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.”