Australian feminism in third-world countries – Beneficial or problematic?

By Sonia Nair | 05 Oct 12

By Sonia Nair. This piece is part of our September focus on Women’s Rights. See all of this month’s articles here.

It is year 2012. One-hundred and nineteen years after New Zealand became the first country to grant women the right to vote, 66 years since the United Nations established a Commission on the Status of Women, and 42 years after the first birth-control pill was made available for contraceptive use in the United States – giving women unprecedented control over their fertility. Yet violence against women is a stark reality for many. Women’s reproductive rights remain a fiercely contested issue in the United States. Victim blaming in the aftermath of rape cases has not ceased and as a direct response to this, annual SlutWalk protest marches now take place. Disadvantaged women in India are exploited by the advent of surrogacy for people in first-world countries such as Australia. So much has changed. Much has not.

Women’s ongoing struggle to achieve equality with men is well-documented in the annals of feminist activism, but the increasingly globalised world we live in has thrust these following questions into the spotlight: If it is all about equality between men and women, should there not be a universal definition of feminism? Does Australia’s approach to feminism apply to third-world countries? Are there global impediments to equality between men and women that apply to everyone?

a global issue that affects every woman is the pressure to adhere to an established notion of what it means to be a woman – whether it is by removing all their bodily hair and boasting a great bikini body or acting “chastely” and covering up

Despite the well-intentioned actions of feminists in first-world countries such as Australia, Western feminists have been routinely criticised for practising “moral imperialism”. Third-world cultural practices such as the donning of the hijab and burqa, female circumcision and “sati”, which is when a recently widowed woman immolates herself on her husband’s funeral pyre have been widely condemned by Western feminists at large.

Former lecturer in human rights and socio-legal studies at the University of Sydney, Kiran Grewal, says this reductive view is problematic and enforces, rather than alleviates, the inequality between men and women in third-world countries.

“To either automatically condemn or accept a tradition or religious practice is to my mind two sides of the same coin. Both rely on a superficial engagement with the issues, reinforce the power of certain positions within the community and do little to support those who are seeking change from within.

A universal recognition of what constitutes women’s rights is detrimental because these Western feminists become unwitting advocates of the [misguided] view that feminism is a Western phenomenon and trap non-Western women into the position of having to make the impossible choice between their cultures and feminism.”

As Zoya Patel, editor-in-chief of young women’s independent publication Lip Magazine articulates in her recent piece on Right Now, treating third-world women as if they have no agency to make decisions about their wellbeing actually robs them of their agency even more.

“I may never work out my exact feelings about the hijab, but one thing I do think is that the Western approach to the hijab and burqa needs to be more nuanced. There is not a straight oppressed/non-oppressed way of looking at it.”

The very words “feminism”, “femininity” and “culture” are thorny emblems in feminists’ fight for equal rights. Former chair of women’s studies at Adelaide University Chilla Bulbeck says ”feminism” is a Western concept understood very differently by feminists in Asian countries and explored the notion in her paper If most men are against us, can we call ourselves feminists: young people’s views of feminism – east and west.

“The celebration of gender difference in Japan, Korea and Thailand highlights the ways in which Western feminism has been straitjacketed by a version of liberal feminism, allowing women either to be like men and demand equal treatment or be different from men and condemned to inferiority,” Bulbeck said.

She said Western feminists often see “wanting to be like boys” (in terms of equal pay) and “still wanting to be liked by the boys” (in personal relations) as contradictory – although many Asian women perceive the former to be feminism and the latter to be femininity.

A really good local example of the kinds of alliances that feminists are working with is the connection between Australian working women’s centres and newly established women’s working centres in Timor Leste

Bulbeck uses the example of several young Indian women who often describe themselves as a “female who is a feminist” by combining their roles of respectful daughter to their parents, good dancer, and their desire to be an air hostess (for instance) – seeing no contradiction in these identities.

Similarly, a Japanese high school student averred, “I insist on a woman’s rights but not everything should be equal with men. I want to enjoy dressing up. I think a brassiere is necessary and pretty. Extreme feminists give up the pleasures of [being a woman].”

Meanwhile, by attributing the subjugation of women in third-world countries to “culture”, Western feminists run the risk of lumping different mitigating causes of oppression into one broad umbrella.

