‘As a feminist I didn't realise other women felt underrepresented in our movement’
This International Women’s Day Maëlle Salzinger would like to hold a plea towards her fellow white feminists. Because too many voices remain excluded or unheard within the feminist movement, she believes. ‘We should allow women’s rights advocates across the globe to develop their version of feminism according to their challenges and needs.’
Becoming a feminist helped me put to words questions I grappled with and injustices I saw around me. It made me feel represented and heard. But I never imagined other women wouldn’t feel the same.
Feminism has been centred on the experiences, views and interests of white Western women, while women of other countries and origins have been marginalised. One consequence is that reactionary movements, for instance in Africa, argue feminism is a Western construct in order to resist any step towards more gender equality.
During my work for the African-European think tank ECDPM I have seen this a lot. These reactionary claims resonate because many non-Western women feel misunderstood and underrepresented within the feminist movement.
Therefore feminism needs an update. This is urgent to help feminism withstand backlash and stay relevant for future generations and across the globe.
A plea for change
My own understanding of racial inequality within feminism is inherently limited. I am not writing this piece to perpetuate the imbalance of viewpoints, but as a plea for white, middle-class European women like me to recognize our privilege and stand with non-Western women who push for a more inclusive feminism.
A feminism update should make equal room for diverse voices, and respond to the needs of women from different regions, socio-economic backgrounds and sexual orientations.
My main inspiration for this opinion piece was a book my friend Nora recommended to me. Against White Feminism from the Pakistani-American feminist Rafia Zakaria provides a brilliant critique of the dominance of white perspectives in the feminist movement (not feminists who are white). It shows how this dominance, rooted in colonial times and their ongoing legacy in Western ideologies, continues today.
Who shapes the narrative?
Since september 2022 the mobilisation of Iranian women has often been reduced to the hijab in European media. Yet the decision of these women to take off or burn their hijab cannot be detached from the context they live in.
Under a regime that polices women’s bodies and restricts many freedoms for women and society as a whole, removing one’s hijab is a brave act of resistance against an oppressive state. This is radically different from the situation of women who wear the hijab for religious motives in countries where it is not mandatory and enforced by a morality police.
The simplified view of Iranian women’s activism in Europe is an example of the first type of imbalance in feminism: our biased narratives. Women of colour have not had an equal say in shaping feminist narratives, which creates a Western bias to how we talk about topics like the Iran protests, and the hijab.
The hijab in France is the subject of heated debates that rarely feature hijabi women. They are misunderstood, stigmatised and excluded from various public spaces as a result.
Growing up in France, I was aware of this. But only during conversations with Muslim women like my friend Kawsar (who is Algerian-French), did I realise how omnipresent and hard to endure this was.
In Belgium too, hijabi women who aspire to become teachers must choose between removing their headscarf and renouncing this career (Belgian law requires teachers to be “neutral” on religious matters). This while Belgium is enduring a severe teacher shortage. In Brussels, which has a population of more than 1 million (over 20% of which are Muslim), some schools lack 25% of the teachers they need.
For many Muslim women, taking off the hijab is not an option. It is an integral part of their religious practice and by extension, their life. Whether it is about schools or other public spaces, hijabi women cannot be left out of conversations that so deeply impact them.
Europeans need to stop assuming they know what freedom looks like for all women.
Europeans need to stop assuming they know what freedom looks like for all women. Narratives of women’s emancipation must centre the views of those whose emancipation is being discussed.
Who is the reference?
Another imbalance within feminism is that our references are dominated by white women and their perspectives.
The #MeToo movement was created in 2006 by Tarana Burke, an African-American activist who wanted to build an inclusive community to support victims of sexual violence. But #MeToo only went viral in 2017, when American actresses shared their experiences with sexual assault.
This allowed more women to speak freely about the structural violence women face globally. In those first months, I remember that my university friends and I felt a mix of emotions: anger, sadness, relief, sorority, and hope.
However, the new #MeToo carried by celebrities did not share the same focus on marginalised communities as Tarana Burke’s earlier version, which recognised that women of colour almost never receive justice in sexual violence cases. This is probably why the testimonies of women from Africa and the Middle East, too, had little visibility within #MeToo.
It certainly wasn’t due to a lack of activism, African women have spearheaded impactful movements against gender-based violence like the #TotalShutDown in South Africa. This movement called for state action against the alarming rates of rape and femicide (South Africa has among the highest femicide rates in the world) with a memorandum of 21 demands.
