Can gender equality be ‘exported’?

18 Sep

The empowerment of women and girls on a global scale is a topic of interest to governments and organisations in the global north. UN Women executive director Michelle Bachelet recently gave a statement on the subject of women’s empowerment in the Middle East and worldwide, in which she said that “women’s participation in politics and the economy reinforces women’s civil, political and economic rights”. This is clearly a progressive attitude and we can hope that it will lead to some positive changes for women in these countries. However, who is really gaining the most from these interventions?

This question was addressed in a talk I recently attended at the Women’s Library in east London that explored efforts to promote global gender equality by organisations such as the World Bank, the UN and the UK’s Department for International Development. I was intrigued by the title of the session, “‘Exporting’ Gender Equality: Postcolonial Feminist Reflections”. How can gender equality be ‘exported’ as if it were a finished product; perfected, tried and tested? I wanted to find out. The speakers at the session were all leading academics who have worked with women in Afghanistan, India and Iran and so, being a London-centric sort of feminist, I hoped I might learn something about the reality of women’s experiences in these countries, beyond what is presented in the media. The room in which the session was held was full, so clearly I was not the only one wanting more insight.

I admit that, not having read or studied extensively around issues of gender equality in the Middle East and worldwide, my perceptions, particularly those of Islamic countries, have been largely shaped by the media. Recently, I have noticed an increasing number of articles such as this one on the subject of women in Afghanistan being punished for so-called “moral crimes” such as being raped or attempting to escape from abusive partners or arranged marriages. Dr Ofra Koffman, who teaches at King’s College London, said that gender equality in Afghanistan has gained unprecedented media attention as a result of the military invasion. The spotlight is now fixed on the struggle of women in Afghanistan and, as a result, some organisations are now considering the issue of global gender equality and the role they might have to play in this. For example, the UN’s Girl Up campaign, which “envisions a world where all girls around the world have the opportunity to become educated, healthy, safe, counted and positioned to be the next generation of leaders”. The initiative is aimed at an audience of teenage girls in the US, and asks them to consider the situations of girls in developing countries who are “bright, talented and full of dreams, but are often unable to reach their full potential”.

A similarly titled initiative has been set up by the sportswear corporation Nike in collaboration with the UK Department for International Development. The powerful, rhetorical narrative of the Girl Effect (presented neatly in this animation) is that by educating girls in developing countries, they will delay marriage and hence have fewer children, thereby reducing the population and improving the overall economy of their country. The “extremely slick” campaign has, however, been criticised for “sidelining questions of structural inequality and power imbalance, and focusing on what girls can do for development, rather than what development can do for girls”.

In the Women’s Library session, Rosalind Gill, professor of social and cultural analysis at King’s College London, explored this further. The focus on the education and empowerment of young women is a positive message in itself, but at the same time the Girl Effect campaign homogenises and generalises women in the global south, Gill said. Further, it suggests that the reason for poverty is because women in these countries are oppressed. The real causes of global poverty are clearly much more complex and multi-faceted than that. The role of colonialism and capitalism in causing and perpetuating global poverty are completely overlooked. Furthermore, the suggestion is that the need for feminism is displaced to the global south, that it is a finished product in the global north that can be “exported” to those in need. This is patently not the case.

Not only is it obvious to me that the fight for gender equality has a long way to go both in the northern and southern hemispheres, it also struck me that the ethos of campaigns such as those by Nike and the UN are underscored by a preoccupation with capitalist consumerism, which as a political and social model is vastly at odds with those of the countries that are the focus of their intervention. For example, as Gill suggested, the true motivation for Nike, through this campaign, is to eventually develop new markets for its products by improving the economies of these countries. Furthermore, in another example of the conjunction of commercialism and feminist rhetoric, the UN’s Girl Up campaign encourages girls and women in the US to express their solidarity through acts of consumption by buying branded products. As Gill said, “A real feminist solidarity would operate outside of consumerism and commercialism and would work with women in their own countries, starting from their own priorities, agendas and struggles.”

