Towards Global Feminism: A Muslim Perspective

Author : Mahnaz Afkhami, Spinifex Press

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 condition 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 model. Realizing that such a feat cannot be accomplished without or against men’s partici­pation; it does not hesitate to engage men pplitically 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 will neither be able to mobilize world opinion for their 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 way 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 challenge. 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 womens 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 there 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 from the tenets of Third World societies, or as self-deprecating defenders of 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 developed 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 originary myth in the Shii lore 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 there 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 about 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 – for ever.4

Notes: * This article is taken from the introduction to Afkhami and Friedl (1994). 1. I realize that these terms are problematic. The function of a global discourse is to define and clarify the concepts invoked by these terms in a way that is suitable to the requirements of an equitable system of gender relations in the twenty-first century, if not earlier in the so-called ‘new world order” (see Kandiyoti: 1991, pp. 23-42). 2. For some possibilities of what might constitute a discourse that has a chance of transcending fixed sexual polarities see Kristeva (1989, pp. 198-217). 3. What appear as obstacles to the development of a global approach to a feminist social and literary criticism – namely, the contemporary emphasis in universities on cultural relativism, on one hand, and on textual and deconstructionist analysis, on the other – may prove a positive force for the future involvement of Third World women in the construction of a global discourse. The transition from parochial/relativistic to a global approach is already taking place as more and more feminist positions are advanced mutually through intellectual representatives of western and non-western cultures. 4. By “originary myth in the Shii lore” I mean the liberating impulse to stand for right and challenge abusive authority. This is said to be the essence of the Shii movement and is symbolized by both men (Husayan, Prophet’s grandson martyred in Karbala) and women (Zynab, Hysayn’s sister and courageous defender). It should be noted that the primeval impulse to freedom is present in all lasting human movements, religious or secular. It is the patriarchal form and content that deny it to women and historically corrupt it everywhere.

In Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed • Diane Bell and Renate Klein (eds.) • Spinifex Press • 1996