Feminism, The Global Struggle

— Purnima Bose

COMING TO FEMINIST consciousness in the early 1980s, I belong to a generation of U.S. feminists caught between the second and third “waves” of the movement. The activist energy of second-wave feminism was inspiring indeed. It challenged the ideological presuppositions of heteronormative patriarchy, established some legal protection against discrimination in the workplace and educational institutions, and enabled a significant percentage of women to enter the ranks of the professional-managerial class.

Part of this project necessarily entailed consciousness raising; however, the movement slogan “the personal is political” was jarring to my immigrant background, which emphasized an ethos of collective service and diagnosed individualism as a symptom of American decadence. The tendency of second-wave feminists to universalize the experience of white, middle-class women as representative of all women would be powerfully challenged by third-wave feminists.

In dismantling essentialist notions of femininity, third-wave feminism created a space to express the demands of women of color, to celebrate sex positivity and transgender politics and to articulate feminism with other social movements such as the environment. Yet both waves seemed insular in their focus on the status of North American women within a largely nationalist framework.

I was delighted, therefore, to discover two works that avoid the pitfalls of insularity in their investigation of the ways in which women’s experiences and subjectivities are shaped by international forces: Cynthia Enloe’s Bananas, Beaches and Bases (1989) and Barbara Harlow’s Barred: Women, Writing, and Political Detention (1992).

Enloe’s study is premised on the deconstruction of the private and public spheres, but her innovation is to propose an enlargement of how we define the public sphere. Not just figured as the “market place,” the public sphere, for Enloe, encompasses the international arena and foreign relations. She argues that “the personal is international” and “the international is personal.” (196)

A political scientist by training, Enloe asks what a “feminist curiosity” can reveal about international affairs. This question raises others: How does imperialism and its legacy inform gender and the world order? What is the relationship between women and production? And how does a focus on gender result in new definitions of production itself to include the creation of national subjects in service of and against the state?

How are women interpellated as consumers, for example, of agricultural products and the tourism industry? In turn, how do particular industries in collusion with national governments transform women into commodities?

Women As Banana Republic

Bananas, Beaches and Bases demonstrates how governments such as the United States and transnational corporations such as the United Fruit Company depend on certain ideas of gender to advance their military and profit-amassing agendas.

Organized around types of women — tourists, prostitutes, base women, diplomatic wives, domestic workers, and agricultural workers among others — Enloe’s book shows how U.S. foreign policy and its promulgation of capitalism is “supported by pillars of masculinity” that saturate the quotidian aspects of women’s experience. The national security state requires the world be constructed as a “dangerous place,” where masculine men act as protectors of feminine women. (12-13)

Wives of enlisted men and diplomats, and the native women who service bases, all play a role in reproducing international relations. She writes, “to explain why any country has the kind of politics it does, we have to be curious about how public life is constructed out of struggles to define masculinity and femininity. Accepting that the political is personal prompts one to investigate the politics of marriage, venereal disease and homosexuality — not as marginal issues, but as matters central to the state.” (195)

Enloe’s contribution is to make this relation visible even as she presents women as constituted by a complex matrix of racial, ethnic, class, and geopolitical differences, and as agents of both oppression of other women and resistors of patriarchy.

Where Enloe illustrates how international relations shape the everyday experiences of ordinary women and vice versa, Barbara Harlow’s Barred: Women, Writing, and Political Detention treats women from the putative Third World of whom history demands great courage and enormous sacrifice.

A literary critic by training and a skilled translator of French and Arabic texts, Harlow brilliantly probes how women and an attention to gender can challenge the institutional practices of the prison and the university. Her primary concerns include a consideration of the political role that women play in national liberation movements and resistance organizations; the ways in which detention has an impact on gender and family relations; an examination of how such experiences can socialize political agendas as women become more vocal in asserting control over household finances; an entitlement to more forms of agency; and new cultural meanings for sexual violence and other gender-coded values.

By examining prison memoirs, novels, poetry, short stories of Irish, Palestinian, South African, Egyptian, Salvadoran and North American women, Barred reveals “historical similarities,” “conjunctures and ‘linkages’” between women’s experiences around the world without flattening them into a bland universalism. In her preface, Harlow explains that her citational practice “is crucial to the project’s strategy,” referring to her tendency to quote from “texts written and published by and about political prisoners.” (x, xi)

Barred in effect functions as an archive of women’s resistance — in the anti-apartheid movement, against the counterinsurgency movements in Central America, for Palestinian self-determination, in the Republican movement in Northern Ireland and other such struggles. Harlow’s book opens the door to other authors analyzed in her pages and included in the extensive bibliography:  Hanan al-Shaykh, Hala Deeb Jabbour, Leila Khaled, Claribel Alegria, Bernadette Devlin, Nawal al-Saadawi, Ruth First and Caesarina Kona Makhoere, among others.

In an era of declining American power, when our foreign policy over many decades — whether through outright invasion, covert operations, or collusions with transnational corporations — has had such a deleterious impact on the lives of women globally, Bananas, Beaches and Bases and Barred: Women, Writing, and Political Detention provide important methods of feminist analysis to understand the gendering of international relations and to foster a real appreciation and solidarity with women struggling around the world.

ATC 139, March-April 2009

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