Back in my student activist days in the Philippines, I’d occasionally cut classes to march with anti-imperialist coalitions. One particular coalition tried to ensure representation by designating a workers’ desk, a peasants’ desk, the migrants’ desk, and so on. To represent kababaihan, women, the organization also created a “women’s desk.”
Choosing representatives for workers, peasants, migrants was mostly a straightforward process. But who gets to woman the women’s desk? A peasant woman? A migrant worker woman? A self-identified feminist?
In hindsight, the idea of designating half the population as a “sector,” of allotting all Filipina women one desk, was untenable. We were spread all across the different sectors. It would have been a much better approach to ensure that the representatives of various desks employ gender analysis as they advocated on behalf of their constituents.
I’ve been thinking about the women’s desk again lately, because of ongoing discussions such as this within the feminist blogoshphere about what feminism as a label means, of why feminism should address factors like anti-racism and anti-colonialism. What good is the term “feminism” if non-feminists or anti-feminists could appropriate the label?
I’ve learned to stop worrying about feminism as a label.
The book Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices by Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan has helped me tremendously in focusing my feminism. I don’t worry about what the authors term as “a theory of hegemonic oppression under a unified category of gender.” Instead, as an activist interested in the gendered and racialized foundations of globalization, I’ve adopted the framework of transnational feminism, which:
must also find intersections and common ground; but they will not be utopian or necessarily comfortable alliances. New terms are needed to express the possibilities for links and affiliations, as well as differences among women who inhabit different locations. Transnational feminist activism is one possibility. (Kaplan, page 116, emphasis mine)
By looking at feminism through a transnational lens, we can shift focus from creating rigid definitions of Feminism as identity towards feminism as affiliation.
I have always seen social justice issues as inherently transnational in nature. Amihan, for example, has drawn the connections between semi-feudalism, the economic development plans imposed by the IMF and World Bank, and Filipina peasant women. Migrante has traced the ties between globalization, the export of labor, and the exposure of overseas Filipina workers to violence. Filipina Muslim women have analyzed how the US-led War on Terror has increased militarization in Mindanao. The issues that these women struggle against are not bound by national borders.
When I work with US-based coalitions that support Amihan or Migrante, I don’t get anxious about whether I’m doing my sworn Feminist duty to work with Women as defined by their gender or ethnicity or some other monolithic category. The vital point is that these groups use a gender prism to analyze issues spawned by globalization.
But how do we transnational feminist activists find one another without a defined “universal category of gender”? It’s not that complicated. If you’re a transnational feminist, you recognize how issues affecting women go beyond national borders. You believe in anti-exploitative politics. You value working with coalitions. You understand how working with Amihan’s campaign to create genuine land reform or Migrante’s campaign for worker’s rights centers and supports marginalized women.
That’s how transnational feminist activists find one another. That’s how we work together towards social change.
As a bonus, a transnational feminist framework allows feminists like me to work on women’s issues with people who might not primarily identify as feminist, such as Amihan and Migrante. I only hope that this framework facilitates coalitions with mainstream feminists as well.