International America Day: The problems of creating an “international” day for women

By: 
Shoaib Khan
Date: 
Sunday, March 26th, 2017

International Women’s Day is thought to be a time when women of diverse backgrounds can come together to celebrate the great advances that women have made over the course of human history. For many like Illinois Tech senior Saja Hamayel, a digital humanities student, it can often be a time of great confusion and suspense.

Born in America and raised by Palestinian immigrants, Saja holds a number of views different from those of many Americans. While she identifies as a feminist, she states that “I believe in feminism as a form of equity and not equality, where men and women are different…it’s to treat them according to their abilities”. She nonetheless feels as though many of her more conservative viewpoints would be viewed as “backwards” to most people. This is not too far off from what many other foreign feminists have felt. Nigerian feminist Mojúbàolú Olúfunké Okome, professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College (figure 1), claims that many attempts at promoting feminism were often ways of spreading Euro-American culture. In the book ‘African Women and Feminism’ (edited by Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí) she notes about some women’s conferences “it became clear … that the ideals and norms of Western feminism were the new standards by which feminists from other parts of the world would be judged” (p. 89-92).

Saja gave an example of how marriages are arranged. Saja does not date and views it as an emotional activity, rather than a test for compatibility. The supervision and non-coercive guidance from family is a more useful way to find a spouse who shares similar values. These thoughts are shared by sociology professor Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí (figure 2), who states “as the popular books with telling titles like ‘Smart Women, Foolish Choices’ and ‘Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them’ suggest that personally choosing a marriage partner does not necessarily guarantee personal safety, self-fulfillment, or eternal bliss in marriage.” (ibid. p. 32-33). This, however, would come as a surprise to many Americans.

A Eurocentric basis for examining the world has also spilled over into how we are taught history. Saja recalled how her history lessons had often heavily emphasized western history over foreign history, often to a degree where the latter was distorted. She mentioned how Islam gave property and inheritance rights to women long before many European countries did. She was thus upset that people generally assumed that Islamic history had oppressed women in the same way some European societies did.  She said that “I feel like I've been struggling with this my whole life. The way history and social studies is taught, we don't really learn about other cultures and seeing it as equal, its seen as

‘less-than’”. It is these facts that led Dr. Oyěwùmí to state “global feminism forms a part of Europology – an elaboration of what is distinctly European phenomenon into a human universal – which is then imposed on other cultures" (ibid p. 3 ).

This is not to deny many of the problems that exist in the Muslim world or in Africa.  Saja ,for example, notes how being raised in America gave her more freedom to be more involved outside the home in various activities. She emphasizes, however, that many of these problems should be viewed in their historical context. Various factors such as colonialism, American wars, and others have had harmful effects such as economic exploitation, insecurity, and others. Dr. Oyěwùmí states similar about Africa when she says “in the search for the origins of male dominance, many Western feminists make no reference to history — the history of slavery, imperialism, colonization, and racial domination of non-Western peoples and the emergence of Western hegemony world-wide” (P. 30 -31).  Because of this frame of reference, many feel as though American attempts to help modernize countries are often unintentional efforts to westernize these areas. Saja observes that “the modernization that I do see usually has to do with westernization … they always think that they are better, and whenever they go in, they see [people] need to be fixed ... why are they civil and we are not? ... We still  look through that post-colonialism, imperialist lens where Americans still see other cultures as ‘less-than’.”

This is not to deny the good values within western feminism. Saja has great admiration for the energy and dedication that western feminists have. Their efforts and publicity has allowed them to be heard throughout the country and Saja believes that type of motivation is something we should all strive to emulate. Nonetheless, she and many others seek to critically examine feminism before importing it into other places. Their views must be considered, lest we develop an attitude about others in ways condemned by Edward Said: “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.”