Feminism Between The East and The West

4/8/2022

How does Western feminism and the global South interact and shape each other?

Western feminism is not universal, it is unique to the West and therefore exclusively reflects Western values. Moreover, the universalisation of Western feminism reinforces cultural imperialism and the hegemony of the West. This is by no means a call to abandon feminism and feminist theory. Instead, it aims to encourage women in the Global South to find a feminist theory that represents their unique identity and values.

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A Western women and a Muslim women in the 1910s.

White History, or Universal History?

The long-standing history of Western feminism does not qualify it to become a universal project. Feminism as a concept is based on the struggle and fight for equality in the West, adopting values that are derived from enlightenment, which is of course a western movement. This can be seen clearly in the work of early Western feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Stuart Mill, as they consistently call for objectivity, reasoning and rationality. The first wave of feminism according to Weber accepted Western superiority which was 'manifested by representations of the harem and the veil as inherently more oppressive than monogamy and Western dress'.

The second wave of feminism continued to be influenced by enlightenment, and pushed for unlimited progress. White middle-class women assumed that there was a universal nature to their ideology and struggle, and developed dialogs like ‘global sisterhood.’ This rhetoric ignores that women in other parts of the world have different definitions of women’s rights which reflect their unique experiences and struggles. In addition, this ‘sisterhood’ and ‘universality’ was created with the intention of uniting women based on their universal experience of being oppressed by men. Discrimination based on colour or religion should not have a place in a concept that pioneers for values such as universality equality.

However, Western feminist approached the ‘third world’ with superiority, dominance, and power. They looked at women in developing communities as powerless collectives who were stuck in a time machine. To Western feminists, these were women who lacked modernity as a result of following backwards values brought about through religion and traditions. The Women’s International Alliance, measured women’s participation in the public sphere and concluded that Western societies are more progressive and civilised than other societies in all aspects. These consistent comparisons between women in the West and the Global South, keep reproducing a Western feminist hegemony which views Western ideals of feminism as the only ideals of feminism. Evidently, feminism across the globe is heavily influenced by cultural imperialism which looks at the third world from a hierarchical lens, and places the West as the ‘teacher’ and the rest of the world the ‘student.’ Thus, feminism has a Western history and origin and continuously preferences Western values over that of other civilisations. Therefore, it does not qualify as a universal project. 

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Iranian women protest circa 1970s.

Can we have ‘Islamic feminism’?

The concept of Islamic feminism is widely contested. Many scholars reject the convergence between the two concepts and see it as a form of orientalism. Orientalism is a concept coined by Edward Said (1978) to describe the patronising relationship between the West and the Global South. It looks at how the Western knowledge is being exported to the Middle East as rational, modern and superior. A number of scholars in the field have also shared similar views. Afsaneh Najmabadi argues that concepts like Islamic feminism present Islam as opposed to democracy, secularism, feminism and modernity. It reproduces it as pollutant to feminism and other social movements which ‘promote’ equality. Najmabadi takes an anti-imperialist approach and highlights the importance of abandoning the idea that present Muslims as inferior and as people who need the ‘support’ of the West. Additionally. Margot Badran states that Muslim women have the right to decide how they want to manage their lives, and rejects the term feminism as it implies a 'Western association'. Badran also argues that Muslim women see feminism as unnecessary and heretical, which precludes the idea of Islamic feminism. This demonstrates that Western ideologies are not as universal or acceptable as Western feminists might think. Moreover, Ziba Mir-Hosseini makes a significant point by stating that: 'there is no equivalent term for it in Persian although sub-consciously it has always existed. This consciousness in its indigenous form remains largely unexplored in the Muslim context'.

This demonstrates that advocacy for women rights is not a result of Western teachings, it has been there in the Global South under different labels. Using Islamic feminism in this case implies some sort of westernism on an indigenous idea. In interacting with conservative governments like the government of Iran, associating western labels to anything makes it look illegitimate and destructive for the community. Therefore, the concept of Islamic feminism does not help Muslim women in any way, and sometimes it becomes misleading and disempowering.

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Muslim woman being asked to take her modest cloth off on Nice beach in France.

Politicised feminism 

Western feminism becomes extremely dangerous when it enters the political realm. This can be seen in different polices in Europe and North America that imply cultural imperialism and a sense of superiority between the West and the Global South. The most popular example is the United States War in Afghanistan. The 2001 War in Afghanistan was justified by the need to ‘save’ Afghani women from Taliban. This argument was used to convince the world and the Democrats of the legitimacy of this intervention. The manipulation of feminism by the US government to mask the real reasons for entering Afghanistan threatens the legitimacy of feminism, turning it from a legitimate political movement into a tool to serve agendas. Moreover, the War in Afghanistan made the situation worse than ever for Afghani women. 

Another dangerous policy reinforced by Western feminism is encouraging the adoption of Western dress code to ‘liberate’ women in the Global South. France has had a long history in the fight against the vailing or hijab. Throughout history many Western feminists have seen the hijab as a sign of oppression and submissiveness. As a result, France made ‘banning the burqa’ and other religious dress a symbol for liberating women. This implies that Muslim women are weak and always need a patron to save them, transforming male guardianship into state guardianship with no regard for the choices of Muslim women themselves. Muslim women in Europe find these policies to be an attack to their identities and values. They feel that the pride they possess in expressing their faith and culture is being stripped from them. In an interview, Kamilaah a Muslim girl expresses how she feels about wearing the hijab by saying: ‘It is actually! It's the way that it makes you feel. It makes you feel like you can identify with other Muslims. It makes you feel like you're a part of something bigger than just yourself’.

Such dangerous policies strip individuals of their identity under the name of ‘feminism’ and ‘liberty.’  Evidently, Western feminism becomes dangerous when integrated into state law as it stands only to serve varying political agendas and not in the interest of all women. 

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