Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Translating Global Feminism

Kwok Pui Lan and Rola Sleiman (right)
Two weeks ago, I was at the University of Edinburgh attending a conference titled “Women in the World Church” co-sponsored by the University and the Church of Scotland’s World Mission Council. Several international students and special guests were invited to speak about the situation of women in their church and society. Sara from Iran spoke about the difficulties of women exercising leadership in the church and in the Muslim community. Jessie from Nigeria talked about gender violence, child marriage and abuse, and HIV/AIDS. She also reminded us that women are not just victims of oppression, but are also agents of social change who seek to be co-creators with God. Cadida from Hong Kong said that the first woman was ordained in Hong Kong as early as 1944, and, as a younger woman, she has not experienced much gender oppression. At the conference, I also met the first woman ordained in the Middle East. She is the Rev. Rola Sleiman from Lebanon, and she worked in the church for eight years before she was ordained. Her ordination was a joyful event that her Muslim friends also attended. 

As I listened to the stories about women’s struggles, agency, and ministries in many parts of the world, I thought of the topic, “translating global feminism.” How do we understand and conceptualize the diverse expressions of feminism in these different settings? The word “translation” comes from Latin, meaning “to transfer.” Do we have an original version of feminism, which is transferred or transported to other cultures and rendered into local languages and idioms?  

Many women in the two-thirds world do not want to be associated with the term “feminism” because the word is often used to describe Western, middle-class, white women’s movement. Global feminism, for them, may not be a blessing but can instead be a superimposition of Western values and lifestyles. Because of the hegemony of Western power, globalization often means Westernization. And globalization in the past decades has contributed to the rise of fundamentalisms of all kinds, making women’s lives harder and more restricted than before.  

But global feminism needs not be conceived as a top-down, pre-packaged movement translated from elsewhere. It can also refer to a global women’s movement built from the ground up. There are, in fact, many feminisms, each of which is locally and contextually defined by women themselves. Feminism in Iran, for example, would look very different from feminism in Hong Kong. Instead of taking Western feminism as the blueprint, women in Nigeria may have more to learn from women’s struggles in Lebanon. The global feminist movement can be characterized as multilingual and pluriphonic: spoken in different accents, and open to a continued process of creolization.  

Unfortunately, many of us in the United States have the disadvantage of living and operating in a monolingual culture, while the majority of the world lives in bilingual or multilingual societies. Living in a superpower, we are not required to acquire other tongues, either literally or metaphorically. Postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak says that we should regard our privilege as our loss. The challenge for us is how to understand the multilingual and multicultural expressions of so many different feminisms so that we can be ethical subjects in an increasingly interconnected world. This is especially pertinent for me, as I am now teaching a course on Feminist Theologies in the Global South and have been involved in translating and editing women’s theologies from other parts of the world. 

In her article “The Politics of Translation,”* Spivak writes that “the task of the feminist translator is to consider language as a clue to the workings of gendered agency.” Spivak argues that in order to do a good translation, we have to pay attention to rhetoricity, logic, and silence of the text. I want to borrow her insights to talk about translating global feminism. In order to understand feminism as it is manifested in different parts of the world, we have to learn how women use language and rhetoric to construct meaning and make sense of their world. For example, African feminist theologian Mercy Amba Oduyoye speaks of a mothering God. We have to understand that the word “mothering” has rich meanings in the African familial system, and the nurturing role is a crucial one in the face of poverty and life and death in the continent. The challenge for us is that we often do not know enough of the cultural and social worlds of these women, and hence only come to know their feminist politics and theology superficially. We hear the words, but don’t really understand their rhetoricity. In our liberal academy, we often say that we want to be in solidarity with other women in their struggles. But without learning other women’s languages and their meaning-making processes, such solidarity could be at a very superficial level. 

To be a good translator of global feminism, we need to pay attention to what Spivak calls “the relationship between the social logic, social reasonableness, and the disruptiveness of fuguration in social practice.” I once heard a Muslim feminist ask, “why it is OK for a woman to be both a Christian and a feminist, but a Muslim woman must give up her religion to become a feminist?” The American mass media has created a social logic that Islam and feminism are incompatible. We are bombarded with stereotypical images of Middle Eastern women wearing the hijab, symbolizing their modesty and subordination. The hijab, as portrayed in the media, serves as a marker of cultural difference and female submission. Yet, in her book A Quiet Revolution, Harvard professor Leila Ahmed shows that some Muslim women in the United States have purposely put on the hijab after September 11. In the midst of the “war on terrorism,” wearing the hijab can be a sign of solidarity with the Muslim community, and a gesture of defiance. By doing this, Muslim women are claiming their agency and their subjecthood, challenging the invisibility of the Muslim community in America. Without knowing the history of wearing the hijab and understanding the hijab as a multivalent symbol, we will miss these women’s social cues and superimpose our own social logic onto them. 

The most difficult part in translating global feminism is how to deal with women’s silence. Spivak famously asked the question, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Here we have to ask questions such as “Who are the women who are given the power to speak?” “How have the lives of the gendered subaltern been represented?” “Under what conditions do women in the majority world enter into the knowledge system of Western academy?” “Even if poor and marginalized women have spoken, do we understand their rhetoric and logic?” “In translating women’s work from another culture into a dominant European language, what compromises have been made to render it intelligible?”

In American culture, we often associate speaking with being active and taking part, and associate silence with being passive and disengaged. But this is not the case in other cultures, especially in East Asia. In Enfolding Silence, Bret Esaki offers a multilayered reading of silence in the experiences of Japanese Americans, facing racism and oppression. In the classroom, I have often encountered international women students who remain quiet and silent. When I ask a question, these students have to translate my words and meanings into their cultural context, and when they come up with a comment or an answer, the discussion may have moved on. I do not assume that their silence means they are not interested in the class. Rather, it reminds me of my need to think about other channels of communication and different modes of participation so that these students can share. 

Translating global feminism is not easy because it often reveals our ignorance, indifference, and impatience. So my question to you is “What kind of risk-taking are you prepared to take in order to enter the social and cultural worlds of other women and, by doing so, be transformed into agents of social change?” 

*Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “The Politics of Translation,” in Outside in the Teaching Machine, 

(Paper presented at a panel on “Translating Global Feminism” at Emory University, October 2, 2017.)