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COMMENT: Some Reflections on Third World Feminist Historiography Janet Afary In her "Six (or More) Feminists in Search of a Historian," Sharon Sievers presents an eloquent argument for a historically grounded feminist theory. Much of the nonwestern world views feminism not as a revolutionary ideology but as a form of cultural imperialism that is to be shunned, and the reasons for this attitude are found in the pervasive ethnocentrism of the western feminists, she argues. European and American feminists construct theories of feminism that are oblivious to the actual historical experiences of nonwestern cultures. Studies in the history of the nonwestern societies demonstrate, however, that feminism—perhaps without the term and definition as we know it today—has existed in a variety of forms within these societies in the past few centuries. A historicaUy grounded feminism that recognizes the existence of the idea of feminism within a multiplicity of cultural and national traditions would further explore contradictions of this history rather than shy away from them. Sievers contends further that this means distinguishing women's history from feminist history, exploring those forms of feminism that have historically accommodated themselves with colonialism and western imperialism, and trying to make clear choices about "what is and is not universal about feminism." There is no question that the construction of a multicultural history of feminism will not only begin to correct the errors of ethnocentrism and broaden the concept of feminism itself, but also give us a new and more complex view of the historical past in the political, social, cultural, and ideological realms. For example, the historiography of the first decade of the 20th century has begun to recognize socialist and feminist dimensions of the labor movement and other social movements in both Europe and the United States. But the same period has generaUy been seen as an era of nationalist movements in the nonwestern world. Closer study of this period demonstrates , however, that the movements that shook Iran, Turkey, India, British Guyana, Mexico, South Africa, as well as China and Japan—movements which were often inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1905—also witnessed the participation of activist women on a large international scale and as a distinct social group for the first time. In British Guyana, the women involved in the movement were referred to as the "Amazons." The revolts in South Africa were referred to as the "maid's revolt," and in parts of India the rebellions were known as the "women's war."1 In several of © 1989 IQURNAL OF WOMEN'S HISTORY, VOL. 1 NO. 2 (FALL)_________________________ 148 JOURNAL OF WOMEN'S HISTORY FALL these countries, the movement found a clearly recognizable socialist and feminist dimension. In China, some of the most powerful writings against male domination, the practice of foot binding, and forced marriage were penned at this time.2 Sievers has movingly described the history of Japanese feminists and socialists as early as 1904 in her Flowers in Salt: The Beginnings of Feminist Consciousness in Modern Japan.3 In my article in this volume, I have attempted to show that the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906 quickly developed a strong socialist component that called for an eight-hour day, land to the peasants, and education for women. A number of women activists, who were influenced by socialist ideas from the Russian Caucasus, estabUshed the Council for Freedom of Women and many other semisecret societies of women, as well as schools, hospitals, and cultural centers. Feminist intellectuals in Iran called for an end to the dowry tradition, polygyny, and easy male divorce; when confronted by a hostile minority of conservative clerics, they did not hesitate to speak out or publish articles on the subject in the newspapers of the period. A second question emerges in this period when the history of the women's movements of Iran and other nonwestern societies are studied within the context of the debates among European socialists of the time, namely the debates within the German Social Democracy on the relationship of social movements in the underdeveloped east to those in the technologically more advanced west. These debates can inform our discussions and criticisms of western ethnocentrism in a new...


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