Different worlds possible: feminist yearnings for shared futures[1]

Sarah Bracke, 2003


We fight our bid for collectivity, its difficulties and its limits. We stretch ourselves, mobilising and pushing ourselves, daring ourselves to share our concerns and express our desires. We are many, different, each one with her story; the alliance is neither neutral nor a priori but rather a continuous process of recognition and communication into which we launch ourselves again and again, committed to a strategy of uniting ourselves.[2]


Struggles in times of global late capitalism: contradictions and possibilities


Feminisms in transit

Discussions about women’s conditions and rights in our societies are often marked by a tension between two seemingly opposite positions.  Many women, it is affirmed, have gained a great number of rights during the course of last century, such as economic and political rights, and rights concerning bodily integrity and sexuality.  The twentieth century has indeed been characterised as one of women’s emancipation, with the emergence of new horizons of possibilities for every new generation.  In a number of societies, including many West-European ones, it sometimes seems as if formal and juridical equality is (almost) a fact and very little juridical changes can be made in order to improve the status of women on that level.  The discrepancy between this formal juridical equality and the obvious and all-too-familiar realities of inequality is usually bridged by focussing on the need to apply the existing legal instruments in order to re-shape realities of continuing gender inequalities.  Moreover, in the light of the acknowledgement that social differentiations – such as geo-political location, class, ethnicity, citizenship, sexual preference, and age, to name a few – structure the access to women’s rights, the emancipatory agenda is further considered in terms of the need to enlarge the access to existing rights.


At the same time, many feminists and activists are concerned with the deterioration of many women’s lives in the last decades, and wonder whether strategies focussed on ‘applying’ legal instruments and ‘enlarging’ the access to them are sufficient.  Of course, we all find ourselves struck by examples of sheer backlash against women’s struggles and their achievements, not in the least in the context of various economic crises and the coming to power of right-wing governments.  But the concerns of many activists reach further, as we question the terms in which we organise our struggles and wage our battles.  Much of the reformist politics and policies of emancipation, often framed in the language of ‘equal opportunities’ that tends to sit so comfortably within a neoliberal framework[3], leaves us with so much less than we bargained for.  Are not some of these political strategies part of the problem, many of us are asking, to the extent that they might effectively emancipate some women’s lives, but are complicit with the deterioration of other women’s lives?  ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’, Audre Lorde wrote in a previous moment of intensity of the women’s liberation movement[4], and the prophecy of her vision clearly manifests itself in the current conditions of global late capitalism.


Perhaps the point is not to decide which of these perspectives really reflects women’s conditions in this world, whether the instances of progress or those of deterioration are more real.  While these perspectives are no doubt related to different visions on social transformation, it is perhaps more urgent to understand how they constitute different layers of the complex and contradictory realities of late capitalism at the beginning of the twenty-first century.  We need to understand, for instance, how a greater amount of women pain-stakingly slowly breaking through (a limited number of) glass ceilings in the economic sphere, politics or higher education coincides with a feminization of poverty and a general precarisation of many women’s lives.  Or how policies concerned with the ‘reconciliation of work and care’ in Western-Europe, that have for instance become part of EU programmes, coincide with women from the South legally or illegally migrating to the West to perform domestic services, often in what has been called ‘chains of care’ as they leave the care for their dependents in the hands of other women.  As Laura Agustín puts it:

Nowadays, when more and more European women are going out to work, we are seeing one kind of gender equality.  But since more and more European men are not staying at home, and most men have not taken on more than minimal domestic responsibilities, this apparent equality has to be qualified. […]  ‘Equal’ gender relations therefore may crucially rely on the employment of a third person.  And while this in itself might not give cause for alarm, the nature of the typical domestic employment offer should.[5]

Furthermore, we need to understand how the increasingly rigidly closed border regimes of Fortress Europe coincide with a raise in ‘trafficking in women’.[6]  Merely denouncing conditions of sexual exploitation is an insufficient response, if it is not based on the recognition that networks of traffickers constitute for many women the only accessible ‘immigration office’ in current geo-political positions.  And we need to question, as new forms of governability turn to feminism as a possible source for legitimacy,[7] how familiar feminist demands for women’s safety in the streets relate to new securitarian ideologies so popular in the West.  These ideologies are blatantly racist, in the ways they set up questions of safety and violence in relation to issues of migration, integration and citizenship.  At the same time they are also sexist, in the ways they promote an ideology of particular women in need of ‘protection.’


