Beyond Culture and Individualism, Towards Feminist Solidarities

During my first class of anthropology at university I discovered I could not become anything else but an anthropologist, or at least it should be a great part of my career. It made me realize that everything I had been conceiving for years as "just the way it is" could be seen as relative. Relative to the cultural but also to the political, economical, social and religious scenario where a specific fact happens.

Because of the discipline's willingness to explore facts from different angles, its experts were always concerned with the Other's point of view. Who this "other" is mostly depended on the specific historical and political moment. For instance, in the end of the 19th Century, right after the discipline was born, anthropologists were attracted to people who inhabited far away lands: Aborigines, Native Americans, Papuans, and so on. Their interest was not just talk: indeed they embarked for those unknown and exotic places. They wanted to report the natives' ways of living before "civilization" (that was, already back then, thought of being represented by Europe) would spread and make their "traditional" practices disappear. At that time, anthropologists (and not only) thought that the ultimate goal of each person was to get rid of those animal like practices, those of the natives, and become civilized thanks to the newest technologies that the industrial revolution brought along. In the beginning anthropologists were interested in diversity, which has always characterized the discipline, but still put themselves on a higher level than the people they made their studies on.

On top of this, early anthropologists were mostly men and so were those individuals they went to meet overseas. Interestingly, women were central to most of the practices anthropologists observed, such as those on kinship, marriage, etc. The problem was in representation. Once the male anthropologist left the field, he either neglected the female voices from the final study or made them look as irrelevant within the observed practices. Yet from mid-19th century onwards, female anthropologists started to give their opinions on other cultures and female informants started to be more heard. In this period, hence, we can depict the first wave of so-called feminist anthropology, not because female anthropologists defined themeselves as such, but because they contributed to feminist studies which developed later and to the ways women were represented and representers in the discipline. Feminist anthropology, then, grew out of the neglect of women's standpoints in anthropological studies.

The properly called "feminist debate" in anthropology has been rocky and diversified. Some scholars were interested in raising women's voices in societies where they thought their positions were subordinated to men, others in tackling methodological problems during research: to what information do I, as a woman, have access to? Is it different from the one men can get because of my gender, social status, religion, country of origin? But more than the specific research focus, to fix the "male bias" on representation, the final goal of each researcher was redefining and rewriting anthropological theory with women in it, too.

  • Foto Femme united image
  • Foto Femme united image

Furthermore, female anthropologists were concerned with fighting against the injustices that each historical period carried and undermined gender equality on different levels. These distinct socio-political and historical circumstances also shaped existing and created new kinds of feminism. Let's think as an example of liberal feminists who started to fight for voting equality from mid-19th Century. These ways feminism were tied to contexts in which the right to vote, just to mention one, was a relevant issue and worth fighiting for. But that was not the case everywhere.

In fact, many scholars of gender in other parts of the world did not like feminism in the "West" as they considered it to be too focused on female autonomy, liberation, freedom, voting equality, etc. I recently spoke with some women who work hard for their rights in their countries, but they do not recognize themselves as feminists because it is a "Western" creation and its principles do not represent them. Indeed, other women's priorities might be to live without war, to live close to their family, to build a stronger relationship with God, to study, and so on. We should then be aware of people's differences and consider their goals, as well as their means, towards social change and gender equality as a result of complex cultural but also historical, social, personal and political dynamics.

I want to emphasize the importance of not stopping our thinking at a cultural level, which is a common and dangerous tendency nowadays. This is because, by considering a fact as "cultural", we assume "culture" to be an all-encompassing category which changes as soon as we step into another country and which is abstained from the passing of time. By thinking so, we neglect that in the same cultural context we can find all the most disparate differences among people. We should start talking of culture as an ever-soaking sponge that is subject to historical (hence political, economical, religious and so on) transformations to which people adapt in different ways. Just a quick example, West Africans who immigrate to France and infect themselves with AIDS is not a result of their cultural background, but a bypass of political movements that allow them to stay in that country only if they can prove to be biologically sick.

The next step is to concentrate all these different angles on the particular, and if we talk about feminism, on a particular woman's voice. By doing that we acknowledge that her needs and aspirations might be different from the ones of another woman who was born and raised next door, precisely for what we said about "culture" until now. They should both have the right to be individually listened to and thought of as two different women with different experiences, beyond their cultural background.

  • Foto Femme united image
  • Foto Femme united image

There is then a tendency from "Western" feminism to incorporate a sort of "savior complex". This especially happens towards women who come from a different socio-historical context than theirs and are thought of as being vulnerable, incapable of standing up by themselves as oppressed by their male counterpart. I would be the first one to think this way if I would not try to position each experience in the scenario where it raises and develops. For example, if we grow up in a context where the concept of "freedom of expression" is strongly and historically radicated in the society, and hence in people's minds, and where by that we also mean that we should be free to wear whatever we want to wear, looking at someone who is covering her head with a "constraining" hijab could make us assume that that woman is unfree. Yet, by not contextualizing the scenario (and by that I mean all the complex factors at play we talked about) in which a fact is happening, we might fall in the categories of "right" or "wrong" doing, for we apply our way of thinking in settings where it does not make sense at all. Interestingly, wearing a hijab for her could be a way of expressing her freedom, maybe even from "Western" ideologies in which she does not feel represented and wants to take distance from? Last but not least, wanting to save other women implies a degree of superiority which is not that far from how early anthropologists used to treat the natives. For my "developed" ways of acting and thinking can teach you how to get rid of "traditional" habits which coerces your "freedom".

I think feminism should be about equality and justice, but I do not have the right to define what equality and justice are, for they should be interpreted in the specific context and by the particular person, a woman in this case. Rather, I suggest we should all work towards a feminist solidarity that goes beyond individual rights and aims at raising different voices in different places. Voices that all have the power to speak by themselves but, if working together in communities, are able to listen, understand and help each other, reach a broader public and defeat the seemingly insurmountable bias of "cultural difference" that is only keeping us apart. We should go beyond culture and realize what the other factors are that make each particular woman behave in a specific way and in a specific context. I am pretty sure that, after this attempt, we will all feel a bit less "culturally different" and a bit more connected.

Adele Dalla Pozza
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In her work Adele combines photography with anthropology, her educational background. The topics she... [read more]