The power of transnational partnership in challenging the new war on women

Posted on 23 October 2012 by

Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP) joined the World Movement for Democracy Seventh Annual Assembly in Lima, Peru (October 15-17). At the Assembly WLP hosted Topical Workshop: Democratic Transitions and the Inclusion of Women to generate a participatory conversation on advancing women’s rights and democracy during periods of political transition. Panelists asked what the gendered outcomes of democratic transitions might be, and how women could weigh with significant bargaining power in those transitions. Lina Abou-Habib, WLP Lebanon, shares insights from the session.

During the WLP panel organized at the seventh assembly of the World Movement for Democracy in Lima, members of the Partnership shared insights, experiences, and analysis of perspectives on democratic transitions and the inclusion of women, drawing on examples from the Arab World and Latin America.  The panel featured WLP partners and activists from Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, Brazil, and Peru.  WLP board member Yakın Ertürk, former UN rapporteur on violence against women facilitated the session and set the scene with an overview of contemporary challenges and opportunities created by transitional process in both the Arab region and Latin America.

In her introductory remarks Ms Ertürk described a four-tier analysis with which to examine a transition in terms of how it is handling women’s rights and the position of women:

  • The status of gender relations before, during, and after transitions take place
  • The nature of the change that has taken place
  • What were the international dynamics and mind set
  • The position of the opposition groups during and after the transition process and the extent of their participation in post-transition processes

Panelists made key points which showed that although transitory processes may differ from one context to the other, compelling similarities can be drawn.  For instance, the co-opting of revolutions by conservative and anti-women religious groups appears to be a worldwide phenomenon.  This is exacerbated by an international scene that now displays an increasing level of conservatism and an explicit view of women as both subordinate and entrenched in traditional caring and home-based roles.  This is an added challenge as during the previous wave of transitions in the late eighties the international arena was more open to ideas and practices of human rights, equality and the realisation of the rights of women.

Another key point that emerged was the importance of the immersion and rooting of the women’s movement within political and social movements, and ensuring that feminist and rights perspectives are at the heart of the political movement for change.  Secularism was discussed as an essential condition for securing freedom of belief, preventing the enforcement of hegemonic interpretations of ideologies or texts, and protecting the universality of human rights.

When examples of successes and breakthroughs were discussed, panellists successfully teased out the common elements of these successes, namely that women ought to fight for their status as “women” and not as sexless, classless, and colourless “people”.  In making women visible, feminist activists ensured that women’s status and the cross-cutting theme of full and inclusive equality is at the forefront of reforms and transformation, such as for instance the case of constitutional reforms in Brazil and Morocco.

An egalitarian distribution of wealth and an inclusive economy were also highlighted as cornerstones of inclusive and participatory democracy building.  This is because a system that is based on disparities in wealth and a conventional class system is maintained through a repressive and authoritarian regime whose sole role is maintaining an unequal and unjust system.

After transitions women’s struggles are often erased from memory despite the role they have always played in shaping societies, claiming rights, and influencing systems. This is a challenge that arises amidst attempts by the new regimes to create a myth of themselves as the “fathers and mothers of revolutions” while dismissing past gains as “impositions by the former dictators”. This trend ought to be denounced and challenged constantly, since the gains made by women during the past few decades are not due to the generosity of dictators or first ladies but as a direct result of feminist activism during very trying periods of oppression.

In a final remark, Mahnaz Afkhami, WLP founder and CEO noted that women’s participation in political process and political institution is fairly recent and thus, the lack of practice in politics needs to be recognised and addressed.  In addition, Afkhami challenged a growing and popular trend of treating Islam as an “exception” thus categorising Muslim communities as a homogenous entity which is different than others and for which international frameworks cannot apply.  “Religious politics” must be recognized as such, and it is essential to go beyond exceptionalism of any religion, and ensure a universal definition of “human” that does not change for any group. Afkhami noted that Islamist feminism is essentially a contradiction in terms, and contributes significantly to strengthening this pervasive view of Islamic exceptionalism.  She noted that any ideology that places identity above the universality of rights hinders the creation of a culture of democracy and equality.

Panelists and participants concluded that true democracy is a process and a work in progress. Inclusiveness, participation, diversity, equality, and the enjoyment of full rights for women and men are key elements of this democratic process.

Last but not least, it is important to remind ourselves that a starting point and condition of democracy in the public sphere is democracy in the private sphere and in gender relations.

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