Global feminism, western feminism, UK feminism?

A sepia photo is projected onto the screen – it shows women marching in the streets. We might guess it’s 1963 because of the big skirts. The march took place in Iraq for international women’s day. At that time, explained Nadje Al-Ali, the chair of gender studies at SOAS, the women’s league in Iraq had about 40,000 members.

If you think that feminism originated in the US, or Europe, and global feminism consists of ‘saving’ or ‘speaking for’ women in other parts of the world – and this is the story of women’s rights that is all too often told in the media – then photos like this should be a wakeup call.

Nadje was talking on today’s ‘Global Feminism’ panel. This festival is called Women of the World. But the idea that women, from country to country, and continent to continent, share in the same struggle, has been a contentious one. It has in the past been presented in oversimplified terms, that ignored the hard realities – for example, sometimes women are complicit in the oppression of other women.

We shouldn’t talk in terms of ‘global feminism’ to mean only ‘feminism of the south’, Nadje argued. Or, indeed, of a monolithic ‘western feminism’ in opposition, as though all feminists in the ‘west’ are on the same page.

Of course, the term ‘western’ is problematic all on its own. To put it simply, as Iranian theatre director Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh said earlier in the day during another session, “west of where?”

Get a group of feminists in the UK, ask them if feminist porn is possible, and prepare to see the idea of a monolithic ‘western’ feminism dismantled. And that’s before you even get to what you might call the Sarah Palin effect: women using the language of feminists, then vigorously campaigning for policies that constrict women’s lives.

That is not to say this notion emerges from no-where: if feminism in Europe and the US wasn’t so dominated by a few white, middle class perspectives, it would break down the image of a monolithic feminism.

Minna Salami, the blogger MsAfropolitan, told a familiar story: she came to feminism in her earlier 20s through books written by white, middle class feminists. “All the while I was reading their work, I felt that some part of me was neglected,” Minna explained. In time, she came across the work of African American and then African writers. But, “I realised that feminism at large was in trouble.”

Earlier this year, the Go Feminist conference was launched “as a response to feminism’s most sustained critique: that it is not for all women”, as the organisers wrote. The conference was a wonderful riposte, but the fact that it was necessary as an intervention speaks volumes.

Of course there have also been many opportunities to connect with and learn about women’s activism and art during the WOW festival on a global basis – just today, I’ve heard about the battle for women’s reproductive freedom in Nepal, and the struggle of artists in Egypt to figure out when it is right to take time out of the revolution and make art, and Scottish women’s work songs, and so much more. And it was great to hear from festival organiser Jude Kelly that WOW is being put on in Baltimore, and there are plans next year to put on WOW in places including South Africa and Ireland. But it was great to see this idea of an international network of women’s struggle put under the microscope as well as celebrated.

Feminism is not a gift from the ‘west’ to the rest of the world, is the lesson of Nadje’s photo – and to view it as such is patronising and misguided. The notion also makes life harder for feminist activists in some parts of the world, one of the other panellists, Nesrine Malik explained, as it becomes all too easy for their efforts to be dismissed as a hangover from a neo-colonialist mindset which should be resisted.

She gave the example of a reproductive rights campaign in Sudan by the UN. The UN bussed people out to rural areas and gave out condoms to women. “There was a lot of money to do this, but very very little foresight had gone into how to get women who’ve not had any sexual health education to get their husbands to use a condom,” she noted.

It’s not all bad though – there are good models for feminists to support each other internationally. But it might mean setting aside that trip to Sudan to ‘help’ women, and instead fundraising so that a woman can be trained to do the job in that country, as one of the panellists observed today.

Most important, said Kate Nustedt from Women for Women International, is to be led by grassroots women. “The starting point needs to be… from the women who want to see a change and they feel that international support will help the make a difference.”

Rather than blundering around making assumptions about what other feminists need, efforts led by what activists actually say they want from international supporters can be really powerful, Kate said. “To know that there are hundreds, thousands of women that are doing the same thing as them, for them, is massively important.”

