The question that everybody seems to be asking these days is “What is feminism, exactly?” Bloggers are arguing whether or not feminism means women can now “have it all.” Men’s rights activists (MRAs) want to know why a movement for equality calls itself “FEMinism.” Older feminists want to know if this is still the “Third Wave,” or if we’ve entered another wave altogether. Movements for racial equality wonder whether feminism can ever escape its white woman savior complex. Internet users argue whether radical feminists can represent feminism as a whole. Personally, I think we’re all a little lost and confused.
In an attempt to clear things up, many books on the topic of modern feminism have been written, one of them being Julie Zeilinger’s recent A Little F’ed Up: Why Feminism Is Not A Dirty Word, the latest attempt in answering the “What is feminism, exactly?” question. A Little F’ed Up is a very brief introduction to feminism for people who may be reluctant to accept the feminist identity. Though the book is an accessible introduction to feminism, I take issue with many of Zeilinger’s assertions about what modern feminism represents.
Zeilinger characterizes modern (read: Western) feminism as a fight against “subtler” issues of sexism, and credits issues like honor killings and female infanticide for her feminist awakening. If your understanding of feminism is coming from A Little F’ed Up, then you might think that modern feminism is all about fighting sexual harassment, slut-shaming, and mean girls. In developed countries, most of our “real work” is done. Laws have been changed, equal opportunity abounds, and Hilary Clinton shattered the glass ceiling; all we have to do now is worry about all those poor women who haven’t been blessed by being born into a “developed” country. You know, those women who get married at age 8, who get acid thrown at their faces when they look at men and whose female babies have gone missing thanks to sex-selective abortion.
Zeilinger believes that young people aren’t attuned to feminism because our generation “thinks that they have pretty good lives and… don’t have this perspective to know what is going on in the whole world.” She presents the idea that while we’re still fighting against sexist “get back to the kitchen” jokes and slut-shaming in advertisements, most of our work in the West is done. Feminism is needed most in the rest of the world, in communities in Asia, Africa, and South America, where women are still considered second-class citizens. Since Western feminism has accomplished all but the “subtle” issues of sexism, we should turn our efforts to the “real” plights of women in the global community.
Unfortunately, I believe that this trend to fight sexism globally divides the feminist movement and prevents real change from happening. The dichotomy we create by talking about the “subtle” feminist issues of the West and the blatant misogyny of communities we categorize as “Other” reinforces stereotypes that are closely linked to race, ethnicity, and religion. These stereotypes become tropes that keep feminists across the globe from imagining each other complexly. If every woman from Africa is automatically imagined as an HIV-positive child bride with no education, we don’t even get the chance to listen to her story. We don’t have the opportunity to find out how she makes a difference in her community, or how she may find certain traditions that we deem “backwards” empowering. If we assume that all Western women and feminists “have pretty good lives,” then we can’t begin to imagine how federal restrictions on family planning can oppress a white teenage girl living below the poverty line in the United States. All the while, the same systems of oppression are affecting women in New York City and in Tehran— this oppression may not look the same everywhere, but the same root causes it. That root is patriarchy. That root is misogyny.
Female genital cutting, female infanticide, and honor killings are some of the most cited “Other”-ized issues dealt with in feminist discourse. Let us take a moment to reflect on one of these issues. Honor killing is homicide committed by one or more family members against another person who has brought dishonor upon his or her family or community. This practice is often closely associated with Islam and the Middle East. However, there is nothing in the Qur’an that condones honor killings. Honor killings are a symptom of misogyny and the view of women as objects; two things that are not unique to Islam or Middle-Eastern cultures. Take, for example, the following two passages. One is from the Qur’an and one is from the Bible.
“Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all)” (An-Nisa 34).
“And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire” (Leviticus 21:9).
Misogyny and violence against women are both present in Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. In the US, we only associate one of these religions with being misogynistic; we celebrate the legacy of the other two. Honor killings are not caused by religion or culture—they are merely a way that we frame the context in which violence against women occurs.
To say that Western feminists are only dealing with the “subtler” issues of sexism and that the “real problems” that plague women on a global scale must be solved by Western feminism is paternalizing and colonialist. This practice distances Western feminism from its global counterparts. It enforces tropes that impede communication and organization. Not only that, it divides women by religion, culture, and tradition, rather than uniting them in a fight against oppression in its many forms.
I am not advocating for a cultural relativist, “live and let live” mentality in regards to practices like FGC (female genital cutting) or sex-selective abortion—to do so would be disrespectful to the women that these practices affect. Cultural context is important to understand when conceptualizing patriarchy, but cultural context is not everything. If we are to truly remove feminism from its white woman’s savior complex, we must understand that patriarchy– not culture, not religion—is the root cause of sexism and violence against women everywhere.
I think it is time we stopped pretending that the only feminist work there is left to do is “subtle.” Body image, sexism in advertisements, and sexual harassment is only a sampling of what modern feminism is fighting for. I don’t know about you, but the wage gap, the fact that women are grossly underrepresented in publishing and politics, the murders of transgendered persons, the fact that the wage gap disproportionately affects women of color, and the mounting attacks on my reproductive rights don’t feel all that subtle.
How do you feel about modern, global and Western feminism? Share your perspective with us by joining the discussion in the comments below.
Written by Brenna McCaffrey