Rethinking social movements

Today the structures that sustain oppression exhibit an impressive level of transnational collaboration. Where to then for local and transnational social movements committed to challenging this oppression, and advancing feminism and gender equality?

Jessica Horn
30 September 2013

Revolutions are rare. In between these “exceptional episodes” of uprising and game-changing street-based action, social movements grow, thrive, or stumble. Over the past century feminist mobilisation and women’s movements have led waves of sustained questioning and restructuring of the patriarchal ordering of societies, rewriting the past, reshaping the present, and imagining egalitarian futures. Still, at this historical juncture many involved in mobilisations for women’s rights feel stuck particularly in the context of formal policy and law. As Ireen Dubel, Senior Advisor on Women’s Rights at Hivos voices, “over the years dissatisfaction has crept in given the persistent gap between the normative frameworks and on the ground realities of women’s lives”.

In mid-September a group of activists from all global regions came together for the Movements Rethink convening, organised by Dutch humanist funder Hivos. At the centre of the dialogue were these questions: What roles are social movements and citizen activism playing in reshaping the world against oppression and towards justice, inclusive of feminist visions? And how do we, as activists in these movements, help ‘rethink’ our strategies, constituencies and politics towards this transformative goal?

Rethinking the world

In order to rethink we need to recalibrate our understandings of the historical moment that we are in. The 24 contributors to Movements Rethink come from diverse social movements and included people from the rising economic powers of Brazil, India and South Africa. Despite these varied backgrounds, our analysis of the global context is remarkably similar. Today the structures that sustain oppression exhibit an impressive level of transnational collaboration. Take debates on internet governance: there governments, internet service providers and companies behind social media platforms and search engines are all in discussions around ways to collaborate on surveillance and censorship. Religious fundamentalisms of all leanings are harnessing the power of the popular within and across borders, while growing strategic collaborations with key actors in governments to influence law and policy.

The triad of state-citizen-market on which almost all of our nation-states are built is itself being transformed with the increasing militarisation of society by both public and private actors, notably with the continued legacy of the “war on terror” and its gendered impact, and very - dramatically - in the context of the “war on drugs”. Speaking from the experience of women activists in Mexico and Central America, Lisa VeneKlasen, Executive Director of Just Associates describes how states are being reshaped and captured by the “shadow forces” of organised crime. She points to an alarming shift towards a “wild west” where globalised organised crime meets corrupt governments and their newly militarised police forces trained as part of the ‘war on drugs-war on terror’ nexus. This coincides with governments’ retreat from providing basic services and basic protections.  Although Mesoamerica is an epicentre of cocaine trafficking in particular, we also know that the drug economy extends well beyond that region to the Caribbean and Africa’s east and west coasts, into Asia, and to the primary source of demand in North America and Europe. Women are positioned in these economies in complex ways –rarely as drug lords, more often as drug mules, murdered bodies and mothers of the disappeared, and as sisters, daughters and girlfriends facing new forms of insecurity in the re-entrenchment of gendered violence that frames organised crime. Violence against women has become a tool to create fear and claim territory. It is also, unsurprisingly, women who are mobilising community response. In Mexico for example, there is now a thousands-strong network of mothers and other family of the disappeared, organising communities despite the threats against them. And the threats are substantial. A 2012 fact-finding mission by JASS and the Nobel Women’s Initiative showed that women human rights defenders in Mesoamerica are themselves under sustained attack with murders, physical violence and police harassment common. Here again, activists have responded by forming MesoAmerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders.

Rethinking our movements within it

Mobilising in shifting terrain is not easy, but then movements are by definition kinetic. And in order to be successful, they need to move.

Rethinking the market. Like it or not, the capitalist economy and the inequities it thrives on are ubiquitous. What to do? The answers even amongst the group at Movements Rethink are varied. Kristen Palland-Oosterbroek argues for engagement. Her initiative – the Dutch consumer-activist group Stoere Vrouwen – using positive messaging to encourage consumers to be more aware of the products that they buy and ultimately change their consumption practices. Increased consumer demand in turn creates greater incentives for companies to shift their labour and environmental practices towards ethical production and fair trade.

On the other side of the spectrum, Fora do Eixo, a collective of cultural producers and communicators from across Brazil have crafted a playful subversion of the market, constructing a parallel ‘solidarity economy’ based on collectivist principles. Driade Aguiar, a media activist and Fora do Eixo member explains that the collective earns some money in the mainstream cash economy – mainly through hosting festivals where they profile underground and emerging artists and provide new forums for political debate. Money is placed into a collective pot which is used to support further initiatives, to pay rent and bills across the network’s 100 residential houses and pooled into a collective fund which can be accessed by members if they need to purchase anything in the mainstream economy. Within Fora do Eixo, people use a different currency- the “Fora do Eixo card”- based on the exchange of services and products rather than cash, and enabling people to access high-quality support for the creative production.

