Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Transnational Feminism: Contrasts Between Western and Eastern European Perspectives of Feminism

In “Constructing Global Feminism” the issue of Western ideals of feminism being imposed onto Russian activism is discussed. Russia’s historically complex relationship with feminism presented itself in the form of the Soviet Union definition of feminism as the model factory worker who was equal to men in the workplace, but still had to perform a “second shift” in the domestic sphere after work. Due to this extra workload imposed on them, many women of the post-Soviet era rejected feminism outright and adopted the more domestic, dutiful wife role which existed in the Soviet era (Prof Vaingurt interview).

This rejection of feminism creates a dilemma for transnational activists traveling to Russia in order to facilitate communication, workshops, and conferences with NGOs in Russia. Another obstacle is the question of whether the West is trying to impose its definition of feminism onto other cultures (Sperling, p 1158). This issue was brought up in “One Step Global,” where the question of how gay, lesbian, homosexual, and queer identities are expressed both linguistically and idealistically in various cultures. For example, Chinese activists use the Chinese term for coming home as opposed to the English equivalent coming out. This reflects a cultural difference because Chinese society is structured around familial relationships rather than individual identities (Garber, p 1).

As a linguist, I have noticed that the issue pertaining to these linguistic quirks cannot be overlooked. The mentality of a culture is sometimes reflected in the use of that culture’s words and idioms. For instance, German is a hyper-logical language which reflects the precise and literal mentality of the culture. The word Mittleschmerz (literal translation: middle pain) refers to the pain which some women experience during the mid-menstrual cycle at the time of ovulation. Mittleschmerz is the same word utilized in the English language. Consciousness-raising and education of these cultural and linguistic nuances would be invaluable transnational activism. The best method would be to learn the language of the given culture which one wishes to become involved in; that would provide the best tools necessary to facilitate communication, foster understanding, and earn respect within that environment.

            It is important to keep in mind that terms referring to queer identities are, historical speaking, only recent social constructs. What may be referred to as queer (i.e. gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, intersex, non-gender conforming individuals) at our current point in history, has gone through many incarnations gone by many names throughout the course of history and in various cultures. This is alluded to by Ruth Vanita in her book “Queering India” in which she states that queer theorists are cautious not to use terms like homosexual when referring to earlier eras in Euro-American history or non-Western parts of the world (Garber, p 3).
            The concept of questioning queer identities is echoed in how the Russian women activists questioned the term feminism. The article made it clear that the Russian participants in the conferences had a different definition of the term feminism to that of the American participants’ (Sperling, p 1163).

A pivotal point to keep in mind is the economic conditions and infrastructure that exists within a country. Basic survival needs, such as food and employment, were brought up as the primary concerns of female activists in Russia. It is hard for Russians to concentrate on issues which the American activists wanted to address, such as gay rights: these topics were deemed unimportant to the Russian activists who lived hand-to-mouth in an economically unstable oligarchy (ibid., p 1175).

Gorkemli brought up the concept of activism in Turkey among gay and lesbian individuals are closeted in their lives but can come out on the Internet. Turkish activists initiated a campaign called “coming out of the Internet” and thus creating an alternative setting which encouraged political and grassroots organizing to combat the traditional media, mainly print and television, which continued to perpetuate gender stereotypes and hetero-normative behaviour. There is a common thread with Sperling’s article: Gorkemli discusses how homosexuality and lesbianism were perceived by some as being a social construct of the West and as being “imported” into Turkey as a neo-colonial imperialistic form of imposing the ideals of another culture onto their society (Gorkemli, p 83).

Bunch discussed how women’s rights are human rights issues because women suffer disproportionately from poverty due to the fact that women are consistently paid less than men. This stacks the cards against women since they are, more often than not, the single parents supporting children. This, in turn, increases the number of children living in poverty. The fact that women are disproportionately victims of violent crime, that including infanticide (which is at an all-time high at this point), illustrates to what extent women are treated inhumanly. The fact that huge numbers of women in various countries are forced to live with a hand-to-mouth existence of a daily basis constitutes a human rights violation (Bunch, p 289). The issues of economic conditions and infrastructure were not brought up in any of the other articles, despite the fact that these relevant points which should be taken to consideration.

This only illustrates how sensitive and careful should be in regard to transnational feminism and activism. One should not lose sight of the nuances of language, national mentality, and history of another culture. It would be advisable to ask activists in other countries “what is it you need” as opposed to dictating what they should do (ibid., p 1176).

Post Script:
Garber discusses how the “Foucauldian queer narrative places the birth of the homosexual in 1870.” This is in reference to Foucault’s article “The History of Sexuality volume 1, 1870 - Birth of Homosexuality” (Foucault, p 1). I discovered an inconsistency in this statement, which I shall explain in the following: During the late 1800s, a small group of German physicians turned to sex research, while others became early gay rights activists (to overturn Paragraph 175, the Prussian anti-sodomy law of 1871). The German-Hungarian writer, Karoly Maria Kertbeny (a.k.a. Karl Maria Benkert, 1824 – 1882) coined the terms homosexuality and heterosexuality in a letter he wrote in 1868 to Carl Westphal (1833 – 1890). Carl Westphal was a physician who wrote an article in the “Archiv fűr Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten” (Archive of Psychiatry und Nerve Diseases) asking for the scientific study of socially stigmatized sexual behavior.  Bullough’s book, “Science in the Bedroom: A History of Sex Research” gives the date of this article as having been written in 1869 (Bullough, p 38). The reference that Foucault uses in his book only gives a footnote to the date which states “Carl Westphal, “Archiv fűr Neurologie 1870” (Foucault, p 1). This would make it a different archive than the one which Bullough lists, thus putting into question the date of when the social construct of homosexuality first appeared in scientific literature. I’m intrigued by this discrepancy and will look into it in more detail during the summer break.


Bullough, Vern. Science in the Bedroom: A History of Sex Research. New York: Basic
Books, 1994.

Bunch, C., women’s rights as human rights: toward a vision of human rights. Human rights quarterly, 12, 286-298. accessed 9 May, 2013

Foucault, M., The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley, New York: Random House, 1980, 42-44.

Gorkemli, S., “Coming Out of the Internet: Lesbian and Gay Activism and the Internet as a ‘digital closet’ in Turkey,” Journal of Middle East Women Studies, Vol. 8, No. 3, Fall 2012

Prof. Vaingurt, Associate Professor, Acting Associate Director, School of Literatures, Cultural Studies & Linguistics; area of specialization: 20th-century Russian literature and culture, University of Illinois at Chicago, interview, 1 April 2013

Sperling, V., Ferree, M. M., & Risman, B., Constructing Global Feminism: Transnational Advocacy Networks and Russian Women’s Activism, Signs, 26, 1155-1186