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Rivers Run Deep

Reflections on Current Challenges to Feminism

by Susanna George

Susanna hails from Malaysia and is an active feminist in various aspects of the struggle to achieve a just society for women and men. She became the Executive Director of Isis International-Manila from 1998-2004 but now is back in Malaysia to continue her feminist struggle.


Art by Kyaw San
Art by Kyaw San

Imagine all human innovation and desire for social justice to be a big ocean. Now see feminism as one of the bubbly streams of thought and activism that has over the past decades turned into a big river that flows ultimately into this larger body of water. Imagine many different streams from a rugged and varied landscape flowing into this river, mingling and merging as they follow the impulse to flow seaward. Do you see other streams that are flowing into other rivers that appear to be flowing parallel to the big feminist river?

Well, my reflections arise from the basic premise that the seemingly parallel streams of thought and action do in fact arrive in the same ocean, generations downstream. I am also aware of the fact that like all streams, feminism in theory and practice keeps moving, shifting, growing, and therefore, the challenges that I will make mention of in this article are in flux and already taking new form, and by no means universal.

By way of self-introduction, let me give a brief history of my encounter with feminism. Feminism as a theory was first introduced to me in college in the United States of America. However, it stayed dormant and incubating in an environment where consciousness of race, class, colonisation, economic and cultural hegemony of the North, and South-South solidarity was my focus and priority. When I returned to Malaysia in 1990, I was at best a reluctant feminist activist, preferring swimming and snorkeling to sitting through long meetings and discussions on various topics. In fact, I slept through most of the first meetings, until my sense of responsibility got the better of me, and feminist thought began to unfold and make incredibly good revolutionary sense to me. Since then, I have realised a life-long commitment to feminist principles and have had the opportunity to work in an international feminist organisation and engage at different levels with the women's movement in Malaysia, regionally and internationally. The reflections in this article represent my thoughts at this present moment and from a relatively short engagement of some 15 years.

To date, I have found feminist thought to be the sharpest and most profound lens through which to examine and understand the deeper layers of human relations and understand the way power and oppression works in society and within societal institutions. Feminism itself has had a rich foundation, finding strength and its nuanced holistic analyses from various social movements and thinkers. Elements of thought and activists from civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the various independence movements in the South, the labour movements, the struggles of indigenous and minority communities for autonomy and integrity, the gay and lesbian movement, the environmental movement—these are some of the streams that have enriched the river that we call feminism today.

Our theorizing...

I first encountered gender analysis in the development context when it was already in the height of vogue. Through my work in a regional gender and development unit of a larger development research organisation, I had the opportunity to become completely immersed in how this concept was being strongly promoted as a feminist advocacy within international development circles.

When gender analysis was first introduced by astute feminist scholars and activists as a means to deeply examine the various aspects of development, gender discrimination was made evident from design to implementation of the vast majority of projects funded by international development aid. A very strong lobby by feminists who saw the United Nations (UN) as an important site of struggle to ensure rights for women, pushed forward the concept of gender analysis, perspectives and sensitivity. The UN, international development agencies and governments worldwide responded, and there were a series of hard-won successes. National mechanisms for women's affairs were set up; gender experts were sought after in development institutions and governments of both North and South; and there was strong support for women's studies programmes. For a while, it felt like feminist thought was being infused through the structures of the institutions that feminists wanted to see transformed.

As a feminist who also threw herself into lobbying on gender issues within the UN system, I now am quite certain that the focus on gender mainstreaming, gender analysis had distracted us and shifted us away from the heart of the feminist project. When we started out in the late '60's, feminists sought to irrevocably change and ultimately shake and dismantle the powers that be, expose, shame and ultimately withdraw the credibility and license of power mongers and patriarchs in all their manifestations.

However, the real transformative significance of feminism has been so unsettling for everyone, both women and men in power, and those afraid of the vast unknown that might result when we are truly unshackled from the definition and form that gender roles and gendered relationships provide us. It seems to me that gender analysis in the context of development, has been bio-engineered by the best brains within development institutions such as the World Bank, had its DNA deciphered and decoded, then returned in a form extremely confined and institutionalised. What started off as a powerful strategy to expose gendered hierarchies and assumptions, has been overtaken by those very institutions that we have tried to transform. What we have today is a pale shade of the former tigress, declawed and rendered toothless.

