Feminism, Activism, and Scholarship in Global Context
Summary and Keywords
The histories of women’s studies and feminist scholarship reveal the lack of distinction between feminist activism and feminist scholarship. The term “feminism” consists of multiple theories and agendas depending on regional, historical, and individual contexts. Broadly speaking, feminism includes theoretical and practical challenges to gender inequality and multiple forms of systemic oppression. However, the political projects that make women their objects are not always feminist; and political projects that address women’s issues are not always framed around the concept of feminism. Women activists and organizations do not always explicitly identify as feminist, although they might be participants in struggles aligned with broad feminist goals, including women’s empowerment, autonomy, human rights, and economic justice. A major theme that runs through feminist scholarship on women’s activism relates to the question of what difference women’s participation and feminist analyses make for progressive struggles. Feminist philosopher Nancy Fraser argues that there are “gender dimensions” to all struggles for social justice, and “feminists better be in these struggles and bring out those dimensions because certainly nobody else will.” Feminist scholars have also long debated what counts as a women’s movement. Revisioning women’s movements to include the diversity of women’s political analyses and strategies requires rethinking the labels used to categorize feminisms more generally.
As the histories of women’s studies and feminist scholarship reflect, there is no clear distinction between feminist activism and feminist scholarship. Feminist scholarship is rooted in political activism and feminist activism is informed by, and contributes to, feminist theory. In fact, women’s studies programs and the incorporation of feminist frameworks into academic scholarships were achieved through feminist activism. The development of feminist praxis continues as a central commitment of many feminists located within the academy as well as those engaged in activism through nongovernmental organizations, formal institutions, and informal community struggles. This essay situates feminist activism and activist scholarship in global context with consideration of what counts as feminist activism, a woman’s issue, and a women’s movement and how feminist scholarship and activism has contributed to social justice movements. We address these debates thematically, beginning with a discussion of constructions of, and challenges to, feminist identity placed in international context.
How Well Does the Political Identity “Feminist” Travel?
The term “feminism” is not monolithic and consists of multiple theories and agendas depending on regional, historical, and individual contexts. Broadly speaking, feminism includes theoretical and practical challenges to gender inequality and multiple forms of systemic oppression. It consists of, but is not confined to, women’s movements that advocate women’s issues. However, as the following sections suggest, political projects that make women their objects are not always feminist; and political projects that address women’s issues are not always framed around the concept of feminism.
Women activists and organizations do not always explicitly identify as feminist, although they might be participants in struggles aligned with broad feminist goals including women’s empowerment, autonomy, human rights, and economic justice. In such cases, Patricia Misciagno (1997) uses the term “de facto” feminism. As feminist scholars suggest, the political, economic, colonial, cultural, and historical contexts shape the diverse definitions of, and identifications with, feminism evident in different national contexts (see, for example, Basu 1995; Phillips 2005; Shih 2005). For example, Victoria González and Karen Kampwirth (2001) emphasize the multiplicity of meanings attributed to the term “feminism” in Latin America and point out that the meanings shift over time and place, even within feminist movements. However, as they point out, the “shifting definitions do not mean that the word was meaningless” (2001:11). In fact, they argue (ibid.),
in most (if not all) Latin American countries, the word feminism was used throughout the course of the twentieth century, and in many cases, its usage dates back to the late nineteenth century. The passion that has often accompanied defenses of feminism – or attacks upon it – indicates just how important that concept is for understanding life in Latin America.
Obioma Nnaemeka (1998; 2004) explores the meaning of feminism in Africa and defines “nego-feminism” as a form of feminism “that shifts power and focus from the privileged to the subaltern […] an engagement in which privilege is diffused to allow for an interactive, multilateral flow of voices (from above and below simultaneously)” (Nnaemeka 2004:360). From another social location, “Moroccan and Tunisian feminists have developed a kind of social feminism, one which emphasizes not only the modernization of family laws, but also the rights of women workers” (Moghadam 2003a:74).
As these examples illustrate, those who claim feminism as their political identity often draw on different definitions or assumptions to ground their political views. For example, with reference to Islamic feminisms, Leila Abu-Lughod (1998) notes that there are tensions between feminists who are working to reinterpret the Qur’an and Islamic code to reclaim Islam as a religion that supports gender equality, while simultaneously there are other Islamic feminists who argue for a secular Islamic feminism. However, Abu-Lughod and other feminist scholars of the Middle East argue that women in the Middle East must not only be understood by their relationship to Islam, but also in the context of their relationship to the state and the corresponding histories of colonization that shape the way the “West” is understood.
A theme that permeates feminist analyses of women’s activism in diverse cultures and national contexts relates to the extent to which feminism is understood or defined as a “Western” frame. Many women activists also raise concern that any claims to a global sisterhood in the name of feminism must be carefully examined in order to make visible the long history of what is “colonial feminism” (Mindry 2001; Naghibi 2007). Nnaemeka (2004) illustrates this point in her discussion of the challenges facing indigenous women who participate in transnational organizing efforts. She points out how they are continuously marginalized and often meet with “the incapacity and unwillingness of Western feminists to create a site for true collaboration and equal partnership” (2004:5). She explains that, “As they join transnational feminist forces, Third World women face a double-pronged challenge – the fight against patriarchal nationalisms on the one hand and the resistance against colonialist and imperialist feminism on the other hand” (2004:12). Furthermore, Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan (2000:n.p.) argue that “there IS NO SUCH THING as a feminism free of asymmetrical power relations. Rather, transnational feminist practices, as we call them, involve forms of alliance, subversion, and complicity within which asymmetries and inequalities can be critiqued” (see also Alexander and Mohanty 1997; Kaplan et al. 1999; Nnaemeka 2005; Shih et al. 2005).