These are different types of ‘coincidences’, each provoking different sets of questions.  But they do have something in common: they complexify the inherited and familiar feminist struggles and discussions on women’s rights and they create a sense of urgency for the making of new alliances.  Our feminist perspectives and struggles need to be informed by the contradictions within and between the lives of women living in late global capitalism.  Simply ‘adding’ new concerns to the existing feminist agendas, without letting those new questions and concerns upset and reorganise the agendas, is insufficient.  Many of us find ourselves torn between the fact that emancipatory politics and policies are too comfortably nestled within existing structures to destabilise the system, the master’s house, on the one hand, and the fact that the brutality of the conditions of global patriarchal hetero/sexist racist late capitalism makes it hard to give up on those emancipatory politics on the other.  Throughout the 1980s, as Cristina Vega analyses with reference to the Spanish context, the aims of the women’s movement became codified in terms of planned equality, hence turning the law and the state into the ultimate horizon of feminist politics.[8]  In a discussion of black feminism in the UK, Hannana Saddiqui relates the professionalisation of the movement to its depolitisation.[9]  Within the current horizon of ‘equal opportunities’ and professionalisation of the women’s movement in the West, we often find ourselves confronted with impossible choices to make.  In what Saddiqui refers to as a moment of ‘coming of age’ of the movement and Vega proposes us to see as ‘feminism in transit’, the need to reinvent and recreate new shared horizons of liberation is urgent.[10] 


On maps and tools

In order to work through this moment of transit, and to envision and practice effective resistance in the current system of patriarchal hetero/sexist racist capitalism, we need to be able to ‘read’ the new and rapidly changing geographies of power.  Donna Haraway, for instance, elaborates on these power relations in terms of an integrated circuit[11], while Avtar Brah writes about contemporary capitalist globalisation.[12]  In other words, we need good maps.  The debate on whether or not we need another UN conference on women’s rights, the discussion in this volume on possible futures of our struggles and our various meetings at the Social Fora[13] are just some examples of how we are trying to understand, in a collective way, how to move in these new geographies of power and which directions to take our struggles.


I want to pause briefly on how to make these maps, in a desire to affirm some tools emerging out of our feminist genealogies.  The maps we need are inevitably collective projects, informed by the experiences, practices and knowledges generated by various struggles, waged from a multitude of situated locations.  Theories and practices of situatedness and of positioning are at the heart of the women’s movement.  They are crucial impulses that brought and continue to bring women together politically as women, thus undermining both an assumed universal political subject and the established boundaries between the personal and the political.  Politics of location or the practices of positioning, however, equally function as powerful tools within women’s struggles and movements, through the often conflictual mobilization of differences of ethnicity, class, geo-political situation, sexual preference, and so on, that undermine the attempts of constructing a universal ‘ woman’ and/or feminist subject.


Hence, politics of location function against a background of universalism, that continues to have a strong hold on the political field in general and also on women’s struggles.  For instance, through questioning the universalism of the new political subjects of the alterglobalisation movements[14] at the European Social Forum (ESF) in Florence in 2002, a project of a feminist ‘gathering of forces’ preceeding the ESF in Paris in 2003 emerged. In its turn, however, the preparation of what eventually became the ‘European Assembly of Women’s Rights’ remained marked by an underlying universalist idea of ‘women’, in which very quickly racism, heterosexism and homophobia are considered ‘specific’ issues, and subsequently (general) ‘women’s issues’ are set up according to dominant white, heterosexual and middle-class norms.  Nowadays such practices are often legitimised by a call for a ‘back to basics’ feminism that, in the light of the backlash against women’s struggles, could speak with one strong voice, at the expense of suspending differences between women.  Differences, however, are our strength, not our weakness, and while a practice that suspends those differences in the name of unity might seem effective for a punctual action, do we honestly think that we can afford its costs on the building of our movements and alliances?


Some have understood politics of location and situatedness in a relativist or paralysing way.  In a happy ‘everybody his/her own truth’ mode, this amounts to the ‘united colours of diversity’, as yet another version of neoliberalism, in its favourite game of evacuating relations of power and inequality.  However, to paraphrase a key-sentence in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a striking parable of the working of power in modern societies, we might all be different, but let’s not forget that some of us are ‘more different’ than others. In an anxious ‘who owns the authentic voice’ mode, on the other hand, a relativist understanding of politics of location leads to an impasse where difference gets translated as an absence of communality, undermining any possibilities for conversation, let alone alliance.  ‘We are different,’ Saraswati Raju critically responds to such impasse, ‘But can we talk?’[15]  Moreover, ‘authenticity’ in this case is often linked to ‘the most powerless’; it is always the ‘other’ woman who is deemed ‘most authentic’. The notion of ‘grassroots’ for instance continues to be marked by a certain romantisation of the ‘authentic’ site of struggle, hence inscribing existing hierarchical relations.[16]


Against such (mis-)understandings and neutralisations of situatedness as relativistic ‘diversity’ or incommensurability, we need to keep in mind that universalism and relativism are simply two sides of the same coin.[17]  They both refer to speaking from nowhere and/or everywhere, and hence miss the point that we always speak from somewhere in particular, however complex, multiple and multi-layered those locations might be.


Grounding our maps in the politics of location thus implies not only that we need to start from multiple situated positions, namely the different material conditions of our lives, but at the same time map out how these conditions stand in relation to each other in terms of power and inequality.  Another way of saying this is insisting that gender or sexual difference, as a regime of differentiation and inequality, is always already ethnicized and racialized, structured according to class relations, articulated with a particular regimes of sexuality, and so on.  Such a starting point can provide us with grounds for radical democratic practice.


