When I used to go to art school, I had a roommate from Wellesley who was a feminist. I thought she was the coolest girl ever because she also liked drawing, she had majored in history, and she was a feminist. While I had studied abroad once (in a Catholic boarding school), this was the first time where I was 100% submerged in another culture.
When my roommate and I engaged in conversation we’d talk about our homes, our parents, and our beliefs. One day she and I agreed that we were both feminists and then spoke about how we practice feminism and what we thought. Mind you, I come from Mexico where macho culture is very much ingrained into our brains since day the day we're born. I was a freshman and she was freshly graduated from college.
When she spoke about the differences women face in the workplace and other concepts I had yet not fully explored, I was taken aback. And I sincerely questioned everything she said because this was all so new to me. Her response? Immediate anger and condescension for the remainder of our roommate life. At that time I felt like an idiot because I could not believe I knew nothing at all about how gender inequality worked in the U.S. But now that I am a graduating senior, I’ve got some recommendations for other Western feminists who will most likely encounter other “Global South” citizens like me.
As it keeps being proven time after time that gender inequality affects women all over the world, we seem to forget that the world is a gigantic place and that inequalities are not equal. Women in the United States face rape culture and unequal pay, women in Mexico face machismo culture and we normalize the dead of women of Juárez. We think it’s normal to hear about the kidnapping, raping, and murder of women in some countries. In Brazil, women are overly sexualized and objectified. In Afghanistan, some families dress their daughters as men to get a better social status, thus giving rise to a whole new can of worms where women have identity issues. The underlying theme in all of this is that women all over the world are oppressed and these women respond differently based on circumstance.
For a woman in another country, what a woman in the United States may think is oppressive could be a form of liberation. In areas where Islam isn’t a predominant religion, we tend to perceive Islam as oppressive, thanks to our lack of knowledge and the media’s contribution to orientalism. Yet there are women who practice Islam–hijab and all–and are empowered feminists. That is the case with Alifa Rifaat, an Egyptian woman who wrote short stories depicting the everyday life of Muslim women in Egypt. Her stories are not what a Western woman might think is a feminist experience. We are probably expecting heroines breaking away from the shackles of marriage, fighting patriarchy and liberating themselves from Islam, but Rifaat’s stories are actually about married women, just going through life. Rifaat does not frown upon the type of life that Islam promotes, but the fact that men don’t follow those guidelines. Her stories criticize these men who don’t love and respect their wives. Rifaat has no problem with men or with Islam. Unfortunately, some feminists may be under the impression that both men and Islam oppress women and would therefore consider Rifaat’s feminism as unresisting.
This is not to say that feminism in the Middle East is passive. It differs depending on the country and even the individual. There are feminists in the Middle East who have the same Western standards and are seen as incredibly radical, too. They even argue about how to express their feminism.
Feminism is–after all– a personal matter at the end of the day. The way we practice feminism is very much like how we practice a religion. Regardless of general standards, no two Catholics will have the same set of beliefs and interpretations. What we may think is oppressive may be a form of liberation or expression for others. So do yourself a favor: the next time you engage in a conversation about feminism across cultures and about how we can start a fight for women’s rights in another country, consider the context.
Ideally we should research the country’s culture. For example, Mexico’s low reading index – showing the average number of books read per year is 2.94 - is directly correlated with ignorance and misconceptions about feminism, and what Western feminism is.
If we are talking to people from other cultures, we should shut up and listen to what they have to say about the way they practice feminism, especially if it’s very different from ours. Even if we think our society is so advanced because we have Hillary Clinton, let me make this very clear: They have their own Hillarys fighting every single day. And you know what? Most of the time these women could be murdered at any time, depending on the country’s levels of corruption and violence. Quick example? All the mothers in Ciudad Juárez fighting against femicide, asking to have their daughters be brought back home, and to never get killed to begin with. They have no doctorates, no privilege, no international education, no husbands who are past-presidents, and they still risk their lives every day. Consider all those unknown fighters.
Most importantly, read some books. But not just the white women writers or theoretical feminism ideals. Read about women survivors, women reporting, programs for women, women in the world in general. Analyze these books with a feminist lens, see how they all fight differently. Here are some good, entertaining books to get you started:
b. Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi (biographical and humor)
c. The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg (reporting)
d. I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai (biographical)
e. Lipstick Jihad by Azadeh Moaveni (biographical)
f. Distant View of a Minaret and other stories by Alifa Rifaat (biographical)
g. The poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (some of it)
h. Slavery Inc by Lydia Cacho (trafficking of women)
So next time you come across someone who also identifies as a feminist, but does so in a different manner, listen to their point of view. Respect it, and share perspectives. Converse with this person, don’t condescend. The worst thing you can do is look down on someone for being and thinking differently than you. Doesn’t that sound familiar to us?
Andrea Garza is a senior Marketing Communications student, often thought to be a Political Communications major. International conflict, Mexican politics, the Drug War, reading, and running really slowly are her interests. She has a secret plan to marry Slavoj Zizek, overthrow Enrique Peña Nieto and kinda make Mexico a better place. Oh, and she knows the NSA is reading this. Hi!