Many Native women in the United States and Canada do not frame their political struggles in terms of feminism, but rather as indigenous rights. Using a political frame that focuses on the history of colonization, Native women engage in activist struggles for sovereignty, fishing and land rights, sustainable development, education, and health services. Janet McCloud asserts that “‘women’s liberation,’ would divide us among ourselves in such a way as to leave us colonized in the name of ‘gender equity’” (quoted in Jaimes and Halsey 1997:300). Devan Abbott Mihesuah (2003) also draws attention to the construction of political identities and contrasts three different categories: indigenes, natives, and Native American. She foregrounds the politics of naming and explains that “many Native women vehemently shun feminism and will not associate with people who claim it” (2003:xx), while others embrace the political identity.
In postcolonial contexts, the construction of feminism as a Western import is often used to criticize women who are fighting against gendered violence and for educational, political, and economic justice in their own communities. “Third World” and postcolonial feminists have effectively challenged the imposition of the so-called Western feminist worldview on women in different parts of the world (see, e.g., Hubbard and Solomon 1995). Amrita Basu (1995) discusses this “widespread resistance to feminism,” but points out how many “Third World” critics “go on to identify indigenous alternatives to Western-style feminism” (1995:18–19). Rather than pose indigenous and Western feminism as mutually distinctive alternatives, recent analyses demonstrate the mutual interdependence of women’s movements and feminist analysis in different parts of the world. As Gay Seidman (2000) illustrates in her case study of gendered politics in South Africa, “the international flow of ideas and resources has become a basic element in local debates involving gender equity” (2000:123).
Defining Women’s Issues: Gender Identities and Political Involvement
In 1985, Maxine Molyneux argued against a broad-based and sweeping construction of women’s issues, and asserted that there ought to be a distinction between “practical gender issues” and “strategic gender issues.” Molyneux’s typology was designed to reflect the way women activists organize around their practical everyday needs for food, housing, and day care rather than through their gender-specific identities (see also Kaplan 1997; Rowbotham and Linkogle 2002). Some feminist scholars have called the distinction between practical and strategic gender issues into question, as these issues are often woven together in different ways within the context of women’s everyday activism. Drawing on Donna Haraway’s (1990) postmodern feminist theory, Raka Ray (1999:18) argues for an approach to women’s activism that recognizes “identities and the interests that spring from them […] as ‘contradictory, partial and strategic’.” A postmodern assessment of political interests includes attention to the multiple identities that women and other political actors embody and that “these partial, contradictory strands of identity (and their interests) are pragmatically deployed” (Ray 1999:18; see also Sandoval 2000).
Given the hegemony of traditional conceptualizations of politics in academic scholarship, women’s activism was frequently not defined as political, or, when viewed under a broad umbrella of activism, not accorded the same importance as activists associated with political party and electoral politics. Nancy Naples (1998b) notes that women activists also resist viewing their own involvement as political, and that many construct their activism as “civic work” or a “social mission” emanating from their social location as mothers and community caretakers. Patricia Hill Collins (1990) uses the term “community othermothering” to capture this phenomenon in black communities in the United States. In researching women in Philadelphia and New York, Naples conceptualizes the term “activist mothering,” to bring “attention to the myriad ways these women challenged the false separation of productive work, socially reproductive work, and politics” (Naples 1998a:4).
Historians of women’s social activism emphasize how social reformers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also drew on their identities as women and mothers to justify their entrée into the so-called public sphere (see, e.g., Macpherson 2007), which is often referred to as “maternalist politics.” Seth Koven and Sonya Michel (1993) define maternalism as “ideologies and discourses that exalted women’s capacity to mother and applied to society as a whole the values they attached to the role: care, nurturance, and morality” (1993:4). Contributors to the debate over the political efficacy of maternalist politics often question to what extent such approaches reproduce gendered inequality in the political arena. By constructing women’s participation in the public arena through their position as “citizen mothers,” women activists may reinforce the normative definition of the citizen as male.
Not all social reformers organizing at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries constructed their activism through a maternalist lens, as Wendy Sarvasy (1997) demonstrates in her study of US based social democratic feminists in the first decades of the twentieth century. Their notion of citizenship included “new modes of citizenship activities, a socialized formulation of rights, new spaces for citizen participation, and an emancipatory use of gender difference to expand and to redefine gender equality” (Sarvasy 1997:56). Naples also points out that many women activists in low-income urban neighborhoods during the War on Poverty in the United States connected their struggles with politically left movements and argued for “a conceptualization of citizenship that highlights community-based social service and participatory democracy” (1998c:287).
