“Us and Them;” Culture and Female Oppression
Oppression is the anti-thesis of liberty. Women all over the world enjoy different degrees of liberty, so you could say that women all over the world also suffer different degrees of oppression, from the right to equal pay to the right to not be burned alive in our own kitchen. Culture, perhaps more than anything else, is the lens through which these differing degrees of liberty and oppression are perceived. So when feminists attempt to assess and evaluate global female oppression outside the context of culture, conclusions will no doubt be skewed and ineffectual; skewed because conclusions have not allowed for “differing” cultural perspectives, and ineffectual because skewed conclusions are not taken seriously to effect change. Advancement in information and communication technologies have made the world a “smaller” and less unfamiliar place since the 2nd wave feminist movement of the mid-20th century here in the U.S., but unique and personal female experience (most often defined by culture) has been said by many to remain overlooked when assessing female oppression, and remains a source of contention within what has become a fragmented feminist movement. A truly empathetic understanding of Culture, which encompasses ones race, ethnicity, religion, class and even sexuality, seems to be the one factor that continues to divide women and prevent a unified approach to emancipation from female subordination and oppression. However, we cannot risk the danger of allowing culture to justify oppression. Culture explains social norms of female acquiescence, but cultural oppression reflects mandated social constructs that demand female capitulation often by threat of harm.
The Challenges of Cultural Divisions
As females, we need to understand that our everyday lives, responsibilities and personal experiences can be dramatically different from one another dependent upon the social norms of not only where we live, but by those defined by the culture within which we live; even in the same geographic location. The need to recognize our cultural differences is real and pertinent to the feminist discourse. In this context, representations of all female voices are crucial within the movement to gain the trust and engagement of all women. The feminist perspective within the gay community will be dramatically different from that of the Latina community, and the Latina different from the African [American] community, and African American different from the Muslim community, and the Muslim different from white suburbia or Wall Street, etc. Female oppression is experienced on a level unique to each of our ‘cultures.’ Linda Alcoff writes of this dilemma; “the advocacy of the oppressed must be done by the oppressed themselves,” as it “will have a significant effect on the content [impact] of what is said.” She goes on to warn that the “practice of privileged persons speaking on behalf of less privileged persons has actually (in many cases) resulted in increasing or reinforcing the oppression of the group spoken for.” (Alcoff, 78-91). Although it is not always possible on every occasion the movement has a chance to be heard, whenever possible, the empowerment of oppressed voices to speak for themselves is always more potent (and valid). However, I would argue that for those whose voices are invalidated by their own cultural constructs, then sensitive, sensible and cognizant advocacy is not only legitimate but often necessary.
Is Oppression Culturally Justified?
Repression is synonymous with ‘oppression.’ According to the North American English Encarta Dictionary, repression is “being politically or socially kept down by force;” also a “psychological protective mechanism by which people protect themselves from threatening thoughts by blocking them out of the conscious mind.” When we speak of cultural oppression, we have to be mindful that from within an ‘oppressive culture’ there is not a collective sense of injustice, but rather a consensual social construct shared and enforced by the community. When confronted by perceptions ‘outside’ the purview of those within the social construct, defense mechanisms may be necessary to protect oneself from facing what may otherwise be horrible truths. These can include justification involving explanations that account for history, tradition and religious beliefs, and/or projection, which entails transposition or false equivalents. In other words, instead of facing a difficult truth we’re confronted with, we may instead choose to assert that the confronter’s situation is similar to our own to dilute or negate unpleasant realizations brought about through otherwise stark comparisons.
I believe that Uma Narayan is doing just that when she compares rampant “dowry deaths” in India to cases of domestic murder in the U.S. No murder should ever be considered “better” than another, but the circumstances surrounding the act can be deemed more or less egregious! Murder is not cultural. What is cultural is the uniformity of victim, motive and method, and of the collective social response. Narayan uses false equivalents between Indian dowry murder and U.S. domestic murder in the defense of her own culture when she says, “fatal forms of violence against mainstream Western women seem interestingly resistant to such ‘cultural explanations,’ leaving Western women seemingly more immune to ‘death by culture’” (Narayan, 62-77). Domestic murder in the U.S. has no uniformity in method or motive. They are random acts of violence that are often not premeditated or intentional. They are often motivated by spontaneous moments of rage and often facilitated by substance abuse. They are committed by spouses and non-spouses alike who are often not cohabitating at the time of the act. In contrast, Indian dowry murder is a frequent (5,000 annually) act of premeditated murder for dowry profit, committed only by a husband against his wife by burning her to death in only one way that can also be culturally explained as an accident; “pressurized kerosene stoves [that] are in common use in [Indian] homes; a tin of fuel is ‘always kept in reserve’…. A highly flammable nylon sari easily catches fire…signs of struggle do not show up on bodies with 90 percent or more third degree burns.” (Narayan, 62-77). The victim, motive and method are the same in every case and specific to Indian culture.
