By Sara Salem
This piece is an attempt to think through some of the ways in which feminists in the Global South, during the period of decolonisation, thought about difference and hierarchy, and how they imagined solidarity despite—and through—these realities. This is part of a larger project that looks at transnational feminist connections and disconnections during the moment of decolonisation in the twentieth century. I touch on moments of both disconnection and connection to show how postcolonial feminists articulated solidarity and how they negotiated coming together as well as understanding the complicated notion of identity and representation within movements that they highlight. I posit that many of the feminists I look at in this article understood feminist solidarity as possible only on the basis of certain shared assumptions about the world and how it works; a certain world-view that is anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-imperial and anti-patriarchal. Perhaps this is unsurprising, given the historical moment during which these connections and disconnections emerged; decolonisation was indeed a moment of radical rethinking and restructuring.
Today, faced with an intensifying capitalist, white supremacist, and patriarchal crisis, I wonder if this call to create solidarity through such political positionalities is more urgent than ever. We come together not because we may identity as women; rather, we come together because we believe that we can only be free and live better lives with the end of capitalism, white supremacy, Western empire, and patriarchy. As Mohanty and M. Jacqui Alexander write in their book Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures, transnational means: “A way of thinking about women in similar contexts across the world, in different geographical spaces, rather than as all women across the world; an understanding of a set of unequal relationships among and between peoples; and taking critical antiracist, anticapitalist positions that would make feminist solidarity work possible.”
The first moment I want to touch on is one of disconnection. This moment took place in Copenhagen in 1939, at the International Alliance of Women conference. This conference is notable because it marked a breaking point—or disconnect—in relations between Western and feminists of the Global South. There had been growing tensions within international feminist spaces, particularly around the devastating effects of European colonialism. Given the colonial context during which many of the early feminist debates began, women from colonised countries clearly articulated gender equality as tied to national liberation. In other words, they refused to separate the question of national independence from the question of gender equality—as many Western feminists insisted on doing. This soon produced confrontations between African, Asian, and Middle Eastern feminists on the one hand, and Western feminists on the other. The crux of these confrontations concerned the refusal of Western feminists to take seriously the problem of colonial rule that their own governments were invested in.
Much of my research has focused on Egypt, and through this I have come across fascinating archival material on how Egyptian feminists responded to confrontations in these spaces, including the conference in Copenhagen in 1939. It was this conference in particular that revealed to Egyptian feminists the myth of a global sisterhood, and a common thread is the accusation Egyptian feminists levelled at Western feminists of not upholding the democratic and equal principles they constantly spoke of. Egyptian feminists pointed out, for example, that countries such as Britain were never criticised for colonial rule or the giving away of Palestine, whereas countries deemed “undemocratic” such as Egypt were constantly criticised. There was a particular moment during which there was an explosive confrontation surrounding the myth of a “global sisterhood,” pushing Egyptian feminist Huda Sha‘arawi to state: “It had become necessary to create an Eastern feminist union as a structure within which to consolidate our forces and help us to have an impact upon the women of the world.”
These contradictions led feminists from the Global South to turn towards other African and Asian feminists to create separate conferences that focused on issues affecting colonised nations. The reluctance of Western feminists to speak out against the Balfour Declaration and the subsequent colonisation of Palestine was the final straw for many, who did not see a separation between gender justice and national liberation. In an instance of colonisation, they saw feminism’s role as one of resistance; feminists were supposed to challenge all forms of oppression, rather than focus on gender as though it was neatly separable form other forms of oppression. Alongside this was the obvious problem of Western feminist support for these very colonial projects. We see that for women supporting colonial projects, colonised women simply were not deserving women. The category of “woman” has always been an already-racialized category that is far from universal, even as it was claimed to be so. This brings to mind our current moment, where again we see resistance from feminists in the Global North to take seriously colonisation in Palestine.
This shared analysis of imperialism connected women across different geographical and cultural spaces, and provided a means through which solidarity could be created. As Elisabeth Armstrong has written: “Fostered by the shared analysis of imperialism, women from newly independent and still colonised nations in Asia and North Africa honed what I call a solidarity of commonality for women’s shared human rights, and a solidarity of complicity that took imbalances of power between women and the world into account.” Similarly, Antoinette Burton has written that these conferences made visible the refusal by women in Asia and Africa to be dismissed or seen as developmentally backward in its demands, or mobilised without consultation into a Western-dominate feminist agenda. Solidarity then, is not about identification with gender, but about a shared belief in what freedom means and how to bring it about.
