Do We Need a A "Third World" Feminism ?

Snigdha Ali

The term feminism has been defined, analyzed, reviewed, criticized, redefined, de-constructed, revisited or in other words has been pulled and stretched from so many directions for so long that sometimes writing about it feels like dragging a dead horse even beyond the outer limits.  This is no way to mean that feminism itself is a dead subject.  On the contrary, given the rapidly changing geo-political scenario in this era of Globalization (and/or post-modernism), feminism now functions as more of a foundational basis for many activists, policymakers and academicians than as an epistemological framework only at the theoretical level.  Hardly even any mainstream "development" planning is formulated now a days without considering the gender variable, let alone grassroots mobilization or any social activism.   But like liberalism, Marxism, environmentalism or many other such "ism"s, feminism has been a controversial one and an intensely debated upon ideology from the very beginning of its introduction and acceptance in the sphere of public knowledge.  As can be the case for any such engaging and pervading issue, feminism has been approached from different and sometimes contrasting view points by the proponents of it.    In its early days feminism was primarily focused on inclusion of "women".  That is, women as a category was brought into attention against the backdrop of absence of formal recognition and awareness.   Feminists started voicing the fact that the contribution of women in the Gross National Product (GNP) or their involvement in the informal workforce has been largely ignored and uncounted.  The necessity of assessing the opportunity cost of household works done by women, the social value of childbearing and motherhood, the economic value of generating human capital became unavoidable.  Impact on women of various national and international policies like discriminatory civil and judicial laws, privatization, structural adjustment etc. along with existing patriarchal social and cultural norms that reinforced the very process of discrimination were formally acknowledged and documented.  Feminists came a long way in protesting - and to quite an extent producing practical results for - violence against women both at the private and public spheres.     


But that was before.  Since the decades of the 90s - i.e. the height of post-modernism - more and more (primarily post-colonial) feminist scholars[1]  are arguing to avoid universalist claims about "women" and situate feminism in a specific social, economic, cultural, historical and political context for analysis, especially when discussing the Third World.  Third World societies are mostly post-colonial, developing (economically speaking) countries and they are situated at a juncture where legacies of old traditions and influences of Western ways of life create fusion that continually shapes the structure of the societies.  Each Third World society is distinct and is shaped by its cultural tradition, religion, social norms as well as the position of the particular nation-state in the world system.  As the sovereignty of the nation-states have been compromised under globalization national policies are greatly influenced by international politics, affecting in turn, the citizens within each national territory.  One example of such a phenomenon would be how structural adjustment policies adopted by Third World countries - pushed by the World bank and the IMF - have restructured the economic and social conditions and impacted the citizens overall and women in particular.  But one has to be cautious here.  When considering how structural adjustment or any policy so to speak or any social parameter is affecting women, one has to be careful to distinguish among women from different socio-economic backgrounds even within a country or a region.   Just because women from one country are being impacted does not mean that all women in that same country are affected at the same extent if all are affected at all.  In Bangladesh, the opportunity to work at the garments industries comes as an alternative survival strategy for working women from the lower economic class (whether that particular strategy is more exploitative or not is another issue), but for middle class women the same thing translates into a lack of supply of domestic help.  What rural women face when indicted with Fatwas following dire physical and social repercussions and what urban women face realizing that Islamic rules are being imposed to further strengthen the existing patriarchal structure - are very different experiences.   This is not to say that there should not be a term "Third World" when talking about feminism.  The factors along which the world has been categorized as First and Third contribute to the differences of experiences that women face in the First and the Third worlds.  But appropriate consideration has to be paid to the specificity of the context.  Very often Third World women have been presented as the "oppressed" without any attempt of further analysis of the form and extent of the process of oppression.  Upholding women's problems in mainstream development planning or policy making conferences, or even at women's summits - where women meant White, middle class, Western women vis a vis uneducated, ignorant, Third World women - has been widely criticized.  In other words, positing "women" as an analytical category has been problematized.  Women as a group/ social category is not a homogeneous collectivity.  Term like "women's problem/s" often hides the fact that women from different class, culture, race and religion face very different challenges and can experience even contrasting outcomes of the same social phenomenon. 