Maternalist politics draws women into national debates over women’s proper role in society (see, e.g., Arditti 1999; Bouvard 2002). Feminist scholars demonstrate how women are made into symbols of the nation and how this process draws women into national conflicts, nationalist projects, and national resistance movements in ways that often do not serve women’s interests (Kandiyoti 1992; Tress 1994; Abu-Lughod 1998:3; Spike Peterson 1999). For example, Afsaneh Najmabadi (1998) emphasizes the role that education plays in teaching Iranian women particular ways of being a mother and citizen of the state, while also showing the complex ways in which women argued for education through calls to be better mothers in service to the state. The “disciplinary and emancipatory dynamics” (1998:115) of such claims reveal the way in which women’s activism is circumscribed by particular ideologies and structures that can be the very thing they seek to resist (Katzenstein 1999; Wadud 2006).
The contradiction of drawing on women’s socially prescribed role to justify their political activism is vividly explored in Amy Lind’s (2005) analysis of women’s activism in Ecuador, where even “[f]eminist-issue networks have employed specific notions of motherhood, sexuality and national identity to achieve their goals” (2005:10). Lind notes that this gendered political strategy often “reinforce[s], rather than challenges their [women’s] economic exploitation and poverty” (2005:21). However, she also points out that “[s]ectors of poor women have responded to economic crisis and restructuring in innovative ways, often politicizing and putting into question their class positions, their racialized roles and identities as women, and their social locations as ‘Third World’ or ‘underdeveloped’” (2005:9; see also Sen and Grown 1987).
While many women activists draw on their gender identities to justify or explain their activism, many do not adhere to a traditional gender division of labor ideology, nor do they believe that all women could unite on the basis of their mothering status (see, e.g., Kaplan 1997; Naples 1998a; Ray 1999). For example, as Angelita Ahad et al. (1995) and Joyce Ousthoorn (2004) make evident, sex workers in Ecuador have also joined together to challenge laws that criminalize their work and improve working conditions. Susan Paulson’s (2008) analysis of queer activism in Bolivia and Fadi Edayat’s (2007) report on the first conference of Israeli Arab lesbians demonstrate that many other women activists fighting for gender rights and sexual citizenship directly challenge heteronormative and homonormative constructions of gender and sexuality. María Amelia Viteri (2008) illustrates this point in her analysis of queer activism in Ecuador, in which “trans” women participated in the struggle to legalize homosexuality.
Defining Women’s Activism: Insights from Feminist Scholarship
A major theme that runs through feminist scholarship on women’s activism relates to the question of what difference women’s participation and feminist analyses make for progressive struggles. As feminist philosopher Nancy Fraser argues, there are “gender dimensions” to all struggles for social justice, and “feminists better be in these struggles and bring out those dimensions because certainly nobody else will” (Fraser and Naples 2004:1121).
Until the 1980s, academic accounts of social movement organizing failed to acknowledge the diverse ways women participated in political protest and social movements. In fact, Guida West and Rhoda Lois Blumberg (1990) point out that women were rarely discussed as political actors in academic scholarship on political participation more generally. Their edited collection demonstrates the diversity of women’s political activism including in the Taiping Movement in nineteenth century China, Latin American guerrilla struggles, American civil rights and welfare rights movements, nationalist state projects, and political parties. Subsequent scholarship further demonstrates the wide array of women’s activism in anticolonial, civil rights, indigenous, and revolutionary movements (see, e.g., Kaplan 1997; Robnett 1997; Seidman 2000; Mihesuah 2003; Richards 2004; Shayne 2004; Mendez 2005; Disney 2008) as well as in formal political parties and local elections as in South Korea (see, e.g., Lee and Chin 2007) and India (see, e.g., Ray 1999; Sekhon 2006).
Feminist scholars who explore women’s activism in state-centric nationalist politics emphasize how these political projects draw on sexist and heterosexist binaries. V. Spike Peterson (1999:51) argues that “women’s agency in service to heterosexist nationalisms is inherently problematic, as it necessarily entails the reproduction of hierarchical difference, both within and between groups.” She finds that “[h]eterosexist practice promotes women’s loyalty to male-led (reproductive) groups at the expense of loyalty among women qua women” (1999:53). She concludes that “[s]hifting our focus from sexism to heterosexism extends feminist theorization of social hierarchies beyond male versus female identity politics and masculine over feminine cultural projects” (1999:55; see also Spike Peterson 1999).
Despite the increase in women’s participation in traditional political parties and nationalist struggles, most women activists participate outside the formal political system and do not hold political office but connect their political work to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or informal community groups (see, e.g., Naples 1998b). Feminist scholars also explore how women organize within conservative religious institutions as Ayesha Imam (1994) illustrates in her study of Muslim Hausa women in Nigeria who act through gender based claims and secular organizations such as are evident in Women in Nigeria (WIN) (see also Jeffrey 1997; Katzenstein 1999; Wadud 2006).
Defining Women’s Movements: Politics of Women’s Activism in Global Context
Feminist scholars have also long debated what counts as a women’s movement. Ray (1999) challenges the narrow definition of women’s movements “as those which make claims on ‘cultural and political systems on the basis of women’s historically ascribed gender roles’” (1999:18; quoting Alvarez 1990:23). She notes that there is no room in this definition for “changes in the economic system that are considered of primary importance to poor women, as well as any movement that attempts to give women more control over their lives by providing them with training and employment” (1999:17).