Politics of representation and its crises

A radical democratic perspective is an alternative to the crises of representation and representational politics, that are with us for a while now.  Historically feminism has emerged in the interstices or cracks between a hegemonic representation of ‘Woman’ – those images of what a woman should be that are presented and sold to us – and the material realities lived by actual embodied women.[18]  And similar to the politics of location, such a crisis of representation not only founds feminism, but equally continues to nurture it, in a continuous mobilisation of that question which Sojourner Truth raised more than 150 years ago: ‘Ain’t I a woman?’[19]  Women’s struggles and feminism indeed generate and come to rely upon certain representations of women that in their turn are questioned.  In her crucial intervention Under Western Eyes, Chandra Mohanty exposes the discursive colonialism marking representations of ‘Third World Woman’ circulating in Western feminism.[20]  Written in the 1980s, Mohanty’s essay urges us to look at neo-colonial, neo-oriental and racist representations of women today.  The colonial continuities in the representations of ‘Muslim women’ are striking in this respect[21], as ‘the plight of Muslim women’ is used to mobilise for imperialist and right-wing agendas that search to establish a new global geo-political hegemony or to restore the deadly discourses of ‘cultural homogenity’ in the West European ‘multicultural debates’.  Another problematic representation, that plays an important role in the re-configuration of Europe, its borders and identities after 1989, is that of ‘women as victims of trafficking.’  Reducing the whole issue to sexual violence against women, and disavowing the dimension of women’s migration, is functional to the agenda of Fortress Europe and its deadly border regimes. In both examples the crucial question is: what are the feminist complicities with, and counter-strategies against, representations of women that figure centrally to xenophobic right-wing agendas? The point of refusing such problematic representations, as Mohanty and many others make clear, is that they hinder fruitful alliances.  We must come up with adequate responses to such cynic uses of ‘women as victims’, responses that take into account the complexity of women’s lives and women’s agency.


Representational politics have not only shown signs of exhaustion within women’s movements.  Many feminists have, for instance, also denounced the problematic logic of policy-making based on an idea of the ‘representative’ woman.  In this logic, differences get redistributed in  framework of ‘target-groups’, such as ‘the (representative) migrants’, ‘the (representative) poor’, hence evacuating any vision on how power inequalities work through their articulation or intersection.[22] EU policy for instance has, generally speaking, constructed women as a unified and homogenous category, viewing this category maingly as ‘white women in paid employment’.[23]  In response to policy-making that attempts to resolve the social needs of women through endowments for the family, women from la Eskalera Karakola write:

The problems of family management are just some of the many which we face.  The generalised flight of women from the traditional family and from reproduction makes ever more absurd this attempt to speak of the necessities of women as if they were identical to those of reproduction in the bosom of the family.  This practice constitutes an effort to deny and invisibilise the tremendous diversity among women, we who are young and old, who are singles, lesbians, transsexuals, migrants, students, precarious workers and so much more.[24] 

Also in the context of social movements we are confronted with inadequate and underlying notions of representation linked to the imaginary and imagined constituencies upon which movements build.  This is the question of who can speak for humanity as a whole and who for ‘its small bits’, as Nirmal Puwar puts it.[25]  Are you representative? often becomes an awkward question sanctioning the transgressions from established representations of what ‘the women’ should say, what ‘the black women’ should stand for, what ‘the lesbian’ should embody and what ‘the poor women’s’ interests are.[26]  Representations that make metaphors out of concrete material lives, measure people by their otherness, and, against a politically subversive understanding of politics of location, tie their speaking up to social location.


In the context of the intensification of anti-capitalist resistance, politics of representation are problematized from yet another perspective.  Looking back at her activism as a student in the beginning of the nineties, focused on claims for better representation of women and ethnic and sexual minorities, Naomi Klein asks, ‘why were our ideas about political rebellion so deeply non-threatening to the smooth flow of business as usual?’[27]  And while questions of representation reemerge within these anti-capitalist struggles, in their old and familiar guises of universalism and the marginalisation of ‘particular’ struggles, perhaps the strategy of denouncing those movements as ‘not paying enough attention to our claims’ is not the most interesting one, as Cristina Vega argues.

This is the old trick of who is central and to what we concede centrality, a double move that makes us complicit with subalternizing strategies.  And tell me, my sweet friends, who if not feminists and queers of various kinds have put desire and pleasure at the centre of politics?  Who has transformed the way of taking the street and brought the black block outfits back to their performative potential, who has been responsible for breaking the discontinuities, public-private, work-non work, etc. of traditional politics, who has reflected around the question of autonomy, horizontality, … more than the feminist movement?  Who has brought the question of hybridity - sexual, ethnic... - into the scene if not the queer and anti-racist movements?  Who has put their bodies against social death and invisibility more than that those migrant activists that are locking themselves up in churches all over Europe?[28]


