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Transnationalism: the face of feminist politics post-Beijing


  • Manisha Desai is Associate Professor of Sociology, Acting Director of Women and Gender in Global Perspectives, and Associate Director of the Program in South Asia and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign. She worked as Senior Programme Specialist in GED/HRS/SHS UNESCO from January to April 2004. She has written extensively on women's movements in India and globally and has edited two books, one on Women's Activism and Globalization: Linking Local Struggles to Transnational Politics (Routledge 2002) and Women's Issues in Asia (Greenwood 2003). She is currently completing a book on Gender and Globalisation for the Gender Lens Series.


In this paper, I argue that transnational feminist practices have become the dominant modality of feminist movements around the world, since the Fourth Women's World Conference in Beijing. By transnationalism I mean both organising across national borders as well as framing local, national, regional, and global activism in “transnational” discourses. I review two sites of transnational feminism, the UN and the World Social Forum, especially the emergence of the Feminist Dialogues from the Forum. I argue that the changed socio-political context following Beijing – in particular the continuing hegemony of the neo-liberal economic agenda, the entrenchment of religious fundamentalisms, and the post 9/11 wars and focus on terrorism in the US and around the world – has highlighted the limitations of transnational activism, for both internal movement politics and social transformation. Transnational feminism fragments movement politics as tensions emerge between movement organisations that can actually cross borders versus those that cannot and reproduces inequalities among activists within and between countries in the North and South. More importantly, however, given the spaces within which transnational feminists operate and the modalities of transnational activism, the strategic focus of movements' shifts from outcome to process and from redistribution to policy and discursive changes. Thus, the ironic state of the feminist movements post Beijing, I argue, is that (some) women's agency is visible everywhere even as (most) women's lives remain mired in multiple inequalities. What is needed in this neo-liberal moment is a neo-radical feminist politics that is based on intersectional analysis and democratic practices but devises strategies with other mass movements that can redistribute resources and emancipate women.

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