Today, we have gender experts who go straight from various institutions of higher learning in the North straight into development institutions and the various government positions that feminist activists fought so hard to secure. In many cases, institutionalised gender experts cannot relate to feminists in all the diverse shapes, forms and strong convictions, and for the most part find them too much. Many feminists have learnt a kind of "sword speak" that comes from hanging in the same spaces as gender experts liberally peppered with the G-word (gender), but never the F-word. Feminism has become an F-word in many spaces, and women's organisations founded in the fiery excitement of the second wave of feminism struggle to hold on to the word as let alone its potent significance.

What was once a fluid, free, deeply soul-searching, profound space for theorizing has turned into a set of canons that are fixed and true that seems to younger feminists to be unquestionable.

As powerful as gender analysis has been in exposing patriarchy in all the nooks and crannies it hides in... it has also powerfully locked us as feminists into yin-yang descriptions of women and men, and our lobby with the mainstream perhaps has forced us into taking a more essentialised viewing of women and men and their roles. When a man does not behave within his role, he is in touch with his "feminine" or soft, or exceptional. We have not taken on the full meaning of human beings whose

sex organs are assigned differently from their gendered expression. In some senses, transsexuals and transgendered peoples are seen as the small aberration in an otherwise strictly ordered world where men will be men and women, women? Might it be possible that transsexuals offer us a glimpse into what might be possible if "men" and "women" were not strapped down to roles that we imagine that we are liberated enough to choose.

“My many faces”, art by Chan Wai-fong
“My many faces”, art by Chan Wai-fong

It seems to me that at some level there have been a lock-down on our theorizing within the women's movement sometime in the past decade or so. What was once a fluid, free, deeply soul-searching, profound space for theorizing has turned into a set of canons that are fixed and true that seems to younger feminists to be unquestionable. For example, it seems to me that we have locked down, and locked out the possibility that we might need to reexamine the gendered nature of violence against women. We have not been able to say, yes, there are violent women who beat, maim and kill, with consciousness and intent, other women, other men, and children as well. These women are always the exception, the minority, and cannot be seen to upset our primary theory i.e. that it is Men, full-blown and life-size in their stereotyped gendered roles, that are the primary perpetrators of Violence against Women. When we meet a man who has not a single mean bone in his body, is gentle and soft as silk, and could not hurt a fly because he is radiating love in all directions, he is the rare exception, or maybe a boddhisatva. But his astounding difference does little to speak of the potential in all men, and all human beings towards non-violent behaviour.

What I feel this locked position has done for the women's movement is it has prevented us from moving forward. This causes a loss of our credibility because we only want to talk about one kind of violence, that this is the violence that men beget upon women and not the totality of violence meted out as a result of unequal power relations between different groups of society.

Our activism...

Which leads me to the other important challenge that we face as feminists, that is, the institutions that we have formed to keep our movement and our vision afloat as we head seaward. Like our theorizing, our activism has also gone through a process of limitation and refrain. Previously, there was a readiness to take to the streets in protest, to clearly express our views on various injustices that we perceived and make demands that were equivocal and powerful. We also had much more time and commitment to the slow process of consciousness raising and to ensuring that the principles that we held true such as non-hierarchy and collectivism were manifest in our processes and our associations.

While the receptivity to receiving funding from institutionalised donors such as international development aid agencies, government agencies and corporations happened slowly and in many organisations only after much critical debate, a vast majority of the leading women's organisations and networks today have become almost entirely dependent on external funding sources. I believe that this has had a significant impact on our activism, our priorities, our ways of working and our ability to keep an eye of the "big picture."

It seems that these days too few women who participate in the mainstream of the women's movement have the opportunity within a movement context to challenge our internalised sexism, to reflect and take stock of their relationships, values and priorities. With project budgets to worry about, deadlines on reports, and funders to be accountable to, few organisations can prioritise having a good rethink about whether our ways and strategies are really effective (except in ways that are acceptable to the donors or to governments), or if we are simply mice on the spin mill in that cage of parameters that is predefined by society.

