by Themrise Khan
19th March 2020

Despite what global feminists may claim, there is an emerging divide between women’s rights movements in countries of the prosperous Global North and the marginalized Global South. While the overall goals of the movement are universal, as indeed are those of women’s rights, the challenges and contexts of women in the two hemispheres could not be more different.

The International Women’s Day marches held across the globe recently, clearly illustrated this. Marches across Latin America for instance, saw women taking specific stands against femicide, abortion control and rape. Meanwhile in the prosperous North, women marched for pay equality and cuts to public education in Canada, and against Trump in the USA. And for the first time, the UK saw feminist groups holding online rather than street campaigns.

While all these causes are valid within their own individual contexts, the assumption that the experiences of women across the globe are tied together just because we are women, is one that is misplaced.

In Pakistan, this year’s Aurat (women) March, generated heated controversy on how men continue to view women as mere vessels. It stemmed from a misogynist television drama writer verbally abusing a well-known women’s rights activist on national television during a discussion on the march. It galvanized feminists across Pakistan, trending #merijismmerimarzi (my body my choice), but it also exposed the hypocrisy between women in Pakistan, many of whom were responsible for making the said writer’s most recent television drama a mega-hit – a drama that portrayed women as unfaithful, selfish and immoral.

These nuances are what Western feminists and practitioners seem to fail to consider when developing narratives around gender equality, feminism and empowerment. Words can mean utterly different things to women in different countries and, indeed, within each country. There are words that are not even translatable in many languages outside English.

Spurred in part by this problematic language devised primarily by Western academics and practitioners, the movement for equality is anything but equal around the world. For instance, the insistence of Western practitioners that inequalities among men and women cannot be addressed without the existence of “gender analytical frameworks”, is based on the need to create an order out of the chaos that the developing world presents to them. In doing so however, it ignores the nuances that define such chaos, such as the fact that it is not just patriarchy that subjugates women in many countries, but also the class barriers between women.

Likewise, the insistence on using terms such as intersectionality, binaries, feminization, invisible barriers, gender-based violence, to name a few (the European Institute for Gender Equality for instance, has a glossary of terms in the hundreds), is heavily informed by Western thought, rather than Southern practise. Many of these terms have no efficacy for our everyday lives, let alone define the life of women struggling to escape from female circumcision in Africa or femicide in Mexico. They instead reflect more the need for Western intellectuals and practitioners to create purpose to their work in countries other than their own, rather than allow us to take charge of our own progress, as problematic as that may be.

Such ‘gendered’, ‘feminist’, ‘analysis’, has ultimately reduced us to mere caricatures of our real lives and have even added to perpetuating gender stereotypes.

But we in developing countries, are also allowing the West to dominate by being so clearly indebted to the intellectual discourse created by them in so many spheres that we risk losing our own unique voice. A voice, that if opportunity seized upon, can clearly articulate just how far removed Western interpretation is of women’s actual lives in the rest of the world.

I have admittedly used such language in my own work for far too long, to the effect that it renders the women my work is meant to positively impact as devoid of individuality.

There is nothing ‘invisible’ about the barriers that women have to face around the world. They are extremely visible.

There is no framework within which gender-based violence exists. It is simply abuse.

There are no sections intersecting women’s lives. In the developing world, they face a burden everywhere they go.

Even the #metoo movement, which emanated from the West towards the rest of the world, still ignores the sacrifices women across the developing world have been making for decades. The role of female peasants in the Tehbaga uprising in 1940’s Bengal, the Abeokuta Women’s Tax Revolt in 1940’s colonial Nigeria, the Pakistan’s women’s rights movement under 1980s Martial Law and the Mexican Zapatista Movement in the 1990’s, are only a few that come to mind. Movements that we in the Global South need to learn more from than #metoo.

We do not have Western feminists and academics to thank for our desire for equality or our means to pursue it. We have our own history of sacrifice.

So it is time for female (and male) activists, academics and practitioners in the Global South, to reclaim our identity from the West. We need our own language, thoughts and practices to influence our own struggles. And while the Latin American and even the Pakistani examples are showing that women are gradually taking back their voice, there is still far to go.


Themrise Khan, has been an independent researcher and analyst in international development policy, gender and global migration for over 25 years with a number of publications and articles to her credit. She has worked extensively in South Asia and is currently based in Karachi, Pakistan.

Image credit: EFE News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo