Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed

Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed


Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed 

Edited by Diane Bell and Renate Klein

Publisher: Spinifex Press (1996)

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Since the late 60s radical feminists have worked to articulate a vision of the world in which all women are safe and all women are acknowledged as human beings in their own right. Their analyses of oppression are based on an understanding of the interlocking power of racism, classism, and (hetero)sexism as manifested under patriarchy. Their projects include Take Back the Night campaigns, establishing women’s refuges, rape criss centers, health centers, organizing against pornography and developing courses in Women’s Studies. The richness of the practice and the theory of radical feminism is often misrepresented or unknown. Radically Speaking tells this story. The contributors show the global reach of radical feminism, and what s happening in the former Yugoslavia, in Russia, South Africa, Taiwan and Chile resonates with the experience of women in the USA, Norway, the UL, Australia, Germany, and New Zealand.

The contributors to Radically Speaking show that a radical feminist analysis cuts across class, race, sexuality, region, religion and across the generations. It tis as relevant today as it was twenty-five years ago. Essential reading for Women’s Studies, sociology, cultural studies, political science, philosophy, anthropology, religion and anyone interested in the processes of social change.

Book Excerpt

Section Five: Feminism Reclaimed; Towards Global Feminism: A Muslim Perspective by Mahnaz Afkhami

Waging their struggle in the colonial environment, Third World feminist thinkers have achieved a multicultural ethical and intellectual formation and a plethora of experience relevant to the development of an internationally valid and effective discourse addressing women’s conditions on a global scale. The question is whether this foundation can become a springboard for a global discourse. By definition, such a discourse must transcend the boundaries of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, socialist, capitalist, or any other particular culture. It will be feminist rather than patriarchal, humane rather than ideological, balanced rather than extremist, critical as well as exhortatory.(1) The global feminist discourse recognizes that the problem of women constitutes an issue in its own right, not as a subsidiary of other ideologies, no matter how structurally comprehensive or textually promising they might seem to be. It insists in relating concepts to the historical contexts in which they are embedded (see Delphy: 1987, pp. 80-109). Since “traditional” concepts are by definition founded in patriarchal discourse, global feminism must be skeptical of propositions that present them as liberating. This feminism is not anti-man; rather, it sees the world in humane terms, that is, it seeks a redefinition of social, economic, and political principles of societal organization on the basis of non-paternalistic models. Realizing that such a feat cannot be accomplished without or against men’s participation; it does not hesitate to engage men politically in favor of the feminist cause. On the other hand, given the present effects of the historical process, feminism will be critically aware of and fight against patriarchal structures and institutions. (2)

The global feminist discourse rejects the notion that ‘east’ and ‘west’ constitute mutually exclusive paradigms; rather, it looks at life as evolving for all, and believes that certain humane and morally defensible principles can and should be applied in the west and in the east equally. The point is not that, for example, Iranian women should forget the problems that are obviously ‘Iranian’ and intensely present. It is rather, that unless Iranian feminists think globally, they ill neither be able to mobilize world opinion for they cause, nor succeed in breaking out of the boundaries of patriarchal discourse on their own; and, therefore, they will likely fail to address their problems in a away that will lead to their solution.(3)

At present, of course, reality belies the potential. The disparity in physical and material power between the developed and less-developed countries forces Third World women to withdraw to reactive positions, formulating their discourse in response to the west and its challenges. Consequently, they fail to think globally, that is, to move beyond the Indigenous culture they have objectively outgrown. Their discourse remains nationalistic, parochial, fearful, tradition-bound, and rooted in the soil of patriarchy. The world, however, is undergoing a qualitative change, an important aspect of which may be the tumbling of nation states qua culture boundaries. In the process, women may gain a chance to promote on a world scale the kinds of ideas that are applicable to women everywhere. If they do, Third World women will be able to critique women’s condition in the west from a vantage point that transcends the cultures of Abraham, Buddha, and Confucius and thus will help the women of all ‘worlds of development,’ including Iran.

I am not suggesting therefore that the west be taken as the standard for the evaluation of women’s conditions in Iran. On the contrary, it seems to me that here are significant issues of commission and omission in the western discourse that can be addressed profitably only from the global feminist position. The virtue of the global position is that it partakes of the wisdom of all cultures and that it accommodates differences in the levels of economic and social development without succumbing to either the normlessness of cultural relativism or the self-righteous parochialism of any particular culture.

The heightened awareness of female human rights that exists today throughout the world makes possible a more unified and effective approach to the global feminist movement. Western feminists can help this process but only to an extent, because they are burdened by two severe handicaps. First, they carry the onus of historical western hegemony, even though they themselves are the victims of a taxing patriarchal order (Chaudhuri and Strobel: 1992). Second, their problems as women are often of a different order than the problems of women in Third World countries. Consequently, they appear alternately as self-righteous promoters of their own western culture, when they advocate principles and rights that differ atrociously anti-feminist conditions, when they explain away oppressive behavior in the developing world on the grounds of cultural relativism.

Non-western feminists can be instrumental in the development of a viable global feminism, despite their historical handicap. As the world moves from a disjointed society of nation-states to an increasingly interconnected economic and technological system, and as the symmetry of the enclaves of poverty and backwardness in the development and developing countries is increasingly apparent, it becomes easier for Third World feminists to develop a sense of empathy with their sisters in other parts of the globe. Indeed, unless such empathy is effected and expanded, patriarchal norms, for all practical purposes, will not be transcended and feminism, global or otherwise, will not fully succeed.

It is from this vantage point that the originally myth in the Shii lore (4) may be successfully engaged. Here is a chance for Iranian women to transcend the parochial discourse. By showing at once the similarity in the historical treatment of women in all societies and the need for women to deny the legitimacy of the patriarchal order in all cultures, Iranian women can challenge the claim that here is something unique in Islam that separates it from other human experiences. The goal is to contest the right and legitimacy of Iran’s patriarchal clerical order to be the sole interpreters of the values, norms, and aesthetic standards of Shii Islam– a religion that lies at the core of Iranian culture. The truth is that there is nothing sacred abut a limited and highly protected discourse, developed over centuries by a society of zealous men in order to produce and maintain a regime of control, a major function of which is to keep women in bondage– forever.