Furthermore, as Basu notes, since “women’s movements are locally situated” (1995:4) it is important to recognize the diversity of political projects organized and led by women (see also Naples and Desai 2002; Moghadam 2003b; Mohanty 2003). Revisioning women’s movements to include the diversity of women’s political analyses and strategies also requires rethinking the labels used to categorize feminisms more generally. Referring to women’s movements in the plural, as Sherna Gluck at al. (1998) recommend, reflects a deepening awareness of how the multiple forms of women’s activism throughout the world work to challenge patriarchal hierarchies.
Class and national politics also shape women’s political perspectives and engagement with feminism or women’s movements (Sen and Grown 1987; Sarker 2007). For example, Radha Kumar (1994) discusses women’s movements in India in reference to feminism and notes the split between urban and rural activists. Naihua Zhang and Wu Xu (1995) demonstrate the contradictions of state mandated “women’s liberation” for Chinese feminists as they try to “combine a top-down and a bottom-up strategy” (1995:27). Hester Eisenstein (1996) explains that the success of Australian femocrats, who were able to promote a “women’s agenda” within the Australian state, was short-lived as they were effectively purged from the government during the Howard administration (Hamilton and Maddison 2007; Maddison and Partridge 2007a; 2007b).
Further complicating the politics of women’s activism in a global context are the relationships between “Western” and “Northern” women’s organizations and those in other parts of the globe. For example, constructions of feminism promoted by Western-based international feminist organizations and funding agencies often conflict with national women’s movements in many locales, as Alexandra Hrycak (2002) discusses with reference to Russian women’s activism. Differences in power and resources are also constructed in terms of a “North/South divide.” However, in their analysis of NGO participation in United Nations World Conferences, Clark et al. (1998) conclude that the divide between the “North” and “South” may not be the primary source of contestation. They explain that “this divide partially overlaps more persistent divisions between the new generation of small grassroots organizations focused on local action and more professional, often larger and older, organizations with long-standing activists at the UN” (1998:29). Therefore, it is important to acknowledge the ways in which class and status differences frequently contour relationships between women’s groups within nation-states (see, e.g., Jad 1995; Marcos 2005). Deborah Mindry (2001) demonstrates this in her analysis of women’s organizations in South Africa. She characterizes the role of some middle class women’s NGOs as a form of “politics of virtue […] which constitutes some women as benevolent providers and others as worthy or deserving recipients of development and empowerment” (2001:1189).
Rather than assert political solidarity based on gender identity, Chandra Mohanty (1997:6) suggests that “the incorporation of Third-World women into a global economy offers a basis for cross-cultural comparison and analysis which is grounded in history and social location rather than in an ahistorical notion of culture or experience.” She argues from a materialist feminist perspective that “shared material interests and identity” would lead to “common ways of reading the world” (1997:5). Rather than leading to fragmentation of political struggle, such an analysis can produce “a way of thinking about the common interests of Third-World women workers, and in particular about questions of agency and the transformation of consciousness” (1997:5–6).
International Activism and Feminist Scholarship
Women’s collaboration and activism have raised public consciousness and influenced national and international agendas. Women’s activism on behalf of social justice, human rights, and against gender oppression has a long and diverse history. Women have organized campaigns for indigenous rights (Menchú 1987; 1998; Jaimes and Halsey 1997; Richards 2004; Shayne 2004) and greater access to living wage jobs, safe working conditions, tax relief, and affordable housing (Lubin and Winslow 1990; Kaplan 1997; Storrs 2000; Byfield 2003; Feldman and Stall 2004). They have campaigned for the abolition of slavery (Portnoy 2005), against domestic violence and sexual abuse (Mama 1995; Rupp 1997; Keck and Sikkink 1998) and for sexual citizenship (Kemadoo and Doezema 1998; Phelan 2001; Ousthoorn 2004). Women’s contemporary activism continues this long tradition and includes challenges to the negative effects of global economic restructuring, war, and military occupation that are disrupting women’s livelihoods, their environment, and their abilities to care for their families (see Rowbotham and Linkogle 2002; Basu 1995; Enloe 2000; 2007; Bosco 2001; Naples and Desai 2002; La Duke 2004; Vo 2004; Mendez 2005; Brooks 2007; Cockburn 2007).
Women in communities around the world are also fighting for access to education, health care, and to gain support for mothering and caretaking responsibilities (Collins 1990; Naples 1998a; Petchesky and Judd 1998; Morgen 2002; Eisenstein 2004) and for citizenship rights (Sarvasy 1997; Joseph 2000; Kuehnasst and Nechemias 2004; Hemment 2007). They are protesting police harassment, homophobia, and racism, and campaigning for immigrants’ rights, disability rights, reproductive rights, educational equity, and living wages (see, e.g., Blackwell-Stratton et al. 1988; Smith 1995; Thayer 1997; Naples 1998b; Eisenstein 2004; Silliman et al. 2004; Knudsen and Hartmann 2006; Panitch 2008). They have organized campaigns against corporate poisoning of their neighborhoods, environmental degradation, and gendered violence and for sustainable development and access to clean water and other natural resources (Sen and Grown 1987; Shiva 1997; 2005; Clark et al. 1998; Krauss 1998; Enloe 2004; La Duke 2004). Women have unique relationships to these issues based on geographic location, postcolonial conditions, and historical context (Basu 1995; Waller and Marcos 2005). Women activists frequently utilize friendship and professional networks to link with other activists to build coalitions (more on this topic can be found in the essay titled “Transnational Feminist Activism and Globalizing Women’s Movements” in the Compendium series). Through venues and spaces such as some international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the United Nations (UN) and the World Social Forums (WSF), women activists have sought to bring local concerns to the national level and world stage, thus influencing the shape and agendas of transnational feminist networks (see also Jaquette 1995; Ferree and Tripp 2006; Conway 2007; more on this topic can be found in the essay titled “Feminist Perspectives on Human Rights” in the Compendium series). The powerful intersection between women’s movements and feminist scholarship is vividly evident in transnational activism.
