accept this binary choice between minority rights and women’s rights, refusing to see it as a zero-sum game. Instead, they dedicate this volume to exploring whether increasing women’s participation in norm creation within their communities and at the state level could provide a way out of this vulnerability paradox that does not require women to choose between their cultures and their rights. Could the gender participatory turn align with the turn to legal pluralism, allowing women to challenge gender inequality while simultaneously challenging unequal power relations between majority and minority groups?

The volume addresses these questions on both a theoretical and a practical level. It begins with three broad overview chapters, describing and analyzing the trends of women’s participation and legal pluralism. Anne Phillips explores the theoretical tensions between the two trends, importantly warning that minority groups which were granted autonomy might be lacking the underlying commitment to democratic equality that serves as the grounds for promoting women’s inclusion (Chapter 2). Ruth Rubio-Marín studies how international human rights law has addressed the tensions between the gender participatory turn and the pluralism turn, and has served as an effective motor in promoting both (Chapter 3). She draws attention to the need to promote the participation of women from minority groups, including through the implementation of special measures. Melanie Hughes then provides a glimpse of what such a “special measure” might look like (Chapter 4). Recognizing that quotas for minority groups often benefit mostly men and quotas for women often benefit mostly majority-advantaged women, she considers the innovative measure of “nested quotas.” These would require some level of representation of minority women within gender or minority quotas. While much practical attention would have to be given to implementing such a complicated measure, Hughes argues that nested quotas can, and probably would, make a real difference for the participation of minority women.

The next five chapters are dedicated to detailed studies of specific national and regional experiences from around the world. Meital Pinto explores recent struggles for women’s participation within the religious sphere in Israel (Chapter 5). She shows how both Muslim and Jewish religious women have fought for, and in some instances even achieved, the right to participate in shaping some norms in their own community. While limited in scope, she argues that these struggles are significant developments toward reconciling gender equality and multiculturalism. Susan H. Williams reviews customary law in Liberia (Chapter 6). She shows how familiar forms of protecting women’s rights have failed, and argues that the only sustainable solution is to empower women within their local communities in order to reshape customary law from within. Johanna Bond looks more broadly at the sub-Saharan region, where many countries have established better protection of gender equality and adopted gender quotas at the national level (Chapter 7). She shows, however, how these formal legal and constitutional commitments, which often exempt customary law and remain poorly enforced, are often inadequate for protecting the rights of women subject to customary law. Mexico, Dorothy Estrada-Tanck shows, has implemented strong parity requirements at the national level and has constitutionally recognized indigenous rights, including rights to self-government (Chapter 8). However, indigenous women are still largely excluded from norm creation both at the national level and within their indigenous communities. Estrada-Tanck then focuses on the quest of indigenous women for participatory parity and its unique framing in different contexts, including the struggle for reducing violence against indigenous women. Rachel Sieder and Anne Barrera Vivero explore the Andean region (Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru) to describe how indigenous women benefited from both gender parity and legal pluralism, enabling them to achieve their demands for a louder voice and greater influence at the national and community levels (Chapter 9).

The geographic selection of cases, and in particular the decision not to include chapters on Europe and North America, not only provides a novel contribution to the literature on this subject, but also allows readers to explore these regions as subjects of inquiry in their own right instead of as comparisons. Despite the great variance, we are not left with a bundle of unrelated cases. Rubio-Marín and Kymlicka provide readers with a road map of three core questions that connect the case studies: (i) is the participatory turn taking place within minority communities?; (ii) what are the normative arguments advancing it?; and (ii) what are the institutional mechanisms used to promote it? While both the normative justifications and the institutional measures vary between—and even within—cases, Rubio-Marín and Kymlicka conclude that minority women increasingly seek recognition as coauthors of their communities’ norms, claiming greater participation and representation.

Rubio-Marín and Kymlicka not only identify a set of important questions, but also provide analytical frameworks to successfully answer them by reading the different case studies. The volume, however, leaves a major issue largely untreated. Rubio-Marín and Kymlicka identify that the participatory turn in gender equality is not limited to Western democracies, as it is also occurring in countries in post-conflict settings and those with weak democratic credentials. Yet the volume fails to recognize that the participatory turn, and in particular its more recent and robust manifestation in gender parity measures, has occurred at the same time as an ongoing global democratic crisis. In the past decade, both new and established democracies around the world have been undergoing a process of democratic decline. Incremental erosion of democratic institutions and norms is being entrenched in cumulative steps, largely through reliance on ordinary legalistic and constitutional mechanisms, leaving minorities and women more vulnerable.[4] Reading through the volume, I could not help but wonder: what is the relationship between the gender participatory trend and the global trend of democratic decline? How does this affect issues of multicultural feminism and the protection and empowerment of minority women? Asking these questions reveals another layer of theoretical tension. The volume shows that the recent implementation of gender parity measures around the world is motivated not only by familiar pleas for substantive equality, but mostly by arguments of how democratic legitimation is being compromised by the chronic underrepresentation of women. But what ends do gender quotas serve and what do they legitimate when they operate in the settings of backsliding democracies and raising authoritarianism? Are they working to legitimate undemocratic trends, and in what ways can they still serve as a democratic tool?

