Feminism is a Western concept: myth or reality?


Feminism is a global movement that embraces both difference and commonalities. Let’s stop the discussion about origins.

Illustration: Author of "Feminism is a Western concept"

The stories of our foremothers: Buddhist nuns in the 6th century BC

One of the earliest pieces of writing by women, the Therigatha, is a collection of poems by Buddhist nuns that dates back to the 6th century BC, although its origins probably go back further in time. Small in number – the entire corpus is made up of 73 short poems – these works, handed down orally, and then written, shed light on the lives of women who escaped abusive husbands, social ostracism, and gave up worldly desires in the pursuit of what all women want: freedom.

For the bhikunnis, the nuns who wrote these poems, freedom meant joining the Buddhist orders which, while not devoid of patriarchy, were nonetheless more open to women renouncers than other religions. Here, they formed connections built on shared stories and created a sisterhood that perhaps gave them a sense of home.

Were these women our early feminists? It’s hard to say. We know little about them – although what we do know is that the women came from poverty and privilege and despite the Buddha being reluctant to admit them to the holy orders they came together to persuade him, and in the end, they succeeded.

Muktabai: a Dalit woman in the nineteenth century1

Several centuries later, in Maharashtra, then ruled by an upper caste warrior clan called the Peshwas, a young woman, fourteen years of age, became enraged at not being allowed to study, because she was female and low caste. When Muktabai – for that was her name – finally found a school (set up by three people, social reformers Jyotiba Phule, his wife Savitribai Phule and their friend, Fatima Sheikh), where she could study, she wrote a prizewinning essay, a passionate, angry critique of a casteist regime that denied the poor and low caste the right to an education. She spoke truth to power.

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain: an early writer in the twentieth century

Perhaps following on the example set by Savitribai Phule’s school, in the early twentieth century Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, a Bengali woman, started a school for Muslim girls, first in Bhagalpur in Bihar and later in Kolkata where she went from house to house persuading parents to send their daughters to school. Later, she wrote one of the first pieces of feminist science fiction, Sultana’s Dream, a story that creates a utopia, Ladyland, in which women rule.

Were Muktabai and Rokeya our early feminist ancestors? Thousands of women across caste and class believe they were.

Hansa Mehta: the shaping of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In 1947 India became independent of colonial rule and set itself the task of making a secular constitution that would be the base for the newly independent democracy. Fifteen women were among those involved in the making of this important, foundational document. Their number was not large but their voices were not insignificant, and they argued for the rights of women citizens, for equality, and for fundamental rights regardless of sex or gender. One of them, Hansa Mehta, worked closely with Eleanor Roosevelt on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and it was she who was responsible for changing the original statement in Article 1 from “all men are born free and equal” to: “all human beings are born free and equal”. This singular act had, and continues to have, wide-ranging implications internationally.

Was Hansa Mehta one of our early feminists? She would certainly have defined herself as such, her life was dedicated to the cause of women, and she ceaselessly campaigned for women’s rights in India, and supported women’s battles abroad.

And the ones who stayed behind and are still there today

The Ramayana, the Hindu epic that tells the tales of gods and humans, has a story that resonates deeply with our feminisms today. When Rama, the king of Ayodhya, was exiled to the forest for 14 years, the people of his kingdom followed him, his wife Sita and his brother Laxmana. At the edge of the forest Rama turned around and said to the followers, “all you men and women go home now”. Fourteen years later, when they returned, there were people living at the edge of the forest. “Why are you here?” Rama said, “I told you to go home.” No, they said, “You said all you men and women go home. We are not one or the other, we are both.” These were our early trans ancestors – the ones who are today throwing out one of the most important challenges to feminism across the world.

The legacies of our foremothers

It is the legacies of these women – and hundreds of others like them – that inform our feminisms today and it is on their shoulders that we stand. No matter which country in the world we come from, whether we belong to the global North or the global South, no matter in which age and century we have lived, our histories connect us to women who have blazed difficult trails and have opened hitherto closed spaces for us.

Pushed into a discussion on bringing marital rape, they pronounced that feminists in India knew little about “Indian” culture

And yet, in the recording of these histories, only some acquire importance while others are forgotten. Eleanor Roosevelt’s name is synonymous with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but Hansa Mehta’s barely figures. Although the Therigatha is very likely the oldest work of literature by women thus far known to us, it remains largely unacknowledged in world histories of feminism or even women’s writing. Rokeya’s work is very likely one of the early feminist visions of a utopia and yet it’s barely known outside of South Asia. These absences and omissions – not random, but rather deliberate and systematic – strengthen the widely-held belief that countries of the West, and women of the West, are the only ones who have contributed to “progress” and “civilisation” and therefore also to the march of feminism in the world, and the rest of us are basically trying to catch up. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, in explaining the word “feminism” describes it thus: “although largely originating in the West, feminism has manifested itself worldwide.” In this telling, feminism, a radical and transformative political philosophy that has informed, and continues to inform, women’s individual and collective resistance everywhere in the world, and that belongs to women everywhere, has come to be identified as merely a “Western” phenomenon, which has then “spread” to other parts of the world.