As Moghadam (2005:74) points out, there are many feminist scholars who are active participants within transnational feminist networks (see also Otto 1996; Ferree and Tripp 2006). For example, Charlotte Bunch (see, e.g., Bunch and Meillon 2001; Bunch et al. 2002) and the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University that she founded have played a key role in feminist scholarship, leadership training, and advocacy. Bunch and others associated or trained through the Center offer important leadership in numerous transnational campaigns for social justice. Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era [DAWN] also exemplifies the intersection of feminist activism and scholarship. It was founded in 1984 in the context of international organizing around the United Nations Decade for Women. Over the years, DAWN has produced a number of important research studies and political analyses that are used to inform the work of activists and scholars alike (see, e.g., Côrrea and Reichman 1994; Taylor 2000). As Moghadam (2005) points out, DAWN’s organizational structure includes regional coordinators, research coordinators, and “focal points in East Africa, Central Africa, North Africa, and South Africa” (2005:130). Moghadam explains that DAWN’s “strength lies in its gendered political and economic analysis and its broad network of highly educated and well-connected members who may be founders of NGOs working at the local level” (2005:131).
Another transnational feminist network that has been strongly influenced by activist scholars and feminist scholarship is Women’s Environment and Development Organization [WEDO], which was founded in the late 1980s. WEDO reaches a broad network of NGOs and individual activists and scholars through its publications, including WEDO News and Views. WEDO employs a director of communications and a coordinator of global governance to support their efforts to link with women’s movements and advocacy efforts around the world (Moghadam 2005).
NGOization of Women’s Movements
As is evident from the above discussion, feminist NGOs play an essential role in mobilizing resources and educating governments and communities about reproductive rights, educational equity, and access to health care for women and others (Petchesky and Judd 1998; Knudsen and Hartmann 2006; Joachim 2007). As Karen Booth’s (2004) analysis suggests, feminist NGOs’ gendered analyses concerning the problems that contribute to the worldwide AIDS epidemic have been especially important to anti-AIDS mobilization in different parts of the world (2004:52). However, many of the recent analyses of the role of NGOs and transnational networks highlight the limits as well as the possibilities of these organizations and advocacy networks for progressive social change (see, e.g., Keck and Sikkink 1998; Burton 2004). For example, Sonia Alvarez raises a major concern in her discussion of what she calls “the Latin American feminist NGO boom” (1999:181). She notes three troublesome trends:
First, states and inter-governmental organizations (IGOs) increasingly have turned to feminist NGOs as gender experts rather than as citizens’ groups advocating on behalf of women’s rights. Second, neoliberal States and IGOs often view NGOs as surrogates for civil society, assuming they serve as “intermediators” to larger social constituencies. And third, States increasingly subcontract feminist NGOs to advise on or execute government women’s programs. (1999:181)
As a consequence of the processes Alvarez identifies, many feminist NGOs are transformed from advocates to professionals serving the needs of neoliberal states. Since the early 1980s, the contradictions inherent in the process of professionalization and institutionalization of feminist practice have become the focus of numerous scholarly accounts and a major concern among many feminist activists. The US women’s movement succeeded in developing an extensive network of battered women’s shelters and rape crisis centers that remain a site for organized public advocacy, community education, crisis intervention, and support. However, the institutionalization of the activism against violence against women has raised concerns for the continued vibrancy of the feminist anti-violence movement (see Ferree and Martin 1995).
Hierarchies exist across and within NGOs. Many are founded and led by middle class, professional women, and these NGOs have had little success in incorporating poor women. For example, Meredith Weiss (1999), describes the narrow class background of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE, www.aware.org.sg, accessed Jul. 2009), which was in the 1990s “the only avowedly feminist group in Singapore” (1999:71). Moreover, as Weiss notes, AWARE “is not really democratic in structure […] The leadership seems quite open to input from rank-and-file members; however, since such input is seldom forthcoming, this accessibility is rarely tested” (1999:74). According to Weiss, such a structure contributes to the exclusion of various voices and perspectives, such as those of domestic workers.
