Difference is not all that counts

This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 39, Summer 1999.

The idea of differences among women has been one of the most prominent themes in recent feminism. But while recognising diversity is important, the politics of ‘difference’ can lead to denials of women’s oppression and reinforce the most conservative tendencies in particular communities, silencing more radical challenges. Here Purna Sen gives her personal view that diversity should be placed within a framework of commonality: an effective feminist politics must recognise what women share.

Some differences are recognised, some are not and sometimes difference can be turned into a tool for separation, isolation and censorship. Here I will argue both for the recognition of difference and against the privileging of difference, wherein lie many difficulties. I want to make a case for recognising commonality among women, but within certain parameters. I will do this from my own experience and work, particularly among Asian women in the UK, in the Indian sub-continent and with women from various other backgrounds.

Feminism in the sub-continent

There are many examples of inspirational feminist work from the sub-continent which I cannot go into here in any detail. I wish to highlight only two.

The trafficking of girls across countries in the sub-continent is rife, with many young girls disappearing from their homes and ending up in areas of prostitution. Sometimes they are intercepted by government officials or the girls may try to escape the control of their traffickers. In these situations, the girls are either put into government shelters (which are often incredibly unpleasant) or appear in court and are re-claimed by their traffickers, posing as relatives. The girls may go along with this misrepresentation, out of fear of their abusers. Sanlaap is an organisation based in Calcutta which works on this issue and which has successfully lobbied for access to and recognition in the courts. They have also visited the government residential homes in which ‘rescued’ girls are placed and in which they too often languish. They have now managed to obtain recognition as legitimate carers for these girls, so that they are given custody. They can then house the girls, try to locate their families and provide some education or training too. They do this as part of their work against trafficking, against prostitution, against male violence and for greater opportunities for women and girls.

In Pakistan, a long-established women’s organisation is currently (May 1999) being harassed and threatened by men on a number of fronts. Shirkat Gah has long worked for the promotion of the rights of women, handling cases of domestic violence, rape, forced marriage and other forms of discrimination against women. During the 1990s there has been an increase in the number of so-called ‘honour’ killings of women and these too come to the workers at Shirkat Gah. ‘Honour’ killings — which I think we should re-name dishonour killings — are where women are killed for having been considered to dishonour or shame their families; their killing (usually by a male family member) ‘cleanses’ the dishonour or shame. Suspicion of adultery or of consorting with a male can be enough to precipitate such a killing. The women at Shirkat Gah work with these cases and seek to bring the men and their families to account — a difficult task in a country where the public cultural norms increasingly favour these sorts of misogynist actions.

One woman long associated with this organisation is Asma Jahangir, a lawyer who is also the Chairperson of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission and the UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Killings. She and her sister Hina Jilani — also a lawyer — handle cases of women who have been abused by their families. In April 1999 Samia Sarwar, a client of Hina’s who was in the process of divorcing her violent husband, was killed in their office by a gunman, who was allegedly hired by her mother (a gynaecologist), uncle and father (president of the local Chamber of Commerce). Hina narrowly escaped a bullet during this incident in her office. Despite reporting the incident to police and supplying identifying details no arrests have been made (according to latest reports from Pakistan). Not only was Samia murdered in the office of her lawyers but Hina and Asma have been subjects of continued harassment and threats from the family concerned and their supporters, who declared the murder in keeping with tribal laws and declared a fatwa on Asma Jahangir.

The courage and strength of women working for women’s rights in such a context is remarkable. They face not only the difficulties of dealing with cases of violence and abuse, and too often death, but the consequences of their work include explicit danger and threat to their own lives. Despite these dangers these feminists continue to speak with clear and loud voices against cultural practices which harm women at considerable risk to themselves.


It might be thought that the experience of migration and of living in hostile environments radicalises those who live through this process but this is not necessarily so. I do not think that the immigration experience and that of racism has actually radicalised very many women — because they are caught inside a need to uphold traditional cultural practices as motifs of their identity and community allegiance. Why should women adhere to these practices? It seems to me that if women live in a hostile environment and have to deal with racism and if the key ‘leaders’ who do not undermine women’s own cultural identity are men who share that identity but also promote conservative traditions (and locate them in religious contexts in ways which serve their own purposes), then women are more easily tempted (or coerced) into upholding the traditional and orthodox models of their own identity and history.

