Dialogue 7: Is Global South Feminism the antidote to rising authoritarianism?

Intro Div

Is Global South Feminism the antidote to rising authoritarianism? This is the question on the table for Dialogue #7 in our series, Women Radically Transforming a World in Crisis. Join us on December 9 at 13:00UTC! We have an incredible panel of leading feminist thinkers with rich experiences to share.

We are living in challenging times where democracy is being undermined and authoritarianism is on the rise. Political elites continue to consolidate power through officially elected positions, while the far-right, including fundamentalist religious groups, wield considerable influence on policy agendas and issues that impact people’s lives.

If our vision is to reimagine and rebuild our world and institutions that are just and inclusive, how do we get there? Can Global South Feminism provide us with the playbook for resisting and challenging authoritarianism, and imagining and building radically different futures?
We are excited to host this dialogue in conjunction with the South Feminist Futures Festival (December 7 -11) organized by some of our longtime friends. The Festival is a week full of art, activism, dialogue, reflection, and celebration to discuss and honor centuries of womxn fighting slavery, colonialism, white supremacy, imperialism, racism, capitalism, and cisheteropatriarchy. Click here to register for a panel/s of your choice.

Follow and join the conversation with @jass4justice and @SouthFeministas on social media using #FeministFutures, #SouthFeministFest, and #ShiftThePower.

Summary

Throughout the world, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed and reinforced a rise in authoritarianism. Governments and their allies use the tools at their disposal to advance their interests. Under the pretext of containing the contagion, governments have deployed the military and placed restrictive measures to repress opposition, quell resistance, and undermine freedoms. These restrictions and responses follow a hidden logic of social control rather than scientifically necessary health measures. As a result and as always, the most vulnerable populations suffer most. Rising authoritarianism and the structural inequities it intensifies pose considerable threats to our future. As we reimagine strategies to transform unequal power relations and the systems in which they reside and perpetuate, it is essential to learn from other movements. For our seventh and final dialogue for 2020, we gathered several leading feminist thinkers and movement organizers to discuss the question – “Is global south feminism the needed antidote to rising authoritarianism?”

“There are a few notable features of these times. We see the consolidation of the power by political elites, the far right, including fundamentalist religious movements. Authoritarians elected to power are dismantling democracy from within by advancing disturbing nationalist agendas that erode democratic institutions. We know from our movement work that power is not given -- it must be taken, and to do this, we need a fine-tuned understanding of the power dynamics that are playing out in our world and the meaning of building transformative power.” Shereen Essof, JASS Executive Director

Tarso Ramos of Political Research Associates (PRA) provided a brief overview of this rise in authoritarianism. “We are experiencing a remaking of the world political and social system through a third global march of authoritarianism,” he said, after mid-century fascism and military dictatorships. Tarso cited “three drivers that are present wherever we see the rise of nationalism and authoritarianism”: 1) severe economic inequality, 2) the rise of religious nationalism and fundamentalist movements, and 3) the rise of racial and ethnic nationalist movements and parties that define the nation in exclusionary ways. Within these, “misogyny and militarized masculinities are fundamental building blocks of authoritarianism.”

For Nani Zulminarni, a renowned community organizer in Indonesia (PEKKA) who works primarily with women-headed families and a co-founder of JASS, it is important to recognize that authoritarianism has long existed, but the forms shift. “It’s not new, the severe economic inequality, and the role of religion in the democratization process and ethnic nationalism bring authoritarian governments to life,” she said. She identified two areas where Indonesian women currently face the biggest challenges and fight back: control of the narrative and control of resources. Nani noted that the powers of government, religions and economic interests intimidate women through threats of exclusion using value systems and narratives. She cautioned that the reliance on virtual space under the pandemic exposes some 120 million young people in Indonesia to an anti-feminist narrative that distorts the terms and arguments that feminists use. Hence, feminists have to develop and reclaim language and find ways to reach people with their message. In terms of reclaiming resources, she gave the example of women farmers in Indonesia who have organized to bring back native seeds and establishing food security in local areas. They have gained power by controlling resources for livelihoods.   

Hakima Abbas, Co-Executive Director of AWID, said, “Authoritarian forces have used the current pandemic as an excuse to deepen surveillance and militarized responses.” Over the past five years, some of these forces have taken power through coups, and others have used democratic procedures that contradict the spirit of democracy, she said, adding that, “you can’t divorce patriarchy from authoritarianism -- the basis of the big man, the strong man, that model of governance is based in domination.” She warned that authoritarian regimes target women and LBGTQ bodies and lives “as the primary rallying site to establish control and power.”