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Women of the world, women of science

We’re all stardust. Yes you’ve heard this before. But Jocelyn Bell Burnell, one of the astrophysicists who spoke at yesterday’s Women of the World session, ‘This time it is rocket science’, explained in more depth. “The stuff in your body has probably been through two [occurrences] of star building and star explosion. Every atom in your body, apart from a few hydrogen atoms, comes from exploding stars.”
During the talk, Jocelyn took the audience through – in very basic terms that even a journalist and English graduate like me could understand – some of the work she has done. But she also weaved in the story of her own career. She is famous for not receiving the Nobel Prize for her role in the discovery of pulsars when she was an undergraduate. (Although she puts this down to the fact she was a student, not particularly that she was a woman, the stars she spotted went on to net her male supervisors the illustrious prize.)
After graduating, Jocelyn married a man who worked in local government – to advance his career, it was necessary to move every five to 10 years. So move they did – leaving Jocelyn to start again at a new institute each time. She illustrated the effect of this to us by showing us a map of the electromagnetic spectrum. While most astrophysicists would pick a spot on the spectrum, and specialise, Jocelyn noted wryly, “I’ve been just about all over the spectrum.”
It was also a struggle to work part time and raise a child, she explained, at a time when the expectation was that mothers should stay at home and give up all ambitions for a career. Despite all this, Jocelyn has built up a brilliant career.
Maggie Aderin-Pocock, is another space scientist of a younger generation, with another high flying career – you might know her from Dr Who Confidential. She came up on stage carrying her baby daughter in a sling. She also showed us a photograph of a pregnant scientist, standing next to her equipment, which she was using to explore the birth of the universe. The times, you might conclude, have moved on.
But this isn’t exactly the case – Maggie explained that she’s moved away from her research career, to work as a science communicator, which better fits around the schedule and demands of parenthood. And women continue to be pushed out of a scientific career altogether in this country when they have children.
That said, there is more going on here than just the expectation that women will do most of the childcare – that is holding back brilliant scientists. Jocelyn added, “It’s not just about family. Women without partners and children also fail to progress as fast as their male counterparts.”
And that’s starting from a small pool of women who go into a scientific career in the first place. Maggie showed us a clip from a film she made in a secondary school. In the classroom, the walls were arrayed with the images of famous scientists – not one of them was a woman. The girls looking at these images absorbed the message that women simply haven’t made great discoveries. This is simply wrong, and Maggie has been trying to revive the stories of early women astronomers, and communicate them to girls, in a bid to provide role models.
But it was impossible to consider these stories without bringing to mind some of the things that Helena Kennedy QC had talked about earlier in the day, as she reminisced about her experiences fighting in the courts for women’s rights back in the 1970s. What is needed, she said, is “treatment as equals – not equal treatment”. And maybe this logic applies in the laboratory as well as the courtroom. Equal treatment might involve changing the profession so that having a child doesn’t shut women out of a career in research in the first place.
“What we learnt is there is no such thing as neutrality. Neutrality was a complete fiction and in fact it misled and distracted us from the real things,” Helena went on to say.
It’s a lesson that some scientists might find hard to hear, but the structure of how scientific institutions are run is no more ‘neutral’ than, say, the criteria that the TLS uses to determine which books it wants to review. 
Maggie and Jocelyn had some fascinating statistics to show us about the proportion of women represented in the sciences. Women make up 37% of astronomers in Argentina, but only 12% in the UK. This doesn’t mean there is a surprising cluster of talent and interest in Argentina. It shows that the under-representation of women in science is cultural, and can be changed.
The structural changes we’re talking about aren’t to benefit the careers of individual scientists – although it sure couldn’t hurt. Both women were emphatic that a more diverse team will lead to better results. “It’s already been well demonstrated in industry that the most diverse [organisations] are the most flexible, strong and successful,” Jocelyn noted. This isn’t ‘just’ about more women, though: diversity of background leads to diversity of perspectives, which leads to breaking out of the standard patterns of thought. “Anything to dilute the white male Brit will make an organisation stronger,” as she put it.
Maggie was just as straight down the line on the importance of diversity. “If you have a more diverse team.. you are more likely to make great discoveries,” she said.
This post is by Jess McCabe, editor of The F-Word