In the light of the increasingly visible dead-ends of politics of representation, we need to look for, name and nurture alternatives we already practice. Let us consider politics in terms of affinity, as for instance the ecofeminist and peace activist Starhawk does.[29]  Or let us look at the politics of alliances we are involved in, such as the process of getting together to create the Social Fora.[30]  And what about the politics of weaving webs between different local groups, like World Women’s March does?[31]  Or the politics of contamination, that grounds the activities of networks like Women in Black[32] or Act Up[33], both of which started as local punctual actions that subsequently developed into a concept spreading to many locations, intervening in and transforming local realities.  Let us remind ourselves of our politics of re-appropriation, as we occupy language, images and spaces for our struggles.  Like the Eskalera Karakola and other autonomous feminist spaces in which we try to reconstruct social relations in a different way.  Or like those black and migrant movements that radically re-appropriate notions of ‘security’ in a context of securitarian state ideologies, such as BRAIN, the Black Black Racial Attack Independent Network, or the Arab European League.  And what about the politics of becoming we are engaged in, and affected by?  As Cristina Vega envisions: ‘If we are going to discuss alternatives in, let’s say regulations on the sexual identity of transsexuals, let’s let transsexuals lead the way, let’s involve ourselves in a becoming transsexual that is not the same as being transsexual, giving voice to transsexuals, or expressing punctual solidarity with transsexuals and then getting back to business.’[34]


Political subjects – a point of departure common to these examples –  cannot be assumed; time and time again they are made.[35]  When we assume that the subjects of the feminist or women’s movements are simply ‘out there’ waiting to be mobilised, we forget that political subjects and agendas need to be continually reinvented.  Let us not be mistaken that we ‘have’ a feminist movement and feminist political subjects, to which, at best, new issues or subjects can be added.  No, as feminists and activists we are involved in the creation of such movements and agendas, in the light of new and changing conditions.


Situated Observations


Locating Europe

After arguing for the importance of speaking from embedded and embodied positions, I want pause for a moment on the geo-political context the thoughts in this text are articulated from, namely Western Europe.  This is a geo-political space that is characterised by great difficulties of considering itself in specific terms, as it is marked by a heavy legacy of eurocentrism that envisions Europe not as a concrete place on the map and in history, but rather in universal terms, as an idea of civilisation.  Europe has always viewed itself as ‘autochtonous’, as Stuart Hall argues, as producing itself from within itself, thus disavowing the interconnections with other histories and its foundational hybridities.[36]  Locating Europe, in other words, is connected to the decentring of Europe, a process that found a great impulse in the political independence struggles of decolonisation, but does not end there.  The material and symbolic expulsions of ethnic and religious ‘others’ – the legacy that enabled Europe to construct its identity as white and Christian – still continues today.  However, those ‘in but not of Europe’, the post-colonial subjects, the migrants, the ‘East’ Europeans, and whose those slipping through the border regimes of various kinds, are increasingly, in growing numbers and insisting political claims, involved in the construction of a different Europe.


The difficulty in ‘localising’ or decentring Europe continues to mark the social movements, including (white) women’s and anti-racist struggles.  This point was brought home once more at the first World Social Forum in Porto Alegre.  Following the decision to split up in regional caucuses in order to develop more regionally embedded visions on the effects of neoliberal globalisation, European participants only hesitatingly got together, I was told, as if they were not sure what they could talk about and organise around.  Their hesitance seemed related to the absence of various ‘others’, notably the ‘others’ as victims of neoliberal globalisation in Global South: many Europeans find it easier to think about the struggles needed in the South than within Europe.  But also, I suspect, the absence of ‘the other’ as hegemonic actor of neoliberal globalisation, namely the US. Many Europeans find it much easier to take up a critical stance against the hegemony of the US, instead of interrogating European complicities withint the ‘integrated system’, which implies holding structures and networks of power with anchors in Europe, such as of course national governments and the EU, but also to an important extent the G8, WTO, NATO, IMO and so on, accountable. More in general, decentring Europe implies the development embedded perspectives on how global late capitalism works and looks like in various concrete locations in Europe.  This is what I meant in a previous section by maps, and considering that we need to construct them in collective ways, I can only offer some elements that I find important for our maps.




The consensual hallucinations[37] of neo-liberalism

I would like to pause on a crucial ideological formation that accompanies the operation of late capitalism, namely neoliberalism, as an important obstacle in our feminist struggles in the West.  Let us briefly return to the observation that women breaking through ‘glass ceilings’ coincides with the feminization of poverty.  From a feminist perspective, this strikes me as a contradiction.  To paraphrase Emma Goldman, if it’s not about all of us, it’s not my revolution.  In the ideological landscape of neoliberalism, however, this contradiction is neutralised.  Women that break through ‘glass ceilings’ are regularly taken to assure, to prove even, that the conditions for emancipation for all are achieved.  Subsequently, the feminisation of poverty is considered to a large extent as the result of the personal failure of individual women.  In other words, both instances of women’s lives in conditions of late capitalism are framed through a singular mechanism that is considered to be a fundamental characteristic of Western societies: free choice.  Thus we are constantly confronted with the argument that, the individual, if she really wants, can get anywhere where she likes, in a kind of Nike-feminism: ‘Just do it’.  In the same breath, women in old and new forms of poverty are also considered through the lens of free choice, or more adequately in terms of the absence of a real will to change their condition.  A poor woman didn’t manage to ‘just do it’, for reasons that might partly escape her will, but in any case reflect her inability to properly deal with the ‘challenge’ of her situation, for which she can rely on the neoliberal ‘corrections to the system’ developed specially for ‘people like her’.  This ideological framework has for instance produced the notion and practices of ‘work-fare’.  Moreover, the ‘success stories’, of the poor lone-mother that manages to ‘make it’, get a paradigmatic function in the neoliberal fairy-tale: they prove that, if you want, if you really, really want, you can still ‘do it’ no matter your position of departure.


