Elena Georgalla on feminism, revolutions and Civil Society.


Esraa Abdel Fattah (left) at a panel discussion in Brussels 2011

Tou is one of the leaders of the Spanish 15M movement of the Indignados which took the streets of over sixty Spanish cities on May 15, to demand “Real Democracy NOW”. She apologises for her poor English and turns to her translator to emphasise: “The Revolution has to be Feminist, or there will be no Revolution”. To her right, Esraa Abdel Fattah nods affirmatively. Esraa is a political activist and the co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, a Facebook group originally made in April 2008 to support the strike of the workers in El-Mahalla El-Kubra. The group gradually grew into a popular political movement and Esraa was arrested with the allegation of challenging the Egyptian state’s censorship status. Overnight she became a symbol of resistance and resilience against corruption and injustice. Esraa and Tou both participated in the same panel discussion during a gathering of civil society representatives in Brussels to discuss women’s rights and gender equality amidst the Arab Springs, which I was fortunate enough to attend and the message of which I will now attempt to transmit.

The occasion is momentous: the focus of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize on women’s rights is hot on the heels of the publication of the World Bank’s 2012 World Development Report, which concentrates on the importance of gender equality in development. Never before have women’s rights been so high on the international agenda of the development sector; and this is the culmination of many years of lobbying and struggle by persistent advocates. This comes at another unprecedented juncture in history. For the first time in decades, the neoliberal apparatus are being radically shaken by the breath of a mass uprising, insinuating that the moment is ripe for broadening our understanding- and our solidarity- for the sake of justice. For most of the past few years, civil society has been restless. People, men and women, women and men, from Wall Street to Tahir Square and from the rebellions in London to the unease in Athens, say it in bold banners and brave chants: this is a time of revolution. And I could not agree more with Esraa and Tou: “it is not a Revolution, if it is not a feminist Revolution”.

Some would pause reading here. Others might have deemed this article unworthy of reading in the first place; in case you haven’t noticed the “f word” appears in the title. Yet, if women’s rights are at the heart of worldwide political debate, as an undoubted political and intellectual triumph, why is the word feminism conspicuous in its absence? The word is an anathema to conservative minds in most countries, which see in it the threat of a radical and perhaps exaggerated voice. Even some of the most ardent campaigners for women’s rights sometimes view parts of the feminist movement with mistrust, thinking that it represents an agenda for women who are not like them, either in their own country or in the richer western world.

However, in the midst of the Springs, the transformative potential of feminism was never more urgent. Feminism and revolution are coterminous. To be feminist is to have no fear of words and language, to dare to speak of injustices others fear to admit despite lying before their eyes. We insist on the term feminism (as opposed to “equalism” or other alternatives some have proposed) to remind us of the struggles and the victories of the past, from the fruits of which both women and men have benefited. But most importantly, there is no revolution without feminism because it is only feminism that poses the questions through which change can flourish. Here I would like to warn anyone who starts seeing this with suspicion: change is not a world where men stay home and cook while women are in the Cabinet. It is more organic and less simplistic than that.

There is a certain mythology attached to feminism. It is often misunderstood, seen as an imposition of female values over men, and patronising values over other women in the global South. Feminism is not a proclaimed panacea;  it does not claim to have all the right answers. It does, however, have the right questions. The best in the feminist movement have been the historic motors of change, precisely because they do not say what the solutions are, but ask the right questions and empower women to answer them, in whatever particular context they find themselves.

Amidst the Arab Springs and the anticipated democratic transitions, feminist activists ask “How would the world be different if we were free from fundamentalisms and patriarchy?” and “Would the world be any different if more women participated in decision-making?” Same in the protests that stemmed out of the global financial meltdown: “Is it because neoliberal capitalism is also patriarchal at its core that it has produced such vast inequalities in the global wealth distribution?” and “Why is it that whereas women do two thirds of the world’s labour, they own only one per cent of the total production?” The underlying principle is that we only truly know that a different world is possible when we know what this current world truly looks like.

Thus, feminism takes the debate well beyond legal and economic rights, into cultural norms and the transformation of values, mentalities and attitudes. And it is the hardest task of all, for attitudes are slowest to change: gender differences are particularly persistent when rooted in deeply entrenched social norms. As such, feminism is a tool for everyone. The objective should be to help transform societies so that women and everyone else who, up to now has been amongst the anonymous in the margins of human history, can decide what role to play, including traditional ones if they so choose. It is not a revolution if it’s not a feminist one because feminism is about recognising the detrimental effects of those deeply ingrained structural inequalities and actually doing something about it; it is about working towards positive social transformation.

Ultimately, feminism itself has struggled to appease its internal conflicts. Its greatest strength is that it has survived crude criticism, belligerent polemics, and it is still a battlefield for feminists themselves who do not always agree on the pedigree of its principles. At the end of the day, keeping in mind all the rich and constructive debates between feminists themselves, feminism is a movement, an ideology about equality and justice amongst all people- women and men- and most importantly, it is about doing things fundamentally different than we have up to now.

One may ask “What are we fighting for? For whom and for what are we fighting?” To that there is no universal answer; it is an interconnected world of diversity. Any answer arguing for democracy, solidarity, equality or freedom would be at the very least partial and insufficient. Different contexts have different needs and require different remedies. One thing we could claim for sure: there is an interconnection between public events and private experience. Where the local meets the global is at the undeniable transformative potential of the revolution.

It has been beyond the intentions of this article to simply produce a document in defence of feminism. This would be at odds with the morality of the movement itself. Yet what does it mean when staunch conservatives express themselves so comfortably in the language of women’s rights and gender equality, while making no efforts to address the demands and needs of the unemployed and the oppressed, of the people who gather in the streets of Cairo and Madrid? There is no reason to fear feminism. After all, if there is one truly unconventional thing that feminism has taught the world that would be the very radical notion that women are human beings.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich was the first to say that “well-behaved women seldom make history”. If there is even the slightest possibility that the voices of women and men in the active realms of civil society will be heard, let that be Twitter and YouTube, or the streets and squares, then let them misbehave…



Elena Georgalla 

Image – Elena Georgalla