Tohe, Laura “No Word for Feminism in my Language” Wicazo Sa Review, V. 15, N0 2, pp 103-110, 2000.
Laura Tohe is a Diné (Navajo) poet, writer and scholar and is the author of “There is no word for feminism in my language” (2000), an autobiographical account of her heritage and membership of the matrilineal Navajo Diné tribe. Laura Tohe describes Diné women as strong, wise and generous, with a firm sense of leadership that embodies the principles of protection and creation. They are respected as mothers, and one of their responsibilities is to teach and transmit the Diné culture.
Personally, I don’t think that Tohe believes that the reason there is no word for feminism in her language is because women are raised to be strong and determined in her culture. In my view, the sort of critique of feminism she is trying to make relates back to the beginning of the feminist movement when some white heterosexual and middle class feminists (like me) elaborated a discourse that explicitly excluded other women’s experiences of oppression, for instance the experience of indigenous women. In this regard, Tohe says:
“When Indian women joined the feminist dialogue in the 1970s, we found that equality for women was generally directed toward white women’s issues.” (p. 109)
It is very likely that the reason the word feminism does not exist (and neither is there any call for it) in her language is entangled in the question of value and respect regarding the different roles and activities that a woman is prepared and ready to do in her life.
“In the traditional Diné culture long ago, since there were no professions in the Western sense, one did not identify the self as teacher, writer or cook. Instead, roles were determined by age, sex and kinship.” (p.105)
This fluidity of identities probably allowed women to play different roles without getting stuck in one or another. Womanhood was considered an identity per se that allowed other roles to exist.
By contrast, in our Western modern world womanhood only acquires value when one is a successful professional, a hot mommy and a loving wife all at the same time, just to mention few of the roles in which we are trapped. We are forced to play all these roles at once because no value is ascribed to womanhood in our cultures. We don’t give the nurturing mother space to grow because we need to show that our life continues unchanged, despite having a baby; nor do we allow our body to return slowly to its previous shape and weight after pregnancy because the imperative of beauty must be consistently obeyed in our lives and by our bodies. Everything that exemplifies femininity is constructed to serve the male perception and experience of the world. Maybe this is the reason that in our hedonistic culture the primary values are youth and appearance.
But at the same time, all these roles seem to give us choices. We don’t want to be limited to just one of them (for example the mother), as this has proved oppressive to our autonomy and self-determination. So the price we pay for this choice is that we try to be all the valuable cultural representations and constructions of womanhood at the same time in order to gain value and self-esteem in our society. Not a good deal, in my opinion .
Tohe highlights that the mother in the Diné culture carries with her numerous roles and that “the work she does makes her role honourable” (p. 106). For that reason, it is just when young Diné women cross the boundary of the Western world that the word feminism starts to have a meaning for them.
This approach is very much in the line of those that point it out that patriarchy is a Western phenomenon and completely alien to indigenous peoples’ cultures ( See for example the debate on this matter in Making Space for indigenous feminism by Joyce Green ) Interestingly enough, and without analysing the premises of the previous assertion, this debate also brings into play different cultural constructions of womanhood and highlights that we can learn from other women’s experiences.
I am not a Diné, nor an indigenous woman but I had a mulata great-grandmother, a grandmother who survived a civil world and mother who in a very difficult personal and financial situation was able to pay my studies and offer me a comfortable and safe up-bringing. I think that all these women from my family can teach me a great deal about strength, commitment, respect and self-esteem. So, oddly to me that I am not indigenous, Laura’s story resonated with my own family story. It must be that despite of race, class and culture, there are still many things that we share among women from different cultures and these things are not exclusively experience of oppression and discrimination but those of assertive, positive and valuable ways of being a woman in our world.
I leave you with this beautiful poem from Laura Tohe titled Female Rain