Feminism to me has always been the idea that women should be able to do as they wish without society being able to coercively dictate what they choose to do – or not do, for that matter. But the feminist movement in a lot of ways has failed to maintain its golden rule of women’s autonomy. For many modern feminists, feminism has come to mean wearing revealing clothing and choosing a career over a family. This movement has really failed the women it was meant to help. Feminism somehow went from being about women breaking stereotypes and challenging social norms to simply creating another set of norms to which women are expected to adhere.
A cartoon by Malcolm Evans demonstrates how modern feminism has tragically become a Western cause rather than one about global female empowerment. He paints a picture of two contrasting women: one wearing a bikini and sunglass, the other in a niqab, her body fully covered save for her eyes. Yet in their emphasized bubbles, both are saying nearly the same thing: “What a cruel male-dominated culture!”
From the Western perspective, represented by the woman in the bikini, there is an inherent assumption that women who wear variations of the hijab – or similar body coverings – are necessarily oppressed and have been coerced into it. That is not to say that coercion does not happen or that it is not something to be addressed, but the feminist movement does itself a disservice to push the thought that feminism can only resemble one look.
Saba Mahmood focused in a study on why feminism may not be appealing to Muslim women in the Middle East. What she concluded was that there was not an inherent opposition to feminism per se, but that feminism in the Middle East simply looks different than Western feminism. The perception is that Western women and Muslim women have different cultural and historical backgrounds, instilling different values and interests within each group of women. These different values in turn have influenced what women in each country aspire to and has created two different expressions of feminism.
Feminism over the years has allowed itself to become a societal tool through which women yet again see their choices and free will as limited. What is ironic, though, is that it is now women taking away women’s free will. Women fought so hard to break out of the boxes in which society tried to contain them. Unfortunately, feminism movements in some respects have now created smaller boxes antagonistic to women outside of the parameters they have set .
Feminism has allowed itself to be branded as a culture-specific phenomenon, with Western men likely being more welcome to the movement than a non-Western woman, or particularly an observant Muslim woman in the case of the cartoon. Feminism seems to be less about women and more about how Western culture thinks women should behave, allowing society to once again take away women’s free will – except this time letting other women be the ones to do it.
In the study titled “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” the anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod focuses on the fact that veiling in the Middle East is simply a part of the culture. While many would say that women should not dress just to accommodate culture, it is unfair for Western feminists to try and make the argument that this phenomena is special to the Middle East only. In her study, Abu-Lughood makes the point: “As anthropologists know perfectly well, people wear the appropriate form of dress for their social communities and are guided by socially shared standards, religious beliefs, and moral ideals, unless they deliberately transgress to make a point or are unable to afford proper cover.”
Feminism, like other “–isms,” is based around centralized ideas. The problem with the modern feminism movement, though, is that with 35.2 billion women in the world, not all of them want the same things, and so empowerment for a Muslim woman in Lebanon may not look the same as for a white woman from California. However, because feminism has much of its origins in the Western world, it allowed what empowerment looks like here to be the face of the movement, thereby marginalizing women whose ideas of empowerment are different.
This is not to say that Western feminism is wrong or subpar. There is nothing wrong with women who choose bikinis over hijabs. A woman should be able to choose what she wants, which was always my understanding of feminism. But there is an air of superiority around Western feminism that is threatening the movement. There seems to be an assumption that women who do choose hijabs and do choose raising a family over a career need to be enlightened and shown the proper way to live their lives.
With the spread of feminism, the movement continues to divide itself and be molded to particular groups of women. Instead of women coming together, they further divide among themselves, with each subgroup of women thinking the other needs to be taught how to be a feminist. This is demonstrated perfectly in the political cartoon, as both women think the other is being oppressed. By feminism allowing itself to be differentiated between groups of women, each division of feminism is a way in which women create norms they must adhere to, eradicating a woman’s choice in addition to creating a war between women as their brands of feminism clash.
Laila Brothers is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. This is the final installment of Identity Crossing.