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How African Feminism Changed the World
March 18, 2013 3:43 AM   Subscribe


 
Problems are manufactured out of nothing when people obsess about the origins of ideas. Feminism is a "Western concept" only insofar as it was first thought of and implemented in the West. But human rights are universal, and the origin of ideas simply isn't relevant. No one should worry about feminism being "Western" any more than they should worry about penicillin or quinine or electricity or computers being "Western."
posted by Fists O'Fury at 4:33 AM on March 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Fascinating, but I want more information on this! It reads like an introduction, not a whole article.
posted by emjaybee at 5:04 AM on March 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm with emjaybee. I want to know more about this.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:17 AM on March 18, 2013


I've asked my boss if we can approach the author to write an article for the journal I manage. If it comes together, I'll let you know. :)
posted by b33j at 5:21 AM on March 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


Oh, and I did that before I read your comments - I too wanted to read more.
posted by b33j at 5:21 AM on March 18, 2013


I think the negative (Western) views of feminism are important to consider, in that some people think feminism is about taking things away from men, or raising women to be superior to men. Of course that's not an accurate viewpoint, in my opinion, but it's common, and easily found. I can see why those ideas would make the uptake of feminism problematic in traditional cultures.
posted by b33j at 5:23 AM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Rwandan women now hold 56% of the country’s legislative seats.

Holy crap. Imagine the U.S. Congress with that number of women.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:25 AM on March 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


A 2010 speech by Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on “African Women and Political Participation” provides a bit more historical context.
posted by spamandkimchi at 5:27 AM on March 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Imagine the U.S. Congress with that number of women.

Heh, I'm imagining the frothing outrage if that were to happen.
posted by shakespeherian at 6:31 AM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Problems are manufactured out of nothing when people obsess about the origins of ideas. Feminism is a "Western concept" only insofar as it was first thought of and implemented in the West. But human rights are universal, and the origin of ideas simply isn't relevant. No one should worry about feminism being "Western" any more than they should worry about penicillin or quinine or electricity or computers being "Western."

As a non-Western woman, this reads to me a lot like "Just lie back and think of England"*

There's more here of course than just a snappy snippet, and b33j puts it well in their comment but I was discussing the challenges of senior women in business with a Kenyan colleague only yesterday and now I realize that I really cannot write anything here without being concerned about how it may come across the textual barrier.

b33j, please add me to your mailing list if you are able to reach the author of the article, I think there are a lot of us who would like to know more!
posted by infini at 11:20 AM on March 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


> Imagine the U.S. Congress with that number of women.

Heh, I'm imagining the frothing outrage if that were to happen.


Michele Bachman. Jean Schmidt. Kelly Ayotte. A revitalized Palin. Careful what you wish for.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:44 AM on March 18, 2013


Michele Bachman. Jean Schmidt. Kelly Ayotte. A revitalized Palin. Careful what you wish for.

Careful how? If I wish for more women in government, we might somehow get more Republicans than we already have?
posted by XtinaS at 11:47 AM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


benito.strauss: > Imagine the U.S. Congress with that number of women.

Heh, I'm imagining the frothing outrage if that were to happen.


Michele Bachman. Jean Schmidt. Kelly Ayotte. A revitalized Palin. Careful what you wish for.
Yeah, gotta go with XtinaS on this one. That's like saying "Be careful about wishing for racial parity in your government - what if you end up with a lot more Clarence Thomases?"

More women = more concern for the lives, safety, and happiness of women. Even if a couple nutjobs who campaign on a platform that is not-so-subtly anti-woman are women themselves. And, frankly, if the hurdles weren't higher for women, there'd probably be fewer Sarah Palins, basing their entire career on catering to male gaze politics.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:18 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think benito.strauss's comment was unfair. Shall we start a list of all the MEN in congress whose policies/opinions/actions are questionable? No. Let's not.

And that would be Michele Bachmann. Two 'n's. That's my US representative (that I did not vote for) you are talking about.

/derail
posted by jillithd at 12:53 PM on March 18, 2013


[Maybe more discussion of the post subject and less of who we don't like in the United States Congress?]
posted by cortex at 12:58 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


/And that would be Michele Bachmann. Two 'n's.
Dang, and I was so proud of of getting the one 'l' right.


-- I was composing a response, but I'll take cortex's advice and not continue this derail by trying to clarify my meaning. Apologies.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:01 PM on March 18, 2013


Fists O' Fury, this is emphatically NOT a manufactured problem. Ideas like human rights and feminism do not exist in a sociocultural vacuum and the fact that feminism has Western roots can be and is highly problematic for countries and cultures who have been subject to Western hegemony, sometimes for centuries. Sure, we can say that something as grand as "women's rights" shouldn't be considered Western, but the way that this is enacted in day to day practice is significantly culturally influenced. Nadia Abu El Haj is an excellent resource for writing on this, particularly in a Middle Eastern context.

