Who needs feminism? This is essentially the question asked by an article in the Guardian online about what that charged word means in a cross-cultural context. Women’s rights are the main focus of the agenda from the Nobel Peace Prize to the World Bank’s Development Report. As the world continues to develop on an unimaginable scale we are faced with the need to address all types of inequalities because those inequalities affect us all. Since gender inequality is a good indicator of overall lower human development, improving women’s position in society helps to raise the general standard of living for all. With these facts in hand even conservative policymakers have jumped on the bandwagon of talking up gender equality because this sort of rhetoric is almost trendy at the moment. There appears to be a disconnect though between simply talking about gender equality and actually asking women to participate in their own emancipation, not to mention the lack of acknowledgement for feminism and its role.
The battles for feminist goals are ongoing in even the most developed and wealthiest parts of the world, as well as being in their beginning stages in developing nations, although there they may not always be called feminist. Feminism as a controversial label is present in the United States and the world, at the same time that people speak about women’s empowerment. The association of feminism with something very radical has made it an unpopular moniker and has made it clear that the basic notion of what feminism is has been lost. The distrust of feminist tenets seems to come from a lack of understanding of them and an assumption that if not radical it is still an idea that does not apply to women of certain religions, cultures, classes, races or ages. Feminism is quite simply a struggle for women to have the same rights as men do, no less and no more, in order for both sexes to take advantage of their full potential and opportunities. Ultimately this means that women have the necessary rights to make their own decisions, regardless of what they may be. In today’s society where popular culture tells us that we ladies have come a long way, which is true but not entirely accurate, feminism may appear as outdated or inapplicable. Similarly, in parts of the world where people are wary of yet another wave of Western colonization or where women’s liberation largely included ignoring female-specific needs, feminism and trans-cultural/transnational sisterhood may be less appealing.
A gender equality hungry world that is afraid of feminism is a product of a lack of understanding for what feminism set out to do decades ago and semantics. The wariness towards the title “feminist” is not confined to non-Western cultures so addressing that feminism has always been by and for women, as well as, society at large has the potential to change attitudes. Furthermore, feminism’s goals today may look different on the surface in India, Russia, South Africa, Canada or Brazil because they operate under different circumstances. In a developed, rich, solidly democratic Western country feminists are likely in a different phase of their struggle than women fighting for change in a place where extreme poverty, disease and illiteracy are an everyday reality.
Feminist ideas about women’s empowerment and equality with men ring different to women in Western countries that only two decades ago toppled communist regimes which more symbolically than tangibly stood for women’s liberation. As Slavenka Drakulic wrote years ago in her book “How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed,” feminism seems irrelevant to women in former Eastern Bloc countries because the “equality” that Communist governments provided had more to do with deprivation and a certain humiliation specifically because they were women, like an inability by various Communist nations in the decades after World War II to produce an everyday product for their female comrades, a sanitary napkin. Not to mention the hardships faced by women who worked full-time in these economies of “equality” but had to endure long queues for very limited, basic products to simply feed their families. Certainly the arrival of democracy and market-driven economics has not solved the problems of women in the former Eastern Bloc countries but today it is these women who must continue to fight for what they want, on their own terms and with their own experiences. Governments and laws may put forth a vision for gender equality but until actual women are in positions that control decisions regarding women’s lives and choices, full gender equality will be a hit and miss. In places where in past times equality was more propaganda than fact or where liberation of any kind is brought in based on unfamiliar standards, the drive for what feminism is or ought to be will differ from how we may view it in the United States or even Europe. What women require is as much dependent on the time, as well as place, and not on the fact that some women are inherently different or wrong in their demands.
The demands of feminists came in waves over time in the Western world, first with suffrage, then with a demand for equal opportunity and continue today as women still do not enjoy the same equal opportunities as men. In all phases it was women who defined what they needed and wanted, based on their own experiences. Feminism in the global context is not absent, but rather exists in unique stages based on the realities of the women waging it. Over time the demands of women in a nation like India may mirror those of women in modern America, but regardless of when or where, it is the women who must make decisions for themselves. In the end feminism is something more misunderstood than actually controversial, like many other movements or ideas. The only way to ensure that women enjoy the freedoms and privileges they want for themselves is to have them be the ones that propel it, and that is precisely what feminism is, label or not.