What’s in a Term: Can Feminism Look beyond the Global North/Global South Geopolitical Paradigm?





Transnational Feminism, Intersectionality, Migration, Diaspora, Global North/South, Islamophobia

How to Cite

Das, D. (2017). What’s in a Term: Can Feminism Look beyond the Global North/Global South Geopolitical Paradigm?. M/C Journal, 20(6). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1283
Vol. 20 No. 6 (2017): north
Published 2017-12-31


The genealogy of Feminist Standpoint Theory in the 1970s prioritised “locationality”, particularly the recognition of social and historical locations as valuable contribution to knowledge production. Pioneering figures such as Sandra Harding, Dorothy Smith, Patricia Hill Collins, Alison Jaggar, and Donna Haraway have argued that the oppressed must have some means (such as language, cultural practices) to enter the world of the oppressor in order to access some understanding of how the world works from the privileged perspective. 

In the essay “Meeting at the Edge of Fear: Theory on a World Scale”, the Australian social scientist Raewyn Connell explains that the production of feminist theory almost always comes from the global North. Connell critiques the hegemony of mainstream Northern feminism in her pyramidal model (59), showing how theory/knowledge is produced at the apex (global North) of a pyramid structure and “trickles down” (59) to the global South. Connell refers to a second model called mosaic epistemology which shows that multiple feminist ideologies across global North/South are juxtaposed against each other like tiles, with each specific culture making its own claims to validity.

However, Nigerian feminist Bibi Bakare-Yusuf’s reflection on the fluidity of culture in her essay “Fabricating Identities” (5) suggests that fixing knowledge as Northern and Southern—disparate, discrete, and rigidly structured tiles—is also problematic.  

Connell proposes a third model called solidarity-based epistemology which involves mutual learning and critiquing with a focus on solidarity across differences. However, this is impractical in implementation especially given that feminist nomenclature relies on problematic terms such as “international”, “global North/South”, “transnational”, and “planetary” to categorise difference, spatiality, and temporality, often creating more distance than reciprocal exchange. Geographical specificity can be too limiting, but we also need to acknowledge that it is geographical locationality which becomes disadvantageous to overcome racial, cultural, and gender biases — and here are few examples.

Nomenclatures: Global-North and Global South Paradigm

The global North/South terminology differentiating the two regions according to means of trade and relative wealth emerged from the Brandt Report’s delineation of the North as wealthy and South as impoverished in 1980s.  Initially, these terms were a welcome repudiation of the hierarchical nomenclature of “developed” and “developing” nations. Nevertheless, the categories of North and South are problematic because of increased socio-economic heterogeneity causing erasure of local specificities without reflecting microscopic conflicts among feminists within the global North and the global South. Some feminist terms such as “Third World feminism” (Narayan), “global feminism” (Morgan), or “local feminisms” (Basu) aim to centre women's movements originating outside the West or in the postcolonial context, other labels attempt to making feminism more inclusive or reflective of cross-border linkages. These include “transnational feminism” (Grewal and Kaplan) and “feminism without borders” (Mohanty). In the 1980s, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality garnered attention in the US along with Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987), which raised feminists’ awareness of educational, healthcare, and financial disparities among women and the experiences of marginalised people across the globe, leading to an interrogation of the aims and purposes of mainstream feminism.  

In general, global North feminism refers to white middle class feminist movements further expanded by concerns about civil rights and contemporary queer theory while global South feminism focusses on decolonisation, economic justice, and disarmament. However, the history of colonialism demonstrates that this paradigm is inadequate because the oppression and marginalisation of Black, Indigenous, and Queer activists have been avoided purposely in the homogenous models of women’s oppression depicted by white radical and liberal feminists. A poignant example is from Audre Lorde’s personal account:

I wheeled my two-year-old daughter in a shopping cart through a supermarket in Eastchester in 1967, and a little white girl riding past in her mother’s cart calls out excitedly, ‘oh look, Mommy, a baby maid!’ And your mother shushes you, but does not correct you, and so fifteen years later, at a conference on racism, you can still find that story humorous. But I hear your laughter is full of terror and disease. (Lorde)

This exemplifies how the terminology global North/South is a problem because there are inequities within the North that are parallel to the division of power and resources between North and South. Additionally, Susan Friedman in Planetary Modernisms observes that although the terms “Global North” and “Global South” are “rhetorically spatial” they are “as geographically imprecise and ideologically weighted as East/West” because “Global North” signifies “modern global hegemony” and “Global South” signifies the “subaltern, … —a binary construction that continues to place the West at the controlling centre of the plot” (Friedman, 123).

