While women’s oppression exists in virtually every society around the world, issues pertaining to women vary by culture, race, religion, economic status, and geographic location as well as many other variables and attributes that makes us individual, but separate us and our experiences.
Global feminism is often separated into two groups, the global North which consists of Western feminists from places with greater wealth such as North America and some parts of Western Europe, and the global South which consists of feminists from countries that are often identified as “third-world” due to their lack of industrialization and lower economic status in comparison to the global North. These two groups are distinguished not only by their differing economic statuses, but also how their experiences with women’s oppression and their approach on feminism differ.
While the global North’s feminist ideals focus more on individual freedoms and gender inequality, the global South focuses more on intersectionality which is the relation of gender, sexuality, race, religion, class, and nationality and how they affect the experiences of women. Because both region’s forms of feminism differ so greatly it is hard for women to unite globally in the name of women’s rights as the North and South have such different goals and views.
Attempts have been made by feminists of the global North to help women in different countries of the global South, however many of these attempts have ended up causing more harm than good and have caused feminists of the global South to distrust Western feminists. These failures occur because Western feminists do not converse with local activists and often try to take care of the situation themselves even though they do not understand the needs or issues of local the women. Western feminists often perceive the wrong portions of Southern life as oppressive and thus pour their activism into the wrong places while ignoring the actual issues.
Feminists of the global North must be willing to listen to what feminists of the global South need before they offer help, otherwise we will never be able to come together in the name of the advancement of women. An example of Western feminists misconceptions of oppression in the global South and their disregard in conversing with local activists is their response to women’s traditions in Islam. Many feminists of the global North view the Muslim religion as inherently oppressive towards women even though they know nothing about the religion or Muslim culture.
They only address it from an outsiders perspective and not from the perspective of Muslim women. Lila Abu- Lughod discusses this issue in her book Do Muslim Women Need Saving?. In the introduction chapter Zaynab, a friend of Abu- Lughod from southern Egypt, does a good job of summarizing what Western women should really be concerned about ( Abu-Lughod, pg. 1). When Abu- Lughod mentions her research and how Western women believe that Muslim women are oppressed Zaynab agrees and explains that Muslim women are not given certain rights, but that this is due to the oppressive government not Islam (Abu- Lughod, pg. ).
Feminists of the global North view traditional Muslim headscarves as oppressive and fail to recognize or consider the actual feelings of Muslim women. These misconceptions hold them back from actually helping Muslim women. Another one of the reasons why Western feminists view Islam as oppressive is due to “honor crimes”, acts of violence (often times murder) against female family members by male family members due to the female members violating sexual codes and thus dishonoring their family.
Western feminists view honor crimes as barbaric Muslim traditions and fail to recognize that honor killings really stem from the intense value of honor and family that exists in Muslim culture (Abu-Lughod, pg. 114-116). It is not religion that fuels these murders but the society that holds honor in such high regard. Yet again Western feminists fail to learn about the cultures in which these issues lie and the women they are concerned for. Misinformation is another reason why feminists of the global North fail to help women internationally and end up causing more harm than good.
An example of this is when sharia laws were introduced to northern Nigeria and attempts by Western feminists to help those affected negatively by it backfired, such as in the case of Amina Lawal Kurami, who was found guilty of adultery and sentenced to death by stoning ( Tripp, pg. 298). Several petitions were launched in order to save Lawal, however many of these petitions posed inaccurate information regarding the case, mainly that the Nigerian Supreme Court had upheld her death sentence, and as a result actually hurt her case in court standing (Tripp, pg. 98).
BAOBAB, a Nigerian women’s activist organization, asked that Westerners “ check the accuracy of the information with local activists, before circulating petitions or responding to them” ( Tripp, pg. 289). If outside activists had just communicated with local activists and asked what they needed rather than trying to take matters into their own hands then they could have actually helped and done some good. Colonialism and Imperialism has played a large role in how Western feminists misinterpret certain aspects and issues of Eastern culture.
An example of this is Westerners misunderstandings of the Hindu practice of sati, where a widow commits suicide after her husband passes. Uma Narayan explains and discusses this issue in her essay Restoring History and Polotics to “Third – World Traditions”. In her essay she discusses Mary Daly’s writings on “Indian Sutee” and how her colonist views keep her from understanding what sati really is and how the issues surrounding it are much more intricate than she depicts them to be ( Narayan, pg. 43).
Narayan notes that Daly’s writings on sati are full of inaccuracies, such as the fact that sati has never been a “widespread practice in all “Hindu” communities, let alone “Indian” communities” ( Narayan, pg. 47). Daly also tries to connect sati with other problems that Indian women face, even though there is no connection between them and most Indian women do not even practice sati ( Narayan, pg. 47). Daly’s misidentifies sati as an Indian tradition even though it is a part of the Hindu religion and although Hinduism is the majority religion in India and was created in India not everyone in India practices Hinduism.
In fact there are many different religions in India besides Hinduism such as Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Narayan cites Daly’s historically inaccurate portrayal of sati as problematic because it spreads misinformation and causes outsiders to focus on the wrong issues or to not see the issues in the right sense and Narayan states that she sees this happen with many western feminists and in order to stop the spread of misinformation outsiders must learn from the people they wish to help and not view them from a colonialist standpoint (Narayan, pg. 9).
Western feminists must learn to listen rather than judge from afar without convening with those who are affected by these issues. While the global North and South may have their differences, the union of women globally in the name of women’s rights is possible. Northern feminists just need to learn how to listen and instead of trying to take control of the situation they should ask local activists first if they need help and what they can do to help the situation.
It is better for those who are dealing with the oppression to decide the best course of action rather than those who do not properly understand the needs of the local women. And rather than labeling certain aspects of other religions or cultures as oppressive Western feminists should instead ask those of that religion or culture what it is that is really oppressing them. Communication and understanding is key to the success of transnational feminism and the fall of the patriarchal world which oppresses us.