Art by Kyaw San
Art by Kyaw San

Furthermore, the high value previously given to living out feminist principles in our daily lives has slipped, in part as a result of the strong social and cultural backlash of the 1990's, but also as a result of our needing to appear "acceptable" in the eyes of society (read donors), fewer and fewer women find support in living alternative lifestyles. In fact, in the Asian context, all issues of sexuality are still taboo, and most lesbian activists working in the women's movement context have needed to stay invisibilised particularly in organisations that have high public visibility.

Even our choices in terms of the kind of activism that women's movements are likely to take up have been shaped by our attempts to influence the institutions of society through lobbying and advocacy. We are less likely to carry out campaigns or even support the actions of certain segments of society (transvestites, gays and lesbians, environmentalists and indigenous peoples in the context of Malaysia for example) for fear of being seen as radical or being seen as associating with "radical" elements of society. Fortunately, there are women's movements such as those in Latin America and India who have managed to keep powerfully in touch with their larger vision for social change and activism, in part because of the broader environment of social activism in these places.

Another challenge that we have faced in the process of institutionalisation is the struggle to find balance between paid and voluntary activism. Many women's organisations today have refined and upscaled their process of hiring staff to the extent that many job competency models bring in women who may not have a strong commitment to social change through feminist activism. Many women's organisations that have been founded during the days of fiery feminist activism, are challenged to maintain social change as a primary motivational orientation, as opposed to staff incentive packages. During the years that I was the Executive Director of a feminist organisation, I did strongly believe at the time that it was possible to run organisations that were efficient from an organisational development perspective, but that maintained a radical feminist heart at its core. I actually still think this is possible, but only if we are very cognizant about what can and cannot be compromised and be willing to hold on to our principles even if it means at some point losing funding, closing down the institutions that we have become attached to, and returning with new ways of organising and with renewed commitment.

“And the Word Became Flesh”, art by Frank Wesley
“And the Word Became Flesh”,
art by Frank Wesley

No doubt these funds have been valuable and many many new projects, programmes, campaigns and organisations have come into being because of the support of donor partners and some very progressive activist-minded people within the range of social institutions, from aid agencies to governments to UN agencies. My only contention is that we need to take time to think through our premises and strategies thoroughly. I believe that times are changing and there is an urgency for feminists to reassert our original thesis, to regroup, realign and make new strategic alliances.

Many of you may be aware of the World Social Forum process, a platform for a broad range of movements and activists have come together united against new forms of imperialism as expressed in neo-liberal capitalist globalisation. This confluence of movement is growing from strength to strength and attempting to resist the structures and systems that are consolidating the Empire from all sides. Examples are seen in the heated debates and rallies on the World Trade Organisation and its attempt to regulate markets globally; the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and their attempts to deregulate national markets and institutions in favour of privatisation; and the powerful monopolising intent and capacity of huge corporations in the fields of media, entertainment and information and communications technologies.

With all that is happening at that level, it has a possibility to fundamentally change the nature of relationships between nations and dramatically alter the balance of power. I believe it is vital for feminists to not just keep plugging away at all that we have been doing (because we think who else will do it?), and stick to issues that are defined as "women's issues" but to recognise the value of bringing the radical lens of feminism into many different spaces and into many different movements.

If we return to the analogy that I began this article with, of considering feminism as a stream that turns into a river moving to the larger ocean, we can see that in some senses. It is the course of all successful streams before they reach the ocean: to go from being bubbly, ready to jump over any obstacle in their path and remaining crystal clear to turn into slower, convoluted and murky rivers. I believe it is possible for us to dredge through the sludge and silt and allow new streams of thought to refresh and invigorate us. In so doing we can find new pathways that rush towards the ocean of social justice that we all desire.

Note: I would like to thank Ms. Tan Beng Hui who generously shared her ideas and a paper on the issue of institutionalised activism which helped me formulate different parts of this paper.