Global Policy Forum

World Culture War


By Meredith tax

The Nation
May 17, 1999

In the past ten years, nationalist, communalist and religious fundamentalist social movements have surfaced all over the world, moving into the power vacuum created as local elites have been overwhelmed by the new global financial ruling class. The emerging struggle is not between East and West, as Samuel Huntington would have it, but within both; it is a struggle between the forces of globalization and the atavistic social movements that have sprung up to oppose it. Civilian populations, especially ethnic minorities, women and children, are caught in between. Among such movements are the Taliban in Afghanistan; the Serbian nationalist movement (and its opposing counterparts elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia); Islamic fundamentalist movements in Egypt, Algeria and elsewhere; the Hindu communalist movement in India; the Israeli settler movement in the West Bank; and a whole range of militantly patriarchal Christian groups, from the militias to Operation Rescue, in the United States.

These movements have in common a desire for racial, ethnic and religious homogeneity; an apocalyptic vision of purification through bloodshed; and a patriarchal view of women and the family. I call them atavistic because of the way they yearn back to a mythic past, often the age of barbarism, when their nation, tribe or religion was great. ("Atavism: Biol. the reappearance in an individual of characteristics of some more or less remote ancestor that have been absent in intervening generations." American College Dictionary) In Israel, to take one example, religious fundamentalists who believe they should control all the land that was biblical Israel's at its point of greatest territorial strength have repeatedly brought the peace process to a standstill. And in the United States, a cadre of religiously driven conservative leaders paralyzed the federal government for more than a year in their campaign against the Sixties and Sin, both exemplified by Bill Clinton.

As central to such movements as ethnic or religious homogeneity is the control of women. Atavistic social movements attack feminism not only as an obstacle to such control but as part of their war on modernity itself, for, like other movements for social and political rights, feminism is inescapably secular and thus part of the project of modernity, opposed to older forms of social organization in which women's needs and voices were subsumed into a communal or religious entity represented by male elders. Even in countries where the women's movement is led by female versions of tribal elders, feminism resists being swallowed up in male definitions of the class, the nation, the community; it sticks in the craw. Add to this the threat of female sexual and reproductive autonomy, then place both in the context of a volatile world situation where local males are losing power and the family has become the last bastion of unquestioned male authority and privilege, and what have you got? A world culture war, in which feminism becomes the scapegoat for every frustration and women become the focus of every contradiction.

This war takes culturally specific forms in each country, targeting poor women, because they are most vulnerable, and feminist intellectuals and organizers, because they stir up the others. Last month in the Bronx, Tabitha Walrond, a 19-year-old AfricanAmerican, was tried for homicide in the death of her infant son. She had been breast-feeding him; her milk was insufficient, and he died of malnutrition. The prosecution also charged her with second-degree manslaughter and endangering the welfare of her child by failing to get him emergency medical care when his condition became acute. But Walrond was unable to get medical care for her son; she was repeatedly denied a Medicaid ID number by a city administration that has shown an unholy eagerness to get women off the welfare rolls regardless of what will happen to them and their children. Tabitha Walrond is but one example of the way American women are caught between the drive to cut government spending and release capital from all constraint on the one hand, and backlash tendencies invoking earlier, more patriarchal forms of social organization on the other.

To nationalist, communalist and religious backlash movements, feminism, no matter how rooted in local conditions, represents the globalizing forces that are undercutting patriarchal traditions. For them, it is intrinsically foreign, a fifth column undermining their efforts at unity. This contradiction is vividly apparent in the former Yugoslavia. Relatively weak before the Yugoslav federation began to unravel, feminist groups in the various republics did their best, in the summer of 1991, to come together against war; they even attempted to stage a women's march from Zagreb to Belgrade that was supposed to "surround the generals with a wall of love" (it was stopped by Serbian troops). During the wars that ensued, when most other contacts between the former republics were broken, some feminist groups stayed in clandestine communication and developed into pacifists, helping men who were hiding from the draft and moving into the leadership vacuum left by the men's absence. Many of these activists had done advocacy for battered women before the war; they moved into work with women war victims in the belief that rape in wartime and domestic violence are part of the same continuum, enraging nationalists by refusing to focus on the ethnic motives for rape.