At the same time, the feminists themselves have not been spared either.  Any researcher is to be subject to the same kind of deconstruction as the research work itself to take into account the particular position or standing of the researcher.  Along with this line of argument which states the importance of multi-leveled and detailed attention to the context, also came out the issue of "agency".  The term agency implies the existence of a conscious awareness by women of their conditions who are  marginalized, oppressed, subverted etc.  Meaning, if feminists harbor a thought of "liberating" illiterate, impoverished, suppressed women they are denying or undermining the ability of those who they want to liberate.  Coming from outside with whatever amount of knowledge or other resources and having the benevolent idea of "doing good" to the women of a community, is not only patronizing on their part it is also a misconstrued  reality to begin with.  A Feminist  or any researcher or activist so to speak, has to work with the women and not on them.  This is particularly important for Action Research.  Action Researchers focus on the agency of people and they believe that any pursuit of social change has to be a team effort.  It will be a mutually learning process where trained researcher/s and the community women will benefit and learn from each other's experiences.  This is very useful in lessening the bias that is inherently associated with any research or knowledge production.  How an individual views an ideology or even a trivial issue in daily life reflects not only that individual's preferences and values but also the socio-economic status (i.e indicating a particular environment) of her/his that has constructed and shaped the structure of her/his preferences and values.  That is, whichever stand we take regarding any matter we usually come carrying our baggage of who we are and where we belong in the social hierarchal system.  The same goes for me as well.  I write as a sociologist who does research on women and socio-economic-political issues, who has been formally trained to do research in the First world but who comes from the Third World with a middle class background.  Unknowingly or not, my views and my analyses are shaped by my identity as a woman, as an individual (regardless any gender identity), as a housewife, as a student, as a researcher from the Third World and above all as someone - who has been privileged enough to not face the struggles and oppression that women from lower economic class have to endure and has the luxury to think and write about feminism.  


At the end of 2003 I did some data collection in couple of villages in Bangladesh.  I approached PROSHIKA and hired an enumerator to get me access to the village women who I wanted to interview.   As part of my research interest I wanted to interview Fatwa victims.  The closest I could get to that was that I was able to interview some of the relatives of two Fatwa victims. In a village, called village X, a couple had recently committed suicide after they were indicted by a village shalish.  The woman was guilty of falling for her brother -in-law and leaving her husband who was mentally challenged.  Ironically even though the husband and the in-laws accepted the u incident, the village shalish wanted to set a precedence through it.  As PROSHIKA was active in that area they pressured the police to enforce legal action against the preachers.  As a result the police - failing to arrest the escaped shalish leaders - captured as many male members of the village as they could.  I was told that even twelve years boys had to hide not to get arrested.  The police wanted to know the whereabouts of the shalish leaders from the villagers which they did not or could not divulge.  This whole ordeal went for a month as the media covered this incident and the police was forced further not to just let that go. When I wanted to interview the female relatives I could not go to the village as the frustrated villagers did not allow any outsider and especially any PROSHIKA member enter the village.  PROSHIKA has been working in that area for years and does extensive works for women and yet became banned from that village.  A meeting was arranged in another village where I could talk to the relatives of the couple. At the interview they told me that the couple committed suicide not because they were publicly beaten (the infamous Dorra) but because they were publicly humiliated when their heads were shaved! They told me that a woman could take a lot but could not sustain such a shame of losing her hair in public.  I, sitting with them with my salon cut short hair, had no problem relating to that.  Because it was the symbols and meanings carried with the punishment which were heavier than the act of the punishment itself.  And even if I think that what could be more precious than life, I am in no position to criticize them from the outside.  This is what I learnt from Third World feminism - not to analyze the incident out of its context.  And for the same reason, when the grieving relatives (all women) told me that even though they felt that sometimes the punishment following a Fatwa was too harsh for women they still supported the system of Fatwa as it was a functional mean of social control, who was I to judge?  Even if those same women had the generosity at heart to accept the adultery committed by a woman and at the same time were anxious that if there was no social control what would their children learn, who was I to think I was more enlightened than they were?  When I was very clearly told by village women that what women did in Dhaka or on TV was not  acceptable to them, who was I to censure?  I can only share my views with them, I cannot impose on them.  I can understand their positions in their context, I cannot label them "oppressed" waiting to be rescued.  I can present alternatives, I cannot force them. I am an example of privilege.  I am what any of them could be given my background.  And their views could be any of mine, given I lived in their environment.  If  any kind of social change has to be made we have to work both at the macro and the micro level. Feminism can not be addressed separately from politics or isolated from other interconnected factors like culture and religion.  Some of my interviewees were extremely  independent.  They not only earned money and functioned as the heads of the households - they broke their problematic marriages, they sent their daughters to schools, they entered institutional politics and got elected for twenty years at a stretch, they manipulated social customs, they traveled alone at night and yet they covered their heads.  Where do I draw the line of "feminism"?


[1] For reference see Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Uma Narayan, Sandra Harding, Leila Ahmed, Marnia Lazreg etc.


Snigdha Ali does research in the field of Developmental Sociology. She writes from Atlanta, USA.