Another way in which the global north trivialises and misunderstands the issues of women in the global south is through the “feminising” of the responsibility for survival. Dr Kalpana Wilson, visiting fellow in transnational gender studies at the London School of Economics Gender Institute, has worked extensively with women in rural labour movements in India. She argued that the motivations of certain organisations have little to do with gender equality and that the empowerment of women and girls, and more to do with mobilising the labour of women in the global south, in the interests of global capital.

Wilson also considered that the promotion of gender equality is linked with broader neoliberal policies. This, she explained, means that women are expected to step in and provide a safety net from poverty by doing more work. Another example of this kind of ethos is the World Bank’s ‘Gender equality as smart economics’ action plan, which reconstructs women as entrepreneurs who are able to cope with and overcome poverty. The rhetoric is not about eradicating poverty, but teaching the poor to take responsibility and find ways of coping with it.

The images on the Oxfam Unwrapped website tap into this idea of women in developing countries becoming entrepreneurs. The women featured seem productive and happy. The images are problematic, however, Wilson explained, in that they “exoticise the deserving poor”. This means that the misconception is perpetuated that the global south is “a single place were women are constantly engaged in productive labour”. This is not a new idea, but is a re-imagining of earlier colonial narratives, for example, as in the acute exploitation of women tea pickers. Women in these earlier images were portrayed as sensual, content and productive, in order to affirm the need for empire. These new images, Wilson argues, operate in similar ways. Poverty is presented as something to be overcome by hard work and help from the north.

Rather than passively accept this “help”, there is a need to develop the tools for building gender equality within the context of the culture in question. This was further examined by Dr Elaheh Rostami-Povey, a writer and researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies, who has focused her research on Iran, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Her work in Afghanistan involved conducting interviews with the women who live there and also those who became refugees. During the war, a total of 7 million people left Afghanistan. The women who went to Iran and Pakistan, though they faced racism, were more able to fight for gender rights within context of Islamic culture, Rostami-Povey found.

However, for the women who went to the US or UK, all their effort went to protecting and fighting for their religious and cultural rights, leaving no space to fight for gender equality. Furthermore, in Iran and Pakistan there were organised groups and non-governmental organisations supporting gender equality, whereas in the US and UK there was little organised support. The experiences of these women prove that they have the necessary power to fight for their rights and in fact, she said, far from being passive victims in need of intervention, women in Afghanistan have been struggling for their rights since the 10th century and have been able to stand up to oppression within the context of their own culture.

Another example of how gender theory is being opened up within the culture and religious traditions of the country in question is the concept of Islamic feminism, discussed by Iranian-born Dr Pantea Farvid, a lecturer in psychology at the Auckland University of Technology. Islamic feminism is attempting to change women’s roles using Islamic discourse. Women in Iran are, she said, “Reinterpreting the Qur’an through a feminist lens.” There is, she said, a new interweaving of postmodern approaches with Islamic feminism. This proves that Iranian women do not need to be “saved”. They are doing their best within their own cultural and religious framework. They are carving their own space, challenging ideologies are speaking the language of patriarchal forces that maintain these values.

At the end of the session, my media-led preconception that all women in Afghanistan and other Islamic countries live, veiled, in the shadow of a constant fear, without the resources or strength to fight their patriarchal oppressors, was completely dismantled and I was left wondering if countries in the global north might have more to learn about feminist rhetoric than the south.

Is there a way of challenging patriarchal ideologies as Islamic feminism does? These ideologies may be less obvious in the global north than in Islamic countries but they nevertheless exist.

And this highlights the underlying problem with the concept of “exporting” gender equality, as it assumes we have it all figured out in the global north.

This is obviously not true and, even if it were, gender equality is not just “one thing” that can be created and neatly packaged in the ‘enlightened’ north and shipped off to the four corners of the globe. To assume so is not only misguided, but echoes everything that is wrong with ideas of colonialism and imperialism. Just as countries in the north have no right to impose its own cultural and political practices on other countries, the fight for gender equality must also function and be contextualised within each country and understood for itself. Only then can women truly become empowered on a global scale.   

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