Feminist Challenges around the World
Feminist Challenges around the World

From the Catholic Church deeming a confederation of American nuns “radical feminists” because they were focusing on helping the poor, rather than furthering the Church’s social agenda, to the struggling  feminist weekly, a first in Afghanistan, feminism is featured prominently in news stories around the world. Despite its prominence, feminists face many challenges worldwide.

Feminism started in the West in the 19th century with a focus on property rights and political rights. In the 1960′s to 1980s, Western feminists fought for access to jobs and education, pay equity, and the re-balancing of family roles. In the West, many feminists now demand sexual and reproductive freedom, rights for gays, lesbians and transgender persons, and continue to fight for the right to an abortion.1  Feminism though does not have one face and one agenda.

This news analysis will compare and contrast feminist challenges in the U.S., Europe, and in the Islamic world.

Feminism in the U.S.

The American media has reported upon many feminist battles in this presidential election year.  Some Democrats claim that Republicans declared “War on Women” due to legislation passed in many states that limits reproductive freedom. The liberal MoveOn.org cited ten examples, including:
  • A Georgia State legislator’s efforts to change the legal terms for rape, stalking, and domestic violence victims to “accusers”
  • A  bill in South Dakota sponsored by Republicans to make it legal to murder a doctor that commits abortion
  • A Congressional bill sponsored by Republicans that would deny women an abortion even when a woman’s life is at stake.2

Republican Bloggers declare that the GOP has not declared war on women; they just disagree with the Democrat’s policies. One blogger writes that Republicans believe in “equal rights, equal justice and equal opportunity regardless of race, sex, age, creed, national origin or disability.” To support this claim, the blogger notes she supports fiscal conservatism to spur greater individual choice.3

Social issues, such as abortion, are a hot-button topic this year. Catholics leaders branded the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) radical feminists because of their support of social justice, rather than the Bishop’s agenda to push against abortion and gay marriage, among other social issues. Some believe this battle is actually over the defining of the meaning of being Catholic in the 21st century. If the LCWR does not change its focus, it may lose its tax exempt status and even the right to call the member nuns “Catholic sisters.”4 What’s interesting about this battle is that the nuns do not self-identify themselves as feminists. They are just following their own agenda.

Beyond abortion, some feminists groups in the U.S. are focusing on pay equity. The National Organization of Women recently decried the “conservatives in the U.S. Senate this afternoon [that] prevented the Paycheck Fairness Act from being brought up for a debate and receiving a vote.” The Paycheck Fairness Act is supposed to prevent employers from retaliating against workers that share salary information. NOW sees this act as an equity issue because women on average earn 77 cents for every dollar paid to men.5

Others believe that the Paycheck Fairness Act is not the solution to achieving pay equity, instead they recommend focusing on better maternity and paternity policies that would make it easier to have a family,  adopt children, hire in-home child care, and keep child in daycare for longer hours.  The Paychair Fairness Act might make it even more “difficult to pay employees differentially based on experience, contributions, market conditions and value.”6  Better maternity and paternity laws may help working men and women better balance home and life issues, though it is unclear how it will solve the pay equity disparity.

Finally, some women in the U.S. are just trying to reclaim the word “feminism.” Julie Zeilinger author of A Little F’d Up: Why Feminism Is Not a Dirty Word, writes that feminism is about equality, “How could anybody argue with that?.” She claims, “Feminism Is Still Relevant (And Very Much Needed)” because sexual harassment and street harassment are still prevalent and that lack of land ownership and sexual abuse is prevalent worldwide. Furthermore she claims that, “Feminism Is Your Key To Surviving High School,” highlighting the problem of female body image and perception of beauty. Body image, sexual harassment, and inequality are challenges facing women around the world.

Feminism in Europe

Mary Robinson, first female President of Ireland

Ireland is trying to develop its own feminist movement. The recently formed Irish Feminist Network is trying to use social media to make feminism accessible to the youth.  Another new organization, 50:50, is trying to achieve equal parliamentary representation in the republic by 2020. Ireland recently passed a new gender quota bill that requires that 30 percent female candidates in the next election, a step to try to increase women representation in Parliament. Irish feminists are also fighting for the right to have an abortion when the mother’s life is a risk, an act that is currently illegal in the country.8

Germany is trying to make affordable daycare universally available. The country already has parental-leave rights and significant government stipends for new children. Since taking this push one step forward, the country has become mired in controversy. Germans are divided about a draft law that would provide stay-at-home mothers with €150 ($190) per month. German feminists and Christian Democrats oppose the extra funds because they think it promotes an antiquated view of women. While strong on supporting working families, Germany’s feminists have other battles ahead. Approximately two percent of German’s top 100 companies have women in leadership positions (11 out of 490). Furthermore, Germany has the largest pay gap among males and females.9

Feminism in the Islamic World

Across the Muslim world, women have been making strides for equality in public and private life. In Iran, single women are fighting against discrimination in a culture that promotes motherhood as virtuous and education as a nationwide ambition. When trying to balance education and motherhood, the state tried to make it easier to marry, with mass weddings. Some believe that mass wedding cheapened the institution of marriage and has just resulted in a higher divorce rate.10  Similar to the challenges facing Catholic nuns in the U.S., young Muslim women are looking to reconcile their ambition and their religion.