The journeys of words and languages

It may be true that the word “feminism”, because it belongs to the English language which is today the leading international language of power in the world, is identified as Western. But words, and the concepts that attach to them, the meanings and histories they acquire, do not necessarily belong to a single place or culture. Even here, there is a history we need to remember: the earliest appearance of the word wasn’t in English but in French, and it is said to have been coined by a man (Charlies Fourier, a utopian socialist) to describe the opposite of what it has come to stand for, feminine qualities or character.2 Over the years, as women’s movements have grown in different cultures and geographies, local, national, regional languages have been mined, and words have been coined, to describe a phenomenon for which hitherto there were no words because it wasn’t really supposed to exist. In two of India’s languages, Hindi and Urdu, we created the words “Naarivaad” and “Niswaniyat”. Yet none of these have the kind of purchase English has, and therefore we continue to be confronted with the myth of feminism’s Westernness.

Not only is the myth of feminism’s Western origins widely prevalent, it is also held by people at completely different ends of the political spectrum – superpowers, Western feminists, right-wing regimes, fundamentalists, and often women themselves.

In 2001 when the United States launched its “war on terror” in Afghanistan, the ostensible concern for the condition of women in Afghanistan was used as a rationale. The tragedy was that some Western feminist groups, concerned at the fate of their less fortunate sisters in the so-called less developed world, also subscribed to this belief. And the American state was able to leverage this concern to legitimise its own intervention. Some five years earlier, for example, a group called the Feminist Majority Foundation had drawn attention to what they saw as the erosion of women’s rights in Afghanistan. It was this group that took the lead in collecting feminist support for the US intervention (ironically described as “the first feminist war in all of history”). Its “Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan” drew in Hollywood personalities and influential feminists like Gloria Steinem.3 The first-world-feminists-to-the-rescue-of-third-world-feminists syndrome is all too common and has done a great deal to entrench the idea of feminism’s so-called Western origins.

Ownership, doubt, opposition

The United States is not the only culprit. More recently, politicians of the right-wing in India found a different use for the “feminism is a Western concept” phenomenon. Pushed into a discussion on bringing marital rape under the purview of the law (it remains exempt), they pronounced that feminists in India knew little about “Indian” culture and were bringing “Western” ideas into the country which would destroy the uniquely “Indian” institution of marriage which was, after all, the bedrock of Indian society. As if this was not enough, some months ago, a group of women wrestlers protesting against a leading political figure for sexually harassing them, and demanding the country’s law on sexual harassment be used to try him in the courts, were told that they were being too “Western” and that notions such as consent, invoked by feminists, were not part of “ourculture.

If the idea of feminism as a Western concept becomes a convenient stick with which to beat women who raise uncomfortable questions, it is also true that resistance to the idea of feminism often comes from women themselves, especially in the global South. I cannot recount the number of times I have heard strong, articulate, courageous women resist being described as feminists. In this part of the world, feminism is not a word that is welcomed with open arms. Many women, who are strongly feminist in what they do, reject the word because, for them, it is something alien, something that has not grown out of the context in which they live.

Partly this is because there are so many myths that attach themselves to feminism and therefore this baggage accompanies it everywhere. Feminists are said to be anti-marriage (but so many people are anti-marriage and so many feminists are married!); they are said to destroy homes and marriages (I’m yet to find a feminist who has done this, and in any case, do marriages really need feminists to destroy them? They’ve been doing pretty well at self-destructing anyway!); they’re said to be “strident” and “loud” (these are only ways of speaking, and they’re not particular to women. Besides, they’re sometimes the only way of being heard when women are confronted with mansplaining!). But this baggage makes people wary of owning the word. Many women in India, for example, who live in their own languages and not in English, want to have nothing to do with the word, not because they don’t believe in what the word stands for, they do, but because the word itself is alien and they often do not want to identify with labels that may alienate them from their own communities.

And then, as happens with all good ideas across the globe, there is the very real danger of co-option, something that we see happening as the world turns more and more towards the conservative right. Politicians of all hues (and they don’t all have to be men), their misogyny only thinly disguised, declare themselves to be feminist or on the side of women. Sometimes they put out a sop or two, at others they twist words to use the very public presence of feminisms and feminists to legitimise their agendas.

The spread of ideas

No other form of political thought faces such attacks anywhere in the world, and certainly none is attacked for being Western or Eastern in its spread across the globe. Capitalism, for example, is undoubtedly a Western concept. It comes from the West where power and economic wealth are located, yet these are desired and aspired to everywhere in the world and no one anywhere accuses capitalism of being Western. Marxism is another ideology that comes to us from the West and it has spread from east to west and north to south, taking local shape in each context. People who own it, or those who oppose it, do not do so because they see it as Western. Democracy, a Western idea, belongs to all of us, no matter where we are. Buddhism, a way of life, has spread in the other direction and is never targeted for its origins. Why, then, should feminism be?

