Who Gets to Define Feminism?

Thought I’d share an essay I wrote and posted on the Voices of Women Worldwide website in response to a comment on an article by Ms. Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian social activist. The commentator was chagrinned by Ms. Gbowee’s adoption of  an interpretation of feminism that differs from that of the Western mainstream.

Essentially, the issue is who gets to define feminism. It is my belief that while women should band together to support each other in effecting the empowerment of other women, what exactly they support will necessarily be different in different cultures.

Empowered African women like Ms. Gbowee and Afghan women such as many I interviewed (you can read what they have to say in Gathering Strength: Conversations with Afghan Women) define their desired feminism in terms that fit them and their perspectives. When their brand of feminism suits them and has a chance of being accepted by other women and men in their cultures, who are we in the West to tell them they’re wrong? That’s cultural imperialism.

The commentator asks: “…Are we not all women..with the same needs for equality..seeking the same changes...”  No, we are not.  Women have the same need for RESPECT and equality under the law, but many culturally liberated female activists (like Ms. Gbowee) around the world believe that men and women have different roles to play in society and ALL of societies’ roles (and genders) should be respected equally. The equality that we have the same need for looks different in different localities, and the desired changes can also be also different.

In my mind, feminism’s goal should be to empower women to be the best they can be within their own contexts. It should be flexible enough to respect different perspectives about what is most essential to that empowerment. When it demands that all feminists toe a certain “party line” then it is disempowering and disrespectful.

If the feminist movement needs a set of common beliefs, those beliefs should be agreed upon by empowered  women leaders from around the globe. Grassroots leaders as well as political leaders from different social classes and different religious contexts should all be given an equal voice. Western feminists should not dictate to them nor the world what constitutes “real” feminism.

Although our perspectives and aspirations are different, we can still be unified under one feminist banner. We should support all women in what they see as their best path to liberation as defined by themselves.

We can also observe that peoples’ perspectives change as society changes. Deep and lasting social change is a slow process, one that works best step by step. Once women are given their value and worth, then they may choose to seek changes toward gender neutrality since they will then be viewing it from a different context. They should also be free, however, not to choose it and still call themselves feminists. This gives them their power and women should support what gives us our power.


One Response to “Who Gets to Define Feminism?”

  1. Rosa Walker says:

    Good Read Very interesting.

    *Visiting your blog from FB Walker Photography Studio

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