In the comments of nearly every big story about feminism in the United states, you’re almost guaranteed to read something to the effect of, “Why are you feminazis wasting so much effort on Hobby Lobby? Haven’t you heard of MANDATORY ISLAMIC VEILING?” Granted, that was better spelled than most and lacks a #Benghazi reference, so it’s not totally authentic, but I’m sure you get the picture.
This is an unusually pernicious thought that floats around the periphery of feminist critique of the United States — and the West in general. It’s rooted in the idea that western feminists spend an inordinate amount of time harping on THEIR problems, like getting Andrea Dworkin’s face on Mt. Rushmore, while ignoring “real” problems affecting women elsewhere in the globe.
Unsurprisingly, this idea is used to discredit feminist arguments, portraying us as a shadowy cabal seeking to impose gender-neutral restrooms on middle America and trying to make white men extinct, willfully ignorant to the tragic violence visited every day on women and girls somewhere “out there.” The precise geographical space of “out there” changes with the times and issues discussed, but favorites are China, India, the Middle East and, of course, the entire country…er…continent of Africa.
This argument, though popular, is flawed and founded on some extraordinarily shaky grounds. Not only do activists have perfectly valid reasons to avoid focusing on problems outside their areas of expertise, but the scope of domestic issues is far greater than our critics are willing to admit.
One reason activists might focus on domestic issues is the checkered history of western humanitarian intervention abroad, which too often can reinforce North/South power dynamics rather than fixing things. Western global hegemony means that concerned citizens in, say, the US, the UK or France can expect their opinions to be heard in Ghana or Bangladesh far more than the inverse. This can lead to a sort of echo chamber where extraordinarily complex ideas and processes are boiled down to a single pat solution. This video, Africa for Norway, illustrates this nicely by putting the shoe on the other foot and demonstrating how reductive many attempts at helping overseas populations are:
Successful NGOs, of which there are many (I work with two that you should check out – TheRules and Canimiz Sokakta / Istanbul Hollaback!) require enormous tact, sensitivity, and local knowledge and guidance to effectively address gender issues abroad. In short, domestic experts, funding, and time. There is no one-size-fits-all method to address gender, reproductive rights and sexuality issues across the entire world, and to argue that American feminists agitating for equal pay in their own nation need to suddenly have a realistic solution for, say, FGM in the Nile Delta, is preposterous and insulting to the networks already dedicated to solving the problem – as if all feminist issues are fundamentally the same. You’ll notice this sort of argument is never leveled against, for example, people who are passionate about early childhood education or building infrastructure. “Why complain about the state of the roads in America? If you really cared about infrastructure you’d build roads in Southern Sudan.” This is because it’s stupid as shit.
More critically, suggesting that feminists should focus on “real” issues abroad diminishes and ignores the very serious problems at home. Problems in the United States, such as decreased reproductive rights, gender-based violence, staggering indices of rape and maternal mortality rates are just now gaining momentum (albeit slowly). However, for the most part these issues are not treated as structural or endemic. This is, notably, the exact opposite of how issues abroad are treated. Note how the bus rapes in New Delhi or the honor killings in the Mediterranean provoke loud outcries and demonizations of the backwards and lust-crazed inhabitants locked in archaic cultures of violence and rape, while rape on our college campuses or misogynic mass murders are dismissed as the work of “crazy” people, or of, course, the faults of the victims themselves. Par for the course, the west seems to be willfully blind to our own deep foundational problems while characterizing poorer and browner nations as uncivilized.
Violence, structural or otherwise, in the developing world is always expected and treated as inevitable, while in our own society, we are constantly and bizarrely surprised, no matter how frequently another “bad apple” pops up. Similarly, our recent religiously-motivated rulings that women have less rights than men (and corporations!) is seen as a non-issue and minor; somehow completely different than the legally mandated subordinate positions of women in many Middle Eastern countries, which can be used as a rationale for ‘humanitarian’ invasion, sanctions, or just general demonization.
All of this goes to say that no matter where you live, the work of feminist activists are necessary and critical. Problems everywhere are complicated and multifarious, and require the work of both local exports and activists to address and solve them. So, if you’re passionate about judicial reform – you’re needed. If you’re passionate about women’s portrayal in the media – you’re needed. If you’re passionate about helping Amazigh women in North Africa -you’re needed (assuming you know what you’re doing and you’re not planning on whitesplaining everything).
There is room for feminist reform in every nation on Earth and certainly enough issues to go around.