Postfeminist discouse is a popular and crucial part of this neoliberal ideological formation. Feminists are indeed constantly asked about the sense feminism still has as, in the words of Ingrid Robeyns, the post-feminist ghost haunts discussions on gender inequalities in Western Europe.[38]  When a young activist housemate returned from working in a refugee camp in Bosnia, she commented that, after witnessing the conditions of women in rural Bosnia, she finally understood why feminism was ‘still’ needed.  And in the process of setting up a monthly feminist gathering in an autonomous political centre in the Netherlands, a young white male activist carefully asked whether we could be discussing about ‘women in Afghanistan’ since there wasn’t really so much to discuss ‘anymore’ in the Netherlands. Post-feminism thrives on the idea that women in the West are ‘beyond emancipation’, and remaining differences among women, by consequence, are a matter of free choice.  It operates through a systemtic evacuation of the question of women’s emancipation and feminism from the here and now.  In many public discussions on women’s emancipation and feminism in Western Europe[39], the need for women’s political struggles are often cast in terms of back then, when women did not have the right to vote, and over there, outside the West, with often these ‘other places’ being situated ‘in but not of’ the West.  In their bourgeois individualism, neoliberal postfeminist tendencies find themselves in an unholy alliance with neocolonial, racist and sexist ideas by which a West European ‘emancipated’ self-image has been marked for the longest time.


Neoliberalism depoliticises, it disavows questions of power inequalities.  We need to recognise the many forms this process takes, through for instance the apolitial celebration of cultural differences, the increasing popularity of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology as modes of explanation,[40] the ways in which religious and nationalist revivals naturalise differences in the name of a natural or divine order that is put outside the sphere of politics, the repression of differences in the name of a shallow notion of equality and integration, and so on.  In sum, the material conditions in which we find ourselves are marked by an intensification and sharpening of power inequalities, while at the same time, these inequalities are naturalised or neutralised in a dominant neoliberal ideology, in an attempt to take away the grounds for political mobilisation against existing power inequalities. This is a crucial contradiction where to start our struggles from.


Yearnings for our futures


The antagonistic force demonstrated by the movement, with its claims to horizontality, creativity, scope, diversity and capacity for interruption are appealing for a stale left that has suffered from the neoliberal touch and the incapacity to generate a new discourse that would cede protagonism to the social movements.  Those that say we do not have proposals when we say "no one is illegal", "social income now", "share the global burden", "papers for all" or "no to the privatization of education and public health" want, in fact, to arrive at a intermediary state between the way the world is now and some decreased version of our high pointed goals.  To those that have sold again and again our desires we say one more time: we want it all and now.[41]


Throughout this text I have tried to articulate some visions on how to continue our struggles. The sections have spilled over in each other as I failed to neatly disentangle analyses of some problems we are confronted with in our feminist struggles, affirmations of some tools and practices we are already familiar with, contradictions we live in the integrated circuit of global late capitalism, and the ways in which these reflections are embedded in a West European context in which this text is written.  In this concluding section, therefore, I can only pull together some red threads spiralling through the whole of the text.


First of all, our women’s movements need to politicise.  Politisation is the (im)pulse running through our feminisms.  For the longest time, our agendas have been shaped by the intense moment of politisation of the 1970s; indeed the ‘professionalisation’ and ‘institutionalisation’ of the 1980s and 1990s were very much rooted in feminist agendas emerging out of this earlier decade.  However, the ‘horizon of liberation’ intimately connected to that early agenda was gradually left behind, as many feminists started to operate within a horizon of the law and the state and of ‘equal opportunities.’  But only at the expense of losing its destabilising power, and our women’s movements losing their beating heart, can ‘the personal is political’ be considered as ‘an achievement’ once and for all.  Rather, ‘the personal is the political’ is a continuous process[42], a process of transformation which demands time and time again personal engagement and cannot be ‘delegated’ to other women or eras.  It is literally the process of getting together, telling each other the stories of the conditions of our lives, and crafting collective visions and practices of resistance out of them. This process bears divisions of labour such as ‘authentic voices’ and ‘experts’, ‘grassroots’ and ‘representatives’, ‘activists’ and ‘theorists’ quite badly.[43]  Instead, the sustainability and radical democracy of this process relies precisely on creating new ways of relating to each other, that undermine existing hierarchies. In the light of the current neo-liberal climate that depoliticises power inequalities, turning them into ‘natural’ or ‘private’ matters, we are in great need of intense politisation; of the increased precariousness of our living conditions wherever we are situated,[44] of discourses on security, of production and consumption, of notions of citizenship and border regimes, and so on.  In sum, we need to unmask global late capitalism’s ‘realisms’, which are blatantly hetero/sexist and racist, and their very material and differentiated effects on our bodies and lives.