As a result, there are black and minority ethnic women who ascribe to notions of cultural shaping of identity and to claims of tradition which are often more orthodox than those contemporaneously experienced by many women in their countries of origin. Those who leave often define their identity through culture and traditional practices shaped by their experiences in the home country before they left. They do this without being involved in the ways in which culture moves on, changes and transforms in response to and in connection with the other changes in society — economic, political and social. For example, in some Indian immigrant groups in the UK there is a strong ideological and practical commitment to older, stricter forms of arranged marriage than are now practised in certain communities in the sub-continent.

I think that there may be a number of different ways of explaining this: a) cultural practices have moved on but those who left have not — occasional visits are not adequate to be sufficiently submerged in the dynamic of change to participate in it, nor perhaps even to recognise it; b) cultural practices have moved on but those who left do not wish to move on — strong adherence to old practices are a central part of their identity, their self-respect in a hostile and still racist western society; c) those who left the sub-continent are from more conservative groups than those who are involved in radical social and political agitation at home. The sub-continent is larger than Europe; of course there are varied and sometimes conflicting traditions with both conservative and radical or progressive tendencies. Whatever the explanation in individual cases, what is important is to recognise that there are varied tendencies and histories within a culture and that claims to cultural (or other) difference should not be used to silence or debilitate women’s voices of criticism. Definitions of culture, tradition or difference should not be treated as absolute or sacrosanct.

Meanwhile, women in India continue the radical and challenging traditions of the anti-colonial struggles, struggles which were inextricably linked to the promotion of women’s rights, political engagement, enfranchisement and so on. A quick look at most of the constitutions or declarations of independence put in place when ex-colonies won national independence shows that they committed to gender equality, female suffrage etc. relatively promptly after independence. This did not come about by accident or because of a ‘female-friendly context’ in the ex-colonies: it came about because women in those countries fought hard and long to put these issues on the agenda and to push the nationalist leaders — usually men — to make some progress under national sovereignty. Fighting battles for national identity and integrity perhaps helped to set favourable terms in the discourse (if not in a lot of practice) for the promotion of other aims which were consistent with such principles. Improving women’s social and political position was one such area.

I do not mean to suggest that all is well for women in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka — far from it — nor that feminist struggles and nationalist projects were one and the same. I do suggest, however, that alongside the traditions claimed by diasporic women — of cultural compliance under regimes of male dominance — there are courageous, exciting and inspiring traditions of women’s activism, women’s struggles and women’s solidarity. Unfortunately, amongst migrant communities the selection of which traditions to promote, and which to adhere to, does not commonly spread to these other histories of strong, vocal women’s activism.

It concerns me that this sort of selection goes on and that women and girls, first and subsequent generations, lose this history and are disconnected from feminist activism and ways of thinking. I think that this shows itself in the closure that operates for some migrant women (or the succeeding generations) against challenging male oppression within their own communities. It is also supported by (some) feminists from other cultures who themselves are unaware of such traditions and contemporary strengths and consequently accept unquestioningly and even perpetuate recognition (sometimes under the rubric of respect) for conservative constructions of traditions which oppress women.

My observation is that feminists in the ex-colonies do not share the reluctance of their migrant sisters to name and challenge the patriarchal practices of their communities. It may be, as I suggested earlier, that more conservative communities are more heavily represented in migrant populations than in the country of origin. Or, one could argue that racism transforms the relationships of gender within what become minority groups. But transforming these into relationships which embody male power and privilege but do not question, or do not question effectively, is extremely problematic. Opening up oppression towards a public gaze is essential for change. My view on this is greatly strengthened by my work against violence against women, discussed later in this article.


There is another aspect of the traditionalist culturalism of migrant communities and subsequent generations which is of concern: that is the focus on difference and the way in which it can sometimes become a primary or overriding concern. The need to recognise difference is clear — without it there is pressure to conform to a dominant culture, denial of varied experiences as well as the consequences of these, prejudice and discrimination. I have myself been involved in work which has sought to look at and analyse the implications of difference, for example, in education, for refugees, for ethnic minority women dealing with domestic violence and women fleeing domestic violence who have drug or alcohol dependence.

