Last month, a caller to a Winnipeg CBC radio phone-in show where I was a guest berated me for not supporting United States President George Bush’s attack on Afghanistan. “As a feminist,” he said, “you must admit that, without the bombing, women would still be enslaved there.”
Whether or not women will be better off after the war against Afghanistan is an open question. But the claim that the United States is some kind of liberator is contradicted by the role that U.S.-led corporate globalization plays in creating the conditions that enable fundamentalists like the Taliban to gain power in the first place.
The structural adjustment policies imposed by global organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund resulted in an increased poverty that hit women hardest. More importantly, the suffering and cultural dislocation strengthen fundamentalism — whether Moslem, Hindu or Christian — which has been the strongest opposition to the monoculture imposed by U.S. multinational corporations. Highest on the fundamentalist agenda is a rejection of the rights of women in the name of protecting local culture and tradition. Women from developing countries quickly drew attention to this devastating combination.
I first heard these arguments in 1995, during the Beijing United Nations Conference on the Rights of Women. At the time — and even as recently as the conference on race in Durban, South Africa — UN meetings allowed the Vatican, the North American social right and Moslem fundamentalists to work together in an effort to turn back any attempt to guarantee sexual and reproductive rights.
In Beijing, feminist leaders from around the world warned that there were two paths emerging for humanity — corporate globalization and fundamentalism. They argued that both were devastating for women. Feminist leaders from around the world were calling for a third path, based on equality, democracy and respect for diversity.
Fast-forward seven years, when a worldwide youth movement in the developed world has finally made opposition to corporate globalization visible in the belly of beast. And, at the World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre Brazil this February, 60,000 people from all over the world — more than 40 per cent women — met to discuss the alternative agenda that was called for years before by the women’s movement. Yet, with all the hope in Porto Alegre, there was little gender analysis during most of the panels.
Even so, it was apparently an improvement.
“I thought it was great this year,” says Sonia Correa, a prominent Brazilian feminist and a leader of the feminist coalition of women from the southern countries known as DAWN (“Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era). “Last year, feminists had to mount a formal protest about how male-dominated the panels were. This year, there were women on almost all the panels, and we even had a couple of workshops on abortion. Next year, we’re going to try for a bigger meeting on reproductive rights.”
The global women’s movement is a full participant in the “movement of movements” represented at the WSF. Yet discussion of fundamentalism was curiously absent in the hundreds of seminars and workshops. Instead, women were vocal in the corridors of the conference, through demonstrations, theatre pieces and individuals testimonials.
I found out about a worldwide campaign called “Speak out against fundamentalism.” Big lips were used as the campaign’s symbol. I was inspired to see the World March of Women contingent, comprised primarily of Brazilian women. Yet, outside of explicitly feminist groups, the movements at the forum have yet to integrate a gender perspective.
Women in South America are linking the anti-female fundamentalism of the Taliban to the fundamentalism of the Catholic Church and social conservatives, which deny women sexual and reproductive freedom. This provocative approach is a real challenge to the left in South America, which, under pressure from the Catholic Church, tends to ignore the abortion issue.
DAWN’s research shows that, everywhere in the South, anti-feminist reactionaries draw strength from the opposition to neoliberalism. If the anti-globalization movement fails to recognize the twin dangers of neoliberalism on the one side and fundamentalism on the other, it will not address the concerns of half of humanity. If the choice were between the Republican Party in the U.S. and Afghanistan’s Taliban, as a woman, I would take my chances with the Republicans.
In the Americas, where women’s rights have made tremendous gains over the past decades, a ferocious backlash against feminism has accompanied the rise of neoliberalism. As feminists have always argued for stronger social programmes, marginalizing and blaming feminism is an important ideological adjunct to neo-liberalism. In Canada, for example, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) — once a powerful social force in the country — has been increasingly marginalized over the last ten years.
For an example of this backlash, one only has to look at the unprecedented, ferocious media attack against Sunera Thobani — a former NAC president — when she criticized U.S. foreign policy just after September 11. The vitriol aimed against Thobani was a sign of how dangerous an anti-fundamentalist, anti-neoliberal women’s movement, integrated with the anti-globalization movement, is for the powers that be.
In a statement published after the World Social Forum, DAWN challenged the annual event to take up gender issues. As the women’s group says:
A final word to other development NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and networks. Unfortunately, there are still far too many at global and other levels whose commitment to gender equality is weak, and whose beliefs and political practice are fraught with patriarchy. But for too long, the tendency among even the more progressive development NGOs is to leave gender equality to be struggled over by women’s organizations alone. It is high time they recognized that women’s struggles for gender justice, economic justice and participatory democracy are central and may be key to the energy, strategic thinking and innovative wisdom this era of globalization.