Feminists must recognise that all women experience social oppression, even if situations elsewhere oppose western ideals
Even at a school dedicated to the advancement of African women in postcolonial Kenya, the idea of feminism appeared to translate to radicalism and images of bra-burning rallies. So if someone told me two years ago that I would be wading into a discussion on the label “feminism” I would probably have laughed in their face. Being called a feminist was usually a set up to a disparaging observation about the state of one’s personal life. For instance Wangari Maathai, the first Kenyan to win the Nobel prize and long recognised as a feminist and hailed as a heroine in the west, was received in Kenya in a manner that can only best be described as lukewarm.
Yet, Kenyan women are believed to be among the most liberated, certainly on the African continent. According to UNDP, using measures of development adjusted to account for gender, only 54 of 155 countries for which statistics are available outperform Kenya with regards to gender parity in development. This implies that the average Kenyan woman is more likely to be educated, and to a higher level than many of her African and indeed global counterparts. Similarly in Kenya, female-headed enterprises (from large distilleries and multimillion-dollar megachurches to tiny stalls selling vegetables) are not unusual. So how could a country where women are able to achieve so much have such an ambiguous relationship with an “empowering” label?
The Kenyan situation is not unusual. In many parts of the global south, women are rejecting the baggage that comes with western feminism. I believe this has to do with how it has defined what women want, and how to go about getting it. This is hardly a new criticism. For decades, “minority” women have argued that western feminism is the preserve of white, middle-class women, and does not fight the battles of women with other racial or economic backgrounds. Qualified feminism – third world feminism, postcolonial feminism, chicana feminism – emerged as a rejection of this homogenising approach to liberation, as many women felt that their double burden, gender as well as racial or economic, was being overlooked.
In the modern world, economics has for the most part supplanted race as the primary basis for exclusion and discrimination in all societies. And while western feminists have by and large succeeded in achieving a substantial level of social and economic freedom, their counterparts in other parts of the world continue to struggle. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, described as “rape capital of the world”, women are not only suffering unequal access to education or economic empowerment, they also suffer significant threats to their personal security on a daily basis because of a war fought primarily between men. For these women, rage against religion, for instance, seems hollow and distracting, as that is often the only institution that will stay and rebuild long after the government and the UN and other civil society actors have moved on.
The priorities of western and developing world feminists differ. Even in countries where the threat of imminent war is absent, the economic oppression of women by patriarchal economic institutions persists. The Economist noted that in Burundi, women are the social and economic powerhouses of their society, sustaining their families with apparently nothing more than a tenacious desire to see their children do better. However, they are still forbidden from inheriting land and many are exposed to the threat of beatings or rape. In Bangladesh, the vast majority of the workers in the export processing zones are women. Yet the cost of being the engines for the economic growth of their country is that women are more likely to be uneducated in Bangladesh than in just about any other south Asian country.
Nonetheless, these feminisms are not diametrically opposed. All feminism has so far proven itself better at identifying oppression than in identifying freedom, and it is in this gap that I believe the debates arise. To western feminists, freedom has come to mean, among other things, sexual liberation. Try to transpose a similar approach to other parts of the world and you’ll find that most women see this as another form of sexual exploitation and oppression, pointing out that true freedom involves the freedom from sexualisation.
These positions, while miles apart, are not irreconcilable: both inherently recognise that some form of social oppression is denying women the right to exist as whole human beings, rather than purely sexual or asexual objects.
This desire for a holistic appreciation of womanhood is the true essence of feminism, and an excellent place to begin in bringing the disparate schools of feminism back on the same page. It is in the interests of all feminists to reject oppression as defined by those who experience it, rather than focusing on pointing fingers or claiming superiority over other groups.
How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? It doesn’t matter, as long as we all recognise that the light bulb needs changing.