Secondly, such a process of politisation situates us within the current alterglobalisation  and anti-capitalist struggles.[45]  This affirmation anchors us in our feminists genealogies of transnational organisation grounded in the multi-dimensional character of oppression and power inequalities. The Chipko movement, for instance, whose struggles were articulated around issues of poverty, neoimperialism, environmental destruction and sexism, and whose activism and way of organising was transmitted by Vandana Shiva to a great number of women’s activists from all over the world at UN Women’s conference in Mexico in 1974, is only one well-known example that paved the way for the resistance that now called alterglobalisation.[46]  Affirming this radical history and future of our feminist struggles de-centers certain ‘mainstream’ feminist approaches which became focused on ‘equal opportunities’ conceived within an existing capitalist framework that remains unquestioned.  Moreover, it also disrupts and works as a creative force within the alterglobalisation movement, confronting the whiteness of the movement as we know it in a European context, as well as the sexist, heterosexist, racist, eurocentrist and nationalist tendencies that run through it.


It is against this background that the NextGENDERation network found it important to create a feminist space at the first ESF in 2002, however small the space of one workshop, in the context of a massive forum with ten thousands of participants, might be.[47]  As many of the reflections throughout this article come out of my engagement in this collective creation, I will briefly pause on this experience.  NextGENDERation is a network of students, researchers and activists with an interest in women’s studies and feminist theory, and the desire to participate to the ESF was in itself a result of a gradual process of politisation within the network. An engagement in women’s studies lead to a concern with the institutional context of education and knowledge production, increasingly shaped by neoliberal agendas that imply financial cut-backs and push for the privatization of education. Moreover, protest actions in singular educational institutes are confronted with reactions from the institutional authorities claiming ‘their hands are tied’ by increasing competition and regulations from supranational organisations such as the EU.  Such developments undermine the democratisation of education and the available spaces for the generation and transmission of critical and liberatory knowledge.


Starting from a feminist perspective based on a multiplication of the axes of power, and therefore the axes of political action, we found it appropriate to name the workshop at the ESF ‘Missing Links: Feminism and Globalised Resistance’, hence putting our yearnings for links and alliances central.  As we articulated a small ‘Missing Links’ project in a large and diverse movement, some of the contours we meant to question were rendered immediately visible, as a discussion with one of the leading white male figures of the French branch of Attac illustrates. After we informally addressed the marginal presence of women’s movements, black, migrant and refugee movements, and gay and lesbian movements in the ESF organisation team, we learned what he thought of this ‘unfortunate’ situation.  ‘Listen,’ he said quite irritated after a while, ‘we are trying to organise this globalized resistance.  If they don’t come, than that’s their problem.’ In a fatal state of blindness, he, and many others, fail to see that it’s precisely not ‘their’ (our!) problem, but the problem of the alterglobalisation movement. And while his response reflects an attempt to construct a centre (‘we’) of movement, this center does not hold.  Because different formations of ‘we’ – like the ‘we’ that I have risked to use in this text, realising very well that this is only the beginning of actually constructing our collective subjects and alliances – are already in the movement, contineously transforming and de-centering it.


‘Missing Links’ opened a small space to gather feminist forces and look for common grounds, and hence create, rather than presume, a basis for collectivity and alliances. At the moment of writing this text, the NextGENDERation network together with other groups and individuals who we have often encountered in those few feminist spaces at the ESF, are preparing a range of activities for the next forum. These activities include moments of exploring and repositioning certain questions in seminars, notably on ‘embodied leadership’ and representation, on feminist counter-strategies against securitarian discourses and on the ways in which women’s migrant labour crucially figures in current global economic restructuring. They also include the occupation and construction of a feminist space allowing us to meet and build collectivities, as well as the preparation of feminist interventions in the form of direct actions during the forum and demonstrations.


In a sense, this is about creating feminist ‘centres’ within the movement, by which I mean ‘spaces of one’s own’ where we can ground our actions, visions and desires in our various feminist genealogies.  This point of depature differs from justifying, yet again, the need for feminism – a need that is reflected in the difficulties of getting gender on the agendas, as it is either deemed as irrelevant or referred to ‘after the revolution’.  These are old and all to familiar scenarios and the alterglobalisation movement is in fact generating new feminisms, as many women activists are confronted with left-wing machoism and deciding not to put up with it. Out of Attac, for instance, FeministAttac has emerged.  In both point of departures, which in reality often overlap, feminist organising takes on an autonomous dynamic. What we need to refuse, however, is performing ‘the woman’s question’ within a larger movement, that can be raised in certain moments of  ‘good-will’ – ‘now-explain-us-what-exactely-is-the-problem’ – only to be dropped later on when it’s time to get ‘back to business’.  The European Assembly of Women’s Rights that opens the ESF in 2003 is for instance to a great extent set up along those lines, hence asking to be subverted by feminist desires. Feminism is hardly a question of ‘explaining’, but rather it is about a shared engagement, in anger but more importantly in joy, in laughter, in desire, in solidarity. When Adrienne Rich propose women to try ‘to see from the centre’, she does so precisely in the context of refusing to be ‘the woman’s question’.  “We are not the ‘woman’s question’ asked by someone else;” she comments, “we are the women who ask the questions.” [48]  Questions that disrupt, contaminate and create.


