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We are the ones we have been waiting for

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.

Sara Motta

Published inGender Politics

3 Comments

  1. Andy Andy

    An excellent post I think, and very relevant to everyone studying politics. Too often, people use catchphrases about “democracy” and “empowerment” without thinking about what they might look like in practice, and whether the dominant system really embodies them.

    Ultimately, empowerment or democratisation is not something which happens within a dominant frame, taking this frame for granted, but requires a diffusion of power – exactly what Sara’s talking about here – blocking roads, seizing buildings, but also critical education, building other kinds of communities, redefining what needs to be done. The idea of a methodology which assumes everyone has a capacity to organise, to learn and to create a perspective, instead of assuming a privileged point from which objective truth can be assessed, is something we need to learn throughout the social sciences. Stil today, people talk as if social problems are just matters of fact, without looking at the perspectives and problems of the people involved, whether the social problem is a problem for them in the same way as for the observer. Ultimately this contributes to a style of politics as silencing: everything is done from the monological standpoint of power; allowances may be made around the edges, but in the last instance, order must not be lost, property must not be damaged, the tabloids must not be outraged… power remains concentrated in a single point.

    People are disempowered to the extent that they’re inside this dominant frame, and therefore, subordinate. People become re-empowered to the extent that they (or we) produce other ways of seeing focused on needs, desires, hopes, other paths, other ways of seeing. Of course, the struggle to move beyond the dominant way of seeing is difficult, because it can persist even after it’s been consciously rejected. But still, the step needs to be taken. The CTU’s are showing the way forward for the rest of us in fighting disempowerment and alienation.

  2. Sara Sara

    Andy,

    Thank you for your comments.

    Yes I think that the idea of other ways of seeing works really well when trying to understand the political practice of movements like the CTUs. In many ways they differ from how we understand traditional forms of radical politics which organise around a fixed ideology, follow a political line and are committed to pre-determined objectives. Rather they focus on the construction in process of their theories of domination, their political strategy and particular objectives. There is thus a commitment to openness and plurality but also acceptance that we make mistakes and that this is an essential part of the political learning process.

    I find it fascinating that this type of politics which questions representation and delegation of political and intellectual capacities to political leaders and experts often develops in movements that are noticeably feminised and community- based. I am not sure if this suggests there is a particularly feminised way of doing politics but it is something that I think is intellectually and politically important to explore.

  3. john john

    Very nice piece.

    With regard to the question: are these types of politics specifically “feminine” I think there is a sense in which they are, or atleast in which theyre about problematising an idea of public space which has been at least since Aristotle constructed as masculine. So public space is always articulated politically through a quite masculine set of discourses of performance in relation to an abstract audience: rhetorical speech, displays of solidarity, symbolic confrontation, physical demonstration, the spectacular. The domestic space is represented as pre-politically feminine – as dialogue, intimate love, caring, nurturing, the embodied affective – a set of much more placed, shared relationships. I think to the extent that there is a feminisation of resistance, it is in introducing these domestic logics into the public sphere, blurring the boundaries, getting away from the spectacularisation of politics / resistance, towards a much more reflexive embrace of the lived experiences of coming together. I think you did see this in Tahrir Square, after the initial confrontation with the police, which was largely (though far from entirely) a male act of “rage” the liberated space became increasingly domesticated as a Place, full of women and children from all backgrounds – the Square which had been symbolically a space of the state, the regime, became a lived in place of the people.

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