On a related note, Manisha Desai (2005) points out the ways that certain Third World NGOs like the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh are identified by Western funders as worthy of support while others with more extensive grassroots connections like Self-Employed Women’s Association [SEWA] fail to draw sufficient attention and funding to support their local efforts. In spite of these and other obstacles, women have been able to create cross-class, cross-race, and cross-national coalitions that are enriched by a diversity of resources, political skill, and experiences. For example, Clare Weber (2006) examines the cross-national organizing to fight violence against women by Nicaraguan community activists and the Wisconsin Coordinating Committee on Nicaragua, based in Madison, Wisconsin. Weber demonstrates that knowledge and other resources can transfer from South to North as well as North to South when participating organizations remain self-conscious and actively work against power imbalances (see also Thayer 2001; Waller and Marcos 2005; Peña 2007).
Linking Local Struggles with Transnational Organizing
NGOs are one of the main mechanisms for participation in international conferences and transnational movements (more on this topic can be found in the essay titled “Transnational Feminist Activism and Globalizing Women’s Movements” in the Compendium series). Most feminist scholars writing on women’s activism in global context stress the significance of international conferences, especially UN sponsored events, for expanding women’s participation in the global political arena. For example, the UN Conferences on Women provide valuable opportunities for women activists and feminists from around the world to share their experiences, learn from each other, and develop strategies to counter the intensification of religious fundamentalism, militarization, poverty, and sexual abuse (Ammar and Labibady 1999:154–5; see also Pietilä and Vickers 1996; Desai 2002).
Transnational networks to address violence against women developed quickly once the issue was placed on the UN agenda in 1985 (Keck and Sikkink 1998). Violence against women was one of the four issues highlighted in the Platform developed at the United Nations Conference on Women held in Beijing. Keck and Sikkink explain that the linking of violence against women with human rights provided a framework that “resonated across significant cultural and experiential barriers” (1998:167). It also permitted activists working against violence against women to join their efforts with a broad-based preexisting network that enhanced their reach. The unprecedented success of this network is evident in the September, 1998, landmark judgment by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda that defined rape as an act of genocide in the context of an ethnic conflict.
Women’s groups have effectively used UN conferences to bring their local concerns to the international political stage (see, e.g., Sandberg 1998; Ammar and Labibady 1999; Seidman 2000) and offer a space for feminist debate, self-reflection, and the mobilization of women across the globe (Desai 2005). For example, Eve Sandberg (1998) argues that UN World Conferences on Women (Mexico, 1975; Nairobi, 1985; Beijing, 1995) served as a catalyst for Zambian women’s domestic organizing as well as legitimating their activism, and provided resources and strategies for successful mobilization; although she also points out that these benefits accrue to elite women more than to less privileged Zambian women. Furthermore, the establishment of programs like the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), and the adoption of the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) by the UN demonstrates the power of women’s international organizing (Wing 2002). Mary Meyer and Elisabeth Prugl note that “the significance of international documents is not that governments will automatically implement them but that national and local groups can use them to hold their governments accountable” (1999:13).
However, as Mexican activist-scholar Sylvia Marcos points out, many women activists who have been drawn into international feminist organizing through the UN conferences and other international events, might be losing their constituencies and “are no longer rooted anywhere” (Marcos 2005:146). The extent to which local organizing efforts are linked to transnational movements for social justice is necessarily shaped by access to financial and other resources. For example, due to lack of access to legal and economic resources, “women’s organizations [in Middle Eastern and North African countries] are not as well integrated into transnational feminist networks as are women’s organizations in other developing regions” (Moghadam 2003a:80). As a consequence, their voices and perspectives are less well represented in the international conferences, which are important sites for transnational organizing.
Feminist scholars also note that a focus on preparing for UN conferences often has the effect of diverting attention from the issues of most direct concern to local activists (see, e.g., Alvarez 1999). In their discussion of the Alliance for Arab Women (AAW), Nawal Ammar and Leila Labibady (1999), mother and daughter who are founding members of AAW, acknowledge the significance of the UN conferences for Egyptian women’s domestic organizing but also point out that
[s]ince the UN Third Conference on Women in Nairobi in 1985, some nongovernmental organizations concerned with women’s issues in Egypt have changed their focus from welfare work to development of empowerment skills. Reasons for such changes are numerous, but most salient has been the priority of international funding sources. (1999:15)
Moreover, many feminist scholars question the effectiveness of UN-based advocacy in general, as many issues have been sidelined. For example, the right to sexual agency has not been fully integrated even into transnational feminist organizing; and as Amalia Cabezas (2002; 2005) points out, the experiences of sex workers have not been incorporated into the dialogues concerning human rights. Critics also point out the problem of inadequate funding for the implementation of UN programs designed to improve women’s lives in different parts of the world.
Women’s movements around the world now have over three decades of experience working with each other inside and outside the UN system. Tensions between women from the “North” and “South,” urban and rural communities, grassroots and elite organizations, lesbian and heterosexual identities, and other differences between women continue as obstacles to coalition building efforts. Despite these differences and inequalities among women, substantive gains for women have been won in the UN. However, many of these gains are threatened by: the lack of resources and political will of member states to implement these strategies, lack of access to decision making positions, as well as increasing capitalist global expansion, the rise of religious fundamentalisms, and the new war against terrorism.
As concerns about the limits of feminist organizing through the UN mount, many feminist scholars are looking to the World Social Forums (WSFs) and the national and regional social forums for a corrective to the elitist and English-dominant UN organizing strategy (see, e.g., Desai 2005; Wilson et al. 2005). Progressive activists have learned to be wary of pressures placed on them by international funders. For example, in an attempt to avoid these pressures, organizers of the 2004 World Social Forum held in Mumbai, India, refused contributions offered by large US foundations like the Ford Foundation.
