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What Does Global Feminism Mean to YOU?

May 6, 2010

Gender Across Borders is asking readers to write responses to the question “What does global feminism mean to you?” and submit them to the editorial board by June 1. Your comments will be used to spark a dialogue about global feminism and what it means to all of us. For inspiration, check out the conversation on recent GAB posts about feminism, blogging and race in the feminist blogosphere. Do you agree or disagree? Email your ideas about what global feminism means to you to Amy at by June 1, or comment on this post!

  1. Aruna Gnanadason permalink
    May 6, 2010 10:10 pm

    Feminism as a global movement – a resounding yes!

    We live in a world of grave injustice which is global in its dimensions – no society has escaped the present global economic crisis; no society can claim that it has not been touched by the culture of violence, some forms of exclusion or of injustice. It is in such a context that we reflect on the power that we as women have and how we will use it for the transformation of our societies and of your world.

    The challenge is on how we as women, globally, are going to overcome all that could divide us and the far from adequate ways in which we have organised ourselves and have developed feminist theory. It is imperative and good, that we define our struggles, and diverse identities through which we participate in struggles in the most appropriate ways to our contexts. However, it is not helpful if this requires us to divide ourselves and fault each other’s positions. After all, we are all in the process of developing alternative political paradigms for the transformation of our societies and of our unjust world.

    The women’s movement in search of an alternative vision
    Feminist theory grew out of women’s experiences of suffering and exclusion but also out of movements of survival and resistance. Women sought not just for new answers but for the formulation of new questions to understand systems of injustice in our world. The word “feminism” was first used in Europe and North America in the late 1960’s as a second stage after the earlier women’s movements for emancipation, for women worker’s rights and for suffrage. This second phase of the women’s movement exposed the predicaments of a patriarchal world order and raised awareness of the disastrous effects of the traditional dualisms such as that between woman/nature as against man/intellect. The impact of a male-dominated society was exposed and women began to organize themselves separately, as women, so as to give voice and political backing for their own interests – not necessarily as movements against men, but as expressions of women’s longings for a new world of justice. Sexism was recognized as a category of discrimination as was classism and racism.

    This definition tends to speak of sexism as a parallel system of injustice with classism and racism. At this phase of global feminist discourse this is no longer adequate. Feminist theory has to become more inclusive, simply because of its revolutionary potential for all women – in the context of the political vacuum created by globalization and the uni-polar world we live in. What we need to keep central is the constant threat to the viability and power of feminism as a revolutionary movement which is of critical importance to all women, to men and in fact to the future of the world. Feminism’s power (however we name it in our own contexts) as a political, social and cultural alternative paradigm cannot be underestimated.

    This is important at a time when so many efforts are made to devalue the struggles of women by men in our societies. We are sometimes told that we are being reductionist and elitist when we speak up for women. Mercy Oduyoye, for example, speaks of how, “African men insisted that liberation as applied to African woman was a foreign importation. Some even called it an imperialist trap that would do Africa no good.” As Third World women we are told that poverty, national liberation, racism, etc. must come first and that we betray our traditions and cultures when we speak on issues related to women. It is urgent therefore for us to hold together a movement that would challenge patriarchy and its deep links with histories of colonialism and imperialism. Such a movement would also challenge an economic framework and a development paradigm that is accompanied by the exclusion of life for millions of people and the profligate use of the gifts of the earth.

    There is danger in speaking of all women as one category. They are not. Essentialism tends to make some women’s historical subordination to men and to other women, seem like a natural fact rather than as a cultural, economic and political product. For example, in India there are deeply marked divisions of caste and class and ignoring this would not do justice to the women there. We have to acknowledge the deep divisions among women and deal with them both in our analysis and in the ways forward – finding justice for Dalit, Indigenous, black, poor and women remains as urgent a task today as ever – “overemphasis on individualistic female subjectivity may sometimes overshadow other power dynamics”

    I have often asked myself why the many forms of “feminisms” that exist in the Third World are not easily recognized as “feminist”. Is it perhaps because “burqa or sari or kanga cloth clad” feminists do not fit into the normal definitions or understandings of who a feminist is? Is it because our questions as well as our methodologies for achieving liberation are different, that makes our brand of feminist consciousness un-recognizable by dominant feminist theory? Can we not simply acknowledge the existence of many “feminisms” in our world – all pioneered by women passionately committed to justice and dignity for women? Women from the Third World have cautioned against sweeping generalizations and urge recognition of the many forms of feminism as they exist in many countries. Generalizations only aggravate tensions between women not only along north-south lines but also along lines of class, race and sexual orientation.

