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Politics of liberation

December 23 2013




THE emergence of the ‘development sector’ in recent decades has had numerous impacts on the so-called ‘underdeveloped’ societies within which it has thrived. One has been to make gender into an issue in a way that it previously was not.

In the era of left radicalism that persisted through the late 1970s, women’s liberation became a major plank of progressive politics mostly in Western societies, while popular movements in countries such as ours focused primarily on challenging class, ethnic and imperialist structures of domination. This is not to suggest that the Third World left totally ignored patriarchy, but it nevertheless remained a secondary concern.

The non-governmental organisation ‘revolution’ through the 1980s and 1990s was a major game-changer, and has raised the bar as far as the struggle for women’s emancipation is concerned.

First, in the NGO conception of ‘sustainable development’, women’s uplift and participation in collective affairs is a central component. Second, a large number of women have found work in the NGO sector thus making it one of the more gender-balanced working environments in the contemporary period.

Importantly, the rise of NGOs coincided with the fall of actually existing socialist regimes and the retreat of left politics in general. It is thus that ‘development’ came to be seen as mutually exclusive from ‘politics’. This, as far as I am concerned, is a major argument against what on the surface appears to be the development sector’s positive role in raising the gender agenda.

I do not want to present a full-fledged critique of NGO approaches to women’s liberation here. I simply want to question whether or not ‘liberation’, of women, the toiling classes, oppressed nations or any other segment of humanity is possible without political engagement.

The buck starts and stops at patriarchy and capitalism, the interlinked oppressive structures that condemn most women to serf-like status, whether overt or hidden. The cause of women’s emancipation, then, must be about speaking truth to power and challenging it, or, in other words, engaging in political struggle. Unfortunately, too many progressives, men and women, do neither.

For example, it is damning that there is no place on the ‘development’ agenda, not to mention within mainstream political discourse, for the growing number of girls and women who are becoming the face of the Baloch national movement. As this article is being read, at least a dozen Baloch women and girls are walking through the plains of Sindh, soon to enter Punjab, to call attention to the ongoing state policy of kidnapping, torturing and killing Baloch youth.

This is aside from the daily role that women are playing in sustaining radical strands of that movement, particularly in southern parts of Balochistan.

In neighbouring India, women are highly integrated into another radical movement which is taking on state (and corporate) power in the eastern and central regions of the country. Contemporary Naxalism, with its base within the adivasi communities who live in vast forest enclaves, is a distinctive anti-systemic politics for many reasons, mostly because gender barriers have been broken down within the movement in unprecedented ways.

My guess is that these movements’ methods — their use of violence in particular — pose serious dilemmas to those who consider themselves principled defenders of the public interest. But then the ‘development interventions’ in the name of gender equality that we have so readily internalised are objectionable for a whole host of reasons too, not least of all the fact that fundamentally oppressive structures remain unnamed and unchallenged.

Indeed it is an unwillingness to think critically about the dominant development discourse that throws us out of whack when we discover that women are drawn towards decidedly retrogressive forms of politics.

The example of recently christened TTP chief Maulana Fazlullah during his previous romp in Swat is a case in point. While the narrative may have been exaggerated, it was nevertheless true that large numbers of women confined to their homes were moved by Fazlullah’s calls to action during his daily radio broadcasts.

The point is that there can be no alternative to building a politics of women’s liberation, lest right-wingers of whatever denomination fill the void. Insofar as the emergence of NGOs has exposed more working women — and men — to the broad contours of what such a progressive politics would look like, the experience can be depicted in a more or less positive light.

But to the extent that ‘civil society’ has shunned anti-systemic politics, there is an urgent need to revisit the prevailing assumptions about ‘gender and development’.

Women not only bear the burden of all forms of productive work in society — including reproduction of life itself — but also fight their subjugation in everyday, unspectacular ways. It is time to build a visible and proactive politics of the left that foregrounds gender. ‘Development’ is just not good enough.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Originally published by Dawn Pakistan 

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