Women’s influence on the transnational political stage is evident in their leadership and broad-based participation in WSFs and other world conferences on the environment, human rights, population, and social development (Peters and Wolper 1995). For example, feminists were successful in their efforts to incorporate a gender perspective into the 2004 WSF’s plenaries and workshops. However, as Wilson et al. (2005:61) note, WSFs “have no direct leverage over international institutions […] nor [are they] intrinsically sympathetic to feminist priorities.”
During the 2004 WSF, DAWN co-organized an international Feminist Dialogue (FD – http:/feministdialogue.isiswomen.org, accessed Jul. 2009), posing a series of questions that have been key to progressive feminist organizing and coalition building. While there were problems associated with the implementation of the FD, they offer an important opportunity to build bridges across different movements and deepen feminist analyses (Desai 2005).
Another feminist organization that has played a key role in organizing the WSFs is the World March of Women (Marcha Mundial das Mulheres [MMM]). Pascale Dufour and Isabelle Giraud (2007:1157) describe how “The World March of Women emerged from the relative success of a kind of collective action used in 1995 by Quebec women when they organized a March Against Poverty.” Organizers discussed the possibility “of building a worldwide network of women that would enable them to make collective representations to international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which were perceived as being responsible for many of the decisions that directly affected women’s daily life” (2007:1158). The goals of the group changed over time with less emphasis placed on appealing to the UN and more focus on circulating their position worldwide. This change in goal has been enhanced by participation in the World Social Forum. As Dufour and Giraud (2007) discuss, the dilemmas of organizing that are focused on the UN, especially as neoconservative and religious right governments have proven very successful in circumscribing women’s reproductive rights. Dufour and Giraud effectively argue that the nested organizing developed by WMW “provides a model of grassroots transnationalization that distinguishes it in important ways from the more elitist transnational feminist networks that gravitate within the UN orbit” (2007:1169; see also Otto 1996; Conway 2008).
Networking among NGOs and other movement groups across the globe has been hastened by the advent of the internet. The internet has proven a significant resource for the development of the links between academic and activist organizations and between community based and transnational feminist organizing (see, e.g., McIlwaine and Datta 2003; Ferree and Pudrovska 2006; Friedman et al. 2006). Cyberactivism has been employed in fighting the globalization of capitalism, raising awareness about the genocide in Rwanda and the US war against Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as promoting domestic legislative lobbying and fundraising for diverse political causes. As Lind (2005:17) observes: “Through e-mail networks, an International Women’s Day (March 8) March in Quito can be coordinated with marches in Brazil, Costa Rica, Mexico, and India. An idea is not formed merely from the local context but from communication across national borders, around the world.”
However, while the internet and other technologies offer important resources for transnational politics, they remain a privileged tool that few people can afford and few grassroots organizations can access. It is also important to note that how activists use this technology varies across class, culture, and region, as Kole (2001) demonstrates in her analysis of WomenAction in Africa, which was established to facilitate the participation of NGOs in evaluating the implementation of the Platform for Action developed during the United Nations Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995. Kole found that women’s groups in Africa use the internet in a manner that differs from that of women in the Western world. Furthermore, diverse groups of African women use the internet in ways that differ from each other. More importantly, many activists around the world, especially those located in rural communities, do not have access to the internet and are therefore disadvantaged in their ability to participate in transnational movements that have become increasingly dependent on cyberactivism.
One significant example of the power of a multi-sited and multi-level feminist activism that has been facilitated by the internet is found in the multifaceted work of RAWA (Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, www.rawa.us). RAWA was established in Kabul in 1977 to fight for Afghan women’s political and social rights (Eistenstein 2004). Their political resistance was further fueled following the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that began in 1979. Fighting against Soviet occupation as well as fundamentalists in their own countries, RAWA played an important role in providing education, health, and social support for women in Afghanistan and in Pakistani refugee camps. RAWA activists now use the internet and international media to educate the global community about the lives of Afghan women and fight for women’s rights.
RAWA balances local activism and educational work with international organizing and transnational politics. It organizes across communities, national borders, and religious lines under some of the most challenging political and economic conditions. RAWA demonstrates the power of women’s social networks for developing and sustaining movements for social and political justice, especially for those most marginalized in contemporary society. It has developed creative strategies to link their local struggles with transnational justice movements.
Conclusion: Feminist Praxis and Movements for Social Justice
Progressive activists including those active in women’s groups and anti-poverty, religious, labor, environmental, and disabilities rights organizations are joining together to challenge the legitimacy of the inequalities that accompany global economic and political restructuring (see, e.g., Rowbotham 1993; Bystydzienski and Schacht 2001; Desai 2005; Hawkesworth 2006). Transnational coalition politics that bring together such diverse groups raise new dilemmas for social justice movements including the politics of political identity and competing priorities and strategies for political action.
