Gender, knowledge and change: questions and answers

When social change movements of all kinds are under attack, progressives need to build coalitions and to talk to one another as never before. Feminist models and methodologies can enrich every social change movement
Shelley Anderson
7 October 2010

A good question is worth its weight in answers. Good questions provide a framework to explore issues. Good questions determine answers.

There have been many good questions posed in the Religion Gender Politics debate on openDemocracy. These include Cassandra Balchin’s inquiry on why control over women is so important to religious fundamentalists. Rahila Gupta has asked critical questions about the cost to women and other marginalized groups of placating religious leaders in the name of multiculturalism. Deniz Kandiyoti has raised difficult questions about the interplay of religion, state power and women’s rights when gender equality becomes a pawn in geopolitical power games.

All of these are pertinent, urgent, questions for everyone concerned about social justice. I didn’t find any answers to these questions at the recent international conference "Knowledge and Change: theory and practice of development dilemmas" organised in the Hague by Hivos, a Dutch-based international development donor.

What surprised me more was the fact that I didn’t hear, at least during the opening plenary, questions about gender, knowledge and change. The politics of knowledge include many gender implications. Whose knowledge is considered important? Who defines what’s important to know? Who benefits from what knowledge—and who doesn’t? The words gender and women were not mentioned during the opening plenary by speakers, until audience members, in a question and answer session, brought them up.

That left me puzzled and raised the question: why? It wasn’t a case of numbers—conference participants were evenly divided between women and men. And it certainly wasn’t a lack of progressive ideas and will among the participants, who represented a good mix of researchers, non-governmental organisation practitioners and activists, all committed to social change. Hivos itself is strongly committed to gender equality and women’s empowerment. As a donor, it has a history of putting its money where its mouth is. Hivos has been for decades one of handful of international donors who fund social change work for and by lesbians and gays.

So why this lack of explicit discussion on gender? There are perhaps two reasons. Both are worrying. People are tired of talking about gender. Gender is no longer pioneering or innovative, to use words currently favoured by governments and big foundations. Said governments and big foundations have come to believe that efforts to promote gender equality haven’t worked and they are tired of throwing money at the problem.

It is ironic that the new Dutch government is taking the same view about development aid, as one speaker pointed out. It’s a view based on a conservative ideology and the mistaken idea that social change can be managed like a business plan.

The second possible reason is even more disturbing, if true. Perhaps social change movements have stopped talking to one another. Women’s movements have produced a wealth of material on feminist methodologies and action research, and on successful alliances between academics and activists. Feminist thinkers like Cynthia Cockburn and Diana Francis have expanded our knowledge about identity politics, nationalism and gender, and fed their work back into the movements that need it. Feminist researchers like Dyan E. Mazurana and Susan R. McKay have done the same.

These and other feminist models and methodologies can enrich every social change movement. The wheel does not have to be reinvented. Gita Sen, another pioneer in the area of development and gender, has written in the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) report Neolibs, Neocons and Gender Justice: Lessons from Global Negotiations, that the movements for gender justice and social justice are drifting apart. There is a dangerous development when social change movements of all kinds are under attack. Progressives need to build coalitions and to talk to one another as never before.

It was a relief to hear gender issues being raised by presenters in the sessions on the research project “Gender and Sexualities in Movement” in Peru, and on “Pluralism in India: knowledge, action and intervention”. The latter took as a case study the situation of the Indian women’s movement, which had pushed for years for a Uniform Civil Code as an alternative to personal religious law. The latter often disempowers women in cases involving divorce, inheritance and child custody. The issue became more complex when the Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), also began to advocate for a Uniform Civil Code. The BJP move was interpreted by many as an attack on India’s Muslim minority.

Co-optation of women’s issues for a conservative political agenda is nothing new. The sudden interest of the former Bush Administration in Afghan women’s equality, on the verge of the US military offensive in Afghanistan, is only one example. How do women’s groups negotiate this type of complexity? How does any social change movement?

This is why the conference, part of a wider Hivos knowledge programme, is important. It provides a forum for activists and academics committed to social change to talk to one another, to influence each other’s work and thinking. It also raises pertinent questions, such as what does move people to become involved in social change? Is knowledge the only motivator or, as Caroline Suransky of the Kosmopolis Institute suggested, is engagement more a matter of the heart?

“We seek to support liberating change,” said Manuela Monteiro. Hivos Executive Director, in her opening address. “We need a special type of knowledge that capacitates change. Who is actually the owner of the development agenda? How can knowledge lead to change? Who are the new actors? How are they engaging with the powers that be?”

Good questions. What we need now are some good answers.



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