Feminism isn’t a uniform belief system. You’ve got your radical feminists, liberal feminists, and those who are more comfortable with a general belief in the equality and empowerment of women just to name a few ‘types.’ There are a lot of issues that many of us differ on too, like racism, wage gaps, rape culture, immigration laws, the prison industrial complex, inclusiveness of different genders, and pretty much anything else that’s considered a feminist issue.
Outside of feminist circles, I know of a lot of women who believe that feminism is no longer necessary. They feel that they have all the freedom they need, so there’s no reason to complain. They feel that they have enough freedom to take care of themselves, so others should be able to follow suit. The saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” comes to mind.
Many who do recognize the need for feminism in the West often point out that women here have it better than women anywhere else. I don’t necessarily think things are better for women in other parts of the world than they are here, but I also don’t think that the narrative of Western superiority is the best lens to look through. How do we decide what counts as progress? Why do a lot of the things we consider legitimate progress also happen to be the things we have accomplished?
We know that “the patriarchy” has persisted throughout history, but it isn’t always exactly the same. Patriarchal values, just like any other oppressive force, are shaped by the histories and cultural forces that exist wherever they arise. There are women fighting for equal rights within their own societies all over the world, and they are each fighting against problems that are dictated by different cultural and political structures than those in the West.
We are taught every day that Western countries are better than the rest of the world; that we know better than those living everywhere else. The idea that women living outside Western nations are victims, sometimes brainwashed victims, of cultures that are uncivilized, backwards, or decades behind the West ties right into that notion that “our way is the right way,” and I believe that can be dangerous.
A glaring example of this is the way many, if not most, of the people I know think and talk about women in Middle Eastern, majorly Islamic nations. They use the facts that Saudi Arabian women aren’t allowed to drive and that women are required to wear head coverings and loose clothing by law in a number of Islamic countries along with issues like child marriage and honor killings to paint a generalized image of Muslim women’s lives as one dimensional, full of suffering, and completely lacking control.
Although all of these issues are very real and very serious, it seems that people pointing to these injustices seem to, more often than not, use them as a way to categorize Islam as a whole as backward, oppressive, and evil rather than work toward solutions.
It is necessary to understand that the women living these experiences have agency. The roles and subjugation of women in these contexts have not been uniform throughout history and certainly not across the geographic region. Women in these nations have been fighting for and achieving social reform for centuries. Failing to recognize their unique needs, circumstances, and accomplishments isn’t going to help anybody.
I believe feminism should represent women and other marginalized genders throughout the entire world, and that kind of approach necessitates conversation and compassion. It requires an active awareness of the fact that progress and liberty don’t need to be defined in exactly the same way all over the world, and the possibility of a specific group defining and enforcing their own values for the entire world is actually pretty scary and unfair if you’re not a part of that group. I don’t believe I can claim to speak in support of women whose experiences and belief systems I have disregarded simply because they don’t align with my feminism, my experience, and my culture. If my feminism only advocates for women within the bounds of Western culture, it effectively excludes the majority of women.
Western women aren’t the only ones capable of thinking for themselves, and in the spirit of equality for women, I think it’s important to work at unlearning internalized biases which point to absolutely any notion to the contrary. Oppressed peoples all over the world, no matter the context, have and utilize the capacity to understand and point out the things which affect them most. If feminism means fighting for equality for all women, as I believe it should, I think it makes the most sense to listen to the goals these women have for themselves, to the issues that weigh most heavily in their everyday lives, and keep our minds open to their ideas about of independence and equality regardless of whether they reflect our own, Western values.