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The now and then of translated feminism

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submitted on 2023-08-16, 08:46 and posted on 2023-08-28, 11:24 authored by Nature Research

There are many commonalities and challenges in translating feminist texts into Arabic and the languages of the Indian sub-continent, largely arising from a common view that feminism is a Western import, reports an article published in the journal QScience Connect.

Feminism emerged in Europe near the end of the 18th century as a social and political movement demanding equal rights for women by women. In India, demands for change in the status of women began nearly a century later. But, similar to Arab feminism, it had its roots in colonialist demands to end “barbaric” practices against women and in a newly educated male elite that wanted to improve the condition of women without necessarily emancipating them, writes Alanoud Alsharekh, formerly from Kuwait University’s Women’s Study and Research Center and currently with London Middle East Institute at SOAS University of London. This is evident, for example, in the coinage of the term adukkalavadam in a local Indian dialect, roughly translated to “kitchenism”, which was meant to highlight the extent to which women in Kerala were given a degree of mobility and access to paid labour, but in reality tied them to domestic work.

Cultural differences compounded the issue of creating a common understanding of feminism. The Western approach to feminism, for example, exalts the culture of the individual and individual rights, whereas cultures like those in India and the Arab world are based in the values of collectivism and communal harmony.

These issues are reflected in translations of feminist texts in India and the Arab world.

“Most of the theory surrounding feminism and feminist ideologies is Western in origin and much of the terminology can get lost or watered down in the translation process,” says Alsharekh. This challenge can be found in two translations of the word feminism itself. The Arabic “nissawiya” or “unthawiya” both provide incomplete descriptions of feminism, writes Alsharekh, as they focus on the biological aspect, disregarding the fact that feminism is instead a more encompassing worldview.

This issue of linguistics becomes even more complicated when addressing concepts such as “gender-queer” and “femi-nazi”, she writes, which may not be suitable or useful in the social climate of the target language.

Another linguistic challenge lies in the fact that Arabic grammar, for example, favours the male sex, creating an inherent gender bias, Alsharekh writes.

Translators must be cognisant of the power of naming concepts, says Alsharekh. “Often they have to invent terms or develop compound words to convey a concept that does not sound authentic in the translated language,” she explains. This creates further distance between the original text and the person reading in the translated language, reinforcing the idea that feminism is imported and divorced from non-Western cultures, she says.

“There needs to be a more nuanced terminology that can convey a spirit similar to the feminist arguments in the original text,” says Alsharekh.

Young activists in the Arab world and India have moved past many challenges presented by feminist discourse, unburdened with disentangling feminism from a historical relationship with the West.

“As feminist movements evolve beyond historical and political circumstances, younger generations are becoming less interested in the linguistic and post-colonial discourse that separate them from national dialogues,” says Alsharekh.

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Published in: Highlights, Published by Nature Research for Hamad bin Khalifa University Press (HBKU Press)



  • English


Nature Research

Publication Year

  • 2016

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This Item is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

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  • Hamad Bin Khalifa University

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