Social and community response is another factor that differentiates fundamental female subordination from ‘cultural’ female oppression. Women are not the only victims of violence; however when they are, they are nearly exclusively victim to men. This is globally consistent and not confined to the U.S. or India. What is not globally consistent is the customary response from local communities, authorities and governments, and that is reflective of culture. Culturally justified female oppression does not – cannot – occur in societies that, 1) have collectively established an infrastructure of support and safety nets for women in need which includes education, housing/shelter, economic, employment and legal assistance, and 2) have collectively recognized civilly, politically and legally, a woman’s autonomous right to liberty. These were once feminist issues in the U.S. and the world, but they are now woven within our collective cultural fabric as “civilly humane” issues. Narayan concedes to “the virtual absence in India of state-provided welfare, education, and medical care…legal services… that would enable Indian women to leave family contexts where they are victims of violence.” She also cites the powerful social “stigma” in India of “women living on their own” that deter even those with financial means to leave abusive situations (Narayan, 62-77). A lack of support structure to address social vulnerabilities specific to women fosters the cultural message to both men and women that these vulnerabilities are tolerable and acceptable and therefore ensuing consequences are ‘culturally justified.’ Even while Narayan admits that “feminist policies and solutions are dependent upon the background social, economic and institutional features of the national landscape,” she actually appears indignant when she says that “some Western feminists seem to have assumed that the Indian women’s movement is “less developed” (Narayan, 62-77). I say she is right, but taking a ‘personal’ offense to the Western observation of institutionalized female oppression in India is not only counterproductive it actually fuels the defensive narrative that female oppression and violence can be culturally justified.
This defensive position taken by women in the international feminist community is not uncommon. An incensed Chandra Mohanty-Talpade gave a seething indictment of Western feminist perspective when she said there are “issues around which apparently all women are expected to organize,” and that this “reinforces the assumption that people in the third world just have not evolved to the extent that the West has.” She asserts that the West has a “paternalistic attitude towards women” whose lives are constrained within the social constructs of “religion,” “domesticity,” “child marriages,” and “illiteracy” (Talpade-Mohanty). If the Western paternal or dominant perspective is the expectation that women should “organize” around the abolition of child marriage, female illiteracy and even forced child birth, than Chandra is correct in her assessment, but severely misguided in her scorn of such an expectation. True liberty allows for personal choice of religion and domestic ambitions such as motherhood. Children and illiterates are not equipped to exercise informed and unshackled personal ‘choice.’ Civically or religiously mandated female behavior under threat of harm or exile is nothing more than culturally justified oppression, whether its child marriage, female illiteracy, forced child birth or even veiling. This is not a matter of evolution, but one of dissolute cultural authority.
The 3rd wave or “postmodern” feminist movement of the 21st century may hold the key to recognizing our differences without having to ‘reconcile’ them. Coming from the perspective that differences and even contradictions in the female experience should be welcomed and even expected, perhaps unification against female oppression does not require an objective consensus but rather a subjective coordinated effort. In other words, is it really so much about whom “we” are, as it is about what “oppression” is? Can we objectively define what we are fighting while subjectively maintaining why we are fighting it? Stephanie Riley quotes philosopher Paul Ricoeur when contemplating “bridging the gap” between the complexity of feminists and the simplicity of our cause, “a process of self-attestation takes place as a moment of constituting self-identity: we are, we act, and we suffer.” (Riley). From this approach, a multi-cultural feminist narrative is “free within a text to be appropriated not as an individual possession, but as a shared notion that contributes to change. Feminists reading each other… can share one another’s stories to shape and color their own existence.” (Riley). Part of the nature of our cause is the lack of empathy to our plight. I believe that if the feminist movement is mindful that we should expect of ourselves at least what we are expecting of others, that a balanced unification is possible.
Change is Always Evolutionary and Sometimes Revolutionary.
