Everyone from Tony Abbott, Tony Blair and Barack Obama has made comments in support of women’s rights and feminism. In 2002, then-US president George Bush famously declared, ‘The repression of women [is] everywhere and always wrong!’ And in the era of Theresa May, Hillary Clinton, and Angela Merkel and the like, it looks as if the path towards women’s liberation is getting clearer.
Events such as International Women’s Day and countless organisations and charities exist to highlight women’s oppression, and to advance women, all over the world. Global awareness of the need to tackle gender inequality and violence against women seems more pronounced than ever. And around the world statistics of violence – whether domestic, sexual, or physical – are spiking dramatically. The need for international campaigns to fight against these issues remains dire.
But as the recent US presidential election shows, the Western world seems in immediate danger of undoing everything that has ever been started in this fight. The election exit polls showed that 53% of white women voted for Trump.
Mainstream communication does not want women, particularly white women, responding to racism.
– Audre Lorde, keynote presentation at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference, 1981
Perhaps this swathe of women rejected Hillary Clinton’s brand of liberal, elite feminism. Perhaps feminism had never been available to them at all. Or does mainstream feminism simply mean striving to become an honorary man; a woman granted a seat at the table, oppressing women more marginalised than one’s self? When we define sexism as something that affects all women equally, who do we overlook in the margins?
Images of women wielding real firepower shook loose the blinkers that keep women from imagining themselves as beings who can elicit not just love and desire, but respect and even fear.
– Naomi Wolf, Fire with Fire: How Female Power Will Change the 21st Century
After September 11, when Afghanistan was bombed partly under the pretext of ‘liberating’ Afghani women, feminist rhetoric was deployed to justify modern war and Western expansionism. Liberal feminism often treats women’s participation in military service as a positive, while routinely failing to acknowledge the many lives taken as a result of military campaigns. Non-government organisations have furthered this co-option of feminist principles. As the withdrawal of state and public resources continues to create gaps that NGOs fill, they become crucial players in global politics, allowing their incorporation into military planning and post-war occupations.
Academic Sabine Lang identifies the ‘NGO-isation of feminism’: the growth of feminist-oriented non-governmental organisations in the past two decades, and the way in which feminist activism has shifted from participation in political movements to advocacy through feminist NGOs. While some NGOs do good work, the best-funded ones are tied to corporations and international agencies, and they effectively uphold the legitimacy of empire and capital.
We can trace imperialist feminism to the Victorian era. In 1882 Lord Cromer, a British Consul General in Egypt, claimed to be liberating women through the British occupation of Egypt. While using women’s rights to advance empire in Egypt, he was also championing the anti-suffragist cause at home. At the time, this train of thought was common: as men fought against women’s increasingly feminist demands, (the right to vote, the freedom to leave the home to work, etc) they also used the language of feminism to acquire bounty in the colonies.
The idea of liberating women, empowering women, encouraging women, educating women in Afghanistan is all part of laying a foundation for lasting peace. We don’t believe that’s in the interests of the United States or the world to create a safe haven for terrorists and watch women’s rights be abused.
– George W. Bush, Fox News interview, 2011
Fifteen years after September 11, the ‘War on Terror’ continues. George Bush, together with wife Laura, continue to use the language of feminism in heading the Afghan Women’s Project – ostensibly set up to ‘ensure that dignity and opportunity will be secured for all the women and children of Afghanistan’. In many ways, as president, Bush reversed women’s progress and opposed women’s interests, from de-funding programs that assist women, to opposing global women’s rights treaties and supporting anti-feminist organisations.
In the Global North we are asking ourselves what went wrong, as far-right projects seemingly rise out of the ground. The election of Trump almost feels like the nail in the coffin, except that it isn’t. Activist and prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba states that the Trump result is, ‘just within the genealogy of what has always been’. Countries like the United States and Australia have been built on racism, genocide and the exploitation of classes of people. The self-evident result is the rise of more virulent forms of right-power. Far-right groups have not sprung up from nowhere. Rather, racism, nationalism and the patriarchy continue to intersect in ways that give adherents of these causes a bigger platform to speak up.
On the surface, feminism can look like it is gaining footing. Gone may be the days when women were revoked the right to vote and forced to assume certain positions in certain spheres of life, but as some women rise to become model minorities and exceptions, others remain marginalised. At home, in the Northern Territory, women still do not have access to full reproductive rights, and hundreds of black and brown women remain locked away in immigration detention on- and off-shore, despite insurmountable evidence of sexual assault and trauma. If women are disadvantaged in the labour force because they are women, migrant and refugee women are even more so.
Empire-making continues, business as usual. Whether looking at the UK, Australia, France or the United States, these nations have presented themselves as upholders of liberal values in a world where war, assassination through drone strikes, extensive surveillance and indefinite detention are regarded as the only means by which to keep the ‘barbarians’ at bay. The West casts itself as a beacon of civilisation fighting against the supposed backwardness of Islam, while Islamophobia and racism remain central to national identity in ways similar to the nineteenth century. We are not moving backwards or forwards. If anything we are in a political stalemate, even more so now in the era of neoliberalism.
True rebellion is something that, with each step we take, cuts us further off from identification with racist patriarchy, which has rewarded us for our loyalty and which will punish us for becoming disloyal.
– Adrienne Rich, Disobedience and Women’s Studies
Feminists in the Global South have written about the need to formulate a transnational feminist movement that recognises that women around the world experience oppression differently, considering factors such as class, sexuality, race, age and ability. Instead of propagating that misogyny exists ‘elsewhere’, in countries with ‘other’ cultures and religions, we need to root our analysis of women’s oppression within the larger structures that produce this oppression, and to reject simplistic explanations that argue that religion or culture are to blame.
What can feminists do? Patriarchy does not exist in a vacuum. As we have seen with the rise of Trump and other far-right power-players, racism, nationalism and the patriarchy go hand-in-hand. Until we broaden our approach to include anti-capitalist and anti-racist principles in our feminism, we cannot go forward. The liberal system that seemed once powerful is broken.
When our feminism is based in an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist politics, we have a real basis for solidarity that is rooted in material interests, rather than morality and charity. At the end of the day it is not drone strikes or clothes donations that are going to liberate women, but self-empowerment and a politics of transnational solidarity, based on a rejection of neoliberalism and empire.
Image: ‘Queen Maud and King Haakon VII, 1906’