Grewal believes solely connecting any form of female oppression to culture excludes the complex social, political, historical and economic dimensions from analysis. The notion of a “global sisterhood” – as quaint as it may seem – largely ignores the ways in which race, class, caste, religion, age, disability, the rural/urban divide and sexuality intersect to affect the global experiences of women.

“This [approach] over-determines the issue, makes it seem unchangeable and denies the agency of both those who insist on its continued practice and those who resist.”

Feminist scholar Uma Narayan has termed such a phenomenon “death by culture”, whereby violent acts against third-world women by members of their own communities come to define their culture as a whole and are, as a result, diminished in their significance.

Viewing such feminist issues in third-world countries from the narrow spectrum of “culture” also ignores the grave fact that women in first-world countries are inextricably responsible for the fate of their third-world female counterparts.

“For example, labour exploitation in the third world is in some ways linked with the increased economic and social empowerment of women in the first world. We have freed ourselves of certain caring responsibilities by offloading them on to migrant workers who now perform the function of cleaning our houses, raising our children and looking after our elderly,” Grewal says.

Similarly to Grewal, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of South Australia, Suzanne Franzway steers clear from attributing complicated moral dilemmas that face third-world women to “culture”.

“Rather than issues of cultural practices, I think we in the west should give much more attention to work practices such as the massive rise in precarious work globally as well as locally; trafficking – not only of sex workers but other forms of cheap labour; the way in which we benefit from the relatively cheap prices of clothing because of cheap labour; the more recent child labour issue in football and so on.”

In some cases, the adoption of Western feminism in third-world countries can do more harm than good, as Grewal observed in Sierra Leone. “While well-meaning, many of the [Western feminist] initiatives have treated local women as helpless and constantly requiring instruction – the message starts to sound like ‘these poor women, not only are they deprived of rights, they are so stupid they don’t even know they have rights’”.

Using such a reductive lens, Western women unwittingly fortify cultural hierarchies, reinforce patriarchy and aid the men who subjugate women in third-world countries because they perceive the non-Western women to be as powerless as  men in third-world countries do.

Interestingly enough, although many Western feminists advocate the view that economic development is the key to female emancipation – Asian countries have shown otherwise.

“In China and Vietnam, economic reform has produced a steady decline in women’s participation at all political and managerial levels, as well as growing female unemployment, wage disparity and discrimination against women in hiring and promotion,” Bulbeck says in her paper.

Despite the disparity in experiences between women in first world countries and third-world countries, are there universal issues that affect women everywhere? Anecdotal evidence suggests there are.

Grewal believes a global issue that affects every woman is the pressure to adhere to an established notion of what it means to be a woman – whether it is by removing all their bodily hair and boasting a great bikini body or acting “chastely” and covering up.

“While there is no one set of problems, nor one set of solutions, there is one overarching issue that unites women everywhere and that is the pressure to conform to an ideal of femininity. It takes different forms in different places but we all experience it.”

According to Franzway, another universal issue for women is violence against women.

“As I look at the impact of domestic violence on women’s citizenship, I think violence is an issue for too many women globally and one that feminists have attempted to tackle globally as well. How violence is used against women is very complex and often very subtle.”

The key to pivotal change, according to Grewal, is to support the marginalised women into developing their own voice, position and rationale on the issues that are affecting them.

“When I say this, I don’t just mean the dominant voices who claim to speak on behalf of the community but everyone. It is only by allowing space for each of these voices to flourish that debate can happen and meaningful decisions can be made about change.

Franzway says Australia has formed various alliances and organisations to engage with feminist debates closely and strongly, rather than “mainstream UN agencies that continue to advocate a fairly soft idea of women’s rights issues”.

A really good local example of the kinds of alliances that feminists are working with is the connection between Australian working women’s centres and newly established women’s working centres in Timor Leste.”

As there is no one feminism and no universal way to deal with the myriad ways in which women are continually oppressed and discriminated against across the globe, we need to factor in the nuanced experiences of women everywhere, employ different vocabulary when talking about the varied experiences of women and debunk stereotypical views of widely condemned cultural practices. By opening our mind to the different forms of feminism – though they may conflict with our indoctrinated beliefs and understanding of equality – we can collectively commit to defend the right of women to be treated as worthy of love, respect and dignity no matter where they are, what they do and how they choose to live their lives.

Sonia Nair has worked as a print and online journalist with a raft of publications, including major metropolitan newspapers, periodicals and prominent B2B magazines. She is a regular writer and reviewer for Right Now.