The dominant Western understandings of sex and gender, ‘male’ and ‘female’, agency and oppression can have limited cross-cultural application. If, in the pursuance of bringing feminism to non-Western societies, the feminist cause were to abandon those Western frameworks, its limited relevance for some societies would quickly become apparent.

For my purposes I will employ Halley’s ‘minimalist definition’ of feminism (2006: 17) and the associated lexicon. In her veritable encyclopaedia of feminisms, Halley suggests that there are three traits necessary for any project or theory to be defined as ‘feminist’:

One: a feminism must turn in some “central…way on a distinction between M and F” (2006: 18) – whether M/F signifies male/female, men/women, or masculine/feminine.

Two: Halley denotes in shorthand as M>F that “a position must posit some kind of subordination as between M and F, in which F is the disadvantaged or subordinated element” (Halley 2006: 18).

Three: feminism “opposes the subordination of F…as a matter of justice or emancipation.” (Halley 2006: 18).

Halley summarises these three elements thus: “As between M and F, and possibly because M>F, feminism carries a brief for F” (2006: 18).

M and F

The Western worldview understands nature as defining only two sexes: one with a penis and one with a vagina. People with intersex genitals, who are born out of the ‘natural biology’ of reproduction and gestation, are seen as ‘unnatural’ and as needing to be returned to the ‘natural state’ of M or F. However, this ‘natural’ sex framework in fact arises from the particular model of sex, and subsequently gender (the social codes ‘written’ onto the sexed body), which exists in the Western worldview.

What is that model? Well firstly, the Western model understands sex to be determinative of human identity – people’s social identity is rooted in ‘biological sex’ (determined by genitalia) and their sexuality. Persons cannot be fully comprehended without a sex to identify them with (the first thing we seem to need to know about a baby is its sex, for example), and this identification subsequently informs their social identity. This rooting of identity in sex and sexuality is argued by Foucault to be as a result of the ‘process of sexualisation’ undergone by contemporary Western society, which is certainly not a universal phenomenon. The difference between a penis and a vagina is simply one of an infinite number of differences that we can draw between people; sex is simply the ‘difference that makes a difference’ (Levi-Strauss) employed in the West. For example, Gerai people of Indonesian Borneo are divided depending on their particular skills in relation to rice production, and thus there are no categories of M/F (Helliwell 2000).

Secondly, in the West sex is determined by genitalia, which is understood to be a signifier of which of two possible categories one belongs to.  This is not the universal signifier of sex-category: for example, for the Brazilian travesti, the

determinative criterion in the identification of males and females is not so much the genitals as it is the role those genitals perform in sexual encounters (Kulick 1997: 579).

That is, in the Brazilian context there exists a sex/gender model based on habitual reciptivity in anal sex (Kulick 1997: 575).

Thirdly, the binary sex model in the West is based on the idea that certain genitalia ‘fit’ together to create the heterosexual sex act, which has become the normative sex act. Indeed, the M/F sex binary has been argued to be a creature of culture formed in order to maintain what Judith Butler coined the ‘heterosexual matrix’ (1990). That is, to support the heterosexual norm, two identities (predicated on genital difference) must be maintained. However, heterosexuality is ‘not stressed as the normative sexual activity [in opposition to the ‘deviant’ homosexual act] in all societies.’ In the West, the kind of sexual act being engaged in is classified based on which genitals are present: this is not a universal mode of categorising sexuality. Again, the example of the Brazilian travesti serves to demonstrate an alternative model: sexual difference exists, between penetrator and penetrated, however this is not grounded in the possession of particular genitals, but rather in the role those genitals perform. In Ancient Greece, there existed a normative sexual practice between ‘superiors/citizens’ (older male citizens) and ‘infereriors/non-citizens’ (females, boys, slaves and foreigners) (Halperin); here the primary defining feature was political status. Thus the conclusion that heterosexuality is ‘natural’ because it is based in a ‘natural’ fitting together of two types of genitals is belied by examples from other societies for which it is not the normative sexuality.

