During this year’s State of the Union address, President Donald Trump claimed that one in three women crossing the United States/Mexico border is sexually assaulted. Though the specific statistic he cited is questionable, it should come as no surprise that women crossing international borders face severe gender-based violence. What is surprising is that the president, who has minimized and mocked many of the at least thirteen women who have accused him of sexual harassment and assault, suddenly seemed to think gender-based violence was a problem.
His rhetoric reveals more than simple hypocrisy. It manifests a set of epistemic habits associated with what I call “missionary feminism.” Missionary feminists filter information about the world in ways that turn analyses of the situation of “other” women into opportunities to confirm Western superiority. A danger of missionary feminism is that it makes imperialist attitudes and policies seem like they are required by a commitment to gender justice.
The president’s portrayal of sexual assault is strategically silent about what makes sexual assault happen at the border. A New York Times investigation revealed that much of the sexual violence that women face crossing the border happens once they are in the United States at the hands of U.S Customs and Border Patrol staff. Even when women are sexually assaulted by smugglers, it is often within the supposed safety of US territory. Women migrants who are victims of sexual assault within the United States even face deportation.
Not to mention that what makes women vulnerable in the first place is a set of US government policies that militarize the border and contribute to the conditions that make women need to cross the border to begin with. For example, the conditions provoking asylum seekers to leave Honduras were caused by Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández’s US-backed government.
This strategic silence is an example of one epistemic habit constitutive of missionary feminism: the idealization of global geopolitics and history. We idealize something when, in the process of abstracting about it, we attribute positive attributes to it that it does not actually have (or have to the degree we think it does). The president’s comments idealize the global order by ignoring the role that global factors, like US border and economic policy, play in making women vulnerable to gender-based violence.
Those of us living in the West and North have been trained to fill in the explanatory blank left by the absence of a global structural analysis in a particular way: by attributing gender-based violence to other cultures. Indeed, the president has publicly suggested in other speeches that people from certain non-white cultural groupings are especially likely to commit rape. This resort to the cultural is also a part of missionary feminism. Failing to look at global structures and Western complicity in violence and injustice around the world allows Western culture to seem to have the moral high ground. Those who only see gender-based violence when they imagine it is committed by others can easily preserve the idea that Western culture has produced emancipation for women.
But the idea that the West, or Western culture, has ended sexist oppression is false and self-serving. Sexual assault and sexual violence remain widespread in the United States, as the current #MeToo movement points out. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in five US women will be sexually assaulted. Women in the United States and Western Europe continue to do much more housework and care work than men. The ability to work outside the home is often presented as empowerment, but is it really a straightforward feminist success that US women spend more than three times as much time on housework as men?
The idea that Western intervention or Western culture are good at ending the sexist oppression of women who live in the global South is also specious. The global economic order, driven by the interests of Western countries, increases the amount of unpaid labor women have to do and increases their economic vulnerability. For example, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank promote the privatization of social services, and women must often pick up the slack left by end of public funding for these services by increasing the amount of time they spend caring for children, the sick, and people with disabilities.
Admittedly, Trump is no feminist. But missionary feminist attitudes often help win hearts and minds, even self-described feminist hearts and minds, to imperialist causes. The Bush administration’s similar, but perhaps less racially motivated, fixation on sex trafficking de-emphasized the other forms of labor trafficking to which women were subject and characterized the causes of prostitution in ways that ignored the economic conditions that make women collude with sex traffickers. It was supported by high-profile feminist organizations. A media campaign to convince US women that feminism means celebrating Trump’s attention to trafficking is already underway.
The ease with which feminism gets coopted to serve the purposes of Northern and Western domination may seem like cause for pessimism. It shouldn’t be. We need cross-border feminist activism now more than ever. The causes of much contemporary gender injustice are transnational, ranging from war, to the disproportionate recruitment of women into low-status factory work by multinational corporations, to US policies that prevent women in the global South from seeking abortion and contraception.
What we need is not a retreat from global feminism but rather a feminist reckoning about values. Feminists need to turn from a missionary feminism that highlights contrasts between North/West and South to preserve Northern/Western superiority and toward asking the real feminist question: what reduces sexist oppression? Oppression is a set of social relations in which one group is systematically subordinated to another. Remembering that feminism is about women’s oppression can help us avoid the mistake of assuming that any mention of women, or policy targeted toward them, is necessarily feminist. Since reducing oppression means making change in the world, feminists need to be empirically informed about the causes of the problems they are trying to solve. This includes seeking knowledge about how global structures and Northern policies cause harm to women. A first step toward anti-imperialist global feminisms is for people in the North to be able to recognize missionary feminism for what it is.
Featured image credit: Photo by Siora Photography. Fair use via Unsplash.