EACH YEAR Women's History Month is a reminder to us to evaluate how
far we have come toward gender equity and to reflect on how much work
is yet to be done. We are reminded that so many of the rights that we
take for granted were the outcome of the struggles of women who came
before us. Yet the ``sheroes'' who we remember seldom include the
names of Third World women or women of color.
As an educator, I am struck by the number of students who believe
that European American women were the first to desire freedom and
that their ``poor sisters'' in developing countries will only become
emancipated as these countries become modernized and follow the
Western model. There is an irony here.
Feminist scholars of colonial history have illustrated that part
of the civilizing mission of the colonizers was, in fact, to rid the
``natives'' of their acceptance of women's leadership. Indeed, the
Igbo women's war in Nigeria in 1929 was precisely a battle between
the traditional Ekwe women's councils and the colonial
administration's masculinist model of rule. Yet today, sexist abuses
in the Third World, from female genital mutilation in Africa to sati
(wife burning) in India, are depicted as rooted in tradition. This
portrayal of culture as rigid and ahistorical maintains and
exacerbates cultural practices that oppress women.
Take the practice of female genital mutilation. African women's
organizations, such as Forward, have demonstrated that the
availability of accessible health care, health promotion and girls'
education are the strongest indicators of whether local campaigns to
eradicate the practice will be successful. Yet centuries of
appropriation of Africa's peoples and natural resources have
prevented the establishment of an adequate health and educational
infrastructure. Foreign debt, another legacy of colonialism, and cuts
in public expenditure imposed by the International Monetary Fund have
also contributed to underdevelopment.
The existence of female genital mutilation can therefore be seen
as a cultural practice sustained and strengthened by colonial rule,
the historical undermining of
women's power and contemporary economic policies. Once we take off
colonial blinkers, we can see the ways in which the economic
practices of the West are fully implicated in the cultural practices
we so deplore elsewhere.
To bemoan the oppression of Third World women without
acknowledging the role of racism, colonialism and economic
exploitation is to engage in what black British feminist filmmaker
Pratibha Parmar calls ``imperial feminism,'' a standpoint which
claims solidarity with Third World women and women of color, but in
actuality contributes to the stereotyping of Third World cultures as
``barbaric'' and ``uncivilized.''
Women of color in the United States are often trapped between
imperial feminism and the need to challenge male violence within
their communities. For instance, black women are torn between their
desire not to send any more black men into a penal system already
bursting with wasted lives and the need to use that very system to
protect themselves and their children.
Similarly, American Indian women face a difficult dilemma in
tackling domestic violence in their communities while denouncing
police brutality against Indian men. Both of these cases illustrate
the need for the feminist movement to address the nexus of
racism-sexism that structures the political choices and practical
available to women of color.
Rather than responding to these dilemmas by turning a blind eye to
sexism in their communities, women of color have energetically forged
an integrated struggle against racism-sexism. Two upcoming events
herald this important voice. On April 28-30, the Color of Violence
Conference in Santa Cruz will connect all of the forms of violence,
including homophobia, prison abuses, environmental racism and
domestic abuse. At Mills College in Oakland, Beijing +5, hosted by
the Women's Leadership Institute on April 15, will bring together
activists and scholars to build a movement beyond imperial feminism.
It is through these multiracial coalitions that a new vision of
women's history may emerge.
Julia Sudbury is assistant professor of Ethnic Studies at Mills College and author of ``Other Kinds of Dreams: Black Women's Organizations and the Politics of Transformation'' (Routledge, 1998)
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle