ICM836 Day 5 (6/13): What’s Global Feminism?

Research, Teaching

“The debate is being carried on  in a theoretical framework at universities,” Ruchira Gupta of Apne Aap said, rolling her eyes, as she sat in her old family home in Bihar after a day in the red light district. “Very few of those theorists come to the grassroots and see  what’s going on. The whole debate about what we should call the problem is irrelevant. What is relevant is that children are being enslaved.”

Half The Sky, Chapter 2: Prohibition and Prostitution

Is this Global Feminism?



Or this?

Or  this?

Or this?


Note that I’m not endorsing any specific stance here. Just showing you a couple of examples.

Think about the issue that Sarah brought about in commenting to the last theory post. Who speaks for whom? Where is the agency?



We are already in the week 2 of THEORY.

For the next 7 days, our main theoretical quest is to examine the tensions between

  1. the universal and the specific;
  2. the global and the local;
  3. the theoretical and the pragmatic

… in terms of feminism as an ideology, social movement, and scholarly pursuits. This all can inform us about 1) situated knowledge (who we are and where others come from, how they see the world); and 2) for whom, and how, can we speak for?

A theory lesson

It is important to have your own definition of feminism. Basic definitions are the foundation of any theory.

Given that the field is so complex and contested, a continuum of sorts between political agendas and theoretical musings, you need to be clear where the starting points of your views and research are in that continuum.

But equally importantly, remember that the nature of much of feminist studies is to situate yourself, start your research recognizing who and where you are, and how that might influence your views and interests.Also, while you may draw from famous theorists’ work, and fully agree with them, your own voice matters perhaps more than in any other field of scholarship.

So when progressing in the course, remember to reflect on your understanding of feminism, and how it can (or cannot) be seen in theories, cases, articles, etc. addressed here.


From Definitions to Complexities

As we know from any field, theories are scaffoldings that help us to grasp complex issues. And then we run into situations described in the opening quote from Half The Sky: intellectual exercises can seem far removed from harsh realities.

A personal story

I remember taking a feminist media studies class at UW Madison in the mid 1990s (yes…) where the issue of prostitution was discussed in great length. We read a collection of articles by (Western) sex workers. Many stressed the empowering nature of their work. For instance, being a call girl enabled an artist financially to lead a creative life. I gather the version of this vein of thinking is today replicated, for example, in websites through which girls can look for “sugar daddies” to pay for their college tuition.

The theoretical argumentation was, to put it simply, that the patriarchal society has marginalized prostitution because in that profession women have power over men. (Note that we did not address any other kind of prostitution than the heterosexual construct of “women selling sex to men”. )

Then I saw the movie Lilya 4-ever, about a young Russian girl trafficked to Sweden to be a sex slave. Although fiction, it was based on a true story.

And more and more trafficking news begun to emerge. I realized that sex slaves exist in my neck of the woods, in the Nordic countries generally hailed as the equality flagships of the world. I also got a job in training journalists in the Balkans, on gender-sensitive reporting.  That is when I heard many cruel facts about UN peacekeepers in crisis zones: Troops fueled sex trafficking to the area (and after that, to many other areas: here’s just one recent case). Sex trafficking is a problem also within the US, as this news story reminds us.

I begun to realize that, for me, feminist issues often entail layers of power issues: sex work may be illegal and not protected, perhaps because of patriarchal social order; but power imbalances are also due to economic factors, and, geopolitically, they surely exist between the Global North and the Global South.

More lessons learned

But can I assess which layers are more important than others? That would be a tough call. It is also evident that the focus on the empowering nature of sex work (for some) is very much in line of the theorization and issues of “Second Wave” feminism that stresses “women’s issues”, uniqueness of women’s experiences, that have been disregarded in mainstream discourses. Seeing some effects of globalization through a gendered lens, and focusing of other contexts than Western ones, would then be more in line with the “Third Wave”. (For a crude definitions of the waves, see the last week’s theory piece.  This week’s readings refer to the “Waves” often, some texts noting that they only apply to Western scholarship.)

