In an article published by openDemocracy 50.50 following her workshop at the 2013 Feminism in London conference, Cynthia Cockburn emphasised the need for a ‘whole-istic feminism’: a feminism that addresses racism, class, and other social boundaries, and acknowledges that alliances with other women and other disadvantaged groups are crucial in resisting systemic oppression.
That challenge found an echo at the 2014 Feminism in London conference, on Saturday 25 October, when a throng of a thousand women (and some men) filled the halls of the Institute of Education in Bloomsbury. The buzz of the tightly packed noisy auditorium spoke of the solidarity that was the order of the day: a community of women converging from all walks of life to encourage and challenge one another in a common endeavour to understand and develop our ideas of feminism.
That sense of solidarity asserted its presence and importance in the workshop on ‘Sisterhood around the globe’. It was facilitated by Betty Makoni, the director and founder of the Girl Child Network in Zimbabwe; and Marilyn Thomson and Alma Carballo, respectively the director of and an activist with the Central America Women’s Network (CAWN). Focusing on the state of women’s rights in Africa and Central America, this workshop highlighted the need for a global network of solidarity among women: a network to sustain a collective resistance to the multifaceted forces of oppression with which women across the world have to contend on a day-to-day basis.
For the Girl Child Network, education is the weapon of choice against patriarchal oppression: a model for the empowerment of women, involving national and regional ‘Girl Clubs’ that encourage young women and girls to take positions of leadership, which has been replicated in ten African countries besides Zimbabwe. Makoni, whose own mother’s death was a result of domestic violence, described the predicament of young women who find themselves at the wrong end of the power relations that are sustained in the name of ‘tradition’, ‘culture’ and religion and superstition. Such power relations, she said, render girls vulnerable to harmful and misogynistic ‘cultural practices’ including female genital mutilation, forced marriage and ‘exorcisms’ (when their behaviour is so ‘subversive’ as to lead people to believe they are ‘possessed’). While recognising that it is up to the girls to empower and liberate themselves and their communities from the constraints that are placed upon them, Makoni emphasised our responsibility towards them, as women and men aware of global feminist issues, with constant access to the powerful medium of campaign that is social media. Makoni urges us to increase our social media presence, to make it ever more noticeable and ever more effective.
A similar challenge is faced by CAWN – a UK-based non-profit organisation which supports women in Central American countries at a grassroots level through practical and legal advice. Misogynistic state policies outlawing abortion in many (Catholic) Central American countries such as El Salvador stem from an entrenchment of religion and superstition in everyday life, not unlike that in the African countries that Makoni described. Carballo highlighted the problematic nature of such policies as they place greater importance on religious beliefs than on women’s rights. Indeed, according to Carballo, these policies go so far as to criminalise those women who do have abortions, and in consequence some women have faced decades in prison. Thomson explained the ways in which women in Central America also find themselves at the intersection of gender and class-based oppression: for example, many women working in maquilas (textile factories in free trade zones) encounter much gender-based discrimination in the workplace, including poor working conditions. Some are currently engaging in struggles for better working conditions or compensation upon injury. CAWN’s work has been to support the women in Central America in their fight for gender equality in the face of religious and class based constraints. However, like Makoni, Thomson stressed that as a feminist community, we have a responsibility to our ‘sisters across the continents and oceans’ to join the fight; to resist the exploitative forces of both patriarchy and other institutional structures including capitalism. We can do this, Thomson said, in much the same way as that advocated by Makoni: we need to ‘beef up our online campaigns’, and give them more visibility.
In her article last year, Cynthia Cockburn quoted Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters to say: “The question for feminists is this: can we achieve freedom if other women or men are not free?” Ultimately, the answer – bringing together the different voices of Makoni, Thomson and Carballo – is clear: if our feminism is to mean anything at all, it must extend solidarity to all men and women who are resisting oppression in a variety of different contexts. It means that in our inter-connected world, our community as feminists must transcend national, cultural, religious and other social boundaries. It means that our feminism – our sisterhood - must be global, in every sense of the word.
This is a message that could be heard louder at my university in Cambridge. There is some excellent work going on to this end in the form of inclusive and intersectional feminist campaigns: the on-going and cumulative successes of the Living Wage Campaign which is run by the Labour Club and the Students Union Women’s Campaign, and the ‘Bring Back our Girls’ campaign of May 2015 - also run by the Women’s Campaign in conjunction with two Nigerian students and the support of the Black and Minority Ethnic Campaign - are two examples. Indeed, the very fact that the Women’s Campaign has designated officers to address the separate but intersecting issues of class and race is significant in itself. Having discovered only relatively recently my own identity as a ‘black feminist’, I was especially encouraged to hear about the new ‘Fly Women of Cambridge’ Campaign, a forum for black and minority ethnic women in Cambridge. All of these initiatives demonstrate an increasing awareness of the linked systems of oppression that affect women (and men) worldwide. It is clear that many feminists at my university – as well as those working nationally and worldwide – recognise the importance of acknowledging one another’s intersecting identities and the challenges that these multifaceted identities can bring. But, of course, much more can be done.
Now more than ever, we need to recognise that an inclusive intersectional and global feminism is of crucial importance to us all. It would be good to see an even bigger emphasis our ‘global sisterhood’ – in every sense of the term - at next year’s conference.