Feminism and the Struggle against Globalisation

Feminism and the Struggle against Globalisation

By Farish A Noor

One of the most stupid, irrational and unfounded accusations thrown at
feminists in the developing world is that ‘Feminism’ is a Western construct
and that feminists in the developing world are the stooges of the West.

How often have we heard the cry that Asian feminists are working
hand-in-glove with their powerful Western patrons; or that they are
undermining the moral fabric of their own societies? How often have we heard
the claim that by demanding equal rights such women are, in fact,
challenging and threatening the theological-ideological basis of their
religions and cultures? Yet more often than not these accusations are
uttered by the very same defenders of Patriarchy and outdated traditional
‘Asian values’ that legitimize a systematic politics of disempowerment and
marginalisation of the subaltern. The same detractors tend to forget that
the downside of their blanket accusations is the somewhat bizarre conclusion
that Asians and other non-Europeans do not deserve equal rights and that
equality is somehow essentially un-Asian! If that be the case, then what
were the anti-colonial and anti-imperialism struggles for, if not to demand
equality between nations and races?

The celebration of International Womens’ Day this week, however, has once
again brought to the fore some disturbing realities, not least of which is
the growing power differentials between the developed and the developing
worlds. While women in North America and Western Europe continue to struggle
for equal rights, salaries and working conditions at home and at work; the
women of countries like Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia and the Arab world have
much more to complain about: from the increasing levels of violence meted
out upon their societies to the on-going exploitation of women by powerful
multinational companies.

It was for this reason that the demands made by feminists in France this
week came as a timely reminder of the commonality of struggles that should
unite women and men all over the world today: Feminism cannot and will not
succeed, they contend, unless and until it links itself to the struggle
against globalisation. For it is the process of globalisation – the
deliberate and calculated advancement of corporate interests under the
control of an oligarchy of (often male) patrons and their clients – that has
spawned many of the problems that we in the developing world face today,
ranging from the exploitation of our human and natural resources to the
traffic of arms, narcotics and human slaves for profit.

While Feminism’s initial struggle was directed against the dehumanizing and
divisive culture of Patriarchy (that deforms men as well as women, it should
be added), a shift towards a critique of globalisation does not necessarily
imply a departure from its original aims. For the fact remains that
globalisation today is simply an extension of pre-existing patriarchal
structures of economic, political, cultural and racial dominance in the
first place: It is not a coincidence, for instance, that some of the most
powerful multinationals in the world today are built on the foundations of
the old trading-empires of the past. And if empirical evidence is needed to
bolster this claim, then just compare the conduct of American and European
oil and gas companies in Africa or Halliburton in Iraq today with the
conduct of the older imperial companies such as the Dutch East Indies
Company, the East India Company or the Compagnie des Indes. Then, as now,
Patriarchy is founded on economic power as well as the possession of the
tools of violence and repression.

Bringing together the common struggles against Patriarchy and globalisation,
however, is bound to complicate matters for activists worldwide. For while
both Patriarchy and globalisation are structural phenomena and involve
patterns, orders and hierarchies of power and violence, both have evolved to
be more sophisticated, inclusive and decentralized. The common mistake of
many anti-globalisation movements to target the symptoms, rather than the
causes and structures, of globalisation (such as the attacks on American
fast-food restaurants) comes to mind. Likewise it would be wrong to conclude
that women’s rights have been won simply because a handful of women have
been included in the overall dominant structure of Patriarchal power. (Here
the elevation of the Condoleeza Rice to the Neo-Con cabinet of President
Bush Junior comes to mind. Nobody is stupid enough to take Rice’s promotion
as an indicator that women in American have been emancipated in any real
way, least of all the women of Iraq.)

For Feminist and labour activists in the developing South the picture is
even more complicated: Imagine, if you will, what would happen if an
anti-globalisation movement were to succeed in a small developing country
that was previously seen as a source of cheap labour. The inflow of direct
foreign investment (FDI) may have been the only thing that kept the economy
of such a country afloat. If feminists and workers activists in such a
country manage to secure their objective of attaining equal rights and pay
for women workers employed by foreign multinationals in that country, we can
guess what would be the immediate result: The near-instantaneous outflow of
foreign capital to another country where workers’ and women’s rights are
less protected and where workers (more often than not women) are still
regarded as chattel to be exploited at will.

Here then lies the dilemma of the Southern Feminist and labour activist: One
the one hand we cannot and must not give up our struggle for emancipation,
universal human dignity and equal rights for men and women at home and the
workplace. But on the other hand any success on our part will immediately be
undermined by the precarious and ungovernable terrain of the global
financial market that remains lawless. Nor are we able to fully control the
impact and effects of predatory international economic agents and actors
whose power lies beyond our control. What, then, is to be done?

The call of European Feminists for a global struggle against globalisation
is laudable and has to be taken seriously. Today globalisation threatens to
undermine the social cohesion of all societies, be it in the developed or
developing world. Furthermore the zero-sum logic of global economics
threatens to rob politics of any semblance of ethics or moral
responsibility, allowing governments (particularly in the South) to abdicate
their responsibility for their own populations.

But the struggle against globalisation and Patriarchy can only succeed when
we all realize that the two problems are inter-connected and have to be
addressed together by a global community that is cognizant of the realities
of our times. The uplifting of the conditions for women in the developed
world cannot be at the expense of women and men in the developing South.