Finally, the Western sex/gender model is based on the conception that sex is something discrete; this is due to the highly individualist understanding of personhood which exists in the West, a concept I will explore in greater detail when I discuss M>F. Not all societies harbour such individualist notions, and hence may understand the concept of sex to be more fluid and nuanced (again, the travesti demonstrate a fluid sexuality – sexuality shifts depending on genital action).

Thus, M and F as it is understood by the West is not a universal distinction, yet it is one of the essential bases to the feminist cause.


Flowing on from the distinction between M and F, the feminist view of M>F is based on the Eurocentric model of oppression, which itself arises out of the specific understandings of agency and personhood that are central to the Western worldview. These understandings do not exist universally, and therefore the feminist tendency to read the oppression of F by M into the social relations of many other societies is an erroneous one.

Marilyn Strathern argues that this tendency is based on an inability by Western feminists to see difference between men and women except in terms of a subject-object dualism. This is because feminism, and indeed Western society generally, has a model of oppression that is predicated on highly individualist understandings of personhood. That is, Western societies understand agency to be a free will which exists internally to each person; each person is co-terminus with their skin, and has an identity which exists individually from the society surrounding them and the relationships they conduct with others. Strathern writes of Melanesian people, for whom identity is understood as a composite – a ‘dividual’ formed with no notion of an ‘I’ existing beyond and independent of the relationships they have, and have had, with a plurality of other people. For these people, actions are not based on the ‘centred’ intention or ego that is understood by the Western model: there is no notion of individual interests which may be in opposition to other individuals’ interests – there is a collective interest, out of which, and for which, all action occurs. Thus, for Melanesians there is no possibility for A to cause B to do something in A’s interest – it is a concept that simply does not exist.

Therefore, because men in the West are seen as independent social agents and women are seen as having diminished social agency, Western feminists have tended to read this same model into the relations and practices of other societies for whom such models of agency and oppression do not exist.

Carrying a brief for F

Based on its assumption that everywhere women are oppressed, feminism has tended to view itself as a universal cause. As we have seen, there is no universal distinction between M and F, nor is M everywhere > F – ergo feminism cannot possibly carry a universal brief for F. Nonetheless, the feminist project has often practiced neo-colonialism, going to non-Western societies to carry a brief for F and, in particular, to eradicate particular practices which, based on a feminist reading of such practices, are exercising M>F. The most obvious example of this is when feminism characterises the work of women in the private, domestic realm as evidence of female subordination to men, who operate in the public realm; however, not all societies devalue domestic labour as Western societies do. This is problematic – not only does feminism (often) erroneously assume a universal application of its understandings of M/F and M>F, it then seeks to practice those understandings in societies for whom they have no application, fundamentally ignoring the understandings and worldviews of those societies in favour of other cultural preconceptions.

Furthermore, carrying a universal brief for F assumes a universal sameness between all women everywhere, that all women share similar concerns and experiences; this also ignores the similarities between men and women. Again, we can see feminism unable break out from looking at the world in terms other than men as being opposed to women – a trait which may be feminism’s own undoing.

Therefore, feminism is limited to the cultural framework out of which it grew; don’t get me wrong – there are many non-Western societies in which it remains relevant, but those non-Western societies have similar cultural frameworks when it comes to sex and gender. That is, it is relevant and necessary to carry a brief for F in a society that clearly distinguishes between M and F, and where (based on the individualist understanding of agency within that society) F is arguably oppressed by M. However, the essential elements of the feminist project have been shown to have limited, if any, cross-cultural application in societies where such frameworks fall apart or simply do not exist, and therefore I feel the feminist project needs to tread cautiously when claiming its universality.

– Humphrey


References cited

Butler, Judith 1990: Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge.

Helliwell, Christine 2000. ‘It’s only a penis’: rape, feminism and difference. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society (25)(3).

Kulick, Don 1997. The gender of Brazilian transgendered prostitutes. American Anthropologist 99(3).

Strathern, Marilyn (ed) 1987. Dealing With Inequality: Analysing Gender Relations in Melanesia and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.