Global Issues

Whose Feminism Is It, Anyway?

SlutWalk Toronto aims to embrace sexuality as an aspect of empowered women. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

SlutWalk Toronto aims to embrace sexuality as an aspect of empowered women. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Those of you who have read my column before have probably figured out that I’m an ardent feminist. To me, there is no justice in a world that minimizes and denies the human rights of individuals based on chromosomes and/or apparent sex characteristics.

I believe that the fight for women’s rights is intricately interwoven with the fight for other rights as well — rights based on race, cultural background, ability,  socioeconomic status, and more. I do not see these fights, and others as well, as separate things or even as being separable at all.

Historically, “feminism” has been about the rights of a few women.

“Feminism” in the white American lexicon has referred to the first part of my declaration, but not the second. It was for the ones who were trapped in the home by socioeconomic expectations, for example, and not the ones who were forced by a racist and classist society to work outside the home. Trans women have repeatedly been denied entry into feminist spaces on the grounds that they somehow don’t count as women. The rejection of the sexual exploitation of all women’s bodies has left women sex workers asking if they get to be feminists too. In the West we have all too often assumed that feminism is for everyone without stopping to think about who’s been invited to sit at the table.

In addition to the significant lack of intersectionality in a lot of contemporary feminist writings, this historical lack of inclusion has led to the fragmentation of what could be an incredibly powerful movement. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, writing her undergraduate thesis 30 years ago, overturned academic feminism when she pointed out something that should have been obvious: Women around the world wear “the veil” for a variety of reasons, and many of them do so of their own free will. This should seem obvious, and yet al Khanssaa, the female branch of the Islamic State, is currently successfully recruiting women from the West who are disillusioned by a feminist rhetoric that treats them as unenlightened because they wear hijab.

feminism

Members of al Khanssaa claim a feminist rhetoric at odds with that often seen in the West. Image courtesy of ABC News.

At this point, there are many competing goals within feminist circles, and, for the most part, no right or wrong answers. As an example: My trans friend may find heels to be incredibly empowering, while as a cis woman I find them incredibly limiting. For my friend, heels are a significant disruption to a patriarchal society that has denied her rightful womanhood. For me, they are a way of remaining shackled to a system that values my looks over any other attribute.

Here’s an idea!

Instead of focusing on narrowly tailored “end goals” of feminism, why not view feminism as a continuum of acts being exerted towards a somewhat contextual goal of liberation?

This is tricky, because both al Khanssaa and I believe we fight for liberation, but we have completely different ideas about what that means. I would be unhappy with being told what I could wear, while a member of al Khanssaa would likely be unhappy with being told that her choice in what she wears is a contributor to the violence perpetrated against her (the “was she wearing a short skirt?” conundrum). At its core, however, both of our perspectives can be boiled down to the idea that we should be respected as people. How that respect is shown is where the difference lies.

So the next time you’re meeting with other travelers, whether on Facebook or in that out-of-the-way coffeehouse in a foreign city, start a conversation:

  • What are the ways in which the person sitting next to you practices feminism?
  • Does she even call it feminism, or does she have a different name for it?
  • In what ways does her continuum of choices differ from yours, and in what ways do your values align?
  • How are your choices and perspectives impacted by your experiential context(s)?

What you find out may surprise you.

Erica Laue
Erica first set foot on a plane when she was ten months old. 28 years, 18 countries, and four continents later, the travel bug’s still strong in her veins, and she's become increasingly engaged with issues of power, gender, sex, equality, and access around the world.

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