One of the most consistent and effective antinationalist groups in Serbia is Women in Black, who held demonstrations against Serbia's war machine every week for seven years-and every week were denounced and threatened as traitors-until the NATO bombing closed down the small amount of political space that had been available for autonomous women's activities. On their seventh anniversary, they issued a statement that read, in part: "I confess to my longtime antiwar activity.. that for the entire war I crossed the walls of Balkan ethno-states, because solidarity is the politics which interests me; that I understood democracy as support to antiwar activists/friends/sisters-Albanian women, Croat women, Roma women, stateless women; that I first challenged the murderers from the state where I live and then those from other states, because I consider this to be responsible political behavior of a citizen...that I took care of others while the patriots took care of themselves."

Women's political activism became a point of contention in Croatia last June, during a Zagreb television panel on the status of women. One of the male participants published the following post-mortem in the government paper vecernji List; his association of feminism with the foreign, and his panic at the idea of women's controlling their own sexual, reproductive and political lives, are palpable: "These women, who speak the loudest in defending women's rights in the family, present in their personal lives a model that directly opposes that of the ideal and desirable Croatian family (that is, they are married without children, are old but unmarried, etc.).... Although they oppose the laws of nature, they would like to impose laws in Parliament. Without the support they receive from abroad (in the form of promotions, money and awards from international organizations), they are quite insignificant, and only through this support do they gain some importance." EIsewhere, the successes of the women's movement are also seen only as symptoms of globalization, rather than as the result of an autonomous movement for female emancipation. Every gesture of solidarity, every offer of support from abroad, increases the danger that local feminists in such places will be called tools of the United States or the World Bank.

The situation is complicated by the fact that the World Bank does have an agenda for women: It wants them to have enough education to read instructions for birth control pills, to have enough freedom to work outside the home in export processing zones and to have enough money to feed themselves and their children. The World Bank has understood, in subSaharan Africa at least, that women keep some societies from falling apart completely, and for that reason it wishes to support their efforts at financial independence. But that does not mean it will intervene to protect them when things turn nasty. In Russia, for example, women have borne a disproportionate share of the burden of economic transition and the disappearance of social services. According to Nadia Azhgikhina of the Association for Russian Women Journalists, more than 70 percent of those fired from industrial jobs are women and only 12 percent of Russian women now have access to adequate healthcare.

While poor women and children are the largest group of victims in the global culture war, feminist writers, educators and organizers are those most deliberately targeted by atavistic social movements, because they give voice to the discontent of others and describe their misery. As president of Women's WORLD, a global network of women writers fighting gender-based censorship, I hear many such cases. Take, for instance, women writers in Kosovo. Did you assume there weren't any? This, according to Sazana Caprici, editor of the Kosovo feminist literary magazine Sfinga (Sphinx), is part of the problem: "The Yugoslav state authorities do their best to deny not only the existence of Albanian women writers, but the very possibility of the existence of such a category of Albanian women.... Among Serbs [government propaganda] has created a stereotype of the Albanian woman: an uneducated woman utterly subjected to her husband's authority.... Albanian men, on the other hand, make use of this propaganda to reinforce their control over Albanian women. Every time women try to speak up against their inferior position, they are accused of being in the service of the state, which in Kosovo is considered a foreign occupier."