The growing momentum around transnational and anti-colonial feminist solidarity was heightened by the Afro-Asian Conference at Bandung in 1955. Laura Bier writes, “As new alliances were forged in the international arena, groups of women activists, writers, students, and politicians circulated within the milieu of international conferences, visiting delegations, summits, and committee meetings. The resulting exchanges and networks were part of what made possible the sorts of imaginings that overflowed the boundaries of the nation state.” Throughout all of these meetings, the central articulation was around postcolonial agency and the importance of feminists in the Global South to speak on their own terms. Even before this meeting, however, feminists such as Amy Ashwood Garvey and Claudia Jones were engaging in internationalist activism around imperialism and gender.
Other conferences where women from across Africa and the rest of the Global South came together to discuss imperialism, capitalism, and gender include the 1947 Conference for the Women of Asia, held with the explicit aim of “opening a new chapter for Asian and also African internationalist leadership.” The conference was held in Beijing, and was one of the first international events organised by the Chinese Communist Party, including 367 women from 37 countries. It became clear from the conference that what connected women from across Asia and Africa was anti-imperialism, mass-based organising, a membership dominated by rural women, and anti-capitalism. Conference reports such as the one based on this one entitled The Women of Asia and Africa, emphasised the shared struggles women in both continents faced.
One fascinating point that was raised by women at this conference was the need to hold both their own states as well as imperial states to account. Indian feminist Jai Kishore Handoo, for example, led a campaign against the use of Indian troops to put down the independence movement in Indonesia, and a Vietnamese delegate appealed to African delegates at the conference to protest against Algerian, Tunisian, Senegalese and Moroccan soldiers being taken to Vietnam to “fight against a brother people, against whom they have no reason whatsoever to fight.” What created solidarity, therefore, was a shared commitment to fighting against imperial oppression, both at home and abroad. This is important to highlight today, where we face an increasing need for both external critiques of the Global North as well as autocritiques that hold postcolonial states and elites accountable for political, economic and social violence. Across the Global South today we see movements pushing back against both imperialism and local dictatorship, seeing the two as connected.
An example of this double critique, aimed at both Western feminism as well as at postcolonial states, was the focus on social reproduction, which posed a question to such states as to whether they were taking the gendered consequences of state-led capitalism seriously. In an incisive piece, Mai Taha reads debates Egyptian feminists had through the concept of the “social factory.” She argues that projects such as Gamal Abdel Nasser’s centered the factory and industrialization in the development of the modern Egyptian nation state while deflecting the question of social reproduction, largely being carried out by women. Some feminist debates, therefore, centered around this displacement, and argued for a postcolonial state formation that took seriously social welfare and social reproductive benefits. Similarly, Amy Ashwood Garvey addressed the Pan-African Congress in Manchester in 1945, focusing on the position of the Black woman and the postcolonial state:
In Jamaica, the labouring class of women who work in the fields, take goods to the market, and so on, receive much less pay for the same work than the men do…the Negro men of Jamaica are largely responsible for this, as they do little to help the women to get improved wages.
This double critique was central to the ways in which African, Asian and women of African descent imagined decolonisation. Decolonisation was never simply about men from these countries taking over political power; it was about liberation for both men and women.
These moments of disconnect (between Western feminists and feminists from the Global South) and connection (between feminists across the colonised and postcolonial world) highlight both the tensions and possibilities inherent in transnational solidarity. Above all, it suggests that the conditions for creating a truly transnational form of feminist solidarity based on anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism existed from the 1950s to the 1970s, and that this was very much based on a shared analysis and understanding of oppression and, by extension, liberation. This article has also tried to show that differences among women can be engaged productively. This matters for debates around representation because it centers questions of imagined futures rather than identity. Solidarity is about difficult conversations and unearthing uneven power relations; this is the political work that has to be done before feminists can act together. Transnational feminism allowed feminists to counter the simplistic notion of a universal sisterhood by pointing to the multiple divisions that separate women from one another while at the same time not seeing these divisions as barriers to solidarity. The way we understand the problems of our world affects the way we imagine liberation beyond them. This has, and continues to be, a crucial site of solidarity, internationalism, and hope.
Sara Salem is an Assistant Professor in Sociology at the London School of Economics. Sara’s research interests include political sociology, postcolonial studies, Marxist theory, feminist theory, and global histories of empire and imperialism. She is particularly interested in questions of traveling theory, postcolonial/anti-colonial nationalism, and feminist theory. She has recently published articles on Angela Davis in Egypt in the journal Signs; on Frantz Fanon and Egypt’s postcolonial state in Interventions: A Journal of Postcolonial Studies; and on intersectionality as a travelling theory in the European Journal of Women’s Studies, among others. Sara tweets @saramsalem
This piece draws from the author’s research commissioned by Post-Colonialisms Today, a research and advocacy project which recovers progressive post-independence alternatives for contemporary challenges. The project reserves prior rights to publish this research, including in a full paper which is forthcoming in an edited collection.