Speaking from El Salvador, Morena Herrera asserted that the main challenge to authoritarianism is the existence of the feminist movement, or rather movements in plural, as a fundamental challenge to authoritarian ways of thinking, including a profound individualism. “We’re facing a new way of exercising domination and hegemony that has very brutal forms like plundering our lands, extractive industries, but at the same time a conquest of mentalities that makes us feel like this is the best way to live. So, there are two approaches—one brutal and one seductive. That’s where feminism comes in”. She listed several key aspects of feminism that confront authoritarian concepts: the body as a central element of resistance to patriarchy, colonialism and capitalism--in the defense of sexual and reproductive rights, but also in the broader sense of the defense of the body-territory that links to the defense of land and nature. The second is the emphasis on care in the feminist agenda. Third, intersectionality, to understand the multiple and interconnected forms of violence that we face, and thus our need to stand together.

Hakima agreed that feminism’s pluralism is its strength—'Diverse but not disperse.’ “This is where Global South feminisms come in as the antidote--not just the possibility of feminist futures, but the ways in which feminisms are creating alternative ways in the present,” she said. She cited examples of organizing, building cooperatives, developing the solidarity economy, “and the ways in which we engage each other outside the structures and systems of domination.”

Nancy Kachingwe, a feminist political economist and co-founder of South Feminist Futures Forum, said “There are so many of us thinking about the same things, but often in disperse ways.” She noted the need to have reflections in depth about the history and feminist organizing and terminologies. “Before, imperialism was clear, and now we don’t know what to name it”, she said, calling for a closer examination of terms like oligarchy, liberation, neocolonialism, “white, imperialist, supremacist, hetero-patriarchy, so what are we naming these authoritarianisms so that we can have a common analysis of what we’re dealing with?”

Tarso pointed out that authoritarianism is also diverse, flexible and not ideologically pure. “The nature of authoritarianism and the nature of repressive ideologies and regimes is also building and transforming and we have to keep up with that, we have to keep up with those tendencies, because it speaks to their flexibility in pursuit of power.” He noted that the strongest, transformative movements in the US, such as the Movement for Black Lives, are global in their perspective and recognize the interconnectedness of liberation movements globally.

On Global South Feminism

One of the keys to answering the questions and confronting the challenges is building the kind of South-South feminist internationalism that drives JASS’ work. Nani pointed out that sharing how to deal with authoritarianisms in the different contexts surfaces common struggles and inspires collective strategizing and collaboration to tackle these challenges.

The conversation surfaced several areas for deeper examination and paths forward. “I think that an intersectional Black or Global South feminism is the future in terms of our resistance strategy to block the advance of authoritarianism and to build an alternative society and world system”, Tarso said. Hakima expressed the need for an intersectional and radical approach given that: “the forms of authoritarianism are inextricably linked to capitalism and white supremacy”. This means that change must go deep. “We’re seeing an unprecedented wave of protest because people see that the choices at the ballot box don’t allow for change around authoritarianism and capitalism, no matter which way the elections go.” 

Conversation frequently returned to the issue of the nation-state and how to engage with it. “Corporate power has fundamentally changed the nature and relationship of the nation-state to the people. If we’re going to continue the project of liberation, we’re going to have to fundamentally transform what we understand to be the use of the states,” Hakima noted. Tarso cited the experience of the United States and the fine line between working to block authoritarianism, but not become tied to the relationship to the state. Our strategy “has to be within the state, against the state and without the state. We have to hold all these things if were serious about building powerful alternatives.” He noted that there is a crisis of legitimacy in the neoliberal system, for its failure to deliver equality and wellbeing, and for extracting so much wealth that it is leading to revolt. The crisis creates protest, but also backlash. Authoritarian states and rightwing movements understand the power of feminism to challenge their agendas and legitimacy. We can see this in the “…global priority within this global axis of authoritarianisms to attack feminist movements, not only by state actors, but by conservative religious bases,” he warned.

Nani cited the need to go beyond nationalisms and even go beyond international concepts. “This is the power of feminist alliances and ideology -- how we use that to actually bridge the difference between us on the level of the state, across south and north, in developing or developed countries, or among different religious groups like in Indonesia.” She added that it's very important to find a common language and a common narrative to bring our power and our voice together. Nancy, speaking from Zimbabwe, agreed. “We need to start thinking about a common agenda that will bring us together, that allows us to interact in solidarity, and know what it is we’re looking for and having common demands.”

