This essay will evaluate western feminism and its ties with colonialism, and reveal if it is reasonable for ‘Third world’, Black and Indigenous women to say that western feminism and colonialism are closely associated. We will also explore alternative paths and precautions that western feminists could have taken to avoid this reaction from ‘the other women’. This will be done through a critical analysis of the claim that western feminism is aligned with colonialism, how western and ‘other’ feminisms clash, modern examples of colonial based feminism and what western feminists could have done to avoid these reactions.
Many ‘non-western’ women claim that they do not feel as though they have a place in western feminism due to its ties with colonialism. The foundation of western feminism either embraced or ignored the racial, economic and cultural devastation caused to natives by colonialism yet invited women of all races to be involved in their movements (Weedon 2000 p.90).
White women involved in the feminist movement throughout history have appeared to ignore the idea that racism shapes sexism (Huggins 1994 p.72) and also the fact that white women were oppressors themselves. It is well documented that white women in colonial Australia held Aboriginal women and children as slaves, and the general mentality was that the white woman was superior to the primitive black woman. Glenyse Ward tells her unimaginable story of being removed from her parents in the 1960s, educated in a white catholic institution, and forced into slavery, it is in this book that Glenyse advises that there was a strong assumption at the time that the colonisers were inherently superior to the colonised (Huggins 1994 p.73).
At a time when Aboriginals were becoming increasingly involved in Australian politics around 1970, the Womens Liberal Movement (WLM) was becoming more active. The WLM is a movement conceived in the 1970’s, aimed at promoting women’s freedoms (workplace, domestic, economic etc.) against what is considered in discourse to be a male centric and male dominated society (Bartlett, A, Henderson, M 2013 p. 85). In an attempt to be anti-racist, the white women involved in the movement asked Aboriginal females to join them in their fight for ‘womens liberation’. What they failed to recognize is the cultural differences between western and Aboriginal women. Asking an Aboriginal woman to be separated from the males in her community opened a wound that was not yet fully healed from when whites colonialized their land.
Western women continue to have heavy influence on Aboriginal women’s lives through the roles they fulfil in society; welfare carer, teacher and foster parent are roles typically occupied by white women, whom teach and raise Aboriginal children with western ideologies.
Huggins argues that white feminists appear to have the belief ‘I am a feminist, so I am an expert on all women; Aboriginal/black women just need ‘raising up’ to my level of feminist consciousness’. It is hard to ignore the similarity of this notion to the ‘White Man’s Burden’.
‘Take up the White Man’s burden– Send forth the best ye breed– Go bind your sons to exile To serve your captives’ need; To wait in heavy harness, On fluttered folk and wild– Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child. Take up the White Man’s burden– And reap his old reward: The blame of those ye better, The hate of those ye guard– The cry of hosts ye humour (Ah, slowly!) toward the light:–“Why brought he us from bondage, Our loved Egyptian night?”
Take up the White Man’s burden– The savage wars of peace– Fill full the mouth of Famine And bid the sickness cease; And when your goal is nearest The end for others sought, Watch sloth and heathen Folly Bring all your hopes to nought.’(Denis, J 2013)
Both colonists and white feminists at this time saw natives as ‘backward’ and ‘primitive’ and felt that it was their duty to raise the natives up to their level of ‘advancement’.
Indigenous and Black women argue that it is hard to find their voice in western feminism as white women claim that women are sexual beings, whom want to experiment with sex and sexual partners, and that it is equally as important for females to enjoy sex as it is for males (Huggins 1994 p.71), whereas Aboriginal and black women sought the right to say no as opposed to the authority to say yes, and to shift the focus away from their sexual bodies.
Aboriginal women are not the only race of women to claim that they feel the likeness of western feminism and colonialism is hard to ignore. ‘SlutWalk’ is a feminist movement that claims they are working to challenge mindsets and stereotypes of victim-blaming and slut-shaming, sparked by a police officer in Toronto stating that “women should avoid dressing like sluts, to avoid getting sexually assaulted/victimised”(Slutwalk Toronto website). In an open letter to ‘SlutWalk’, women of African descent revealed that although they are pleased that we live in a time where women are able to make extraordinary resistance campaigns and get their voice heard, they do not feel as though they have a place in the ‘SlutWalk’ movement. They struggle to comprehend why the word ‘slut’ had been coined, when the word has such a dark history for Black women.
When Black women were used as slaves during colonial times, they were raped, had their gender misrepresented and feel that the word ‘slut’ refers to Black women in that time, a word that they have been trying to escape for decades(Blackwomen’s Blueprint 2011). The women represented in the letter claim that it is possible to make a statement without the use of derogatory words.
“We can learn from successful movements like the Civil Rights movement, from Women’s Suffrage, the Black Nationalist and Black Feminist movements that we can make change without resorting to the taking-back of words that were never ours to begin with, but in fact heaved upon us in a process of dehumanization and devaluation”. (Blackwomen’s Blueprint 2011)
The women outline how the ‘SlutWalk’ could improve on so Black women can get involved, and also what the White women could have done to avoid the reaction invoked in the Black women. Initially, the White women should have recognized that the USA is racially diverse, and taken that into account before starting their campaign, yet again Black women and their needs and potential input to the feminist movement was ignored. It is asked of ‘SlutWalk’ to rebrand their campaign with something that is racially sensitive and applicable to women from all walks of life, and include violence against women and put an end to sexual assault and the power and oppression that stems from it.
