The concept of Western feminism – liberation or domination?
Editor’s note: Anna-Sophia ten Brink started her 18-month preservice teacher-traineeship in February and participated in the Global English(es) seminar (B.A.) in 2018.1 Because of the topics, the learning opportunities and regular discussions with international students in this seminar, and also because of the recommendations by friends who had participated in the volunteer-programme, she decided to take part in the Laos project (Phase 1: “Teaching English in Laos”) herself in 2019. She worked as a tandem-teacher at the Lao-German Technical College as a member of Team VIII, and some readers may remember her previous posts.
Ms ten Brink went on to explore east-west relations and developed a strong interest in feminism at the same time. She combined those two interests in a course paper about critiques of Western feminism, which she wrote in the seminar “Postcolonial Theories and Literatures” (M.A.) in 2021. This article is a summary of the paper, which is published in full-length under “Research/Full-texts“. Ms ten Brink is planning to integrate the topic of feminism in secondary schools and hopes to broaden young learners’ perspectives on Western feminism in the future.
“Sisterhood can not be assumed on the basis of gender; it must be forged into concrete historical and political practise and analysis” (Chandra Mohanty)
The topic of (Western) feminism has been spread widely and discussed in politics of western people’s everyday lives for many decades. Current discussions of gendered language in the West are just one example of ongoing fights for equality.
My Extended Research Paper focusses on the topic and concept of Western feminism. It takes a closer look at the feminism which evolved in the Western world, precisely in Europe and the United States. It examines the question if the movement of Western feminism succeeded in liberation and self-determination for all women around the world or if said liberation was limited to a certain category of women from certain countries, because of certain (limited) perspectives. (Follow this link for a cartoon which demonstrates the issue.)
The paper continues to explore if and how liberation for women was reached within the Western feminist movement and if it was attained by dominating and using others – in this regard other women – or if goals were obtained for all women from all continents by a change within society. (Follow this link to find another illustration depicting this issue.)
After introducing and differentiating the terms “sex” and “gender”, the paper moves on to introduce the topic of feminism in general. It then focusses on Western feminism and the globalisation of feminism, i.e. it explores the impact of Western feminism in a global context.
The third part presents the areas of criticism towards Western feminism.
Western feminism will first be deconstructed by postcolonial feminists, notably by Chandra Mohanty (*1955, professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, exploring women’s experiences across the world) and her paper Under Western Eyes. I chose her work and her studies because she focusses on non-colonizing feminist solidarity across borders.
Secondly, the Western concept of feminism will be criticised by African-American feminists within the Black feminist movement in the United States, most notably Sojourner Truth, while Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells, Pauli Murray, Mary Church Terrell, and Frances Harper are also important figures in this movement. This chapter will also make the complexity of Black women’s suffrage visible within the topic of feminism, because “Black feminist theorists have pointed out that many of the gender-based generalizations advanced by white feminist theorists, whether as part of the critique of the philosophical canon or as part of a critique of contemporary practices, are “racist, ethnocentric, and insensitive to the concerns of women of color” (Hawkesworth 2012, 13).
This suffrage also applies to women in Asia, especially India, where western feminists also tried to “free” women, according to what “free” meant from their western point of view. At the end, there will be a conclusion and an answer to the question how and whether the aims of Western feminism were achieved for all women. (Follow this link to view the cartoon about moral relativism).
Writing this paper changed my view on feminism deeply. My view was centred around my western unterstanding of freedom and equal rights and I unconsciously imposed this on every woman, no matter the cultural bacckground. However, this does not work because from this perspective I again put myself in a position where I think that all women are seeking for the same freedom and the same rights as I do, regardless of their culture. I have become aware of this since I have been to Laos, because this was my first time “outside” the Western World.
This experience has shaped me and I specifically notice it when friends of mine say “oh those poor women in this country, we can be lucky to live here in Europe” and they feel sorry for them without even knowing whether these women really are unhappy. So writing this paper has helped me to be more aware, conscious and self-critical about those thoughts and to keep reflecting and checking on them.
Having worked in Laos with my (female) tandem-teacher Ms Akina Yadsadahuk revealed to me that women from different cultural backgrounds are not less happy because of maybe less – from a Western perspective – freedom(s). Maybe they are even more happy because people in Germany are often stressed and keep forgetting what life is actually about. So before I judge other women in other countries, I see for myself if I am in a position to do that.
Text by A.-S. ten Brink
Photos by S. Hadatsch & I. Martin
1 Ms ten Brink is the fourth person on the left
Amos, Valerie & Parmar, Pratibha (2005). “Challenging Imperial Feminism.” Feminist Review, No. 80: 44-63. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3874364
Hawkesworth, Mary (2012). “Western Feminist Theories: Trajectories of Change.” In: Bayes, Jane (ed.). Gender and Politics: The State of the Discipline, Chapter. 8. Verlag Barbara Budrich. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvddzq1d.12
Mohanty, Chandra Talpade (1984). “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Boundary 2 (12) 3, 333-358. http://www2.kobe-u.ac.jp/~alexroni/IPD%202015%20readings/IPD%202015_5/under-western-eyes.pdf
Minh-Ha, Trinh (1989). Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism, 79-119. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Dixon, Violet (2011). “Western Feminism in a Global Perspective.” Retrieved from Inquiries, Vol. 3, No. 2. http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/395/western-feminism-in-a-global-perspective (last accessed 7 Feb 2021).
Links to images
Alessandrini, Isabella. Cartoon “Western feminism has it wrong” (2017). https://vtcynic.com/opinion/western-feminism-has-it-wrong/ (last accessed 9 March 2021).
Evans. Cartoon “Cultural Relativism” (2016). https://i0.wp.com/feminisminindia.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/cultural-relativism-1.jpg?fit=566%2C361&ssl=1 (last accessed 9 March 2022).
Nida. Cartoon “Western Feminism and free will” (2013). https://muslimgirl.com/western-feminism-and-free-will/ (last accessed 9 March 2021).