It’s not me, it’s you: Breaking up with neoliberal capitalism in search of radical self-care feminism

In the twenty-first century of neoliberal capitalism, the question – “will I ever be good enough?” – wrings through the minds of millions of women and girls as they stare in the mirror. The answer to this question is no, you will never be good enough in the eyes of neoliberal capitalism. 

While this reality may prove depressing at first glance, when one starts to examine the strategic ways that neoliberal capitalism works to undermine individual self-confidence for the sake of profit, one sees the fallacy of such a question from the start. Unlike your mom, who may reassure you that you are “perfect just the way you are,” the money-mongering nature of neoliberal consumerism will always have a problem with who you are, how you look and what choices you make. Don’t feel bad, you’re not alone; no one is good enough. 

In We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political MovementAndy Zeisler, one of the founding members of the feminist magazine Bitch, works to demystify the aura of neoliberal capitalism and its subsequent effects of feminism. Zeisler describes what many view as “white-feminism” or “feel-good feminism” in this neoliberal age with a new label: marketplace feminism. 

Marketplace feminism is a particularly modern form of capitalist feminism that places women’s empowerment in the realm of consumer choice; The freedom of choice is seen as equivalent to gender equity. 

Yet the insidious nature of intersecting feminism with marketplace consumerism leaves poor, disabled and minority women of color especially at risk of abjection. Even for those women who can “afford” this type of feminism “the business of marketing and selling to women literally depends on creating and then addressing female insecurity”.

In a system set up for you to constantly fail, we must rid ourselves of self-scrutiny that places the blame on individual selves and instead study the ways in which institutional systems work to create barriers to our feminist realizations. 

In the eyes of progressively radical, anti-capitalist feminism, you have always been good enough, strong enough and beautiful enough, and you always will be. It’s time to stop internalizing the hateful messages of marketplace feminism that tell you you’ll never be good enough. It’s time to break up with neoliberal capitalism once and for all and start your journey towards radical self-care feminism.

(Image Credit: Medium)

My first Feminism lesson

My first Feminism lesson:

So in the 80’s there was a famous Soweto Rape Gang called “Jackrollers”. They would go to discos’s parties and take women at gun point to sleep with them without their consent. So this particular day at my home which was a Shebeen run by mother, three women came running hiding themselves under the beds and behind wardrobes. My mother rushed to the door and I was right behind her. She was greeted by a gun from one of the Jackrollers who was demanding her to bring out the women that ran into the house. My mother’s response was NO.

The gang leader asked if my mom was willing to die for the women she did not know and the response from that Nkwanyana queen was .” It is unfortunate that they had to run into this house because even if I do not know them, but as a mother I am not willing to give them over to you just because you have a gun. Maybe if they went next door but they chose this house and that is unfortunate for you because your gun pointing at me will not let me hand them over to you”.

I was scared to death but later became strong after seeing this old woman who was standing up against a gang of rapists that have held the whole of Soweto at ransom.

For me that was feminism in action given by one and only Queen of my heart 90 years old Audrey Babhekile Nkwanyana- Magwaza.

This lesson will never go away, it has always been in my mind but most importantly in my heart.

 

(Photo Credit: Brand South Africa)

Water Crisis: Can Cape Town act collectively to generate a new eco-politics?

Flamingos on the Black River

A journalist sent me an email recently, asking for comment on the Cape water crisis. His email was titled *Will Cape Town survive the deadliest water crisis?* Here’s my response.

Thanks for writing. I worry about your email headline though: this is not “the deadliest” water crisis and yes of course the city can survive it, if the narrative we work with is productive. Making it about “survival” (presumably v extinction) and “the deadliest” generates scripts for individual survivalism — and therefore that kind of story becomes self-fulfilling. My PhD was on journalism and narratives of crisis and conflict in KwaZulu-Natal in the 1990s. I feel very strongly about the role of the media in generating responsive, responsible stories. See for example Ben Okri’s incredible booklet on stories and storytelling — “A Way Of Being Free” — where he sets out in pithy and quotable numbered phrases how we become the stories we tell ourselves. So you have a role too, in facilitating the kind of narrative that can enable collective action.

