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That’s What She Said: When a movement for inclusion ends up excluding

For every teenager from an underrepresented country taking a step towards feminism, a West-centric approach alienates them by showing them that their issues are not significant.

Nov 9, 2019

One of the readings I was assigned this semester was the first chapter of a book titled “Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders” by Alice Eagly and Linda Lorene Carli. The book discusses how the glass ceiling is now a wrong metaphor for women and their access to leadership positions. The authors argue that more and more women are able to hold positions of power today, and that although they face several more obstacles than their male counterparts, earning these positions of leadership is not as impossible as a ‘glass ceiling’ portrays.
As a South Asian woman, I was appalled at the one-sided approach of the book and its failure to address the difference between the status of women in developing countries and developed Western nations. In an age where millions of young girls and women still fight for rights to basic education and are victims of child marriage, female infanticide and female genital mutilation, leadership positions are completely out of the realm of possibility for many women around the world. And even for those who get the opportunities to utilize proper resources and infrastructure, the patriarchy does not act as a labyrinth, but more as a concrete barrier between women and leadership positions.
According to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (also known as "UN Women"), only seven percent of ministerial positions and 15 percent of national parliamentary positions are held by women across the nine countries in South Asia. Similarly, in Africa, only 24.3 percent of national parliamentarians are women. These statistics illustrate how distant the day-to-day realities of a huge proportion of women are from the book’s presumptions, serving as a wider example of the unapplicability of a mainstream Western feminist approach to a large parts of the world. The lack of intersectionality in such an approach completely ignores the struggles of women on a more global scale. While mainstream feminism intends on empowering women, it often misses out the nuances of women in different contexts and their very different experiences with various forms of oppression, from racial discrimination to homophobia and Islamophobia.
This year when social media platforms were blowing up with posts protesting against the Alabama Human Life Protection Act, most users were not even aware of the 97 percent of women in Latin America and the Carribbeans who have been living with restrictive abortion laws for decades now. While we celebrate and feel empowered by Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s 25-year-long incredible career, we often do not even acknowledge that women make up less than five percent of the police force and less than 10 percent of judges in South Asia. With the mainstream media only covering western narratives of inequality, I don’t blame people’s Western-centric perception of feminism. I had to spend a semester in Paris, without any South Asians around, to realize how unaware people are about women’s issues in the developing world and how unaware I was of my own biased approach to feminism.
This feminist approach also sets a one-dimensional standard of feminism, teaching young girls and women to only look upto CEOs, political leaders, sports players or influencers, diminishing the value of women who fulfil the roles of mothers and housewives, especially in contexts where it’s solely the woman taking care of the whole household. As a fifteen-year-old who was trying her hardest to really embrace her newfound feminist identity, I remember wishing that my mom get an ‘actual’ job, like my aunt who worked at a trade company, instead of being a housewife. In my process of ‘empowering’ my mom, I never even considered that the conscious choice she had made to stay at home to raise my sister and me, so as to empower us by focusing on our education, was in fact what actually made her a powerful, feminist icon. I am not claiming that all housewives have the luxury of making that choice for themselves, but that as a result of being influenced by only mainstream feminist ideologies, I ironically adapated a narrow-minded approach to feminism that prevented me from appreciating everything my mom did for us through a ‘feminist lens.’
As a teenager, while I was being inspired by feminist icons like Susan B. Anthony, Emma Watson and Margret Atwood, and dressed up as Rosie the Riveter for every Halloween, I never learnt about Mona Elthawy, Tejashree Thapa, Kamla Bhasin and Sojourner Truth. Mainstream Western feminism made me ignorant towards not only their incredible contributions but also the added layers of unique obstacles they had to battle with because of their cultural contexts, ethnicities and/or sexuality. During my high school years, my Facebook timeline was flooded with posts protesting Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory and Brock Turner’s unjust hearing. But I didn’t consider the abhorent statistics of sexual violence in Nigeria, where around 10,000 girls are victims of sexual assault, rape and/or human trafficking.
This lack of representation and coverage of women’s topics in developing parts of the world does not just take away from the gravity of these issues but also excludes a great proportion of women and their struggles from conversations about equality. For every teenager from an underrepresented country taking a step towards feminism, this West-centric approach alienates another by showing them that their issues are not as significant. The unrelatability of Western feminist issues acts as a major step back for them and adds to their hesitation, which is already extermely high, in completely becoming a part of feminism as a movement.
Intersectional feminism creates a platform for everyone — regardless of their skin color, gender identities, socio-economic backgrounds — to define their own versions of feminism and empowerment. It differentiates between people’s individual experiences and struggles with gender issues while also creating a supportive environment with a shared goal of attaining gender equality. If we really want to create a more equal world for people of every gender, just being a feminist is not enough. We need to check our privileges — which may come with being able to express ourselves freely or in the form of economic, social and racial factors — and take into consideration gender issues through an intersectional approach, even if it is on an individual level.
Aasna Sijapati is News Editor and a columnist. Email her at
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