So you want to be a transnational feminist

It was one of those Delhi autumn afternoons that goes on forever and ever, the sunlight slanting through the dust, the dogs lolling on the paths, even the mosquitos lazy. A couple friends and I were sitting on the university campus drinking tea in the last strands of afternoon. 

We were talking about politics. Specifically, we were talking about Non-Resident Indian (NRI) — or Indians who have immigrated abroad — donations to the Bharatiya Janata Party, whose hindutva ideology everyone sitting at the table firmly opposed. Hindutva is basically the belief that India is fundamentally  a Hindu nation and ought to favor Hindus, and it’s contributed to numerous explosions of violence against ethnic and religious minorities, and particularly Muslims.

“I’ve gotten into big arguments with NRI friends about it,” a white American friend was saying. “It’s not right.”

“But is it really your place?” I asked him. “I mean, as a white American, is it really your place to tell Indian Americans who they should support in Indian politics?”

My friend K — fierce, feminist, Indian, brilliant, loud — turned to me then and spoke sharply. “We can’t do this kind of identity politics relativism,” she said. “Listen, there are some things in this world that are just wrong, and no matter who we are, no matter where we come from, we need to all be against them. It’s irresponsible to say that you can’t or shouldn’t have an opinion about them.”

K drained her tea and said one of the most important things I think anyone has ever told me.

“If you’re going to be our friend, you’re going to have to stand with us.”


Make no mistake: Colonialism happened. Colonialism happened, colonialism happened, colonialism happened. Colonialism happened and it is still happening, colonialism and the violence that occurs when one group of people decide to subjugate, dominate, and enslave another group of people — extract their resources; collaborate with their elites —reverberates and will reverberate on and on. Today, we can see the legacies of British colonial rule in India in everything from memories of Partition violence to the way Western media talks about Indian masculinity to the contemporary exploitativeness of multinational corporations.

Colonialism happened and happens and colonial logic is a logic of binaries: A logic of us and them, developed and developing, first world and third, white and of color — colonizer and colonized. And a lot of these binary logics are still at play. They affect our experiences in any country we might live, not as a wave that has receded but as the water that surrounds us. But I think they are particularly, brutally, obviously at play during experiences of immigration, travel, and dislocation; and during times when we are trying to engage politically across national divides.

These historical and contemporary global power imbalances affect feminism, too. 

Anyone familiar with the feminist blogosphere — that means you, baby! — has probably heard the term “white feminism” or “first world feminism.” These terms refer to feminisms of privilege: To belief systems that consider “women’s oppression” without considering all the different ways in which women are also oppressed along the lines of class, race, national origin, sexuality, ability, religion, and more. In the United States, we can see examples of this kind of feminism everywhere: In the way in which white suffrage campaigners neglected women of color and sought to win the vote at the expense of men of color, for example, or in feminism that asks women to “lean in” at work without considering that economically marginalized women often can’t simply ask for a raise. 

We see this kind of thinking in much of the gender work that American and other First World/Global North/Developed World (all of these terms have their problems and oh boy will we talk about all of them so *stay tuned*) feminists engage in in the Third World/Global South/Developing World. Historically, the idea of “women’s empowerment” has been used by imperialist or militaristic powers to justify invasions — for example, in Laura Bush’s defense of the 2001 American invasion of Afghanistan as an action that would “liberate women.” We also find a whole host of important Woman of Color and Third World feminist analyses of the ways in which governments, corporations, and NGOs perpetuate the idea of the disempowered Third World Woman who needs saving.

These modes of thinking, in their condescension and incomprehension of the realities of people’s actual lives, often create more problems for women than they solve, and perpetuate violent racial and economic arrangements.

So here’s the question: How do we as feminists engage across national and/or racial boundaries in ways that are deeply collaborative and deeply just?

I’ve thought a lot about this question because I’m currently living and eating things and being a feminist in Delhi, India, a place neither I nor my family is from, and a place that occupies a very different position vis a vis histories of colonialism than my own white American origins. 

I’ve spent maybe a year of the past three in and out of Delhi, studying, working, falling in love, writing things, going to protests, smoking off balconies, eating, dressing, throwing up, and now doing research on female friendship and queerness in Hindi film. I’m still figuring out how to engage politically in solidarity with friends and acquaintances and random strangers here. And I hope to do it in this column and with you, dear lovely determined readers who have made it thus far, you troopers, you.

Engaging transnationally can be hard, and I think sometimes social justice rhetoric overcorrects for privilege, encouraging people with privilege to disengage rather than to engage harder.

But feminist engagement across difference is not something we can opt out of.

My woman’s studies teacher at Jawaharlal Nehru University here in Delhi once said it best. She was talking about American feminists’ need to work collaboratively with feminists in the Third World: “There is no opting out,” she said.

“The people who rule the world have already opted you in. They’ve done violence in your name.”

This is what my friend was saying on campus that dusty late afternoon. Not that we, if we are from elsewhere, if we have a blue American passport, if we have white racial privilege, if we occupy some position of advantage in global systems, should go around saying whatever we want about political issues, should assume we know what’s up, shouldn’t listen, should be, in a word, dicks.

I think she was saying that political inaction is not ethically neutral.

When people with privilege refuse — out of good intention, or laziness, or fear — the long, arduous, difficult, fruitful, rewarding, rewarding task of engaging with and across that privilege in productive, collaborative ways, we let historical injustice win.

Because they have done violence in our names.

If we were born or brought to America, we have been opted into living in a country founded on genocide.