While in Pakistan, feminists are fighting institutionalized equality. The Hudood Ordinance, particularly the Zina laws passed in the 1970s curtailed women’s socioeconomic and legal rights. At the time the distinction between adultery and rape was also blurred through high profile cases in which female rape victims were flogged for adultery. Since then, women activists formed the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) to resist these laws and have been fighting to repeal these laws. In 2006, the Women’s Protection Act lessened the severity of some of these laws, but they are still on the books. Instead of changing the laws, some activists are trying instead to reinterpret Shariah law.11

Even though Pakistani women face inequality in the private realm, government politicians, such as Bilawal Bhutto Zardari are fighting to have equal representation in the Parliament. In the Islamic world, Pakistan had the first female prime minister, foreign minister, and National Assembly Speaker. Currently 22.5 percent of Pakistan’s Parliament are women,12 a figure that is higher than Ireland.

Not too far away, in Afghanistan, the first feminist weekly” paper in Afghanistan is now circulating. The newspaper stays afloat through individual contributions and by donations from a global feminist organization called FRIDA.13  This newspaper is part of a growing feminist movement in Afghanistan.

Across Afghanistan, the fight to end violence against women has become public. Afghan talk shows and other TV and radio programs are addressing the topic. Young Women for Change, started by a 20-year old Afghan woman, is fighting sexual harassment on city streets.  The courts recently passed a watershed judgment, giving ten-year prison terms to three men who tortured and raped a fifteen year old girl.  Afghan women have expressed the need for more safe houses as well as for a stronger international push for the government to implement Afghan human rights laws that are already in place.  Feminism in Afghanistan though is not seeking to imitate the West. Most Afghan women are fighting for change as part of a family unit and see their individual rights as second to their family’s wellbeing.14

Muslims are trying to define feminism on their own terms. A young Muslim woman living in London writes, “wearing the hijab doesn’t have to be about religious dedication. For me, it is political, feminist and empowering.”15 She chose to wear the veil to empower herself and force people to treat her as a person rather than a sexual object.


Around the world, feminists are fighting against entrenched institutions such as religion, government, and culture and sometime each other. Individuals and groups are fighting to define feminism for themselves. Young Americans and Irish want to make the term positive and attract youth to the battle. While Islamic feminists want the right to create their own identity, separate from Western feminist traditions. Leaders have their work cut out, balancing all of the competing views of women in the public and private spheres and ensuring equal justice under fair laws.

1  Faridi, Tasneem. “The case for women.” The Friday Times. May 18-24, 2012. Vol. XXIV, No. 14.
2  “Top 10 Shocking Attacks from the GOP’s War on Women.” Moveon.org.
3  Voyles, Susan. “GOP propels women’s values.” The Atlanta Journal Constitution. June 13, 2012.
4  Grossman, Cathy Lynn. “Catholic nuns group and Vatican remain at odds.” USA Today. June 13, 2012.
5  “Senate Fails Women on Equal Pay.” National Organization of Women. June 5, 2012.
6  Shapiro, Gary. “The Real War on Women.” Forbes. June 13, 2012.
7  Zeilinger, Julie “3 Reasons ‘Feminism’ Is Not A Dirty Word.” The Huffington Post. May 17, 2012.
8  O’Toole, Emer. “This Irish feminist zeitgeist is ready for the challenge.” The Guardian. June 8, 2012.
9  Hawley, Charles. “Letter from Berlin Childcare Draft Law Fuels Feminism Debate in Germany.” Der Spiegel. June 14, 2012.
10  Erdbrink, Thomas. “Single Women Gaining Limited Acceptance in Iran.” The New York Times. June 12, 2012.
11  Faisal, Afifa. “Islamic Feminism and the Paradox at Play.” The News. May 28, 2012.
12  “Bilawal Bhutto Zardari wants 50% women in Pakistani parliament.” Economic Times. May 23, 2012.
13  Kumar, Sanjay. “An Afghan Feminist Movement?” The Diplomat. May 22, 2012.
14  Nawa, Fariba. “Underground Movements in Afghanistan Help Abused Women Seek Justice.” High Brow Magazine. May 20, 2012.
15  Takolia, Nadiya. “The hijab has liberated me from society’s expectations of women.” The Guardian. May 28, 2012.

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