Being a young woman in a patriarchal society and having what our society calls feminist tendencies is not easy. I study English literature in Cairo University and 95% of my professors are women. When you are a 17 year old who is still trying to find herself and is surrounded by women who are strong, talented and independent, you start wondering why the society around you gives more importance to males and treats you as the inferior sex. Unlike many young women my age it was easy for me to understand and embrace feminism and gender equality because of the women I am surrounded, with beginning with my grandmother and mother, to my professors and friends. Knowing these women has definitely changed my perspective. I came to be more tolerant. I came to realize that our society does not just rate women as inferiors, but there are stereotypical images of men that all boys are expected to grow up and fit into. Those images do not just erase the male's identity but they enhance the ideas of male superiority and at times chauvinism. Being aware of that changed my anger into positive anger and that was when I started writing.
My lightening visit to the Wilton Park conference on "Women Targeted by Armed Conflict: What Role for Military Peacekeepers?" last Wednesday was a real eye-opener.
Internationally lauded microcredit schemes, avid consumption of "throwaway" cheap fashions, $2 shampoos, and a minority of 'high-powered' women business executives. These all formed part of an energetic discussion on women's economic empowerment chaired by the IDS pathways of women's empowerment RPC yesterday, a theme also due to be addressed as part of the UN Commission on the Status of Women kicking off at the end of this month.
Amongst the group of women experts gathered by IDS, the clearest tensions came between an individualistic need (for control over own income and expenditure) and the goal of a collective, structural framework of empowerment. As Takyiwaa Manuh explained, in Ghana the microcredit model is attractive and indeed vital for poverty-stricken women in asserting control over their lives, yet there is an accompanying danger that the institution itself fosters a belief that such a scheme is "all you need". Effectively, "problem solved".
This is of course not the case, as Santi Rozario has written elsewhere on openDemocracy, and discussion of cultural, political, emotional, social and bodily empowerment peppered the talks. Gender equality and justice can never be achieved in just one sphere of life. However, a focus on economic issues does allow room for exploring the complexities of working for gender equality in a globalised world.
Tensions between the formal and growing informal economies, international corporates and State powers, and a rapidly changing economic context along these lines highlight the global challenge.
The extent of private sector interest and investment in gender-specific issues worldwide is part of this transformation. We learned of innovations such as Unilever's recruitment of networks of women traders in Africa and Asia. (They also established the frankly hideous iVillage network in 2000). Wal-Mart too faced a sex-discrimination lawsuit in America back in 2004, and has since learnt its lesson. Bluntly, women are big money as both producers and consumers, and they are no longer ignored.
As a consequence of this interweaving, the current global credit crunch will have a huge effect over the coming years on the millions of women employed - directly or indirectly - by corporate powers. The global operations of these corporations are simultaneously dis/empowering for women. The challenge is to find the "points of leverage" to enact change - such as ActionAid's support of a South African woman farm-worker in 2006 to buy a single share in Tesco in order to attend the AGM and present her case on unfair pay and conditions.
Sarojini Thakur reminded us of the need not to write off State responsibility completely - the transient nature of markets, and the capitalist objectives of the corporates leaves no room for the kind of social protections essential for the emancipation of women worldwide. Furthermore, the support of fragile states to engage with both corporate powers and more dominant states, is key. Other neglected issues included the role of migrant workers - over 50% of whom are now women - and the importance of land and property rights and the care economy.
The targeting of women as both consumers and producers - demonstrated most strikingly in the "cheap fashion" industry - by corporate powers underlines the need for women's rights activists and campaigners to act now or risk being left behind.
Such a transformation must offer windows of opportunity for campaigners to advance women's rights and opportunities, the challenge, listening to the ideas yesterday, is in realising those opportunities and acting now.
The Pathways of Women’s Empowerment / openDemocracy blog brings together academics, policy makers, activists and journalists concerned about gender and power. As part of our 50.50 initiative, and along with a series of articles and podcasts on the Pathways project, the blog aims to provide a space for the many diverse views of women and men campaigning for greater gender-related justice worldwide.
The Pathways of Womens Empowerment RPC is a DfID funded research and communications programme linking academics, activists and practitioners to find out what works to enhance women's empowerment. You can visit the website and find out more here.
In our first podcast, Jane Gabriel talks to Dr Hania Sholkamy about gender and empowerment in Egypt, and the challenge of engaging with global feminism. Click on the image below to listen now.
During lunch I found myself chatting with a couple of participants when the topic of the male experience of patriarchy came up. While a lot has been written about the relationships between men and women and between women and women, the topic of men vs. men power dynamics within a patriarchal society remains rarely talked about. Strangely enough, there is little doubt that men suffer from a system of patriarchy too.
Is it fair to label any form of women's resistance groups as atoms of the global feminist movement?
Josephine Ahikire was intrigued by the wording surrounding women's resistance and feminism, and how it systematically separates the two. In her view, what a woman resists is mediated by her situation, which is itself affected by gender, class, employment or poverty issuses - so by definition, it is about feminism.
Ahikire cited as a case study the Aba women's riots of 1929, part of Nigeria's struggle against colonialism: was this an act of feminism? Josephine argued that the gendered nature in which those women experienced colonialism and how they organised resistance made it a feminist act.
Cecilia Sardenberg shared a very telling story about a meeting taking place in Brazil - a progressive country by all accounts- in which a government representative spoke for two hours at a conference about gender and political dialogue, but mentioned the word 'women' maybe twice. As Srilatha Batliwala underlined, it is a worrying trend which speaks volume about the current situation: men in politics don't even feel the use to be politically correct anymore.
"Magic bullets" is the name for several forms of action in the gender field which can come across as a magic band-aid that will fix everything. Two of them are micro-credits and women in politics, and according to many women at the conference, they need to be questionned.
Take micro-credits for example: it is now presented as a solution which enables women to single-handily solve all their issues by creating their own micro-businesses. In reality, this is not entirely true (see our related entry written by World Neighbours on the openSummit blog), as the power of decision is still held by those who loan women funds. Without a complete control over their capital, these small communities of women are not empowered, but reliant on micro-crediting.
A lot of skepticism linked to feminist theory steams from the lack of practical initiatives inspired by the second and third wave movements. Josephine Ahikire, senior lecturer in Kampala, would agree with these criticisms: she explained her love and hate relationship with a movement she thinks is often too abstract.
Sure enough, development agencies and individual countries do have gender policies - but they have yet to be really efficient. Their themes are distorted and do not make way for actual changes in women's lives which are not yet fully understood by bureaucrats and other UN agencies. In her words, 'the world is listenning, but the distortions are overwhelming'.
If one thing wasn't missing from the conference, it certainly was humour. The 40 participants might have been holding PHds in gender and development, gender studies and history, but it certainly did not seem to prevent them from being refreshingly silly, making (feminist) jokes and puns, very much to our delight.
After all, the conference started with Cecilia Sardenberg, leader of the Brazilian Hub, exclaiming: "In 2004 we talked about "repositioning feminism". In 2007 we are reclaiming it!".
This week's editor
Heather McRobie is a regular contributor to 50.50
Heather McRobie is a regular contributor to 50.50