Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 1996

Publication Citation

4 Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 107 (1996)


The Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing 1995) has spawned a

Triumphant sense among Western/Northern feminists that they are forging a

strategic sisterhood with less privileged women in the South. Feminists from

metropolitan countries seek a new North-South alliance whereby they make

strategic interventions on behalf of third world women by putting pressure on

their governments. Professor Ong critiques strategic sisterhood on the

following grounds:

First, strategic sisterhood is based on individualistic notions of

transnational feminine citizenship, ignoring the historical and cultural

differences between women from the first and third worlds. In particular, the

concept ignores geopolitical inequalities whereby postcolonial countries are

sensitive to what they view as new forms of cultural imperialism. For many

Asian leaders and subjects, women's emancipation is seldom just a question

about individual rights, but fundamentally about culture, community, and the


Second, strategic sisterhood brushes aside other forms of morality--

whether expressed in nationalist ideology, or embedded in religious and

communal practices--that shape local notions and relations of gender,

hierarchy, loyalty, and social security. These webs of power relations are the

everyday contexts within which third world women must struggle for their


To illustrate both points, Professor Ong draws on cases from China,

Indonesia, and Malaysia, where popular struggles for human rights are

usually couched in terms of community--class, religion, or nation--not gender.

The silence regarding women's problems is especially striking in resurgent

labor movements where a significant proportion of workers are young women

working in abysmal conditions. Foreign feminists must first understand the

conditions shaped by communitarian ideologies--produced by ruling regimes,

labor, or religious elites--within which most third world women must negotiate

their rights and self-identity. Professor Ong presents the example of Muslim

feminists in Malaysia struggling for women's rights, not by forming strategic

partnerships with Western feminists (a strategy guaranteed to fail), but by

engaging local men in (re)defining gender rights within the framework of

Islamic morality, nation, and civilization. The struggles of these courageous

women deserve respect from Western feminists who are ever-ready to dismiss

any accommodations with Islam or non-Western moral ethos. After all,

feminism and women's rights only make sense in terms of the imagined

communities within which people live and, through their embeddedness in

local social relations and cultural norms, decide what is good and worthwhile

in their lives.

Globalization thus produces not a single international sisterhood

(dominated by Western feminist ideals and agents) but many possible,

negotiable, and partial collaborations between feminists in different countries.

Feminist sisterhoods a re strategic when they can create a transnational public

that does not exclude the variety of alternative visions of female citizenship

framed within alternative political moralities. Strategic sisterhood will be

most effective when it adheres to such a "weak" universal of female