In Zimbabwe, where the Mugabe government has been arresting journalists and persecuting gays and lesbians to distract from social unrest and economic crisis, the Supreme Court has just undercut all laws protecting women, in a 5-to-0 decision that cannot be appealed. The Court ruled that, following African cultural traditions, a woman should be treated as a "junior male." The government has also targeted individual feminists. Patricia McFadden, an outspoken African feminist born in Swaziland, was subjected to a 1997 deportation campaign that may well recur when her two-year visa expires this December. She had made herself unpopular not only by defending gay rights but by calling for a new, more aggressive political direction for the women's movement. As she put it in her speech to the 1998 African Women's Leadership Institute, the African women's movement is "taking over the civic responsibilities which the state should be shouldering, and we are not critically asking ourselves whether this is our agenda or it is an imposed agenda.... If we continue to separate the private from the public, our Movement will die, and we will be wrapped up in welfarism and catering for everyone else's needs, and we will never reach our political goals." Participants in the African Women's Leadership Institute made a list of terms used to describe feminists in their societies: "Lesbians, Power hungry, Emotionally deprived, Sexually frustrated, `Beijing women,' Sexually promiscuous, Unmarriageable, Against God's plan, Castrators, Westernized, Witches, Women who want to have testicles, Elite." US feminists, who have been targeted by conservatives for the last two decades, have added another term: femiNazis. Twenty years of conservative attack and media stigmatization have put us in a place where even the "official women's movement," as it was called at the UN's Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, has had to fight for its life, while more radical alternatives are virtually invisible.

Censorship of feminism has also become noticeable in education. The State University of New York's board of trustees, largely appointees of Governor George Pataki, led by Candace de Russy, has conducted a two-year witch hunt among teachers at SUNY New Paltz in the name of preserving standards and protecting the interests of taxpayers. Why? Because the women's studies program had a 1997 conference on female sexuality that ruffled a few feathers and was attacked in the Wall Street Journal. A similar right-wing campaign, spearheaded by religious groups on Long Island, resulted in a lawsuit against Nassau Community College in which the plaintiffs argued that course materials covering abortion, birth control, sexual behavior and homosexuality were intended to influence students to reject "traditional" Judeo-Christian religious attitudes toward sexuality and adopt an antireligious ethic of "sexual pluralism." This past February, however, Federal District Court Judge Nina Gershon dealt a blow to creeping theocracy in the SUNY system by dismissing the case, concluding that the course materials were designed to teach about human sexuality as an academic subject, not about religion. And at the University of Arizona, following a threat by the state legislature to cut off funding for women's studies, the administration has just polled its faculty to see how they feel about putting the warning "course content may be deemed objectionable" on some course syllabuses. The powerful grassroots Christian conservative movement regularly launches school and library censorship campaigns against any children's book that depicts an "abnormal" family (like my own Families), has characters with anti-authoritarian or irreverent attitudes, or even deals with magic, since fairy tales are seen as an introduction to New Age religion and Satanism.

If feminists are being targeted by reactionary movements all over the world, one might assume that progressives would leap to their defense. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Denunciations from the right have been too often echoed on the left, from the "defense of the family" in the mid-eighties to the attacks on affirmative action and "identity politics" now. Some US progressives today argue that the way to build a strong movement is to concentrate on electoral or economic issues and forget about the things that divide us. This strategy overlooks the fact that the fastest-growing sectors of the work force, not to mention the labor movement and poor people's movement, are full of women and minorities who do not check their identities at the door. Nor can a purely domestic approach to politics work in an era of global culture war. It is wonderful to see the labor movement start to come alive again. This reborn movement, however, will only be as strong as its ability to learn from the diversity inside its ranks and to build coalitions with the international movements for human rights (including minority and gay rights), the environment and the emancipation of women.

None of our movements will get very far unless we recognize the centrality of struggles around culture. As we can see from the former Yugoslavia, culture wars around questions such as national identity, women's roles and minority rights have a way of turning into wars of blood. The way we frame our issues now will resonate for generations. Unity in the US progressive movement-not to mention survival, and our ability to defeat the antidemocratic, atavistic forces that have tied up the federal government for the past year-depends on solidarity with all those attacked by racists, zealots and thugs, at home and abroad whether, like Tabitha Walrond and Amadou Diallo, they are targeted merely because they are poor and black, or because, like feminists the world over, they represent a threat to patriarchal control of female sexuality and productive and reproductive capacity.

More Information on Gender and Inequality

FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C íŸ 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.