Challenges for Feminism in a Globalized World

Feminist contributions and challenges to the World Social Forum

Virginia Vargas*

The World Social Forum is a global arena for women’s and men’s democratic social movements. Its two slogans, “another world is possible” and “no one single way of thinking”, express the orientation of this other globalization, which draws its strength from the ethical, utopian conviction that alternatives may be constructed by democratic, emancipating forces. And to achieve this, there is no one recipe, nor any single alternative or actor, but rather a multiple range of social stakeholders, contributing their manifold forms of resistance and of building democracies with social justice and equity.

Feminist attempts to make our mark in the WSF evidently have much to do with these two mottoes, which feminist movements have historically advocated. However, our aims are also linked to new feminist trends that seek to respond theoretically and politically to the new challenges posed by a globalized world.

These new trends, or what Irene León calls the major pending issues of feminism (or what Ana Rivera calls the adjustment of discourses) may be summarized in two over-arching themes: young and/or renewed, diverse, plural leadership, according to new challenges; and addressing those inequalities entailed by this diversity and expressed in other multiple forms of discrimination (race, ethic group, age, sexual orientation, geographical residence, as well as gender – cross-referencing to gender, all in mutual, ongoing interaction, which increases exclusion. This elicits our vital political commitment. These trends also begin to emerge after movements undergo retrenchment processes in the face of extreme individualism (the “I” culture, as Norbert Lechner has termed it, which is hesitant about incorporating collective experiences), of fragmentation and the resurgence of essential identities. In these processes, as Silvia Borren tells us, feminism may have lost its way.

However, it is also true that these new viewpoints are possible because of the growing diversity, plurality and de-centering of feminist directions, which has also diversified their ways of existing and their strategies. Sustaining what Sonia Álvarez (1998) has defined as the feminisms of these times – a discursive, expansive, heterogenous panorama, generating polycentric fields of action that spread over a range of civil-society organizations, and are not constrained to women’s affairs, although women undoubtedly maintain them in many ways. Our presence in the WSF, asking these very questions, is also an expressing of this change.

At the World Social Forum, feminists have begun to position the two above themes, nourishing processes that integrate gender justice with economic justice, while recovering cultural subversion and subjectivity as a longer-term strategy for transformation. This confronts two broad expressions of injustice: socio-economic injustice, rooted in society’s political and economic structures, and cultural or symbolic injustice, rooted in societal patterns of representation, interpretation and communication. Both injustices affect women, along with many other racial, ethnic, sexual and geographic dimensions. Expressed in unequal distribution of resources and the absence of value accorded to certain cultures, they take form in struggles for redistribution and recognition. And, even if these struggles have not always been connected, both are intrinsically linked, as Nancy Fraser (1997) points out, because androcentric, sexist norms are institutionalized in the State and the economy, and women’s economic disadvantages restrict their ‘say’, preventing them from participating as equals in cultural creation.

These quests flow together in the World Social Forum. But they also clash. This ambivalence is part of the Forum’s wealth, because it also brings us close to the contradictory other side of alternative globalization, and to the other face that each of us wears: while we blandish our new signs and subjective thrusts, we also trail in the old exclusions and conservative hangups. That is why the WSF is also a stage where the new arises to confront old structures of thought and action. And perhaps the most appealing feature of the Forum is that tensions and contradictions, far from shutting down the dialogue, actually feed the challenge of recovering the diversity of sensibilities and questions regarding the new scenarios of globalization.

However, along with this substantial contribution, there is the challenge represented by this Forum for feminist actions. As Irma Van Dueren has put it, we do not want a WSF dominated by men, but one where there is feminist dialogue as well. And this is not always easy, because it entails a twofold strategy: commitment to the collective battles of social movements and, at the same time, attempts to transform their perspective regarding feminism, differences, gender, and multiple ways of thinking, as Sonia Correa (2002) has put it. Therefore, the Forum witnesses processes of interweaving and process of dispute. And this has been clear comparing the first and second Forums: feminist presence and visibility in the Second Forum, although not sufficient, has been much more visible and has had a higher impact than in the First Forum, thanks to the tenacity of feminists’ standing their ground, and the tireless work of Brazilian feminists. For example, Cándido Grzybowsky, one of the most significant, visionary promoters of the WSF, has publicly stated his encouraging position regarding the exclusion of women: “There is a structural bias that denies the role of protagonist to women” (...) “It is sad to admit that the WSF was still too small in social terms, on the female side”. (document from the Web). This small female side is the one that obscured, in the first Forum, the fact that 52% of those participating were women. This second time around, with nearly 42% women participating, and despite women’s more visible impact, women have not been proportionally represented in the Conferences organized by the Forum or on the Organizing Committee. This is still a single way of thinking, huddled away amidst strategies for change.

These challenges and quests bring us closer to the possibility of building a different vision of the future. And recovering one of the substantial characteristics of feminist emergence in the 20th Century: feminists’ conviction that their struggles would make possible a different world, grounded in recognition for others as similar insofar as they are different. These characteristics are now shared and enhanced by broad sectors of democratic civil societies, as shown by the two rallying-cries, that mobilize the World Social Forum so powerfully, and are worth repeating: “Another world is possible” – “no one single way of thinking”.



* Peruvian sociologist specialized in Politics. Active feminist militant. She is a founding member of the “Flora Tristán” Peruvian Women’s Center. She is currently working as a consultant, heading UNIFEM’s Program of Women’s Economic and Social Rights.

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