“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?
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
- the universal and the specific;
- the global and the local;
- 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
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:
- the theoretical and the pragmatic (to what extent can scholarship inform social justice quests, and vice versa);
- 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);
- 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.
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.