Perhaps accidentally or perhaps following the derivative historic pattern of a need to enlighten the East, Feminist thought and struggle is seen to be trying to define all manners of feminism under strictly Western ideals. Unfortunate as it might seem, feminist movements in separate corners of the globe are fighting to disband different patriarchal elements and they can not all rely on one kind of solution, more importantly, they have not all been moving at a similar pace, or in similar directions. Edward Said’s concept of ‘the other’ in how the West views the East has seemingly been passed onto the feminist discourse. This discourse moves beyond intersectionality and so is harder to measure and the gap harder to bridge. The North/South, East/West divide has been far too great and deep-rooted to not impact a movement as far-reaching and impactful as feminism.
In 1717, Lady Mary Pierre Pond traveled to the Ottoman Empire with her husband who was appointed as the British ambassador to the Sublime Porte. While his appointment was not as favorable to the empire, on her return Lady Mary produced a series of letters based on her travels. Before Edward Said could produce his rather ground-breaking but not as enlightening on the heterogeneous nature of gender relations in the East and West. Scholars argue whether Lady Mary’s work was feminist in nature or whether she looked at, even marveled at, the ‘oriental’ women in a strictly European context (1).
Despite the disagreements on Lady Merry’s letters’ feminism, most scholars argue that Western depiction of feminism has emerged as the Feminist movement (2) and, it might almost seem, perhaps rightly so. It was in the United States where Susan B. Anthony founded the Women’s Suffrage Association in 1869, where Margaret Sanger’s fight for reproductive rights led to the what was called Planned Parenthood in 1921, and wherein June 1963 Title VII of the Civil Rights Act banned discrimination on the bases of race or sex in employment (3). However, around the same time in Afghanistan the monarch Rahman Khan and after him in 1919 King Amanullah were introducing remarkable changes for women and their inclusion in society. Similarly, in 1960, Sirivamo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka became the world’s first female elected Prime Minister and in 1974, Isabel Perón of Argentina became the first woman President, both from countries in the third world.
Today, however, improvements and development in Asian, African or Middle Eastern feminist movements are measured based on standards set by European or American feminist movements and their aims. While the benchmarks are not the problem themselves, the gaps between the societal problems both worlds are fighting are very wide. While the Western feminist fights for, and rightfully so, for equal pay, more inclusion in the workplace, greater political representation, complete bodily autonomy, in countries like Pakistan, India, Nigeria, Iran, women are fighting for visibility, to be able to exist in a society that wants to hide them, for the right to live. While both struggles are equally important, the fight for equal pay and the fight against honor killings can hardly employ similar tactics. Thus a single lens used to view Western and Eastern feminist movements is more reductionist than holistic. It leaves no room for the vast cultural and political cleavages that history had spared but most accounts of feminist movements and thought do not account for.
Critics of Western feminism argue that it assumes societal divides, roles, and norms are generalizable; the idea that there is a single way of development and empowerment through feminism and those that deviate from it are underdeveloped societies that have yet to reach that mark (4). Hana Havelkova writes in her work about women, power and the east/west divide in the Czech Republic, “the tensions in the dialogue between Western and East European women are rooted in the direct application of Western feminist theory to post-communist reality, which leads to the false assumption that East European women are second-class citizens and that they are conservative” (5). This leaves little room for women in non-Western societies to be able to relate to and identify with the issues that Western Feminism raises.
Ien Ang (6) in her “I’m a Feminist but . . . ‘Other’ Women and Postnational Feminism.” provides a much harsher criticism. She argues that western feminism runs on the ideals of liberal pluralism where it wants inclusivity from minorities but remains the authority on the dialogue. She further claims that inviting other women to join Western Feminism still leaves the other under the power of those who have the power to include them in the discourse. In other words, while Western Feminism has tried to include women of other nationalities and minorities in its struggle, it has continued to impose its own narrative on them.
The problem is not that women in European and American nations are demanding equal pay, the problem is their assumption that women in other parts of the world should be following in their footsteps. It is also not to say that the Eastern feminist movement is underdeveloped, but rather it is tackling a different set of cultural paradigms. This difference needs to be understood so that one side isn’t left behind. Gendered ideals and freedom can mean vastly different things to different cultures, the focus of feminist movements everywhere should be on the woman’s ability to choose.
Vida Penezic (7) in her work on gendered issues in Yugoslavia insists that the cultural and political divide between the East and West need not necessarily translate into cultural and political gendered differences. Despite the problems of inclusivity, feminist transculturation could help bridge the gap between the diverse perceptions towards gendered issues in the East and West and the way in which they are tackled. Feminist Transculturation means that ideas borrowed from a hegemonic culture can be reshaped and absorbed into the other cultures. Communication between Western and Eastern feminist movements is essential to the survival of this idea, which as of now, is rather disconnected. The goal is not to bring Western feminism against its Eastern counterpart, but to bring them closer to one another and enhance dialogue.