Late last month, 27 journalists from around the world gathered under the United Nations' auspicies to formulate recommendations to be submitted to the Mid-Decade U.N. World Conference of Women in Copenhagen in July. During the discussions leading to the final recommendations, one could disern once again the enormous gap that existed between the representatives of the developed countries and the Third World nation in their perception of what constituted the "women's problem." Western feminists at this meeting, like those at the 1975 Mexico City concerence, saw the basic problem as being the denial of equality in the distribution of economic opportunity and responsibility to women. Often, this perception led them to view men as the group responsible for their deprivation and oppression.
The Third World champions of feminism, on the other hand, perceived the woman's fundamental problem as being the struggle to find for herself and her family the essential sustenances of daily life, like running water, medical services and stable shelter. As such, they expressed little or no criticism of men as a group, a fact that led one U.S. reporter covering the conference to say to me in genuine innocence: "There must be some feminists in the Third World."
These basic differences in perceptions are due in part to the inaccurate portrayals of women's roles as transmitted by the international media; even more important, they are due to the nature of the relations between social clases in the Western world and in the Third World.
In the West, the vast majority of women -- at least those with access to and representation in the media -- share at some level the basis of a common national culture. They generally speak the same language, dress alike and are affected by the same television and radio programs, films, newspapers and books.
When the majority of women feel part of the dominant culture, it is inevitable that they attribute the rights denied to them as being a question to access within the existing framework. This is not to say that class differences and antagonisms do not exist, but that women in the broad middle classes find genuine common causes around the issues of child care, jobs and wages and husbands ignorant of the value of domestic labor.
For the women of the Third World, the reality is incalcuably different. The vast majority of them live in a state of acute undervelopment. Their consuming pursuit is providing food for the family, finding and carrying firewood and water from distant places, selling surplus crops to but clothing and to pay school fees and obtaining rudimentary medical care.
On the other hand, there is a class of Third World women for whome these concerns are irrelevant. They have all the money, education and medical care they need. Consequently, their major worries are getting the right kind of job and deciding which school children will attend, what to cook for dinner and which dress to wear to the office as they carve out roles for themselves in modern urban society.
Unlike their sisters, who are burdened under the loads of water and firewood, their focus is not on economic oppression but on the unequal relations with the men of their class. They find that, owing to this inequality, they have now been shut out of their traditional roles as full partners in the productive economy.
In all these economic and social concerns, this small elite group is heavily influenced by the Western image of women that is popularized in the foreign media.
As one can imagine, these privileged women are fast becoming foreigners in their own countries, sharing more with the women of America and Europe than with the masses among whom they live. Ask them to go to work in the rural areas where they grew up, and they'll candidly reply that they'd rather work in London or Paris. Without question, many women of this class are feminists of the kind the reporter at the conference was wondering about.
So when concerned feminists in the Third World look at their societies, they generally focus on the needs of the priveged. And the needs of the masses, their deprivations, their oppression, their disease, their illiteracy and their malnutrition are not confined to women alone; the men who live with them equally vulnerable. For this reason, feminism in the Third World does not isolate the problems of women from the problems of the rest of society.
To say all this is not to say that Third World men do not oppress women. They do, and often in cruel and heartless ways. They, too, will be fought, but that is another battle within a larger war.