7 Women From All Around The World Explain What Feminism Means In Their Country

Grace Chung
Grace Chung

We have a culture that laughs at feminism. Because of the abundance of sexist memes, ‘feminazi’ slurs, and the general disdain for the word ‘feminist,’ I decided to ask 7 different women from 7 different backgrounds what their thoughts on feminism are. Below they share their diverse insights and all-too-common experiences:

1. Feminism as a chapter in a book

I keep coming back to Bell Hooks, her insistence that ‘[t]o be in the margin is to be part of the whole but outside the main body.’ She wrote of the margin as a space where the oppressed could resist subjugation. And maybe it’s the writer in me talking, but I can’t help but visualize margins of a book in which feminism is just one chapter. As with any good book, the real work is in the margins, the notes made, questions asked (huh? — what about my experience? — have you thought about [x]?). Those notes can’t just be for the reader, however. They must be shared, discussed, answered.

You might have noticed that feminism is a single chapter inside ‘the main body’ of this imaginary book I’ve constructed, ‘part of the whole.’ That’s because I genuinely don’t believe that most people are deeply antagonistic toward its basic principles. What they fear is what’s happening in the margins because that’s where resistance happens. That’s why that space is so important. People live and die in/by those margins, in part because they’re not there in that (metaphorical) chapter.

That’s why feminism is and remains crucial to my life. Because the conversations—the answers to all those questions scrawled in those empty, near-haunted spaces—can help real people.

Feminism is just one chapter of a much greater book that also covers racism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, classism, and more.

In a sense, we’re all part of a giant book club that’s reading this feminism-is-but-a-chapter book. But it can’t be the kind of book club where people sip drinks, wave their hands, and slur, ‘Well, of course women should be treated equally!’

I want my feminism-is-but-a-chapter book club to be full of rad(ical) folk whose margins are so annotated, I’ll feel like I didn’t read enough.

They’ll have arrows pointing to chapters I haven’t even read yet. And those margins will have even more possibility.T.A. Noonan, U.S.A.

2. Feminism as inclusiveness

For me, feminism has always been less about equality and more about stopping treating people like shit – about being inclusive.

In my own life, I only have minor inconveniences. My male colleagues seem to only take me seriously when I’m better at answering questions in a theory exam; there are eyebrows raised when I claim to be a better clinician. Some of these colleagues are vocal about how at least all of their female colleagues will either be gynecologists or stay-at-home moms, and this is supposed to be a funny depiction of how they value our contribution to Pakistan’s healthcare. There are memes ALL OVER my Facebook newsfeed about making fun of female medical students (from years where there’s no patient interaction) who like to wear their white coats in public because it’s seen as a way of flaunting privilege, as opposed to owning their hard work and efforts. These are things that initially bothered me as a first year but I know better now, to channel my energy somewhere more productive.

In class, lecturers still silence the boys by exclaiming, ‘Stop gossiping like girls!’ If they claim to know the slightest about makeup or lawn clothes sales, they’re instantly made fun of by the infamous, ‘you’re such a girl,’ because it is still an abhorrent thing to call boys.

I used to play tennis with my classmate in winter. I stopped eventually because I was tired of being gawked at and commented on by men whose sole intent was getting a reaction from me. I was tired of reacting. I was tired of putting on a brave face in the name of enjoying tennis when I clearly didn’t.

While I don’t wear my white coat in public, or even go out anymore to assert my right to occupy space, I do use my feminism to understand the differences that gave rise to sectarianism, learn more about transgender people in Pakistan and how the tragedies done unto them can be put to a stop, about how stress in university students can be destigmatized. I use my feminism to show up where I’m ought to. I don’t have fatal odds to fight, but I hope I win them anyway.Orooj-e-Zafar, Pakistan

3. Feminism as survival

As a feminist, I’ve noticed I spend, or to be accurate, used to spend most of my time defending what feminism is in the first place. As an Indian feminist, however, I realize daily with more and more clarity that I’ve been fighting this war my whole life. Not just as a woman, which is hard enough in a patriarchal society like mine, but as a brown skinned, minority status individual in an online community that often refuses to acknowledge the color of my skin, let alone my rights.

