Establishing feminist connections across borders
Whether it was Beyoncé’s body literally silhouetted by “FEMINIST” on stage or Malala Yousafzai receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, it is clear that in this past year feminism has received international limelight.
The global presence of feminism has a name: transnational feminism. Transnational feminism is not a new concept but has become increasingly visible as globalization continues to grow and transform.
Leila Rupp is a feminist studies professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She specializes in the study of women’s movements, sexualities and transnational history.
“My work has focused on the history of transnational organizing among women from the late 19th century through the Second World War,” Rupp said. “I wanted to know how and why women came together across national borders — what they saw themselves as having in common, how those definitions drew borders that included some women and excluded others, what issues were central at different points of time, how women build communities across vast distances and what difference their actions made.”
Though the term “transnational feminism” is regularly used, some scholars, like Rupp, prefer the term “transnational feminist activism” or the “transnational women’s movement.”
Rupp said she believes these alternate terms imply the collaboration of feminists from different parts of the world without assuming that all women in all countries are necessarily working toward the same ideals of liberation.
“The concept of transnational feminism assumes that those who identify as feminists in different parts of the world have common goals that can be worked toward together,” Rupp said. “What those goals are and what feminists share differ across time and have always been contentious.”
Ruth Rizkalla is a student at New York University who founded Twelve Nineteen, an online journal that focuses on arts, culture and politics.
Rizkalla’s family is originally from Egypt and she identifies as an Egyptian-American feminist. She said Egyptian feminism is different from American feminism because it has not yet progressed as far.
“They have to fight for the basics — the things that we already have,” Rizkalla said. “It’s almost like Egyptian feminism is still in what America would have called its ‘second-wave feminism.’”
Second-wave feminism took place in the 1960s and ’70s and focused on issues such as reproductive rights and sexuality, making it a more radical movement than first-wave feminism. First-wave feminism began in the late 19th century and focused on women’s suffrage. Feminist scholars now claim the United States is in its third-wave of feminism.
Laws often dictate the rights that females have in the United States through issues such as suffrage and reproductive rights. In other countries, such as Egypt, female dress and behavior are not determined by legislation. Instead, women are influenced by society’s norms.
“There are cultural and societal expectations for women to act certain ways,” Rizkalla said. “Though it isn’t legislated what a woman can and cannot wear, women in Egypt still cannot wear short sleeves and tank tops in certain areas.”
Rizkalla said she believes the United States needs to continue to work toward equality and fully fix American problems before moving the focus of inequality to other countries, though she said she does believe different feminist communities can work together.
Rupp agreed and said if Western feminism were to infiltrate international societies, it would be more or less a form of imperialism.
“What is crucial is to recognize that those issues play out differently for women depending on their social locations,” Rupp said. “The concept that Western feminism is the model that should spread elsewhere in the world is itself a form of colonialism that overlooks indigenous forms of feminist organizing.”
Rupp said she makes sure to emphasize that acknowledging the value of diverse models of feminism does not eliminate the overlap of certain issues between different cultural communities.
“It is not to say that there are no issues, such as reproductive justice, control of women’s sexuality and violence against women that affect women of different races, classes and nations or that there are no issues that cross from the global North to the global South,” she said.
Rizkalla said she believes feminist groups from around the world can work together, despite their cultural, and sometimes ideological, differences.
“American feminists should reach out to Egyptian feminists, but I don’t think it should happen through American foreign policy,” Rizkalla said. “American feminists can reach out, but they need to understand the history of Egyptian feminism and the present social climate beforehand.”
Rizkalla also said Western women need to understand that what Western culture may view as oppressive may not align with what Middle Eastern women think is oppressive.
“For example, Western women need to understand that the hijab is not inherently oppressive,” Rizkalla said. “Denying women the right to choose how they dress is oppressive. Western women need to understand that some Middle Eastern women want to wear the hijab.”
Rizkalla said she believes it is through understanding and forming a sense of community that women can be internationally beneficial to one another and the transnational feminist movement.
“It shouldn’t be just Western feminists reaching out, supporting the idea of the American savior complex,” Rizkalla said. “The feminist movement should have facilitation of ideas and support that transcends religion, color and borders.”
Charlotte Robertson is a freshman integrated marketing communications major who asks the question, “Who runs the world?” and always answers, “Girls.” You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.