Who gets to define feminism?

With contemporary feminism going global from its origins as an originally 1960’s American movement, the way various groups absorb or reject feminism in their own cultures is an intriguing subject.

The topic crossed my mind when I was attending a career seminar for students interested in working in Japan. Five of us sat in a small room in the Michigan League, listening to an agent from a recruiting company explain the job search process in Japan.

After the seminar was done, the agent asked if we had any questions. One female student raised her hand and asked how working conditions were for women in domestic Japanese companies versus Japanese subsidiaries of foreign companies. The agent calmly answered the latter was better for women.

I was shocked by the casualness of the whole exchange. In the agent and student’s voices, there was an assumption that the geezer male executives in domestic companies wouldn’t do anything for women. There was also a tone of defeatism. To the female attendees, it was an immovable fact of life that working as a woman in Japan will be subpar when compared to men, but it couldn’t be helped (or as we like to say in Japan, shikata ga nai).

And their attitude is understandable. Only 12.1 percent of women in Japan are in managerial roles as of the 2016-17 fiscal year, a far cry from the government’s stated objective of 30 percent by 2020, which they since abandoned in 2015. Women are still expected to cut their careers short when they start having children. The Supreme Court of Japan decided in 2015 that married couples cannot legally have separate last names, and not to mention the notorious groping and molestation on public transportation, which in turn is fetishized in adult media.

(This isn’t to say Japan is some sort of hellish dystopia for women. Though it may be lacking when compared to Europe and the United States, it still fares better than most other countries. But it’s also understandable that Japanese international students, upon experiencing the superior conditions in the U.S. and especially in liberal Ann Arbor, can’t go back to the world they knew before.)

I just listed facts lamenting the lack of progress for women in Japan, but if someone else were to say that to me, I would be defensive about it. It’s similar to how if some foreigner criticized the U.S.’s atrocious record on environmental causes or role as world police; I know we’re doing terribly and I know the criticism wasn’t personal, but no one wants to believe their neighbors are bad people.

“We live in different cultures,” I’d say. “We have our own way of dealing with internal issues.” 

This defensiveness, I feel, is an obstacle for feminism going forward globally.

When Black women became tired of middle-class white feminism and the male-dominated civil rights movement, they created Black and intersectional feminism, with the notion that sexism, racism, class oppression and gender identity are linked together. But can we reproduce that on a global scale?

Take female genital mutilation as an example. Though women (and men, including myself) in the West think it’s a horrible and inhumane idea, the practitioners may be wondering why college-educated white women feel entitled to decide what they want to do with their child. Indeed, some anthropologists have criticized Western opposition to FGM as cultural imperialism and the imposition of Judeo-Christian morals.

Another example would be the treatment of women in Islam. Certain sections of Islamic texts can be read as oppressive to women in a Western context: For instance, a section in the Quran says that a woman’s testimony in court is equal to half of that of a man. Many Muslim-majority countries follow this custom in some or most legal cases. The Quran also explicitly states there are only two genders in this world, in direct contrast to progressive Western ideals.

It is understandable why many liberals and feminists are silent on this issue; they know Islamophobes and far-right elements have used this argument to sow division in multicultural societies. But philosophically speaking, it does beg the question of why moral relativism overrides universal human rights in certain areas but not others.

If feminism were to become a truly universal movement penetrating people of all nations, genders and classes, it would need to be able to resolve this internal conflict. For feminism is about giving all women the freedom to choose, but if a woman chooses to live under what we in the West call “oppression,” would it be acceptable?

Philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote in “The Subjection of Women” in 1869 that men have successfully conditioned women’s minds to view oppression and subjugation as a form of benevolent paternalism. But who are we in the West to tell women in other cultures that their choice is locked under certain invisible constraints set by their patriarchs?

As numerous feminist scholars have argued over this and haven’t produced a universally accepted answer, and I am not a woman, I cannot claim to answer it.

Who defines feminism? It’s a food for thought during Women’s History Month.

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