The West and other Feminisms

Cheryl McEwan. Handbook of Cultural Geography. Editor: Kay Anderson, Mona Domosh, Steve Pile, Nigel Thrift. Sage Publications. 2003.

Most recent commentators on cultural geography recognize the significant impact of feminist theory (Baldwin et al., 1999; Crang, 1998; Jackson, 1989; Mitchell, 2000). This is reflected both in the subject of inquiry and in the theoretical underpinnings of cultural geography. Concerns with the cultural politics of gender, identity, sex and sexuality at a variety of different scales (from body to nation) and in a variety of different spaces (homes, communities, cities and imaginative spaces) point toward a reinvigorated and politically relevant cultural geography. Against this backdrop, this chapter explores the implications of recent debates and developments within international feminism for cultural geography. At an abstract level, assumptions by western feminists about what their political project entails have been called into question by a range of criticisms concerned with dislocating western centrism. Encounters with different feminisms and different gender relations have raised issues about what exactly it means to be feminist and have ensured that a western-centric political vision is no longer desirable. Criticism of white western feminism from commentators from both north and south has been significant in breaking down western centrism and has major implications for what feminist cultural geographies might look like, both in the west and in ‘other’ places.

In what follows, I review the major debates between ‘western’ and ‘other’ feminisms, tracing the emergence of a powerful body of criticism from the south and, more recently, from post-communist countries. Of particular significance are the moves towards cultural explanations within feminism, how these have often been inspired by and related to the challenges posed by anti-western-centric approaches, and the debates arising from these developments. Critiques of western feminism have exposed its previously unacknowledged ethnocentrism by focusing on discourse and representation, exploring the ways in which culturally located western feminisms perpetuate entrenched power relations and the ‘othering’ of non-western women and non-western modes of thought. Having first outlined the major points of these critiques, in the subsequent sections of the chapter I explore the impacts of the debates inspired by them on feminist theory, on the possibilities of formulating an international feminist agenda, and finally on feminist cultural geographies. I trace the beginnings of attempts to dislocate the western centrism of cultural geography, explore some of the differences this has made to rethinking specifically feminist geographical issues, and also reflect on how cultural geographies might contribute to these feminist debates. I make some suggestions for new areas of research arising from, through and beyond the dilemmas raised by these debates, which challenge some of the assumptions at the heart of western-based feminist cultural geographies. Finally, I map out the most pressing issues that future feminisms have to contend with, and how these might inform cultural geographies.

The Turn towards Culture: Feminisms and Responses from beyond the West

Western feminisms are largely engaged in critiquing the Enlightenment and its offshoots in modernity. These theoretical contestations have been the standard battleground for much of today’s social, political and social science rhetoric and a site of substantial theoretical exchange and deliberation. Until the 1980s, there was a tendency to assume a commonality in the forms of women’s oppression and activism worldwide (for example, Morgan, 1984). Many western feminists assumed that their political project was universal, and that women globally faced the same universal forms of oppression. However, divisions among women based on nationality, race, class, religion, region, language and sexual orientation have proved more divisive within and across nations than western theorists acknowledged or anticipated. Indeed, it was the assumption of sameness, which many assumed reflected an ethnocentric and middle-class bias, that incurred the resentment of many ‘Third World’ women. This surfaced at the UN conferences on women in Mexico City (1975) and Copenhagen (1980), where deep divisions were generated between women from the north and south. Heated debates at these conferences highlighted the profound differences amongst women across the global divides of north and south as well as within south and north along class and political lines. The theoretical fallout from these debates is an emphasis on difference as opposed to universalism. Political economy approaches have been condemned and largely rejected for stereotyping ‘Third World’ women as passive victims of global exploitation, and there has been a general turn towards cultural explanations of gender within feminism. In addition, critiques of western feminism are not confined to the west and its former colonies. There is now a significant body of criticism emanating from women in post-communist countries of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union (see Drakuli¢, 1993; Einhorn, 1993; Funk and Mueller, 1993). A number of core issues underpin these critiques and the broader shift towards cultural explanations, the consequences of which have been efforts to develop new ways of feminist theorizing and practice, which in turn inform feminist approaches within geography.

Destabilizing Dominant Discourses

Critics have stressed the need to destabilize the dominant discourses of imperial Europe, such as history, philosophy, linguistics and feminism. These discourses are unconsciously ethnocentric, rooted in European cultures and reflective of a dominant western worldview. Alternative approaches problematize the very ways in which the world is known, challenging the unacknowledged and unexamined assumptions at the heart of European and American disciplines that are profoundly insensitive to the meanings, values and practices of other cultures. Since the 1980s, black feminists, in particular, have explored the ways in which feminism is historically located in the dominant discourses of the west, a product of western cultural politics and therefore reflecting western understandings of sexual politics and gender relations. Indeed, in many cultures (particularly in the south) feminism is associated with cultural imperialism. In a germinal essay in 1984, for example, Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar trace the historical relationship between western feminism and imperial ideologies, institutions and practices. They argue that like gender, the category of feminism emerged from the historical context of modern European colonialism and anti-colonial struggles; histories of feminism must therefore engage with its imperialist origins.