Like most young people from my country, I learned online the nuances of what a fight for equality entails. Sharing my struggles came naturally to me because I was fortunately raised in a family with diverse roots both religious and linguistic. They taught me to speak my mind even if no one wanted to listen. Especially if no one wanted to listen. So when I was asked to step down in a game of cricket because the boys deserve to bat first, I made a noise. If men looked at me as though I was a piece of meat, although my skin would crawl, I’d stare defiantly back.

You see I was fighting the fight long before I knew it had a name and a direction because in my country you either scream loud enough for everyone to notice or you stay silent forever.

Brevity is not my best friend especially when I’m talking about something as personal as feminism in India. For clarity’s sake, I’m going to highlight a couple of points about a rape case I’m sure people all over the world have heard of, at least in passing.

1.) In 2012, Jyoti Singh was gang raped in a bus in Delhi. She had fists and iron rods inserted into her vagina, her intestines were pulled out and mauled, and she was left to die on the road. You probably wouldn’t remember her name because they called her Nirbhaya, which means Fearless in Hindi.

It enrages me that no one remembers what she was called but they remember the details of the case with a sickening sort of pleasure. They called her the brave one, thereby invalidating her struggles and dehumanizing her to a mere adjective. She was brave, yes, but she didn’t choose the pain, she didn’t choose to become the faceless trigger of a movement that lasted for months but one that never really looked at how achingly sad it was that she had to die because a bunch of men thought they were entitled to using her to satiate their own sexual appetites. Sensationalism is the order of the day in my country.

Following the details of the rape, the questions that were raised were not about ensuring justice and condemning the criminals. No, they revolved around why a decent girl was wandering outside at 8 at night instead of staying in the safety of her house, why she had a male friend with her, and why (I swear I’m not making this up) she didn’t call her rapists ‘bhaiyya’ which means ‘brother’ because had she shown them respect they would have let her go.

2.) Feminism in India needs to be addressed because abuse, exploitation, and discrimination happens on a daily basis – not just at the hands of men but also women. It happens because patriarchy is at the very root of our culture. It happens because the women themselves believe that they are inferior to men, that they deserve to be controlled and subdued all their lives, that their value depends on the color of their skin and the number of children they have.

When a couple asks for blessings in my country, one of the most popular ones roughly translates to ‘may you have a hundred children’ and this is almost always directed at the woman. There was a documentary made by BBC, promptly banned but still widely viewed, about Jyoti’s story in which the mothers of the rapists cried tears of sorrow stating their sons were good men and that the fault was the girl’s. That some of them had wives and children and therefore deserved a chance at life. That sex is a natural right for men and women must not deny it. That our purpose in this world is to bear them children so the family line may continue.

I honestly could go on for pages and pages about why I’m angry. Female foeticide has so much reduced the female population in some states that women are trafficked from other states and sold as brides in India. Girl children are denied education because any money spent on them is considered a waste since they will be married off anyway. Women refer to their husbands as ‘woh’ meaning ‘them’ – as a sign of respect, wives won’t even call the men by their names.

And all these are only the tip of the iceberg. I haven’t even touched on dowry deaths, acid attacks and problems of the educated classes, or how marital rape still isn’t recognized by my country, and that more women choose a lifetime of abuse over risking social ostracism that is almost guaranteed if they raise their voices. I haven’t even spoken about what it’s like to be told the discrimination I face doesn’t matter because others have it worse. I haven’t even spoken about being masturbated at in the 11th grade and then again in the 12th, to muster the courage to speak about it only to have at least ten girl friends tell me they’ve experienced it too.

Feminism in my country isn’t a matter of making an impression or even just attempting to unravel the stronghold of patriarchy. In India, feminism is survival. – Tanvi Deshmukh, India

4. Feminism as safety

I feel like the feminist movement doesn’t really do too much for black women. It may have something to do with the racism being too alive.