That is not, of course, to punt “sunshine journalism” or pretend that all is well, or no criticism is allowed. Far from it. This is a terrible situation, that’s arisen not only from some terrible decisions but also from a lifestyle that is the ideal of city living. Like any other terrible situation this can bring the best out of us (if we learn how to work together and transform how we live as households and as a city — a feminist ethic of care) and the worst (if we work on “my-household-uber-alles” survivalism — the patriarchal principle).

The greatest failing of the political management of the crisis so far has been the failure of leadership to offer a narrative that encourages people to pull together. But perhaps — if I think as a social scientist — that failure is not just an oversight but symptomatic of the broader problem: and that is the idea that “experts” will solve this. There are two problems with this:
* like weather forecasting in a time of climate crisis, expertise discovers its limits when the predictables are no longer predictable.
* Expertise that is based on the patriarchal and militaristic “command and control” is based on the idea that expertise has no limits.

Spot the loop?

As a feminist scholar who reads a lot of decolonial thinkers’ work, I think there is something very important to think about here: that both our modes of “I know everything” expertise, and modes of collective organising (command and control) — reach their limits in a time of crisis.

So experts and decision-makers have two choices: either carry on pretending to have complete expertise and have everyone but themselves see the hubris of that, or work with people to say — “look: we were totally wrong to assume that rainfall patterns would stay high. We’ve made choices in those years to spend funds on other pressing priorities (this is what they were; we will put together a commission of enquiry to try to learn what went wrong with water sciences, and /or the communications between our water expertise and decision-making.) But right now we have a crisis to solve — and we can either fight with one another, or address this using what we have learned in the past about collective action. So let’s create a water crisis committee with all public sectors involved, and create street committees on every street, and work out how we can partner together poor and rich areas so we can ensure we can get through the next 180 days together.”

The key is to move from “command and control” approaches to implementing expertise to an ethics of care, of relationships – because relationships and collective action are the only way we can do this.

South Africa in general, and Cape Town in particular, have a strong history of collective action in opposing apartheid. We need to reclaim that, and bring the best of UDF-style leadership into this. “Each one teach one”; street committees to ensure care for those on your street, and partnerships to care for sectors far away. For example, middle class and elite and working-class street committees could work together to put up a number of water filters and rain water tanks at poorer schools, or sponsor a couple of roller barrels. Or work with NGOs like Habitat for Humanity to facilitate work parties to construct compost toilets — which are NOT expensive to put up, but need to be done properly and managed well. Or churches or Rotary style organisations or specific districts could also offer a truck or sponsor truck hire for people living in areas without transport to fetch water. And yes, there will be conflicts — but if you remember the Peace Committee structures of the 1990s there were teams available to help resolve conflicts.

South Africans are incredibly divided and this kind of crisis will either force the faultlines wide open — an earthquake-style catastrophe — or offer an opportunity to step over the city’s dividing lines and start to fill the cracks.

How you do that is not via command and control relationships, but by drawing the best out of people. Encouraging relationships of care: knowing that what matters to one, matters to all. The labour power available through mass mobilisation of generosity based on care for the bigger picture is what gets you through tough days. While it is going to be difficult to persuade the racist, nationalistic, individualistic and patriarchal among us (and often inside us) to do this, the situation is dire: either we work together as a city, based on care and noticing needs, or we destroy our possibility of being a collective, which is what a city is. The question everyone has to think about is what does it mean to be a collective, in this situation? In that way we rediscover politics — and more specifically, an ecological politics: that we all depend on everyone’s wellbeing; that everyone depends on our capacity to create a workable ecology for homes and services and businesses. What is normally scoffed at as “utopian” in the “strongest individuals survive” mentality promoted by neoliberalism, is now a basic and necessary home truth. The democratic social contract only works if you create a functioning ecology. The city’s ecology has broken down because of low rainfall: human collective effort is now needed to supply what “ecosystem services” have done for free.