Focussing on research-activism debate among US feminists, Sondra Hale takes another tack, emphasising that feminism in the global South is more pragmatic than the theory-oriented feminist discourse of the North (Hale). Just as the research-scholarship binary implies myopic assumption that scholarship is a privileged activity, Hale’s observations reveal a reductive assumption in the global North and global South nomenclature that feminism at the margins is theoretically inadequate. In other words, recognising the “North” as the site of theoretical processing is a euphemism for Northern feminists’ intellectual supremacy and the inferiority of Southern feminist praxis. To wit, theories emanating from the South are often overlooked or rejected outright for not aligning with Eurocentric framings of knowledge production, thereby limiting the scope of feminist theories to those that originate in the North. For example, while discussing Indigenous women’s craft-autobiography, the standard feminist approach is to apply Susan Sontag’s theory of gender and photography to these artefacts even though it may not be applicable given the different cultural, social, and class contexts in which they are produced. Consequently, Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi’s Islamic methodology (Mernissi), the discourse of land rights, gender equality, kinship, and rituals found in Bina Agarwal’s A Field of One’s Own, Marcia Langton’s “Grandmothers’ Law”, and the reflection on military intervention are missing from Northern feminist theoretical discussions. Moreover, “outsiders within” feminist scholars fit into Western feminist canonical requirements by publishing their works in leading Western journals or seeking higher degrees from Western institutions. In the process, Northern feminists’ intellectual hegemony is normalised and regularised.    

An example of the wealth of the materials outside of mainstream Western feminist theories may be found in the work of Girindrasekhar Bose, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, founder of the Indian Psychoanalytic Society and author of the book Concept of Repression (1921). Bose developed the “vagina envy theory” long before the neo-Freudian psychiatrist Karen Horney proposed it, but it is largely unknown in the West. Bose’s article “The Genesis and Adjustment of the Oedipus Wish” discarded Freud’s theory of castration and explained how in the Indian cultural context, men can cherish an unconscious desire to bear a child and to be castrated, implicitly overturning Freud’s correlative theory of “penis envy.” Indeed, the case of India shows that the birth of theory can be traced back to as early as eighth century when study of verbal ornamentation and literary semantics based on the notion of dbvani or suggestion, and the aesthetic theory of rasa or "sentiment" is developed. If theory means systematic reasoning and conceptualising the structure of thought, methods, and epistemology, it exists in all cultures but unfortunately non-Western theory is largely invisible in classroom courses.

In the recent book Queer Activism in India, Naisargi Dev shows that the theory is rooted in activism. Similarly, in her essay “Seed and Earth”, Leela Dube reveals how Eastern theories are distorted as they are Westernised. For instance, the “Purusha-Prakriti” concept in Hinduism where Purusha stands for pure consciousness and Prakriti stands for the entire phenomenal world is almost universally misinterpreted in terms of Western binary oppositions as masculine consciousness and feminine creative principle which has led to disastrous consequences including the legitimisation of male control over female sexuality. Dube argues how heteropatriarchy has twisted the Purusha-Prakriti philosophy to frame the reproductive metaphor of the male seed germinating in the female field for the advantage of patrilineal agrarian economies and to influence a homology between reproductive metaphors and cultural and institutional sexism (Dube 22-24). Attempting to reverse such distortions, ecofeminist Vandana Shiva rejects dualistic and exploitative “contemporary Western views of nature” (37) and employs the original Prakriti-Purusha cosmology to construct feminist vision and environmental ethics. Shiva argues that unlike Cartesian binaries where nature or Prakriti is inert and passive, in Hindu Philosophy, Purusha and Prakriti are inseparable and inviolable (Shiva 37-39). She refers to Kalika Purana where it is explained how rivers and mountains have a dual nature. “A river is a form of water, yet is has a distinct body … . We cannot know, when looking at a lifeless shell, that it contains a living being. Similarly, within the apparently inanimate rivers and mountains there dwells a hidden consciousness. Rivers and mountains take the forms they wish” (38).

