What I Learned About Feminism From a Moroccan Men’s Chorus

Maria Poblet

Women march with a banner at the opening of the World Social Forum (WSF) today in Tunisia. More than two years after the Jasmine revolution, tens of thousands of people are expected for the WSF, dubbed the forum of "dignity", a watchword of the Tunisian uprising that inspired revolts across the Arab world.

This piece is reprint­ed with per­mis­sion from Orga­niz­ing Upgrade. 

Hijab is part of our cul­ture!” yelled a young woman in a gold and yel­low hijab” Mus­lim head­scarf, squared off against an old­er French blonde, whose chin and shoul­ders were pulled back, sig­nal­ing how offend­ed and tak­en aback she was. You think fem­i­nism is tak­ing off the scarf?” the young woman con­tin­ued, Why don’t you stop the wars in our coun­tries, stop the crim­i­nal­iza­tion of Islam in Europe? We do not want to be in your coun­try but we have no choice but to migrate, now you want to take away our cul­ture, too?”

The fem­i­nist debate I had read about was hap­pen­ing before my eyes, west­ern con­cepts of fem­i­nism clash­ing with the pri­or­i­ties of women from the glob­al south. I was par­tic­i­pat­ing in AWID’s (Asso­ci­a­tion for Women in Devel­op­ment) inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ence in Istan­bul, Turkey. Sur­round­ed by thou­sands of wom­en’s orga­ni­za­tions, fun­ders and fem­i­nists, I expe­ri­enced moments of pal­pa­ble wom­en’s sol­i­dar­i­ty, and also moments like this one – con­flicts between polit­i­cal views and lived expe­ri­ences emblem­at­ic of dynam­ics that have held the wom­en’s move­ment back. These pow­er dynam­ics are as old as colo­nial­ism, and some­times just as entrenched. Women with good inten­tions and social and eco­nom­ic priv­i­lege aim to save” women who are mar­gin­al­ized, women of col­or, immi­grant women, women from the pop­u­lar classes.

I could­n’t help but think of George Bush and his empire-build­ing media spin –the claim that the US invad­ed Afghanistan not for access to oil and nat­ur­al gas, but in order to lib­er­ate the women.” His mes­sage of wom­en’s lib­er­a­tion” was accom­pa­nied by media images of the burqa, head-to-toe cov­er­ing some­times with only a mesh open­ing for breath­ing. This con­vinced many to sup­port US mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion. What many missed after Afghanistan dropped out of US head­lines was the sub­se­quent inte­gra­tion of Afghan women into the glob­al­ized econ­o­my, as piece­meal gar­ment work­ers and oth­er low-wage work. The lib­er­a­tion that was promised, as it turns out, was actu­al­ly inte­gra­tion into the low­est rungs of glob­al­ized cap­i­tal­ism – sweat­shop-style gar­ment work, sewing cloth­ing for women in the glob­al north, in liv­ing rooms and fac­to­ries that pro­duce for sub­con­trac­tors of large cor­po­ra­tions. Under­neath the claims that this access to mon­ey” lib­er­ates women, imbed­ded in the design­er labels on wom­en’s cloth­ing around the world, a neolib­er­al restruc­tur­ing is under­way in the entire region.

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What this approach did not include was any con­sul­ta­tion with, or lead­er­ship from, the very women expe­ri­enc­ing this form of oppres­sion, or com­mu­ni­ties try­ing to fight it. Too often, we pro­gres­sive fem­i­nists in the west can fall into those same traps, assum­ing we know what’s best for oth­er women, unin­formed or informed by dubi­ous sources, and mis­us­ing eco­nom­ic and social pow­er­ing a way that rein­forces pow­er imbal­ances that hurt our movement.

What would the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Asso­ci­a­tion of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) have to say about this sit­u­a­tion? Equal­ly com­mit­ted to the fight against fun­da­men­tal­ism as they are to the fight against the occu­pa­tion and exploita­tion, their per­spec­tive is unique, and west­ern fem­i­nist have much to learn from it.

I encoun­tered sim­i­lar themes in the prepara­to­ry assem­bly towards the World Social Forum in Tunisia. Despite the vast­ly dif­fer­ent his­to­ry and con­di­tions, I heard about sim­i­lar social jus­tice move­ment ques­tions: how to lift up self-deter­mined fem­i­nism, a wom­en’s move­ment from the grass­roots, how to fight both oppres­sion and exploita­tion, and how to build sol­i­dar­i­ty across dif­fer­ences. But there, in a social move­ment set­ting, I got a taste of what a more coher­ent, grass­roots approach to wom­en’s rights looks like.

