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(en) Italy, FDCA, Cantier #24: Transnational feminism and the World Women's Conferences - Serena Fiorletta (ca, de, it, pt, tr)[machine translation]

Date Wed, 3 Apr 2024 09:33:39 +0300

Retracing the history of feminisms leads to the identification of stages that deserve to be remembered and which go down in history as important, if not turning point, moments. However, some struggle to be identified as such and often the work of understanding and recovery occurs with difficulty, so it becomes necessary to also question the oblivion or the complexities of the transmission of events. ---- In investigating what is defined as transnational feminism and the different forms that this can take, we stumble upon the World Women's Conferences, organized by the United Nations, between the mid-1970s and the early 1990s. The four conferences took place in Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980) and Nairobi (1985), followed by the Beijing Conference in 1995, whose Platform of Action is still a point of reference for women's rights today. .

In this context, transnational feminism has created a physical and symbolic place of global meeting that has seen the emergence of perspectives and practices that have led to a feminist questioning, through the history of an 'internal' conflict that reaches up to the our days. If today we discuss with greater awareness a part of white feminism that has not been able or willing to see other feminisms and demands, as well as the differences between women, too often we ignore that a postcolonial and intersectional perspective was implemented before the diffusion and success of these terms. The study of the Conferences allows us to observe what happened in years usually considered to be the decline of feminism, in a context that at first glance could be read as a purely institutional context. First of all, it must be underlined how the periodization of feminism in waves has often prevented us from detecting what happened in the less evident moments of mobilization but, above all, it has not allowed us to know what was happening in countries other than Western ones. As a result, essential moments for the development of shared feminist practices and theories have slipped through the cracks of the narrative. The 1980s are in fact those in which various feminisms of the Global South, as well as black feminism in the United States, emerge forcefully, not only in action but also as criticism and denunciation of structural elements of discrimination, such as colonialism, capitalism, neoliberalism. but also towards a white feminism, considered hegemonic, if not itself the bearer of forms of discrimination and stigmatisation. It is therefore no coincidence that women from a large part of the world, strengthened by years of intense mobilization, were ready to seize the political opportunity offered by the United Nations, capable of giving it direction, as well as of weaving cross-border relationships, moreover it certainly wasn't the first time. In a short time they organized themselves and participated en masse in the Conferences, creating parallel Forums which became transnational spaces for discussion and action. In summary, these international meetings have given rise to a composite political space in which very different actors have acted, engaged in complex relationships, such as the UN, the member states and a women's and feminist movement which becomes the recognized protagonist of these global processes.

We cannot summarize here the history of each conference (as well as other fundamental international meetings that were held in those same years) but thousands of activists were present to demonstrate their presence, monitor the meetings, try to influence the positions of their respective governments, put pressure on the United Nations. But, above all, they gave shape to concrete places where requests could be made and needs expressed, giving life to a plural subject in the making that was not easy to manage.

The universal sisterhood, until then taken for granted by a good part of Western feminism, on the common basis of gender, began to falter, since the analyzes and themes brought by women from the Global South could not lead to an alliance that preceded (and ignored) the reality of each one. According to reports, accounts and testimonies of the time (1) , the effective awareness of the different perspectives, the irreducibility of positionings and the different political cultures began in Copenhagen in 1980 and continued in Nairobi in 1985.

As ManishaDesai (2) reminds us , the world women's conferences and the meetings in parallel forums were essentially conflictual events that saw activists from different countries (many did not define themselves as feminists) challenging the concepts, demands and priorities of the women of the North. Most white women, for example, did not want to address issues defined as 'political', as they would have preferred to present themselves as a solid and cohesive movement in the context described. But, by digging into the documents, we discover how these requests were vital, in a literal sense, for many of the women present. The issues defined as political and therefore divisive were in fact those brought forward by the South Africans and Palestinians who wanted the claims and denunciations of the daily discrimination and violence in which they lived to be explicit and shared, in the clear terms of apartheid and colonial occupation. There were several witnesses of the time who at the end of the conference in the Danish capital expressed fear of the uselessness of these meetings or of the impossibility of arriving at a form of mutual understanding, not to mention skepticism about being able to influence government processes in light of the internal clashes within activism itself.

The turning point was at the Nairobi conference in 1985, where the women probably arrived with the desire to continue and find a form of action and the possibility of alliances that held together the complexity in which they found themselves. In the area dedicated to the parallel Forum, a peace tent was also built where harsh discussions and confrontations took place, a sort of space dedicated to the explicit welcoming of inevitable conflicts.

The protagonists were certainly the activists from the countries of the South of the world who arrived in Nairobi in large numbers (also thanks to the fact that the conference venue was in an African capital) and the many black feminists coming from the United States. It is they who, through the presence of bodies, analyzes and political requests, create a rupture, showing how gender can no longer be the only element that defines women's lives and their subalternity within different patriarchal systems. They do this by bringing out and naming other social categories, such as class, "race" (i.e. racialisation ) , sexual orientation, religion, etc., which define, through their intersection, changing identities, oppression and the capacity for self-determination. The differences between women, the different political perspectives and the criticism of a substantial part of white feminism, also held responsible for some forms of exercise of power and colonialism, are the issues around which the conference moved.

It is on this occasion that transnational feminist networks (3) of Third World women (4) were formed who, through this type of organisation, began to define shared practices and common languages, giving a new configuration to women's and feminist movements at international. One of the landmark "manifestos" of the time, which actually preceded the Nairobi Conference, begins with these words: «Through our analyzes and activities, we are committed to developing alternative frameworks and methods to achieve the goals of economic justice and social, of peace for development free from all forms of gender, class, racial and national oppression" (5) . Written by Gita Sen and Caren Grown, it is the founding proclamation of the Dawn Network, a network that still exists today. The questioning of a predominant feminism and that which it wanted to be, the awareness that women's and feminist movements are different and not always reconcilable, becomes a practice at the United Nations meetings that allows for the possibility of reasoned, deliberate and concrete alliances .

In essence, between the 1980 and 1985 conferences, through clashes, discussions and recompositions, a feminism was redefined, from time to time, which proposed an embodied and then theorized postcolonial and intersectional perspective which, over time, was capable also to influence institutional policies.

Today this complexity seems to be part of the present, in the current and claimed need to talk about feminisms in the plural and in knowing how to recognize them. But it is equally important to remember and tell how the process was long and ignored for just as long. The dense concepts that words like intersectionality and decoloniality bring with them start from afar and it is not enough to use them as adjectives to be aware of them or know how to act on them. It was difficult at the time, and perhaps it is still difficult today, to abandon an often Eurocentric outlook and have a broader perspective that becomes truly global, in its ability to concretely measure itself with the challenges of an effective decolonization of the gaze, of the theories and practices.


1) R. Gaidzanwa et al ., Reflections on Forum '85 in Nairobi, Kenya: Voices from the International Women's Studies Community , Signs, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Spring, 1986)

2) M. Desai, Transnational and Global Feminisms , in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, 2007, p.2

3) V. Moghadam, Transnational Feminist Networks: Collective Action in an Era of Globalization , International Sociology 15 (1): 57-85, 2000

4) Common definition in the years that we are taking into consideration and used by the women of the South of the world themselves, with the explicit intention of provocative claim in the denunciation of the subordination into which they were forced. See also the use of Third World women in ChandraThalpadeMoanthy's works.

5) G. Sen, C. Grown, Development, Crises and Alternative Visions. Third World Women'sPerspectives , MonthlyReview Press, 1987, p. 9

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