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Updated: Jul 30, 2020

In patriarchy, women are frequently perceived as “the other” and they are subject to discrimination and marginalization. The androcentric character of patriarchy inherently confines women to the fringes of society. Undeniably, this was the case in Western culture, throughout most of the twentieth century, before the social transformation triggered by the feminist movement which enabled women to access sphere (previously unavailable to them).

White feminism is an epithet used to describe feminist theories that focus on the struggles of white women without addressing distinct form of oppression faced by ethnic minority women and women lacking other privileges.The white feminist theorists did not take cognizance of issues related to racism, gender discrimination, and class conflict and such urgencies of black female experience. Contemporary Black feminist criticism came into being in the late 1960s and early 1970s, fostered by the Civil Rights Movement and developed in conjunction with the Second Wave of American feminism, which was dominated by white women, and the Black Power and Black Arts movements, which were dominated by Black men.

A host of thinkers and writers reacted to Western feminism as it focused only on gender discrimination and neglected differences of race and class which are very much interrelated with gender. It lacked the comprehensiveness to encompass the existence of black women and other women of color. Brazilian women have asserted the Eurocentric view of feminism as it avoids the discussion of problems like racism, health issues, and other problems related to work. Western feminists are confronted with the problems of sexism and political and social inequalities, while the ‘Third World’ women confront and face even more complicated and intricate problems.

The exclusion of black women from the feminist theory and anti-racist discourses became clear for the first time in the social movements of the 1960s and 70s which fought for racial and gender equality. The task was accomplished by the black theorists like Bell Hooks, Angela Davis, and Patricia Hill Collins who stressed on the marginalization of black women due to race, sex, class, and gender. Sojourner Truth was one of the first feminists who drew white women’s attention to black slave women and made them realize that women could work like men.

Bell Hooks in her Feminist Theory From Margin to Centre (1984) critically argued and analyzed, that the women “who are most victimized by sexist oppression; women who are daily beaten down, mentally, physically, and spiritually- women who are powerless to change their condition in life. They are silent majority”. They have never been permitted to speak. The “margin” in the title refers to Hooks’ description of black women as existing on the margins and their lives hidden from mainstream American society as well as not being part of mainstream feminist theory. She also criticizes Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique which was written as if these women did not exist. ‘Friedan’s famous phrase, “the problem that has no name,” often quoted to describe the condition of women in this society’. She holds the view that Western feminism is basically racist and has disappointed and dissatisfied many women. Black feminism stresses upon the fact that sexism, racism, and class oppression are very much interlinked and intersectional. Black feminists face different challenges like,

(i) To show other black females that feminism was not a white women movement,

(ii) To persuade and command white women to share power with them and

(iii) To fight to end the misogynist tendencies of Black Nationalism.

A notable development has been taken in the attempt to think through feminism from black and minority perspectives, as in Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Garden (1983) and Barbara Smith’s Towards a Black Feminist Criticism (1977).The voices of the black women gained popularity with the term “womanism” – the term coined by Alice Walker. Reading the “womanism” of black women offers the readers not only the possibility of changing one’s outlook of the world, but also of changing the world itself. The black women, commonly known as African-American women, did not want themselves to be called “feminists” alone, because the strand of feminism advocated the basic rights of ordinary women, whose status was not miserable as that of black women. However, their beliefs and activism ignited a tradition of anti- racist and anti-sexist political movement and thoughts defined as Black American Feminism.

Alice Walker powerfully and passionately depicts the black women’s struggle for spiritual wholeness and urges for the sexual, racial, and economic equality of black women. She has emerged as a contemporary literary celebrity. Her writings centre on the role of black women in their culture and history. She has striven to find out a special place for African-Americans in general and African-American women in particular in the American literary canon. Barbara Smith states that a Black Feminist approach to literature embodies the realization that the politics of sex as well as the politics of race and class are crucially interlocking factors in the works of Black women writers.

Toni Morrison has emerged as an appealing figure and is the first African-American woman to have been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993. Her writings illustrate the spirit of resistance of black women. She wrote her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970) at the age of thirty while she was teaching at Howard University. The novel describes the life of a young African-American girl Pecola who longed for blue eyes and had the notion that her life would change if she acquire blue eyes. Her second novel, Sula (1973) portrays the friendship between two girls while revealing their African-American experiences. Her third novel, Song of Solomon (1977), which won her many awards, portrays Milkman Dead’s journey to his roots in the South. Tar Baby (1981), her fourth novel which embodies folk tales and myths, received much critical attention. Beloved (1981), her landmark novel depicts the story of an African-American slave Margaret Garner who escapes to Ohio. Sethe kills her daughter beloved who returns back years after to haunt her mother’s home. This book won her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. Morison has tried to rewrite African-American history from the perspective of African-American women. Her works follow the pattern of inter-sectionality of race, gender, and class. She focuses on the black women’s experiences in an unjust and cruel society and their quest for cultural identity. She juxtaposes fantasy and mythic elements with the conflicts of race, gender, and class. Her style combines unrealistic elements with the realistic ones to portray the plight of her female characters.

Islamic feminists such as Fatima Mernissi and Leila Ahmed have produced important contributions in their respective books The Veil and the Male Elite (1992) and Women and Gender in Islam (1992). Umm Yasmin, the Centre for Muslim Minorities and Islam, says that feminism is often mistaken as a western movement, but that Muslim feminists have been active since the early nineteenth century. Muslim feminist tasks aren't to reform the religion of Islam, but rather "promote gender equality within a secular society". Yasmin further concludes that Muslim feminists have "adapted" their views "in which Islam can be contextualized" in order to advocate equality between men and women paralleling with their faith; for Islam doesn't condone violence against women.

In support of Yasmin's argument, Moroccan writer and sociologist, Fatima Mernissi, undermines that the ideal Muslim woman being portrayed as "silent and obedient" has nothing to do with the message of Islam. In her view, conservative Muslim men manipulated the religious texts of the Quran to preserve their patriarchal system in order to prevent women from sexual liberation; thus enforcing justification of strict veiling and limitation rights. Fatima Mernissiis widely recognized as the founder of modern Islamic feminism. In her famous feminist piece Beyond the Veil exploits the oppressive status of women in Islam, sexual ideology and gender identity through the perspective of Moroccan society and culture. Beyond the Veil argues against the discourse on women's sexuality by breaking their silence with providing a voice against the dominance of male patriarchy.

Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook, in her book Lean In calls for redefining the notion of gender equality. She says, “First, we must decide that true equality is long overdue and will be achieved only when more women rise to the top of every government and every industry”. Many women have high profile visibility now and they are holding positions which can transform our-socio-cultural history. Ivanka Trump, senior advisor to president Trump, Urusula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ankiti Bose is the CEO of Zilingo, Radhika Jones, editor in chief of Vanity Fair, Marillyn Hewson, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin, Susan Wojcicki, CEO of Youtube, Rihanna, the world’s richest female musician, Malala Yousafzai, Noble Peace Prize Laureate are redefining the role of women in a world that faces challenges from all quarters.

With the push for gender equality now is the time for sisters to join together but, there has been article after article that suggest “women seem to cut women down” rather than support or encourage them. There have been several powerful movements this age, like, Me Too, the Woman’s March and Times up that have encouraged us all to band together and enforce monumental changes and societal shifts to ensure an inclusive future for all women.


From Margin to Centre (1984)- Bell Hooks


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