This is my answer to one ‘intellectual’ - and highly educated - person who expressed yesterday his ‘fear’ of Feminism in Lebanon and the Arab World: ‘you, Feminists, want women’s power over men. Men will not help you in your fight. Even most women in our countries, who are impregnated with the Patriarchal System, seem to like it; or they must be thinking: too much of a risk! You, Feminists, are all alike!’ Fortunately, I was only drinking a Perrier while having this conversation. Unfortunately, this statement is not an exception in our context, even - and especially - in the Academic circle. I often hear the following: ‘There are no gender stereotypes’; ‘Gender Studies should not exist’; ‘Feminists want Matriarchy’; ‘Feminists are Lesbians, thus hate men’; ‘Why do you complain? Women and men have particular functions. Stick to what is being assigned. You bring children, we rule’; ‘God created men, and gave them women to serve them!!’ etc… In the most ‘refined and advanced’ elitist areas, this is a sample of what I and other women have to deal with. Being a Feminist, as I see it, as I am, as others also are, simply = fighting for equality, partnership and a better management of diversity in a society.
A little bit of history (included in my upcoming book on ‘Womanhood in Western Asia’, to be published by Dar el Machreq by the end of this year) is needed here in order to differentiate the many movements within Feminism.
Feminism is both an intellectual commitment and a political movement that seeks justice for women and the end of sexism in all forms. However, there are many different kinds of feminism. Feminists disagree about what sexism consists in, and what exactly ought to be done about it; they disagree about what it means to be a woman or a man and what social and political implications gender has or should have. Nonetheless, motivated by the quest for social justice, feminist inquiry provides a wide range of perspectives on social, cultural, economic, and political phenomena. Important topics for feminist theory and politics include: the body, class and work, disability, the family, globalization, human rights, popular culture, race and racism, reproduction, science, the self, sex work, human trafficking, and sexuality.
The term ‘feminism’ has many different uses and its meanings are often contested. For example, some writers use the term ‘feminism’ to refer to a historically specific political movement in the United States and Europe; other writers use it to refer to the belief that there are injustices against women, though there is no consensus on the exact list of these injustices. Although the term “feminism” has a history in English linked with women's activism from the late 19th century to the present, it is useful to distinguish feminist ideas or beliefs from feminist political movements, for even in periods where there has been no significant political activism around women's subordination, individuals have been concerned with and theorized about justice for women. So, for example, it makes sense to ask whether Plato was a feminist, given his view that women should be trained to rule (Republic, Book V), even though he was an exception in his historical context.
My book involves two claims: normative and descriptive. The normative claims concern how women ought (or ought not) to be viewed and treated and draw on a background conception of justice or broad moral position (men and women are entitled to equal rights and respect); the descriptive claims concern how women are, as a matter of fact, viewed and treated, alleging that they are not being treated in accordance with the standards of justice or morality invoked in the normative claims. Together the normative and descriptive claims provide reasons for working to change the way things are; hence, feminism is not just an intellectual but also a political movement.
My book is based on a third wave feminist approach. In order to understand what this approach is about, it is important to present a general overview of the different waves of feminism:
It is common to speak of three phases of modern feminism; however, there is little consensus as to how to characterize these three waves or what to do with women's movements before the late nineteenth century. For instance, some thinkers have sought to locate the roots of feminism in ancient Greece with Sappho (d. c. 570 BCE). Still, this book introduces to Western Asian women who also fought for their rights, long before Sappho.
However, it was not until the late 19th century that the efforts for women's equal rights coalesced into a clearly identifiable and self-conscious movement, or rather a series of movements. The first wave of feminism took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, emerging out of an environment of urban industrialism and liberal, socialist politics. The goal of this wave was to open up opportunities for women, with a focus on suffrage. The wave formally began at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 when 300 men and women rallied to the cause of equality for women. Elizabeth Cady Stanton (d.1902) drafted the Seneca Falls Declaration outlining the new movement's ideology and political strategies.
In its early stages, feminism was interrelated with the temperance and abolitionist movements, and gave voice to now-famous activists like the African-American Sojourner Truth (d. 1883), who demanded: "Ain't I a woman?" Victorian America saw women acting in very "un-ladylike" ways (public speaking, demonstrating, stints in jail), which challenged the "cult of domesticity." Discussions about the vote and women's participation in politics led to an examination of the differences between men and women as they were then viewed. Some claimed that women were morally superior to men, and so their presence in the civic sphere would improve public behavior and the political process.
The second wave began in the 1960s and continued into the 90's. This wave unfolded in the context of the anti-war and civil rights movements and the growing self-consciousness of a variety of minority groups around the world. The New Left was on the rise, and the voice of the second wave was increasingly radical. In this phase, sexuality and reproductive rights were dominant issues. This phase began with protests against the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City in 1968 and 1969. Feminists parodied what they held to be a degrading "cattle parade" that reduced women to objects of beauty dominated by a patriarchy that sought to keep them in the home or in dull, low-paying jobs.
Because the second wave of feminism found voice amid so many other social movements, it was easily marginalized and viewed as less pressing than, for example, Black Power or the effort to end the war in Vietnam. Feminists reacted by forming women-only organizations (such as NOW) and "consciousness raising" groups. In publications like "The BITCH Manifesto" and "Sisterhood is Powerful," feminists advocated for their place in the sun. The second wave was increasingly theoretical, based on a fusion of neo-Marxism and psycho-analytical theory, and began to associate the subjugation of women with broader critiques of patriarchy, capitalism, normative heterosexuality, and the woman's role as wife and mother. Sex and gender were differentiated—the former being biological, and the later a social construct that varies culture-to-culture and over time.
Whereas the first wave of feminism was generally propelled by middle class white women, the second phase drew in women of color and developing nations, seeking sisterhood and solidarity and claiming "Women's struggle is class struggle." Feminists spoke of women as a social class and coined phrases such as "the personal is political" and "identity politics" in an effort to demonstrate that race, class, and gender oppression are all related. They initiated a concentrated effort to rid society top-to-bottom of sexism, from children's cartoons to the highest levels of government.
One of the strains of this complex and diverse "wave" was the development of women-only spaces and the notion that women working together create a special dynamic that is not possible in mixed-groups and that would ultimately work for the betterment of the entire planet. Women, due whether to their long "subjugation" or to their biology, were thought by some to be more humane, collaborative, inclusive, peaceful, nurturing, democratic, and holistic in their approach to problem solving than men. The term eco-feminism was coined to capture the sense that because of their biological connection to earth and lunar cycles, women were natural advocates of environmentalism.
The third phase of feminism began in the mid-90's and is informed by post-colonial and post-modern thinking. In this phase many constructs have been destabilized, including the notions of "universal womanhood," body, gender, sexuality and heteronormativity. The third wave feminists have stepped onto the stage as strong and empowered, eschewing victimization and defining feminine beauty for themselves as subjects, not as objects of a sexist patriarchy. The web is an important aspect of this new feminism. At the same time, it permits all users the opportunity to cross gender boundaries and so the very notion of gender has been become more problematic.
This is in keeping with the third-wave's celebration of ambiguity and refusal to think in terms of "us-them" or in some cases their refusal to identify themselves as "feminists" at all. Third wave feminists tend to be global and multi-cultural and they shun simple answers or artificial categories of identity, gender and sexuality. Their transversal politics means that differences such as those of ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, etc. are recognized as dynamic, situational, and provisional. Reality is conceived not so much in terms of fixed structures and power relations, but in terms of performance within contingencies. Third wave feminism breaks boundaries.