Western feminism’s unbecoming past was first exposed in the 1970s. Critics of the racism inherent in US women’s suffrage movements, such as Angela Davis (1982) and Ellen Dubois (1978), inspired an outpouring of critical work by black feminists (Anzaldua and Moraga, 1981; Lorde, 1984; Rich, 1986). Black feminist theory and politics began to have a significant influence on feminism. In the British context, careful literary and historical work has made it impossible to refute the claim that white British women’s historical experience, in all its complexity and variation, was bound up culturally, economically and politically with imperial concerns and interests. As Burton argues, however, the original intention of Amos and Parmar’s essay was ‘not to clear the way for a more politically accountable historiography of Euro-American women’s movements, but rather to make space for histories of black women, women of colour, and anti-colonialist and nationalist women’ (1999: 218). She contends that,

Before the 1980s, it was possible for even some of the most accomplished feminist historians in the West to express surprise that there had been women’s movements and feminist cultures outside Europe and North America before the 1960s, even as they failed to realise the neocolonialist effect this kind of ignorance was having on the production of postcolonial counter-histories. (1999: 218)

Chandra Mohanty (1991) offered an enormously influential analysis of the insufficiency of western epistemological frameworks for recovering, let alone understanding, the cultural and historical meanings of women’s experiences and structural locations outside the west. Mohanty’s criticism of the invisibility of black and Third World women in histories of feminism precipitated an outpouring of publications. These focused especially on Indian and Egyptian women’s movements (Badran, 1995; Baron, 1994; Jayawardena, 1995; Southard, 1995), but also on countries and cultures having less self-evident (or less well-known) relationships to European empires, such as Iran (Afary, 1996; Kandiyoti, 1991; Shahidian, 1995). The outcome of this feminist and anti-imperialist scholarship has been an attempt to reorient western feminisms, such that they are perceived no longer as exclusive and dominant but as part of a plurality of feminisms, each with a specific history and set of political objectives. As discussed, contrary to the widespread belief that the inspiration, origins and relevance of feminism are bourgeois or western, related to a particular ideology, strategy or approach, it is now recognized that feminism does not simply originate in the west. There are many incidents of precolonial women’s movements around the world and various forms of feminism have existed and continue to exist across cultures.

Black feminist critiques have also offered more profound examinations of the racism and ethnocentrism at the heart of western feminisms. As bell hooks argues,

All too frequently in the women’s movement it was assumed one could be free of sexist thinking by simply adopting the appropriate feminist rhetoric; it was further assumed that identifying oneself as oppressed freed one from being an oppressor. To a grave extent such thinking prevented white feminists from understanding and overcoming their own sexist-racist attitudes toward black women. They could pay lip-service to the idea of sisterhood and solidarity between women but at the same time dismiss black women. (1984: 8-9)

The relationship between western and ‘other’ feminisms has often been adversarial. This is partly because of the failure of white women to recognize the power that structures relationships with black women that is also a legacy of imperialism, and partly because the concepts central to feminist theory in the west become problematic when applied to black women. One example is the explanation given for the inequalities in gender relations. Many black and ‘Third World’ feminists object to western feminists who see men as the primary source of oppression. Assumptions at the heart of white western feminisms do not reflect the experience of black women (Carby, 1983; Nain, 1991). This is because for black women there is no single source of oppression; gender oppression is inextricably bound up with ‘race’ and class. Furthermore, in many cultures black women often feel solidarity with black men and do not advocate separatism; they struggle with black men against racism, and against black men over sexism. This debate has generated theories that attempt to explain the interrelationship of multiple forms of black women’s oppression, such as race, class, imperialism and gender, without arguing that all oppression derives ultimately from men’s oppression of women.

Similar criticisms have been levelled at understandings of the public-private dichotomy. A large part of western feminist (and feminist geographical) literature is dedicated to critiquing the separation of public and private spheres, arguing that it devalues women’s contribution to society, and that it has been used to confine women and inhibit their input. A major problem with this kind of criticism is that it ignores the contentions of some feminists in other parts of the world that the private realm does indeed exist separately from the public one, but that both domains are needed and political. For example, instead of motherhood being a private occupation forced on some women, which limits their political inputs or contributions, it is actually reconstructed as a chosen political occupation with important social and economic repercussions. The activities of some Islamist feminists and the Argentinian Mothers of the Disappeared are examples of where women have sought an empowering ‘private’ function, challenging western feminist assumptions about the home, family and motherhood being sites of oppression. These assumptions have also begun to be challenged within geography (in particular, Gillian Rose’s 1993 discussion of home and family, and the work of Sarah Radcliffe and Sallie Westwood, 1996, on Ecuador). However, there is a tendency in much feminist geography to implicitly rely upon western-centric notions of public-private spheres. More broadly, many poor women of the south resent the bourgeois preoccupations of western feminisms. Economic exploitation and political oppression, as well as provision of basic needs such as clean water and children’s education, are seen as more pertinent than issues of sexual politics and gender oppression which often motivate middle-class feminism in the north (Schech and Haggis, 2000: 88).

Similar tensions exist between women in eastern and western Europe. As Funk (1993: 319) argues, these tensions cause tremendous bitterness and suspicion on both sides, and are especially marked in reunified Germany. They are generated by the real structural power and economic imbalances between eastern and western European women, but also by power imbalances at the level of discourse, where western notions are hegemonic within feminism, risking the suppression and distortion of post-communist women’s concerns. Eastern European women resent the imposition of western cultural and economic values, which extend even down to the level of fashions and the way different women dress. There are negative stereotypes on both sides, and differences in culture, socialization and personality. As Funk (1993: 320) argues, like their southern counterparts, women in former state socialist countries appear to be more oriented than western feminists toward children and family. They have different attitudes toward the individual and the collective and to authority, and are more sceptical of the benefits of paid work. They often have different attitudes toward men and toward collective action. A moralistic rejection by some western feminists of post-communist cultural differences risks a failure to recognize that the family was often a refuge from state control, in much the same way that the family in other cultures has been a refuge from slavery and imperialism. Differences in tradition, culture, personality, beliefs and desires, therefore, demand the interrogation and destabilization of dominant western feminist discourses. There is a need to ‘provincialize’ (Chakrabarty, 1992) western feminisms rather than see them as a paradigmatic form of feminism per se.

