The forward march of women halted?

Fred Halliday
4 May 2006

In 1981, before the dissolution of democratic socialism in western Europe and the collapse of communism in the east, the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm published a short study on the state of the socialist movement entitled The Forward March of Labour Halted? Originally delivered as a lecture in 1978, Hobsbawm's perceptive and timely text pointed to a major reversal of leftwing, and more generally emancipatory, optimism across the world. Hobsbawm, a chronicler of working-class struggles, identified factors pointing to the stalling of a trend that had been in evidence since the early 19th century. Events have confirmed Hobsbawm's judgement and forced a revision of history and perspective regarding the socialist cause.

A similar rethink may now be in order regarding another great modern goal: the emancipation of women. While important differences exist, there are similarities between the workers' and the women's movements: in the ways in which a commitment to women's equality and fulfilment has eroded, in which strong opposition to this commitment has emerged, and in which the movement has lost the unity of purpose and vision, and the clarity of goal, that sustained it in earlier times.

If fewer people today, in politics or everyday life, call themselves "socialist", it would appear that even fewer proclaim a commitment to "feminism". While never aspiring to the organisational unity associated with socialism, feminism has suffered from a lack of formal, national or international, cohesion. At the same time the earlier association of feminism with a broader programme of social emancipation and rationality has been eroded – by the collapse of the broader trend and through a diversion of much "third-wave" feminist theorising and debate into epistemological and political blind alleys.

Still, there are many factors today which militate against such a conclusion. In politics, women have become more prominent in several countries, evidenced by the recent elections of presidents Michelle Bachelet in Chile and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia. Bachelet, a former political prisoner under the regime of General Augusto Pinochet, was herself tortured, and her father died in prison. When she took power, crowds took to the streets of Santiago shouting: "Ya van a ver, ya van a ver! Quando las mujeres tengan el poder! " ("They will see, they will see! When women have the power!").

Fred Halliday is Professor of International Relations at the LSE, and Visiting Professor at CIDOB, Barcelona. His books include Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (IB Tauris, 2003) and 100 Myths About the Middle East
(Saqi, 2005).

Fred Halliday's "global politics" column on openDemocracy surveys the national histories, geopolitical currents, and dominant ideas across the world. The articles include:

"America and Arabia after Saddam"
(May 2004)

"Terrorism and world politics: conditions and prospects"
(March 2005)

"An encounter with Mr X" (March 2005)

"Iran's revolutionary spasm" (July 2005)

"Political killing in the cold war" (August 2005)

"Maxime Rodinson: in praise of a 'marginal man'"
(September 2005)

"A transnational umma: myth or reality? " (October 2005)

"The 'Barcelona process': ten years on" (November 2005)

"The United Nations vs the United States" (January 2006)

"Blasphemy and power" (February 2006)

"Iran vs the United States – again" (February 2006)

"Terrorism and delusion" (April 2006)

In a range of countries across Europe – though not noticeably in the curmudgeonly and unimaginative political arena of the United Kingdom – it has become widely accepted that there need to be quotas for election candidates and ministerial appointments. In Spain, half of all ministers are women. In Germany and the Scandinavian countries, quotas are generally respected; in France (where they are not), the major parties have been fined for not meeting the stipulations of the law. In Italy, even outgoing prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has conceded the principle of 30% women in the cabinet. Germany has its own first woman prime minister, Angela Merkel. And in Finland, where a woman, Tarja Halonen, was re-elected president in January 2006, schoolchildren are reportedly asking if, in their country, a man is allowed to run for head of state.

The impact of three decades of feminist engagement with politics and the law is also evident in a number of changes in public policy across the world. For example:

  • As a result of work by feminist international lawyers, rape has been classified, for the first time, as a war crime, categorised by the international tribunals on former Yugoslavia and Rwanda as a form of torture
  • Sexual discrimination and maltreatment has been accepted by some countries, among them Canada and Spain, as grounds for political asylum
  • While, according to Amnesty International, thirty-six countries in the world maintain laws that discriminate against women, gender discrimination in employment has been outlawed in many countries, and major overt discrimination within the same employment and pay scale has markedly declined in some countries
  • Organisations involved with aid to the third world, and development policy in general, have put gender concerns at the centre of their donation policies. In a related policy shift, the issue of world poverty – and associated questions such as mortality, education and HIV/Aids – have come to be formulated in gender terms, with a clear realisation that it is women who bear a disproportionate share of the costs.

To have achieved all this in the space of one generation is a major achievement of the feminist movement which, emerging in the 1960s and 1970s, sought to develop an overall critique of the ways in which gender and sex continued to structure all areas of social, economic and political life. In the area of social science that I specialise in, international relations, a rich literature on issues of war and peace, international law and development, peace and security, rights and social movements has brought the question of gender into even this most recalcitrant of academic disciplines.

And yet, on the horizon, other trends can be observed. There is a marked turning away by many states from the formal commitments on women's emancipation made in the 1960s (covenants on social and economic rights), 1970s (the 1979 United Nations Convention on Discrimination Against Women, or Cedaw), and 1990s (the 1995 Beijing International Women's Conference). The most dramatic non-event of 2005 was an illustration of this: while the states and diplomats of the world rushed to hold review conferences for such issues as nuclear proliferation and the Barcelona Euro-Mediterranean process, no such meeting was held to mark the tenth anniversary of the Beijing conference, or of earlier such decennial events at Copenhagen (1975) and Nairobi (1985).