While I do not have the answers to these questions, I believe that investigating them further—both in the book’s case studies (such as in the case of Venezuela reviewed in Chapter 4) and others (such as Poland)—can provide a more comprehensive picture of the recent struggles for women’s, and particularly minority women’s, equality and participation.[5] Delving into the case of Israel elucidates some of these issues in a more concrete fashion. Much like other countries around the world, Israel has been going through a process of democratic retrogression throughout the past decade. In a series of cumulative steps, the government has weakened the judiciary, confined rights and freedoms, and diminished the symbolic and political status of the Palestinian-Arab minority.[6] Commitments to norms of gender equality have also been backsliding. In recent years, the increasing presence of ultra-Orthodox men in politics, the military, academia, media outlets, and other central institutions has resulted in the expansion of gender segregation practices and in women’s exclusion, justified as a form of religious accommodation of their modesty practices.[7] This phenomenon has reshaped the public sphere and institutions in ways that have affected religious as well as secular women.[8] It is against this backdrop, where the “paradox of multicultural vulnerability” has become so extreme, that we should reexamine the struggles for religious women’s participation that Meytal Pinto describes in Chapter 5. How should we understand these struggles? Are attempts to achieve gender parity within the religious sphere the right strategy to deal with the more recent and acute threats of gender-based segregation and exclusion? Or, as Anne Phillips suggests, should women instead resort to more classic forms of rights protection?

Turning to history can also help explain the seemingly paradoxical growth of gender quotas at times of democratic backsliding. In her 2009 book Quotas for Women in Politics: Gender and Candidate Selection Reform Worldwide, Mona Lena Krook excavates the colonial origins of gender quotas. She traces their history in Pakistan and India back to the 1930s, when the British Empire used them to reserve seats for women (as well as for other groups) in politics “as a tool for preserving colonial domination by giving various groups a stake in maintaining the existing regime.”[9] Melanie Hughes mentions this history, but the volume at large presents the participatory turn in gender equality as novel, and focuses on its discontinuity from history. Indeed, the recent participatory turn in gender equality, and especially its manifestation in parity requirements, is a break from the past. Yet tracing the use of quotas for women, as well as ethnic minorities, to colonial times and other undemocratic contexts might shed some light on their current deployment in less democratic settings—revealing when quotas are more likely to effectively advance the rights of women, minorities, and minority women, and in which conditions they might serve as a more strategic tool in the hands of undemocratic elites and risk doing the opposite.


According to information from the Gender Quotas Database project, a joint collaboration of the International IDEA, Inter-Parliamentary Union, and Stockholm University. Seee.g.Gender Quotas Database, INT’L INST. FOR DEMOCRACY & ELECTORAL ASSISTANCE,

Ayelet Shachar, On Citizenship and Multicultural Vulnerability, 28 POL. THEORY 64 (2000).

This tension was famously articulated by Susan Moller Okin, Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?in IS MULTICULTURALISM BAD FOR WOMEN? 7 (Joshua Cohen, Matthew Howard, & Martha C. Nussbaum eds., 1999).

Many scholars describe the incremental degradation of democratic rule in various countries and use different terms to refer to it. Seee.g., Aziz Huq & Tom Ginsburg, How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy, 65 UCLA L. REV. 78 (2018) (coining the term “constitutional retrogression”); Kim Lane Scheppele, Autocratic Legalism, 85 U. CHI. L. REV. 545 (2018).

Poland and Venezuela have both been undergoing extreme processes of democratic decline in recent years. Yet neither country revoked electoral gender quotas. In fact, Venezuela (as Melanie Hughes describes in Chapter 4) adopted a requirement for reserved seats for indigenous peoples and a parity quota since 2015. For a review of the recent developments in women’s participation in Poland, see Anna Sledzinska-Simon, Gender Quotas and Women’s Solidarity As a Challenge to the Gender Regime in Polandin TRANSFORMING GENDER CITIZENSHIP: THE IRRESISTIBLE RISE OF GENDER QUOTAS IN EUROPE (Éléonore Lépinard & Ruth Rubio Marin eds., 2018).

For a comprehensive review of the crisis in Israel, see Yaniv Roznai, Israel A Crisis of Liberal Democracy?in CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY IN CRISIS? 355 (Mark A. Graber, Sanford Levinson, & Mark Tushnet eds., 2018).

For a review and a legal analysis of the recent expansion and deepening of women’s exclusion, see Yofi Tirosh, Diminishing Constitutional Law: The First Three Decades of Women’s Exclusion Adjudication in Israel, INT’L J. CONST. LAW (forthcoming 2020).

For an interesting analysis of the tradeoffs between the infringement on third parties’ rights (mostly women and LGBTQ individuals) and religious accommodations in the United States, see Douglas NeJaime & Reva Siegel, Conscience Wars: Complicity-Based Conscience Claims in Religion and Politics, 124 YALE L.J. 2516 (2015).

MONA LENA KROOK, QUOTAS FOR WOMEN IN POLITICS: GENDER AND CANDIDATE SELECTION REFORM WORLDWIDE 222 (2009). For a study tracing the origins of affirmative action measures for Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel back to the time of military regime, see Ofra Bloch, Hierarchical Inclusion: The Untold History of Israel’s Affirmative Action for Arab Citizens (1948–1968) Law and History Review (forthcoming 2020)(describing the use of these measures as an administrative tool for managing a subjected population).

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One response to “ICON Book Review: Gender Parity and Multicultural Feminism: Towards a New Synthesis”

  1. Kishor Dere Avatar
    Kishor Dere

    Gender quotas have indeed become an order of the day. It is a sign of political correctness. Like any other idea and policy, this too may have its own pitfalls. That is, however, for the future analysts to study. Today, the main focus is on doing away with traditional sources of discrimination against women and assuring their equal participation, primarily in numerical sense. It is an idea worth trying out.

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