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Exporting Feminism

Are Women's Rights Universal?

Activists representing a human "red carpet" protest in front of the Ministry of Women to symbolize women's rights being trampled by the government, during International Women's Day in Lima, Peru, March 7, 2014. Mariana Bazo / Reuters

Last October, the U.S. academic Camille Paglia’s provocative diatribe about feminism in Time went viral. In her piece, she dismissed sexual assault on campuses as “wildly overblown claims.” Paglia, a self-described “notorious Amazon feminist,” believes that both the second wave of feminism during the 1960s and third wave of today actually stymie the march toward gender equality because they operate through a disempowering lens of victimization and downplay the myriad agential ways women push back against patriarchy. It was not surprising, then, to see an article on an interview with Paglia last month headlined with the sensational quote “Women should be maternal and stop blaming men.” It was surprising, however, that the headline was in Portuguese and published in the leading Brazilian daily Folha de S. Paulo.

During Paglia’s visit to São Paulo last month for the TED-like project Fronteiras do Pensamento, she took advantage of an interview with Folha de S. Paulo to enumerate the failures of liberal feminism, which she credits in large part to Gloria Steinem “and her psychological problems.” Women, Paglia told the female reporter, must choose between having a career and being mothers, and should not expect businesses to try to accommodate motherhood, because “companies don’t exist to be agents of social change.” She also argued that “only an idiot thinks of going out in the streets dressed provocatively without risking being attacked.”

Students demonstrate against the violation of women's rights in Rio de Janeiro. The sign at center reads: "My body has an owner and the owner is me," March 8, 2015. Pilar Olivares / Reuters

Unlike the indefatigably sharp-tongued Paglia, however, many Western feminists working in developing countries agonize over how to respond sensitively to accusations of proselytizing a one-size-fits-all feminist doctrine. Any liberal, universalist conception of feminism, critics observe, fails both to address the unique cultural contexts faced by women worldwide and to duly recognize the many ways women challenge and subvert the gender hierarchies in which they operate globally. Some

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