Thirdly, in these collective constructions of feminist grounds, the need to practice and nurture politics of alliance between our different struggles – or the linking of ‘scattered resistances’[49] – cannot be underestimated. Much lip-service has been payed to these alliances, often skirting over the hard work they demand in practice. Alliances are about engaging with others, and hence also about dealing with positions invested with power. In particular, whiteness, the great blind spot that too often manages not to recognise itself as a particular position profoundly invested with power, geo-political location and the insisting neo-imperialist and neo-colonial attitudes, class position and the patronising attitudes of classism and normative heterosexuality, so easy left aside if it threatens to break alliances, all need to be addressed in the way we set up our alliances. These alliances are inevitably based on the involvement of our subjectivities; they are about working with differences and working through conflicts. Perhaps they are about love. In any case, we cannot render them into abstract models and can only try to share our pedagogies and methodologies of making alliances.  But we can find words of inspiration for the yearnings that push us to engage in them. Writing about that previous moment of intensity of the women’s movement, Adrienne Rich recalls that we ‘never meant anything less by women’s liberation than the creation of a society without domination; we never meant less than the making new of all relationships.’[50] Our struggles are about nothing less.




[1] While lack of time did not make it possible to write a collective text as I would have liked to, this text is in fact collective as the reflections and yearnings of many dear feminist friends are profoundly written into it. I particularly want to thank Cristina Vega, Elena Casado Aparicio, Ingrid Robeyns, Maayke Botman, Maggie Schmitt, María Puig de la Bellacasa, Nadia Fadil, Rutvica Andrijasevic and Selma Bellal for on-going conversations, friendships and daring.

[2] La Eskalera Karakola is an autonomous feminist occupied space in Madrid. Quote from Spaces for daily life. Feminist foundation of the project, http://www.eskalerakarakola.org


[3] Selma Bellal (2002) L’Europe et l’égalité des ‘chances’ entres les sexes: une égalité concrète devant les inégalités? In: Politique–Revue européenne de débats, n. 3.  pp 125-128.

[4] Audre Lorde (1979) The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. In: Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (eds.) (1981) This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color.  New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.

[5] Laura Agustín (2003) Sex, gender and migrations. Facing up to ambigious realities. In: Soundings. A journal of politics and culture. Issue 23, spring 2003.  pp. 84-98. quote from p 95.

[6] Rutvica Andrijasevic (2003) The Difference Borders Make: (Il)legality, Migration and Trafficking in Italy among Eastern European Women in Prostitution. In: Sara Ahmed,  Claudia Castañeda, Anne-Marie Fortier and Mimi Sheller (eds.) Uprootings/Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migration. London: Berg. My reflections on the issue of ‘trafficking in women’ in this texts are greatly emdebted to many discussions with Rutvica and the genereous sharing of her work and politics.

[7] Cristina Vega (2003) Interroger le féminisme: action, violence, gouvernementalité. In: Multitudes (féminismes, queer, multitudes), nr. 12.  pp 49-60.

[8] Cristina Vega (2003) op. cit.

[9] Hannana Saddiqui (2000) Black Women's Activism: Coming of Age? In: Feminist Review, n. 64. pp 83-96.

[10] Cristina Vega, Transitos feministas. In: Peublos. Revista de Informacion y debate, n. 3, II, http://www.e-leusis.net


[11] Donna Haraway (1991) A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. In: Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books.

[12] Avtar Brah (2002) Global mobilities, local predicamentes: globalization and the critical imagination. In: Feminist Review, vol. 70.  pp 30-45.

[13] I’m refering here to the fora organised at global, continental, national and regional levels all over the world, with the motto ‘Another world is possible’, as spaces to meet, discuss, and build alliances of globalized resistance against neoliberal globalization and capitalism.

[14] ‘Alterglobalisation’ envisions different worlds possible, a resistance that is transnational and therefore shakes off the misleading ‘anti-globalisation’ label.

[15] Saraswati Raju (2002) We are Different, but Can We Talk? In: Gender, Place and Culture, vol. 9, nr. 2,  pp. 173-174.

[16] Nancy A. Naples (2002) Changing the Terms. Community Activism, Globalization, and the Dilemmas of Transnational Feminist Praxis. In: Nancy A. Naples and Manisha Desai (eds.) Women’s Activism and Globalization. Linking Local Struggles and Transnational Politics. New York: Routledge. Naples quotes Mindry (2001), on p. 7: “It is important that we begin to examine the ways in which moralizing discourses such as those concerning the ‘grassroots’ and ‘poor, black, rural women’ as targets of intervention structure relationships among women working in NGO’s in ways that are remarkably hierarchical.” 

[17] Donna Haraway (1991) Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. In: Simians, Cyborgs and Women. The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books.

[18] Teresa de Lauretis (ed.) (1986) Feminist Studies/Critical Studies: Issues, Terms and Contexts. (Theories in Contemporary culture, volume 8) Indiana University Press.

[19] Sojourner Truth (1851) Ain’t I a Woman. Transcription: http://www.feminist.com/sojour.htm



[20] Chandra Mohanty (1988) Under Western Eyes: Feminist scholarship and colonial discourses. In: Feminist Review, nr. 30.  pp 61-87.

[21] On this point, see Leila Ahmed (1993) Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. Yale University Press.

