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For Community-Driven Global Development

Feminism Abroad: A Shift in Perspective

Support for women’s rights has never had the groundswell that exists today.  Yet even among the most ardent feminists, there is widespread dissent over the precise meaning of the word.

Indeed, feminism can signify many concepts, depending on one’s background, age, gender, social status, economic status, upbringing, culture, experiences and many other factors. Many men and women in the U.S. have a different understanding and definition of feminism and how feminism is portrayed compared to men and women of other cultures and countries. Even within the U.S., feminist beliefs differ widely. Despite the best of intentions, there are often misunderstandings between feminists in the U.S. (also known as first world feminists) and feminists in developing countries (also known as third world feminists).

One Misinterpretation of Feminist Beliefs Between US and Afghan Women

A common feminist belief includes the importance of exercising women’s agency - the ability of women to exercise their freedom of choice by engaging with social and political structures. Oftentimes, women living in the developing world are perceived by those in Western cultures as passive victims instead of actors in larger societal structures, even if that is not the reality. This perception justifies the West’s role as saviors when the West “rescues” third world women from their oppressors. Often times the West is only trying to maintain a power dynamic it has with lesser developed countries by using third world women’s oppression as a means of intervention and to regulate less powerful countries.

The widely celebrated film, The Beauty Academy of Kabul, portrayed how American women’s 

feminist beliefs and practices do not align with Afghanistan feminist beliefs. Women who lived under Taliban rule were not allowed to apply makeup, were required to wear a burqa, were prohibited from education, and confined to traditional gender roles. In turn, women would secretly apply makeup under their burqa. They made underground schools for women as well to get around the Taliban’s ideology. Moreover, the film documents American and Afghanistan beauticians construction of a beauty school to train and empower women in Afghanistan. Throughout the film, women from Afghanistan express their beliefs and culture, clearly conveying that their values are much different than those of Western culture. When American beauticians came to Kabul to build a beauty school they did not question how Western feminist beliefs might clash with Kabul’s feminist beliefs. Instead,  they felt as though they had to teach their Afghanistan beautician students how to be active members in their communities through challenging Afghanistan’s social norms such as driving a car, paving the way for modernity through makeup, and running their own beauty shop. Afghan women would have found a way to exercise their agency whether the American beauticians came to build a beauty school or not. The American beauticians assumed from their cultural knowledge that the Afghan women were powerless. Instead of the American beauticians asking how they could best help (an asset-based approach to development, the model employed by FSD), they assumed that all women want the same freedoms and insisted upon their own beliefs as though they were saving Afghan women from oppression with a beauty school.

This specific instance is just one example of how the U.S. feminist beliefs clash with another country’s beliefs and fails to acknowledge a country’s cultural practices. It shows how Americans (or others from the developed world) may be using perceived oppression to help themselves and justify their intervention to control another country.

How to Handle Deal with Different Feminist Beliefs Abroad

When we travel abroad, we are likely to experience new ideas and cultural norms. The first step in handling any new ideas is to be open to them. If we take some time to think about them and try to relate to them, we may see why someone from a different culture has those beliefs. Start a dialogue, ask more questions, and try to find a middle ground.

Female circumcision (often called female genital mutilation, FGM) is among the most controversial subjects in development and health today. Female circumcision is a common practice in many countries, including Kenya and Uganda, whereas in the United States it is often seen as a form of mutilation. On the other hand, plastic surgery is a very normal practice in America, yet many Ugandans see that as mutilation. In both instances, bodies are being modified, just in different contexts. This does not mean that we condone one practice or the other, but when experiencing a new cultural practice we should not be quick to judge someone on their beliefs because there may be a similar practice from your own culture that is seen as odd to someone on the other side of the world.

The protection and extension of women’s rights and gender equity are among our key goals at FSD, and we support projects in these areas across all of our global sites. This is how we support feminism abroad. Yet in order to best serve these communities, we must continue to respect the traditions and cultures of the countries in which we work, rather than imposing our own points of view on their own. Ultimately, while reaching for long-term progress and sweeping change, we too must settle for a middle ground and support locally-led initiatives that strive for gender equity and feminism in all forms.