You asked what I meant about seeing this crisis as an opportunity to build a greener and more climate resilient city. The rise of cities since the 1960s has been extraordinary, and cities are only possible because of sewage management and bulk water, bulk energy and bulk food supply, and waste removal. But the ecological costs of bulk supply are enormous. Cities are extraordinarily wasteful infrastructures because they are built on the idea of bulk supply only, removing the responsibility of all to live ecologically. Most urban design gives barely a thought to water or energy. So whole new developments go in as if they are alien spaceships and have nothing to do with the ecologies that sustain them. Hard surfacing means water runs off very fast, as stormwater, and doesn’t seep into the soil. Result: no aquifer recharge; flooding; lowering of water table; drier soils; loss of large trees; higher temperatures on streets; more aircon, more fossil fuels, greater climate change. Simple water-wise solutions would change this. So: this crisis makes it evident that water-sensitive urban design must become mandatory for EVERY new development.

I think it is entirely appropriate to look at Cape Town (and Port Elizabeth, for that matter — also facing a day zero) as an example of an evolutionary limit of a city based on that kind of “eco-thoughtless” design. At some point the system collapses in on itself, whether through poor planning (in one large city) or through changed climate (from so many large cities). But consider rainfall in relation to roof area in Cape Town. If every rooftop was harvesting rainwater, we would be well on the way to saving the water that falls locally — and it is a lot — we would be storing local downpours as well as the water that the faraway dams collect. The city can and should be looking at localised water solutions, at household level. There should be a subsidy system for water tanks and guttering into them. That would build more climate change resilience for the coming years.

Consider sewage. Cape Town has a massive problem with sewage going out to sea. We could be recycling about 50% of the water from sewage, I’m told by engineers, and ensuring that pharmaceuticals and organic pollutants are removed. Again, this will lead to greater climate resilience. Compost toilets are also very useful — I’m installing one in my home — but there too, I worry about persistent organic pollutants getting into soil and the water table or aquifers, so I’m not convinced these are a long term solution for a major city on major medications, and using the kind of toxic cleaning products that supermarkets push.

There’s another whole discussion there: Why do we clean our houses with toxins and call them clean? Surely we need to rethink “clean” beyond “shiny” to consider the health of the whole household — and its ecology. The word “ecology” comes from the Greek word “ekos” (oikos, if you use the correct spelling). “Ekos” means HOUSEHOLD. It is also the root word of “economy” and “ecumene”. This ecological crisis in which we find ourselves has come about because we have split ecology from economy, thinking of economy only as finance, not natural flows, growths and cycles. And we have split ecology and economy from ecumene, or society: forgetting that the three depend on each other, and come together in how we live, how we make our homes.

Then let’s look at the city’s rivers. The Black River, the Liesbeeck, the Eerste, the Kuils, the Keyser — these should be clean, and should be sources of water that we could use in this crisis. It is scandalous that they flow every day but that their waters are so filthy the city can’t even consider using them for drinking water. It is true that the flamingoes are back on the Black River, and that is the accomplishment of a team of under-resourced fresh water ecologists who’ve done extraordinary things. But the rivers are still terrible. That needs to change. We need to reclaim our relationships with rivers, and care for them and their water like we care for the health of our own arteries. Collective clean ups of the river are possible. They flow through communities rich and poor. River clean ups can be vital spaces of collective care and attention across race and class divides.

Spring water: that the city is finally re-piping some of its springs into dams is brilliant. Bravo. A small but vital step towards climate resilience.

