In its work on gender justice, FES seeks to build alliances across regions and borders by strengthening feminist networks. How can we pursue non-imperialist solidarity across borders, especially against the backdrop of the power asymmetries between the Global North and the Global South that are entrenched in existing development politics and political education? Natalia Figge talked with Nikita Dhawan in the margins of the annual Gender Innovation Network Meeting.
Transnational feminist scholarship and activism is still struggling with the issue of how to build alliances against gender injustice and inequality that could offer a possible platform for shared feminist projects. The challenge remains: How can issues of gender justice be addressed, particularly in the Global South, without reinforcing Orientalist and Eurocentric tendencies in the Global North?
We should be aware thatgender violence, for instance, continues to be weaponised by hegemonic forces to stigmatise migrant communities and postcolonial societies as inherently misogynistic, while female migrants and Third World women are constructed as ‘helpless victims’ of their cultures and societies. In the face of Western imperialist practices, any discussion of gender injustice within minority communities or in postcolonial societies risks being strategically co-opted to perpetuate racism and militarisation in the name of ‘protection’ from gender violence. It is imperative to acknowledge that there are no universal solutions to problems of gender injustice.
Although feminist initiatives are increasingly sensitive to local conditions, the notion of ‘women’s interests’, purportedly shared by all women regardless of race, class, religion, and nationality, has meant that general solutions have been advocated to global problems that are held to be universally relevant for all women. For example, international initiatives to combat poverty or conflict often represent Third World women as ‘in need of help’, thereby legitimising Western intervention. Insofar as Western feminists have participated in these kinds of universalising political discourses and denied the possibility of non-Western forms of gender justice, they have contributed to reinforcing the Eurocentric bias in transnational feminist politics, whilst clinging to a form of solidarity that reinforces established hierarchies.
One of the most important accomplishments of transnational feminism over the past decades has involved overcoming the idea of universal patriarchy and the paradigm of ‘global sisterhood’ and instead considering how ‘differences make a difference’ to global politics. Focusing on intersectionality has certainly enriched debates on the ways in which sexism, heteropatriarchy, racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, or transphobia co-constitute each other, even as capitalism and neocolonialism continue to impoverish and disenfranchise the majority of the world’s population. While champions of transnational feminism highlight how the growing international network of civil-society actors facilitates participation of women from the Global South in global politics, detractors point out that merging women’s local struggles with a global women’s movement has entrenched hegemonic feminist agendas.
For example, the universalisation of women’s human rights is still plagued by the problem of stereotyping local cultural practices as the root cause of gender inequality. Despite decades of controversial discussions in the context of CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women), Western norms continue to be staged as per se modern and emancipatory, while the source of women’s oppression in developing countries is still identified as being located mainly in the domain of harmful ‘traditional’ practices, like arranged/early/forced marriage, female genital cutting or ‘honour killing’. Strategies to combat violence against women reinforce notions of barbaric and patriarchal African, Hindu or Islamic traditions. Viewing women’s rights through the prism of culturalisation and individualisation diverts attention away from broader questions of global structural inequality, while at the same time also legitimising ‘rescue narratives’ and Western military and humanitarian interventions.
My problem with transnational feminism is that it fails to seriously address the historical processes through which certain individuals are placed in a situation from which they can aspire to practice global solidarity. The distance between those who ‘dispense’ solidarity and those who are simply codified as ‘victims of wrongdoing’ and thus as ‘recipients’ of solidarity remains a hallmark of historical violence. The non-reciprocity and distance between the two sides of this equation testify to the failure to decolonise feminism. Unless the uneven global distribution of agency is addressed and corrected, transnational feminist politics will be mere window-dressing, concealing underlying imperialist feminism. We need to combat gender injustice without reinforcing Orientalist stereotypes and to forge transnational alliances without trivialising capitalist and patriarchal violence or patronising those to whom we offer our solidarity.
Nikita Dhawan is Professor of Political Science with a focus on Gender Studies and Director of the Department of Political Science at the University of Gießen. Her research areas include transnational feminism, global justice, human rights, democracy, postcolonial and queer studies as well as migration and globalisation.