Rethinking Feminism [opinion]

When I think of gender and development practice, what immediately comes to mind are endless workshops, conferences, seminars, roundtables, policy briefings and media statements, addressed to the converted, semi-converted and pretenders.

All these are helpful, of course. We need to challenge the structural sources of inequalities inherent in policies, laws, institutional mechanisms and thinking. However, there remains something very disconcerting about how the integration of gender into development has left it disconnected from the public.

Perhaps it is the language mainstreaming, empowerment and gender analysis do not mean much to the average person. When translated into other languages, those terms often mean even less.

Perhaps it is the way these terms and phrases, originally designed to be radical in challenging power hierarchies, now sit comfortably with the most conservative and authoritarian of systems and regimes. It may also be because meetings on gender and development, held in five-star hotels, are too elitist, sanitised and contained. So might it be because the professionals who “do” gender and development have a wealth of knowledge, but are incapable of communicating in ways that touch the public.

Yet, outside of these formal gender and development debates, people have mobilised to challenge unequal power relations. Recently published research on the informal youth-based initiatives that have sought to transform the streets of Cairo, Egypt, into harassment-free spaces for women, points to g evidence that they can contribute to positive social and political change.

They do not speak of “gender empowerment”, but their catchy slogans – “Don’t harass: the street is yours and hers” and “Look me in the eye” – have been widely circulated online, by people in the street carrying messages for passersby to read and in the media.

The powerful graffiti images associated with these campaigns speak volumes. Groups of men in vests inscribed with “against harassment” have roamed the squares and streets, seeking to prevent women from being assaulted and establishing new models of masculinity. These young men are leaders, organisers and innovators in challenging patriarchy in ways that strike a chord with a public.

In contrast with many of the gender and development programs whose participants disappear after the end of a project, many of these initiatives have nearly 30,000 followers on their Facebook pages. They have used these platforms to mobilise volunteers to participate in interventions at incredible speed.

Their work has helped break public silence on the issue, attracted greater media attention and put more pressure on the authorities to respond. The groups have been approached in the streets by people commending them for their work and encouraging them to carry on.

Of course, some of these youth-based initiatives may be co-opted by the more established non-profits. Equally, they may lose steam or be inhibited by political encroachments.

After all, they are the offspring of a revolutionary phase in the history of the country. However, informal initiatives that operate on the margins and engage in unruly politics have the potential to de-ghettoise women’s rights. This is critical in demonstrating the universal relevance of the issue – in showing that women’s rights are human rights. Without de-ghettoising women’s issues, we will remain in a closed space where we miss out on potentially innovative approaches and practices endorsing gender equality.

The marginalisation of women’s rights has directly fed into the “gender fatigue” phenomenon: a reluctance to recognise that discrimination on gender grounds, however subtle, is still very much alive. If we do not move women’s equality into the mainstream, we may also lose out on the potential for the weight of numbers to effect change, which is important for bringing legitimacy to the cause.

When I put it to gender experts and policymakers that we could learn from such initiatives, they suggested these case studies would be ideal for the global South. They did not see them as a learning opportunity, a chance to rethink their own policies, practices and theories of change.

Is this because they believe there is little for us to learn from countries in the Middle East, given their poor record on women’s rights? Or is it because the way these groups operate are deemed inconsistent with development practice, or too unprofessional?

This is not about replacing one blueprint of how to approach gender activism with another, or to champion a particular model for effecting positive social change. Rather, it is about that the need to think outside the box if we want to reconnect people with gender equality, which has, for too long, been regarded as a solely female province.

Mariz Tadros He Is a Fellow At the University of Sussex, United Kingdom.

Source : Addis Fortune

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