The above infrastructural interventions span short and long term. The point is that through this crisis, the political will towards ecological solutions is being rediscovered. We are discovering that the city is not a spaceship. It is part of planet earth, and we need a politics that works with local planetary processes — which is what local ecologies are. In this, we can, if we choose, recognise the limits of individualism, and rediscover the power of collective action. In an era that has come to be defined by anti-politics, reclaiming this kind of collective, public-minded, ecological politics is what will make the biggest difference. Philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers has written a great deal about science and politics in the coming climate crisis. The translation of the title of one her recent books is “In times of crisis, resist the impulse to barbarism.”

Can Cape Town act collectively to generate a new eco-politics? That’s the issue.

Liesbeeck River

 

(Photo Credit 1: UCT News) (Photo Credit 2: The Watershed Project)

Woke in progress

Hello, I’m a feminist—actually, scratch that, I’m an intersectional feminist. Wait, no, hold on. Hello, my name is Lilly, my pronouns are she/her/hers, and I’m an intersectional feminist with Socialist leanings. Okay, that was almost perfect, but I forgot to add in that I’m white, bisexual, cisgendered, and able-bodied. Should I mention my relative income privilege? What about my personal connection to gun violence? Does it matter whether or not I justify my use of the word “bitch”? Let’s try this one more time.

Hello, my name is Lilly and I’m a human, woman, and feminist in progress. Using the word progress, of course, implies that I’m working towards a foreseeable end, perfection, an epitome. I should clarify that I’m not. Feminism is a process, and there are certainly ways for the movement and the people who are involved in it to improve their actions, but there is not one right way to be a feminist. Furthermore, there isn’t an absolute value, a pure and distilled version of feminism that is the absolute ideal version of the movement.

Everyone involved in the feminist movement, whether they choose to label themselves or not, will expand and improve the ways in which they practice their activism. As we grow older and wiser, so too do we grow more inclusive. For some of us, it will take years to incorporate intersectional identity politics into our doctrines. For others, we may be marrying diverse ideas when we are still young and fresh and inexperienced. Everyone grows at a different rate and in a different way.

When we reach a new intangible step up the feminist ladder, we are usually tempted to criticize those who are below us on the invisible path to enlightened activism. Maybe we want to do this to mark our own progress. After all, if we’re able to point out the problematic elements of other people, doesn’t that prove our own social consciousness? Constructive criticism is certainly important. Pointing out the harmful or problematic ideas of another person may very well be a valuable learning experience. At the same time, however, we should also remember that we were once in their spot. They’re still growing, and so are you. As feminists, our potential to hone our activism is limitless. We’ll never be the best versions of ourselves, but we can certainly take some steps in the right direction.

 

(Image Credit 1: Everyday Feminism / VAL3NTEA) (Image Credit 2: The Odyssey)

Radio WIBG interview: Tijana Okic

 

Tijana Okic

Tijana Okic

(Editor’s note: Today we inaugurate Radio WIBG (Women In and Beyond the Global). Brigitte Marti interviews Bosnian feminist activist Tijana Okic.)

From the CADTM Europe Summer University: The second day offered many workshops to continue the exploration of “The debt in all its state” and moreover the resistance that is being organized around the world.

In Women in and Beyond the Global we look for the voices and analyses that the neoliberal establishment would like to smother. Tijana Okic is definitely a voice that does not want to be smothered. She talked to us about her feminist commitment against this fraudulent racket organized around the story of the debt. Listen to her inspiring and important Bosnian perspective and testimony.

 

 

Recording and photo  by Brigitte Marti

 

European Elections: Let’s organize hope with a feminist voice!

The campaign for this weekend’s European elections has seen the formation of lists that express a strong resistance to conservative, neoliberal and nationalistic attempts to control the European Parliament. Among these newly formed political entities is the Feminist Party for a Europe of Solidarity. This election is an opportunity for feminists to argue in the political realm. The public campaign system allows them to have their campaign clip filmed by professionals and mandates space for them in the media.

Each country in Europe will vote to elect their Members of the European Parliament (MEP). Then the MEPs regroup according to political visions and agreements to form groups. In the past Parliament several issues concerning women’s rights were downplayed.