The Politics of Speaking and Writing

Critics have also challenged the experiences of speaking and writing by which dominant discourses come into being, focusing on the problematic relationship between women in the north and south (and especially between white women and those in the former colonies). For example, a term such as ‘the Third World’ homogenizes peoples and countries and carries other associations – economic backwardness, the failure to develop economic and political order, and connotations of a binary contest between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ ‘self and ‘other’ (Darby, 1997: 2-3). These practices of naming are not innocent. Rather they are part of the process of ‘worlding’ (Spivak, 1990), or setting apart certain parts of the world from others, with roots located historically in imperialism. Edward Said (1978) has shown how knowledge is a form of power, and by implication violence; it gives authority to the possessor of knowledge. Knowledge has been, and to large extent still is, controlled and produced in the west. As we have seen, feminism is not innocent of this. The power to name, represent and theorize is still located here, a fact that ‘other’ feminisms seek to disrupt by challenging perceived western arrogance and ethnocentrism, and incorporating the voices of marginalized peoples.

Women in the south have been particularly concerned with contesting the power to name, including the use of terms such as ‘primitive,’ ‘native,’ ‘traditional’ and ‘Third World women.’ Their complaint is that western feminism has the power to speak for women elsewhere. This has not changed since colonial times; black women are still denied a voice and the authority to represent themselves. As Mohanty (1991) argues, black and southern women are constructed as ‘other,’ located outside white, middle-class norms. Diversities among women (in terms of class, ethnicity, culture, religion, sexuality and so on) are erased by monolithic and singular epithets such as ‘Third World women.’ T. Minh-Ha Trinh (1989) describes the exclusionary tactics of western feminism that make the concerns of ‘Third World women’ ‘special’ because they are not ‘normal,’ because they are other, and because they are not written by white women. She writes:

Have you read the grievances some of our sisters express on being among the few women chosen for a ‘Special Third World Women’s Issue’ or on being the only Third World woman at readings, workshops and meetings? It is as if everywhere we go, we become someone’s private zoo. (1989: 82)

It is still the case that white western women are empowered (economically and socially) to make women in other cultures the object of their investigations, when the reverse is often neither possible nor feasible. For example, Sinith Sittirak describes her experiences as a Thai woman studying in Canada:

Officially, there are no regulations to prevent me from exploring Canadian or any other ethnic groups. However, like many other ‘international students’ who received scholarships from development projects, it implicitly seemed that we ‘should’ focus on our own issues in our homes. That is the way it is. At that moment, I did not question as to why a Thai student had to focus on Thai issues, while Canadian students had much more academic privilege and freedom to study and speak about any women’s issues in any continent from around the world. (1998: 119)

The consequence of these criticisms is that the presumed ‘authority’ and ‘duty’ of western academics to represent the whole world is increasingly being questioned both from within and from without its ideological systems (Duncan and Sharp, 1993). Western feminists have increasingly begun to recognize that international feminism is constituted by a multiplicity of voices, including those of women in the south. The challenge for feminist scholarship is to transcend the colonizing boundaries of modernist discourse, which demands the recognition of difference and the multiplicity of axes and identities that shape women’s lives. Greater emphasis is now placed on the ‘positionality’ of the researcher in relationships of power. As Duncan and Sharp (1993) argue:

It is much more than a question of being culturally sensitive or ‘politically correct’… it requires a continual and radical undermining of the ground upon which one has chosen to stand, including, at times, the questioning of one’s own political stance.

Black feminists and women in the south are fighting for spaces in which to articulate their own demands and shape their own political agendas. Furthermore, marginalized women are resisting their representation by elite women from within their own cultures, many of whom are now located within the western academy. As one scholar comments,

Frankly, I’m very tired of having other women interpret for us, other women sympathise with us. I’m interested in articulating our own directions, our own aspirations, our own past, in our own words. (Skonaganleh: R’a, in Sittirak, 1998: 135)

Taking into account the criticisms that black feminists in particular have articulated regarding the exclusionary tactics of white feminism, constant reflection on the creation and production of knowledge remains important. As bell hooks argues,

if we do not interrogate our motives, the direction of our work, continually, we risk furthering a discourse on difference and otherness that not only marginalizes people of color but actively eliminates the need of our presence. (1990: 132)

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1990) takes this argument a step further by arguing that western feminists need not only to acknowledge the situatedness of their knowledges (i.e. their cultural specificity and, therefore, their partiality), but also to ‘unlearn’ their privilege as loss. This involves recognizing that privileges (race, class, nationality, gender, and so on) may have prevented the attainment of certain knowledges, not simply information not yet received, but the knowledge rendered incomprehensible by reason of specific social and cultural positions. In order to unlearn these privileges western feminists need to work hard at gaining some knowledge of others who occupy those spaces most closed to their view. It also means recognizing the importance of attempting to speak to those others in such a way that they might be able to answer back.