The truth is, there can never be a copyright on ideas, or indeed on the battle against discrimination and injustice. It matters little who began it, and most times we can never identify that person or that moment. What is important, though, is to see how this movement, this thing we call feminism, has transformed, adapted and enriched itself as multiple feminisms have sprouted across the world. Western feminism for example, which saw itself as global (one of the early slogans was “sisterhood is global”), remained for long a form of feminism that was propagated by white feminists who came largely from middle class privilege. Even the early feminists, the Suffragettes who fought for the vote in the UK, did not extend their feminism to “seeing” the discrimination and oppression of their brown and black sisters in the colonies. Instead, they were largely supportive of what they saw as the “civilising mission” of imperialism.

There can never be a copyright on ideas, or indeed on the battle against injustice.

This lack of solidarity, this wilful blindness, was challenged by black feminists as recently as the 1970s. It was they who drew attention to the fact that women faced multiple axes of discrimination and disadvantage, that their gender was only one such axis. Similarly in India, it is women on the margins, particularly Dalit women, who have drawn the attention of mainstream feminists to the ways in which caste oppression which takes economic, social and religious forms, intersects with gender. In Malaysia it was Muslim women, many of them feminist, who showed how fighting religious patriarchy from within, while still being believers, was another form of feminism. Time and again feminists from the global South have brought to the attention of feminists from the more privileged North, that our feminism, perhaps our feminisms, must recognise not only our common oppressions as women, but also our differences within that broad category. They have said: to build solidarities is important, and necessary, but solidarities that do not recognise that important thing, difference, and that are not open to internal questions and contestations, are not worth building. It is feminists from the global South who have alerted feminists across the world that a feminism that does not address itself to contestation and challenges from within, that does not stand in solidarity with the poor woman, the black woman, the tribal woman, the Dalit woman, and all those others – whatever their gender – who live on the margins of our societies is not a feminism worth fighting for. Whatever the origins of our feminisms, whatever our strategies, our goals are to see a better world for women. In that we are all similar, but there is no one-size-fits-all in feminism.

If we, as feminists, continue to see feminism as something that began elsewhere, and not in our minds and hearts and in our contexts, we end up doing it an injustice and impoverishing the philosophy that gives our lives meaning. Equally, locating it in a single geographical location does nothing for our histories but does everything for patriarchy, which can use this argument to deny feminism’s worldwide reach.

The wonderful thing about the feminist movement or movements worldwide is that they are so rich and diverse, and indeed, almost everywhere, leaderless. Put a crowd of feminists together in a room and ask them to name a leader, an icon for all of them, and they won’t have one, they’ll have many – a political leader, a trade unionist, a village woman, a queer woman, a trans woman and so many more. Which other political philosophy can claim this?

Feminism means process and transformation

Perhaps it’s time we stop to think and ask ourselves some questions. Why, for example, are we so concerned about whether or not feminism is Western? Surely no country, no culture, has a copyright on recognising, identifying, acting on the ways in which patriarchies impact our lives? And it does not take a signal from the West to recognise injustice in your own backyard! More, even if it were Western, does it matter – a concept may take root in a certain part of the world and then become international, should that be a reason to dismiss it? When Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the word “intersectionality” she gave a name to what feminists across the world had always known, that the multiple discriminations that they face in their lives intersect with each other in complex ways. Does the fact that she is located in the West mean we have to reject the concept? Or does the fact that she is black mean it belongs to all of us who are non-white? The origins argument really takes us nowhere.

Perhaps the one common thing about feminism across the globe is that it is constantly evolving, expanding, transforming. From starting with women (and later unpacking that word in terms of race, class, caste, location, religion) feminism today encompasses a range of identities and alliances – with queer, trans, non-binary, marginalised, low caste, religious minorities and other people – and looks at their intersections in our lives. Indeed, recent debates about the fixity or fluidity of identities, the relevance or irrelevance of binaries, the fascinating spectrum of our sexualities, show that feminism is also something that is constantly self-questioning and reflecting on its mistakes, owning them, learning from them. How then can it belong only to one place? Nor is it restrictive – across the world today there are multiple discussions on the category “woman” or the idea of “feminism”, but the important thing is, these are discussions, they’re not diktats. And feminism is diverse, so diverse that it joyfully embraces the tension that comes from trying to be truly inclusive. Indeed it is so rich and often so complex that that is what we should be talking about, instead of impoverishing it by arguing about words.


1 The word “Dalit” describes people who come at the bottom of the hierarchy of caste in India, and who have faced continuing structural and individual discrimination for centuries because of an unequal and discriminatory and often violent system that works against them. Dalit women have therefore identified their feminism differently from upper class, upper caste, mainstream women in the ways in which they face the discrimination of caste, gender and patriarchies in overlapping and intersecting ways.

3 Cited in Ratna Kapur (2022), “The First Feminist War in All History: Epistemic Shifts and Relinquishing the Mission to Rescue the ‘Other Woman’”, AJIL Unbound, 116: 270274, https://doi.org/10.1017/aju.2022.45.


This article is part of the dossier Feminist Voices Connected.