And then comes the divide between theory and praxis. Those girls trafficked in Bosnia or working in the red light district in India seldom get interviewed for a research project; let alone get the chance to define “their own issues” and concerns. We are privileged as Western scholars in that we get to think about definitions and their consequences.

Not to say that theory development would not be important. Feminist scholarship seeks to make new inventions and interventions to all academic fields. But the political-policy focused feminism as a movement and feminist studies as an academic exercise may seem worlds apart. Your readings for this week offer a great illustration on this:

Salam Al-Mahadin (Chapter 2 of “Current Perspectives”) discusses the challenges of Arab feminist media studies, offering some very concrete issues that call for consideration. Angela McRobbie (Chapter 14, a key figure in Western feminist studies), in contrast, analyses the French head scarf ban from a very theoretical standpoint. It is interesting,  that two such different accounts can exist under the same academic field.

A Case in Point: Half the Sky

As I wrote earlier, the book and the related products showcase the contested nature of many issues, theoretical and practical, that can be labeled under “global feminism”.

The authors are American journalists, and that has evoked quite a bit of criticism. It has been called as “veiled colonialism”: 

[E]xamining Half the Sky in an academic fashion, a disturbing trend comes to light. A common feature which runs throughout the entire program is a heavy overtone of modern-day colonialist sentiment. This brings to question: Can the women whose stories were included ever be fully included themselves with this kind of colonialist discourse?


What is perhaps the book’s most obvious example of modern-day colonialist sentiment can be seen in the interactions between Westerners and non-Western women. Throughout the entire book, there is the recurring appearance of the “white savior”, or perhaps more accurately the “Western savior”, who has come to rescue “Third World” women from a variety of oppressors, including their governments, religions, cultures, or most commonly “Third World” men. Interactions in the book constantly reflect and even highlight an unequal relationship, with Westerners on top and non-Westerners below within the power hierarchy.

So, once more: When we think of global feminism, we need to understand our own stance and also be brutally honest in disclosing our relationship to those whom we represent (activism) or analyze (scholarship). This week is about exploring not only us, but those relationships, via several readings, and the three tensions described in the beginning.

A Case in Point: A Professional’s Viewpoint


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So, I’ve urged you as scholars to define your own understanding of  feminism, whether you subscribe to it personally or not — or the kind of feminism you subscribe to (and its relationship to major strands and movements of feminist thought).

In the coming weeks, I will also introduce you to a couple of professionals so you can see how they define global feminism. Here’s what Jaana Rehnstrom, the Executive Director of the NYC-based non-profit Kota Alliance, told me earlier today:

Is there global feminism? This is a good question.

There are rights that seem self-evident rights in many countries, when they are just being fought for and achieved in others… I feel the core issues are the same  – equality, rights – but they are in different stages and take different nuances in different countries and regions.

The Kota Alliance could be called as a supporter of global feminism in that we offer programmatic and technical support and resources for non-profits working on gender issues. The actual, concrete issues may differ, the approaches may differ.

But, we all working in this field need to be very mindful of our roles.

As an example, I was recently invited to speak at an event in Washington Square Park, for the USA-Mali Charitable Association, on female genital mutilation (FGM). I hesitated: Is it my place to speak about it? But the organizers specifically wanted an expert to discuss the issue. I am gynecologist and have long experience in human rights work related to FMG. So, I felt I could contribute.

In general: There may be culturally-specific issues and topics of feminism. But when we have an issue such as FGM that women in the countries where it is practiced themselves fight against it, then that is an issue, a struggle, that women (and men) everywhere can raise awareness of and support in different ways.

(If you are interested, here’s more about Jaana’s presentation and FGM.)


More about Kota:





As noted, your theory assignment this week is to discover and discuss some of the tensions:

  1. the theoretical and the pragmatic (to what extent can scholarship inform social justice quests, and vice versa);
  2. the global and the local (are there any feminist issues/theories we could call global = important everywhere in the world, or are the issues always more layered and contextual);
  3. the universal and the specific (are there any “women’s issues” or are the issues always more layered and contextual).


You have quite a few theory chapters to read this week. Choose at least 4. Do remember that each of them is only 3-4 pages long. And each of them can teach you something new and interesting about feminist media studies, be it the impact of internet on the blurring of the boundaries of work and leisure for women (Australia), or the research foci important in Latin America.

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Readings from “Current Perspectives”:

Chapter 2: Arab Feminist Media Studies

Chapter 4: Bridging the Gaps: Feminist generation gaps in the US context

Chapter 5: African Feminist Media Studies

Chapter 6: Black feminism, black feminist media studies

Chapter 10: New media, old problems

Chapter 14: Unveiling France’s border strategies

Chapter 18: Critical reflections in Inter-Asia

Chapter 19: Negotiating the Global-Local (Latin America, India)

And take a look at this beautiful web-multimedia project for inspiration: http://www.feminisminchina.com/


  • Based on your readings, identify some examples of one tension (see above).
  • Write a critical, short reflection on how you see the tension through the examples you have selected (do reference the specific chapters you are using in your commentary).
  • Feel free to use your own voice and add your own examples, if you so wish.
  • Post it below as a comment.
  • Due by Thur 6/15, midnight.

ICM836 Day 3 (6/6): What do we talk about when we talk about feminism?


What do we talk about when we talk about feminism?

Feminism is a tricky term in the title of this course, in that it’s such a multilayered and contested term. Let me try to give a couple of examples in the context of the title of this course. “Global Feminism and the Media”. . . It could refer, for example, to:

  • A general, often overtly political position, ideology, that pertains to women’s roles in the society
  • A practical agenda related to development and women’s role in it.
  • This you know already: A broad field scholarship (“feminist media studies”) that has many, many re-iterations, paradigms, and that can fall under such broader categories as women’s studies or gender studies.


Example 1: Global feminism as a principle

Please screen this talk…


Or read the transcript, or listen to the podcast.

This famous talk by  Adichie, the Nigerian-American bestselling author, discusses a need for global feminism; global in the sense of the universal need to empower women, that has to be understood by women and men.

It is ironic, as we have already learned, that Beyonce used this text, after just having been bashed by the iconic bell hooks…

Screen Shot 2017-06-06 at 10.46.50 AM

hooks and Adichie both argue that feminism is for everyone (A., too, has written a book about it;  as did hooks, link  to the full text in the  last research post). But they seem to represent somewhat different starting points and values.

In addition, Adichie has given the now-famous TED Talk about the danger of the single story  — the need of situated understandings. Check it out here, if interested!


Example 2: Global feminism and gender as a factor of global development

Half The Sky: Introduction

Your course book (literature review) Half The Sky discusses the role of women in (global) development and notes that, in very practical ways, the more women are given opportunities in a society, the better the society fares in terms of economic, political, social, and cultural development. At the same time, the introductory chapter highlights some significant challenges that are not exclusively problems of the Global South (even if the book seems to implicitly indicate that), including sex trafficking, forced and unpaid labour, and gender-based violence.

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It’s not only the authors of the book, but the United Nations and its Sustainable Development Goals, that point to the same goal (SDG5):

Women and girls represent half of the world’s population and therefore also half of its potential. But, today gender inequality persists everywhere and stagnates social progress. As of 2014, 143 countries have guaranteed equality between men and women in their Constitutions but 52 have yet to take this step.

Screen Shot 2017-06-06 at 10.32.22 AM.pngHere’s a short policy brief about SDG #5 – Gender Equality – Why? 5_Why-it-Matters_GenderEquality_2p

Example 3: Feminism and scholarship

Current Perspectives, chapters 3 and 15 (your course book, please read).

It’s good to remember that feminism, similar to any movement, takes many forms and entails many fractions. The political strands of feminisms also influence academic scholarship, and they do so in terms of topic, as well as in terms of research methods and ethics.

