The F word and ethnocentrism

“Feminism has fought no wars. It has killed no opponents. It has set up no concentration camps, starved no enemies, practiced no cruelties. Its battles have been for education, for the vote, for better working conditions.. for safety on the streets… for child care, for social welfare… for rape crisis centers, women’s refuges, reforms in the law. If someone says ‘Oh, I’m not a feminist,’ I ask ‘Why? What’s your problem?’”

— Dale Spender

Feminism has been (and is) one of the most important social movements in human history. The unequal status between men and women is almost universal, across time and space. Patriarchy has existed almost since the beginning of time, and has integrated itself into religions, cultures, peoples, and discourses ever since. Feminism arose as a response to patriarchy as late as the 1800s in Europe and the early 1900s in Egypt and the US. Feminism called for, above all, equality. The first wave of feminism in the US began in the 1960s and made great strides in bringing women more rights, especially in the workplace. This first wave of feminism came to characterize feminism in general. When many people speak of feminism, they are referring to this particular wave, and its particular discourses. This is why, I believe, so many women today refuse to be associated with feminism.

One aspect of first wave feminism is that it was very ethnocentric. It was by and for white, middle-class, western women, and therefore reflected their views and aspirations. Many first wave feminists looked down on women from the non-western world, and saw them as “helpless victims that needed to be saved from their own men who are even more brutal than ours.”

Second wave feminism challenged a lot of these ideas, and showed how ethnocentric and sometimes racist first wave feminism was. They showed that patriarchy was a system that oppressed all women differently, and that there wasn’t ONE solution. They also showed that western women were not necessarily more liberated than non-western women. Most importantly, they showed that there is no “feminism” but rather there are feminisms. Claiming that there is only one way to liberate women is also claiming a monopoly on truth; something many feminists have fought against, since that is exactly how patriarchy operated in oppressing women.

Some first wave feminists were also quite radical, and this has also come to define “feminism” in general. Bra-burning and man-hating are two stereotypes often given to feminists, even those who are not radical at all. I personally do not identify with radical feminism, simply because I believe men are also oppressed by patriarchy, and to turn them into the enemy ignores the fact that they too are victims of this system.

Many women I’ve spoken to say that they don’t feel represented by feminism. This is sadly an expected situation, considering the many feminists who have tried to portray feminism as being one, uniform idea. It is not. Feminism is something different to every woman.

Feminism for me is not about making sure that women do exactly what men do. It is not about making sure that there are as many female CEOs and army commanders as male ones. Rather it is about giving women the space to choose their own life path. If a woman wants to be a mother, that should be valued as equally as if she wants to be a CEO. If a woman wants to be a Muslim, that should be valued as equally as if she chooses to be an atheist. If a woman wants to wear a burqa, that should be valued as equally as if she wants to walk around in a bikini. I don’t buy the whole “oh but society oppresses women so they aren’t really making choices” argument when it comes to the burqa. Society oppresses ALL of us. When a woman chooses to wear a tight skirt to impress men, THAT is society oppressing her. So whoever wants to talk about societal pressure when it comes to Islamic dress, should also apply it to all types of dress.

I will end with an amazing quote from one of my favourite feminists:

‎”The feminists who are aware of the effects of patriarchy realize that we are all in the same boat from the dangers of patriarchy, and that the oppression of women is universal.”

– Nawal el-Saadawi