When Do Non-Western Women Get to Represent Themselves?

By Anika T. Rich

The discourse around feminism and the experiences of women that makes its way onto mainstream outlets are largely presented by Western women – women who are mostly from North America or Europe. Though these women may not always be white, Western women speak from a position of privilege, the position of a person who is a citizen of a major world power. This lens, specifically when focused upon non-Western people, typically present a specific narrative about the subject. Western social scientists, humanitarians, and other researchers examine the social practices and experiences of non-Western people and present their findings in a way that measures the validity and morality of non-Western experiences through Western measures. This ethnocentric approach of an “outsider looking in” is what frames the discourse and subsequent ideas about non-Western people and societies, but this is a dangerous power play by the West.

For example, think of the ways that we in the West learn about the experiences of non-Western women in the world. It is usually through a Western researcher who has inserted themselves into a society to record what they see and hear and bring it back to the West. The ways that the West presents the experiences of non-Western women show women as an oppressed people subject to unimaginable horrors and must be saved and restored by the West. But how do we know if this is the “real” story? When do non-Western women speak for themselves to the world at large? Why is that we only hear their stories through Western mediums?

In some ways, the discourse and the representation of non-Western societies through Western channels is a method of an assertion of power by the West. The representations of non-Western people are constructed through the stories told to us by outsiders, and media produces and reinforces these constructs that shape our ideas about who needs saving, who is good, who is evil, etc.  The only way to counter this is to first, allow non-Western people to tell their own stories through their own methods, with their own voices, through their own lenses, for a clearer, more authentic picture of their experiences, and second, for Western researchers to become much more critical and reflexive of how they contribute to bodies of knowledge and how they enable constructs of representation.

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