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Mapping a global view of feminism

Jul 15 2015

Search online for the terms “feminism” and “global feminism,” and you’ll discover that feminism today comes in a variety of flavors, largely dictated by differences in the causes, concerns and condition of women around the world. Yet, while culture, politics, education and society may differ from one country to another, the commitment to obtain equal rights and freedom of choice for women remains constant among feminists no matter where they are.

In an interview with “Gender News,” noted research scholar Dr. Zilka Spahić-Šiljak discusses her views on global feminism and why “we need to bring the discussion about feminism back to the issue of social justice for women and all other marginalized groups.” Šiljak, who was born in Bosnia-Herzegovina, has dedicated the past two decades of her career to advocating for women’s rights as a research scholar and human rights activist in non-governmental organizations. Her most recent research at Stanford University focuses on the intersection of leadership, gender and building peace.

GN: Is global feminism really moving forward? Does it mean the same thing in Bosnia-Herzegovina as it does in the U.S.?

ZS: Global feminism is not a special type of feminism, separate from others. It’s the result of the world’s global economy, and enables women from different contexts to be connected and networked, and to learn from one another’s experience. As such, it should not focus exclusively on the predominantly liberal discourse on politics and economy of the West. It needs to be open and sensitive to the problems of women from third-world countries.

Feminism is obviously affected by the social and political realities of our respective societies and cultures. Feminism in the U.S., for example, differs greatly from feminism in a post-war, impoverished and ethically divided region like Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Balkans, which suffer from injustice, oppression, exclusion and ethno-nationalist exploitation. It’s important to distinguish between the concepts of global feminism and what I would call liberal feminism.

While global feminism has improved women’s lives in terms of their rights to education, economic and reproductive rights, and freedom of movement, women outside of liberal societies continue to suffer other forms of oppression like racial, class and religious persecution. Liberal feminism might work for developed, stable Western societies and for women who enjoy economic independence and comfort, but it does not take into account the oppression of marginal groups.

I would say that the main ideas of feminism--a project of social justice and equality--are being betrayed. Some women built careers that benefitted from globalization and the corporate world. They became proponents of the meritocracy in patriarchal neoliberal political and business structures that made women preoccupied with competing in the existing neoliberal political and economic frameworks. Today in the Western world, feminist studies are focused on the themes of identity, sexuality and our bodies, while the key social justice questions remain outside of their horizons.

GN: What makes you optimistic about feminism in your country?

ZS: It’s hard to be an optimist in a country where everything is falling apart due to the ethno-national divisions that resulted from the war between 1992 and 1995. In that context, the women’s movement is fragmented and divided across ethno-national lines. 

The good news is that feminism is still alive and vibrant in various forms and resists ethno-national divisions. I think that feminists in Bosnia have done a great job: they provided a “safe space” to survivors of war traumas and torture in shelters and therapy centers; they did an incredible job building peace and reconciliation and re-building communities and relationships. They struggled hard to lay legal foundations for gender equality, anti-discrimination and protection from domestic violence. Women’s groups and organizations became a reference point on the civil scene of Bosnia and Herzegovina as the strongest voice for equality and justice.

Gender equality can no longer be avoided in any discussion regarding politics, business and even constitutional reforms.

GN: For you, what has been an important turning point for feminism in the last three years?

ZS: Particularly in 2014, feminism became part of the discussion in art, sports, business, politics, fashion, music and world media. Newspapers and broadcast companies brought us stories about celebrities and successful businesswomen and men who supported gender equality and feminism. 

It is important to see celebrities like Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and Benedict Cumberbatch support feminism, to learn that a woman became chairperson of the United States Federal Reserve for the first time in history, or to celebrate Malala Yousafzai as a Nobel Prize winner. But we have not seen profound changes. 

These stories did not help women in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine or Bosnia, or women in Chile or Sudan to get more political and economic stability and prosperity. However, they certainly initiated a discussion about these issues, and reminded all of us that women still face discrimination, gender-based violence, human trafficking and glass ceilings in politics and business.

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