From Tahir Square in Cairo to the shanty towns of Soweto, resistance to economic, political and social marginalisation in the global south is being increasingly feminised.
According to some this should not be happening. For many Western analysts have historically viewed third world women as passive victims, because of their supposed adherence to traditional values, positioning in the domestic sphere or economic marginalisation.
My research in Venezuela before and after the election of Hugo Chavez suggests that this is a one-sided view. Venezuelan women shanty-town dwellers experience some of the harshest forms of oppression in the world but are nonetheless key agents in the struggle to transform their conditions.
Women’s politicization in Venezuela – as elsewhere – is characterized by new repertoires of action. As Mercedes, a community organiser from La Vega shanty town in Caracas explained to me during my work there: ‘We have blocked roads, taken over the bank and the offices of the municipality’. As a result women like Mercedes have organized for their right to determine, and have access to, food, housing, education, health and water.
These struggles have been embedded in local cultures and political histories. They are also heavily influenced by traditions of liberation theology and popular education in which everybody is assumed to have the capacity to self-organize without leaders and experts. Thus new institutions have been created which focus on direct and participatory forms of democracy in which all are empowered to be equal participants.
This ‘equal and horizontal’ participation is reflected in the importance given to how decisions are made as much as the kind of decisions taken: the means are if anything more important than the ends. As Nora, a popular educator connected to the Urban Land Committees (CTUs) recounted to me: ‘I was involved in developing a methodology of participation. This methodology is a means of enabling communities to develop their collective knowledge… It begins with communities discussing the common problems they face, their experiences of the CTU’s and of other elements of the political process, and then develops into a series of reflections amongst those same community members as to potential barriers to achieving their objectives and solutions to these problems. From this they develop plans of development and action’.
Struggles for the democratization of the city based on self-government thereby reclaim a collective process of the provision, definition and organization of health, education and housing. As a consequence motherhood, womanhood and family have been transformed. The domestic sphere, normally disregarded as ‘women’s work’ is valued and politicized in terms of community need and rights. What many in the West see as forces that cause women’s political marginalization have become instead springboards for their participation in a more generously defined view of ‘politics’.
Such a feminization of resistance is not a manifestation of victimhood but rather a centre of creative human activity in which new forms of popular politics, democracy and social transformation are being created. As Chandra Talpade Mohanty argues, poor women of the periphery experience a particular form of exploitation and alienation, which gives to their struggles ‘… [a] potential epistemic privilege… that can be the basis for reimagining a liberatory politics for… this century’.
Every struggle against marginalization has its own origins and means of expression, but from the Middle East to South America, women of the global south have decided that it is now time to take politics into their own hands.