‘A position of ‘strategic essentialism’ is important in ensuring that gender inequalities are reduced’. Discuss with reference to the evolution of feminist theory and action in the Global South.
A central issue in feminist debates over essentialism is whether there are any shared characteristics common to all women that unify them as a social group – other than their biological and physiological predispositions. Many feminist theorists of the 1980s and 1990s (Scott, 1988; Fraser, 1989; Spelman, 1990) rejected essentialism on the grounds that human phenomena cannot be reduced to essentialist monolithic categories, and that universal claims about women presuppose an essential ‘womanness’ (Spelman, 1990) that all women share, despite the racial, class, religious, ethnic and cultural differences among them, emphasizing instead questions of difference and identity. Essentialism was presumed to be a negative aspect of feminism:
”One use of a theory of discourse for feminist politics, then, is in understanding social identities in their full socio-cultural complexity, thus in demystifying static, single variable, essentialist views of gender identity.” (Fraser, 1991, p. 99).
”To maintain that femininity predisposes women to certain (nurturing) jobs or (collaborative) styles of work is to naturalize complex economic and social processes and, once again, to obscure the differences that have characterized women’s occupational histories. An insistence on differences undercuts the tendency to absolutist and essentialist categories.” (Scott, 1988, p. 47).
At the same time, an anti-anti-essentialist argument was raised (Stone, 2004), arguing that anti-essentialist claims denied women the motivation to work together as a collectivity. Within this current, strategic essentialism has been an influential strand. While it recognizes that essentialism is descriptively false as it denies the real diversity of women’s lives and social situations, it defends essentialist claims in the sense that they are politically useful (multilateral organizations such as the United Nations tend to treat women as if they comprise a unitary group) and socially influential. This argument is especially relevant regarding (women’s) social movements, which many believe require a deep notion of shared position and identity. Oppressed groups can deploy essentialism strategically as it enables them to organize common forms of identity and sustain a sense of solidarity. Throughout this essay I will use case studies from the Global South to argue that the emphasis on commonalities is especially useful when tackling gender inequalities, but that the possible solutions must adapt to local conditions (taking into account a country’s history and culture), and that the ideological neoliberalism has played an important role in fragmenting the representation of women as a homogenous unit of analysis.
Mohanty (1998) argues that western feminist scholarship has produced an image of third world women as a homogeneous and powerless group, often represented as victims of particular socio-economic systems (women as victims of war crimes, women as refugeesâ€¦), on the basis of a shared oppression. The focus should instead be on the common differences (the common experience of social exclusion, for instance) as the basis for solidarity and collective mobilization, which are achieved through an active engagement with diversity. Issues like poverty and (gender) inequality require collective bargaining despite the involvement of actors polarized along caste, class, gender, linguistic and ethnic lines (Emmerij et al, 2009), as is the case in the case study that follows. The Sangtin (literally meaning friendship in Awadhi, a language spoken in parts of Uttar Pradesh) writers, a group of seven female village-level NGO activists from the hierarchical state of Uttar Pradesh, in India, put forward a collective critique against institutional patriarchies, thus enacting a politics of solidarity among themselves, despite the differences within women’s collectives – the activists come from diverse caste and religious backgrounds. Their critiques are directed at Nari Samato Yohana (NSY), a donor-funded NGO and a World Bank Initiative that works to empower poor rural women. The writers highlight the paradoxes of NGO politics as these organizations can be both empowering in theory (through the encouragement of grassroots activism) and elitist in practice (in the form of donor-driven priorities and evaluations). They analyze processes of hierarchical character of donor-driven women’s empowerment organizations that often disregard rural women’s knowledge and expertise. Women’s NGOs in Uttar Pradesh are being increasingly pressured by funding agencies, which attach no value to grassroots work until that work is measured by the standards of the funders. Furthermore, these NGOs that are aiming to empower poor women in rural communities are staffed and dominated by Hindu and upper-caste grassroots workers, while rural-based, less formally educated workers find themselves at the margins of institutional spaces, with little say on the running of the organization (Nagar & Sangtin Writers, 2006). More generally, the activists challenge the popular perception that NGOs are potential agents for diffusing development and enabling empowerment, because hierarchical processes within NGOs can impede their stated goals of empowerment, class differences reinforced through the hierarchical structures of NGOs (male- and upper-caste-dominated). Thus, the Sangtin writers are not mere victims of the hierarchical processes – as Mohanty would argue they are represented by some western feminist texts – as they resist and challenge.
The role of global initiatives and institutions in addressing gender inequalities is significant. Although the UN Decade for Women and the four global women’s conferences held in Mexico, Copenhagen, Nairobi and Beijing between 1975 and 1995 did not find as much common ground between women worldwide as anticipated, the conferences elevated gender equality to the center of the global development agenda and internationalized the issue of women’s equality (”unless development is engendered, it is endangered”). The consensus was that women should lead development rather than the earlier view, in which women were seen as being affected positively or negatively by economic development policies, and were integrated into the development process as victims. Both views, however, assume that all third world women have similar problems and needs. Despite this shift in the development discourse that has moved women from the periphery to the center and acclaimed them as the holders of solutions to global problems, the poverty of the world’s women has increased and intensified. Global economic and political processes (i.e. globalization) have exacerbated economic, racial and gender inequalities. Jain (2005) points to a restlessness within the women’s movements that has led to a partial failure of the movement to reach the ‘next stage of development’. Differences – of location, race, class, sexuality, and religion – have at times been emphasized at the expense of the commonalities that can build strength to move forward. It is important to emphasize, however, that the existence of gender inequalities have radically different, historically specific explanations as the next case studies will show. Thus, superficially similar situations cannot be treated as identical. Furthermore, as Lourdes Arizpe argues, the construction of gender in every society is a cultural phenomenon. The way in which these differences are constructed will depend on the culture of every society, and it is through the use of cultural analysis that gender inequalities can be understood (Arizpe, cited in Jain, 2005). The case studies (based on Chant & McIlwaine, 1998) involves analyzing the challenges women face in two very different countries – Malaysia and Zimbabwe – and to specifically see how gender inequalities need to be tackled and addressed in each case.
