Thursday, May 17, 2007

International Feminism?

In this Advice Goddess blog, Amy Alkon discusses a piece by Christina Hoff Sommers from the Weekly Standard. The Sommers piece beats the old horse, stating that American feminists have blinders on when it comes to helping out women in foreign countries. As the article points out and Alkon foregrounds, it is tempting for American feminists to draw sweeping and inaccurate parallels between the oppression of women in America and the oppression of women in other countries. For example, Eve Ensler compares optional vaginoplasties to female genital mutilation.

My take on this is that yes, American feminists often do have blinders on when it comes to international feminism, but also that engaging in international feminism is more ideologically complicated than it seems for two reasons:

1. Many non-American cultures feel (justly) threatened by globalization. Feminism is often equated with western/white culture. Therefore, adopting feminism can be perceived as abandoning one's own culture. Many women chose to cling to the old (and often misogynist) ways because it is more important to them to preserve their culture than to gain freedom.

2. Given the above situation, what is a western feminist to do? Let's say I want to free a community of women from the burka. Let's say that they do not want to be freed from the burka. I can either a) insult their intelligence (certainly not the goal of feminism) by telling them that they don't know what they're doing, or b) accept and validate their choice, which then doesn't effect any change.

I think there are ways around this seeming impasse:

- One way is to include men in the feminist movement. Check out Women for Women's awesome report on how they are involving men in feminist struggles. Including men in the discussion helps move along a feminist agenda the same way we did it in the west -- by explaining to men why it is to their advantage to educate and allow their women more freedom.

-Another way to get around this impasse is to try to separate misogyny from other aspects of a culture so that cultural concerns do not seem to be competing with feminist ones. In the Weekly Standard article, Sommers quotes Katha Politt:

"The word "terrorism" invokes images of furtive organizations. . . . But there is a different kind of terrorism, one that so pervades our culture that we have learned to live with it as though it were the natural order of things. Its target is females--of all ages, races, and classes. It is the common characteristic of rape, wife battery, incest, pornography, harassment. . . . I call it "sexual terrorism."

While this parallel is taken too far, I think Politt is attempting to get around the cultural-trumps-feminist dilemma by endeavoring to build up the sisterhood of women. Are there better ways to do this? Oh yes. But that's another blog

-Finally, we do have the option of calling it like we see it -- a culture that oppresses women is no kind of culture. But this seems to be a good way to alienate the folks we are hoping to convince. On the other hand, it may be that multi-perspective feminism has become too inclusive and in doing so has lost the will to aggressively act for change.

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