Civil society and the institutionalization of feminist movements

The intersectional struggle against oppression.

This article seeks to express a set of impressions that have been derived from conversations and discussions with friends and colleagues from across the Arabic-speaking region about the movement for social justice in general, and about feminist movements in particular. Drawing from my work at the Center for Transnational Development and Collaboration in Syria and other parts of the Arabic-speaking region, I will share some general observations from various contexts about the forms that movements take; the course of their development; and the contradictions that result from being tied to civil society organizations and neo-liberal policies. These observations are largely associated with the institutionalization of feminist movements, which is governed by international policies that promote capitalist values at the expense of social justice and the equitable distribution of and access to resources. These policies are enacted by the international community despite its claims to be solely concerned with the promotion of rights, equality, and liberties, and free of any ulterior agendas having to do with economic interests and political influence. Blame for these contradictions cannot be solely cast upon international organizations, however, as their discourse has become widespread among activist groups and associations that claim to confront oppression and its ramifications. Furthermore, this phenomenon is not confined to the Syrian context, as its manifestations can be observed in Palestine, Iraq, Jordan, and other countries. The proliferation of institutional discourse has resulted in a reliance on false binaries and identity politics that could undermine the work of these movements and hinder their ability to achieve their objectives. It has also further disintegrated our intersecting struggles and created symbolic boundaries around the “particularities” of each context. This threatens to erase the impact of oppressive global structures and their role in the persistence of injustice, violence, and oppression from our collective imaginations. It also threatens to limit our ability to confront the roots of the oppression that affects all of us regardless of our location, origins, affiliations, or the identities through which we define ourselves.

The observations and analyses offered herein are the result of no less than 15 years of experience in the Arabic-speaking region, and no less than 8 years working on Syrian issues as part of the Center for Transnational Development and Collaboration. In this article, I will focus on a few of the areas where the work of feminist mobilization is hindered, both in Syria and its neighboring countries, by its institutionalization and association with civil society, which is affected by the agendas of the international community.

Identity politics: Between feminist action and women’s action

Feminist action is profoundly meaningful to me at the personal, professional, and political levels, and one of the biggest disappointments that I have encountered over years of working in this field is the conflation of feminist action with women’s action. I define feminist action as a struggle towards comprehensive social justice that seeks to upend all forms of oppression including capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy,1 and state apparatuses, and which does not overlook any of these structures. Therefore, from an intersectional perspective, feminist action does solely focus on women, but rather considers women’s causes to be an inseparable part of a set of demands that seeks intersectional justice for all, including migrants, the differently-abled, refugees, and all persecuted and marginalized groups. As such, any feminist movement must be inclusive and take into consideration all forms of violence and oppression, rather than restricting itself to partial struggles that fall within the realm of the possible within the confines of institutionalized civil society that is influenced, directly or indirectly, by the agendas of various funding sources. Typically, donors require civil society organizations to focus on specific social groups with clear identities that can be placed in categories whose experiences are generalizable; i.e. women, refugees, and sexual “minorities,” etc.

 

Among the most problematic aspects of what is currently referred to as ‘women’s action’ is the concerted effort to create identities for women that are both definitive and stratified, which regards all women as belonging to a single category. Women’s experiences are thus carelessly generalized and their identities are placed at the center of the discussion, rather than the causes of their oppression, which can include the very agendas of the international community. For example, by emphasizing and promoting projects under the banner of providing “support” or “capacity-building” for women and their “political participation,” donors reproduce stereotypes of women as being a monolithic group that shares an identical experience of oppression, and as victims that need to be saved. In this way, they obscure the causes of injustice in a manner that rhetorically diminishes the responsibility of oppressive regimes. Such initiatives portray women as passive receptors of oppression without any will or power of their own, thus understating the role of oppressive structures and placing the full burden of the struggle on the women themselves. This way of working only addresses the symptoms of the issue rather than the roots of oppression; promoting faulty stereotypes, regarding men as though they are not in need of empowerment or capacity-building, and reproducing the concept that women are less-than or weaker than men. These identity politics also create additional binary-oppositions between women themselves, and between men and women, such as the idea that all women are equally oppressed and men are the sole reason for their oppression. In this political view, oppressive structures such as the state and economic/cultural capitalism are not tackled head-on and women are regarded as a monolithic group without regard for the diversity of their lived experiences, including those with non-binary and non-conforming genders and sexualities. In contrast, if we contemplate feminism as a movement for social justice rather than a set of projects to be implemented by civil society organizations, we must take seriously the idea that the personal is political and emphasize personal and daily lived experiences. This modality departs from the discourse of the international community and from elitist human-rights rhetoric because it centers the perspectives of political minorities. In other words, we must be cognizant of the fact that distribution and access to resources in all their forms are closely tied to traditional political structures that produce social, economic, and political classes that are not strictly tied to gender, sex, sexuality or other distinguishing characteristics. When we begin to take this into consideration we see that feminist movements must maintain the centrality of minority groups in setting priorities and demands. In this context I am using “minority” to refer to groups which are marginalized not by virtue of their numbers, but due to barriers that restrict their privilege and access to resources, be they economic, cultural, intellectual, human, or ecological, which creates forms of inequity, injustice, and violence. By avoiding these problematic practices in our social/political movements, we can create societal change that is not limited to quantitative indicators that instrumentalize women as political symbols or ornaments in civil society institutions while failing to achieve substantive change in our struggle towards a fully intersectional form of social justice.

Language

Language is a vital tool and a fundamental aspect of creating a discourse around our social justice movements. The institutionalization of feminist movements that takes place via civil society organizations pushes us towards the use of particular language that is both legible in the framework they impose, and compatible with the agendas of the international community. This language, however, is not necessarily relevant to the contexts in question. In formulating the goals of our movements, we have come to use indicators that are tied to logical frameworks, results, activities, and project objectives, rather than focusing on true social change that speaks to marginalized groups and challenges the restriction of resources to the political class. Social justice has been dismantled and dissected under the weight of projects for gender mainstreaming and economic/political empowerment that propagate an elitist language which does not resonate and is not understood outside the framework of civil society. Moreover, the language used in these contexts is most often English, which is not accessible to all those within the concerned social group and does not speak to the practices associated with various contexts – thus it serves only one group at the expense of others. The institutionalization of feminism also undermines women’s demands and their voices by packaging them within terminologies and concepts that are associated with the international community and donors, such that it has become commonplace to reject feminist anger, as though it were illegitimate or irrational. Together these elements place the language of funding and the pursuit of funding, and the language of international agendas at the center of feminist movements, thus changing them into “proposal movements” that do not express anger in confronting violence and oppression. It is in this way that our lives and our daily struggles are confined to a limited number of words as designated by the “project summary” box in funding requests –forcing us to reduce the background of the movement to a few paragraphs.

This language also creates classism and elitism among women themselves, creating a dichotomy between women working in civil society or the political arena and those who operate outside of such frameworks in their daily lives. This class-based stratification created by the language of civil society separates civil society from the language of the public, restricting action to very narrow segments of society and limiting activism and action to a single mode of operation that is closely tied to institutions. Thus, the door is left open to rhetorical competitions over the “optimal” methods of operation wherein standards of success can be co-opted by the logical frameworks of projects and the capacity to mobilize funds – ultimately separating feminist work from political action.

Between administration and leadership

While the governance of social movements revolves around feminist non-hierarchical notions of leadership that attribute a significant role to each individual regardless of their positionality, the governance of institutions revolves around hierarchical administrative structures that are derived from capitalist productivity. By institutionalizing feminist movements, the directors of civil society institutions monopolize the concept of leadership. Because their role is based in administration, it reproduces hierarchies that are at best elitist and at worst authoritarian, promoting a form of cultural classism and allowing for top-down condescension and favoritism. Among the fundamentally problematic areas in working with these hierarchies is the fact that their point of departure is the perspectives of individuals with power who have the privilege of speaking the language of the donors. This reflects a methodological contradiction between the leaders of feminist movements and the directors of institutions. From a feminist leadership perspective, the process of building active feminist movements requires a level of introspection and awareness of the privileges that result from time and location, the significance of which varies according to context. Feminist movement building also calls upon us to analyze our positionalities and understand the impact of our daily practices on others. Feminist leadership asks that we be able to respond to variable and shifting factors and contexts, and to adapt our strategies according to present conditions and environments. This phenomenon is also related to the elitism of using the exclusionary language of projects which is spoken only by a privileged few.

Furthermore, the aims and objectives of political and social movements diverge greatly from the objectives of projects, which are restricted to a limited timeframe and are subject to reports and indicators. The goals of such movements are usually long-term. They are considered to be process-oriented and have a continuous ever-changing trajectory to which we cannot assign a single beginning or end point. Unfortunately, along with the institutionalization of movements and their association with administration, civil society organizations have begun to make claims about leading and founding resistance movements. They also claim to be feminist merely because women are represented at the executive level and in board of directors. This reproduces the conflation of feminism and women’s action, ignoring the vast disparity between feminism as method and political ideology through which we can understand the world, and women’s action that revolves around identity politics and formalistic women’s representation, and which does away with awareness of the class and political dimensions of oppression. For example, the fact that a woman is the director of an institution does not automatically mean that this institution is feminist or that it is part of a feminist movement. The method adopted in its work must itself be feminist.

Considering the above, we can conclude that the institutionalization of feminist movements leads, in one way or another, to the watering down of these movements’ core issues. It does this by emphasizing identity politics, focusing on administration, generalizing women’s issues as though their struggles and interests were identical, and adhering to elitist language that creates cultural and political classism among us. This does not mean that we should ignore our places within hierarchical systems of power. Rather, it invites us to acknowledge and contemplate that even if we are a group of Palestinian, Syrian, Egyptian, or Lebanese women, our experiences and our political thinking are not necessarily similar. Therefore, all movements should avoid self-organization by way of identity politics, as promoted by the institutionalization of civil society organizations. Our positions within civil society organizations do not mean that we cannot contribute to building social or political movements, however. Most of us are capable of occupying various positions and playing multiple roles at the same time. Indeed, our work within civil society organizations can enhance our personal and daily struggles against oppression and violence, which cannot be co-opted by institutional projects, outcomes, or objectives. For in our day-to-day political struggles, we build and participate in movements without depending on the language of funding or elitist projects.

I have sought in this article to examine some of the problematic areas that I have observed and confronted in the course of my work with civil society organizations and grassroots feminist movements. In conclusion, I wish to state that we cannot arrive at justice without a vision of forms of oppression that is holistic and intersectional, or without full cognizance of our positionalities and our privileges.

  • 1. By “patriarchy” I do not mean the patriarch or the father, but the system that governs the relations between men, women, and non-binary and non-conforming genders.