On one hand, Malaysia has experienced high levels of economic growth in the last few decades, mainly due to export-oriented industrialization. It is an ethnically heterogeneous and pluralistic society. Social indicators reflect relatively high levels of human development, but when these are differentiated by gender it appears that men have made greater gains than women in most areas. The adult literacy rate among women is 75.4% compared with 87.8% among men. In terms of political participation, in 1994 women represented only 10% of seats at local and parliamentary levels and 7% of ministerial posts. Employment opportunities have increased and diversified in the context of rapid industrialization, but the ethnic Malay have been granted preferential access to opportunities. On the other hand, Zimbabwe is an ethnically homogenous country, in a transition from a white-dominated British colony to a democratic black republic. Although the government has focused on post-colonial restructuring and nation-building, gender issues have not been entirely sidelined. Women were of significant importance in the liberation war for Zimbabwe, by proving food, shelter, clothing and paramedical and intelligence services. Their active participation led to the new independence government to take active steps towards gender equality by setting up, in 1981, a Ministry for Community Development and Women’s Affairs (MCDWA). Zimbabwe is still a predominantly rural country, with only 30% of its population residing in urban areas in 1992, and remains a patriarchal society. In the case of Malaysia, women’s issues are then seen through the lens of political representation, and addressing gender inequalities should be put in the context of ethnic inequalities. A specific solution would be to introduce quota systems to increase the number of women in political office and to enable women to fully participate in and influence decision-making. In the case of Zimbabwe, land access for women is a major problem given the patriarchal nature of society where most of the land parcels are owned by men. As such, land redistribution should be incorporated into the debate on how to reduce gender inequalities. A country’s history, culture and ethnic diversity, among others, should be taken into account when addressing gender inequalities, because while women might share a common experience of oppression -whether in Malaysia or Zimbabwe – the specific policy measures needed will vary significantly.
Women in the Third World have had to bear the brunt of globalization – this is not an essentialist claim, but a generalization based on statistical evidence. Poor women are hardest hit by the degradation environmental conditions, wars, famines, privatization of services and the dismantling of welfare states (Mohanty, 2003). The structural adjustment programs many poor countries have had to adapt in order to receive loans from the international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have disproportionately squeezed women out of public sector employment, for example. Amy Lind’s (2002, 2003) research on Ecuador, however, challenges monolithic and globalized representations of women as victims of the globalization process, which have been made more difficult by a shift to neoliberalism and local women’ organizations – most of which of a working-class and rural in nature – becoming the new targets of development policy. Since the early 1980s successive Ecuadorian governments have received loans and implemented IMF/World Bank inspired structural adjustment programs (SAPs), which have had gendered impacts in the economy. These neoliberal policies affect women differently, the impact of which depends largely upon women’s class, race, ethnicity and geographical location. As stated above, women in general have tended to lose out in this process, but this is particularly true for poor, rural indigenous women. Some women (especially women working within the state) have gained as a result of privatization policies and decentralization.
Neoliberalism has had two opposing effects. On the one hand, it has provided the framework under which diverse political movements and actors have converged to challenge and reflect dissatisfaction with the neoliberal economic model and the lack of democratic progress under Abdalá Bucaram Ortiz’s presidency. A visible women’s movement emerged as women activist in political parties, NGOs, rural and community based organizations, in political parties and in human rights organizations became increasingly frustrated with their marginalized roles under the new politico-economic system. They all invoked a form of strategic essentialism in an attempt to challenge the state and remake the nation in order to give women a greater voice in state policy affairs, and participated in the national strike leading up to President Ortiz’s removal from office. At the same time that women (as a unitary group) were rising to challenge President Ortiz’s policies, neoliberalism has exacerbated the differences between the women movements and fractured them. In the neoliberal context, economic and social disparities between women working with the state (state feminists) and poor, rural indigenous women who are the targets of state policies have become more apparent. This may contribute to a further fragmentation of a unified feminist movement, Lind (2003) argues, which is now characterized more by separate struggles than by any unified notion of a social movement, in the process of becoming a remnant of the past. Since neoliberalism positions women as clients for the state’s resources they are positioned in competition with each other for such resources. In short, while there is overlap between all the feminist strands, there is growing disagreement between feminist policy makers and activists regarding where women fit in the development arena, and whether there speak with a single, or multiple, fragmented voices.
In conclusion, essentialist and anti-essentialist positions are located at the extreme ends of a spectrum. Addressing inequalities from these extremes does not represent a viable position. In order to move away from the essentialist/anti-essentialist dichotomies it is important to understand women not as completely different from each other, and at the same avoiding to assimilate them into a single dominant identity. Therefore, ”we need to look to the middle ground between essentialism and gender skepticism to find ways of talking about women that neither do violence to our diversity, nor represent us as inconsolably different” (Heyes, 2000). Furthermore, women should neither be portrayed as victims to be rescued or heroines that hold the key to lift their countries and communities out of poverty. These ‘extreme’ stances do not help in understanding the solutions that are needed to address women discrimination and inequalities. It seems that the best way forwards is for the struggle for gender equality to be channeled at various levels and through a variety of initiatives – from the involvement of local women’s groups, to NGOs at local, regional and international levels, governments and multilateral institutions – and by not homogenizing their experiences. There will always be a framework of collective solidarity through which women can address the issue of gender inequality.
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