How Third World Feminism Differs from First World Feminism

The 1970s feminist movement in the US and Europe influenced the spread of women’s movements around the world. However, women in other countries sometimes feel American women practice “moral imperialism” in judging cultural practices like the headscarf or female genital mutilation. They don’t want to be patronized. They don’t feel all women want the same things and don’t aspire to be like American women. Lila Abu-Lughod has done fieldwork in Egypt for decades and reports: “I cannot think of a single woman I know . . .who has ever expressed envy of U.S. women, women they tend to perceive as bereft of community, vulnerable to sexual violence and social anomie, driven by individual success rather than morality, or strangely disrespectful of God.”

Third World women created their own women’s movements, such as the organization Women Living Under Muslim Laws in 1984, and those discussed in Women’s Movements in the Global Era: The Power of Local Feminisms, edited by Amrita Basu (2010). In her introduction Basu finds that women’s movements are most successful when they influence the government and link with other social movements while maintaining a separate identity and base. Some countries have created ministries of women’s affairs, including Brazil, Chile, and South Africa. Regional gatherings, such as the encuentros in Latin America and Shack/Slum Dwellers International, have proven effective.

Women’s movements are increasingly influenced by globalization, international funding for national NGOs, and transnational advocacy groups. Particularly useful are UN support and women’s conferences, as when the Beijing Platform for Action created a manifesto for global women’s movements. Addressing issues of poverty has been less successful than addressing violence against women and human rights—social and political.

Some in the Global South bemoan the influence of Western consumerism on girls and women. In Nigeria, Nanjala Nyabola says she was raised with the idea of feminists as bra-burners who couldn’t get along with men. She reports that “In many parts of the Global South, women are rejecting the baggage that comes with western feminism….Qualified feminism—third-world feminism, postcolonial feminism, chicana feminism—emerged as a rejection of this homogenizing approach to liberation, as many women felt that their double burden—gender as well as racial or economic—was being overlooked.” For example, she points out that western feminists aim for sexual liberation, while in other parts of the world women want freedom from sexualization.

In Fiji, girls who were exposed to Western beauty images on TV were 60% more likely to have eating disorders. In China, “ads never build the image that women should be strong or successful, just that they should be pretty,” observed Zhang Zheng, a 25-year-old brand manager. Professional women are only shown using beauty products. ‘There are only two images of women: the pretty girl and the good mother. The pretty girl predominates, and invariably is dangerously thin, scantily clad, and listlessly passive.”

The attractive achieving woman is a global theme. In India, instead of showing a woman as being dependent on her family and a burden to them, Unilever ran successful but controversial TV ads for its Fair and Lovely line of skin-lightening beauty products. The commercial shows a young woman with her father, who complains about not having sons to provide for him. The daughter then uses the cream to lighten her skin, so she gets a better-paid job as a flight attendant and is able to help out her parents. The ad was controversial because it disparages dark skin, but does show a woman provider.

Tension exists between Western/First World/Northern feminism, which tends to emphasize a homogenized global sisterhood, women’s rights, and reproductive choice, as opposed to localized feminisms in the Global South. Some First World feminists realize that they must consume less to equalize access to resources and challenge US foreign and military policy. In the Global South/Third World/Eastern developing nations legal rights are not as important as poverty issues. Former Marxist countries like China and Russia argued that feminism is a bourgeois distraction from class struggle. Rather than universal feminist goals, the current focus is on the specific local environment in which women live, and influences in addition to gender—race, class, religion, age, etc.

However, some feminists fear the emphasis on being sensitive to local traditions is dangerous to women. Gender activist Rita Banerji believes that despite the activity of thousands of women’s organizations in India, “the women’s movement today in India unfortunately is like an ingrown toenail. It is going in the wrong direction. For example, there are women arguing that sati [a widow throwing herself on her husband’s burning funeral pyre] is not murder but a cultural and religious way of women committing suicide, so we shouldn’t defame it; or that we should continue to allow Muslim men to legally have four wives. It is hurting itself. So mothers-in-law murder daughters-in-law; women strangle their own baby girls. When a group of women at a pub last year were molested and beaten up for “violating Indian tradition” the NCW (the National Commission on Women), the highest office protecting women’s rights, said the women had asked for it because they were drinking and inappropriately dressed.

“The Feminist movement believed that a woman’s body and being is her personal domain. Freedom within and freedom without. But in India the women’s movement sees women just as suppressed citizens that have to be given rights. Do you see the difference? The only feminist movement we had has now died out completely. The women who started were getting death threats and they just shut everything down.”

Ms. Banerji maintains that gender-based genocide in India is the worst genocide in history and the violence is increasing. Young married women and baby girls are killed every few minutes, without evoking anywhere near the response as killing a cow. The highest rates of genocide are in the middle and upper educated classes. In response, she sponsors an online petition called The 50 Million Missing Campaign that demands that laws against female infanticide, dowry, dowry murders, and honor killings be implemented.

There are significant cultural differences between the countries in which these different women’s movements are taking place. New technolgoies have made it so much easier to be connected to one another, and we need to take advantage of these global communication networks to pay attention to what our sisters are saying. The global communications network World Pulse is an example of an international forum for us to share ideas and experiences.

Gayle Kimball’s bio and books are available at She writes an advice column at Lotus Guide.

Photo credit: Gayle Kimball

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  • Sento

    Great article and I completely agree and dedicated much of my undergraduate career in Sociology trying to understand/ correct this. My only critique is the use of the terminology “third world”. As a Sierra Leonean woman I want to boldly state that there is nothing tertiary or deviant about my culture and my people. Just different. I prefer the term developed vs developing because it gives hope for progress and understands that this development is, in fact, a process that takes time. Interested in knowing other people’s thoughts.

  • Hayley

    Women need to be united everywhere, a woman in India or Syria is as much a sister to me as a woman in my home state, Michigan. It doesn’t matter if we speak a different language, I feel your sadness, anger, fear and most of all, hope that things will improve. I will devote my life to improving things not just for women of America, but for women everywhere. Feminism needs to be a global movement.

  • Ilsa

    nice artcle