Women’s internationalism against global patriarchy

The women’s movement must be reclaimed from NGOs, and rooted in radically democratic forms of organising committed to anti-racism and internationalism.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from a longer article that first appeared in ROAR Magazine.

The struggle against patriarchy – whether organic and spontaneous, or militant and organised – constitutes one of the oldest forms of resistance. As such, it carries some of the most diverse arrays of experience and knowledge within it, embodying the fight against oppression in its most ancient and universal forms.

From the earliest rebellions in history to the first organised women’s strikes, protests and movements, struggling women have always acted in the consciousness that their resistance is linked to wider issues of injustice and oppression in society. Whether in the fight against colonialism, religious dogma, militarism, industrialism, state authority or capitalist modernity, historically women’s movements have mobilised the experience of different aspects of oppression and the need for a fight on multiple fronts.

The state and the erasure of women

The division of society into strict hierarchies – particularly through the centralisation of ideological, economic and political power – has meant a historic loss for the place of the woman in the community. As solidarity and subsistence-based ways of life were replaced with systems of discipline and control, women were pushed to the margins of society and made to live sub-human lives on the terms of ruling men. But unlike what patriarchal history-writing would have us believe, this subjugation never took place without fearless resistance and rebellion emerging from below.

Colonial violence, in particular, has focused on the establishment or further consolidation of patriarchal control over the communities it wanted to dominate. Establishing a “governable” society means to normalise violence and subjugation within the most intimate interpersonal relationships. In the colonial context, or more generally within oppressed communities and classes, the household constituted the only sphere of control for the subjected male, who seemed to be able to assert his dignity and authority only in his family – a miniature version of the state or colony.

Over the centuries, an understanding of familial love and affection developed that split from its roots in communal solidarity and mutuality, further institutionalising the idea that violence and domination is simply part of human nature. As authors like Silvia Federici and Maria Mies have argued, capitalist imperialism – with its inherently patriarchal core – has led to the destruction of entire universes of women’s lifeways, solidarities, economies and contributions to history, art and public life, whether in the European witch-hunts, through colonial ventures abroad, or through the destruction of nature everywhere.

In modern times, many feminist activists and researchers have critiqued the relationship between oppressive gender norms and the rise of nationalism. Relying fundamentally on patriarchal notions of production, governance, kinship and conceptions of life and death, nationalism resorts to the domestication of women for its own purposes. This pattern is recurring in today’s global swing to the right, with fascists and far-right nationalists often claiming to act in the interests of women. Protecting women from the unknown, after all, remains one of the oldest conservative tropes to justify psychological, cultural and physical warfare against women. As a result, women’s bodies and behaviours are being instrumentalised for the interests of an increasingly reactionary capitalist world system.

Colonialism yesterday and capitalist militarism today immediately target the spheres of communal economy and the autonomy of women within them. As a result, epidemic waves of violence against women destroy whatever was left of life before capitalist social relations and modes of production took hold. It’s no surprise, then, that women, feeling capitalist domination and violence most intensively and from all sides, are often at the forefront in the Global South to fight against the capitalist destruction of their lands, waters and forests.

Imperialist feminism and patriarchal socialism

Let us identify two further issues that radical women’s struggles need to engage with today.

Perhaps the older of the two is the sidelining of women’s liberation by progressive, socialist, anti-colonialist or other leftist groups and movements. Historically, although women have participated in liberation movements in various capacities, their demands were often pushed aside in favour of what was identified by (usually male) leaders as the priority objective. This, however, is not an occurrence inherent to struggles for socialism or other alternatives to capitalism. It is, in fact, rather a demonstration of how deep the fight against oppression and exploitation needs to reach if real change is to be brought about.

The authoritarian traits of past historic experiences, based on their high-modernist and statist obsessions bordering on social engineering, are very much in line with patriarchal conceptualisations of life. As many feminist historians have pointed out, class has always meant different things to women and to men, particularly as women’s bodies and unpaid labor were appropriated and commodified by dominant systems in ways that naturalised their subjugated status profoundly.

As an outcome of millennia-old feminicidal systems, many of which do not feature in history classes even today, combined with the everyday reproduction of patriarchal domination in hegemonic culture, intimate relationships or in the seemingly loving sphere of the family, deep psychological traumas and internalised behaviours produce a need to radically break with societal and cultural expectations of passive femininity and womanhood through consciousness-raising, political action and autonomous organising.

As the experience in our own movement – the women’s struggle in the Kurdish freedom movement – has shown, without a total divorce from patriarchy, without a war on our internalised self-enslavement, we cannot play our historic role in the general struggle for liberation. Neither can we find shelter in autonomous women’s spheres without running the danger of separating ourselves from the real concerns and problems of the society – and with that, the world – that we seek to revolutionise. In this sense, our autonomous women’s struggle has become our people’s guarantee to democratise and liberate our society and the world beyond.

The flipside of this negative experience of women’s movements within broader struggles for liberation is related to the second and more recent issue that women’s struggles face today: the de-radicalisation of feminism through liberal ideologies and systems of capitalist modernity. Increasingly so, progressive movements and struggles that have the potential to fight power are confronted with what Arundhati Roy refers to as the “NGO-isation of resistance.” One of the primary tools to enclose and tame women’s rebellion and rage is the delegation of social struggles to the realm of civil society organisations and elite institutions that are often necessarily detached from the people on the ground.

It is no coincidence that every country that has been invaded and occupied by Western states claiming to import “freedom and democracy” is now home to an abundance of NGOs for women’s rights. The fact that violence against women is on the rise in the same aggressor countries should raise questions about the function and purpose that such organisations play in the justification of empire. Issues that require a radical restructuring of an oppressive international system are now reduced to marginal phenomena that can be resolved through corporate diversity policy and individual behaviour, thus normalising women’s acceptance of cosmetic changes at the expense of radical transformation.

Internationalism means direct action

One of the primary tragedies of alternative quests is therefore the delegation of one’s individual or collective will to instances outside of the community-in-struggle: men, NGOs, the state, the nation, and so on. The crisis of representative liberal democracy is very much related to its inability to deliver its promise, namely, to represent all sections of society. As oppressed groups, particularly women, have historically experienced, one’s liberation cannot be surrendered to the same systems that reproduce unbearable violence and subjugation. In the face of these false binaries that women’s struggles are often confronted with, the urgency of internationalism emergences even more insistently.

At the heart of internationalism has historically been the realisation that beyond any existing order, people must be conscious of each other’s suffering and see the oppression of one as the misery of all. Internationalism is a revolutionary extension of one’s self-awareness to the realm of humanity as a whole, based on the ability to see the connections of different expressions of oppression. In this sense, internationalism must necessarily reject any form of delegation to status quo institutions and must resort to concrete, direct action.

Revolutionary women’s struggles – as opposed to contemporary liberal appropriations of feminist language – have always embodied the spirit of internationalism in their fights by taking the lead against fascism and nationalism. To stay true to the promise of solidarity, internationalist politics in the vein of women’s struggles must understand that oppression can operate through a variety of modes, so that both the violence as well as the resistance against it do not have to resemble each other everywhere.

Today’s internationalism needs to reclaim direct action for systemic change without reliance on external powers – party, government or state – and must be radically democratic, anti-racist and anti-patriarchal.

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