The trouble with “feminism”

In one my classes yesterday I had a discussion with a friend of mine about the new wave of feminism spreading across many countries.  She argued that in this new wave, women are distancing themselves from the term “feminist.”  I see this trend in Islamic feminism as well.  Because of the problematic attachments the label “feminist” comes with, many women choose to not label themselves as feminist, even if their beliefs centre around ideas of gender equality.

While it is true that in Muslim countries, many men tend to dismiss feminism as western and therefore unIslamic, I realized it is also true that first wave feminists made feminism into something only applicable to western women.  Despite their claims that all women were united in their struggle against patriarchy, they did not take into account the different ways patriarchy manifests in different cultures.  Moreover, they did not address the fact that they (white, middle/upper class American women) were not oppressed in the same way other women were, e.g. black American women, Muslim American women, Zambian middle-class women, Italian lower-class women, etc.  Gender is not the only site of oppression – race, ethnicity, religion, class – these are all other aspects of one’s identity that combine to produce oppression.  Thus many third-world feminists and black/lesbian feminists in the US began writing about intersectionality – the idea that different aspects of one’s identity combine and intersect to produce unique experiences of oppression.

For first wave feminists, all women were oppressed in the same way by all men.  This problematic assumption was not only theoretical, but was also put into practice, both in academia and development.  Thus women’s goals were assumed to be the same, and thus programs were implemented everywhere in the same way.  Moreover, many first wave feminists were explicitly racist and ethnocentric in their articulations. They believed western women were “more liberated” than other women, and that other women just needed to follow the same path western women had followed in order to be free.  This kind of thinking still exists in development today, not only with regards to women, but with almost everything.  The idea that the rest of the world needs to follow the same path the west followed in order to develop fully is clear in many discourses about modernity.  There are not different types of modernity; there is one – the western version.  In order to be modern, you need to emulate the west.

To me it is obvious why women are distancing themselves from feminism now – as a project it has never really been inclusive of all women or of diversity in general.  Islamic scholars such as Amina Wadud have asked that they not be labelled Islamic “feminists” because of the negative assumptions that come with it.

On the other hand, I personally will not stop calling myself a feminist. There is no reason we should let either western feminists or sexist Arab men hijack the word. Instead, we can slowly redefine it and bring it back to its original meaning by using it and showing that there are different feminisms and different feminists.



12 thoughts on “The trouble with “feminism”

  1. I’ve run into this problem as well. On a couple of threads on my Muslim friend’s pages, I’ve noticed the hostility towards the term “feminism. I think the antagonistic attitudes are mostly motivated by people’s misunderstanding of feminist movement, as well as stereotyping it as being anti-Islamic.

    I like the points you’ve made about the racism and ethnocentrism found in first wave feminism (and how such attitudes still prevail today). I know I’ve been citing her a lot, but bell hooks provides an excellent critique of such feminist movements in her books, “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center” and “Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics.”

    I think it’s important to keep using the term. I believe it’s one of the ways to break stereotypes about feminism and help others see the diversity. The more we shy away from the term, the more it gets associated with negative stereotypes.

    • “I think the antagonistic attitudes are mostly motivated by people’s misunderstanding of feminist movement, as well as stereotyping it as being anti-Islamic.”

      I agree. I also think it stems from the fact that we associate feminism with first and second wave US feminism, which was pretty much racist. So obviously anyone who isn’t a white American may have issues with the way that kind of feminism was articulated. However, feminism has now moved beyond that.

      I will definitely check out bell hooks – sounds so interesting! I love the quotes you keep putting up.

  2. I agree, feminism has always been a dirty word, it has always been associated with negativity, but if we fall into the stereotypes and try to change the term, I fear we would fragment ourselves even more than we already are. I think that is a huge problem though, feminism in itself is not a unifying force. Even women want to distance themselves from the term. This is troubling.

    • Feminism is not a unifying force but it could be, if we made it simply about gender equality and choice. However, many feminists try to impose their ideas on all women and come up with a universal theory of liberation, as if such a thing could ever exist.

  3. I loved this post. What you said about “taking back” the term, this is precisely why I refuse to call myself anything but a feminist! There is still such massive inequalities between the genders, and it saddens me when young women today don’t seem to care at all.

    • I think many of them do, it just depends where you look. I think the problem is that the younger generation (which I’m part of haha) has lost a lot of guidance, optimism, etc and in general are not as well-mannered as their parents. Society in general seems to be heading in the wrong direction :S

  4. Interesting. I personally don’t identify with feminism, and am often critical of its theoretical approach to defining womanhood, but do like much of the academic work that is coming from feminist scholars in the field of ‘development.’ Have you read works from Amartya Sen? He is just awesome, in my opinion. He suggests that ‘development’ should be replaced by ‘well-being.’ If we recognize a person’s well-being, then we do not have to push our values down then throats or force them to ‘catch up to us’.

    If we measure ‘development’ by how well the society is doing i.e. if it provides access to decent healthcare, and food and other means of living to its people, instead of looking at the country’s GDP, then we can have a more accurate vision of what constitutes ‘development’ in the world. Not everyone can be as ‘developed’ as the West – we’d need 6 more planet earths to make that possible.

    • Sen is great, but he often says things that seem pretty common-sense to us, yet have not been put in practice in development. I mean, of course development should be about well-being! 😛

      The idea that development can be measured only by GDP is ridiculous, and it’s shocking that it has been a popular measure for so long. I think it comes from the domination of economics in the field of development.

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