“Women Making Democracy”
On Friday, March 30, students from WMS 320: Feminist Thought Into Action, along with URI students from the Program in Gender and Women’s Studies and the Political Science Department, attended the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study’s “Women Making Democracy” conference. Each year the Institute organizes a conference that highlights the significance of gender in relation to the human experience. This year’s theme brought together a selection of preeminent journalists, scholars, and activists to discuss the role of women and gender in movements for social justice and political change. Much of the discussion centered on the role of women in the “Arab Spring,” but there were also comparative perspectives that opened the dialogue to include democratic movements in Eastern Europe and South Africa. The mix of speakers and topics created a space for interdisciplinary conversations that not only informed, but also raised new questions while challenging previous assumptions regarding gender and political unrest.
While the scope and depth of the information presented at the conference could be the springboard to a multitude of important discussions, I will limit my thoughts to points and questions raised that relate most directly to the concerns of WMS 320. As the day’s opening remarks suggested, when thinking about how the Arab Spring is unique, we should also consider its broader implications and the ways in which as “unique cases,” these uprisings also share similarities “across cases.” And, in this examination, specific attention should be paid to the ways in which these democratic movements challenged notions of space (both physical and virtual), gender, and human rights, and larger connections to structures of political and personal power. As Dalendra Larguèche noted, the Arab Spring opened new solidarities and spaces, but it also reinforced old ones. If new spaces of revolution have emerged, will they remain open, and for how long?
Of critical concern is the complex power dynamic between gender and “the state.” Heba Raouf Ezzat noted in her thrilling talk that there is a need to not only re-consider the idea of “state feminism,” but also to re-think the need and/or utility of feminist governance. These thoughts further problematized Shireen Hassim’s discussion of South Africa’s democratic struggles and the unfortunate ways in which the language of feminism did not speak to the situation of “ordinary people” in more rural areas. Or, as Rima Khalef succinctly noted, it is “easy to change laws,” but much “harder to change customs and traditions.”
With this in mind, one of the larger questions to come out of the conference is the need to constantly be mindful of who has the right to narrate, define, and defend revolution. In relation to activism and social media, I have asked my students to consider whether things like Facebook and Twitter are new ways to say the same old thing, or are new things being said by the very use of these technologies? That is, how might social media allow individuals to create a space of possibility from more general notions of “public space”?
The thoughts, observations, and lively conversation that my students engaged in via Twitter during the conference speak to this possibility, and I am incredibly proud of their participation during the day’s events. Through the diversity of voices, views, and opinions presented by the panelists, I believe the most important lesson learned by my students is perhaps one of the most simple: we all have the power to make a difference when we make our voices be heard. It is not enough for women to make history; they must also write and record it.