A smart commenter on our first blog post in March posed a very interesting question. How should UK-based organizations campaigning on women's rights with an international focus link with women's rights organizations and movements within the UK?
I’ve been active in the UK women’s movement, and built links with women’s rights activists internationally, and so I want to try to give some personal reflections on what it means to me to build links between movements, and raise some points that I think as feminists we need to discuss. Please leave comments, it would be great to share experiences to make all our activism stronger and more effective.
First up, as readers of this blog undoubtedly know, gender inequality is not something that happens ‘over there’, to ‘other’ women, although sometimes in international development campaigning we stray too close to the path of portraying exactly that. Nowhere in the world have women reached equality with men: globally, violence against women will reach one in three of us in our lifetimes; in the UK two women a week are killed by our partners; we earn 14.9% less than men for the same work, and a whopping 55% less if we work in the finance sector; we get fired because we’re pregnant; we’re the first to feel the brunt of the government spending cuts and they cut us deeper. I could go on, but you get the picture, and it’s not a good one.
There are many feminist activists in the UK, campaigning for change in women’s lives. A Guardian article last month hailed an “explosion in new grassroots groups” of feminists. But it was the responses to this article – criticising the lack of representation of black women, of disabled women, of working class women, of older women and of LGBT women in the original article – that gave a more insightful view of the breadth and depth of activism taking place across the country, and the struggles that the women’s movement still needs to face to become inclusive. As a post by Black Feminists said, “feminism is not All White”. The Brighton Feminist Collective stated that “if every feminist is not treated as equal, then every single one of us has failed, and we need to shut up shop right now”. As activists we have to address these issues, have some uncomfortable conversations and challenge ourselves on our own part in perpetuating an image of feminism led by white, middle-class women.
These are important issues to grapple with when thinking about engaging with the women’s movement in the UK. Which women are we talking to? How do we engage UK feminists in campaigning for women’s rights in developing countries, whilst ensuring that women’s rights activists from those countries remain in the driving seats of their campaigns? How can we ensure that the women we engage in our campaigns reflect as broad a spectrum of activists as possible? What do we have to offer women activists in the South anyway, if we can’t get our own house in order?
From talking to many members of the women’s movement in the UK, through Twitter, over pints, and at demos, I know there’s a huge desire to take action in solidarity with women around the world. But feminists are smart, they want to campaign in the most appropriate way – a way that will support, and not drown out or misappropriate, the voices of women in the global south.
Feminists have passion, commitment and a multitude of skills to share, often built through collective organisation and action. So wouldn’t want them on side? Yet sometimes, campaigns simply put feminists off. The way that Lush, for instance, have recently shown a woman being violently assaulted to make a point about animal testing, raises huge problems for many feminists I know. PETA are also repeat offenders for using naked women in their messaging. Living in a society where women’s bodies are objectified to market the latest goods, we know that the links to inequality, gender stereotyping and discrimination are significant, and many wish that this objectification was not perpetuated by those seeking to advance ‘good causes’.
A good example of building links between local and global is the No women, no peace campaign, which links women’s rights advocates in Afghanistan, and those who want to support their demands in the UK. In this case, the campaign coalition clearly stated that the demands were those of women’s rights activists in Kabul towards the international community, and asked UK feminists to reinforce those demands to MPs and government ministers, through petitions, letters, green scarves and vigils.
Whilst there are examples of good practice, genuine linking between international development campaigns and UK based feminists is still a mixed picture. Building bridges between movements is, I feel, the only way forward to true solidarity and strengthening of our global women’s rights campaigning. It’s not a straight path to a unified global feminist vision: the path has twists, turns and hazards along the way. But tread it carefully, and with respect, and we’ll have ourselves a true force to be reckoned with.
Lee Webster, Womankind