• Sydney Stevenson

Feminism: Definitions Have Power

Miguel Bruna. Grand Canyon, United States

Feminism is a buzzword in the field of international development. After the Truman doctrine in 1949, many Western nations followed the lead of the U.S. in enacting development policy that imposed Western values on developing countries. For example, following Americanized ideals of the home in which the male sex was seen as the breadwinner, male beneficiaries in developing countries received the majority of funding for education and training. This had the effect of introducing harmful gender norms which constrained women to the home, or reinforcing these norms in cases where they were already present (Ravazi & Milleer). In the 1970s the Women in Development initiative was enacted through the United Nations, transforming the way in which development was approached. Women in Development created policies that invited women into the sphere of development and economic activity mainly for the purpose of improving a nation's overall economic efficiency and productivity (Razavi & Miller). This approach was critiqued for focusing heavily on women as isolated entities and neglecting gender relations. This led to a shift from Women in Development to the Gender in Development initiative, although many say it simply uses more inclusive language without demonstrating any significant differences (Gardner & Lewis). The imposition of any one definition of agency, liberation, and feminism through development and international policy has proven harmful in some way or another throughout the history of development. This is a testament to the belief that every culture, community, and individual should be able to pursue their own definition of feminism.

In Muslim Women Reformers, Ida Lichter gathers testimonies of women who are activists, many of whom have been stifled or silenced. Oumaima Abu Bakr, an Egyptian scholar, expressed Islamic feminism vividly when she said, “’Islamic Feminism’ allows me to qualify my own indigenous brand of feminism” (Gray 91). This validates the belief that Islam and feminism can be reconciled, and a woman living under the Islamic Republic and Sharia law can be emancipated in her own intrinsic way. Sherkaloo is another activist who explains the multiplicity of feminist views such as “Islamic feminists” who see women’s rights as being able to be provided through the framework of Sharia, “Muslim feminists” who have religious backgrounds but do not support Sharia law, and finally, secular/liberal feminists who want the Iranian Republic to become secular. She explains, however, that all of these views are allied through activism (Lichter 194-196).Through this commonality, a multiplicity of feminist views can be allied to each other, and therefore, accounting for them is the only way to contemplate a solution for freedom and agency. This is a potential starting point for reconciling the diversity of feminist views and working towards a more intersectional and allied movement.

Feminism from an indigenous perspective has also been harmed by the imposition and popularization of Western definitions of feminism. Mary Ellen Turpel explains that certain Indigenous communities traditionally had matriarchal systems and values built alongside the belief that women were the strength and center of those communities. Through the colonial and neo-colonial imposition of Western gender norms, these traditions have been, and continue to be, systematically shattered. In her article Mary Ellen Turpel quotes Skonaganleh:ri, a Mohawk woman, explaining her perspective, “I don't want equality. I want to go back to where women, in aboriginal communities were complete, where they were beautiful, where they were treated as more than equal - where man was helper and woman was the centre of that environment, that community. So, while I suppose equality is a nice thing and while I suppose we can never go back all the way, I want to make an effort at going back to at least respecting the role that women played in communities” (Turpel 7). As Osennontion, another Mohawk woman adds, “To me, when these women, who call themselves "feminist" or get called "feminist", talk about equality, they mean sameness. They appear to want to be the same as a man. They want to be treated the same as a man, make the same money as a man...and, they consider all women, regardless of origin, to be the same, to share the same concerns. I, for one, maintain that aboriginal women are different, as are the women who are burdened with such labels as immigrant women, or visible minority women. I certainly do not want to be a "man!'' (Turpel 8). Exploring different definitions of feminism, freedom, and agency, demonstrates that accepting only one definition is impossible and even harmful because of the multiplicity of views, lived experiences, and cultures in our world. Development is complex in the sense that it is still discovering its past mistakes with no answer to the negative aspects of present actions.

When discussing gender and the empowerment of women, generally the field of development must expand its horizons to allow for all genders to develop their own definitions and ultimately decolonize development from a feminist perspective. The perspectives discussed above, as well as many more, need to be accounted for and given space to be defined on their own terms. In the context of development, all definitions need to be taken into consideration without the imposition of a certain definition for political gain. To understand this concept at a more local and familiar level, McGill students were asked to respond anonymously to a question that asked, “What does feminism mean to you?” with hopes to raise the idea that a multiplicity of definitions of feminism, agencies, and freedoms can be allied to each other, and therefore, accounting for them is the only way to contemplate a solution for freedom and agency for any and all gender identities. The responses below notably represent a small sample of the student population, but are still powerful and demonstrative of diversity and the possibilities of allyship. As you read them think of what feminism means to you, where the roots of your own definition come from, and how (if you are able) you enact this personal definition throughout your life.

“Equality for all genders”

“Pure meritocracy and considering people as individuals rather than members of groups.”

“Feminism is the belief that women are equal to men and deserve the same rights, opportunities, and privileges”

“Feminism means giving all women the agency to live their life as their truest form of self, without being restricted by any one definition of feminism”

“Feminism is "calling people in, instead of calling them out”

“Feminism means equal opportunity for everyone. Feminism stems from the goal of equal opportunity for women, but in 2019 it must go beyond that. If feminism doesn't include all races, all sexual orientations and all classes, then it cannot succeed”

“Feminism means inclusivity, intersectionality, and fighting for the equality of ALL women!”

“Feminism is the feeling of having the belief that being a woman is just as powerful as being a man and that women should not have a glass ceiling in their careers in terms of equal pay and promotions”



Ida Lichter, Ida. Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression. Prometheus Books: New York, 2009.

H. Gray, Doris. Beyond Feminism and Islamism: Gender and Equality in North Africa. I.B. Taurus: London, 2013.

Turpel, Mary Ellen. Patriarchy and Paternalism: The Legacy of the Canadian State for First Nations Women, 6. Can. J. Women & L. 174 , 1993.

Razavi & Miller. From WID to GAD: Conceptual Shifts in the Women in Development Discourse. United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, 1995.

Gardner, Katy, and David Lewis. Anthropology and Development : Challenges for the Twenty-First Century. Pluto Press, 2015.

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