Co-optation Versus Co-creation: Reflections on Building a Feminist Agenda
In 2006, I took part in a meeting convened by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) in Queretaro, Mexico, and that brought together 300 feminists to address specifically the issue of funding feminist movements. The meeting discussed the findings of a research carried out by AWID that attempted to track where the money for women’s rights was. The findings of this report were critical and indicated that most feminist organizations in the Global South struggled to find sustainable resources and were constrained by processes and procedures that divert their efforts from their work and mission – a reality that still holds true today. This meeting, probably the first to discuss the problematics of funding women’s rights, resulted in a greater global awareness around the issue as well as the creation of new funding mechanisms for women’s rights. Those new mechanisms, though important, fell short of meeting the critical needs of feminists in the Global South and, most importantly, were not led by feminists from the Global South. This week, circa thirteen years later, I feel truly privileged to be part of a conversation amongst a group of feminist sisters from MENA and Africa. The group gathered in Accra, Ghana, to discuss the set-up of a newly created feminist fund – an unprecedented global fund aiming to step up gender equality in the Global South. We discussed how this fund will be managed for and by feminists, and how we make sure that it is all inclusive, intersectional, and truly transformative.
This is an exceptional conversation in the history of feminist funding since the AWID meeting of 2006. Feminists the world over have been struggling for many decades to secure ethical, long term, and sustainable resources to strengthen the struggle especially at a time when the opposition forces, namely in the form of conservative organizations, government affiliated groups (what is known as GONGOS), and faith-based organizations, are getting more rabid, rallying resources and upping their coordination. What is even more exceptional is that this fund will be dedicated to feminists and their various forms of organizing, and the decision makers will also be feminists. This is in stark opposition to existing forms of funding that are packaged as government funding, foundations, and/or individual donors who are not likely to be feminists.
As a feminist who has been working essentially in the MENA region and globally for the last three decades, I was coming to this conversation straight from Beirut, where, for the past two months, I was immersed in an unprecedented, all-out revolution, with women and feminists at the forefront. Feminists shaped the messages and demands of the revolution in a way that is analogous to co-creating what feminist funding is all about, meaning a fund that seeks to further feminist agenda, allows for flexibility, creativity, and all forms of feminist expressions, and seeks to be transformative. The revolution is asking for egalitarian civil family laws, an end to violence against women and girls, making sexual harassment a punishable offense, labor rights for migrant workers especially women trapped in inhumane working conditions in the sacrosanct domestic sphere, an end to rampant and institutionalized corruption and the restitution of stolen money, an end to the power of the clergy, a competent, responsive, and accountable government, an inclusive democracy, and an end to all forms of discrimination and oppression against all women and girls. Feminists expressed their revolutionary demands in various ways: through chants, banners, various art forms, special marches and demonstrations, analysis and writings, and conversations with the local and international media. More importantly, feminists re-created participatory spaces for discussions, learning, exchanges, as well as planning for ways to disrupt the patriarchy which manifests itself in all forms of social institutions including the state. Indeed, strategies that feminists had used over decades were now transported as tools of the revolution.
The Lebanese state, and despite its claim to support and adhere to human rights conventions and instruments, has invariably failed women in several ways. All throughout, the Lebanese state has systematically refused to reform laws that are discriminatory and condone and encourage various forms of violence and oppression, insisting on maintaining reservations on the Convention of Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and leaving the private sphere totally under the remit of religious courts and institutions. By doing so, it has ensured that various forms of injustice and discrimination against women are actively maintained in all forms of social and state institutions, including the household, the community, the workplace, and the market.
This situation, namely, the total disconnect between the reality of women and the state narrative and its presumed commitment to gender equality, is not new. However, and in the past couple of years, we have witnessed the increased visibility of Lebanon’s national women machinery, otherwise known as the National Commission for Lebanese Women (NCLW). The NCLW was put in place shortly after the UN IVth Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995). Conceived during the successive UN conferences on women as a government entity bestowed with an advisory mandate, the NCLW was supposed to act as a bridge between civil society and the state, as well as a watchdog to ensure Lebanon honors its commitment to the international community vis-à-vis its women, particularly through the full implementation of all the provisions of CEDAW. Until recently, and except for a few ephemeral moments, the NCLW has been at best ineffectual. With hindsight, I can safely say that I long for those days. Indeed, and at present, the NCLW is pursuing a strategy of high level visibility in Lebanon, in the region, and also on the international scene where the organization is showcasing its presumed achievements in the form of partial and insignificant legal reforms, the adoption of various national plans, and alleged engagements with independent women’s rights organizations. These achievements, often heralded as “courageous” and “bold,” have yet to make any changes to the lived experiences and realities of women in Lebanon. The law petition related to women’s right to confer nationality to their children is but a case in point – a flaky proposal that adds new layers of discrimination amongst women and that was, in any case, never meant to see the light. In doing so, the NCLW was continuously positing itself as the spokesperson for the women themselves who were suffering from this injustice. At the same time, the NCLW carefully and consistently ignored the demands of feminists who have been working on the ground for some two decades in an effort to bring about real change to discriminatory law, and as such, transform legislation and the lives of women. Indeed, and with the mandate of the current NCLW, the modus operandi appeared to many of us to be an attempt to hijack a demand, in this case equality in nationality rights, present the NCLW as its sole champion, handpick docile allies amongst women groups, and push for an agenda that is diluted and mutilated to the extent of ensuring that the status quo is never threatened. For this to succeed, feminist labor and voices had to be ignored because they were deemed to be too radical. At the same time, the NCLW can put forward many pieces of evidence that show, albeit deceitfully, that it is prioritizing the issue and putting in place various strategies to bring about change – a change that remains elusive and invisible to date.
The co-optation of feminist demands continued with other issues, issues that were considered to be non-threatening and manageable such as for instance the case of child marriage. However, the co-optation of the space was not only to increase the visibility of a state apparatus but also to make sure, again, that status quo remains unchanged. Similarly, as with the strategy used when co-opting the nationality law, the NCLW promoted itself as a champion with the help of handpicked allies. Public statements were made, conferences were organized, statements were released, interviews were given, all condemning the practice of child marriage. The solution offered was a law that would set the minimum age of marriage to 18, using a slogan that deplored underage marriage as being “too early for girls.” In a conversation with a brilliant young feminist from Lebanon and an activist on SRHR, she exposed the serious problems with this slogan and the message it conveys by pointing out that “marriage in this case is presented as an inevitable destiny. The best that can be done is delay it till the girl is 18.” This is indeed another way to maintain the status quo, by co-opting the conversation, retaining only docile allies, and putting forward a soft solution that will appease observers while at the same time ensuring that the systemic cause of the injustice, in this case religious family laws and patriarchal social institutions and mindset, remains safe and under the radar.
Against this scenario of complicity and dilution of feminist struggles for change, the demands of the revolution are, in clear contrast to that landscape, about changing the status quo, including doing away with structures that are part of the system and that perpetuate the patriarchal system by trying to soften its appearances and make it more palatable. For rights and equality to become a reality in the lives of all women and girls, these systems and structures have to be done away with, starting with religious family laws that have thus far ruled the lives, choices, and prospects all women and girls. A month after the start of the revolution, and when it became obvious that feminists would not go away, especially that their demands were finding resonance amongst various groups and communities, the president of the NCLW posted a tweet in which she noted that “the cries of the women on the street are my cries, and the subjects they are raising are subjects that I have been working on for three years so that we reach equality in rights and responsibility between men and women.” It is impossible to interpret this statement as a form of support to or solidarity with women on the streets. Women and feminists in the revolution are calling for a system overhaul, for a shift in power, and for bringing down the patriarchal and religious system with all its social institutions. Such a statement of the president of the NCLW, even if expressed in good faith, reflects at best a total lack of understanding of what women want, and at worst a desperate attempt to, once again, claim and silence women’s voices, and make sure that feminist labor remains invisible. Most importantly, and of extreme interest, is the fact that while trying to posit itself as an ally of women and girls, the NCLW is in fact a state structure and an essential player in the current and powerful sectarian system with its dreaded tentacles, namely, the religious family law institutions. It is that same system that the revolution is seeking to uproot and is holding accountable for the persisting inequalities and injustices in the country.
After two days of political conversations in Ghana with feminists from the Global South, it has become clearer to me that what we are working towards, whether in our small meeting here or as part of the revolution in Lebanon, is a feminist co-creation process that is distinct from business as usual. Within such a project, individuals and structures in power would no longer be able to co-opt spaces, voices, and resources, or ensure that the status quo remains unscathed. Simultaneously, the revolution has brought about a level of political growth and courage that is allowing most of us to call out such attempts, when they happen, as they happen.