There are even issues with the Western origins of the other more tangible items you mention, but I can't pull up good citations right now, so I'm going to skip it.
posted by Polyhymnia at 2:56 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Feminism is a "Western concept" only insofar as it was first thought of and implemented in the West. But human rights are universal, and the origin of ideas simply isn't relevant. No one should worry about feminism being "Western" any more than they should worry about penicillin or quinine or electricity or computers being "Western."

I couldn't disagree more strongly with this sentiment, and I feel that it really reflects an ahistorical and ethnocentrist perspective - one that was mirrored in feminism more broadly for years. It's very easy - as a Westerner - not to worry about Feminism occidentalism, but that perspective has led to some very bad outcomes in developing countries.

Why is it so important? Because what feminism looks like - what self-actualisation looks like - to a woman in Kenya, in Yemen, in a remote Aboriginal community is different to what it looks like to a white, middle-to-upper class, educated, urban woman in the Western world. A huge part of feminism's development in the latter half of the twentieth century was premised around what feminism looked like to the latter, and it was indisputably - and understandably - a response to the challenges and environments they found themselves in.

The problem was and is in universalising those challenges not just to different demographic settings, such as vast disparities in income levels, age-groups, housing environment, etc, but more critically to different cultural settings. Whilst there are no doubt some commonalities, it's hardly controversial to state that the ways women are repressed and the ways they achieve power, authority and independence varies in different cultures because the way gender is constructed and the roles it plays is different in different societies.

Indeed, once people people started viewing a lot of this feminism through the lens of race studies - it was clear that large parts of the reflexive, we-are-all-the-same feminism was, in fact, basically racist. An intellectual colonialism.

You may say, "Pah!" but consider: if an important part of feminism is having women's voices heard, and self-actualisation, how could that older style of feminism be such when there were no black voices, no poor voices, no voices at all to speak of outside of white, urban, middle class women? Worse, this feminism was telling Muslim women in the Middle East, Masai women in Kenya, Aboriginal women in Australia what they needed to do, why the needed to do it, and why what they were doing now was backwards or wrong.

Frankly, it was racist, pure and simple, and if you took away the idea that it was feminism, there was depressingly nothing new about a bunch of rich white people telling poor black people that they didn't know what was good for them and how they needed to change their lives.

Since that time, of course, feminism has become increasingly heteregenous. This issue has been - and continues to be - hashed out in feminism both in an academic, philosophical and also a boots-on-the-ground activist sense. It has made feminism has a movement far, far stronger and far, far more relevant and immediate to millions of women across the world, in my opinion.

So yes, I think people were right to worry about Feminism being Western, and I don't think comparing an intellectual and political movement to a thing like pencillin is very useful (interesting, that your own examples are all Western examples that themselves have a fraught colonial history).
posted by smoke at 3:09 PM on March 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


Also, great piece Infini, thanks for linking.
posted by smoke at 3:21 PM on March 18, 2013


smoke, the question of how feminism(s) have developed in non-Western contexts is such an interesting one. Like you said, it gets tangled up in specifics. Historical context is also hugely important.

For example, while feminists in late 19th/early 20th century Korea and Japan read and discussed Ibsen's A Doll's House and otherwise participated in an international dialogue on women's roles and rights in society, the imperial and colonial contexts shaped the debates. The "modern girl" or "new woman" of colonial and post-colonial Korea was simultaneously an educated paragon who could help in nation-building or a selfish hedonist only interested in fashion.

I think for a lot of former colonies (and I suspect in sub-Saharan African nations as well), feminist endeavors have often been subsumed into a larger nationalist project. Chizuko Ueno has a very interesting book on gender and nationalism that looks at the Japanese imperial perspective. The nation building project became an opportunity for women to expand their roles, but also limited what was considered acceptable.

Who would have known that a FPP and an AskMe on the same day would get me to look at my old MA thesis twice in two hours!
posted by spamandkimchi at 8:59 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Whilst there are no doubt some commonalities, it's hardly controversial to state that the ways women are repressed and the ways they achieve power, authority and independence varies in different cultures because the way gender is constructed and the roles it plays is different in different societies.

This.

Context is so often overlooked when externally developed thoughts, constructs and ideas are communicated across geographies and reasons.

We face the challenge of needing to gain and maintain respect within the context of our own cultures and settings as well... which may mean navigating respectfully through local mores and customs.

Face saving is a great example of that. It doesn't matter how accomplishd or independent I may choose to become, I will still, in context, defer to "elder men" as and when the need requires because I do not need to make a point each and every time single time.

Its learning which hill to die on. And insulting my father's generation, is not one of them.

Do I lose something if I choose to do this? I don't think so. For isn't the first and foremost lesson "a feminist" learns is that nobody can take anything away from you that you yourself are not giving away.

Softly softly...and, as my Kenyan friend advised me, grow broader shoulders.
posted by infini at 11:55 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


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