10 Mar

From Protest to Resistance: Taking a long view of the feminist movement

‘It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent.' - Madeleine Albright

One of the most interesting theories I learned at graduate school was the idea that a revolution was the worst possible outcome for progress. While a revolution mobilised different interest groups around a common issue, it did little to solve the collective action problems between these groups. Once the common idea of change had been achieved, for example to overthrow a dictator, these issues which had previously separated them, resurfaced and prevented them from creating a mutually agreeable social system. In theory, theories are explanations we create to apply logic to the anarchical world order. Yet I keep thinking about this theory and what it means for social movements today. What happens after we achieve change? Are the social movements organising in a way that will allow for the envisioned change to not only be achieved but continue to exist after it has been achieved? In other words, what is the long view?

On March 8 2017, I was a speaker on a panel hosted by Global Girl Media at the Hult International Business School to celebrate International Women’s Day and discuss this year’s theme, #BeBoldForChange. The event featured an all-round stellar (and intersectional!) panel including:

  • Bonnie Chiu, Co-Founder and CEO, Lensational
  • Hannah Elwyn, Programmes Manager, Refugees Support Network
  • Muna Hassan, Trustee, Integrate
  • Heena Khaled, International Human Rights Activist
  • Paulina Stachnik, Digital Marketing Officer, Women for Women International

A snippet from the event is featured below:

Building on my interventions at the Global Girl Media panel, I propose two points of dialogue and welcome reflections from other feminists.

Intersectionality is the way

The Leave No-One Behind principle in the Sustainable Development Agenda calls for inclusivity as an integral feature of development. In the SDGs era, it is no longer sufficient to measure progress by averages. Progress is not determined by the few who have the most but by the most who have the least.

For example, Sustainable Development 1, which aims to end poverty in all its manifestations by 2030, includes a target (1.3.1) to ensure social protection systems at the national level. Progress on this outcome is measured by the extent to which the social protection systems cover groups most marginalised by poverty including ‘children, unemployed persons, older persons, persons with disabilities, pregnant women, newborns, work-injury victims and the poor and the vulnerable.’

Efforts to ensure the SDGs leave no-one behind incorporate two approaches: i) a greater focus on the needs of groups marginalised by poverty (i.e. women, youth, people with disabilities) and ii) disaggregating intervention outcomes according to these groups.  The Leave No One Behind principle is an important feature of development because it explicitly acknowledges that equity is a necessary condition for equality.

In a similar manner, intersectionality seeks to advance the feminist movement by calling for equity as a means to achieving equality for all. Intersectionality is central to the feminist argument because it demonstrates how socialised performances of gender provide incomplete representations of women’s experiences. To take a modest example, McDonalds exists in 120 countries but the menu in Mumbai is most certainly different from the menu in Manhattan. Intersectionality invites us to look inward at the feminist movement and to explicitly explore the differences in our experiences.

Following on from this, it also challenges us to explore the ways in which we reproduce oppressive structures of power towards each other. To not have this dialogue has precarious outcomes for the movement itself if we cannot acknowledge that sexism is a power structure which anyone can reify irrespective of their gender. After all, promoting solidarity is not to display it to those who seek to silence the movement. Promoting solidarity is to demonstrate it to those different from you within the movement.

Re-centering the narrative

As feminism increasingly permeates mainstream discourse, I have observed two recurring narratives. Firstly, there is an overwhelming focus on legitimising the feminist movement by promoting its instrumental value. Reports and policy papers promote the business case for equality and how it leads to stronger economies, more peaceful societies, more sustainable public infrastructure etc. Another narrative is the performance of feminism as a subversive paradigm to the status quo. Examples of women ‘defying stereotypes’ are promoted; we are smashing the glass ceiling, becoming the firsts and proving that what men do, women can too.

We need to re-centre the feminism narrative, defining it by what it is rather than what it is not.  Feminism should not arise as a rebuttal but as independent statement of the world. With any movement seeking to counter the status quo, questions arise whether self-definition is in relation to the other (they are, therefore I am not) and whether self-definition, that is truly independent of the other, is possible. I am hopeful that the latter is possible because that is what means to envision change as a process (protest), an outcome (resistance) and new desired state of reality (progress).

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