Critiques of Western Spatial Metaphors and Temporalities

Related to these issues of power and knowledge is an explicit critique of the spatial metaphors and temporality employed in western discourses. Whereas previous designations of the ‘Third World’ signalled both spatial and temporal distance – ‘out there’ and ‘back there’ – attempts to dislocate western centricity insist that the ‘other’ world is ‘in here’ (Chambers, 1996: 209) and that the modalities and aesthetics of the south have partially constituted western languages and cultures. This attempt to rewrite the hegemonic accounting of time (history) and the spatial distribution of knowledge (power) that constructs the ‘Third World’ has certainly been significant within feminism.

As discussed above, the ways in which western women represent their southern counterparts, and the power relationships inherent in this, have increasingly been brought under scrutiny. As the ‘Third World’ is frozen in time, space and history, so this is particularly the case with ‘Third World women’ (Mohanty, 1991). Carby (1983) writes:

Feminist theory in Britain is almost wholly Eurocentric and, when it is not ignoring the experience of black women at ‘home,’ it is trundling ‘Third World women’ onto the stage only to perform as victims of ‘barbarous,’ ‘primitive’ practices in ‘barbarous,’ ‘primitive’ societies.

Western feminists often universalize their own particular perspectives as normative, and essentialize women in the south as tradition-bound victims of timeless, patriarchal cultures (Mohanty, 1991: 71). In so doing, western feminist scholarship reproduces the colonial discourses of mainstream, ‘male-stream’ scholarship. What Mohanty (1991: 72) calls the ‘colonialist move’ arises from the bringing together of a binary model of gender, which sees ‘women’ as an a priori category of oppressed, with an ‘ethnocentric universality,’ which takes western locations and perspectives as the norm. The effect is to create a stereotype – ‘Third World woman’ – that ignores the diversity of women’s lives in the south across boundaries of class, ethnicity and so on, and reproduces ‘Third World difference.’ As suggested, this is a form of othering, a reprivileging of western values, knowledge and power (hooks, 1984; Ong, 1988; Spivak, 1990; Trinh Minh-Ha, 1989). Mohanty argues that western feminism is too quick to portray women in the south as ‘victims,’ to perceive all women as oppressed and as the subjects of power.

More recently, Uma Narayan (1997; 1998) has shown how feminist writings about women in the south not only misunderstand and disguise the constructed nature of ‘tradition,’ but also fall into the trap of cultural essentialism. In trying to account for difference between women,

seemingly universal essentialist generalisations about ‘all women’ are replaced by culture-specific essentialist generalisations that depend on totalising categories such as ‘Western culture,’ ‘Non-western cultures,’ ‘Western women,’ ‘Third World women,’ and so forth. The resulting portraits of ‘Western women,’ ‘Third World Women,’ ‘African women,’ ‘Indian women,’ ‘Muslim women,’ ‘Post-Communist women,’ or the like, as well as the picture of the ‘cultures’ that are attributed to these various groups of women, often remain fundamentally essentialist. They depict as homogeneous groups of heterogeneous people whose values, interests, ways of life, and moral and political commitments are internally plural and divergent. (1998: 87-8)

The consequence is ‘an ongoing practice of “blaming culture” for problems in “non-western” contexts and communities’ (1997: 51).

Recovering the Voices and Agency of the Marginalized

In response to what Spivak (1985) refers to as the ‘epistemic and actual violence’ of western discourses, critics have demanded an attempt to recover the lost historical and contemporary voices of the marginalized, the oppressed and the dominated, through a radical reconstruction of history and knowledge production (Guha, 1982). Reflecting on the Eurocentrism of histories of imperialism, Spivak (1985: 338) argues that the agency and voices of colonized peoples were deliberately erased by the colonizers, giving the impression of a unidirectional cultural imperialism dominated by western powers. The concern with revealing the epistemic and actual violence of writing out the historical agency of colonized peoples seems to have a great deal of resonance with the contemporary concerns of international feminism.

Black women and feminists around the world are contesting the authority of western women to represent their lives, and are fighting for spaces in which their voices can be heard and their stories told. For example, Ifi Amadiume (1997) challenges western anthropologists and other social scientists to recognize their own complicity in producing a version of Africa that is more a reflection of their own class-based patriarchal thought. Her work uncovers a hidden matriarchal history of Africa that continues to empower women in political struggle. This is part of a larger struggle by Africans to construct alternative, anti-racist and anti-imperialist epistemologies of self-representation and self-generated ideals. Furthermore, there are now well-established debates concerning representation, essentialism and difference, which have made researching and writing about gender relations and ‘women,’ especially outside one’s own cultural milieu, an incredibly complex topic (this is discussed in greater detail below).

In the face of this sustained criticism, many western feminists are now acutely sensitive to the intersections of power with academic knowledge and their privilege in relation to ‘other’ women, and are developing more ethical ways of researching and writing. However, as Spivak (1990) argues, there is still a need for greater sensitivity to the relationship between power, authority, positionality and knowledge. The implications of western feminists writing about women outside their own cultural milieu must be considered in the context of the global hegemony of western scholarship: in other words, western domination of the production, publication, distribution and consumption of information and ideas.

The Cultural Turn: Elitist and Apolitical?

