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Third World, Not Second Class!

Sureshi Jayawardene

Over the years, I have found myself increasingly and wholeheartedly embracing a feminist identity. I watch my family and peers cringe at the mere utterance of this "F" word that has historically elicited varying degrees of discomfort. Such reactions are generally followed by my attempt to explain the meaning behind my self-proclaimed feminism.

I am a native of Sri Lanka and have been in the U.S. for the last six years, pursuing higher education. My feminist identity, while rooted in experiences in my motherland, has evolved with the life experienced in the United States. I am often met with assertions that my foreign education is what has led to the formation of this strong feminist consciousness through the colonization of my psyche. Many family members have raised the argument that my American education of the last six years has thus orchestrated a 'Westernization' of thought.


This identity is not the direct result of higher education in the U.S. or an acculturation within American society. Rather, it is a self-constructed identity inclusive of a variety of lived experiences, upbringing, heritage, culture and education.


Key to the formation of this identity are three of the most inspirational women in my life: my mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother. All three of them, through the ubiquity of their personalities and experiences, have exemplified feminism in some form or another. Sometimes through easy conversation. Sometimes through intentional education. Mostly, however, through their own modeling of what it meant to be women, defined by different times and spaces.

A single parent and career woman, I watched my mother struggle to balance a family life and establish herself in her chosen career. My grandmother was a housewife and homemaker throughout her adult life, nurturing her two children and then her four grandchildren. My great-grandmother was a public school teacher and survivor of domestic abuse. She was also mother to five children and several grandchildren. Through their actions, words and values these three women exemplify elements of womanhood and thereby a source of feminist empowerment to me. Despite this, I observed areas of their lives where I feel they could have embraced feminist notions that would have been more empowering to them. All three of them overstepped the bounds of cultural prescriptions for womanhood in the way they conducted themselves and went about their lives.

Watching, listening to, and hearing about these women laid the initial foundation for the consideration of my own woman-centered values and ideas. I can easily identify the real experiences of injustice, unfairness, subjugation, and socioeconomic struggle that directly speak to my feminist identity. My initiation to feminist notions, thought, and discourse combines disgruntlement with the inequities of my environment and an inherent interest in social justice, both of which necessitate a personal politics of resistance.

As a teenager, I found myself launching a silent fight with patriarchal norms, regressive policies, the inequitable distribution of resources and opportunities, and hierarchical social constructs. This process led to the development of self that incorporated far more knowledge and experience than that which was prescribed for me, enabling me to see the disparities of society through a much wider lens. For me, responsible civic engagement required taking a firm stand on controversial issues, challenging the status quo, and engaging in an alternative discourse.

More recently, I have explored the particular significance to me of being a Sri Lankan woman, single mother, daughter, sister, friend, scholar, artist, and activist. Today, this identity is that of a Third World feminist. What gives rise to this determi­nation is largely my Third World experiences in Sri Lanka, where I was first exposed to feminist issues and discovered, for the first time, my own quasi-feminist beliefs. Beyond this is my diverse knowledge of the broader scope of my Third World experi­ences and their impact on my life, my son's life, and all the other lives intertwined with mine.

Third World feminism is set apart from what is typically considered feminism in the West. This distinction is drawn to acknowledge how Third World women were already engaged in feminist and women's rights movements prior to interventions by Western women/feminists. Moreover, Third World feminism demands that the pedagogical essence, discourse, and praxis of Third World women be regarded as valid and thus, canonical within feminism as a whole. Third World feminist theorists Chandra Mohanty and Uma Narayan actively encourage more Third World women to embrace their feminism through this framework. Such a paradigm affords proactive movement in feminist (and/or women-centered) efforts inside individual Third World states. Thus, successful resolution of women's issues with positive change driven from within is validated and made possible.

My involvement in local feminist activity in Sri Lanka is hereby given value and located within the broader global feminist movement. When the term "Third World" itself carries negative connotations (particularly if one is from the Third World but situated in the West) and often speaks to one's identity, it becomes challenging to be completely removed from the negativity and the label. By (re)claiming 'Third World' status, I attempt to justify and dispel any notion that my identity as such is (negatively) impacted by the Western world and thereby removed from traditional, cultural contexts. Further still, that my experiences are secondary to that of women in the West (or, anywhere else in the world). The bottom line is that they are unique, valid, and largely Third World. Therefore, the distinction, for me, is that my feminism is located on terms that are familiar to me. These experiences and the feminist identity thereby formed are not classified by a Western framework of what they are deemed to be!

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