Scholars on the periphery who never migrated to the North find it difficult to achieve international audiences unless they colonise themselves, steeping their work in concepts and methods recognised by Western institutions and mimicking the style and format that western feminist journals follow.  The best remedy for this would be to interpret border relations and economic flow between countries and across time through the prism of gender and race, an idea similar to what Sarah Radcliffe, Nina Laurie and Robert Andolina have called the “transnationalization of gender” (160).

Migration between Global North and Global South

Reformulation of feminist epistemology might reasonably begin with a focus on migration and gender politics because international and interregional migration have played a crucial role in the production of feminist theories. While some white mainstream feminists acknowledge the long history of feminist imperialism, they need to be more assertive in centralising non-Western theories, scholarship, and institutions in order to resist economic inequalities and racist, patriarchal global hierarchies of military and organisational power. But these possibilities are stymied by migrants’ “de-skilling”, which maintains unequal power dynamics: when migrants move from the global South to global North, many end up in jobs for which they are overqualified because of their cultural, educational, racial, or religious alterity.

In the face of a global trend of movement from South to North in search of a “better life”, visual artist Naiza Khan chose to return to Pakistan after spending her childhood in Lebanon before being trained at the University of Oxford. Living in Karachi over twenty years, Khan travels globally, researching, delivering lectures, and holding exhibitions on her art work. Auj Khan’s essay “Peripheries of Thought and Practise in Naiza Khan’s Work” argues: “Khan seems to be going through a perpetual diaspora within an ownership of her hybridity, without having really left any of her abodes. This agitated space of modern hybrid existence is a rich and ripe ground for resolution and understanding. This multiple consciousness is an edge for anyone in that space, which could be effectively made use of to establish new ground”. Naiza Khan’s works embrace loss or nostalgia and a sense of choice and autonomy within the context of unrestricted liminal geographical boundaries.

Early work such as “Chastity Belt,” “Heavenly Ornaments”, “Dream”, and “The Skin She Wears” deal with the female body though Khan resists the “feminist artist” category, essentially because of limited Western associations and on account of her paradoxical, diasporic subjectivity: of “the self and the non-self, the doable and the undoable and the anxiety of possibility and choice” (Khan Webpage). Instead, Khan theorises “gender” as “personal sexuality”. The symbolic elements in her work such as corsets, skirts, and slips, though apparently Western, are purposely destabilised as she engages in re-constructing the cartography of the body in search of personal space. In “The Wardrobe”, Khan establishes a path for expressing women’s power that Western feminism barely acknowledges. Responding to the 2007 Islamabad Lal Masjid siege by militants, Khan reveals the power of the burqa to protect Muslim men by disguising their gender and sexuality; women escape the Orientalist gaze. For Khan, home is where her art is—beyond the global North and South dichotomy.

In another example of de-centring Western feminist theory, the Indian-British sitar player Anoushka Shankar, who identifies as a radical pro-feminist, in her recent musical album “Land of Gold” produces what Chilla Bulbeck calls “braiding at the borderlands”. As a humanitarian response to the trauma of displacement and the plight of refugees, Shankar focusses on women giving birth during migration and the trauma of being unable to provide stability and security to their children. Grounded in maternal humility, Shankar’s album, composed by artists of diverse background as Akram Khan, singer Alev Lenz, and poet Pavana Reddy, attempts to dissolve boundaries in the midst of chaos—the dislocation, vulnerability and uncertainty experienced by migrants. The album is “a bit of this, and a bit of that” (borrowing Salman Rushdie’s definition of migration in Satanic Verses), both in terms of musical genre and cultural identities, which evokes emotion and subjective fluidity. An encouraging example of truly transnational feminist ethics, Shankar’s album reveals the chasm between global North and global South represented in the tension of a nascent friendship between a white, Western little girl and a migrant refugee child. Unlike mainstream feminism, where migration is often sympathetically feminised and exotified—or, to paraphrase bell hooks, difference is commodified (hooks 373) — Shankar’s album simultaneously exhibits regional, national, and transnational elements. The album inhabits multiple borderlands through musical genres, literature and politics, orality and text, and ethnographic and intercultural encounters. The message is: “the body is a continent / But may your heart always remain the sea" (Shankar). 

