Feminist Responses towards Fundamentalisms and Neo-liberal Economy

Kaberi Gayen's picture

This is the final installment of a six-part series, orignally posted at e-Bangladesh.  

Last Episode

Discussion and Conclusion

Asian feminists’ problems are somehow different from that of western societies. The nature of their problem may be understood from an advertisement that Othman (2006) mentioned in the context of Malaysia. An advertisement (in Malay) on all local TV stations in 2003 portrayed a veiled beautiful Muslim Malay woman who in order to ‘please her husband’ groomed her hair with the shampoo being advertised. The advertisement never showed her unveiled head, only a frame of her husband supposedly admiring her beautiful recently shampooed hair! What could be a better metaphor than this advertisement to portray the combined attack of corporate capital and religious fundamentalism in one female body!

Throughout literature, the rise of religious fundamentalisms has been portrayed as the reaction to the failure of capitalist democracy. Mernissi (1989) argues that the spread of fundamentalism in the last two decades has stemmed from the political and social failures of the secular, authoritarian states of the post-colonial period, states that operate within the rules of the International Monetary Fund and the interests of the imperialist powers.  Again, feminism has been seen as the response to fundamentalism. Taking either side, i.e., fundamentalist side or corporate capital side, may prove to be fatal.

We need to consider that religious fundamentalisms are in rise in this region with help from rightist political parties in power who support unconditional foreign investment in most of the countries and women lack not only human capital but social capital too. Also their access to political power is limited though many countries of this region are headed by women with almost no impact on women’s life. This cast further insight that women’s participation in democratic process is important but more important is to understand what political agenda they are advocating for. A note of caution here is, almost all the renowned women leaders of this region are in politics by inheritance, either of their father’s or husband’s. They just carry out the patriarchal agenda set by the concerned political parties and do not want to loose their vote taking any pro-women action that might hostile the religious fundamentalism unless they have pressures from  foreign donor agencies.

Experiments of western feminisms may not be the most suitable in our region. To be more effective, a new feminist politic needs to be woven indigenous to the region and infuse both the economic and ideological domains. So, feminists of this region need to pursue a policy in conjunction with educators, journalists, the democratic left, progressive wings, grass-root activists and all freewill people. Ultimately this struggle is a struggle for democratic and human rights.
1. Modernization without grass-root democracy or autonomy for the fledgling institutions of civil society, rapid economic development and high productivity without concern for workers’ welfare and care of the environment, and increased integration of women into the capitalist economy without providing alternative institutions that would share women’s traditional responsibilities to their homes and communities, have contributed to the growth of fundamentalism everywhere (Afray, 1999).

One answer, therefore, may be to call for a ‘work and family balance’ policy, improved health care and working conditions, high quality and affordable child care centres – such as those in European especially Scandinavian countries and Japan that are used by all classes and facilities for the care of the elderly would be essential steps in this direction. Family is still at the core of all our actions and attractions. What will be the shape of family and how the democratisation of family can be ensured still demand much attention in feminist discourse in the Asian region. It is important that feminists put forward such issues at a time when their opponents seek to portray them as part of a rich westernised elite having nothing to say to ordinary women.

2. Equally important is to call for a gender-empathic education, from the elementary schools to the college and university levels. Pedagogical strategies that focus on global and comparative feminist perspectives, that show the pervasive and systematic abuse of women in all cultures and throughout history, and also elaborate on the global struggles for women’s rights, offer the greatest possibility of success. To avoid charges by fundamentalists and others that feminism is a tool of imperialist governments, a feminist education may begin with a comparative view that focuses on the subordinate role of women in all major religions, for example, to a discussion of the chastity belts that the European Crusaders forced on their wives when they went to the battlefield in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, and European witch hunts by the Catholic Church, up through the job discrimination, sexual violence, and abusive relationships that many women in the west face today. After such an introduction, it would be more acceptable to speak of issues that affect the lives of women in different religious laws, issues of women’s poor health and diet, lack of exercise, denial of women’s sexuality and reproductive rights, unfair divorce laws, lack of common property in marriage, cruel custody laws, and the need for legal, cultural, and religious reforms. This theoretical position is neither new nor unique but unfortunately it is not in a practice, especially in Asian context.

Such debates must enter the mainstream through textbooks, storybooks, newspaper columns and cartoons, television and radio shows, as well as films and plays. Thus they can popularise these discourses at public sphere. Women need to promote alternative rhetoric in the media against gender-biased discourses in public rhetoric promoted both by religious fundamentalists and free market economy.
3. Rather than relying always on western feminist thoughts and experiences, the work of individuals and institutions that are dedicated to developing an indigenous expression of concerned feminism can be encouraged. This may include individuals such as Fatima Mernissi of Morocco who, together with a number of colleagues, is working on a project entitled “Humanist Islam” that plans to publish verses from the Qur’an and Traditions of the Prophet that are sympathetic to women’s rights. It may also include journals like Zanan in Iran and al-Raida in Lebanon, or institutions such as [the International solidarity network] Women Living Under Muslim Laws, and the US organizations The Association for Middle East Women’s Studies, and Sisterhood Is Global etc. To appease Hindu fundametalism, Gargy, Moitreyi, Khana may be quoted. Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein can be such an influence for the women activists, especially in Bangladesh and Indian perspective.

4. Feminists must try entering into mainstream politics and mainstream services including judiciary, administration, defence, business and entrepreneurship. Thus they can contribute in policy making at bureaucratic levels as well as economic and legislative bodies of the country that ultimately matters. After all it is a political fight.

5. Feminists will try to fight for national causes as well as international women issues. Solidarity amongst women and activism may help promoting social rights, conflict prevention and economic justice as well as fight fundamentalism. So networking among similar organisations is important, also important is to engage in dialogues with conflicting ideologies. Feminisms must not be ghettoised among women only, men should be in too and will fight together against fundamentalisms and neo-liberal policies. Combating neo-liberal policies is one of the most important political and philosophical debates of the present-day world economic and political systems. This should be addressed politically and philosophically. Networking of all concerned people is therefore essential, and feminists need to be at the front fighters’ position to ensure their right in this complex struggle. New social technology can be used for this networking. Ensuring a social control of all people in worlds’ resources and possibilities is a huge struggle.

Finally, feminists must try to establish gender equality in every aspect of life- cultural, social, economic, political and human right issues and try to free the concept of feminism from the bracket of an elitist scholarship to a mundane adored concept of everyday life, which is a long and daily battle and a battle that feminists do not have an option to leave even for a day. This battle should not be seen separately from any of the three edge fight- fight against fundamentalism, all powerful capital, and for democracy.


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