The shift towards cultural explanations and concerns with discourse and representation outlined above have been ridiculed by many activists (primarily in the south and post-communist contexts, but also from within western feminism) as elitist and removed from reality. The problem is often posed as a schism between theory and practice, or the gap between western feminist theorizing and the practical needs of women globally. Theoretical preoccupations are not easily translated into direct politics, and are accused of shifting the focus away from the material problems of women’s lives. Many critics argue that organizing and obtaining women’s human rights cannot be removed from ensuring a better life for men and women in societies characterized by poverty and a lack of freedom and democratic norms; the turn towards culture has been charged with ignoring these issues. Concerns with representation, text and imagery are perceived as too far removed from the exigencies of the daily lives of millions of impoverished people. One response has been a rejection by some critics of the turn towards culture, and an objection to the emphasis on difference and discourse away from material conditions. These objections are based on the notion that ‘poverty is real.’ Cecile Jackson (1997: 147) is one such scathing critic of ‘postist’ feminist understandings of poverty and gender, ‘where culture, ideas and symbols are discursively interesting and constitutive of power, whilst materiality is of questionable status, and at least suspect,’ and where poverty becomes ‘largely a state of mind’ rather than a matter of material struggle for survival. She argues that real women and the challenges facing them get lost in the morass of text, image and representation. The turn towards culture, therefore, is in danger of ‘chucking the baby out with the bathwater’ (Udayagiri, 1995: 164): in dismissing the universalist assumptions of political economy, the material problems of the daily existences of many women are also erased.

An alternative response is a move by some critics towards cultural relativism. Proponents of this approach suggest that the solution to imperialism and universalism is through respect of difference in a plurality of identity politics. This respect for cultural difference, however, offers little assistance in terms of dealing with some of the complex issues confronting international feminist movements. By refusing to theorize cultural dominance, relativists implicitly evaluate all cultural positions as equal. This gives them no basis for making moral judgements about social justice in terms of feminist aspirations to deal with gender inequality and patriarchal power. It also ignores differences (class, regional, religious, ethnic) between women within specific cultural locations. The problems with cultural relativism crystallize around issues such as female circumcision. As Susanne Schech and Jane Haggis argue,

How do cultural relativists distinguish between those African women who argue female circumcision is an important culturally specific part of being a woman in those cultures where it is practised, and those African women who argue that it is a dangerous and damaging patriarchal practice? (2000: 110)

In addition, the ‘culture’ that is preserved through such respect is often a patriarchal one that preserves male privilege at women’s expense. As Anne Marie Goetz (1991: 146) argues, at the UN International Conferences, ‘official’ feminisms (often allied to and representing national governments and their political agendas) have used arguments about ‘cultural respect’ to block more radical, ‘unofficial’ feminisms that pose a greater threat to the status quo.

The underlying problem is that relativist arguments share a view of cultures and identities as bounded, coherent and autonomous. Such notions have been rejected by geographers (see Crang, 1998; Jess and Massey, 1995; McEwan, 2000b) and by cultural and feminist theorists (Butler, 1990; Hall, 1995) alike, not least because this replicates notions of culture informing conservative fundamentalisms in a variety of contexts. Moreover, replacing universal sameness with cultural difference does not disrupt colonial power relations between women that persist into the present; cultural difference can be used to deny any possibility of ‘different’ (for example, formerly colonized) women ‘becoming the same’ (i.e. achieving equality with women in the north). Women in the south are always marked by difference, since cultural difference is also racialized (Frankenberg and Mani, 1993; Narayan, 1998). Feminist scholarship has warned against this simple plurality of feminisms organized around some absolute conception of national and/or cultural difference. As Rey Chow (1990) argues, ‘it is when the West’s “other women” are prescribed their “own” national and ethnic identity in this way that they are most excluded from having a claim to the reality of their existence.’ The real challenge for contemporary feminism lies in finding an alternative to false universalisms that subsume difference under hegemonic western understandings, and to relativism that would abandon any universalist claim in favour of reified and absolute conceptions of difference.

Black and ‘Third World’ feminisms have made important contributions in theorizing both power and knowledge and the significance of discourse, which generates very real interventions with very real effects (Rajan, 1993; Rose, 1987). They demand that we are able to see, responsibly and respectfully, from another’s point of view. However, they could perhaps engage more with material issues of power, inequality and poverty, and resist focusing on text, imagery and representation alone. Strategies must be found for an active feminism that can make a difference. This involves combining the material with the symbolic and encourages the building of coalitions across differences. It demands, firstly, a material analysis ‘to point to the consequences and inter-relations of different sites of oppression: class, race, nation and sexuality’ (Goetz, 1991: 151) and, secondly, a recognition of the partial and situated quality of knowledge claims (Haraway, 1991). Therefore, western feminisms have to be seen as simply partial and local knowledges, constrained by their boundaries and the limited nature of viewpoint. Strategies to dislocate western-centric approaches perceive all knowledge as contestable, in contrast to the hands-off ‘respect’ of cultural relativists. Certain issues will unite women cross-culturally (for example, sexist oppression); other struggles, such as those for racial justice or national liberation, might mean confrontation between women. Stereotypes and generalizations need to be problematized. For example, as Narayan argues,

there is no need to portray female genital mutilation as an ‘African cultural practice’ or dowry murders and dowry related harassment as a ‘problem of Indian women’ in ways that eclipse the fact that not all ‘African women’ or ‘Indian women’ confront these problems, or confront them in identical ways, or in ways that efface local contestations of these problems. (1998: 104)

The challenge is to produce something constructive out of disagreement, and to combine material concerns and emphasis on local knowledges with postcolonial and poststructuralist dismantling of knowledge claims. Ferguson (1998: 95) theorizes this as a new ‘ethico-politics.’ She suggests that the problem that western feminists need to confront is that they are located in the very global power relations that they might aspire to change; hence there is a ‘danger of colluding with knowledge production that valorises status quo economic, gender, racial and cultural inequalities.’ There is a need for self-reflexivity, recognition of the negative aspects of one’s social identity and devaluation of one’s moral superiority to build ‘bridge identities’ across difference. This allows other knowledges to talk back, and creates a ‘solidarity between women that must be struggled for rather than automatically received’ (1998: 109). This does not mean generalizations cannot be made, but it puts the emphasis back on how they are made. As Schech and Haggis (2000: 113) argue, these postcolonial feminist approaches are not simply about deconstructing western feminisms. Rather they provide a more comprehensive project of remoulding a conceptual framework ‘capable of embracing a global politics of social justice in ways which avoid the “colonizing move”.’

