Western Ethnocentrism and its cost to Western Feminisms

Latin American Presidents.png

[IMAGE DESCRIPTION: FROM LEFT TO RIGHT STAND CRISTINA FERNÁNDEZ DE KIRCHNER, FORMER PRESIDENT OF ARGENTINA; MICHELLE BACHELET, FORMER TWO-TERM PRESIDENT OF CHILE, AND DILMA ROUSSEFF, FORMER PRESIDENT OF BRAZIL. ALL ARE SMILING AND WAVING].

Scholars and activists alike have noticed a disconcerting trend in western feminisms: namely, western feminisms frequently view non-western cultures through an ethnocentric lens. This precise dynamic can be observed in France, for instance, where the burqa is banned. This tendency can also be discerned in articles like these which explicitly argue (from a western perspective) that burqas are dangerous to women. Now, putting aside the rights-violations which this perspective can and actually does engender, I want to unpack the negative implications of this ethnocentrism for the west’s promotion of gender equality. Using a western stereotype of Latin America as a case study, this post will explicate how ethnocentrism precludes many western feminists from implementing gender-equality-building tactics from non-western nations.

A well-known stereotype held by both western feminists and laypeople is that Latin American “machismo” holds the region’s women back compared to the west. This inflexible and ethnocentric stereotype, though, is fraught for two, closely related reasons. First, this stereotype obscures the ways in which Latin American women have surpassed many of their western counterparts, particularly in the realm of female representation in government. For example, the stereotype fails to recognize that Latin America has had a total of seven women presidents—seven more than the purportedly more-advanced United States. Likewise, this ethnocentric vision fails to realize that women make up one in four of the region’s legislators. According to the Guardian, only the Nordic countries have higher ratios of female representation in their legislatures. Unsurprisingly, this first problem produces another, more harmful problem.

To be exact, viewing non-western nations from an ethnocentric perspective precludes western feminists from implementing gender-equality-building tactics from Latin America. This is primarily because, when the region is not thought of as a global leader in female political representation, politicians and activists don’t look at and adopt the strategies employed by this region’s women. To illustrate, though the election of various female presidents might have yielded valuable insights for Hillary Clinton, Clinton’s campaign didn’t foreground the lessons learned by her Latin American counterpart politicians. Similarly, while the the experiences of South America’s women legislators might help the surge of women running this election cycle, few if any American candidates turn to their South American sisters.

In conclusion, the ethnocentric bias of many western feminisms doesn’t just distort understandings of reality, it also hinders western women’s progress insofar as it prevents western feminists from modeling their strategies after successful, non-western ones. Though Latin America (like other non-western nations) certainly has progress to make when it comes to women’s rights, there nevertheless remain lessons that both the United States and Western Europe could glean from this thus-far devalued region.

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