“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
- Audre Lorde
Feminist movements, like all social movements, are constantly evolving and shifting. The 13th AWID international Forum, which happens every three to four years and gathered the largest association of feminist organizations as well as non-member movements and collectives, was an opportunity to once again re-examine a living, breathing political, cultural and social phenomenon that has significantly evolved in a rapidly changing world.
With nearly 2000 feminists representing international, regional, local movements, organizations, companies, foundations and more, they had more than something to say about the state of feminist movements in the world today. They showed what feminist movements look like and the future that they envision.
Within this context, “The State of Our Feminist Movements” was an umbrella issue session within the Forum, lasting an entire afternoon with a wealth of voices from diverse feminist movements and regions.
In order to understand the state of feminist movements today, it is important to also look back. Some moments have clearly marked the history of an increasingly transnational women's rights movement. In 1975 in Mexico, at the first ever UN Conference on Women, women said that they wanted to be included. By 1995 in Beijing, however, global feminist movements decided that they didn't just want to be at the table if what they were being served wasn't good.
“They wanted to be the architects of that table and the chefs deciding what was on the menu as well,” said Farida Shaheed, from Shirkat Gah in Pakistan.
“As we led up to the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, we had come together and developed an agenda, a feminist agenda, for changing the world. We had unprecedented meetings which allowed us to work nationally and transnationally and to better understand the issues that women were facing in different places.”
Women had realized that their local work wasn't enough to change the world: they needed greater understanding of the systems in place and a solid, shared agenda. They achieved a global agenda in Beijing that they have been trying to implement ever since.
The State and other institutions of power have put us into silos
Working multilaterally has not worked. The State has failed to guarantee women's rights everywhere. More worrying is that there are new factors that have radically changed the landscape on which feminist movements fighting. These are the rise of the military, industrial state, and extremist fundamentalists, Shaheed says.
Funding institutions are another example of institutions that have shaped feminist movements. Rudo Chigudo, from Zimbabwe, described how our movements have become siloed during the past two decades.
“We have become issues-based in order to fit into our donors' agendas. We are changing ourselves. We are changing the nature of our organizations to look familiar to the other who has the money and the power.”
The NGO-ization of the feminist movements means that women's rights organizations have become more comfortable and familiar as structures and ways of working. Yet the work that is being done in women's rights organizations is not always feminist, nor does it always address transforming systems of power, Chigudo insists. Money is going towards neat, single issues and the global interconnections and repercussions of feminist issues have been forgotten.
The inequalities that result in silencing within our movements
Geopolitics, funding, race, and sexuality divide and silence movements and organizations. Lara Aharonian, from Armenia, highlighted this reality: “Former Soviet Republics, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, all these regions that were not on the global feminist map. Today they're still not.” Feminist organizing in these regions is not being discussed even though the process of militarized nation-building in these post-conflict countries carries important lessons. This is a process that is now global, and other feminist movements could be looking to how feminist organizing in the Caucasus region has unfolded in order to compare and design strategies.
Leigh Ann van der Merwe, a self-described colored trans woman from the Social, Health and Empowerment Feminist Collective of Transgender Women of Africa in South Africa, reflected on the fact that today she actually sees transgender women in these transnational feminist spaces and what that means. The trans movement around the world has emerged recently, and is only beginning on the African continent – 2015 was the first time that a trans organization was established in South Africa, and also on the entire continent. The first transgender pan-African meeting was held recently, and the resulting Transgender Political Charter published in an academic journal.
Talking about the AWID Forum, van der Merwe says:
“In this space, I have seen a number of trans women. The space is opening up. We are starting to talk about the issues.”
Emanuelle Goes, from the Odara Institute in Brazil, invoked a classic quote from Audre Lorde to describe the black feminist movement there:
“I am not free while any other woman is unfree, even if her shackles are very different than mine.”
The rights and realities of black women were never priorities within either the black rights movement nor the feminist movement. The only way for black feminists to insist that their realities were also priorities was by creating their own movement, their own agenda and their own priorities. Today, the black feminist movement is growing in Brazil and especially reaching young black women.
The state of young feminist movements, too
Although the 'State of Our Feminist Movements' session raised questions about young feminists, it didn't go into detail about the particular realities of young feminist organizing around the world. That young feminists are marginalized is acknowledged, but the extent of both the lack of recognition of their feminist movements and leadership and their financial marginalization is still generally unknown. The next day, FRIDA The Young Feminist Fund hosted the session 'Brave, Creative and Resilient: The State of Young Feminist Organizing' at the Young Feminist Activism Hub, and launched exclusive research that analyzed young feminist-led organizing from more than 1500 organizations around the world, over three years.
Important highlights of this research include the fact that most of these organizations were formed in the past 5 years, they are highly collaborative (with 94% having partnered or currently partnering with other feminist organizations), they are multi-issue and intersectional, and that 54% reported feeling unsafe in their respective contexts, therefore discouraging them to formally register as organizations, carry out certain activities, or engage with State processes. This research had an important emphasis on funding: young feminist-led groups report a median income of only USD 5000, while around a quarter of them are working with less than USD 500 a year. 81% report not having secured support for the next fiscal year. It is safe to say that young feminist organizations represent some of the most intersectional, radical, creative and important feminist organizing today, but they need much more resources, mentoring and space to grow.
Feminism has become de-politicized and marketed as choice-driven
Amina Mama from University of California Davis reflected further on the need to re-politicize feminist movements. The silences and silencing within global feminist movements means that there are issues that are easier to talk about, but feminists are still uncomfortable discussing and raising. Yet, the very nature of feminist movements is to challenge the status quo and demand that others discuss issues that make them uncomfortable. We must do the same amongst ourselves and discuss race, class, geopolitics, and what power dynamics means within our own movements and allies.
“It's not that feminism is too easy. Liberal feminism is too easy and neoliberal feminism is dangerous. We have defined things too much by choice. Our choices could be sexist, but they are “our choices”. We have de-politicized feminism.” Amina Mama said.
“It's not enough to get women into political positions. It is beyond gender. We need to get deeper. We need people who are willing to get engaged in a political construction, political conversation,” she insisted.
New challenges calls for renewed political analysis and collective response
Extremist fundamentalist organizing is succeeding where the State isn't – perhaps because they promise the solutions that the State has failed to provide. Young people in particular are seduced because they are generally amongst the most marginalized and in need of solutions and futures. The diverse feminists in this session made clear that feminist movements need to move beyond a liberal State-centered discourse and provide an alternative, collective vision of justice that can win over hearts and minds, especially of young people. In the meantime, feminist movements need to take care of each other and work more collaboratively and intersectionally.
So how do we build transnational feminist solidarity and politics that also emphasize that it is important to understand our differences? There may not be easy answers to such questions. But as various participants noted, there aren't other movements that worry about these intersections and struggles to find the answers as much as we do. And the rich and overflowing discussions at the AWID Forum were of themselves a sort of answer, and an indicator of where we are headed.
About the author
Ani Phoebe Hao is a feminist researcher and writer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She is the co-founder of Agora Juntas, a network of collectives, organizations and initiatives building a collaborative feminist hub in Rio. Her research focuses on youth-led civil society, young feminist activism around reproductive rights in Brazil, and youth policy. Her writing about feminist movements in Brazil has been published on The Guardian, Open Democracy, and VICE.