How Does West Feminism Work in the East?

How Does West Feminism Work In The East?
Iffco Nano

We have already been familiar with feminism waves. However, feminism itself is an idea that sparked in the western world, to begin with. So, how does it apply in every corner of the world? This is a comparative study of how feminism waves in Asia (eastern world), Europe and the United States (western world).

First Wave Feminism

Joan Wallach Scott in Feminism and History: Oxford Readings in Feminism defines feminism as a movement to equalize rights between women and men (1996, pp. 20-30). Feminism first appeared around 1800 to 1920 in Europe and the United States where at that time the feminism movement focused on legal and political equality, hereinafter referred to as first wave feminism (Gardner, 2006, p. 93). Gardner himself in his book Historical Dictionary of Feminist Philosophy explains that in that range of years women are still considered as second class citizens who do not have the right to vote in political elections, the right to own property, and also work like men. Everything is considered to belong to men and even women and children are part of the property of men, which is why the last name is used in European and American cultures (ibid).

In Asia itself, the first wave of feminism was not very visible because most of Asia was still colonized (Blackburn, 2010, p. 21). The issue of human rights was not really raised at that time because the colonialism in Asia did not bring about large-scale education impacts (Ibid). In the book Women’s Movements in Asia: Feminism and transnational activism, there are similarities in how countries in Asia experienced the transition to first wave feminism, namely for certain people they have the advantage to make their children have the same education between women and men. This is because countries that colonized Asia were the same countries like the Netherlands, England, and America. Although Japan and Thailand were never colonized by the 3 countries above, they received the same cultural influence from these 3 countries because of their foreign policies. An example in Indonesia can be found in the evidence of Kartini (the heroine of emancipation in Indonesia). She was allowed to attend school because Kartini was the daughter of the Duke of Jepara. However, at that time, women were not allowed to attend school as high as men, women had to prioritize marriage over their education. During the first wave of feminism in Asia, the movement allowed education only to the aristocracy (bourgeois) and that was still very limited. However, it was from there that the aristocracy’s concern about their fellow women grew that education was very important and one of the strong reasons to encourage feminism to continue in Asia.

Second Wave Feminism

The second wave of feminism occurred around 1960-1970 in Europe and the United States with Betty Friedan’s best-selling book on the media’s opposition to the traditional image of women, and she showed that keeping women at home and limiting their opportunities to work was a waste of talent and great potential (Gardner, 2006, p. 205). Feminism in this era occurred as a result of the unpleasant experiences of women from World War II which saw an economic boom in the late 1940s, followed by a birth boom, and also the success of capitalism (Walters, 2005, p.8 -10). These things make the patriarchal family model very fertile in which women only work at home and do not have the same opportunities in the world of professional work (Ibid).

Gardner explained that feminism in this period moved more liberal by raising the issue of women’s liberation. Women’s liberation is a more radical umbrella movement, containing a variety of loosely linked groups (Gardner, 2006, p. 25). Typically, these groups were formed by women who had worked in other protest movements in the 1960s, such as the civil rights movement but became discouraged by sexism in male-dominated movements (Ibid).

In Asia itself, the feminist movement is influenced by a state of national stability which is marked by many rejections. There were differences in the situation between Europe, the United States, and Southeast Asia in the 1940s. The difference lies in the political situation and national stability which was the result of the 1941 war. Countries in Europe and the United States focused more on neutralizing the country which also resulted in the cold war. So that the situation in Europe and the United States can be said to be more stable. Meanwhile, countries in Southeast Asia are countries that have recently become independent and they are still trying to maintain their independence without joining any blocks (Gabriel, 2002, p. 191). However, in reality, there are still many things that the newly independent countries have to fight for their independence, especially to escape from the attacks of the first world countries that want to carry out colonialism again.

Gabriel J.M (2002, pp. 122-125) in The American Conception of Neutrality After 1941 in Korean War Chapter, also describes the situation in Korea and China. Korea itself, after World War II, there was still a war between North and South Korea which was the result of the cold war. The war this time is not a colonial war, but a proxt war fought by the United States and Russia. China, in 1951, also complained to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) that the United States dropped many bombs on their area. Japan itself is starting to pioneer its country again due to their defeat in World War II.

Political instability and state security in Asian countries also hampered the feminist movement in Asia. The women of that era were focused on helping men in the struggle of national instablity. So that the stability of the country can be guaranteed. This was evidenced by nationalist leaders such as Sukarno (who later became Indonesia’s first president) warning women that the priority was always national independence (Brown, 1981, in Blackburn, 2010, p. 23). Even in Indonesia, where freedom of opinion has improved since independence, some opposed feminism. Saparinah Sadli in Blackburn also quotes:

“The terms ‘feminism’, ‘feminist’ and even ‘gender’ are still being questioned by most Indonesians. They are considered by many to be non-indigenous concepts irrelevant to Indonesian values. Certain assumptions remain general: feminism is a western or northern concept; it’s anti-male; it regards men as the source of all gender injustices; it promotes acceptance of lesbianism and so on. ” (Sadli, 2002, pp. 80–1 in Blackburn, 2010, p. 24).

In China, in the second wave of feminism, the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s were marked by the comparative isolation of the Chinese government and citizens from the global community, including isolation from ideas and energy development among feminists  (Edward, 2010, p. 55). People with international connections continue to proclaim sexual equality and chant the slogan “Women hold up half of the sky” even though they should be politically suspicious in the country (Ibid).