If we participate in markets, we have been opted into using the labor of marginalized people across the world.

If English is our first language, we have been opted into speaking a language that is globally ascendant because of colonial histories.

If we enjoy the protection of the American state, we reap the benefits of military violence elsewhere.

Of course, many of us who live in the United States don’t enjoy these privileges at all, or enjoy them in ambivalent ways. Many of us, in fact, have more in common with experiences of oppression elsewhere in the world than with experiences of privilege in the United States. The ways in which we are oppressed — racially, or socioeconomically, or by gender or sexual orientation  or state violence — are not isolated, but are part of bigger global systems with a reach that goes far beyond us.

So what’s a girl to do?

In beginning to think and write about transnational feminism, I’ve found three basic rules super helpful. Maybe you won’t find them helpful because your position and experience is different, or maybe you’ll think they’re wrong and want to tell me so in the comments below, which is also awesome! 

1) Learn about the work people are doing on the ground.

This one should be pretty obvious. If you’re going somewhere, or want to engage with the political situation somewhere you are not from, find out who the political players are, who is doing work around gender issues or other political issues you’re interested in.

Pay particular attention to political work that you don’t “get,” that makes you uncomfortable, that you think is maybe incorrect, that you can’t easily assimilate into your framework.

Maybe there are women doing activism they don’t call feminist, or that you don’t understand as feminist, but which is, in their context, actually empowering, necessary, radical. Maybe LGBT groups structure themselves according to different logics than those you are used to, because gender systems operate differently in their context, or because the relationship between sexual behavior and LGBT identity operates differently.

Read articles. Check out websites. Go to events. Ask questions and genuinely do not assume you know the answer already. Hang out in the back of open meetings and listen to people talk and take notes and Google things and read books and accept invitations.

2) Look for the connections.

It’s easy to learn about a place and see difference. It’s easy to learn about a place and see injustice and think that this injustice is bad. It’s harder to learn about a place and see injustice and think this injustice is bad and then enquire really critically into how this injustice relates to you.

I don’t mean this in the sentimental “seeing poverty makes me sad” way, or the “I went on a mission trip to Guatemala and now I realize how lucky I am” way.

No, baby — I mean capitalism. I mean colonialism. I mean power.

If you learn about poverty in a country that is not yours and it bothers you, don’t ask “Why is that place so fucked up?” Ask, “Why does global capitalism lead to a system in which there is ample food yet some people remain unfed? How do the economic interests of my own country contribute to poverty elsewhere?”

If you learn about anti-sodomy laws, don’t say, “Indians/Ugandans/Singaporeans are so homophobic!” Ask, “Huh, what are the histories of these laws? How did colonial legal systems contribute to the current situation?”

Knowing how we’re implicated in things, and how our privilege or oppression is related to the privilege or oppression of people far away, is the first step toward changing things.

But first, we’ve got to understand our own stake in the game.

3) Love people, hard.

I don’t mean you should go out and find exxxxooootttiiiccccc people from fooooreeeeiggggn lands for kicks and giggles. I do mean that our solidarity cannot be abstract. Ignorance comes when we speak in generalities — when we think of other people as concepts and masses instead of as living, breathing, thinking, complicated individuals with thoughts and motivations and plans.

I’ve been lucky enough to make brilliant, angry friends with full hearts and open hands, people I love, people whose spit I’ve ingested, people whose plates I eat from and in whose beds I sleep and whose genitals I’ve touched and whose presence I’ve craved like my menstruating self craves tylenol, people whose faces light my heart like a firecracker — people with words and thoughts and agonies and tensions and desires and unrulinessess, people who are cranky, people who sleep.

My politics start there.

Because social justice is not only about keeping ourselves from hurting others. It’s also about being real, full people with real, full lives, whose experiences are structured by privilege and structured by oppression but who are not fully determined by them.

And collaboration is about working together not to save anyone or do anyone a favor or erect some saccharine it’s-a-small-world-after-all diorama, but because we cannot be liberated when we benefit from systems that oppress our friends.

Love doesn’t erase history, and it doesn’t erase power, and, alas, it doesn’t make a dent in capitalism. Love alone, I’m sorry to say, politically-speaking doesn’t do squat. But without love — without the kind of love that makes you quiver at night, without full love, political love, love of anger and open arms — our politics will go nowhere and be nothing.

Cut back to that Delhi afternoon, and that political discussion about Hindutva politics and NRIs. We talked until the sun slipped from the sky, and when it was time to go, we left our argument, and the table, littered with tea cups.

K stood up first. Then I stood, next to my friend.


You’ll be hearing more from me on transnational feminism (yippee!) — but don’t just take my word for it. If you’re as excited as I am to learn more from the Indian feminist, LGBT, and left movements, check out some of these websites. I am naming these sites off the top of my head, and this list is therefore not authoritative — also, duh, there are way more than five — but at least this list makes far better internet surfing than cat videos. (Okay, but maybe not the ones about cat beards.) (Kidding.) (Maybe not.) (They’re SO FREAKY!)

Kafila – A collaborative frequently leftist blog covering politics and culture written by a host of badass usually Indian intellectuals. 

Gaylaxy – LGBT issues, or as no one says ever, “gettin’ gay in Bombay.”

Vagabomb – Vagina emojis, pop culture, personal essays (also my friend happens to be editor *feminist writer bffls* * kiss emoji *)

Tehelka – Left-leaning journalism, politics, and current issues.

The Ladies Finger! – Smart feminist essays and analyses of pop culture (I also know their editor *more feels*)

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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