Feminism to me is just asking for equality. It sounds so simple. I’m not even talking about ‘don’t catcall me when I’m walking by’ (although this is a big deal). I’m talking about the fact that Brock Turner was busted red-handed raping a girl and they considered his swimming achievements more important than her vulnerability and well being.

I’m sickened by this reality. I’m sickened by the marriage laws in other countries and how women are viewed as property – these young girls being made wives so young. There are so many levels to this [female oppression] that I don’t witness first hand and that’s sad. People think because certain things don’t happen here in America then we don’t need the feminist movement.

I want little girls to feel safe when they walk down the street.

I remember me and an ex-boyfriend were walking out after dark. I was a bit scared, of course, because when I was a little girl I was taught that being out at night was dangerous. He wasn’t scared. He felt just fine. And I remember being told to watch how I dress so I won’t tempt anyone to touch me inappropriately. That never stopped my molesters from molesting me anyway.

To me, the feminist movement may mean a sense of security along with equality. Don’t teach young girls how to dress, teach young boys to respect women. Teach them to not bother a woman who says no. She shouldn’t have to explain why she says no in the first place. – Mikky J., U.S.A.

5. Feminism as breaking norms

Feminism is a huge revolution.

In my utopic mind it shouldn’t even exist: genders should be the same, we should have the same rights and opportunities, but that’s not true. In reality women fight every day to have equal rights, to be considered more than just mothers or housekeepers. We are studying, traveling, preparing ourselves for new beginnings and it’s amazing what women can achieve if we are united.

I live in a country where men are ‘the most’ – most respected, most valued, etc. Mexican women have lived under men’s shadows for a long time. Women were educated to serve men, to raise children, to be exclusively made just for man, to ‘behave properly’ in society. With this they [society] take our expression, sexual autonomy, and freedom to live.

The feminist movement is kind of like an ice bucket being dumped on Mexican society, both old and new generations. With it we have a chance to fight for a better life, to grow up beyond being a mother, a housekeeper.Gabii Muro, Mexico

El dibujillo pre vuelo by Gabii Muro

6. Feminism as identity

I’m gay and I’m Muslim.

My parents don’t know, my peers don’t know, my society doesn’t know. But I knew since I was 12-years-old when I had a crush on my best friend and one day couldn’t contain the urge to kiss her on the mouth at a party and my mother slapped me out of nowhere, apologizing to my friend’s parents for how I was ‘socially stupid.’ I knew when I was 19-years-old and my stomach turned sick as my parents discussed potential suitors they thought I could marry. I know it everyday in my 20s because I’ve been in love with this beautiful girl at my work place and I can’t do anything about it.

In the small town I’m from women’s rights is not discussed openly or at all. Much more when it pertains to LGBTQ+ rights. For me feminism represents change, fortitude, and safety. It makes me remember who I am, even when I cannot express that fully, even when most days I’m afraid of my identity. – Anonymous

7. Feminism as empowerment

Feminism to me is about reclaiming women’s power and autonomy. It’s about supporting my sisters even if their personal choices are not something I like or agree with. It’s tracing my roots and decolonizing my existence.

Feminism is my lifeline.

It opened up the path of me being aware and more mindful of other kinds of oppression and how they’re all intersectional or have their own ties with feminism. On a deeper personal level, the movement helps me understand, outgrow Filipinx [Filipino] stereotypes/toxic behaviors and teach me how to confront them.

Feminism opens dialogues for communities. Filipinx culture and society is inherently misogynistic and sexist. We grow up tolerating and viewing gendered violence as somewhat normal. We normalize rape culture and domestic violence.

People’s response towards my abuse was that it is normal for parents to hit their children and for husbands beat their wives because they love them. Filipinx mistake violence for love and care. That transgenerational trauma is so fucking normative. [They say] my rape is something I had coming to me, something that’s not real because it was perpetuated by someone so fucking close to me. My closest friends, the people around me, and the media – they all fed my internalized misogyny.

Growing up in the Philippines is suicide.