Women’s exasperation had been building up for years, fed by media stories of women and girls being kidnapped, raped and brutally murdered. This homegrown activism resonated better with South Africans than #MeToo, which was assumed to be a global reference but wasn’t.
A movement that came to light in the West should not remain the only standard for feminist activism, even though it has received more global visibility. Movements like #TotalShutDown deserve to be talked about in their own right.
But not, as some journalists have put it, as “the African version” of #MeToo. Such a simplistic view does not give justice to the unique nature and challenges of fighting for gender equality in different African countries.
It was a clear point of view that came up during a panel for ECDPM I moderated at the African Women in Media Conference, with speakers Tigist Shewarega Hussen, Kiki Mordi and Nompumelelo Rungi. For me this was very insightful, because the legacy of #MeToo is usually not questioned in this way.
Who reaps the benefits?
Feminism has benefitted middle to upper class white women most. Their research and advocacy has shaped feminism to reflect the challenges they face, like access to leadership positions in politics and at work. These goals are essential but should not exclude those of women with compounding disadvantages of gender, race and class, who face the direst conditions.
When COVID-19 hit, women and girls in low-income countries were disproportionately affected by rising unemployment, school dropout and early marriage. In OECD countries, migrant women of colour were overrepresented in frontline jobs. This came on top of extra duties at home because children’s schools were closed. In Finland, they worked 17% more each day and in Slovenia, this reached 25%.
COVID or not, migrant women of colour often work in low-paid jobs under temporary contracts, struggle with access healthcare, and have limited means to get justice for sexual violence and exploitation.
If feminism is to empower all women, it needs to address these hardships which many white middle-class women are not familiar with. A core issue preventing this, for feminist author Rafia Zakaria, is that many women are not questioning the system but striving for a better position within.
They seek career success in a capitalist system that benefits a small minority and underpayes jobs primarily worked by women. This is not intentional; women may believe this is their only option for a better life.
What we can do
The first thing we can do to update feminism is to remind ourselves of our collective power. Grassroots organisations and protest have long been the backbone on which feminism was built, and social media can help amplify our activism.
By combining street protests and online activism, feminist organisations can work towards a more inclusive feminism that supports marginalised women across origin, race and class. They can engage in joint action with women-, workers- and migrants’ rights groups, for instance to fight period poverty. Various organisations already provide menstrual products to women in shelters and slums (for example, Myna Mahila Foundation in India) but in a disjointed way which does not allow for large-scale impact.
Second, a feminist update will require that non-Western women and their views are equally represented in feminist discourse. This does not mean simply having more women contribute to a rigid set of principles.
A more inclusive feminist movement should be fluid, flexible and horizontal. This means allowing women’s rights advocates across the globe to develop their version of feminism according to their challenges and needs, just the way #TotalShutDown responded to the needs of many South-African women. In one sentence, feminism should welcome contextualised interpretations and lively debates.
Third, visibility and representation of non-Western feminists will not be enough to solve imbalances within the feminist movement, which are rooted in larger economic inequalities between regions.
For many feminist groups in Africa, Asia and Latin-America, finances are extremely scarce. That is why women’s funds like MamaCash are doing laudable work, by providing funding to feminist and LGBTQI+ organisations and trusting them to use these resources wisely.
Lastly, I reiterate my plea to other white feminists like me to question the feminist movement we have inherited, and our privileges within it. We need to think harder about when to speak up, and when to listen. In a discussion about gender inequality outside of our native country, we should by default listen.
The small sting to my ego that has come with staying quiet in conversations with feminists from other backgrounds has been immensely outweighed by what I have learned from their insights and first-hand experiences. This is what motivates me to write about this issue despite the limitations in my knowledge.
I truly believe that the sum of our feminist experiences and ideas holds tremendous power. It can help us resist backlash against gender equality, and push more effectively for the empowerment of all women.
A big thank you to my friends and colleagues Ennatu Domingo, Kawsar Laanani, Esad Kılıç and Aidan Lewins, who have greatly inspired and contributed to this article. The views in this opinion piece are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM.
Maëlle Salzinger is a passionate feminist and policy analyst for the Africa-Europe think tank ECDPM, focusing on gender, conflict and activism. She holds a Masters’ degree from Sciences Po, Paris.