The focus of this year’s Nobel peace prize on women’s rights around the world comes hot on the heels of the publication of the World Bank’s 2012 world development report (WDR), which focused on the importance of gender equality for development. Women’s rights have never been so high on the agenda of the development sector, and this is the culmination of many years of lobbying and struggle by persistent advocates.
That women’s rights are at the heart of political debate worldwide is an undoubted political and intellectual triumph. But, as with most victories won by social and political movements, the taste of success is accompanied by the threat of co-option.
What does it mean when staunch conservatives express themselves so comfortably in the language of women’s rights and gender equality? Might the radical nature of the movement be watered down to mean something more politically palatable but less transformative in its objectives?
One word, in particular, is conspicuous in its absence: feminism. The word is anathema to conservative or middle-of-the-road politicians in most countries, who see in it a radical and perhaps exaggerated voice.
But even some of the most ardent campaigners for women’s rights sometimes view parts of the feminist movement with mistrust, thinking that it represents an agenda for women who are not like them, either in their own country or in the richer western world.
Feminism is misunderstood if it is seen as an imposition of values. The best in the feminist movement have been the historic motors of change, precisely because they do not say what the solutions are, but ask the right questions and empower women to answer them, in whatever particular context they find themselves.
Thus, feminism takes the debate well beyond legal and economic rights, into cultural norms and the transformation of values and attitudes. The WDR recognises that attitudes are slowest to change, noting: “Gender differences are particularly persistent when rooted in deeply entrenched gender roles and social norms.”
Feminism is a tool for everyone. The objective should be to help transform societies so that women can decide what role to play, including traditional ones if they choose.
Unfortunately, there is little doubt that the overt certainty with which profound shifts in community or societal norms were promoted in many parts of the world as part of an overall “development” package, has been counter-productive in the long term. While the principles of equality and empowerment at the heart of feminism are non-negotiable, the ways they play out in different contexts are complex and hard to predict.
The arrogance of some westerners in the recent era has been comparable with that of classic western “civilisers”, certain that they know what is best for less developed societies, imposing solutions worked out for a different time and place. Women in developing countries who disagree are sometimes assumed to be living in a kind of mental slavery, unenlightened by modern understandings.
This is a dangerous place to inhabit intellectually. In fact, it is these women themselves who are the experts on their own situations, and who need to chart the path of their emancipation.
There is no problem with holding views passionately. The problem arises when you have the power to impose them, either because you hold the purse strings or because you wield influence in some other way, including just being educated and articulate. The imposition of western norms on less powerful communities has led to deep mistrust of the movement in some quarters and will take some time to reverse. An Indian woman whom I was speaking to last month complained that “feminists do not listen” and pointed me in the direction of this article on Arundhati Roy for an insight into some of her concerns about “western feminism”.
The certainty that has typified feminist struggle in the west, and has been one of the reasons for its great successes, does not often work cross-culturally. Certainty can only arise indigenously – and there are plenty of national feminist organisations across the world that are leading the fight in their own countries, in their own way (see the debate about the Gisele Bündchen adverts in Brazil, for example). In the international sphere, certainty must be replaced with humility about what the answers are and, crucially, a profound openness to learning from other cultures.
The consequences for society of shifts in the roles of men and women tend to be profound and lasting, with progress accompanied by new challenges to be overcome. Such changes are therefore neither to be imposed nor entered into lightly.
The feminist critique is radical in the best sense of the word, as it gets to the root of the issue and thus implies that transformation rather than tinkering is needed. At its best, it is also responsive and caring, rather than hectoring and exaggerated, as it is sometimes portrayed.
So the movement for women’s rights and gender equality should reassert feminism boldly as its theoretical underpinning. But it should also take a step back and reassess the terrain, in particular the fact that for some women the word has attained negative associations. Feminists need to humbly reassert principles of equality of opportunity, without suggesting we know what responses particular societies should adopt.
Feminist activists should avoid appearing exclusive, and set out to accompany poor communities on a journey whose destination may be unknown, but whose principles of equality and empowerment are solid. “Embedding a way of thinking, or being, matters more than achieving a specific set of policy proposals,” one feminist academic told me, “and is much more powerful in the long term.”