In Singapore, the struggle for feminism in the second wave was about marriage, such as the rejection of polygamy (Lyons, 2010, p. 78). The development of feminism has made many educated women reluctant to marry and have children (Ibid). Thus, rejection occurred from various groups including the prime minister Lee Kuan Yew (ibid). In a National Day Rally speech in August 1983, Lee feared that in a country with only human resources, a reduction in the birth rate among educated people would result in a ‘depletion of the gene pool’, and thus a national economic catastrophe:

“We must further change our policies, and try to reshape our demographic configuration so that ourbetter-educatedd women will have more children to be adequately represented in the next generation … Equal employment opportunities, yes, but we shouldn’t create Our women get jobs where they can’t, at the same time, be mothers. … you can’t do hard work full time like a doctor or engineer and run a house and raise kids.” (Lee quoted in The Straits Times 1983 in Lyons, 2010, p. 78).

Third Wave Feminism

The rights and programs obtained by feminists in the United States and Europe from the second wave formed the basis of the third wave. Benefits include equal access to education; public discussion on harassment and rape of women; access to contraception and other reproductive services (including legalizing abortion); creation and enforcement of sexual harassment policies for women in the workplace; creation of domestic abuse shelters for women and children; child care services; education funds for young women; and women’s studies programs (Lyke, 2010, pp. 11-12).

Feminism in this wave is more diverse and plural in Europe and the United States. This is due to the expansion of the philosophy of feminism into new areas such as epistemology, ontology, metaphysics, and philosophy of science (Gardner, 2006, pp. 222-227). Due to its pluralism, during this third wave, many theories of black feminism emerged (ibid). The new black feminism movement came in the third wave of feminism because previously black women were oppressed, causing silence in them (Hooks, 2015, pp. 219-224). They also did not see feminism as a movement that would benefit them (Ibid).

Lyons (2010, pp. 80-82) in Women’s Movements in Asia: Feminism and transnational activism explained that in this third wave the situation for women in Singapore and Indonesia is very chaotic, from the rape of Chinese women in Indonesia in 1998 to the murder of Indonesian female workers in Singapore. This made the feminist movement adjust to the existing situation, namely voicing the rights of women who are oppressed a lot (Ibid). If in Europe and the United States the feminist movement has entered the level of educational sciences, in Asia it is still at the level of voicing rejection of oppression of women in terms of work, family, and violence (Roces, 2010, p. 3). There is no time yet for activists to insert feminism into other sciences. This is because the awareness of gender equality has not been able to be embedded in the Asian community. There are still many issues regarding gender inequality that are more important to solve first.

Fourth Wave Feminism

This last wave of feminism began to occur in 2012-2013 until now (Chamberlain, 2017, p. 3), which was marked by the widespread use of the internet as a means of spreading the feminist movement (Munro, 2013 in Chamberlain, page 3). Munro himself explained that the internet has had a huge impact on the development of the feminist movement. This is because with the internet, distance and time are no longer an obstacle and access is cheap. So that everyone can access it. According to Cochrane (2014) in Chamberlain (2017, pp. 2-4) the core of the fourth wave is the culture of rape, online feminism, humor, and intersectionality and inclusion community.

In this wave, feminism in Asia is not much different from the state of feminism in the previous wave, especially feminism in Southeast Asia. The state of feminism is still hampered by matters relating to the family. For example, women should not be higher in rank in the family than men. Men must be leaders. This is due to cultural, social, and religious conditions.

The paragraph above is supported by the writing of Zee Praise (2019) entitled Why Feminism Doesn’t Work in Southeast Asia (yet). Praise explains the reason why feminism is failing in Southeast Asia is that Southeast Asians see feminism as Invasion. Feminism has always been seen as a western culture where Southeast Asia was once colonized by western nations. From childhood, we are taught to hate the western nations for what they have done to us. Our label for western nations is that they are evil, they want to scorch us down, and they want to manipulate us. Plus there are many narratives in the western world about how they see Southeast Asia as a backward civilization and anti-human rights because they refuse to accept one of their ideologies. This caused a rejection of any idea in Southeast Asia. This rejection also includes everything they believe is feminism.

From the explanation above, we can conclude that there are several differences in characters and timelines between western and eastern feminism. It does not show which one is correct. Instead, it shows the fact that every country has its circumstances to deal with feminism.

Featured image: WCBI


Blackburn, S. (2010). Chaper: Feminism and the women’s movement in the world’s largest Islamic nation. Women’s Movements in Asia: Feminisms and transnational activism. London. Routledge.

Chamberlain, P. (2017). The Feminist Fourth Wave. London. Springer Nature.

Gabriel, J.M. (2002). The American Conception of Neutrality After 1941. New York. PALGRAVE MACMILLAN.

Gardner, Catherine V. (2006). Historical Dictionary of Feminist Philosophy. Toronto. Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Hooks, B. (2015). Aint’ I a Woman: black Women and Feminism. London. Routledge.

Lyke, N. (2010). Feminist Studies: A Guide to Intersectional Theory, Methodology and Writing. London. Routledge.

Lyons, L. (2010). Chaper: Transnational networks and localized campaigns: the women’s movement in Singapore. Women’s Movements in Asia: Feminisms and transnational activism. London. Routledge.

Praise, Z. (2019). Why Feminism Doesn’t Work in Southeast Asia (yet). Retrieved from

Roces, N. (2010). Chaper: Asian feminisms: women’s movements from the Asian perspective. Women’s Movements in Asia: Feminisms and transnational activism. London. Routledge.

Scott, J. W. (1997). Feminism and History: Oxford Readings in Feminism. New York. Oxford University Press.

Walters, M. (2005). Feminism: A Very Short Introducton.Oxford University Press.

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