The human rights advocate and lawyer Randa Abdel-Fattah, in her autobiographical novel Does My Head Look Big in This?, depicts herself as “colourful adjectives” (such as “darkies”, “towel-heads”, or the “salami eaters”), painful identities imposed on her for being a Muslim woman of colour. These ultimately empower her to embrace her identity as a Palestinian-Egyptian-Australian Muslim writer (Abdel-Fattah 359). In the process, Abdel-Fattah reveals how mainstream feminism participates in her marginalisation: “You’re constantly made to feel as you’re commenting as a Muslim, and somehow your views are a little bit inferior or you’re somehow a little bit more brainwashed” (Abdel-Fattah, interviewed in 2015).

With her parental roots in the global South (Egyptian mother and Palestinian father), Abdel-Fattah was born and brought up in the global North, Australia (although geographically located in global South, Australia is categorised as global North for being above the world average GDP per capita) where she embraced her faith and religious identity apparently because of Islamophobia:

I refuse to be an apologist, to minimise this appalling state of affairs… While I'm sick to death, as a Muslim woman, of the hypocrisy and nonsensical fatwas, I confess that I'm also tired of white women who think the answer is flashing a bit of breast so that those "poor," "infantilised" Muslim women can be "rescued" by the "enlightened" West - as if freedom was the sole preserve of secular feminists. (Abdel-Fattah, "Ending Oppression")

Abdel-Fattah’s residency in the global North while advocating for justice and equality for Muslim women in both the global North and South is a classic example of the mutual dependency between the feminists in global North and global South, and the need to recognise and resist neoliberal policies applied in by the North to the South. In her novel, sixteen-year-old Amal Mohamed chooses to become a “full-time” hijab wearer in an elite school in Melbourne just after the 9/11 tragedy, the Bali bombings which killed 88 Australians, and the threat by Algerian-born Abdel Nacer Benbrika, who planned to attack popular places in Sydney and Melbourne. In such turmoil, Amal’s decision to wear the hijab amounts to more than resistance to Islamophobia: it is a passionate search for the true meaning of Islam, an attempt to embrace her hybridity as an Australian Muslim girl and above all a step towards seeking spiritual self-fulfilment. As the novel depicts Amal’s challenging journey amidst discouraging and painful, humiliating experiences, the socially constructed “bloody confusing identity hyphens” collapse (5). What remains is the beautiful veil that stands for Amal’s multi-valence subjectivity. The different shades of her hijab reflect different moods and multiple “selves” which are variously tentative, rebellious, romantic, argumentative, spiritual, and ambitious: “I am experiencing a new identity, a new expression of who I am on the inside” (25).

In Griffith Review, Randa-Abdel Fattah strongly criticises the book Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks, a Wall-Street Journal reporter who travelled from global North to the South to cover Muslim women in the Middle East. Recognising the liberal feminist’s desire to explore the Orient, Randa-Abdel calls the book an example of feminist Orientalism because of the author’s inability to understand the nuanced diversity in the Muslim world, Muslim women’s purposeful downplay of agency, and, most importantly, Brooks’s inevitable veil fetishism in her trip to Gaza and lack of interest in human rights violations of Palestinian women or their lack of access to education and health services. Though Brooks travelled from Australia to the Middle East, she failed to develop partnerships with the women she met and distanced herself from them. This underscores the veracity of Amal’s observation in Abdel Fattah’s novel: “It’s mainly the migrants in my life who have inspired me to understand what it means to be an Aussie” (340). It also suggests that the transnational feminist ethic lies not in the global North and global South paradigm but in the fluidity of migration between and among cultures rather than geographical boundaries and military borders. All this argues that across the imperial cartography of discrimination and oppression, women’s solidarity is only possible through intercultural and syncretistic negotiation that respects the individual and the community.


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Author Biography

Devaleena Das, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Devaleena Das (Ph.D.) is a Lecturer in Gender and Women’s Studies Department at University of Wisconsin Madison. Prior to joining UW-Madison, Das was an Assistant Professor of English at University of Delhi, India. Her theoretical standpoint lies at the juncture of transnational feminism and interdisciplinary theory of the body, sexuality and desire while my research focuses on nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature and other cultural artefacts of Australia, South Asia, and the U.S. Her first book A Critical Study of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (Atlantic Press, 2014), looks at female sexual desire and ideas of civility. She has edited an anthology titled Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (Pencraft International, 2016), and co-edited Unveiling Desire (Rutgers University Press, 2017) and Claiming Space: Australian Women’s Writing (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). Currently, she is working on her monograph Stripping the Anatomical Parts: Women and their Fragmented Bodies.