The Feminist Spring: #2 An exposè of hijacked feminist agendas intended to flatten not flatter Print E-mail
New Internationalist Issue 474 - July, 2014

When rights go wrong

From empowerment-lite to love-jihad, exploreing the perils of hijacked feminist agendas.

By  Rahila Gupta

Illustration: Kathryn Corlett

It is a measure of the success of a set of ideas when business interests reference them in their marketing strategy. If religion and the state pile in too, it means those ideas are dangerous enough to warrant control through subversion. That has been the fate of feminism.

Perhaps the grandest of all ideological thefts took place when the US claimed it was invading Afghanistan to liberate women. Since then, saving women has become a central issue in the North-South civilizational discourse, separating ‘us’ from ‘them’.

Outrage at women’s suffering can go off-course all too easily. You may have thought recent demands for protection of women in India from sexual violence would be pretty difficult to subvert. But even here, conservative forces have appropriated the feminist agenda.

Kavita Krishnan, a passionate campaigner for women’s rights, has described the moral panic that followed the gang rape and murder of the young student Jyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi in December 2012. Society responded by policing women’s sexuality, locking up girls and women at home ‘for their own protection’.

The rush to protect took some dangerous turns: placards demanding ‘hang the rapists’ were directly linked to safer streets; the Aam Aadmi Party, a new anti-corruption grouping, set up local youth brigades that could just as easily unleash vigilante justice against girls out with their boyfriends.

Men from minority communities such as Muslims were also targeted. The khap panchayats, a quasi-judicial body at the village level, infamous for pronouncing harsh punishments based on age-old customs and traditions, used slogans such as ‘Beti Bachao, Bahu Bachao, Samman Bachao’ (protect daughters, daughters-in-law and our honour). The ‘protection’ being demanded was from a so-called love jihad by Muslim men intent on seducing Hindu women.

Indian feminists have fought back, working to recast the debate in the language of rights and to refine their demands: demanding protection for ‘a woman’s freedom, not her body’.

Demonstrators embraced this wider critique of patriarchy. Krishnan says the massive protests by young people on the streets were not only in repudiation of Jyoti Pandey’s murder, but also an outburst of accumulated anger against rape culture.

‘Many public figures made remarks that in fact criticized her [Jyoti] for being out with her “boyfriend”… What girls were telling us was, “that after this case, our parents are telling us that we can’t go out at night, we can’t watch a movie with our friends, we can’t study away from home.”’

In a speech to demonstrators that went viral on the internet, Krishnan promised, ‘We will be adventurous. We will be reckless. We will be rash. We will do nothing for our safety. Don’t you dare tell us how to dress, when to go out at night, in the day, or how to walk or how many escorts we need!’

Strong… and shiny
The corporate sector has also got in on the action. One of its most effective appropriation strategies has been to cut feminism adrift from its roots as a collective project, by emphasizing individual empowerment and choice.

‘The personal is political’ is a key foundational principle of feminism. It resulted from joining up the dots between individual women’s experiences to come to an understanding that these experiences were part of a systemic inequality, which needed collective effort to dismantle. However, this same principle is broad enough to allow business interests to ride on its back. Hair-care firm Pantene sells us shampoo, urging us to ‘be strong and shine’ in an advertisement that shows a series of images that highlight gender inequality, as if glossy hair can fight the sexist labels that hold women back.

Across the board, the corporate sector has used individual empowerment to sell beauty products and cosmetic surgery on the basis that the modern woman, that is to say, the feminist, is in control of her career, her life and her body and she remakes them as she chooses even if those choices entrench gender inequality.

Those same business interests often rely on supply chains forged from women’s exploitation. In order to counter the bad press they have received on this front and partly to fulfil their corporate social responsibility obligations, the corporate sector has jumped on the ‘development’ bandwagon – predictably on its own terms and without a sense of irony.

US retail giant Walmart, which has been dogged by strikes and legal action over pay discrimination against their female workers, set up its Empowering Women Together programme in 2011. It has committed $100 million for jobs training for a million women across the world and gives women-owned businesses preferential status as suppliers. Yet it is only able to sell cheap clothes because of the starvation rates paid to Bangladeshi women garment workers.

Empty rituals

Similarly, US sportswear transnational Nike – with its own history of labour exploitation of young girls – set up the Nike Foundation in 2004 driven by the discovery that ‘the best investment with the highest returns’ was adolescent girls. In ‘Can girls save the world?’, Kate Grosser and Nikki van der Gaag analyse how the Nike approach undermines the feminist position and promotes a neoliberal agenda by focusing on the girls as individuals with power to change their situation while ignoring the social and political context which makes them powerless.1

Mainstream development trends must also be questioned. In Engaging with Empowerment, Indian scholar Srilatha Batliwala rejects those apolitical programmes that adopt feminist ideas, divest them of the complex transformative strategies they were embedded in, and reduce them ‘to formulas, rituals and mantras’. Anthropologist Andrea Cornwall has dubbed this ‘empowerment-lite’.

The religious right is another one that is fond of couching a pro-life position in the language of women’s rights. Christian groups in the US have long claimed abortion is necessary only because society has failed the needs of women. Europe has its own variants. A recent anti-abortion resolution filed in 2013 (which was ultimately rejected despite intense lobbying) expressed feminist-sounding concern for the early sexualization of girls, their widespread exposure to porn, the resultant gender stereotyping and sexual violence (so far, so acceptable) as a prelude to condemning ‘any violation of the bodily integrity of women’ and demanding universal access to ‘post-abortion trauma syndrome treatments’.

The British government, too, has not been averse to using women’s rights as a Trojan horse to smuggle in other, anti-immigration agendas. Prime Minister David Cameron has denounced forced marriage as ‘abhorrent and little more than slavery’ – a position that all feminists could support. Yet Britain’s action against ‘sham and forced marriage’ translated into upping income thresholds for those bringing in a foreign spouse, and increasing the probationary period of such marriages from two to five years. When a marriage breaks down in less than five years, a woman has to provide proof of domestic violence in order to get leave to remain in Britain. Ignorant of their rights, it is likely that many women would not dare to leave such marriages for fear of deportation and destitution. In contrast, the demands from feminists – more funding for specialist refuges, women’s centres and adequate training for teachers, social workers and police to identify girls at risk of forced marriage – go unheard.

We have to be vigilant to the encroachment on feminism from every direction and of attempts to use our own ideas against us. This imitation is not aimed to flatter but to flatten us.

Tina Wallace, Fenella Porter (eds), Aid, NGOs and the realities of women’s lives, Practical Action, 2014.
Rahila Gupta is a journalist, writer and activist. She also writes for OpenDemocracy and The Guardian.