Global struggle for anti-racism and feminism

2014-09-19 08:52

Feminism and anti-racism join hands in women's movements around the world. In large South American cities, marginalised and racialised women have taken charge of the development of housing. Turkish feminists are questioning their country’s nationalist ideology and discrimination of ethnic minorities.

Many women’s movements have long worked against racism. Yet the nature of the efforts and the exact issues focused upon tend to differ across the world. Juan Velasquez, Senior Lecturer in Gender Studies at the University of Gothenburg, has studied women’s movements in large South American cities. He says that an anti-racist feminism has sprung from the informal urbanisation process that in the last 50 years has transformed the continent to one of the most urbanised in the world.

‘In this process, the women have strong power over the building and administration of their self-constructed, informal cities’, says Velasquez.

The women he is talking about live in slum neighbourhoods in the outskirts of the cities. These are low-priority areas with underdeveloped housing and services. The men leave every morning to work in the wealthier parts of the cities, while the women stay behind to care for the children. Yet they also make far-reaching contributions to their neighbourhood communities. They plan their housing infrastructure, explore the status of undeveloped lots and assess legal matters surrounding the administration of their neighbourhoods. The women also get involved in the development of schools and businesses.

‘Services are generally concentrated to richer, white neighbourhoods, while people with dark skin live in the self-constructed poor parts of the city. They realise that this segregation is partly due to racism and are pushing against discrimination within the framework of their right to the city and democratisation’.

A lot to learn from South America

Juan Velasquez says that there are large difference between South American countries and Sweden when it comes to urban design. In Sweden, the development of infrastructure and housing is strictly regulated; politicians, developers and construction companies have strict control over all development processes. The large share of informal self-construction suggests that the situation is entirely different in South America. The democratisation issue, however, seems universal.

‘A lot can be learned from South America when it comes to segregation and injustices in the housing market. For Sweden to solve these problems, those affected must be invited to participate in the planning and administration’.

Venezuela is a country where the issue of citizen participation is treated with great respect. In contrast to Sweden, says Velasquez, the country’s advanced anti-discrimination legislation provides that discriminated groups shall be given expanded power to act and participate in society. One example of this emerged in the country’s recovery from the devastating flooding catastrophe in 2010. The government simply asked those who had suffered the most from the disaster – women with dark skin in slum areas – to inventory the available land.

‘The women were authorised to assess lots and ownership issues, and to start their own building projects with cheap state loans and technical assistance. They sort of became an extension of the government’.

Long tradition of anti-nationalism

In Turkey there are many women’s movements that explicitly oppose the oppression of the country’s minorities. Åsa Eldén, who has worked at the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, says that many of these organisations can be considered anti-racist even if they do not make any clear reference to the concept.

‘In Turkey there is a widespread nationalist ideology where the rights of ethnic minorities are continuously marginalised. There is a tradition of active discrimination of Kurds, Armenians and other minorities. The feminist movements are criticising this ideology’, says Eldén.

Eldén has studied how men’s violence against women is reported in Turkish media. In this work, she has seen how feminist campaigns have emphasised that this type of violence is found in all groups of society – that it is a matter of gender and not ethnicity.

‘They have linked the violence to a gendered pattern, implying a type of anti-racist agenda as it opposes a discourse where for example Kurds are portrayed as particularly violent’.

Eldén mentions an issue where she feels that Swedish feminists have something to learn from their Turkish counterparts: the meaning of nationalism and how a women’s movement can respond to it.

‘These are issues that the Turkish women’s movement has confronted head-on. They have a long tradition of discussing nationalism. We could listen to what they have done and apply it sensibly in Sweden’.

The North doesn’t listen

Maria Eriksson Baaz works as a researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala, with a particular focus on DR Congo. She says that the issue of women’s economic rights generally is high on the agenda for African women’s movements. Yet there is also anti-racist and post-colonial feminism.

‘These orientations are mainly expressed as criticism against women’s organisations from the North – criticism against how they, by describing African women as oppressed victims, portray themselves as more developed and as helpers of African women,’ says Eriksson Baaz.

She says that criticism is also raised against how women’s organisations in the North are setting the agenda for development aid. The women’s movement, like many other global solidarity movements, has a tendency to nourish an idealised view of the giver-receiver relationship. When in fact it´s more about a symmetry of power where the opinions, needs and priorities of one side carry more weight than those of the other.

‘Our research shows that local women’s organisations are critical to the strong focus on war-related sexual violence. Instead they are stressing the need to focus on domestic violence, women’s inheritance rights and participation of women in politics, but perceive that women’s organisations in the North are not listening.’

Maria Eriksson Baaz believes that the Swedish movement can learn to listen better and always question its behaviour and priorities.

‘Local organisations often try to communicate their own priorities and needs, but we don’t listen because we are so blinded by our own agenda.’

Author Ida Måwe. Translation: Debbie Axlid
show more news ›