We need movements that are linked to, “a chain of solidarities, from small acts for women under siege to broader campaigns (and that) imagine a feminism that combines the demonstrations, the marches in the streets--at certain moments, where it’s needed, where you can--with day-to-day revolution,” said Morena

Hakima concluded: “we have visions of what we want to build as feminists--it’s not all about resistance, and part of our resistance is in the joy, it's in the laughter of our children, it’s in our music, it’s in our dance, and from there we are also building the vision of what we want to build. Worlds with safety defined by us—not with guns, without police and without military, with indigenous governance systems… We continue to resist and build.”

Panelists

Tarso Luís Ramos, United States

Tarso Luís Ramos has been researching and challenging the U.S. Right Wing for more than 25 years. At PRA, Tarso has launched major initiatives on antisemitism, misogyny, authoritarianism, White nationalism, and other threats to democracy. Ramos is a sought-after public speaker and his work has been featured in The Guardian, The New York Times, and Time Magazine, among other outlets. Before joining PRA in 2006, Ramos served as founding director of Western States Center’s racial justice program, and exposed and challenged corporate anti-environmental campaigns as director of the Wise Use Public Exposure Project. Ramos recently served as an activist in residence at the Barnard Center for the Study of Women and a Rockwood Leadership Institute National Yearlong Fellow for 2017-2018.

Hakima Abbas, African continent

Hakima Abbas is an African feminist who has been active in social movements for two decades. Trained in international affairs, her work as a policy analyst, popular educator, advocate and strategist has focused on strengthening and supporting movements for transformation. Hakima is currently the co-Executive Director of AWID, a global feminist movement-support and membership organization with over 6600 members in 180 countries.

Nani Zulminarni, Indonesia

Nani has been working on women’s empowerment at the grass root level since 1987, starting as a field worker of The Center for Women’s Resources Development (PPSW) – an NGO in Indonesia. In 2001, Nani founded PEKKA (Women Headed Family Empowerment) focusing on empowering female heads of family, the poorest of the poor in Indonesia. Nani, leading over 60 PEKKA team members, has accompanied over 60,000 women-headed families in over 3,000 self-help groups across 1,300 villages in 20 of 34 provinces in Indonesia that fight for their educational, economic, legal, social and political rights. Alongside her work through PEKKA, Nani co-founded several national networks and NGOs which promote women’s rights and advancing policy reforms for the sector especially in the face of its marginalization in public policy and funding like ASPPUK (Association of NGOs Working with Women Entrepreneurs and Micro Businesses), ALIMAT (a network of activists and Islamic scholars for a just system for families in the Muslim context) and FAMM Indonesia a network. Nani has been elected President of ASPBAE (Asia South Pacific Association for Adult and Basic Education) since 2016, Vice President of ICAE (International Council for Adult Education), advisor of JASS-SEA and  Ashoka South East Asia Leader.

Morena Herrera, El Salvador

A feminist and human rights activist, Morena participated in different national organizations and regional networks that defend women’s human rights. She is a founding member of Las Dignas and a member of the Colectiva Feminista para el Desarrollo Local [Feminist Collective for Local Development] where she currently coordinates training and knowledge management practices. She is President of the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto Terapéutico, Ético y Eugenésico [Citizens’ Group for the Decriminalization of Therapeutic, Ethical, and Eugenic Abortion] in El Salvador, representative of the Feminist Collective within the Red Mujer y Hábitat de América Latina y el Caribe [Women and Habitat Network of Latin America and the Caribbean], member of the Driving Group de la Iniciativa Mesoamericana de Defensoras de Derechos Humanos [Meso-American Initiative of Women Defenders of Human Rights] and of the Sombrilla Centroamericana [Central American Umbrella]. Morena has a PhD in Ibero-American Philosophy from the Universidad Centroamericana José Simón Cañas, a Master’s degree in Gender Relations from the Universidad de Gerona and a Master’s degree in Local Development from the Universidad Centroamericana José Simón Cañas. She has conducted research on feminicide, women’s citizenship and political participation, violence against women, and social movements. She is part of the academic group working to establish the first Master’s in Gender Studies at the University of El Salvador.


Nancy Kachingwe, Zimbabwe

Nancy Kachingwe is an Independent Gender and Public Policy Advisor based in Harare, Zimbabwe. She works mainly with women’s rights organisations, social movements and NGOs, using a feminist political economy lens to unpack the many urgent development challenges of the day. She is a co-founder of a new initiative called South Feminist Futures, which aims to strengthen collective South-South feminist collaboration, networking, educating, learning, theorising, analysing and solidarity for the 21st century.