Rethinking the digital: Digital spaces have presented a mixed opportunity for social movements and citizen activism, on the one hand enabling an explosion of user-created content, and at the same time elevating the simplified story through the 140 character message and the meme. Working against soundbyte-culture, Mana Sadat of digital activist platform MidEast Youth is committed to finding ways to “better harness the ecosystem of the internet” through curatorial and educational interventions. She manages Crowd Voice, a site that features curated content and fact-checked data emerging from social movement mobilisations and political protests across the world, and providing an alternative to mainstream media analysis.  She has also worked on The Making of a Century- an interactive app that documents social and political movement histories and leadership across the world. He-Jin Kim, a trans activist and avid blogger  believes that this kind of people-driven documentation is powerful. To her, “collective ownership of knowledge is the biggest triumph of engaging in social media”.

Access is an issue as infrastructural and economic gaps influence who can be active in digital spaces. Even there changes are underway. Eddie Avila of Rising Voices- a citizen media initiative focused on under-represented communities, explains that many telecommunication companies are working in partnership with social media platforms such as Twitter and Wikipedia, to enable some degree of access through cheaper analog phones.  While their aims may be commercial, the infrastructure itself provides mechanisms for more marginalised voices to engage in online debate.

The digital is of course deeply political. As Jac sm Kee points out, “The digital is not a tool… This space, and it is a very political space, has its particular histories and it has its power structures as well in terms of who is defining it, who is shaping it and what the rules of engagement are.” Although feminists have yet to become and active force in debates on internet governance there is still scope for collective interventions. This includes as users, given that “the way that the internet has been shaped and has changed is actually quite determined by how we are using it, and the ways that we put value onto particular aspects of it. In a way that speaks to its promise- we actually do still have a lot of power and capacity to be able to decide what kind of space that we want it to be”.

Rethinking the frames we use to organise: Feminisms across the world have incited a call to re-imagine ways of being gendered that do not presuppose the domination of women by men- and all the other axes of oppression such as heterosexism, racism and classism that intersect with this. Movements around sexual orientation and gender identity have added to this call, and are increasingly visible, framed very often by identity-based claims for recognition. While these  claims are powerful they also have their limits. The focus on individual identities (for example “the survivor of rape in conflict” and “the lesbian or gay person”) obscures both the full context within which these people live, and the interrelated, collective oppressions that expose them to marginalisation in the first place. Kwezi Mbandazayo a Pan-African feminist from the 1 in 9 Campaign describes humorously: “now the new buzz [in South Africa] is around the ‘black lesbian from the township’. There we are sitting in a bar and some person from BBC wants to interview you and assume some kind of political consciousness and activism just because of who you are.  So subjectivities are key in organising but only with a process of positioning that subjectivity in the world and naming the politics behind my assertion of that identity”. She sees this is as part of a deeper problem, saying that “what neoliberalism has done is to break it down to one: one person, one vote, one right, one house”.

Is it possible to ‘do’ identity in ways that challenge structural power inequalities? The Challenging Male Supremacy initiative in New York, co-developed by Alan Grieg, has managed to. The initiative takes the question of mobilising men beyond the idea of getting men ‘involved’ in women’s rights to rigorous interrogation of people’s own masculinities and ways to craft new terms of reference for what it means to be a man. They have also created mechanisms for men to hold each other to account for sexist attitudes and practices, while interrogating how masculinities are shaped by race, class and heterosexist narratives. This is deep politicised work, and offers a model for ways to engage identity that remain politicised and contextual.

While we speak of movements, not everyone argues for a collectivist framing of activism. Indeed to Rebecca Gomperts, founder of abortion rights group Women on Waves calls for considering the role of catalytic individuals saying that “in the end a lot of the changes and transformations happen on an individual level, and sometimes people can make differences for themselves outside movements”.

Rethinking violation: Uniting our diverse organising in a desire to confront the structural and interpersonal violence caused by inequities in power. But are we just here to ‘end the harm’? Many argued for embracing the power of affirmative framings as both political demands (freedom ‘to’, not just freedom ‘from’) and as ways to communicate and organise our work - including through a refocus on pleasure rather than violation, and reshaping political space by taking it to the street in music festivals.  This kind of serious fun holds transgressive potential. Anouka van Eerdewijk, a researcher at the Royal Tropical Institute considers that “If it is hard to live outside of normative power then how do you get to the ‘edge’? I think pleasure and fun can sometimes help us get to the edge”.

Rethinking what change means: While the movement for change is collective, the impact of challenging oppressive power structures is often felt in very personal ways. “We are warriors” Njoki Ngumi, a medical doctor and activist artist at The Nest in Nairobi acknowledges,  “but warriors have a home, they have people who love them and get affected by what they are fighting”. Change in the personal and intimate realms is as critical as change in the public domain, as we work of chipping away at systems of structural power. As Alan Grieg puts it “We can’t think our way out of it. We have to practice it differently”.

And what about where we plan to end up? While we carry an affirmation of women’s rights and an end to injustice in our hearts, we are also surprisingly open to positive surprises on the journey.  Indeed if we agree that power in all forms is in constant production, then transforming oppressive power becomes a process rather than a destination. And as much as we attempt to plan change, Jac sm Kee argues “if you really believe in creating the conditions that enable the exercise of autonomy then the end result is not something that you can expect”.

To read further in depth coverage by Jessica Horn of the Movements Rethink conference, click here Movements Rethink 




Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData