Thursday, 6 March 2014

Inspiring change on International Women's Day - let's de-ghettoize women's rights the unruly way

By Mariz Tadros

It is time to turn to unruly street politics to build constituencies for women's equality.

When I think of “gender and development practice”, what immediately comes to mind are images of an endless stream of workshops, conferences, seminars, roundtables, policy briefings and media statements addressed to the converted, semi-converted and pretenders. We are told that this is important for policy influence and dissemination, that we have to tinker with the system from above to elicit change from below.

This is not to question the wisdom of the need to challenge the structural sources of inequalities inherent in policies, laws, institutional mechanisms and thinking. But there is something still very disconcerting about how the integration of gender into development has made it so disconnected from the public that we no longer have a constituency. 

Integrating gender into development: where has it gone wrong?

Is it the language we use? Mainstreaming, empowerment, gender analysis are abstract terms which do not mean much, and when translated into other languages these terms often mean even less!

Perhaps it is the way in which a paradigm that was initially intended to be radical in challenging power hierarchies now sits comfortably with the most conservative and authoritarian of regimes. A colleague of mine evaded the secret political police’s potential crackdown on their conference in a highly autocratic context by pretending that the topic of the event was “gender and development”.

Or maybe it is about the way in which the strategies of engagement which seem to primarily involve bringing people together in five star hotels or their equivalent is too elitist, sanitized, and contained?

Perhaps it is the professionals who have come to "do" gender and development, have a wealth of knowledge on gender injustices and inequalities but are incapable of communicating in ways that touch the public. To put it simply, what they have is just not 'contagious'.

Informal political initiatives are mobilizing ordinary citizens

Yet outside the gender and development practice, ordinary citizens have mobilized large constituencies to challenge all kinds of unequal power relations.

Recently published research on the informal youth based initiatives that have sought to transform the streets of Cairo into harassment-free spaces for women points to strong evidence that they can contribute to positive social and political change.

Men and women forming a chain in the street carrying messages for passers-by to read. Credit: Nefssi

They do not speak of “gender empowerment” but their catchy slogans of “don’t harass: the street is yours and hers” and “Look me in the eye” have been widely circulated in the internet and through silent human chains (as in this photo) and in the media. They may not do gender analysis, but their powerful graffiti images speak volumes.

Men in vests inscribed with “Against harassment”  have roamed the squares and streets in groups seeking to prevent women from being assaulted and setting new models of what masculinity means. Unlike the conventional gender and development practice which has engaged with men as objects of  “awareness raising” programmes, these young men are leaders, organizers, innovators in challenging patriarchy in ways that strike a chord with the public.

In contrast with many of the gender and development practitioners who disappear when a project is over, many of these initiatives have followers close to 30,000 on their Facebook pages. Their work has contributed to the breaking of the silence on this issue among the public, drawing greater attention to it through the media and putting more pressure on authorities to be responsive. Members of these groups have been approached in the streets by ordinary citizens who commended them for their work and encouraged them to carry on. Some can boast of a large cohort of volunteers.

The intention here is not to present a romanticized picture: some of these youth-based initiatives may be co-opted by the more established non-governmental organizations in Egypt, they may lose steam or be inhibited by political encroachments. It cannot be denied that these initiatives are the offspring of a revolutionary wave that struck the country, unseen since the 1919 uprising against British colonialism. However, irrespective of these initiatives’ fate, what they have offered is an alternative model of unruly politics whose impact was to de-ghettoize women’s rights.

Why is there so much resistance to learning from ordinary citizens?

When I suggested to gender experts and policymakers that we could learn from such initiatives, their response was that these case studies would be ideal for south-south exchanges or across the Arab world. Why they would not see it as a learning opportunity for rethinking their own theories of change, policies and practices with respect to promoting gender equality needs to be flagged?

Is it because the normative framework is one premised on the transfer of ideas from West to East, a reversed reality seeming unthinkable? Do they think there is nothing to be learnt from the Middle East because the record on women's rights in the region is so poor? 

Is challenging social norms via graffiti or human chains are not seen as development practices?

Or is it that the groups, being informal and on the margins, seem too unprofessional?

The intention here is not to replace a one size fits all blueprint of how to do gender activism with another. Neither is it to advocate for a particular model of how to elicit positive social change. Rather, it is to suggest that there may be a need to think outside the gender and development practice box, and opt for some unruly politics. It might - just might - help us reconnect with ordinary citizens on equality - an issue that has been ghettoized as a woman’s thing for too long.

Dr. Mariz Tadros is a Research Fellow with Governance team at the Institute of Development Studies

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