Theory into Practice at the International Scale?

There are now many instances of women around the world forging bonds of solidarity across difference at a variety of different scales. However, global power relations still pose problems for international feminism at the global scale. The UN conferences on women are a clear example where the theoretical developments outlined above often fail to translate into feminist practice. As discussed, the Mexico City (1975) and Copenhagen (1980) UN conferences were significant in highlighting differences between women. Better communications were established at the 1985 Nairobi conference once the myth of global sisterhood was abandoned and the profound differences in women’s lives and the meanings of feminism across cultures were acknowledged (Basu, 1995: 3). Recognition of these differences is a product of insights gained from changes in the global order, changes in the forms of women’s activism and the complicated, often conflictual, interchanges between local and global feminisms.

Diversity is now at the core of international feminism. As Karam (2000: 176) argues, this is not just about going beyond a singular identity for feminism, but about levels of identification and different feminist convictions and ideas among different generations of women with the bodies of feminist knowledge that have emerged recently. The need to identify different feminisms is now an acceptable theoretical premise; the diversity of feminist strategies means that there are also different priorities. However, as Amadiume (2000: 10) argues, familiar problems resurfaced at the fourth UN Conference on women, in Beijing, 1995. She argues that the ‘Platform for Action’ document produced at this conference was a unique achievement in pressing policy-makers to take action on women’s issues and forcing governments seriously to address these issues. They include poverty, global economics, women’s human rights, armed conflict, violence against women, political and economic participation, power-sharing, institutional mechanisms, media, access to healthcare and education, environment and protection of girl children. However, Amadiume argues that this is a ‘laundry-list approach to women’s issues,’ encouraging

European women to return from Beijing with an illusion of a truly global process and a harmonious global sisterhood, with all women saying the same thing in spite of diversity. I even heard a few bourgeois women saying that women’s differences have finally been resolved and that women are now the same everywhere. (2000: 12-13)

She suggests that well-meaning as these global concerns are, they should continue to be assessed in the context of western economic, political and cultural imperialism.

The ‘Platform for Action’ was criticized by indigenous women’s groups, including Native American women who contest dominant notions of women’s community roles, economic development, traditional lifestyles and family values. It was also criticized by coalitions, such as the International Network of Women of Colour and various ‘Third World’ women’s groups, as being Eurocentric and privileged, especially on issues such as abortion, sexuality, marriage, motherhood and reproductive rights. Islamic groups criticized it for trying to impose western European notions of modernity on Islamic countries, ignoring the role of religion and the importance of moral and spiritual values in all aspects of life in these cultures. Less privileged women were more concerned with issues such as the negative effects of structural adjustment, global economics, basic needs like the right to land, citizenship, clean water, food and shelter, education and primary healthcare. Amadiume argues that elite women within poorer countries, who attend these conferences and help set the agenda, have become divorced from the real issues affecting less privileged women within their own countries and are therefore complicit in maintaining global power relations. The shift from grassroots-articulated focus to professional leadership imposed from above means that goals and issues have become repetitive in a fixed global language, and are controlled by paid UN and other donor advisers, consultants and workers (2000: 14-15).

On occasion, feminist theoretical concerns have been translated into practice, and sometimes they are not solely the product of dominant western discourses. This has certainly been evident in the gender, geography and development literature. The way in which the binary model of ‘practical’ and ‘strategic’ gender interests became central to gender and development approaches is but one example. This evolved from the strong grassroots women’s movements developed in Brazil in the 1980s around initiatives aimed at structural change at specific points (Alvarez, 1990; Alvarez and Escobar, 1992; Jelin, 1990). These notions were then adopted (some might say appropriated) by western theorists and seemed to predetermine what feminist concerns were during the early 1990s (Moser, 1993). Therefore, despite the persistent problems in attempting to produce a global agenda for international feminisms, some commentators are more positive than Amadiume. They argue that it is through creating politics of difference, and politics of inclusion, that feminist networks have managed to create the bridges and multilevel connections from local organizations to international networks. As Braidotti (1995: 188) argues, this is at the core of emancipatory globalization. In addition, while the turn to cultural politics within international feminism might seem to reinforce western-centric feminisms, a sense of the possibilities for a different kind of alliance among feminisms is also signalled by critiques from within western discourses. One example is Judith Butler’s (1990) critique of representation in feminist politics. Butler critiques the representation of an entity called ‘woman’ and the idea that feminist theory often assumes that the female subject already exists rather than being produced in and through the cultural politics of identities, and produced differently in different places, always with the possibility of contestation. These radical notions of identity suggest that there is a need for a stronger sense of what a feminist politics might look like in different places.