Although the SlutWalk was a recent event, it is not one that receives a lot of media coverage here in Australia; we are constantly inundated with images of Arab women and men either in their war ridden countries or here in Australia. It is a constant ‘hot’ topic of our parliament, whether to pull our troops from Arab countries, whether asylum seekers (not explicitly Arab) should be ‘allowed’ to come to Australia and so on and so forth. Naturally, the feminist movement have not ignored the issues surrounding the culture of Islam; in 2011 Alia al-Mahdi uploaded a naked photo of herself which had a massive chain reaction in the Arab community, causing her to flee Egypt. In 2012, she did the same but associated her cause with the feminist group FEMEN.
FEMEN originated in Ukraine, and urges women to break out of the patriarchal chains and to come out to rallies topless and ‘win’ FEMEN have taken many stabs at the Muslim community, running on the assumption that women who veil are uniformly oppressed, and that Muslim/Arab women should step out of their burqas and demand equality. The undertones of this movement now seem very familiar, western feminism also believes that female liberation is directly linked to what the woman wears (Salem, S 2012).
It also sounds very familiar to a point Anne McClintock made in her book Imperial Leather 2008. When colonisation was rearing its head, white men and women that arrived at locations such as Africa and saw naked women and immediately set out to veil them with cotton and ‘preserve their modesty’; however something changed significantly when they arrived at the Middle East, they saw women were veiled with the burqa or hijab and did not commend the practice as expected, but began to remove the veil from women, in an attempt to civilise them (McClintock 2008 p.31). These acts were simply acts of power and followed ‘the white man’s burden’; an elaborate excuse for mistreatment of others and an attempt to justify colonialism.
When Muslim/Arab women are asked on their opinions on the burqa, and if they agree with the sentiment that the veil is inherently oppressive, it is immediately obvious that FEMEN are not speaking for Muslim women, rather what they think should occur, completely disregarding any cultural relativism and the voice of the people involved. FEMENS explicit public nudity marches have sparked outrage from Muslim women, claiming that in doing what FEMEN is doing, is sending the message that Muslim women are universally oppressed and need saving from Western women. In 2007 Fatemah Fakhraie wrote an explosive article in response to western feminism as a whole entity and outlined exactly what Western feminism should and should not do when defending Muslim women. She outlines that Muslim women do not need to be victimised or pitied, that they should delineate their liberation and, something we have visited already in this essay, acknowledge that racism shapes sexism. Fakhraie summarises her opinion in a forceful and clear sentence:
‘I notice a lot of condescension when you talk to us or about us. Let me be clear: you do not know more about us than we know about ourselves, our religion, our cultures, our families, or the forces that shape our lives. You do not know what’s best for us more than we do’ (Fakhraie, F 2007)
It is obvious through the literature flooding the internet that Western feminism does not include, nor acknowledge all cultures and races of women. Colonial beliefs and methods are not hard to find in Western feminist theories and campaigns, and until these issues are acknowledged and rectified, I cannot see Indigenous, Black or ‘Third world’ women finding their voice in Western feminist movements. I believe it is impossible to have one strain of feminism that speaks for all women, as so many factors influence different cultures needs and concerns, yet on the same token I believe that Western feminism has great potential to embrace other cultures and speak for ethnic as well as white women, as long as it removes itself from colonial roots and recognizes that the Western way is not the only way.
Alakhbar 2013, Femen’s Neocolonial Feminism: When Nudity Becomes a Uniform, Alakhbah, viewed 18/4/2013 <http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/14494>
Bartlett, A, Henderson, M 2013 ‘The Australian women’s movement goes to the museum: The ‘cultures of Australian feminist activism, 1970–1990’ project’, Women’s Studies International Forum, Volume 37, pp. 85-94
Blackwomen’s Blueprint 2011. An open letter from Black women to the SlutWalk. Facebook, viewed 13/4/2013. <www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=232501930131880>
Denis, J 2013 ‘Diamonds are forever: Kipling’s imperialism.’ History Today, Volume 47 p. 37
Feminist Theory 2007, The do’s and don’ts of defending Muslim Women, Altmuslimah, viewed 18/4/2013, <http://www.altmuslimah.com/b/spa/3171>
Huggins, J 1994, ‘A contemporary view of Aboriginal women’s relationship to the White feminist movement’ in Norma Grieve and Ailsa Burns (eds.) Australian Women: Contemporary Feminist Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press
McClintock, A 2008, Imperial Leather: Race, gender and sexuality in the colonial contest, New York: Routledge, pp. 21-61
SlutWalk Toronto 2011, SlutWalk Toronto, WordPress, viewed 13/4/2013, <www.slutwalktoronto.com>
Weedon, C 2000, Feminist practice and poststructuralist theory, Blackwell, Oxford