Because when I see how people react on social media when it comes to women’s issues, it feels like I’m stabbing myself repeatedly.

Because I hear my father and brothers justify a woman’s abuse and rape. They’ll only possibly stop when you bring the narrative that *What if it happened to a woman in your life? (mother, sister, partner, grandmother, aunt etc). It sounds like you only matter because you’re either a family or a friend, and when you aren’t then you don’t matter as a person.

Because the day after a night of sex, my then partner called me a slut because of how I performed in bed. Because when I arrived home from work 5 minutes late, my partner was waiting by the door and suddenly slapped me on the face as he thinks being late meant I was having sex with other men. Because after that I was so scared I changed on my phone the names of my male friends into female names.

Because when I sought refuge with my dad after finally breaking free from the abusive relationship I had with the father of my children, my own dad told me I deserved the abuse.

Because when I hang out with my male friends I see how the way they look at women, hear how they talk about my gender as if our sole purpose on Earth is to give men an orgasm.

Because when I hung out with my female friends we spent time slut-shaming other women.

Because once in an elevator I heard strangers discuss how a homosexual man can never become a true woman because vagina equates womanhood, and how no amount of injected hormones for transitioning can change that, and how these transphobic shits intentionally misgender and deadname non-cis people.

Because I was at a hardcore-punk show surrounded by people claiming to be woke by proudly fighting for feminism and girl power and publishing their wokeness in zines, yet they shamed a girl when she claimed one of the band members sexually harassed her. Because they called her a feminazi attention seeking bitch. Because my gender gets called loka-loka, ingrata, chismosa, impakta, ipokrita, mangkukulam, puta, [crazy, ingrate, gossip, female demon, hypocrite, witch, whore] and all these names to shut us up when we talk back against sexists or speak out about our abuse.

Because if you have kids and they fail in life, the mother gets blamed for not being a good mom.

Living in the Philippines is everyday death and this is why I need feminism. It gives me room to grow, time to learn, fists to raise. It gives me the strength to survive, fight, and unapologetically exist. It makes me feel alive.

I believe most Filipinxs are scared to associate themselves as a feminist because they suppose they can’t personally connect to it because it’s a Westernized idea. As a Pinay and a woman of color, feminism I believe most people are scared to lean themselves with feminism because they think that they cant personally connect to it or it is too Westernized. If people try to research on the dynamics of feminism instead of purely relying on Tumblr or the white feminism showcased on social media, perhaps they will more likely empathize what feminism is for people like me. It’s not about angry women hating on men for no valid reason. It’s about how colonizers systematically designed Philippine culture and society so that we would hate on our own women and our own kind.

Historically, before the colonizers came, women were equal to men. There were gender non-conforming Filipinxs. Our old communities were diverse. Once we Filipinxs decolonize ourselves, we can learn to work out oppressive behavior and gendered violence. Doing so will decrease, if not totally eliminate, inherent feelings of shame that which leads people to shutting themselves from improvement and unlearning oppressive behavior.

And instead on relying on the state and the police, we will look after each other, take care of ourselves, and become a genuine community.

I am lost
in the midst of a community
which people say I belong to.
And all these angry faces and shouting lungs
who scream allyship with me
are the same faces that scare and choke me in my dreams
and made it hard to put myself to sleep.
Do not do this to make it
easier for you to exist on spaces
without the fear of being called out.

I need you more than your angry faces
and shouting lungs.
The endless nights of the most impossible sleep –
I need that back.
I need you to listen,
hold yourself back,
and stop being defensive of what makes you
uncomfort.
I’ve been uncomfortable all
my life
Stop pretending that the knife you hold is meant
to stab my enemies because
you are stabbing me, compañero.Honey Andres, Philippines TC mark

I asked women to be honest about their Instagram photos

“The essays in this book are short and sweet, and incredible. Love love loved this.” — Alex

“I’m so in love with this book! It’s so moving and some of the stories bring me to tears not because it’s sad, but because it’s relatable and shows that we’re not alone.” — Kendra

This is the reality of Instagram...

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