Assuming that feminism is a cultural construct that does not accept unquestioned transference of thoughts and answers from one area of the world to another, the key question for Lavrin (1999: 175) is: is it possible to save its ‘international’ character without losing the wealth generated by its internal diversity? Race and class remain the biggest sources of division within national and international feminisms, and there are major divisions between academics and women without formal education in most cultures. Lavrin argues:

The articulation of the personal, the regional, and the national into a universal formula understood by the largest number of women remains the most elusive objective of the feminist search for an international consensus. Yet there is hope. While in the past the difficulty of global communication hindered the search for mutual recognition, today we have much better tools to engage in the process of understanding the differences among the multiple manifestations of women’s activities and the place that ‘feminism’ occupies in their agenda. (1999: 186-7)

The international feminist movement has taken up new information and communications tools to support global networking. The Beijing conference was a catalyst for women’s electronic activism, particularly in setting an agenda for a global communications network for women (Harcourt, 1999). There are obvious problems that women in poorer countries might be further marginalized by these new technologies, since they do not share the same access. However, by linking women’s practical experience with an increasing need to influence national and global policy, the new communications provide a means through which women across the world can improve and enhance their attempts to bring about a more gender-equitable global culture. In the words of Donna Haraway, these new approaches to gender identities and new technologies of communication between women might allow feminists to:

negotiate the very fine line between appropriation of another’s (never innocent) experience and the delicate construction of the just-barely-possible affinities, the just-barely-possible connections that might actually make a difference in local and global histories … These are difficult issues, and ‘we’ fail frequently … But ‘our’ writing is also full of hope that we will learn how to structure affinities instead of identities. (1991: 113)

Dislocating Western Centrism and Cultural Geography

Intersections between the efforts to dislocate western-centric knowledges and feminisms have important implications for cultural geographies. As discussed previously, these debates have made a difference to how certain specifically feminist geographical issues might be thought. The ways in which public and private spheres are conceptualized is one example. Related to this, debates emanating from cultural contexts outside the west might also bring into question the spaces in which politics are articulated, beyond the formal public sphere into homes, communities and neighbourhoods. In addition, encounters with traditions, ideas and criticisms beyond the west have shifted fundamentally the work of many cultural geographers. The embracing of global perspectives is, in part, responsible (McDowell, 1994: 147).

There is now a wealth of contemporary research exploring issues such as cross-cultural processes of global change and development, cultural politics of postcolonial spaces in former imperial metropoles, cultural geographies of commodity chains that connect peoples, regions and countries in the north and south, national identities and nationalisms in specific cultural contexts, and imaginative geographies of colonial and postcolonial landscapes and cultures. It is perhaps at the margins of cultural geography, where there are intersections with feminist approaches in historical, development, political and economic geographies, that the lessons of anti-ethnocentrism have been most observed. Debates about positionality and representation, for example, are now well established in feminist geographies (see Madge, 1993; McDowell, 1992; Radcliffe, 1994; Robinson, 1994; Rose, 1997). Many feminist geographers are acutely aware of the intersections of power with academic knowledge, and this is often articulated through recognition of their own privilege in relation to the people they study. This privilege means greater access to resources, the power to produce knowledges, the luxury of professional status (Kobayashi, 1994), and the power of interpretation of the voices and opinion of others (Gilbert, 1994). There is now greater sensitivity within geography to recovering the agency and voices of others, both within archives (Barnett, 1998; McEwan, 1998) and through interactions with the researched (Pratt, 2000; Robinson, 1994; Townsend, 1995).

Despite these developments, the author of a recent textbook on cultural geography argues that ‘cultural geography (especially new cultural geography) has been overweeningly Eurocentric’ (Mitchell, 2000: xvii). To be sure, the core concerns of feminist cultural geographies (for example, re-evaluations of masculinities and femininities, landscapes, sexuality, public and private spheres, gender roles) are often perceived as side issues by feminists and women activists in societies outside the west. As discussed previously, the kind of feminism alluded to by all manner of feminist theorists, which has also set the agenda for feminist cultural geographies, is seen as largely removed from the exigencies of daily life of women living in poverty (Karam, 2000: 176). Mitchell is perhaps more progressive than many commentators in recognizing the situatedness and partiality of his cultural geography and the problems of implicit ethnocentrism. However, his prescriptions on ‘what a feminist cultural geography is, or could be’ are also partial, and the question needs to be asked: what relevance would these feminist cultural geographies have outside the west? Mitchell’s feminist cultural geography is informed by ‘direct political imperatives,’ including ‘the construction and reproduction of gender, as it is encoded in the spaces of cities and the space of the body,’ the ‘evolution of domestic architecture, the development of “pink collar ghettos”,’ and ‘debates about whether and how much mothers should work outside the home’ (2000: 229).

Many of these issues are rooted deeply within western feminism and western cultural politics, with their specific understandings of gender politics, spatiality and the goals of feminist struggles. They do not necessarily translate in other contexts, particularly within Asia, Africa and Latin America, where the majority of the world’s women happen to be located. The contemporary ‘culture wars’ that Mitchell discusses are also relevant to struggles between different feminisms in different parts of the world. As discussed, this has long been recognized within feminist and anti-colonial debates, but perhaps less so within cultural geography. The failure to engage in these debates, which are essentially about power and knowledge, (re)produces the ethnocentric cultural geographies that Mitchell castigates, but then does little to address.

