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Sisterhood and beyond: how to uphold momentum on feminist change

Written by Emilie Tant, Carmen Leon-Himmelstine

Hero image description: Chile 8M demonstration, 2018. Emilie Tant. Image credit:Street promotion for the 8th March women's demonstration in Santiago, Chile. International Women's Day 2018. Credit: Emilie Tant.
“Wherever we go, however we dress, yes means yes and no means no!”
“Alerta! Alerta! Alerta machista! Que todo el territorio se vuelve feminista!”
“Sisters united shall never be defeated!”

On 8 March, despite Covid-19 restrictions, women still took to the streets to protest injustice and prevailing gendered relations of power. Wearing green and purple handkerchiefs (the colours of the feminist movements), graffitiing the streets, singing chants and raising crowds, women across the globe expressed their demands for fundamental structural transformation of the economic and political order.

For International Women’s Day, ODI turned to leading young feminist thinkers and activists to discuss the radical renewal of the internationalist feminist movement, and the challenges that it faces, through a webinar.

Three guests with distinct contexts and realities were part of the conversation: Erika Yamada (Mexico), Javiera Manzi (Chile), and Dr. Yara Hawari (Palestine). Following opening remarks from Zainab Bangura (UN Secretary General, Nairobi), they explored the potential for an alternative feminist future, pathways to get there, and the role of cross-border solidarity in achieving sustainable change.

Key themes emerged from the dialogue, including both new conceptual tools and practical advice. These lessons carry deep reflective wisdoms from the rising-up of majority world women’s movements, and can be translated into all feminist contexts across the globe.

By sharing knowledge and exchanging tactics there is real potential for a worldwide feminist marea verde ('green tide') that vindicates women rights to exist and thrive.

Strengthening the praxis of feminism has driven the power of these cross-border mass mobilisations. By finding each other through local assemblies and meetings, creating inspirational feminist art online, understanding our struggle through international dialogue, we feel our interconnected body, that shouts: “Si tocas a una, tocas a todas!”

“If you touch one, you touch all!”

Revival of the radical

The conversation recognised the revival of a more radical and popular feminism which is demanding the upheaval of the patriarchal, colonial, white supremacist, and capitalist status-quo. This internationalist feminism emanating from the Global South is a wholly different form of struggle from the white-liberal feminism homogenous across the West.

This movement is based on the idea that there is no possible way to change — or eliminate violence against women and feminised bodies (and nature) — without total structural transformation of how life is organised. Alliances are essential for organising and mobilising action, as are forums where discussion on demands and initiatives emerge from multi-national communities of feminists.

In these spaces of civic resistance, it is important to be anti-capitalist and anti-racist, and build an anti-colonial and anti-extractivist movement.

Here, feminism’s collective strength depends on an ability to conceptually connect every form of violence across liberation struggles. From unpaid care work, to racist harassment, to the mass precarity of our neoliberal livelihoods, sharing collective experiences gives expression to the reality that all economic, psycho-political, physical and sexual violence are linked.

To upturn this violent inequality, feminist movements call for a total reimagination of how our international systems of power are organised and practiced. Their work aims to lift us from our common sufferings, building empathy across all women’s experiences and pains.

Tools of protest used by feminists today

One of the most important tools of recent mobilisations is the #WomensStrike. The right to strike is a fundamental concept emerging from Argentina (in Spanish), where this old historical tool of resistance has been updated and internationalised by feminism.

Originally capturing demands of a white, male, unionised, waged labour force, the feminist movement answered this exclusionary problem by considering how the strike could be reimagined and redeployed in the context of the global care crisis, underpinning our neoliberal and political crisis.

Pluralising the means and mechanisms of strike has accelerated its success, linked to the ability to revolt at multiple scales. It takes the staging of a strike into the home, into the workplace, into the streets, into the bedroom, into care-giving spaces, and a million other micro-spheres where women’s work is invisibilised. It allows the strike to be articulated from a specific set of multi-layered circumstances, simultaneously. This is the power of inclusive and intersectional collective feminist action, organised and popularised from the ground-up.

The feminist strike is also linked to the right to be in the streets. During our webinar, Javiera asked: if we strike, how can we generate a collective and creative use of the public space? How can women become the protagonists?

Through very tangible public interventions, occupations of the streets and neighbourhood assemblies, the feminist community is building the biggest mass mobilisations since the end of the region’s military dictatorships.

Interdependent systems of oppression make it difficult for radical political movements to reach mass appeal. Yet, global sorority and sisterhood is an incredible tool of international feminism, working to unite a collective struggle. Yara noted a pending task for wider feminist movements is to integrate a decolonial approach. Not a selective sisterhood that excludes some women as 'other', but one that embraces diversity and understands how oppressions intersect – to avoid reproducing white hegemonic feminism that props up the status-quo.

International organisations were considered complicit in depoliticising the Palestinian women’s liberation struggle, with feminist initiatives linked to funding deadlines, donor priorities, and NGO reporting lexicon, instead of grassroots resistance to patriarchy and settler-colonialism. This explicitly limits the aims of women to ‘empowerment’ within the domestic sphere, and does not tackle the patriarchal state violence of military occupation – a process referred to as the “NGOization of the Palestinian movement.”

So connecting our struggles is a political tool, strengthened through permanently making bridges between movements and creating international modalities of organisation and discussion. Exchanging personal experiences across borders is a vital force for collective imagination and feminist transformation. Digitalisation now drives this process, harnessing online spaces to inform and inspire, form alliances, influence peers and generate collective solidarity.

Deepening the sisterhood also allows for what Yara called “radical collective healing”. Where self-care manifests through a true global sorority where we stop competing, and instead unite and support one another. "Their struggle is our struggle" is based on the permanent hope for radical social and systemic transformation and a profound desire to shape new political horizons. This deep motivation to build an alternative feminist future comes from the force and power of "the capacity and the need to say: NO."

Keeping up momentum: what needs to be done?

Decision-makers, funders or those supporting feminist transformation need to:

1. Increase focus on breaking harmful gender norms

We need stronger commitments and greater investment in changing social norms to address root causes of gender injustice and structural violence. Efforts over time to dismantle patriarchal value-systems that normalise violence against women, unequal burdens of paid and domestic work, and discriminatory laws, are critically important.

2. Fund grassroots organisations and feminist movements

ODI research shows that norms need to change at the individual and community level. Rather than criminalising social movements and young leaders, facilitating spaces that enable women to lead in political processes and transforming public debate is crucial for functional democracies. This includes supporting digital spaces of mobilisation and directing resources to expand the reach of women’s movements.

3. Address intersecting inequalities

Differences related to race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, age, geography, income and asset poverty, all interact with gender identities. Sustainable change will be rooted in the recognition that a ‘one size fits all’ intervention fails women by assuming they suffer from inequalities exclusively based on their gender identity. It is thus crucial to create bespoke interventions that respond to multi-layered identities and specific challenges that women face in their everyday contexts.