Transnational feminisms, governance and development: a talk by Maitrayee Mukhopadhyay

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by Sarah Payne

On 10th April 2014, renowned social anthropologist Maitrayee Mukhopadhyay gave a talk at Geneva’s Graduate Insitute (IHEID) entitled “Gender knowledge and expertise in development”. In this lively, interesting and discursive talk Dr Mukhopadhyay discussed the last 30 years of global feminism, its achievements, internal divisions and scope for progress. Crucially though, she evaluated the role of transnational, local and grassroots feminisms in challenging the global hegemony of western feminism, and the implications of this for development.

Dr Mukhopadhyay began by briefly describing her work as part of the Royal Tropical Institute’s Gender team. The group provides “gender expertise” to local and national governments as well as international organisations such as the UN and the World Bank – that is, research and policy advice. She spoke about how these consultations have become commonplace since the 1990s, and how this signals a success for the feminist movement – a clear institutionalisation and systemisation of gender considerations in legislation and policy. Feminists and feminist concerns now have a presence in national and global development institutions.

While this is undoubtedly a very promising step forward for gender equality, Dr Mukhopadhyay then went on to highlight some of the associated downsides. In this adoption into governance agendas, feminist concerns have become, in her words, “unitary programmatic solutions” for governments – there has been a danger of condensing the whole discourse into a checklist of nominal solutions. Governments have been accused of introducing superficial measures to be seen to be engaging with gender issues while doing very little to address the root causes of structural inequality in societies. A related issue is that of prescribing a “one size fits all” solution to these concerns, and nowhere is this more apparent than in UN resolution 1325 and its blanket solutions for global female emancipation.

In addition, western feminist discourse has had implications for emerging feminisms. Mukhopadhyay cites studies by Chowdhury (2011) and Nesian (2012), where local level feminist group action has been marginalised by dominant western hegemonic discourse. Chowdhury’s work highlights the success of Bangladeshi organisation Naripokkho against acid violence against women. She shows how the organisation, when coopted by international charity the Acid Survivors Foundation, resulted in a decreased involvement of local activists, the reinforcement of a neoliberal geopolitical agenda and the dissemination of a simplistic “survivor” agenda.

So what next for the future of global feminism? I can identify two clear issues. Firstly, the balance needs to be addressed so it is local women’s movements that inform the global discourse, and not the dominant Western ideology obscuring and discrediting the work and experiences of local feminists in developing countries. Secondly, while institutionalisation has been a great step, we must take care to steer clear of nominal “box-ticking” regarding gender issues and instead seek to tackle the root causes of injustice and inequality, even if this means confronting difficult societal truths. Feminism needs to incorporate the voices of women in developing countries, and maybe then society at large will follow.

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