Each week I have done my best to relate the topic of discussion to myself and my life in some way so as to better understand it. Although since I am a Northern Virginia native, I warn you that the remainder of this post will most likely be my ramblings as I untangle the complicated web built by understanding global feminism. This week, I am concerned that I will not be able to relate global women’s issues back to myself in any way other than to say that it is challenging for me to understand them. In my personal context, this means that I have grown up to think and act a certain way (as I will explain further on), and while I certainly understand and respect that their culture is different than mine, it is not the same and I therefore am far more challenged to put myself in their shoes. This means that when asked what kind of problems women face globally, I don’t fully have an answer.
Chandra Mohanty’s article “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” is incredibly complex, although the highlight that I gained from reading it is as follows: we as people of the world tend to group women into one, with all the same thoughts, ideas, needs, and perspectives. Of course we know this is not the case, and as she continues to explain, women of “first world” and “third world” countries face very different issues and have incredibly different needs. Mohanty goes on to further explain that we group all “third world” women into one, while we should very well know to take into account the fact that not all developing countries are the same, and therefore not all women within them. To dig one last layer deeper, housewives in these countries and their maids will not be affected in the same way by political or any other changes.
The message that I gather most from Mohanty’s work is that people are not created equal and that in the long run, we all face different experiences and lifestyles that are prescribed to us for a multitude of different reasons. My experiences growing up in Northern Virginia will most certainly be different from the experience of a five year old girl or a fifty year old woman living in Iraq or Hungary.
As a member of society in the United States, I have been raised to “dress appropriately” (i.e. shorts or skirts that cover my butt and go at least to my fingertips, shirts and dresses that are not too revealing, etc.), “speak appropriately” (i.e. no curse words, especially around children), and “act appropriately” (i.e. inside voices, walking and not running, shaking hands when you meet someone, looking people in the eye when you speak, etc.).
Thinking in a global context, however, I have to constantly remind myself that everything I learned was “appropriate” in the United States may very well not be considered as such in other countries. This is a huge point that Lila Abu-Lughod makes in her forum “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others.” She makes a point to discuss what we in the U.S. see as one of the biggest restrictions of Muslim women’s freedom: the burqa. To us, we see it as representation of the idea that women are a disgrace and they should not be seen— therefore our country was confounded when the Afghan women were “liberated,” only to continue dressing as they always had. Abu-Lughod explains the importance of seeing this from their perspective, for in Afghanistan, where the burqa is a symbol of modesty and purity, it made no sense for them to suddenly change their wardrobe to something they have grown up to consider improper and impure.
So if the big picture that Mohanty and Abu-Lughod paint is that we must recognize the differences between our culture and others as well as the differences that arise when economic and political structures are not all consistent, is it truly fair for the author of “The Thong vs. The Veil” to compare the U.S. to Afghanistan? The first question posed in this piece is of the people we see on TV, who gains more respect? The Afghan woman so fully covered that all we can see is her eyes? Or the African American woman dressed so scantily that there is little we can not see? Based on what the two aforementioned articles state, this is just shy of tantamount to comparing apples and oranges. While the rest of the article is dedicated to discussing the fact that Afghan women seemed to have progressed more than the United Stated have prior to the intervention of the Taliban, the opening statement remains the most memorable.
Perhaps this suggests that “the big picture” is even bigger than respecting our differences; perhaps the big picture is to ensure that not only our minds respect these differences, but also our words and actions to boot.
Mohanty, Chandra. 1988. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Feminist Review 30:61-88.
Abu-Lughod, Lila. 2002. “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others.” American Anthropologist 104(1):783-90.
The Black Electorate. (2001). The Thong Vs. The Veil.