But what does concern me is where difference becomes an absolute organising principle, a fundamental tenet of separateness. The separatist refrain is along the lines of ‘How can you work on my needs when my culture / traditions / religion / experience / language are so different from yours?’ Of course, at face value this claim may have some merit — surely it is those who have particular experiences who are best placed to name their needs — and is an argument which many of us have proposed in terms of women naming their own experiences, producing knowledge and defining needs. However, the dynamics and relationships in which we work are more complex than this formulation permits. I think women of various locations are absolutely central in naming their experiences and needs and in contributing to the understanding of their situations. But how do others hear these voices? We have to hear them not only at face value but through an organising framework including justice and principles of equality. So, when a woman says that her husband has every right to chastise her physically for her wrongdoings or when a woman says that her husband makes her have sex as and when he chooses but it is not rape, a feminist response will likely engage critically with such views.

Likewise, I think that it is important to engage critically with cultural expressions of the oppression of women. It is only after hearing these, I think, that it is possible to move to working together to address needs — something which I do believe is possible across cultural boundaries and other spheres of difference. In the case of Sirkat Gah discussed above, it is not necessary to respect cultural difference by saying that so-called ‘honour’ killings are a cultural expression or practice (which they may well be). In fact Sirkat Gah is operating within a cultural context and contesting its norms, and feminists from beyond that context must support their struggle. It is necessary to recognise difference but not to be debilitated by it. Just like cultural relativism, the privileging of difference has considerable limitations; the notion and language of difference have become tools, code-words, for separatism, silence, closure of discussion and denial of the possibility of forging alliances.

Highlighting difference in ways suggested above can foreclose discussion: undermining the relevance of knowledge across difference limits the possibilities for joint discussions and action. If I cannot know the particular experiences of, say, Sikh or Muslim women because I am not one, then it can be argued that I can neither have meaningful discussions about needs, nor can I understand their situations nor can I sensibly participate in their struggles. So, on the one hand the privileging of difference can result in closure of communication, while on the other it can silence those beyond the boundary of belonging, in terms of culture, race, ethnicity or religion. The results of the difference principle becoming primary is that it can censure, silence, and support separatism — none of which have a place in struggles for justice and feminist principles.

Another tendency I find troubling is the way in which the language and privileging of difference has been taken up by those who are not sympathetic and used against those very groups which claim that ‘difference’ to be so central. Thinking no further than recent cases of domestic violence of which I am aware it has not been exceptional for police officers to decline to support women suffering domestic violence because, they claim, of the importance of cultural difference. I know of such instances involving Asian women and women from the Horn of Africa; I know also that others who stray from the ‘normative referent’ — in their sexuality, appearance, disability etc. — are also liable to have their needs downgraded or dismissed in the name of difference. Such dismissals may be thinly disguised forms of prejudice, racism, homophobia and other hatreds based on difference. While the police or other individuals or agencies reject calls for support from ‘different’ women, men from these groups may also take separatist positions on difference. Many Asian women know only too well the intense pressure put upon them by men (but also women) not to speak out about difficult intra-community issues, such as domestic violence. Women should not wash their ‘dirty linen’ in public nor should they in a racist society subject men to harassment or interventions from a racist state. Where these dynamics are successful they impose once again the compulsion to silence, to uphold and acquiesce in the protection of men and male dominance.


Women all over the world experience male violence and I think that it is useful to consider violence in the context of a discussion of difference. Women from all cultures and backgrounds do and will fight male violence but responses to them which accept the prioritisation of difference deny them the support and safety which they are entitled to obtain. The prioritisation of difference is soundly over-ridden by the shared needs, and rights of all women and the common impacts experienced across difference.

I have listened to women of different cultures, religions, countries, age groups, classes, social backgrounds… and over and over again they talk of the devastating impacts of male violence: of the belittling, of the physical injuries, of the emotional destruction, of fearing for the safety of their children, of the shame and embarrassment of speaking to anyone about their experiences and of the fear that violence brings. Again and again women find ways of expressing their intolerance and disavowal of violence, although this may take various different forms such as explicit wishes to leave or to be rid of an abusive man, a concern never again to have contact with a rapist or a wish for a life where ‘these things’ do not happen. Women share the need for support, belief, safety (including shelter), real options, financial means and clear affirmation that their lives can be different — can be free of violence. All women have the right to live free from violence, the right to live without men and the right to protection by the state against violence inside and outside the home. These are common to women who have experienced violence and are founded on a recognition of our commonality as women across all forms of difference. How these can be best delivered, enabled or facilitated must be considered in relation to the considerations which shape our various experiences, such as culture, language and race/ethnicity. However, the fundamental principle must be that all women have shared experiences, shared needs, rights in common and a sound basis from which to talk to each other and struggle together.

