Women-Led Movements versus Mixed-Gender Movements 

By Manisha Desai

From Black lives Matter to the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton women leaders are highly visible in politics not only in the United States but also around the world.  In her article in Yes!,  Rucha Chitnis argues that in the context of economic injustice stemming from corporate capitalism and climate change, movements led by women are offering a revolutionary path.  This path includes a redefinition of leadership – one that is collective and collaborative rather than focused on an individual – and development – one that challenges the myth of  “there is no alternative” to neoliberal capitalist development.  It understands issues and oppressions based on race, class, sexuality, disability as interconnected and privileges solidarity and movement building as the best response to marginalization and exclusion.

She provides important examples of women’s movements from around the world to demonstrate this.  For example, in the U.S. #Say Her Name campaign highlights how police brutality affects Black women as a corrective to mainstream media focus on Black men.  Via Campesina, a movement of peasants, landless farmers, small producers, and indigenous communities that originated in Brazil but now spans the globe, chose this International Women’s Day, March 8th, to challenge the capitalist violence perpetrated against women and men all around the world.

I had made a similar argument in my book Gender and the Politics of Possibilities, that global politics, which I defined as transnational activism of non-state actors, including movements, against a variety of global issues was essentially feminist politics as it was based on the practices and principles of women’s movements around the world.  While women-led movements continue to chart a revolutionary path, mixed gender movements demonstrate a less radical trajectory.

In my recent book, Subaltern Movements in India, and in global justice movements around the World Social Forum, I found some disturbing gendered patterns that I call “the gendered geographies of struggle.”  By gendered geographies I mean the spatial and cognitive place of women and women’s issues in movements for social justice.  First, contrary to expectations, women are very prominent in the public spaces of movements, such as in rallies, marches, and even meetings with government officials and other authority figures. But they are not as visible in the internal spaces of movements such as decision-making and leadership.  For example, although women constituted over half the participants in the 400 km, two week march of the Mahuva Movement (of small farmers protesting the building of a cement factory in the midst of reservoirs that irrigated their land), only one or two women were invited to speak at rallies during that time. The same one or two women were also invited to meet with the Chief Minister at the end of the rally.  But they were not included in decision making meetings related to seeking arrest or ending the march.

Second, although social justice movements recognize the interconnection among issues of class, caste, and gender, often gender issues — narrowly defined as women’s issues rather than issues shaped by gender regime or expectations — are implicitly and sometimes explicitly expected to be addressed by women’s activists often outside the movement and are not an integral part of the movement unless demanded by local women’s movements.  For example, violence against women was seldom acknowledged and then too only by women activists and on specific days such as March 8, International Women’s Day.  Similarly at the World Social Forum, despite the high participation of grassroots women, they were not part of the International Council, the decision-making body, nor as keynote speakers.  Despite commitment to gender justice, there was no attempt to highlight the gendered nature of corporate globalization.

Thus, to truly redefine power and work towards global justice, mixed gender movements will have to learn from women-led movements, as movements such as Via Campesina are doing. And women-led movements will have to continue challenging them to do so.  For as the subaltern movement participants in India chanted: “azaadi adhuri che, beegee jung chalu che.” This translates into “Freedom is incomplete, the second struggle is on.”

Manisha Desai is Associate Professor of Sociology and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Connecticut.  Committed to decolonizing knowledge, her research and teaching interests include Gender and Globalization, Transnational Feminisms and women’s movements, Human Rights Movements, and Contemporary Indian Society.  As a scholar activist, she has been involved in advocacy and activism around social and gender justice issues at the United Nations, at the World Social Forum, and the US Social Forum.  Committed to buen vivir, she is also a yoga practitioner and dancer, trained in the Bharat Natyam style of Indian classical dance. 

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