The 2008 Parliamentary Assembly Resolution 1607 showed how the EU has delayed a clear positioning on women’s rights to control their own bodies. In December 2013, the European parliament failed to vote for the Estrela report that stated that reproductive rights are human rights. The reports spoke about the role of access to contraception and abortion especially for young women in the advancement of gender and economic equality in Europe. These lists demand the right to abortion to be inscribed in the European Charter, which, ideally, woud constrain the countries (Poland, Ireland and Malta) that have no such right to take action.

In France, Caroline de Haas, the top candidate for the Paris region, affirms that public policies are not neutral. In the rise of neoliberal debt economies, women are the most vulnerable to their policies. The austerity measures that have swept European countries recommend cuts on public services. Women are the most dependent on public services, which include reproductive services. Across Europe, women constitute an average of 70% of civil servants. When pay cuts and hiring freeze are the economic tools that governments adopt, the consequences for women and ultimately for society are dire. We have seen the devastation of these policies in Greece. In this destabilization of the civil society, violence against women has increased and the difficulties to report these crimes remain significant across Europe.

The Feminist Party program demands that the EU protect migrant women’s work conditions, whether for pay or not. Women are generally underpaid compared to their male counterparts, but when their immigration status is uncertain, the gap increases. The “ represent half of the migrants residing in Europe. Feminists in the Green party have also been critical of the immigration and refugee’s policies resulting in mistreatment of migrants.

The European feminist candidates, half of whom are men, assert that the feminist project is a political project in which both women and men must work together. That project is vast. The lists have been formed in Sweden with one candidate likely to have a seat, as well as Germany and France. In other countries, feminist political voices are heard in the Green Party, in other smaller progressive lists and in socialist coalitions. Feminists are realistic and clear: “Before changing the mentalities, which will take a long time, direct actions have to be taken. That is why feminism has to become a political matter.” The goal is to fight for new majorities and new solidarities and to fight the political apathy that the TINA (there is no alternative) doctrine has encouraged.

The fight is real, as nationalist parties have progressed all over Europe. Feminists know that gender does not guarantee feminism. Angela Merkel has fostered neoliberal policies with dire consequences for women’s rights and reproduction rights. Marine Le Pen the leader of the French nationalist party is promoting hatred and is ready to support the Spanish government’s breach on reproductive rights.

These lists have triggered positive reactions also among other progressive candidates who perceive the importance of building coalitions to force women’s rights and organize resistance to neoliberal infringement on public policies. Clearly, the threats of nationalistic and neoliberal demons are real. But as Paulo Freire stated, “Despair is unconvincing…and hope is reliable.” Let’s organize hope with a feminist voice!

 

(Image Credit: Féministes pour une Europe solidaire)

Radical Feminisms & Occupy

 

(Photo Credit: Rabble.ca)

As one who was an activist and a radical pre-occupy (as I have been during- and will be post-), I had mixed feelings upon occupy’s initial momentum. It is nice to be surprised once in a while. A friend put it best—“if someone had told you five years ago that Adbusters would be responsible for the next US protest movement, and that Crimethinc would be providing useful, levelheaded discourse on it, would you have believed them?” Not a chance. So when it kicked off, I was extremely skeptical. I had long ago dismissed anything resembling a mass mobilization as being unable to enact real change in the USA. Instead, I cast my lot (as did many of my friends and colleagues) with what we call somewhat euphemistically “long term movement building”: direct services, raising funds and resources for said direct services, and small-scale community building. But I was also excited that the national conversation was approaching a critique of capitalism, excited for there to be a left movement in the USA again, and intrigued by the possibilities of the encampment tactic. Occupy’s connection to the “Arab Spring” in the national imagination gave it a particularly tantalizing flavor of possibility.

On paper, occupy is inherently aligned with feminist critiques of power. The heart of occupy is an objection to unearned power—the same objection at the heart of work seeking to dismantle patriarchy, white supremacy, homophobia, ableism, and the myriad interlocking oppressions that both sustain the ruling order (or in the parlance of occupy, the 1%) and keep the 99% divided and conquered.

