By Tong Niu:
Having grown up in the United States, feminism has always been a controversial topic. I personally do not consider myself a feminist, and I certainly do not associate myself with feminist groups in the U.S. I find their demands to be rather silly. But thinking of feminism on a global scale, its ideals are admirable and very important. Its calls for equality are an overlooked issue, but the reason why many now look at it with disdain is the gap between feminist demands in the U.S. and feminist demands in Islamic or African countries.
To understand this feminist gap, we must first understand what feminism is. The official definition is: a theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes. This can range from equal opportunities in the workplace to equal rights in the eyes of the law. In the past feminist groups have strived for women’s suffrage, laws that grant women the right to property and divorce and abortion laws. But the movement has had a split in recent years. While Americans are demanding even higher salaries in the workplace, their eastern counterparts are demanding for the right to leave the house and hold a job, or the right to a divorce. In contrast, the demands of the latter make the demands of the former seem petty and almost greedy. When we laugh off the demands of feminist groups in more socially equal countries, or even worse, we think feminism is an outdated concept altogether, we are ignoring the very pressing issues in other nations.
Many of the rituals and practices that are demeaning to women are culturally rooted practices. The foot binding rituals in China, which fortunately have been banned since 1912, were based on ancient perceptions of beauty. Having small feet limited movement, something only the wealthy could afford to do. It also prevented women from running away and made them more dependent on their male relatives. The practice, which lasted for hundreds of years, is so deeply rooted in the Chinese culture that women couldn’t marry without bound feet.
Even today, culturally entrenched customs prevent gender equality. Female genital mutilation (female circumcision) exist in many African cultures, as well as in certain North American and European communities. The practice offers no beneficial effects to women, but instead, can cause infertility, urinary tract infections, and an increase in stillbirths or childbirth complications. However, the practice persists in many communities because the operation is seen as a coming of age ritual to prepare women for marriage. The ritual is even spread to new groups who enter local populations that practice female circumcision. Between 100 and 140 million girls and women worldwide are living with the consequences of this practice.
Aside from physically demeaning practices, women are subjugated to economically and socially demeaning practices as well. In Pakistan, it is cultural unacceptable for women to leave the house and hold jobs to support themselves and their families. A New York Times media journalist, Adam B. Ellick, covered the story of working, lower-class Pakistani women who want to provide their female relatives with better lives but are shunned because they do so by leaving the house and interacting with other men. The fear that women face when leaving the house and the courage it takes for them to take on outside jobs is unimaginable.
While it is difficult to radically alter a religious or social custom, we can take small steps to improve it. The thousand year tradition of foot binding was eradicated when men were encouraged to marry women with unbound feet. By altering the social norms, the practice disappeared overtime.
However, instead of finding ways to solve these problems, current feminist demands only downplay the dire situations that these underprivileged women face. It’s impossible to take their cries for higher wages seriously if women across the ocean are slapped for wanting to hold jobs to provide for their female siblings. Before we bridge the small gap in work pay, we must bridge the large gap in women’s rights in other nations. In 2011, women’s suffrage is still a luxury that some do not have. We must fix the larger issues at hand before working on the smaller issues, and more importantly, recognize the difficulties of women in other nations. Instead of further increasing the benefits society has awarded us, we must reach out to those who are many steps behind us. To lessen this growing feminism gap, women of the world must unite!