Alena Heitlinger, ed. Émigré Feminism: Transnational Perspectives. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999, 333pp. $21.95 paper.

Feminist theory and practice are clearly to be found everywhere in the world today. Moreover, it is generally understood by those who would call themselves feminists that feminism is not one single theory or set of practices, but varies widely depending on local context. In light of this, the problem posed by this collection should be a central consideration for all feminist thinkers: how does the understanding of feminism move, change, expand, collide or grow when individuals do not place themselves in only one such local context, but are refugees, exiles, emigrants or wanderers across two or more nations? Can one individual have two or more feminisms? Does the exile carry her feminism from “home” and which country is experienced as home? Can one, must one, may one choose a home or a feminism?

By putting the multiple locations of what are here called émigré feminists at the heart of the matter, Heitlinger does not prejudge the consequences of this unsettled position. Some of the authors, all of them personally émigré feminists, see their situation as one that gives them a privileged position “outside the city walls” to develop insights into cultures and preconceptions that widen their feminism. Others challenge these supposed advantages, finding instead a continuing cost in their separation from local struggles and shared histories. Most essays actually walk the interesting tightrope of finding a balance between the costs and benefits of distance. All of the authors are currently Canadian but originally from a wide variety of other nations. Their transnational experiences generated issues of language, perspective, commitment, exclusion and transformation (both personal and political) in their lives. Their efforts to deal these concerns provide a lively and insightful discussion of positionality in feminist thought and practice more generally, and give the collection as a whole a coherence in diversity that makes it much more than the sum of its individual parts.

Overall, the individual authors succeed in using their biographies to generate theoretical insights as well as reflexively bringing feminist theory to reflect on their personal experiences. Every reader will find something different to delight in, probably reflecting particular affinities of region or style. Not only do authors’ origins span the globe, they are creative writers, activists, literary critics and social scientists and they write in the diverse modes associated with these backgrounds. Some focus narrowly on their own autobiographies, others combine studies of immigrants or of their countries of origin with their reflections on the processes of dis-location.

Some attempt to theorize transnational feminism more generally from their specific points of departure (and arrival), while others address more specific concerns such as the veil for Turkish women, the end of apartheid in South Africa or childcare policy in Scandinavia from their present locations as insider-outsiders.

As a sociologist, my own favorites were the articles that brought a specifically social scientific perspective to bear. Schild’s study of transnational links among Latin American feminisms, for example, does an excellent job of showing how the idea of self-development is actively promoted for poor women in these programs. From her standpoint as a Chilean progressive returned to see the effects of post-Pinochet development efforts, she sees that in projects with poor women, self-development paradoxically carries both the feminist connotation of consciousness-raising and women’s self-assertion and also the neo-liberal meaning of contending in the market as an individual rather than part of a family or community. Jung looks at how Western funding in Hungary sees only what it defines as “new women’s groups” and loses sight of Hungarian women she knows to be engaged in struggles over abortion rights and other issues who are in different institutional contexts. Tyyskä compares the categories available for classifying different types of feminism in Finland and Canada and the mismatches between reality and label that either model generates. In each case, they take their standpoint between cultures as a starting place for studying the culture that is and yet is not their own, and their research is enriched by the feelings they acknowledge and explore in their reflections on the process.

In other cases, reflections on the émigré experience itself take center stage, while research experiences are only a general context for a more directly engaged grappling with the relation between the personal and the political. Sharing a language and identity, but not the risks and costs of the immediately past or impending struggles, places the émigré feminist in a peculiar position politically that these essays explore self-critically. Heitlinger’s own autobiographical essay on her returns to Czechoslovakia under communism for research as well as family visits and the Czech Republic in more recent years directly probes the issues of experiencing feminism as enlightenment (as she did in the heady days in which feminism was emerging in England and she was a young student staying there after the Prague Spring of 1968) and the missionary impulse to which this can give rise. Sedef Arat-Koc questions her own political perspectives on fundamentalism and the uses of the veil, seeing her own position as a Canadian no longer directly threatened by fundamentalist politics as precarious one from which to criticize. However, as a secular urban woman, she could remain more distant from the issue of veiling in Turkey than in Canada, where racism directly applies assumptions about Islamic women, civilization and the West to her personally. Manicom reflects on how her presentation of research on South Africa in South Africa caused her to think about her own “South Africanness” after years in exile. She demonstrates how both the transformation of the country and her own development as a feminist abroad created the disjuncture she felt between the questions she wanted answered and those of her audience.

Whether the articles are primarily reflective and self-questioning or targeted to a specific research issue, they offer an unusually rich and thoughtful look at the implications of trans-national locations. Heitlinger’s brilliant insight in doing the original conference and now in editing this book is that these are positions from which feminism can fruitfully view its own trans-national development. The essays collected here clearly demonstrate the value of this approach and point to a need for more consideration of the concrete embodied ways in which feminists and feminisms travel.

Myra Marx Ferree
Department of Sociology

July 1999
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