OgilvyAsia Admin
First World Feminism Problems

Back in December 2014, the media seemed determined to engineer a little catfight between two young women actors. The Guardian reported that Maisie Williams (Arya Stark) was “impatient” with the content of Emma Watson’s (Hermione Grainger) UN “HeForShe” speech, dubbing it “first world feminism”. A minor flurry of commentary rippled across the internet , but soon died down. The two ladies involved sensibly abstained from taking it further.

After reading the article, that “first world feminism” comment gnawed at me for a while. The term was obviously meant as an insult, implying that poor “third-world feminists” were worse off and (possibly?) needed saving. It rankled because I had grown up in a third world country and I saw myself as a feminist. Was feminism in the “third-world” so different?

Curious, I put some questions to my Facebook feed, trying to discover whether my friends from non-Western cultures considered themselves feminists and, if so, was it compatible with their cultural backgrounds. Sure, it’s hardly a scientific method, but the flood of honest and conflicted answers pointed to an obvious friction between feminist philosophy and life.

A friend, who identified as feminist, skirted the issue of compatibility with cultural norms by proclaiming she believed in “universal values”. Another friend responded that she didn’t consider herself a feminist because she, personally, “had done nothing for equal rights”. Interestingly, this friend works full time, has chosen a husband from outside her ethnic group and is an equal partner in her marriage. For her, feminism is something you have to actively become involved in (protest marches and the like), rather than a position you navigated the world from.

Another said she wasn’t a feminist because she “didn’t do or think in terms of gender” and did not feel that feminism was compatible with her cultural background. Yet, in her daily life, she embodies the classic trope of modern Western feminism because she works full time outside of the home while also mothering a young child.

It might be this idea of “getting on with life” instead of needing or wanting to stand up and proclaim “I am a feminist” that might be shaping the identity of women from non-Western backgrounds. For many women, myself included, the word “feminism” was either non-existent or rarely mentioned in our formative years. As another Facebook respondent explained, “I feel very fortunate that I grew up in a household that lived and breathed the values of feminism without ever having referred to the terminology; and I continue to count my blessings that my immediate family, relatives and friends are “believers””.

Women who do consider themselves feminist are changing perceptions in subtler ways, such as making a quiet yet daily stand against more traditional patriarchal values and constructs. Another (feminist) friend said, “I do not conform to the old-school thinking of the Chinese taboos and superstitions. I still get nagged about trying for a son to pass on the family name. Why won’t people understand that two (daughters) is enough for me? At the end of the day, it’s my choice”.


In its simplest embodiment, isn’t feminism all about the opportunity for women to exercise their own choices? This concept of being able to choose does seem remarkably similar to the ideals of First world feminism. However, “Third World feminism”, or “Postcolonial feminism” to be exact, differs from Western feminism in a few ways. Postcolonial feminism recognises that for women in non-Western societies, inequality stems not only from gender, but also through economic, political, social and cultural factors. These issues have often been downplayed by mainstream Western feminists, who have been accused of approaching the rest of the world with an “Eurocentric gaze”. As academic Chandra Mohanty, points out in her essay “Under Western Eyes”, Third World women tend to be depicted as victims of male control and of traditional cultures.

How do women in developing and developed non-Western countries approach feminism if they don’t identify with the “bra-burning” rhetoric of their white, middle class, urban “sisters”? Can a Muslim woman, who dons the headscarf still be a feminist? When Western feminists argue that women who wear burqas are oppressed by religious patriarchies, are these feminists not partaking in a form of cultural oppression themselves?

For non-Western women, it may appear that “theory” is less important than practice. If my Facebook friends are any indication, we “Third World” women may be hard-pressed to define feminism in an academic manner, but our daily lives embody its principles of equality and choice.

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