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Our Western moment of feminist leadership is over

From Monday's Globe and Mail

On April 15, some 300 Afghan women marched in Kabul under a rain of male abuse to protest against a new law that would impose a series of Taliban-like restrictions on women. It would permit marital rape, limit women's movements without male permission, and even make it illegal for a woman to refuse to dress as her husband wishes. President Hamid Karzai, who signed the law (which affects only the Shia minority), now says he didn't read it and promises to amend the offending sections.

When the Western media sought quotes from the women, they frequently heard a Western-style feminist refrain: "These laws would make women into a kind of property." In the West, the counterpoint to the notion of woman as property has been a highly individualistic demand for personal autonomy - decision-making based primarily on a woman's own wishes, rather than as wife, mother, community member or worshipper.

But, while some Western feminist insights may be useful to Afghan women and other women in the developing world as they resist certain forms of male oppression, we should not assume that our job is to proselytize "our" feminism. On the contrary, the feminism expressed by women such as these Afghan heroines should educate us in the West about our own shortcomings.

The core theory with which emerging feminists in more traditional and religious societies are working is far different from that of Western feminism - and, in some ways, far more profound and humane.

In India, for example, feminists articulated to me a vision of women's equality that was family centred rather than self-centred, and that valued service to community rather than personal gratification.

They did not see their struggle as a cultural or ideological clash between men and women, but rather as a very practical effort to live free from violence and sexual assault, forced child marriage and bride-burning, and legal exclusion from parity.

This version of feminism - the notion that women can claim equality and still have a valued role in the home, prize family above all, and view rights in the context of community and spirituality - seems like a much-needed corrective to some of Western feminism's shortcomings. Ideally, men's drive for progress in the developing world would also evolve, uniting the idea of the autonomous self with support for family, community and other ties, and Western men would learn from this as well.

Moreover, intellectually, these women remind us that Western feminism did not have to evolve the way it did, and can still grow to embrace a more satisfying and humane definition of equality. Simone de Beauvoir, whose seminal book The Second Sex laid the groundwork for postwar Western feminism, was an existentialist who was neither a wife nor a mother nor a woman of faith. So her work naturally posited female freedom in a secular, solitary and individualistic context, in which "freedom" means pure autonomy rather than integration within a whole — comprising family, community and even God - on equal terms.

The good news for all women, East and West, is that the Afghan President, under intense international criticism, promised to change the law. This global uproar is a testament to how three decades of Western feminist challenges to leadership have changed the world for the better.

But our (Western) moment of feminist leadership is over now, for good reasons. We know by now what our problems are as women in the West, and we know the blueprint for solving them. What we lack now is not analysis, but the organizational and political will to do so.

So the leadership role is shifting to women in the developing world. Their agenda is more pressing, and their problems, frankly, are far more serious than ours - which makes it much more urgent for them to develop theories appropriate to the challenges they face.

If one of those courageous Afghan women who marched in Kabul wrote - as I hope she or one of her sisters in the developing world is doing right now - the seminal text for the next 50 years on non-Western feminism, it would no doubt be equality driven and practical. And perhaps, in its likely view of the world as being more than the sum of consuming, competing autonomies or gender warfare, it would be a valuable challenge to truisms that we Western feminists - and the men who love us - have thought we had to take for granted.

Naomi Wolf's most recent book is Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries.

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