But at large and locally, the internal and external dynamics of the movement have not always reflected that ideological alignment which seems at once so obvious and so necessary. Instead, the physical spaces of occupy have often replicated oppressive social relationships, when they should have been sanctuaries for those who need it the most—people experiencing homelessness, people of color, queer and trans* people, women in need of shelter and childcare, and survivors of violence, to name a few. Also, the conversation with occupy seems to have shifted to mainstream liberal concerns such as Citizens United and away from poverty and structural violence.

Occupy’s shift to liberal values, if not tactics, did not come as a total surprise. Radicals have long known to be wary of our liberal and moderate compatriots. They can sometimes be our worst enemy or biggest obstacle, as The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently expressed in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

…the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom…lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

This is why a feminist critique is essential to occupy. We have got to keep an eye on the people who claim to be speaking for us or on our behalf, but are not. It is not a lack of demands or incoherence of message that weakens the occupy movement, but the lack of a radical analysis, and the unwillingness of privileged people within the movement to step back and let the movement be directed by the needs of its most marginalized participants.

For a moderated panel discussion of this and more—where is occupy going in relation to labor? To academia?—please attend a Panel Discussion on the Future of Occupy, GWU Gelman Library, Wed March 7
march_7_forum_flyer

Sawt Al Niswa: Collectively Pushing the Patriarchal Elephant Through the Door

 

Sometimes it takes a collective of feminists to spot the patriarchal elephant in the room (and to show it to the door).

Battling patriarchy is difficult, particularly when you try to do it alone. If anything was learned from the Jan 14 March, solidarity is both empowering and inspiring. Change will only come if we work together to identify problems and construct positive solutions.

On Thursday 19 January 2012, Nasawiya member Sarah Abou Raad posted an image. It was of the ‘Parental Consent Sheet’ for the Beit el-Taibat (women’s dorms) at the University of Balamand. On this form the parent’s were asked what ‘level of freedom they would like to grant their daughter’. The options were ‘Full Freedom’, ‘Partial Freedom’, or ‘No Freedom’. Outraged, Sarah posted an image of the form with the caption ‘That’s how education is supposed to free our minds!! Im indignant!! I cant believe it!!’

Roughly an hour later, another Nasawiya member, Christine Lindner, saw Sarah’s post. Being an Assistant Professor at the University of Balamand, Christine was immediately frustrated by the image that she saw. During the past few months, Christine, with the help of many dedicated students, has helped start the debate about gender discrimination on campus. Farah from the Adventures of Salwa led a great discussion, while the student newspaper covered a number of important topics related to sexual harassment. Christine met with the Dean of Students to revise sexual harassment policies and felt a general interest for change. However, this form, it is language of ‘no freedom’ for female students was a huge step in the wrong direction.

An interesting exchange took place between Sarah and Christine that night, over the implications of the application and its wording. As a result, Christine sent an email to the Dean of Student Affairs asking questions about the application, which she posted to the Nasawiya wall. Other members posted responses to the image’s comment thread. Some mentioned that similar forms are used at dorms for other universities. This needs to be researched further and pursued for change.

Christine met with the Dean of Student Affairs and the university counselor on Monday 23 January 2012. Both positively received the complaint, stating that it was only when Christine had identified the strong language of the form that they realized how counterproductive it was to their goals of empowering the students. As such, a replacement form was created emphasizing not the disempowerment of the female students, but the level of supervision that the university would play, upon the request of the parents (many of whom live abroad). It was also agreed that this form would be signed by the parents of students resident at both the women’s and men’s dorms. The updated version can be found at

http://www.balamand.edu.lb/english/OSA.asp?id=2705&fid=160

So while this does not mark the erasure of patriarchy at the University of Balamand, it does mark a small victory, while illuminating a few important lessons:

Firstly, a variety of tactics are needed to bring down patriarchal systems. At times, large protest marches are needed. In other times, it is a stern email from a member of faculty asking questions about a problematic practice. Others, it is the threat of images going viral on the internet. Sometimes, all three. Patriarchy and social injustice manifest themselves in all facets of life. We need to keep all tools ready, harnessing the appropriate tool for the specific situation and specific audience.