Regardless of these differences, social justice activists have much to gain by adopting a feminist analysis of globalization, neoliberalism, gender, and sexuality (more on this topic can be found in the essay titled “Globalization through Feminist Lenses” in the Compendium series). One powerful illustration is offered by Okinawan women activists who are organizing against the US military presence in their country and seeking “an alternative security framework” (Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence 1998, quoted in Fukumura and Matsuoka 2002:255). Feminist analysis can be used to uncover taken-for-granted constructions of femininity and masculinity that naturalize and promote militarization (Enloe 2004). In so doing, feminists can help develop a more effective approach to “security,” one that takes into account strategies to protect women, their families and communities, and the environment (see also Turshen 1999).
In a recent assessment of the relationship between socialist feminist activism and women’s studies during the 1970s, Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy (2009:522) notes “that there is a necessary tension between intellectual work in a university and movements for social justice.” However, she concludes, “[f]inding an uneasy compromise between intellectual work and social justice movements should still be a priority for the women’s studies agenda” (ibid.). Addressing the tension between academic feminists and feminist activists from another angle of vision, Amina Mama (Salo and Mama 2001:63) stresses that
[w]e women are in no position to deprive ourselves of the intellectual tools that can assist us in pursuit of gender justice. The arena of the intellect has been used to suppress us. We cannot afford to ignore the importance of intellectual work, especially in the 21st century when knowledge and information define power more than ever before. That is why we at the AGI [African Gender Institute] place so much emphasis on getting women to engage with theory and analysis from an activist perspective, and to develop strategically useful skills and make sure they make good use of information technology, research and writing skills, training, teaching, and communication skills. I do not see the pursuit of knowledge, or working in a university as un-African or anti-feminist. On the contrary, these are arenas that we must imbue with our own concerns, transform into places that serve our collective interests, instead of leaving them to continue perpetrating intellectual and epistemic violence against us.
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Links to Digital Materials
Akina Mama wa Afrika (AMwA). At www.akinamamawafrika.org/, accessed Jul. 17, 2009. AMwA was established in 1985 to provide African women with a space to identify concerns and organize to address them. It is a Pan-African NGO for women in Africa and the United Kingdom. Akina Mama wa Afrika is Swahili for “Solidarity among African women.”
Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA). At www.awsa.net/, accessed Jul. 17, 2009. AWSA is an international nonprofit organization founded in Egypt in 1982 by 120 women who believed that the “struggle for the liberation of Arab people and freedom from economic, cultural and media domination cannot be separated from the liberation of Arab women.”
Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW). At www.arrow.org.my/, accessed Jul. 17, 2009. ARROW was founded in Malaysia in 1993 and is dedicated to “promoting and protecting women’s health rights and needs, particularly in the area of women’s sexuality and reproductive health.” ARROW defines access to affordable sexual and reproductive health care as a human right.
European Women’s Lobby (EWL). At www.womenlobby.org, accessed Jul. 17, 2009. EWL is an umbrella organization with 25 member organizations across the EU that “aims at promoting women’s rights and equality between women and men in the European Union” and is concerned with economic, and political issues as well as violence against women.
Feminist Peace Network (FPN). At www.feministpeacenetwork.org, accessed Jul. 17, 2009. FPN was organized in 2001 based on matriarchal premises and dedicated to building a peaceful and safe future for women and children by ending violence, providing food, shelter, and a healthy and sustainable environment, and protecting these human rights for future generations. Atrocities alerts are distributed by FPN to focus attention on violence against women across the globe.
Isis International-Manila (ISIS-Manila). At isiswomen.org, accessed Jul. 27, 2009. ISIS-Manila is a feminist NGO focused on disseminating information and resources in order to advance women’s rights and leadership throughout Asia and the Pacific. ISIS believes that “women’s access and capacity to participate in generating and disseminating their own knowledge and experiences through various mediums of communication can lead to transformation of society.”
Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO). At www.wedo.org, accessed Jul. 17, 2009. WEDO is an international organization developed in 1991 dedicated to promoting equality through global politics, women’s empowerment, human rights, and a “healthy planet.” WEDO works within “key global forums such as the UN” to encourage women’s participation in decision making processes.
Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights (WGNRR). At http:/www.wgnrr.nl, accessed Jul. 17, 2009. WGNRR is an international organization that struggles for reproductive rights and sexual health for all women, also linking such issues to concerns regarding empowerment and development. It comprises organizations from 157 countries around the world.
Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML). At www.wluml.org/english, accessed Jul. 17, 2009. WLUML is a network of women that began in 1984 as a result of publicized cases where women were being denied their rights because of their relationship to Muslim law. With the goal of cultivating solidarity across borders, WLUML understands the diversity among women. This network includes women from over 70 countries.
Women in Black (WIB). At www.womeninblack.org, accessed Jul. 17, 2009. WIB is an international feminist network that acts against all forms of violence with nonviolent tactics, and understands that violence is a means to control women. They support justice and recognize that women experience violence differently depending on the context; and are, therefore, dedicated to supporting “each other’s movements.”
Portions of this essay are excerpted from “Toward a Multiracial Feminist Social-Democratic Praxis: Lessons from Grassroots Warriors in the U.S. War on Poverty” (Naples 1998c); “Changing the Terms: Community Activism, Globalization, and the Dilemmas of Transnational Feminist Praxis” (Naples 2002a); and “The Challenges and Possibilities of Transnational Feminist Praxis” (Naples 2002b).