In the crowd­ed audi­to­ri­um of a com­mu­ni­ty col­lege, the wom­en’s assem­bly speak­ers were under a mul­ti-lin­gual ban­ner that read Tunisia: Home to the World’s Social Move­ments.” About a third of the crowd lis­ten­ing with head­sets so we could hear inter­pre­ta­tion in dif­fer­ent lan­guages, as the women laid out sev­er­al pages of demands. Some wore scarves around their necks, oth­ers on their heads, some not at all. They were Tunisian, and they had brought togeth­er wom­en’s orga­ni­za­tions from the entire Maghreb/​Mashreq region. Build­ing off the role their coun­try’s social move­ment played in spark­ing the Arab Spring,” they approached the forum process in an inclu­sive, region­al way.

The demands they pre­sent­ed were incred­i­bly inter­sec­tion­al. The right to orga­nize was at the top of the list. In Tunisia, the mas­sive pop­u­lar move­ment that over­threw decades of dic­ta­tor­ship was pre­ced­ed by women gar­ment work­er strikes in rur­al areas. The move­ment sought to defend the right to con­tin­ue that orga­niz­ing work, lift­ing up wom­en’s eco­nom­ic jus­tice demands.

And the list went on. From fam­i­ly sur­vival issues like the price of bread, to lead­er­ship issues like equal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women in the plan­ning of the forum, to region­al cam­paigns like the right to inher­i­tance for women, to lib­er­a­tion from inter­per­son­al and state vio­lence. It end­ed with the demand for free, legal and safe abor­tion. The room was eeri­ly qui­et by the end of the list. I was still catch­ing the last bits of what was said via the head­set, and, eye­brows raised, I scanned the room – how is this going over? I won­dered. Would peo­ple sup­port these bold demands? These women had just laid down the gaunt­let. In a con­text where Salafists (hard­core Mus­lim fun­da­men­tal­ists) were reg­u­lar­ly attack­ing women and their orga­ni­za­tions, they were demand­ing that the move­ment as a whole car­ry wom­en’s eco­nom­ic and social jus­tice demands and lift up wom­en’s leadership.

From the back cor­ner of the room, a small cho­rus of male voic­es start­ed singing. The Iraqi man sit­ting next to me leaned over to inter­pret: They are from Moroc­co, this is a move­ment song that says only men and women togeth­er can win the rev­o­lu­tion.’ ” I was floored. Not only did the Maghreb/​Mashreq region not need sav­ing” by north­ern fem­i­nists. They had a men’s anti-patri­archy cho­rus! In 15 years of com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing in the Unit­ed States, I have nev­er seen such a beau­ti­ful dis­play of sol­i­dar­i­ty as the one I saw that after­noon in Monastir.

This expe­ri­ence brought me to my own ques­tion, my own chal­lenge, and our chal­lenge in the US, the west, and the glob­al north: what is our sol­i­dar­i­ty song with the women of the Maghreb/​Mashrek? How can we build the kind of sol­i­dar­i­ty that does not impose from the out­side, but instead learns from front­line com­mu­ni­ties by walk­ing along­side them, look­ing direct­ly at the imbal­ances of pow­er and priv­i­lege that threat­en to frag­ment our move­ment, and find­ing com­mon cause? How will we weave togeth­er our own strug­gles and visions, com­ing from the US grass­roots, to the strug­gles and visions of the women of North Africa, the Mid­dle East, and the world?

Build­ing our capac­i­ty for sol­i­dar­i­ty is a long-term, dialec­ti­cal process. Gen­er­a­tions before us have grap­pled with ques­tions like this, we must learn from them, and step up to our chal­lenge, in our time, place, and con­di­tions. As we build dia­logue on an inter­na­tion­al scale, cross­ing race, mul­ti­ple gen­ders, and lan­guages, these ideas will grow, change, be chal­lenged and expand­ed. Each coun­try has its own unique dynam­ics and con­di­tions, which set the stage for its social move­ments. As our con­cept of our­selves, and each oth­er, grows deep­er, so will our capac­i­ty for a tru­ly inter­na­tion­al­ist feminism.

This month, the Grass­roots Glob­al Jus­tice Alliance will take a group of us to the World Social Forum in Tunis, to learn & con­nect with social move­ments and the women who lead them, from South Africa to Tunisia, from Italy to Brazil. We will co-con­vene a ses­sion to explore these ques­tions, and more: http://​www​.fsm2013​.org/​n​o​d​e​/2192. Stay tuned via our del­e­ga­tion’s blog.

Raised in Buenos Aires, politi­cized in East Los Ange­les, Maria Poblet is a nerdy Lati­na root­ed in the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area. Build­ing off a decade of rad­i­cal com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing and move­ment build­ing work, she lead the merg­er of the Lati­no orga­ni­za­tion she built with a Black orga­ni­za­tion, form­ing a sin­gle, mul­ti-racial pow­er­house called Causa Jus­ta :: Just Cause (www​.cjjc​.org). Before orga­niz­ing, she was Artis­tic Direc­tor of Poet­ry for the Peo­ple, and had the hon­or of being men­tored by June Jordan.
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