This resiling from past commitments is most evident in the former communist countries, and in now marketised post-communist dictatorships, such as China and Cuba, where the earlier, albeit authoritarian, interventions of the state in favour of women have been abandoned. Inequality in terms of employment and social provision is growing, and in a gesture to the Catholic church and what is an index of the anti-feminist new mood, the new Polish government abolished the position of minister of women altogether. The British government has recently done almost as well, having allocated the position to a little-known member of parliament who receives no additional compensation for the responsibility.

This defection by states is matched by a shift in public mood. In a range of countries, and a variety of rhetorical registers, respect for women and for the goals of decency and equality proposed by feminism has declined. Arnold Schwarzenegger's rise to the governorship in California was marked by grotesque and vulgar strutting, as well as by his sneering at opponents as "girlie-men". Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi makes much of his macho activities, while President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan dismisses rape victims' protests by asserting that a claim of rape, for many women, was a way to get financial compensation and perhaps a visa to live abroad. President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, meanwhile, entertains his audiences with sexist jibes at Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state.

More serious and sustained, and reflecting a definite and organised commitment, is the spread of anti-feminist social movements and religious groups across many countries. In the United States, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalised abortion, the case of Roe vs Wade, is now under serious attack, and the abortion issue has become a major dividing line in US politics.

In Europe, the Catholic Church – now led by the conservative Pope Benedict XVI, following in the footsteps of John Paul II – is openly calling for more church intervention in social and political life and a return to "traditional" values on marriage, sex, women and homosexuality. The argument that church's policies – such as its prohibition against the use of condoms – are responsible for endangering the lives of millions of people through Aids has received relatively little attention. Instead, we see the emergence in Italian political life, and potentially elsewhere, of a "theoconservative" political trend, bent on rolling back the clock on advances in social and gender equality.

The situation in the Islamic world is, of course, even more catastrophic. Here the spread of Islamism, as a social and political force, is universally accompanied by an erosion of respect for women and their rights and greater use of the law, and state power, to impose a new authoritarian set of norms. Just as in the cold war, both communist and capitalist states combined their rivalry with each other with the imposition of social and political controls at home; so now, in the "long war" between the west and politicised Islam, a similar, mutually reinforcing, reconsolidation of conservative values is taking place.

At the same time, the conservatives states of east and west – Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on one side; the US, Vatican City and almost certainly a newly assertive Poland on the other – ally in UN conferences on the family and other issues to impose their agenda.

These shifts in political and social attitude are compounded, however, by the endurance and, in the context of globalisation, reinforced inequalities of the workplace and life. Studies produced on the occasion of the most recent International Women's Day (8 March 2006) showed that across developed countries, overall discrimination in work remained resilient although discrimination within any one profession may have declined. Poorer paid jobs are still allocated to women, who suffer enduring discrimination across their working lives because of the interruptions of child care. In Spain, the overall pay gap is 40%. In Britain, many women are confined to the sectors known as "five C's" – caring, cashiering, catering, cleaning and clerical work. In the United States, under the pressures of combining parenthood and work, the percentage of women in the labour force has declined in recent years.

Much is made – in a tone that is both encouraging and profoundly misleading – of the ability of women to "juggle" work and home; but, as anyone who has tried it for long knows, this "juggling" is often stressful and suffocating. It may be too early to draw up a balance sheet, but there are strong indications that globalisation, with its increased strains and demands (not least regarding hours worked and the erosion of social services) is enhancing gender differences across both the developed and developing worlds.

And there are other, far worse, trends: the terrible incidence of violence against women in many contemporary wars, such as the estimated 40,000 rapes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the past six years; the incidence of violence against women in developed as well as developing countries (in the US, an estimated 700,000 women are raped per year); the spread of female infanticide in India and China; the impunity of men engaged in "feminicide", or the systematic killing of women. In Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, 4,500 women have disappeared and hundreds have been found dead (and often tortured) in recent years, with almost no police or state response.

Above and beyond all of this, there are the gendered consequences of the dramatic times we live in, notably the "war on terror". The response in many western societies, particularly the US, to Islamic extremist violence has been to reassert conservative and male – so-called "family" – values in the face of an alien culture and its associated threat. In the Muslim world, the sense of hostility towards the west is associated with a cultural nationalism that denies liberal or modern western concepts of women's equality and rights. The terror groups themselves play a role in this, vaunting a male form of violence and protest that allows no place for women. In their rhetoric and political objectives, as well as in the fear and violence they spread, these groups also defy any culture of tolerance, democratic debate and openness – all preconditions for the advancement of feminism.

This contempt for, and rejection of, all that women's emancipation and its associate democratic norms entail, was brought home to me in one dramatic incident during the summer of 2004. Visiting Madrid to see where the Islamist terrorist groups responsible for the 11 March bombings had been active, I went to the suburb of Leganés, a district of modern four- and five-storey apartment buildings, much favoured by young families. There, on a leafy street, was the mangled wreckage of the block where seven Islamists had blown themselves up. Looking around, I noticed that the streets all had feminist names: the Avenida Petra Kelly and Flora Tristan Street – named, respectively, for a German peace activist and founder of the Greens, and for a 19th-century French writer active in workers' struggles for social justice. Other streets carried the names of Spanish and Latin American women writers.

Evidently, the local authorities in Leganés were committed to feminism and to the heroines and writers of that movement. But for the terrorists this had meant nothing; had they known what these names represented, they probably would have hated it all the more, just as their accursed associates in Bali and Egypt attacked night clubs and hotels where people relaxed. In this, and in all the fear and masculinist violence they have spread, they are representative of a much wider, more ominous global trend. The forward march of women may not have halted, but it is certainly having to engage, and with varied fortunes, a much broader range of fronts.

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