Secondly, identifying and challenging patriarchy is a collective effort. Sarah’s posting of the image prompted Christine to write the letter, which illuminated the problem to the Dean, so that the form was changed and the discriminatory practice equalized. This is the collective at work. This is its strength. This is why it works. We cannot stand alone, for the elephant is too big sometimes to even see, let alone push out the door. And if one project fails, we are there to catch each other, provide an umbrella when it rains, or a tissue for the tears. This is the strength of the collective and this is why it will succeed.

Nasawiya (North)

This first appeared here at Sawt Al Niswa (Voice of the Women). Thanks to Sawt Al Niswa.

 

(Photo Credit: Sawt al’ Niswa)

A Better Half: Young Feminists Can Rewrite Half the Sky

In many ways, Half the Sky has occupied much of the consciousness of what can loosely be defined as the newest “generation” of Western feminists. It is assigned routinely in college classrooms. While it has stimulated students in the U.S. to think about women’s issues at a global level, it does so at the expense of feminisms that have, over the past few decades, attempted to recognize and correct abuses of privilege by Westerners conducted in the name of “third world women”.

Looking at the bestseller from the vantage point of a young feminist, one passage captures much of what is problematic about Half the Sky. Discussing ways that readers could get involved, the authors warn, “American feminism must become less parochial, so that it is every bit as concerned with sex slavery in Asia as with Title IX in Illinois… Likewise, Americans of faith should try as hard to save the lives of African women as the lives of unborn fetuses.”

Somehow discussing the obstacles faced by women globally without any mention of colonialism, past or present, Kristof and WuDunn systematically dichotomize the West and “the rest” through such passages.

First, the passage reduces American feminism to an issue that barely begins to shed light on various forms of oppression in many women’s lives today – forms of oppression that are gendered, and also defined by race, class, able-bodiedness, and so forth.

Second, the passage relieves the reader of undertaking any immediate action by creating distance between her (and her apparently post-feminist American existence) and the issues at hand.

Third, Kristof and WuDunn fail to emphasize the importance of Westerners acting as facilitators or supporters of actions led by women at the grassroots themselves. By stepping in, and effectively stepping on local women, to create their own initiatives, the chance for cross-border solidarity is destroyed. This dichotomy reprises the historical legacies of colonial calls to action revolving around purportedly irreconcilable differences between “civilizer” and “uncivilized.”

The passage also argues for a space in global feminism for people who believe that the lives of unborn fetuses are equivalent to those of African women.  According to the Guttmacher Institute, out of the 5.6 million abortions carried out in Africa in 2003, only 100,000 were performed under safe conditions, a direct result of the fact that 92% of female-bodied people of childbearing age in Africa live in countries that have restrictive abortion laws. The World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 7 maternal deaths in Africa are caused by unsafe abortions. Including anti-choice politics in a book that spends two full chapters on the gravity of maternal mortality seems contradictory, given the statistics. More to the point, it stymies any productive discussion on the struggle for control over women’s bodies and bodily agency as part of all issues examined in Half the Sky.

Throughout Half the Sky, Kristof and WuDunn refuse to acknowledge any relationships among capitalism, colonial and postcolonial globalized economies, and gendered inequality. For example, at one point they argue, “The factories prefer young women, perhaps because they’re more docile and perhaps because their small fingers are more nimble for assembly or sewing. So the rise of manufacturing has generally raised the opportunities and the status of women. The implication is that instead of denouncing sweatshops, we in the west should be encouraging manufacturing in poor countries, particularly in Africa and the Muslim world.”

