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What does it mean to be political?

Ghadeer Malek

I come from a region where the political situation is always volatile. The Middle East has gone through more than 10 major wars in the past 60 years and has been prime ground for expansive imperialist projects of European and American powers. The last few months have been especially tumultuous beginning with the revolution in Tunisia causing a chain reaction of events across the region in Egypt, Algeria, Yemen and Jordan, not to mention the recent ‘yes’ vote for the secession of Southern Sudan from the North and the fall of the Lebanese parliament. With so many explosive changes happening at once, it seems to me that there is a struggle to shift power and break out of oppressive state regimes.

This got me thinking: what does it mean to be political?

As a feminist, my first instinct is to see politics through a power-dynamic paradigm. For me, politics is about power, what we do with it and how: transfer of power, holding, controlling and/or defining it. And when I think of what is obviously ‘political’, I think of governments, political parties, state structures as well as non-state entities claiming their control over state power and I wonder: if power is at the center of what is political then is it a limited resource that has to be fought over? Or is that mentality a product of capitalism where competition limits resources to a privileged few?

Women have fought for political representation since the inception of women’s movements. The patriarchal system bars women from accessing state structures of power that construct, control and organize society. Traditionally defined gender roles in many contexts consider politics to be outside of women’s realm, yet women are actively involved in many nationalist and other political movements all over the world. They have been playing an integral role in the uprisings happening in the Middle East today and their visibility in the streets is hard to overlook.

Feminist struggles have been successful in establishing quotas for more female representation in governments in some parts of the world. Yet most state structures still have very few women and nationalist movements have tended to offer women little in return. Where women have been able to break into state politics, some have had to assimilate to these patriarchal structures rather than being able to change them. Similarly, nationalist movements are not in a hurry to speak on women’s issues even though women are integral to their work.

Women’s movements have long seen the value in affecting change on levels other than state structures.

Some feminists would even argue that state and international structures such as the UN and the international human rights system are ineffective and that change comes from being in conversation with women on the ground and self-empowerment. They would also argue that this change is just as political if not more because it seeks to transform power relations and not only give women access to representation in state structures.

Another dimension to being political was introduced in the 60s and 70s, where feminists started to see personal struggles as related to political and social contexts. It pushed women’s movements to understand patriarchy as a system occupying all spaces including our own and deconstruct the ways in which we recreate patriarchal power dynamics.

Without a doubt women’s movements have been involved in political change yet during times of revolt and war, I can’t help but feel frustrated that women have to fight in battles that are the result of decisions made by male-dominated state structures.

More women in governments did not result in adopting feminist values in state politics nor did it have a significant impact on the betterment of women’s lives.  The huge role that women are playing in pushing for revolutionary changes in the Middle East right now makes me question whether spaces will still be open for women to take leadership in new governments as much as they are encouraged to do so in the struggle for it. And if they do, then what lessons have we learnt from our previous struggles for women’s political representation about strategies of representation based on identity?

Most importantly, is winning the battle for women’s real political representation and participation crucial to giving us access to those mechanisms that have a drastic and direct impact on women’s lives?