[22] For crucial work on the intersecting nature of power relations, combining perspectives from theory, policy-making and activism, see Maayke Botman, Nancy Jouwe & Gloria Wekker (eds.) (2001) Caleidoscopische visies. De zwarte, migranten- en vluchtelingenvrouwenbeweging in Nederland. Amsterdam: Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen.

[23] Rachel A. Cichowski (2002) ‘No Discrimination Whatsoever’ Women’s Transnational Activism and the Evolution of EU Sex Equality Policy. In: Nancy A. Naples and Manisha Desai (eds.) Women’s Activism and Globalization. Linking Local Struggles and Transnational Politics. New York: Routledge.

[24] La Eskalera Karakola. Spaces for daily life. Feminist foundation of the project.  http://www.eskalerakarakola.org


[25] Nirmal Puwar (2003) Speaking Positions in Global Politics. In: DeriveApprodi, anno XI, n. 23.

[26] Note that notions of representation in social movements often mimic the representational politics of parliamentary democracy, in absence however of the moment of elections which founds such a system. For a discussion problematising notions of representation and participation in social movements, see Selma Bellal (2003) La célébration de la ‘societé civile’: vers la dilution de la responsabilité politique par la ‘participation’ ? In: Selma Bellal, Thomas Berns, Fabrizio Cantelli & Jean Faniel (eds.) Syndicats et société civile: des liens à (re)découvrir. Brussels: Labor.

[27] Naomi Klein (2000) No Logo. New York: Flamingo.  p 144.

[28] Cristina Vega (2002) Firenze, Feminism, Global Resistance. Some (personal and shared) tips to go to Firenze. http://nextgenderation.let.uu.nl/esf2002/


[29] See various texts on http://www.starhawk.org

 on how to do politics through affinity groups from an anarchist perspective.

[30] I’m thinking for instance of the projects of feminist interventions at the European Social Forum, see e.g. http://nextgenderation.let.uu.nl/esf2002

and esf2003

[31] http://www.ffq.qc.ca/marche2000


[32] http://womeninblack.net


[33] http://www.actupparis.org


[34] Cristina Vega, op. cit.

[35] For a theoretical elaboration on this point, see e.g. Judith Butler and Joan Scott (eds.) (1991) Feminists Theorize the Political. New York: Routlegde.

[36] Stuart Hall (2003) ‘In but not of Europe’ Europe and its myths. In: Soundings. A journal of politics and culture. Issue 22, winter 2002/2003. pp. 57-69.

[37] I borrow the term from the science-fiction author William Gibson, who used it to characterise cyberspace in his novel Neuromancer.

[38] Ingrid Robeyns (2001) Het postfeministische spook. In: Lover, vol. 28, nr. 1. pp 14-19.

[39] The question of post-feminism presents itself in a very different way in Central and Eastern European countries, linked to the fact that women’s emancipation to an important extent used to be associated with communist state policies.

[40] A renewed interest in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, proposing societal models of sexual difference based on imaginary models of hunter-gatherer, or of ethnic difference on imaginary homogeneity of communities and ‘natural xenofobia’ as self-defense. It does not take a great amount of self-reflexivity to pauze for a moment on why such schemes of explanation would be popular in Western societies at a historical moment when these societies are dealing with rapidly changing gender relations and ‘multicultural debates.’ Evacuating such reflection, however, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology choose to mobilise ‘natural’ models of human sociability.

[41] Cristina Vega, op. cit. ‘The movement’ here refers to the alterglobalisation movement.

[42] María Puig de la Bellacasa (2003) Divergences solidaires: autour des politiques féministes des savoirs situés. In: Multitudes (féminismes, queer, multitudes), nr. 12. pp. 39-47.

[43] For a critical reflection on the ‘theory versus activism’ binary, see Rutvica Andrijasevic and Sarah Bracke (2002) Venir à la connaissance, venir à la politique: réflexion sur des pratiques féministes du réseau NextGENDERation. In: Multitudes (féminismes, queer, multitudes), nr. 12. pp. 81-88. English version also available on the http://nextgenderation.let.uu.nl


[44] See for instance María Puig de la Bellacasa (2002) Flexible girls. A position paper on academic genderational politics. http://nextgenderation.let.uu.nl/texts/flexible_girls.pdf

 on precariousness in an academic context.

[45] Chandra Mohanty (2002) ‘Under Western Eyes’ Revisited: Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalist Struggles. In: Signs, vol. 28, n. 2. pp 499-535.

[46] See notably Nancy Naples (2002) op. cit. on this point.

[47] Traces from the workshop, from its preparation to its outcomes, can be found on the website, http://nextgenderation.let.uu.nl. See also Rutvica Andrijasevic, Sarah Bracke and Cristina Gamberi (2002) The NextGENDERation Network at the European Social Forum: A Feminist Intervention. (on the website)

[48] Adrienne Rich (1986) Blood, Bread and Poetry. London: Virago

[49] Manisha Desai (2002) Transnational Solidarity. Women’s Agency, Structural Adjustment and Globalization. In: Nancy A. Naples and Manisha Desai (eds.) Women’s Activism and Globalization. Linking Local Struggles and Transnational Politics. New York: Routledge. p 17.

[50] Adrienne Rich (1986) op. cit,  p 217.