Shackles different from my own: building an intergenerational women's movement

Inclusion and representation are at the centre of the many struggles for women's human rights, and are equally important in multigenerational organising to maintain the rhythm and longevity of our feminisms.

Nelly Bassily
6 March 2015
Young Feminist Network (Nelly Basilly)

Young Feminist Network (Nelly Basilly)

Multigenerational organizing is important because it combines shared learning, trust and respect. It creates a space for feminists from different age groups and diverse backgrounds to come together to strengthen our movements towards a world that is just for all, and that moves away from the old, narrow hetero-patriarchal worldview.

Young feminists feature prominently in discussions about multigenerational organizing because historically strategies and programmes designed around the needs of a specific generation have focused on youth and young women. The sexual and reproductive health and rights movements, and the formation of organizations like the Youth Coalition are examples. This is partly because young feminists have advocated for their needs as a group to be recognized, and have pushed for representation, support and resources while also recognizing that this is a hard fought struggle because their identity as young feminists is in flux. As Loubna H. Skalli writes in the blog post Generations in Dialogue, Beyond the Blame Game: “What the younger generation tends to resent is not seniority per se, but rather what I call hegemonic seniority. They particularly resent the exclusionary practices of established activists that neither recognize nor value what young generations can bring to the movement.” 

But multigenerational organizing is for feminists of all ages and only works if it involves all feminists. Three key aspects have emerged from the research that the Young Feminist Activism (YFA) programme has done on the issue since 2008 - through multigenerational dialogues, webinars, e-discussions, blogs and a Tweetathon. These aspects are: ensuring representation, facilitating participation and engaging in consultations.

Ensuring representation: “Nothing about us without us!”

“Nothing about us without us!” is a maxim often used by protest groups, specifically young women and people of colour, who  have largely been excluded from conversations about them. For example, a small group of young women from Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine founded the Uprising of Women in the Arab World as a feminist movement “for constructive dialogue and fearless listening about women’s rights in the Arab world” without the filter of the mainstream media. Inclusion and representation are at the centre of the many struggles for women’s human rights, and are equally important to the issue of multigenerational organizing. By bringing feminists from different generations and backgrounds together, the stage is set for different generational issues, needs, perspectives and challenges to be raised - and heard.

Generational issues, needs, perspectives and challenges were raised during the YFA’s #Icommit blogs and Tweetathon in December 2014. #Icommit was an effort to share commitments and stories from organizations and individuals that advance collaborative work across generations within the women’s movement.  Rahel Waldeab, an Eritrean young feminist and PanAfricanist tweeted that she wants to see change happening fast, yet she acknowledges that she shouldn’t forget the long struggles that women have had to face to get to where we are today. Kholoud Htewash from the Voice of Libyan Women tweeted that she commits to fostering mediums, which empower women and girls to be their own decision-makers. Tiger Lily, a queer rights activist, tweeted: I think committing to “care across generations” in the feminist movement is something we need to work on, given bitter clashes and I am committed to that kind of care. To listening, respecting, supporting, while also maintaining the integrity of my position.” Effective multigenerational organizing must allow people to define feminism on their own terms, while still being open to learn from all generations.

In her blog On air activism: the Feminist Magazine Collective, Cherise Charleswell shares her experience and learnings from being part of a radio programme produced by a diverse collective of feminists. She emphasizes that it was after she sat in on a “round-table” discussion that she realized that “The women in attendance were those who just entered their 20s, to those in their 60s. They were multi-generational, multi-lingual, multi-racial, multi-cultural and of varying sexual orientations. The collective is  absolutely inclusive, exactly what feminism should be.” She also highlights that one of the senior producers reinforced the rule that all opinions/voice are valid and hold equal weight - regardless of ages, experience in activism, or years involved with the collective - making it that “nobody is considered the expert, who has all of the answers.”

Facilitating participation, being aware of power

Facilitating participation requires an awareness of the power dynamics and internalized stereotypes that are often present among feminists. Age-ism and generalizations about the contributions, limitations, or role of women from different age groups and experiences affect all generations, and the way in which people participate.

The need for intergenerational organizing (Nelly Basilly)

In the blog Learning from the Girls Advisory Board, Claudia Bollwinkel from filia.die frauenstiftung (a women’s fund based in Germany) speaks about learning to understand her own ageism, how she took her power for granted, and how vital building strong trust and ensuring a space for mutual learning and effective participation is. She writes “But still we are struggling with how to hand over power to the young feminists who joined us. Take Anna. I want this girl to be the next German chancellor – such a clear political mind! When we started working together on the Girls Advisory Board I could sense her distrust. Was I really being honest with her or just giving her tokens? ... For example I had, together with filia, decided on how many years the girls could stay on the Board. Anna was furious – not about the limit we set but that we had not included them in the decision.” Communication is key - being heard, taken on board and able to make decisions.

Acknowledging the challenges is equally important. In her piece, Movement building challenges for young women in South Africa, Shamillah Wilson writes: “The women’s movement in southern African is no different from its sister movements in other regions. Issues of rural, lesbian, transgender, HIV positive, disabled, young women, etc. continue to cause confusion and often conflicts. The fact that social movements often mirror the complex relationships of power that they seek to transform does nothing to alleviate the divisions and damage caused by how different identities are included or excluded.”

Consultation in creation

If representation refers to ‘who is in the room,’ and participation refers to their ‘ability to contribute,’ then consultation refers to the contributions that are made, and  whether or how they are taken up and acted upon.   

What the YFA program has learned through the  #Icommit campaign is that there are no formulas for consultation and working effectively across generations and movements.  But, being aware of power dynamics and being humble enough to unlearn, with compassion, what our classical conditioning of the world is, by continually focusing awareness towards our inherent biases, can help us to build alliances where we may not be inclined to.  Working in solidarity with others makes us grow our feminisms collectively.

A recent Twitter campaign (#las17) calling for the release of 17 Salvadorian women who were unjustly imprisoned for between 30 and 40 years for having abortions and miscarriages shows how feminists from different generations, movements and countries around the world, rallied together and pressured government officials in El Salvador, and beyond, for their freedom. All this pressure and solidarity work lead to the pardon of Carmen Guadalupe Vásquez Aldana, a woman convicted of aggravated homicide after having suffered a miscarriage. Pressure is still mounting to pardon the remaining women and to further urge the authorities to repeal legislation which criminalises abortion in all circumstances.

Some of the most ‘cutting edge’ work on multigenerational and intersectional organizing is happening in the feminist tech sphere. For example FemHack in Montreal is an autonomous group whose mission is to “create an empowering and inspiring environment for politicized feminist and queer hackers. Triggered by Do-It-Together practices, learning by doing and curiosity about how things are made, believing in the freedom of technology, privacy, openness and sharing of common goods.” Their FemHackFest, which was held in November 2014, etched out a clear set of feminist principles for its activities instead of simply encouraging more women to participate in a tokenistic way in its hackerspace.

In the same vein, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) Women’s Programme is trying to collectively and collaboratively spell out a common and shared understanding of what the feminist principles of the internet are. For example, principle 14 in the evolving document embodies the idea of multigenerational organization because without the full participation and experiences of young people, there cannot be a feminist internet.

Multigenerational and intersectional organizing helps us stay relevant by reflecting on the past, building on experiences and introducing new strategies. It also helps us overcome leadership gaps and maintain the rhythm and longevity of our feminisms. As prolific radical feminist author Audre Lorde writes: “I am not free while any women is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

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