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Feminist inclusivity and moving onto the agenda

While feminist activists fight for inclusion in social agendas, how far have women’s movements themselves met the challenge of inclusivity? From AWID International Forum in Bahia, Brazil.

Black women drummers open the 2nd plenary of the 2016 AWID Forum in Bahia, Brazil.

This article is part of 50.50's in-depth coverage of the 2016 AWID Forum being held on 8th -11th September in Bahia, Brazil.

The chair of the opening plenary, Sonia Correa, welcomed the AWID 2016 conference referring to Brazil’s tradition of hospitality but expanded its meaning to embrace an openness to difference, to be open to work we disagree with, to be unconditional in our hospitality. It was a sentiment that echoed around the conference. Noelene Nabulivou, of Diverse Voices and Action for Equality (DIVA) from Fiji liked the idea of hospitality because “we work in places that are ugly, disciplining, and cause pain to our bodies.” The promise of the plenary on the second day to discuss the elephants in the room, “untold stories of how and why different movements did not work well together” did not really materialise; these differences were touched upon rather than chewed over. Even in the session run by women with disabilities, their neglect by the mainstream feminist movement was delicately raised.

As always we are more comfortable talking about the enforced erasures of our realities by people, attitudes and institutions outside the movement: religious fundamentalists; racist and sexist police; the corporate state; sexism; transphobia and homophobia. We have also struggled within wider progressive social movements to have our feminist agenda placed on the table. Southall Black Sisters (SBS) and other black women’s organisations have tried for years to get anti-racist movements to take on issues such as domestic violence within black communities with limited success. Current feminist debates around whether Jeremy Corbyn and his loyalists have a blind spot on gender are also a case in point. The session on ‘Building Gender-just Social Movements’ focussed on precisely this question. Jessica Horn presented the findings from the BRIDGE programme which looked at the extent to which social movements, an effective engine for transformation in societies across the world, had integrated women’s rights and a gendered programme.

‘In order for any action or intervention around rights, democracy and equality to be successful, it must include and value gender equality as part of its analysis and methodology for  change… Historically, most progressive social movements have not embraced a commitment to consider gender inequality or challenged patriarchy from the outset. Frequently, gender analysis and action begins in mixed movements when women activists start to question why they are being left out of movement visions or not acknowledged in movement leadership.’

The reasons listed for the resistance of these social movements to women’s issues are ones with which we are familiar: it is not deemed a priority; there are deeply rooted ideas about women’s ‘back up roles’ as caregivers and teamakers; competition for resources (which is why some progressive movements might include a gender element in their work); silencing on the basis of culture and tradition on issues like abortion; or the view that there are women’s groups dealing with gender issues already. In the case of SBS, the view of the black anti-racist movement was that opening up on violence against women would attract greater hostility to the community.

But what about the clamour from various interest groups like disabled women, indigenous women, sex workers and transwomen for feminism to open up to them? The BRIDGE report also had the feminist movement within its sights, urging it to expand inclusion, ‘Women’s movements are not static; they emerge, grow and change in response to internal and external factors. Challenging inequalities and the exercise of discriminatory power within women’s movements needs to be ongoing, as movements self-critique and work towards increasingly inclusive politics of transformation.’ Presumably it is these groups that were being referenced when participants talked about elephants in the room. However, we were left with no clear sense as to whether they were dying yet. Khouloud Mahdhaoui, organiser of the a three-day festival of feminist art, sculpture, film screenings and workshops called ‘Chouf’ in Tunisia touched upon the importance of including transwomen when she said that her intention was to create, “a free space, a space for women...who identify politically, socially, ideologically and not just biologically, and for all women to make an identity for herself.”

Malawi Human Rights Group for Women and Girls with Disabilities (MHRWD) will be talking about how their claim to sexual and reproductive rights are contested by society and of the awareness rising work they have done in this regard. ‘Meanwhile, they struggle with the perception that women with disabilities are not sexual beings and should not engage in relationships.’ Because the issue of sexuality of disabled women is heavily contested, MHRWD is fostering its connection with CEDEP (an advocacy group for LGB people) and providing information about sexual diversity and the activities and services of CEDEP in its workshops with women and girls with disabilities. MHRWD’s increased participation in networks has also inspired the founding of the African Sexuality, Disability and Rights Coalition. As MHRWD improved capacity and had more confident and experience staff, they were better able to engage in cross-movement actions.

In the session, ‘Using Multiple Identities to Build Alliances’, where women leaders with disabilities from Bangladesh, Nepal, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea shared their experiences in cross movement collaboration, they talked mostly about how they used their various identities to fit into different legal and policy frameworks. Pratima Gurung from Nepal and from an indigenous background posed the dilemma that she and her organisation, Indigenous Persons with Disabilities Global Network, have been discussing since 2008 as to whether they are most likely to succeed in their demands by framing them as a human rights issue, a disability issue, a gender issue or an indigenous people’s issue. It was with the help of the Disability Rights Fund that they were able to emphasise the intersectionality of their issues within each framework.

Left to right: Mahbuba Akhter, Nasima Akhter, Pratima Gurung, Yeni Damayanti, Ipul Powaseu.

Similarly Yeni Damayanti describes how her DPO (Disabled People’s Organisation) has collaborated with the UN Rapporteur on torture to get justice for people with ‘psychosexual disorders’ in Indonesia who face violence by their families and communities like their hands being shackled or chained or placed in wooden blocks. They worked with mainstream election NGOs, who took this campaign on, to ensure that suffrage was also extended to this group. Although there is universal suffrage from the age of 17, in practice the national election committee did not register those with a psychosexual disorder which controversially includes a range of conditions from voyeurism to ‘gender dysphoria’.  As a result of their work, Yeni reported that they now have voting booths in hospitals. Much of it was about traditional ways of lobbying other organisations or policy-making institutions to bring about change, like lobbying their Minister of Social Affairs to extend the only recipients of social security in Indonesia - seriously disabled people – to include returning migrants who have been disabled through torture or cruel treatment from employers abroad.

It appears that the UN has proved to be a reliable partner to these leaders in their work on disability although Ipul Powaseu from Papua New Guinea bemoaned the fact that their voices had been heard at the UN but not at the ground level. She was the only activist to explicitly refer to the place of disabled women in the feminist movement when she said, “We are here but not here. We are seen but not heard. We need to hold hands with AWID and walk side by side.” Myrna Cunningham Kain, AWID Board President, who was present at the session said, “We have provided the space, perhaps not enough space yet, but now you must occupy it.”

There was also a sense from activists that inclusivity was good for the soul. Noelene from DIVA spent a lot of time thinking about how we resolve conflict, how we negotiate power within our movements and how we change over time and place, “I move with a lot of different kinds of bodies, they include feminists, indigenous people, climate justice, workers and activists, sex workers, women with disabilities, trade and economic justice practitioners. Feminist politics is what keeps me safe.” Awina Okech put it this way, “Our work is soul destroying, a lot of blood, sweat and tears. We need to learn to be gentle with each other. Feminism is seen as a destination, that we have to all arrive there, so we come down hard on those who haven’t broken away from the patriarchal chains that are holding us back and are struggling to get there.”

All images by Rahila Gupta.

Rahila Gupta will be reporting daily for 50.50 from the AWID Forum. 


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