Leapfrogging feminism: One woman’s mini-memoir

Leapfrogging feminism: can empowerment and equality be taught and learned?

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you may call yourself a feminist or are at least a proponent of gender equality. Your ideal world probably involves equal opportunity for all people, regardless of gender status (or lack thereof), and you are probably outraged when you see sexism, abuse and oppression worldwide. You most likely went through your own personal struggles and journey to figure out what being a feminist means to you and how you can contribute to a better world. Today I proudly call myself a feminist. And today I’m going to tell you a bit about how I’ve seen the world, and how I came to realise that feminism is not necessarily the answer.

As a young girl growing up in Portland, Oregon, USA, I considered myself a post-feminist living in a post-feminist world. I was surrounded by overeducated baristas, underemployed hipsters, washed-up hippies, queer, idealistic, anarchistic, activist, vegans, ‘freegans’ – white privileged types. Although I was in a relationship that had its ups and downs, it was a happy, supportive, and non-abusive relationship. Although I wasn’t always content, none of the struggles I dealt with had anything to do with me being a woman. Then I grew up and I saw the world. I travelled to the Middle East and I saw Sub-Saharan Africa. I saw how women in such places were treated simply because they were women, and I realised how much I took my position for granted. It shook me to my very core, and only then did I start to define myself as a feminist. I decided to dedicate my life to fighting for the rights of women throughout the world. This story is not uncommon for women of my generation and, truth be told, perhaps it’s a somewhat tired story.

The decision to fight for women’s rights throughout the world was not merely my decision; it became my reality. For several years in my early to mid-twenties I worked in Africa. I worked in both Kenya and Malawi (east and southern Africa, respectively), mainly in rural areas, working in schools, with women’s literacy groups, with women’s sewing cooperatives, with afterschool programmes for HIV/AIDS orphans and children of sex workers in Malawi. I saw firsthand how women and girls were treated badly by their husbands, their fathers, their sons, and even (and sometimes especially) other female family members solely because they were female. I saw how the rigid cultural gender roles held them back from achieving in life and even caused them to promote the future of their sons at the expense of their daughters. Most importantly, I saw that they did not dream for their own future or for their daughters’ futures. It was disheartening, to say the least.

What’s worse is that I came to realise that ‘feminism’ was a dirty word for many of these women – far more so than for women in the western world. In the places where I worked, we tried to teach the women that we worked with that, as women, they were just as capable as men – and that they had the full ability to empower themselves. I taught them that this is all that feminism means, in essence. But I was so very, very wrong, and here’s why.

By ‘teaching’ feminism in Malawi, we were importing the very concept and even the concept of gender itself. In their own cultural context, feminism meant putting women before men – giving women opportunities instead of men. To many of the African women with whom I interacted, such an idea was completely abhorrent. This is a common misconception of feminism, not only in the developing world, but throughout the west. To me and many of my young western counterparts, being a feminist means promoting gender-equality, and sometimes doing so by focusing on women’s issues. But I realised as I spent years off-and-on working in rural Malawi that even the concept of gender itself was imported. The women I would speak to about it would say ‘when gender came to Malawi…’ How could they begin to think about gender-equality when gender itself, as we conceive of it, was viewed as utterly foreign?

These women taught me much more than I could have taught them. They taught me that the basic building blocks of my identity (cis-gendered woman, educated, ambitious, feminist) were identities that were ensconced in my own culture. They could not be separated from my own cultural blueprint and fixed onto another – namely, theirs.

The call to ‘rebrand’ feminism has grown stronger in recent years in some feminist circles, in order to make it more a more relevant, more unique movement as the word itself continues to suffer from a generally bad reputation all throughout the world. But I don’t think that feminism can be ‘rebranded’ in sub-Saharan Africa and other developing countries, which lack the context of the first waves of western feminism. So we cannot graft our version of female empowerment onto them, nor should we try. Just as many Africans have skipped landlines and ‘leapfrogged’ to mobile technologies, they may socially leapfrog as well.

In the end, I realised that we couldn’t teach feminism and that, regardless, it would not ‘save’ them from their multitude of struggles. Feminism may not be the answer for them and is certainly not the panacea that so many would believe. The word is too easy to misunderstand, and therefore too divisive. There is no equivalent to the word ‘gender’ in many languages, so replacing ‘feminism’ with ‘gender equality’ is also not a pragmatic option. My years working in Africa taught me that not only that I do not need to empower African women – but that I literally cannot. They may not be feminists and they may not embrace gender equality as we see it. But ultimately, they will come up with something better – something more unique than we could have ever taught, because it will be theirs.

This post was written by a RWL Guest Blogger – Desire has started a project on how feminism is viewed around the world and how women’s empowerment takes different forms, depending on cultural context. This is a collaborative project involving investigative interviews with people from a variety of places, cultures, and backgrounds. The project is based at ladyuhuru.com – you can also find her on twitter at @ladyuhuru.

Images by natashalcd and ladyuhuru.

6 thoughts on “Leapfrogging feminism: One woman’s mini-memoir

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  1. Fascinating. The diversion of culture is such a powerful thing, something we (as people of the world) should try and keep in mind far more often than we (I) do.

  2. Really interesting; I suppose as long as progress is being made, it really doesn't matter what name it goes by; it's a question of semantics, and progress is quite clearly being made in many developing countries on what I would refer to as feminist issues. The word 'feminist' is for a lot of people even in the western world a very contentious one, so personally I've always been very keen on people of all viewpoints identifying themselves under the huge umbrella terms of 'feminist' (to avoid the whole 'feminists have hairy legs and hate men' silliness). But actually, I can see having read this that outside of a specific cultural context, and especially as soon as you bring different languages into it too, that's not necessarily the best way to make progress. And whatever you want to call it, that's obviously the most important thing! This has really made me think, excellent post 🙂

  3. It is indeed often a question of semantics – a simple word can alienate a lot of people if they have been brought up to think negative things about it. However, it's very interesting that our western concepts of gender and feminism don't provide a good fit with what African women need, and I totally agree that they will perhaps find another way. I really hope so.

  4. “our western concepts of gender and feminism don't provide a good fit with what African women need” Totally – and indeed for lots of other cultures/countries too. Without wishing to massively derail, the whole burqa debate is an interesting example of this; western feminists have spent a long time campaigning for the rights of women to wear what they like, often with a subtext of being able to dress 'sexily' should you wish without attracting unwanted male attention… so it's taken a little while for some people to figure out that whilst burqas may *look* like an 'unfeminist' thing, the right to wear them is totally and utterly (in my opinion) something women around the world should be supporting. It's about recognising that your own cultural context is not necessarily at all useful for all issues!

  5. This rings true for me too, especially re: the burqa/niqab debate, above. On a related note, I've also wondered if the same isn't true of how Western aid workers are attempting to combat AIDS and promote sexual health in Africa. Are we just transposing what works for us here (or what some people *think* works for us here, in the case of some anti-condom religious organisations) and assuming that it will work over there?

  6. I think any instance of “we will tell you what's best” is bound to fail, regardless of context, culture, or identity. People need to be empowered to sort things themselves.

    What we can do is share our experiences and knowledge as equals. Perhaps that is where some of the more, dare I say it, staunch advocates of feminism fail? They preach, rather than educate?

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