Friday, March 21, 2008

Race Above Gender

As you know I am a feminist. However, I do need to qualify that. I am a South Asian, Muslim, feminist. And there is an important reason I must qualify this. It specifies, to a certain extent, where I stand on issues.

Western feminism has not traditionally been very good at including non-Western, non-White women. And although, wonderfully things have come a long way, and sincere and definite efforts have been made to include 'other' women, there are still serious problems.

Western feminism still makes assumptions about Western "normalcy." "If we can do it, so can you." And I am not even speaking of the age old dilemma of Western feminism imposing their views on other countries. Many Western feminists are working to rectify this attitude. I am speaking of Western feminism imposing it's views on minority women in North America.

There is a stream of feminists, and from what I understand a prominent one, which expresses disgust with their fellow feminists' choice to sleep with or marry men. The heterosexual relationship, especially marriage, is seen as maintaining patriarchy. Many feminists have chosen lesbianism as a form of protesting patriarchy. And to be honest I can see the relationship between heterosexual relationships and patriarchy very well. Heterosexual relationships do encourage patriarchal behaviours from men and women. However, why run away from the problem? Why not change the meanings of heterosexual relationships? Granted this will be an uphill battle but there are many foot soldiers in the ranks and from within we can try to change the meanings behind heterosexual relationships.

As a South Asian woman, for whose culture marriage and children are so important, this demand of many Western feminists is extremely unfair and yes, even racist. In South Asian, as well as many other "Eastern" cultures, family is central to life, and necessary to family is marriage. By demanding that we, to fight patriarchy, not get married to men is highly unfair and pretentious. How dare they?
The importance many of us place on family often comes in conflict with many Western feminist expectations. So many of us desire to remain close to family. Yet, many Western feminist scholarly agendas tell us to place career/academics etc as our first priority, not considering our cultural contexts. To not do so somehow makes us lesser feminists.
Additionally, Western feminism's critcisms of the men from our ethnic background places us in a very uncomfortable position. As a South Asian woman I cannot ignore the patriarchy in our culture. I cannot disregard the mistreatment of South Asian women at the hands of South Asian men. However, I refuse to 'sell out' my men so that Western feminists can further stigmatize my people. After all, I know many South Asian men who will stand by at every turn. I know many South Asian men who support me and love me. I know many South Asian men who care for and love the women in their lives. I refuse to sell out my father, brother, uncles, and friends so that I can unite with the Western feminists who will use the information against my culture. Yes, I am saying it now, that for me, my ethnicity and my race is more identifying than is my gender. I feel a greater connection with my counterpart men.
My race and gender cannot be separated. I cannot experience being a woman without experiencing being of colour. And in the world in which we live today, my colour and my religion stigmatize me much more than my gender.


Melinda said...

I've heard of the "becoming"-lesbian phenomenon as a movement within radical feminism, but I've never been aware of it as any major movement of feminism. I don't know of any feminists, famous or in person, who advocate this or impose it on women in other countries. Beyond that, marriage — or at least heterosexual relationships — and family, children, etc. are central to most cultures, including ones that fall within the "Western" label.

Anonymous said...

Great post! And I like your new layout!

Farheen said...

Sorry for the very late response. The becoming lesbian movement, form my understanding, is quite well known (though I had never heard of it before this semester). However, I don't think it's followed as much as some feminists would like it to be. Michelle Fine is one of the names who advocates against heterosexual marriages from what I understand.

Marriage has a different meaning for Western/Northern cultures than it does for Eastern/Southern ones. Not to say one is better than the other, just different. The West/North is guided by individualistic ideas and the East/South by collectivistic ones.

My reference had much to do with the clash that many Eastern/Southern - in this case South Asian - feminists have with Western/Northern feminism in regards to placing family above career, research etc. This was based on personal experiences of my own as well as close friends.

Farheen said...



Melinda said...

Mm, family/career; that makes sense. Thanks for the clarification. Nevertheless, I'm not completely comfortable with the "West/North" vs. "East/South" binary and corresponding generalizations. For example, when I look at Hungary (and presumably surrounding countries in Central/Eastern Europe, considered part of "the Western world"), patriarchy is very strong — more overtly so than in the United States and possibly Western Europe (although I don't have experience to speak with any authority about the latter), so different issues apply. I doubt feminist discourse in Hungary is the same as that in the United States and Canada (e.g. homosexuality is completely unacceptable in Hungarian society, which is more conservative than the Anglo-based societies). Additionally, society does not promote individualism; the prevailing attitude is to act like everyone else, the fear "What will the neighbors think?"

Also, I'm curious to hear more on your thoughts on the career/family clash.

Farheen said...

Ahh. I see what you're saying. No doubt the whole West/North, East/South labels are not the most accurate. They do not cover everything and yes lead to unforunate generalizations. I guess when I say West/North I am referring to mainly North America and northern Europe.

The career family clash is a tough one. Even within my department I am often too scared to tell certain professors and even students that having a family is extremely important to me, even more so than career. I cannot see myself becoming a "traditional" housewife but I do place more importance on family. And not just my future one but my current one too. I live far from home and when I go would like to spend extended amounts of time there yet the guilt of staying away from the program for too long tries to hinder me. It is just my stubborness at this point which ignores the guilt and has me go anyway.

I think we have to set a different standard. If people like myself who claim to be feminists and career enhancing insist on giving family the priority we really want to then there will begin to be more acceptance. A close friend of mine who is also South Asian is just finishing up her PhD and she says that she has seen a difference in attitude in the department because her, and couple of other South Asian students, insisted on giving their families high priority. They have performed in the program very well too and so no one really has had reason to complain. So things can change but I think we have to start insisting on things - in numbers if possible.