Divya Gumudavelly: Reconciling feminism and multiculturalism

Thursday, September 26, 2019 - 3:02pm

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The Michigan Daily

The origins of Western feminist thought in the early 1900s were rooted in political and sociological theories of gender differences, a certain angst that came with the patriarchal institutions that dictated day-to-day lives. The movement that emerged from this struggle became intent on altering the prominent perspectives on where women stand in Western society. While the movement maintains its objective to advocate for equality on the grounds of gender identity, its members are often ignorant of the other intersections that characterize an individual, namely culture and ethnicity.

Women of color not only have to fight the centuries-strong patriarchy and its debilitating effects in all stratospheres of life, but they also have to fight within the feminist movement itself to have their voices represented equally to those of white women. In the era of Western feminist imperialism, we must critically examine our discourse and actions and how they’ve created a new conflict between multiculturalism and feminism. Surely both can coexist. But do they? Historically, Western colonialism has systematically subdued people of color through action and intent. Currently, Western ideologies are establishing the notion of gendered orientalism, a misrepresentation of “other women” and their rights through incomplete dialogues and stereotyped viewpoints on a global, national and local scale. The central tenets of Western feminism typically, though not always, revolve around shared and accepted beliefs: a world without misogynistic violence, where pay parity is the norm and women have the freedom of choice. The context in which these are explored, however, needs to be one of cultural humility, which means understanding how certain cultural ideas compare and contrast with what people consider “expertise.”

As evolved from colonial thought, there is a ubiquitous, unacknowledged notion that Western philosophies present other cultures through a pitied, stereotypical viewpoint — which is also evidenced in the global feminist movement. For instance, the 2015 documentary “India’s Daughter,” directed by British filmmaker Leslee Udwin, offers a detailed and sobering account of the 2012 gang rape and murder incident of a young woman in India. While shedding light onto the cultural divide that galvanized a new movement in an image-conscious country, the film’s portrayal of the victim, Jyoti Singh, as a daughter propagates a rather dangerous notion as to who Indian women are and when their rights are worth fighting for. The film’s Western gaze constructs a narrow, almost two-dimensional image of who Indian women are. Jyoti is reduced to a cultural stereotype — a virtuous, pure and hard-working student who needed protection. 

The film casts her as an abstract symbol exploited by those who knew and wronged her. Hence, she is reduced to these people’s thoughts of her, which is further muddled by the direction of a Western filmmaker. Her memory and existence in the history of the world are completely defined by one aspect of her identity — an Indian daughter — and her gruesome fate is misrepresented as a consequence of a culture that subjugates women. While these cultural tropes are not necessarily untrue, it is important to note that the crime was heinous because it was committed, not because it was committed against a pious Indian woman. 

Apart from globally reducing culturally-charged, feminist narratives to mere stereotypes, on a national level, Western feminism is ruptured in that advocacy is rooted in fulfilling Caucasian agendas that do not necessarily apply to minority populations. As Chandra Mohanty writes in her essay “Under the Western Eyes,” white feminism often overshadows without encompassing the complexities of colored experiences. A common topic of discussion, especially in today’s sociopolitical climate, is the income inequality that exists between men and women. The narrative that women make 82 cents for every dollar that a man makes is incomplete and ignorant of broader systemic problems. Yet the full, racialized picture rarely receives as much attention as the fragmented one does. 

The startlingly large wage gap in the U.S. between women of color and white women is a discussion that is limited to political debate but little ground level recognition and action. The onset of new age feminism, dubbed the Fourth Wave of Feminism, carries the successes of the legacies created before it — voter equality, governmental representation, etc. — but compounds on the faults of the eras before it as well. It lacks intersectionality. Just like how women of color received the right to vote much later than white women, the war for equal pay seems to be serving only a portion of the population. The majority of the advocacy surrounding this issue is changing perceptions to lead to systemic changes. The perception becomes that women choose jobs that pay less, thus women deserve less pay when they choose to have children, hence women are not as professionally capable as men. 

Perceptions, however, are multilayered. The schema for a Black or brown woman is very different from the schema for a white woman, and so there must be room in the feminist movement for women of all intersecting identities to speak for and represent their experiences. The Western feminist framework must expand to value minority experiences as much as it values white ones and must find place in the collective consciousness of society and not just in political debates. 

On a local level, feminist discourse must translate to actions — ones that are inclusive, intersectional and champions of multiculturalism. Protests like the national Women’s March or even campus-wide ones must emphasize the experiences of both minority and white women so that these experiences are woven into an overarching narrative rooted in multiculturalism. All women, regardless of whether they fit stereotypical Western images, deviate from Westernized agendas or otherwise, deserve representation and equal rights. 

Divya Gumudavelly can be reached at gumudadi@umich.edu.