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.