Many women like me who are from historically marginalized groups, whether Indigenous, African-descendent, or poor – have seen the potential of feminism to our struggles, especially our struggle for our rights as women within our communities. We have used feminist tools for looking critically at our Indigenous systems of social organization and at Indigenous values; and feminism has informed our development as women and our participation in Indigenous organizations. Many Indigenous women identify as feminists; others recognize the feminist movement as an ally in our struggles as Indigenous women. The strength and integrity of the international women’s movement is therefore important to us as Indigenous women who have been working to articulate our own feminist politics and to integrate our perspectives into a broader feminist movement. It is from this standpoint of identification with feminism that I offer a critique of the international women’s movement.
When I ask some Indigenous women why they think of feminism as a white women’s movement, they reply with some rendition of the following analysis. They see that the dominant feminist paradigm is based on an unacknowledged model of centre and periphery. In this model, Indigenous, African-descendent, and poor women occupy the periphery and must accept the ideas and conceptualization of feminism as defined by those at the centre. In other words, we Indigenous women are expected to accept the dominant picture of what constitutes women’s oppression and women’s liberation. The trouble is, this picture is only a partial match with our own experiences. Elements of our experience that do not match this picture are denied or marginalized. This dominant model tries to homogenize the women’s movement, claiming that all women have the same demands and the same access to the enjoyment of their rights. This flawed assumption denies the diverse cultural, linguistic and social needs and visions of distinct groups of women.
For Indigenous women, human rights, women’s rights, and the rights of Indigenous Peoples are intrinsically linked. To Indigenous women, who experience these elements of identity as an organic whole, this claim is patently obvious. However, to many feminists whose sole experience of oppression is on the basis of gender, this claim seems to require endless explanation.
Like other women from historically marginalized groups, Indigenous women have had to fight to be heard in a movement where the only ostensible criteria for participation are to show up and be a woman. Even now, after decades of international conferences, discussions, publications, and much hard work, issues that are a matter of life and death for Indigenous women – racism, for example, or the exploitation of the earth’s resources – are relegated to a tagged-on conceptual category called ‘diversity,’ in the dominant feminist paradigm. In fact, the homogenizing tendency of the women’s movement sometimes recreates the same frameworks of discrimination and cultural degradation through which national governments exploit Indigenous Peoples, especially indigenous women.
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