Evolution cannot occur without change. They are intrinsically intertwined. Change can come slow, as in ‘movement,’ or change can come fast, as in a ‘revolution.’ Regardless of how change comes about it is inevitable and constant. But how it comes about can determine the degree and pace of change. It is generally agreed that the feminist movement began during the Enlightenment Era of the 17th century, and more specifically during the French Revolution. Terms like “liberty” and “freedom” and “social justice” and “self-determination” sparked the courage and insight of an entire generation of women to embark on the long journey that is the struggle for female equality and emancipation from oppression known as the “feminist movement.” Its momentum has been marked in terms of “waves.” The 1st Wave was women’s suffrage (the right to vote). The 2nd Wave was equality and the end of sexism in the work place. It is said we are now in the 3rd Wave or post modernism. This reflects multi-cultural and multi-national feminist identities, issues of female oppression and violence, severe income inequality and women’s health issues. Given the history of the troublesome fragmentation of the movement and its inability to coalesce, this 3rd Wave feminist effort seems to recognize our need to ‘pull together’ the voices of ALL women to affect real, positive and lasting progress for women’s liberties.
The feminist movement is now global.
Groups like the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) that advocates for “equality around the world” and the National Organization for Women (NOW) that advocates for the diverse issues of women in a multi-cultural U.S. and uses the strength and influence of the U.S. within the United Nations (UN) to address multi-national women’s issues, are both organizations that reflect a renewed sense of urgency in the feminist movement to come together as a global force.
Using new networking technologies that can converge and rally millions of women all over the world, these groups focus on petitioning governments whose policies are oppressive to women, educating men to the benefits of a world of full equality, empowering and supporting women in their local communities, as well as staging and sponsoring protests, and national and international discussion forums. There is also a renewed push to engage women in the political process and encourage women to run for political office. Both the FMF and NOW are educating and encouraging their members to urge their legislators to finally ratify CEDAW; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Adopted in 1979 by the UN, “187 countries have ratified the Convention, pledging to give women equal rights in all aspects of their lives including political, health, educational, social and legal.” (Global Women’s Rights: CEDAW). Shamefully, the United States is not on this list. In fact it is one of only seven countries including Iran and Somalia that have not ratified the only International Treaty that “comprehensively [addresses] women’s rights within political, cultural, economic, social, and family life.” The FMF justly contends that, “the United States compromises its credibility as a leader for either human rights or women’s rights.” (Global Women’s Rights: CEDAW). The feminist movement has yet to inspire a “revolution,” but it’s fair to say we may be closer to such an event then we have ever been.
There’s a term, “Think globally, but act locally.” Originally coined to support the environmental movement, I believe it is completely apropos to the feminist movement. While we all need to have a clear and empathetic understanding of the global challenges that women face in the 21st century, our individual focus needs to be in our own lives and our own communities. Whether you live in Alabama or Bangladesh; whether you’re gay or straight, black or Latina; by working within our own cultural infrastructures and addressing the issues unique to our own experiences, we will surely and steadily change the reality of female oppression on a global scale.
Riley reflects on the words of famous feminist literary icon, bell hooks, discussing our individual needs in relation to our common desires; “she [bell hooks] emphasizes the importance of a feminist theory that would offer everyone, men and women alike, a liberated vision of love and sexual expression. From what humanity is freed differs for each [person], but that something exists from which to be liberated, and that liberation involves love, remains a constant.” (Riley).
We must all be informed by our unique and personal experience, but I would suggest that if we have indeed made a personal commitment to the cause of female emancipation and equality, then we have indeed made that commitment to breach the cultural boundaries between us and them.
Alcoff, Linda. “The Problem with Speaking for Others.” Trans. Array Theorizing Feminisms.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 78-91. Print.
“Global Women’s Rights: CEDAW.” Feminsit Majority Foundation. Ms. Magazine. Web. 6 Dec 2013. <Feminist.org>.
Narayan, Uma. “Cross-cultural Connections, Border-Crossings and “Death by Culture”.” Trans.
Array Theorizing Feminisms. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 62-77. Print.
National Organization for Women (NOW). Web. 6 Dec 2013 <now.org>.
Riley, Stephanie. “”First” and “Third” World Feminism(s); Does Paul Ricoeur’s Philosophy
Offer a Way to Bridge the Gap?.” Ricoeur Studies. University of Pittsburg Press, 2013. Vol. 4, No.1 pg.
57-70. Web. 11 Nov 2013. <ricoeur.pitt.edu>. (Riley)
Talpade-Mohanty, Chandra. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial
Discourse.” On Humanism and the University I: The Discourse of Humanism. Duke
University Press, 1984.Vol.12, No.3 pg. 333-358. Web. 11 Nov 2013. <jstor.org>.