Traditionally, as Liesbet van Zoonen outlines in her seminal book Feminist Media Studies (1994), the field has researched:

  • Women’s representations in the media from news to talkshows;
  • Women as producers of media products (as journalists, as film makers, and so on); and
  • Women as media audiences.

In the digital media era, these three fields are merging and becoming more and more complex.

This table is a very crude simplification, with relatively broad time frames and overlapping categories (that can and do co-exist). Note also that the categories are mine, distilled from what I have learned over the years, and do not represent a standard way of mapping feminist studies. Yet, I hope the table gives you a glimpse of the diversity of academic feminism:

Feminism as a social movement Academic research: thematic focus Academic research: methodological focus in studying the media
The First Wave of Feminism: Equality


19th century to mid 20th century (in the West)

Women in the public realm (politics, public sphere in general).

Women need to be given equal treatment, and positions, with men.

Quantification of representation of women in the media; quantification of women’s representation in media professions… (from social sciences)
The Second Wave of Feminism: Difference 1970s-80s


Women’s needs as media audiences, women’s voices as media makers Women are inherently different from men. Qualitative textual and discourse analyses (from humanities) to uncover women’s voices and experiences in media texts
The Third Wave of Feminism: Diversity



Gender is not the only defining factor; interconnections of gender, race, class, age, geography… Multi-method analyses in understanding what the media does to construct gender (what is considered “feminine” and “masculine”); the crossing of different factors; cross-cultural studies (e.g., migration, gender and the media; cases in the Global South).
Beyond Third Wave? Neo-Feminism, Post-Feminism, Post-post feminism….

Some say this is a variation of the Third Wave, not a separate era…

Big questions: Do we need feminist media studies anymore? Does the category “women” matter anymore; should we discuss the continuum of genders? New methods in studying identity and identification; brought by the blurring boundaries of mainstream media and alternative media; legacy media and online/mobile platforms; and users as content creators.

As the assigned texts in “Current Perspectives…” note, today’s “feminist media studies” faces big, existential crises that are often considered generational (1st and 2nd wave approaches vs. 3rd and post…). The proliferation of media, and the hybridization of the idea of who creates content for whom and why, has complicated feminist research agendas (see Gargi Bhattacharyya’s text, i.e., Chapter 3). Add to this the hybrid nature of feminism as a concept, and the question Andrea Press (Chapter 15) poses, is valid:

What to make of “feminist” in feminist media studies?

Another question to ask is, as Kiah does in her blog:

Is feminism elitist, Western, more academic than practical?

At the same time, some argue that perhaps we need feminist media studies more than ever; perhaps the hybridity of the field responds to the complexity of issues. As Press notes:

Our field has always been poised between the humanities and the social sciences simply by the nature of what we examine. …

The hybrid nature of feminist media studies has meant that, even as we analyze cultural phenomena humanistically, we are also interested in their demonstrated impact on women and other oppressed groups…

…[W]hat is at stake for feminist media studies … is retaining the critical perspective… Continued violence against women, inequities in unpaid and paid labor forces…and the path to “femininity” mandate that we not lose sight of these central issues as our field continues to develop.

As Bhattacharyya reiterates, old questions are new again, and the question of gender still pertains, for instance, in terms of gender and sexual imagery online; in terms of access to communication technologies and other economic factor; and in terms of the security of participation via communication forums.


Your assignment:

The above were just some crude generalizations of some approaches to feminism that we can take, and that relate to the context of our course.

Please comment below briefly what you think, from your situated perspective: Has feminism become elitist academic exercise, a kind of theoretical play? Do we need feminism? Feminist (media) studies? Yes, no, why? You can be conflicted, too…

This is the way you will respond to most of the theory sessions, here on my blog, and use yours to develop your research. You can sign up here with any screen name you’d like to use. Just use your SJU email address if asked when commenting (I’m the only one who will see it.). Sometimes WordPress singles out comments to be moderated — so if you don’t see yours immediately posted, not to worry. I will check and moderate frequently.

Due Thursday 6/8 at midnight!

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