A politically relevant feminist cultural geography needs to engage with cultural politics, but these are not merely confined to western contexts. Instead, there should be a focus on cultural politics across cultures, a global as well as a local perspective on these politics, and recognition of the existence of diverse cultural geographies. It is significant also that the theoretical and empirical shifts outlined in this chapter have had some impact within cultural geography and some feminist geographers are producing precisely the kind of research that disrupts problematic ethno-centricities. In particular, the work on translocal and transnational geographies and the experiences of diasporic groups of women is significant. Gerry Pratt (1999), for example, uses poststructuralist theories of the subject and discourse analysis to explore the experiences of Filipinas in Vancouver. She examines how discursive constructions of ‘Filipina’ influence identities and impose limitations on occupational options, resulting in highly skilled and educated women becoming domestic workers on migration. Similarly, Alison Blunt (forthcoming) explores the geographies of home and identity of Anglo-Indian women. Blunt considers the spatial politics of home and identities on domestic, national and transnational scales, extending feminist and postcolonial theories through an exploration of the intertwined and contested geographies of ‘domicile and diaspora’ and their embodiment by Anglo-Indian women in India, Australia and Britain. Her approach is a productive engagement with feminist and postcolonial theories and a significant contribution to the exploration of the ‘messiness of actual race politics’ (Jackson and Jacobs, 1996: 3) and their material geographies.

Clearly, the lessons learned from the engagement between western and ‘other’ feminisms are beginning to inform contemporary cultural geographies and open up exciting avenues for research. From a historical perspective, there are possibilities for revealing alternative cultural histories that challenge the selective memory of parochial and univocal history and recognize the imbrications of these alternative histories in the global social formations fashioned by imperialism and colonialism. Feminist cultural geographies are also beginning to contribute to understandings of common global problems, cultural politics and the lessons drawn from international feminism. They are beginning to draw, for example, on the numerous instances of contemporary mobilizations of women and feminists in various women’s and new social movements around common global problems (see, for example, Clark and Laurie, 2000; Laurie, 1997; Nagar, 2000). These are less interested in relations between nations and have the capacity to cross borders in their analyses and demands, whether these borders are those of gender, race, class or culture. Examples include the common bonds being forged by women workers in the global economy, ecological and environmental degradation, broad alliances against various forms of religious chauvinisms and fundamentalisms, and international campaigns around women’s rights as human rights. Cultural geographies have the potential to explore examples of ‘globalization from below,’ where there is a linking together of both diverse histories and the potential for cross-cultural alliances. In the realm of global cultural politics, there is also potential to explore alternative south-south linkages, not only because of their increasing significance within these contexts, but also to disrupt the hegemonic position of the west as frame of reference (John, 1999: 202).

By drawing on feminist insights and attempts to dislocate western centrism, cultural geographers also have the potential to contribute to new understandings of international feminism. As Alexander and Mohanty argue, the problem with the term ‘international’ in international feminism is that:

To a large extent, underlying the conception … is a notion of universal patriarchy operating in a trans-historical way to subordinate all women … ‘International,’ moreover, has come to be collapsed into the culture and values of capitalism. (1997: xix)

As recent research suggests (Pratt, 1999), feminist cultural geographies can contribute to new ways of thinking about women in similar contexts across the world, in different geographical spaces, rather than as all women across the world. Feminist research in global contexts involves shifting the unit of analysis from local, regional and national culture to relations and processes across cultures, and cultural geography is ideally placed for this kind of analysis. Grounding analyses in particular, local feminist praxis is necessary, but there is also a need to understand the local in relation to larger, cross-national processes. Feminist cultural geographers are beginning to respond to Alexander and Mohanty’s call for a ‘comparative, relational feminist praxis that is transnational in its response to and engagement with global processes.’ This involves acknowledging, and working through, the productive tension between the ‘centrifugal force of discrepant feminist histories and the promising potential of political organising across cultural boundaries’ (Sinha et al., 1999: 1). It also requires working with women at grassroots level in different cultural contexts, breaking down hierarchies of knowledge/power that privilege the expert/outsider, undermining western universalisms and providing a basis for a new understanding of global diversity (Marchand and Parpart, 1995: 19). Here there are clear parallels with approaches in anthropology and models of local hybrid cultures, which challenge the orthodoxies of western thinking by bringing local knowledge to the fore in ways that dismantle the a priori categories of feminist theory.

The tensions and dilemmas in new ways of conceiving a cross-cultural feminist politics should both inform, and be informed by, feminist cultural geographies. Criticism from black women and feminists in the south has had a considerable impact on gender studies within geography, and a politically relevant cultural geography would gain a great deal from engaging further with these critiques. A more global perspective would help to countervail Eurocentrism. It would facilitate engagement by feminist cultural geographers in arguments about ‘why women are important, and why gender is an indispensable concept in the analysis of political-cultural movements, of transition, and of social change’ (Moghadam, 1994: 17). It would also allow cultural geographers to contribute to the critical exploration of relationships between cultural power and global economic power. Moreover, cultural geographical themes might potentially contribute to these feminist debates. How space and spatiality are conceptualized is particularly significant, for if localities are produced through links elsewhere, then something of the divide between difference and the international can be framed differently. Alison Blunt’s (forthcoming) work on the spatial politics of home and identity at a range of spatial scales is one example of a productive engagement with these ideas. This chapter has explored how feminism has practically built a form of knowledge and cultural politics that perhaps transcends the locatedness that is evident in much of contemporary cultural geography. The increasing influence of these ideas within cultural geography suggests that it is ideally placed to engage with more radical notions of identity and developing a stronger sense of what a feminist politics might look like in different places.