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Can White Women Contribute to Transnational Feminism?

The role of white women in transnational feminism has been heavily debated in feminist circles. Postcolonial and Black feminist thinkers like Uma Narayan, Lila Abu-Lughod, and Melchor Hall all have concerns about white, middle-class women from Western nations leading transnational feminist movements. While I do understand the problems that these thinkers have, I also believe that keeping the caveats and concerns that these writers express in mind will allow white women from the West to contribute in a more helpful, responsible, and less ethnocentric manner. 


Uma Narayan is a postcolonial thinker who writes about the “death by culture” problem and the information that crosses borders. She writes about how ethnocentrism colors their perceptions of events in other societies. She believes that Western feminists who do cross-cultural analysis miss the effect of national context on feminist issues and instead focus on the “Otherness” of non-Western cultures as the reason that certain problematic practices take place. 


For example, American feminists often attribute dowry murder to Hinduism instead of the fact that it is just a practical form of domestic violence, which is endemic in all societies worldwide. Narayan questions this, asking, “Why do they make no connection between the ‘foreign’ phenomenon of dowry murder and the ‘familiar’ phenomenon of domestic violence? What difficulties stand in the way of this connection being made?” 


To solve the issue, Narayan proposes that “transnational cooperation and solidarity among feminists depends on all of us better understanding issues of ‘context’ and ‘comparative understanding.’” If Western feminists want to participate in transnational cooperation, they must work to deepen their understanding of context instead of mistakenly attributing particular issues to “culture.”


Othering different cultures will not allow communication of shared goals and priorities. Lila Abu-Lughod expresses similar concerns; she focuses mainly on the relationship between Western feminism, their skepticism toward Islamic societies, and their treatment of women. 


In post-9/11 America, “there was a consistent resort to the culture as if knowing something about Islam or the meaning of a religious ritual would help one understand the tragic attack on New York’s World Trade Center.” Abu-Lughod is frustrated by this, writing that “instead of political and historical explanations, experts were being asked to give religious or cultural ones. Instead of questions that might lead to examining internal political struggles among groups in Afghanistan or global interconnections between Afghanistan and other nation-states, we were offered one that worked to artificially divide the world into separate spheres- recreating an imaginative geography of West versus East.”


Often used to support colonialism, as exemplified by the British in India using the plight of Indian women as justification for colonial rule; the United States and the invasion of Afghanistan used this same tactic. She writes that “suspicion about bedfellows… was only a first step needed for our rethinking… First, we might have to accept the possibility of difference Second, I argued that we should be vigilant about the rhetoric of saving others because of what it betrays about our attitudes” (Abu-Lughod 43). Abu-Lughod’s main point is that Western feminist movements must avoid white saviors and impose Western values; I agree with this assertion and believe accepting differences will be necessary for transnational activism.


Melchor Hall writes in the context of the field of international relations. Her main goal is to challenge international mainstream ties and incorporate the living legacies of Black feminists. She acknowledges that international relations as an academic discipline are built on white male privilege. Anything that analyzes international relations differently has been labeled outside the norm and “othered.” Hence, it is essential to integrate the points of view of Black women into this canon


There are a lot of problems within the academic discipline, mainly that international relations scholarship tends to analyze issues of oppression and not effectively end it. To combat this white male dominance of IR, Hall writes about her “five guiding principles- intersectionality, scholar-activism, solidarity, attention to borders/boundaries, and radically transparent author positionality.” 


Most importantly for white feminists to learn from, solidarity is not equivalent to being the same, and “solidarity across diverse communities requires that feminists of the Global South be able to hold feminists of the Global North accountable to shared goals, and vice versa.” For Western feminists to participate in transnational movements, they must be aware of their position to see power structures that affect everyone they will work with over time.


Ultimately, I wholeheartedly agree with the criticisms that these thinkers put forth. I believe that Western feminists can still have a place in a transnational network, and it can be an opportunity for Western feminists to transform some of their preconceived notions about women from other parts of the world into contextualized, factual knowledge about the concerns and needs of women in the Global South. 


Western feminism has long hegemonized global feminist movements and scholarship. Western feminists should interact with these frameworks in a new way to bolster the voices of historically marginalized women. Although it will require quite a bit of intentionality and detaching from ethnocentric notions of other societies and cultures, I believe that Western feminists have the potential to be able to contribute in a positive, thoughtful manner. It is the responsibility of an oppressor, even an unwitting one, to account for their mistakes and proceed differently; still participating in networks they used to dominate is an integral part of that. 

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