    Who does feminism belong to?
    The question to be addressed is simple – to whom does feminism belong? Is there one way to be a “good” feminist – a universal feminist paradigm that all must conform to?
    Attempts to exclude the experience of any group of women, forces them to reject feminism outright (have we not heard women say, ‘I am for the liberation of women, but I am not a feminist’). Some women feel they need to describe themselves differently (as womanist or as mujerista for example) in order to ensure that their own legitimate struggles are taken into account. While it is imperative and good, that we define ourselves and our struggles in the most appropriate ways to our contexts, it is not helpful if this requires us to divide ourselves and fault each other. After all, we are all in the process of developing alternative political paradigms for the transformation of our societies – this is the ultimate goal of all forms of women’s movements.

    bell hooks in her work makes an important contribution to feminist theory for all of us. She writes: “Feminist theory would have much to offer if it showed women ways in which racism and sexism are immutably connected rather than pitting one struggle against the other or blatantly dismissing racism.” Her focus is on racism as a “central feminist issue….because it is so inter-connected with sexist oppression.” To her, “the philosophical foundations of racist and sexist ideology are similar.” Similarly she asks that classism be acknowledged, as it too could become a serious division among women. Speaking from her own context, she writes: “Until women accept the need for redistribution of wealth and resources in the United States and work towards the achievement of that end, there will be no bonding between women that transcends class.”

    Laura E. Donaldson explores similar challenges in her book Decolonizing Feminisms: Race, Gender and Empire Building. She adds the impact of colonialism in her analytical frame, “and attempts to counter white feminism’s imperialist tendency to dive deep and surface with a single hermeneutic truth”….and “white feminism’s ‘discursive’ colonization of the ‘Third World’ woman.” She writes: “As we have seen many feminist discussions overlook the material specificity of gender and assign women’s place within gender ideology according to the machinations of an a-historical patriarchy. If Marxism ignores the gender-saturated nature of all class-relations, then feminism ignores the racially saturated nature of all gender relations.”

    For many women the concern is that the “potential for violence within feminist criticism’s denial of the diverse experiences and genders of the global community of women….threatens the continued viability of feminism as a revolutionary movement.” Feminist theory has to become more inclusive, simply because of its revolutionary potential for all women – in the context of the political vacuum created by globalization and the unipolar world we live in. Feminism’s power (however we name it in our own contexts) as a political, social and cultural alternative paradigm cannot be underestimated. It is of critical importance to all women and men in the church too. It is in our consciousness about “shared victimization” that real solidarity among us can be based. There can be no space for the hierarchalizing of suffering or of competing traumas – as women of the world we are in this together and we have to look into each other’s eyes, unafraid and discover the political potential of such solidarity among us. Before we fault men I believe this is an equally important challenge for us as women committed to a new world.

    The Challenge of Moving to a New Space
    A holistic and inclusive image of society challenges us to move to a new space that will provide a word of hope and of challenge to all women. In a world of violence and disunity feminism, offers us a word of hope. Most feminist biblical scholars, now acknowledge in their analysis that patriarchal oppression is a complex network of factors such as gender, race, class, religion and culture. But, does their analysis go far enough? According to Musa Dube:
    On the issue of race, and subsequently culture, it seems there is no acknowledgement that those groups that are usually characterized as belonging to “privileged classes” were not born privileged. Rather, that these groups that acquired their identities through constructing themselves as superior to other races in order to validate their colonial projects at some point in their histories or foundation theologies.

    She further writes:
    The planting and uprooting of power and powerlessness is not at all a smooth, sequential plot. Colonizing and imperializing powers as we know, have a chameleonlike capacity for persistence. Decolonization and liberation are, therefore, not a given, nor an unfinished business. Similarly, many feminist victories have been won, but patriarchy and its institutions have not fully yielded to women’s demands. To be in the struggle for justice and liberation is, therefore, to be in a luta continua, the struggle that always continues.
    The task of reinterpreting gender relations and of discovering the potential of a new community of women and men, requires that we would together challenge the assumption that any universalist constructions can be claimed uncritically. It is imperative that women and men from all parts of the globe recognize that it is such claims that have legitimized the denial of the dignity and value of diversity. It is this that has been at the heart of the neo-liberal paradigm and of a mono-culture and has legitimated empire, the colonizing and neo-colonial/globalization project. Perhaps what is the most challenging for all of us is to recognize that none of us hold the final truth – but in a common quest we can move towards that.

    We need to constantly be in dialogue with each other as women and men Our religious traditions have been at the heart of forms of untold discrimination and exclusion, such as the fear of women’s sexuality, the abhorrent caste system in India, or racism, or cultural superiority and politically and the militaristically motivated attitudes of imperialism. But, at the same time such a critical dialogical journey will provide us the creative space to discover new forms of community, or shared power and of violence free forms of partnership among women and between women and men.

    Aruna Gnanadason
    Chennai, India
    Formerly on the staff of the World Council of Churches, Geneva

    • July 28, 2010 3:12 am

      Thanks for the wise conclusion. I was very pleased to see you highlights means of dialogue through religious means. It is what I thought as well and gave the same suggestions in my tutorial seminar class. I am doing gender and development studies / humanities /social sciences-
      Very well thought and wisely

      • July 28, 2010 9:56 am

        Thanks, Joseph! Please also feel free to join us for our live online chat about global feminism on Thursday, August 5 at 8pm. More info is here:


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