Contrary to what the principle of difference founded on ethnicity or race may tempt us to believe, not all black and ethnic minority women have the same view as to whether and how spaces should be created to resist gender inequality and oppression. Here, the points I made earlier about the divergent ways in which migrant women and those in the home country understand themselves, their cultures and religions are relevant. Constructing a monolithic category of ‘third world woman’ or even a single Asian stereotype is as problematic and unhelpful as are notions of white women as a single category or of all women based only on the experience of white, heterosexual, able bodied women. I would argue that there are significant differences between women and they come into play most importantly not in terms of women’s life experiences — listening to women from an ever-increasing number of countries and contexts underlines what we share, more strongly than what divides us — but in the ways in which women can and do respond to their experiences and contexts. I will highlight two critical aspects of difference here:

a) women have differential access to support and to services: in the UK language issues remain critical in this respect and race/ethnicity remain significant factors when contacting service providers (or when deciding not to do so); dis/ability marks a scandalous barrier to access; and there are many others including those structured by the state, such as immigration rules.

b) politics: much more fundamental than tradition, culture, race or religion is the allegiance women have to particular political projects — feminism is one, anti-racism another, as is justice. Politics not only influences which projects will be significant but also how that project is shaped — what justice looks like, what feminism can bring and how one should fight racism.

These two issues are much more important in our work together than whether we celebrate Christmas or Eid, how we dress or the food we eat.

I wonder if it is possible to shift the separatist and divisive aspects of a focus on difference by using the concept of diversity instead? It seems to me that difference has become too loaded with tendencies towards closure, silencing and isolation to be useful in political strategies which seek to work together, which understand the importance of alliances and common struggle. I realise that diversity itself is not without problems — it has been used to neutralise the power of anti-racist action and politics in the USA and now in the UK (witness the many local government authorities which have replaced their anti-racist teams and policies with those ‘valuing diversity’ — a de-politicised, unchallenging and anodyne term). Despite this I think that it holds more promise than difference because of the way in which difference has so successfully been used to divide us.

Commonality, diversity and women’s politics

I would like to offer three suggestions as to how diversity can have a place within feminist politics.

The more I hear women’s voices from various locations — social, cultural, religious, etc. — the more I am certain that our commonality must provide the framework for our work together. This commonality is shaped by many things including our experiences of male oppression and power, of injustice, violence and discrimination and our vision of and struggles for other ways of living and organising ourselves. So my first suggestion is that commonality provides the framework and it is within this that we have to recognise diversity. My view is that the diversity of most importance is the variety of responses and strategies used by women in diverse situations.

Secondly, there is one issue which I think is of central importance in the ability to work successfully across this diversity — that is a critical self-positioning. What I mean by this is that a pre-requisite for conversations across diversity is for women to engage critically with their own position, not only the positions of other women; women must name their own oppression. One of the problems associated with earlier claims to sisterhood was, I think, the inherent (and sometime explicit) claims to superiority from white/western women in relation to the rest of us. This cannot have a place in shared struggles.

Thirdly, one way in which diversity can find a place in our work together is to find ways to support women’s choices and give credence to other interpretations and expressions of resistance. This means, for example, that western women cannot instruct all sub-continental women to oppose all forms of arranged marriage or claim that no feminist can ever wear a head-cover and Indian (and other) feminists should not always rush to write off white women wearing lipstick as not being real feminists. Instead, we must be able to hear and recognise voices of resistance, which may take many forms, and support them. This will mean that we should not accept claims which define cultural constructions of tradition which are monolithic and which clearly oppress women — there are always voices of resistance from women but they sometimes they struggle to be heard.

I have written this piece as a result of increasing frustration and concern at the way in which claims to culture and difference are used to silence women and to seek support from well-meaning ‘outsiders’ for women’s oppression. I have discussed some of these ideas with some women but realise that there is more thinking to be done! I would be very happy to discuss these ideas or have feedback from anyone reading this article.

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