Half the Sky argues that sexism is to be found only in far-removed places, that the noble effort of combating sexism in these far-removed places is available to everyone and requires no critical self-analysis or questioning of one’s understanding of women as they exist in their own locality or politics, and that by replacing one kind of oppression with one that benefits industrialized countries, sexism has somehow been defeated.

This cannot become the dominant narrative for young feminists.

And yet it is.

Half the Sky has succeeded in garnering attention towards women’s issues, but its strategies are limiting and ultimately dangerous. How do we retain the momentum and critically, and politically, address the problems?

There must be a way to gain support for feminism that doesn’t rely on easily “marketable” ideas. For now, Half the Sky is the platform we have. We must surround it with other conversations, discussions that press global feminist activists to take responsibility for our actions, including our mistakes. That would be a first step.

(Photo Credit: Young Feminist Wire)

A Better Half: A New Nose, And a Life Changed?

In Afghan culture noses symbolize respect and pride. A man who feels stripped of his pride by “his woman’s” immoral act of trespassing cultural limits and ignoring traditional norms conceptualizes this as his nose being cut. He in turn cuts “his woman’s” nose. Looking at a beautiful but “noseless” face with piercing eyes looking at you, how can anyone resist sympathy, compassion and an eagerness to help in any way possible?

Helping may be a general human instinct. However most “helpers” make choices on their own assumptions concerning the situation of the ones who need help. How could we know that our help is the help which is needed; how do we know our help is effective?

I agree with Krisof and WuDunn who claim in their book Half the Sky that saving one woman makes a difference, at least in that woman’s life.  However, it also makes me think about Bibi Ayesha, the girl with a mutilated nose on the cover of Time magazine in August 2010. She was maimed; punished for running away from an abusing, baad marriage (a marriage in which a girl is given to solve a dispute). She was helped by American doctors in Kabul and then sent to the United States to undergo plastic surgery to be “given“ a new nose.

Those who do not /cannot speak for themselves – someone will speak for them. Where is Ayesha’s voice? A deeper epistemological and political analysis comes through by replacing the term image with that of representation, representation as providing a likeness or replica for that which it is subject. Representation does not stand for, or as, the original subject itself but rather for its meaning. Representation poses the question of who speaks for whom and which one person stands for the entire group.

Ayesha became an image that represents Afghan women, all Afghan women. And when we see an empty hole on a face where a nose should be, the first thing that comes to minds is covering it.  And now our part is done. Ayesha has a new plastic nose.

But have we really helped? What have we changed? It reminds me of a joke. A man was at the beach when he heard a drowning person cry for help. He jumped into the water and saved him. He had just reached the shore when he heard another cry for help. He saved this one, too. This happened several times and he was saving one after another. What’s the joke? The man never realized that there was someone on a cliff near by pushing people into the sea.

How many noses can we give to “noseless women”? Kristof and WuDunn claim that donating a goat can make a change in a family’s lives, or educating women can make them autonomous. Maybe, but what if the new nose makes her face itch? The irritation might make her throw it away.

Women live not only in families. We live in a larger political, economic and cultural domain. Most developing countries are war torn, entangled in poor economies, and caught amidst international or regional politics. This has left those countries with a continuum of the culture of patriarchy and violation against women. How effective could it be to help individual women by giving them loans, donating a goat, or giving a new nose; whilst in most of these societies according to De Beauvoir, “humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded an autonomous being”? How can a dependent “other” be addressed while ignoring the “self”?

When I became a feminist and became engaged in women’s rights advocacy, I wanted to change people’s minds, to help or at least “save” one friend. But sometimes when we don’t consider the pros and cons and do not understand the situation and the culture, we might make things worse rather than better. I ended up trying to encourage a friend to step up against her parents and say no to a forced marriage. My only intention was to help, but my ideas and beliefs, coming from an educated and open-minded family, ended up in a broken friendship and a forced marriage. I learned the hard way. There are people on the cliffs pushing women into the sea. We should not forget them.

(Photo Credit: ABC News)