Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Why we need to dismantle the myth of ‘Western’ feminism

by Chitra Nagarajan

This blogpost is a revised (and abbreviated) version of what I said on a panel discussion recently at King’s College, Cambridge. Other panellists at their ‘Why is Feminism a Global Phenomenon?’ Women’s Event included Katherine Ronderos of the Central American Women’s Network, Humeira Iqtidar of King’s College, Cambridge and Ellah Allfrey of Granta magazine.

Why is feminism a global phenomenon?

Worldwide, only 18 countries have women as leaders in power today – out of 192 nations. Up to one billion women have been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in their lifetimes. Trafficking of women and girls was reported in 85% of conflict zones. 82 million girls now aged 10 to 17 will be married before their 18th birthday. Literacy rates for women in Africa, Asia and Latin America are substantially lower than those of men.

We live in a world in which patriarchy combines with racism, neo-colonialism and global capitalism to create a fundamentally unjust world in which, no matter where you are or who you are, life is not the same for women as it for men. What is feminism if not providing space to resist this? Women’s rights ideas and activism are seen everywhere in the world because every single community and country on this planet has profoundly entrenched inequalities between women and men, and hierarchies of power and dominance based on difference – be it gender, ethnicity, religious, economic class, caste or regional difference. As Kofi Annan, the then United Nations Secretary General said in 2005, ‘When it comes to violence against women, there are no civilised societieshalf of humankind lives under this threat -- in every continent, country and culture, regardless of income, class, race or ethnicity.

The main argument that comes up when you talk about feminism or women’s rights internationally is that it is an invention of ‘the West’ imposed on other countries in a form of cultural imperialism. Not only does this have very little basis in reality and is deeply condescending, but it is an argument largely perpetuated and accepted by male elites to justify their actions. You talk with women and they will tell you something completely different. It does not hurt less when a woman is abused just because it takes place in Afghanistan, or China, or Columbia, or Guinea. Women do not see their rights as something that is alien. The feminist story belongs to all women, everywhere. We need to represent matters accurately.

Despite the strength and purpose of activism in Africa, Asia and Latin America, women in ‘foreign’ countries are automatically construed as weak, defenceless and faceless, amalgamated into a mass of vulnerability. In reality, women’s activism, against violence, poverty, destruction of their homes and environments and for peace, justice and education is alive and flourishing everywhere. Very real issues and vulnerabilities exist for women all over the world, and these of course differ depending on context. However, from my own experiences, women’s rights activists in China, India, Liberia and Rwanda are light-years ahead in thinking, mobilisation and strategy and sheer passion and energy.

Have we forgotten the role women played in the struggle for freedom in South Africa, in ending the war in Liberia, standing against ‘disappearances’ in Argentina and in independence movements all over the world? Are we ignoring the continuing importance in ensuring equal parliamentary representation in Rwanda and demanding democracy in much of the Middle East? At this very moment, it is women who are at the forefront of the marches calling for peace in Côte d’Ivoire at present, and women being killed for it. How can we not honour these actions?

Women engage in feminist activism all around the world and insights of gender power imbalances are universal. Interestingly, it is women I’ve come across who live in Europe and North America who are most likely to resist the term ‘feminism.’ Activists everywhere frame their world using common ideas; the fight against women’s oppression and exploitation and for emancipation. Many activists, such as Feminists in Resistance in Honduras, explicitly use the term feminist. Feminists in the UK may wince when they use the term ‘patriarchy,’ feeling it carries with it a definite taste of the old school, but it is an idea that is felt and a term which is used with ease elsewhere. Women I have known in China, Guinea, India, Liberia and Rwanda know what patriarchy is, know what militarised and fundamentalist forms of masculinity do and, even if they are unable to speak openly about these things, in many ways, have a more nuanced and deeper understanding of patriarchy and gender relations than most long-standing feminist activists that I know in London.

These may not be conversations that we have openly but these are conversations we have had in private for generations. Conversations with family, friends and colleagues have opened my mind to new ways of thinking and continue to do so. A woman's rights activist told me when I was last in Liberia that she considers polygamy to be a form of violence against women. This analysis is not mentioned in international human rights law but it is what activists are saying in countries where polygamy is practiced, from Indonesia, to India, to Liberia. I have heard some of the most radical critiques of the institution of marriage and ‘good wife’ ideals, not from feminist activists and academics in the UK, but from my family and friends in India. In China, sexual harassment and being asked to sleep with interviewers in a tough job market was a very real concern to my friends in their final year of university, and they themselves attributed it to men being valued so highly that women are asked to ‘give a little something extra’ to be considered. When I was in Guinea last year, I was thrilled to see one of my colleagues from Sierra Leone had covered her notebook with quotes about definitions of feminism. (I promise there was no intervention from me there).

We need to shift and broaden our gaze to reconfigure the terrain of what consists of feminist and activist, to look up and see the interconnectedness of our world. We in the UK live in a position of power, in a country that exports violence and capitalism. In recent history, the UK and its partners have waged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, engaging in ex post facto rationalisation of military actions by the instrumentalisation of the rights of women and gender equality that has actually made it more difficult to talk about women’s rights. Consumers in the UK buy products not only made by the sweat and blood of workers exploited by international companies but which also fuel wars, such as that occurring in Congo. We walk past houses in which women and girls trafficked into this country live and in which they are forced to work and be sexually abused by men who then walk out into the streets free while the women remain trapped. We live under an immigration system that denies women’s claims and sends them back to countries where they are likely to endure further torture and abuse. The thirst for petrol of the global power holders causes environmental disasters that destroy the lives of those who live there. We need to have a more nuanced understanding of who and what are the perpetrators, what the human rights of women mean in practice and who is protecting and promoting them.

When talking about women’s representation in decision making, a woman a few months ago said, ‘If you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu.’ Where do you think she was? Any guesses? It was actually a woman in Zambia who said this, but the reality behind those sentiments hold true all over the world, including in this country. Lack of political and economic power, women’s poverty, female genital mutilation, sex selective abortions, forced marriage, dowry deaths… How can anyone say we’ve achieved gender equality –anywhere in the world? Women are definitely still on the menu. For me, feminism is about is about putting on the glasses and seeing the world for what it really is, and then taking action. There are feminists activists all around the world doing just that, to ensure our vision of a better, freer, more just and equal society. As a result, the question for me is not, why is feminism a global phenomenon but rather, how can it be anything else?


  1. Thank you so much for a wonderful piece. It rightfully reminds us of both the urgency of our movement and the need to not paternalistically construct women of the Global South.


  2. i have never felt comfortable calling myself a feminist but rather a womanist but i agree with what uou have to say. being from rwanda i agree with what you said and am very proud of my country.