A one-way path towards gender justice: The West leading the rest

ENROUTE TO Bali, Indonesia — “During the World Conference of the UN Decade for Women in Copenhagen, UNICEF issued a statement saying that it was committed to assisting governments (Third World, of course) to fight the practice of clitoridectomy and other forms of genital mutilation. Surely a harmless, well-meaning statement that no feminist could object to? Some Third World feminists did. They felt that the crusading zeal with which Western women had seized on the issue was a mute, but nevertheless blatant, declaration that as usual it was up to the good ol’ paternalistic West to come and save the Third World…from its own nasty, backward habits… Some Third World feminists felt this so strongly and found it so objectionable that they actually protested UNICEF’s statement.”

Student Journal: Summer dispatches from the fieldEach year the UC Berkeley-based Human Rights Center awards summer fellowships to students from University of California campuses, to enable them to work with human-rights organizations in the U.S. and abroad. Three current Human Rights Fellows have agreed to share their experiences this summer, with regular updates from the field to be published on the NewsCenter. Rochelle Terman sends her first post from Montreal.

Rochelle TermanRochelle Terman
on women living under Muslim laws

  1. Defending the rights of Muslim women is a highly charged minefield
  2. Violence against women in the name of ‘culture’ is pandemic
  3. How activism has brought me closer to my ‘Madar’ and my heritage
  4. A cousin’s bat mitzvah, and the tradition of defending our traditions by any means necessary
  5. A one-way path towards gender justice: The West leading the rest
  6. The aromas of Bali and the contours of a furious debate
  7. Reflections on a hijab-wearing Iranian feminist and how she touched my life
Also reporting:

The above anecdote was related by celebrated Harvard Divinity School scholar and activist Leila Ahmed. She touches on what has become a fiery controversy in the human rights world:

Feminism. That’s right. Some people hate feminism. Shocking, I know. But this particular form of opprobrium doesn’t coming from the usual suspects on  Fox News or Christian Right radio. No, these anti-feminists are progressives from the left. To boot, most of them wholeheartedly support gender equality…. But hate feminism.


A lot of progressive women are rejecting the ‘feminist’ label because they feel that feminism–more specifically the predominant ‘Western’ feminism discourse ‘doesn’t have a place for them’. They disparage feminism as an inherently white academic discipline; as historically elitist, racist, ablest; as hopelessly homophobic, transphobic, and Islamaphobic.

These accusations are serious, and I can’t adequately respond to all of them in this one humble blog. But I want to focus on one accusation in particular: that feminism is synonymous with ‘cultural imperialism’.

In recent years, many activists in the Third World have distanced themselves from women’s movements in advanced capitalist countries (wholly coined ‘the West’) because of a perceived association between standard ‘feminism’ and ‘imperialism’. Likewise, Western feminists have been hesitant to engage in solidarity work with their Asian or African counterparts, fearful that feminism in a non-Western context actually amounts to some sort of ‘cultural imperialism’.

Even  some Western activists are disparaging feminism as hopelessly imperialist.

Why would they think such a thing?

girl holding sign about feminism

(Rochelle Terman photo)

I remember when I was 13 and I read an article about female genital mutilation in Egypt. A light went off in my head (a relatively childish, shortsighted light) and I suddenly realized that there was such a thing as gender injustice occurring in the world. I became a feminist right then and there, and promptly considered myself done thinking and ready to act. I was enlightened to the truths of the world — that horrible things happened to women over there – and knew I needed to do something to stop it. I could do no wrong. Those Egyptian women desperately needed me.

I’ve learned a few things since then. Not only that — surprise! — bad things happen to women here, too,  but that women’s rights discourses and crusades by outsiders often do more harm to local reform movements than good. I’ve also learned that a lot of people who say they support feminism end up with  seemingly anti-woman stances on things over time.

That doesn’t mean that I now support female genital mutilation. Just that I think about it differently now. It also doesn’t mean I now reject the label of ‘feminist’ even if my understanding of feminism has changed.

So I understand where these accusations come from and the fears and concerns that provoke such thinking.

After all, feminism hasn’t had the prettiest history, or the most inclusive. Historically, the American and European feminist movements —the first and second waves in particular — included horribly few working women and women of color. A large chunk was also shamefully compliant with imperial and racist policies. There were exceptions,  but it’s not difficult to see why a woman of color, a lower-class woman, or a disabled woman would feel excluded from such a movement.

It’s also true that many feminists in the past have privileged a white, middle-class, ‘Western’ model of empowerment.

Some argue that this still happens within the women’s human rights movement, that what’s put under the banner of ‘universal human rights’ are really local — and Western — ideals.

And some of them are  frivolous ideals at that: The freedom to be promiscuous. The freedom to wear a miniskirt. The freedom to hate babies. The freedom to be exactly like a man and do whatever he does. One blogger relates this surprisingly common view:

“For those unfamiliar with American magazines, ‘Glamour’ is a women’s fashion magazine which claims a ‘feminist stance’ on women’s issues. The cover stories of the same issue that had the story on Afghanistan included tips on how to have ‘outstanding orgasms,’ tips on ‘NC-17 (x-rated) seduction moves,’ ‘applause worthy foreplay,’ masturbation, how to tell if your man really loves you, and how to have the ‘prettiest’ face this spring. And that was just the cover.”

Somehow, I must have missed the memo declaring Glamour as the official feminist platform.

Of course,  not everyone eschews feminism and interprets the movement in this way. But there’s still a palpable  discourse, even in the Human Rights World, that Western feminists are the ‘big sisters’ — the enlightened, years ahead of the Third World, the model to be followed. Instead of mutual learning and understanding, the path towards gender justice runs one way: The West leading the Rest.

I don’t want to put all criticisms of feminism into one box, because they are diverse and varied in their claims and origins. But hopefully this post provides a rundown of the kinds of arguments that have become ubiquitous in the field of women’s human rights.

So is there any legitimacy left to be salvaged in feminism?

As I am writing this, I am in transit to Bali, Indonesia, for a conference on Women Reclaiming and Redefining Culture. Leading women’s rights activists from around Asia will be in attendance. I’ll be asking them what they think of feminism as an idea and a movement, if they consider themselves feminist, and why or why not.

In my next post I’ll relate why, if I’m allowed a cliché, we shouldn’t throw the feminist baby out with the bathwater.

About Rochelle Terman

Rochelle Terman

The daughter of a Muslim-Iranian mother and Jewish-American father, Rochelle Terman became interested in women’s rights in Iran while an undergraduate at the University of Chicago studying political science and Near Eastern studies. During that time, Terman did a summer internship at Women Living Under Muslim Laws — an international solidarity network for women whose lives are shaped by laws and customs said to derive from Islam — and helped to found the Global Campaign to Stop Killing and Stoning Women (SKSW).

Now a graduate student at Berkeley focusing on political science, Terman, 24, will spend the summer researching and documenting success stories of local women’s organizations located in seven countries — Afghanistan, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Senegal and Sudan — as part of her continued work with SKSW.