The potentiality for feminism to be a global movement sometimes can be a bit of an elephant in the room for Western feminists. It is clear that the rights of women are fundamentally and consistently in question throughout the world. In many nations, women lack the right to a public life on their own terms. Their voice and their movements are so restricted that we tend not to see their situation as one involving full self-determination.
This reality is an uncomfortable one for Western feminists, not just because it presents a reality of explicit gender oppression, but also because it isn’t entirely clear what role we play in doing something about it.
It is difficult for laypeople and consumers of popular culture to understand the realities of ‘other’ women in places such as Africa and the Middle East (note that this is a huge generalisation – the experiences of women are likely to differ from one locality to another, from one home to another. I essentialise here only for the sake of convenience). Their realities are further informed by their history, their religion, their personal relationships, and the conversations we aren’t privy to.
While we may be ignorant of those realities, we obviously shouldn’t ignore them. After all, the feminist idea that a woman should be free from gender oppression is a universal ideal. Freedom from gender oppression is an ‘ideal’ rather than a ‘goal’ because it has not been fully realised yet and it is not obvious what shape freedom takes. But what we understand is that the strive towards freedom for women is not something that should apply only to some women, it is not something that should only apply to white women or straight women or educated women or able-bodied women, or women who happen to have been born in the space designated ‘the West’. Women’s rights are for all women.
But as Germaine Greer pointed out recently in her talk at the Sydney Opera House as part of ‘The F-Word’ forum (you can view it here), getting women’s rights is a path fraught with difficulty, partly because freedom is an ‘ideal’ and as such, we don’t really know what it looks like.
Limiting our discussion to the safe confines of the Western World for a second – are women really free here? Greer argues no, and quite obviously not. It is not difficult to provide examples of women being systematically oppressed as part of Australian culture. The recent news items regarding the sexism, harassment, and sexual abuse young female cadets experience provide poignant examples of the second class citizenry of women in Australia, and the disgust men can express towards women.
Body image issues and the enormous pressure placed upon women to be aesthetically beautiful also provide further examples of the constraints felt by Western women. Naomi Wolf, another presenter at the forum, has argued in her book, The Beauty Myth, that women often have to use a great deal of their time and money in order to look attractive. While men, she argues, are given the freedom to make decisions and run the country, women are subjected to worry about the size of their thighs and the application of make-up. Or as Portia de Rossi puts it in her memoir, Unbearable Lightness, ‘I squandered my brain and my talent to squeeze into a size two dress while my male counterparts went to work on making money, making policy, making a difference.’
The West is barely a beacon of hope for women in the world.
We might say that the burqa is oppressive to women. Perhaps it is oppressive to some, though many women want to wear it and feel some freedom in not having to draw attention to their beauty, at least, as Greer points out, ‘nobody’s bum looks big in a burqa’.
And yet, many Western feminists are guilty of wanting to export our culture and our ‘freedom’ to those elsewhere. This is fundamentally condescending, as if we have freedom and they don’t. Heck, even if we did have freedom, theirs would not necessarily be the same as ours.
In her talk, Greer gave a harrowing account of a 16 year old girl in northern Tehran who was shot to death for wearing lipstick. In a place such as this, ‘feminism is life and death’. It shows us how important the ideals of feminism are. But we are incredibly naïve if we think that wearing lipstick in any way approximates or approaches freedom. This incident also shows us that an attempt to export our consumer culture is both dangerous and empty, void of any comfort that this girl died in the pursuit of freedom.
But what is the way forward? Greer is cautious in her approach, saying that we shouldn’t intervene in the lives of other women until we hear their voices, until it is clear how the path to freedom can be carved out for them. We should also remember that one woman’s freedom might be another woman’s hell.
An illustration of this is again provided by Greer. In Iran during the 1930s, it was decided that women wearing the chador or the hijab was inconsistent with national goals for modernity. These garments were banned. According to Greer, the result of this was that many women, with bodies that had only previously been exposed to close families within the secure walls of the home, decided not to go outside again. Some committed suicide. These moves were welcomed by Westerners who understood the banning of Islamic garments as a step toward liberation.
Who can say that a chador is incongruous with liberty? Who can say that systematic political oppression means that all women subject to it don’t have agency, can’t resist or negotiate, or can’t make up their own minds about what they want? Who can say that the West can provide answers to these questions without listening first?
I think readers can take comfort though that respecting cultural differences isn’t actually incongruous with feminism. Instead, it is a necessary step in realising that women should have the freedom to not be the same and to feel pride in their personal and cultural history.