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Would you call yourself a feminist?

On her return from a summer school on Re-activating gender sensitive research on land: land commodification, land tenure and gender in Ghana, this is the question upon which Karol Balfe reflects.


4 March 2016 - Sitting in the muggy, humidity of Cape Coast, Ghana seems as good a place as any to think about this question. Indeed this was one of the first questions 30 PhD scholars at the Summer School  in Africa were asked to consider.

The students, coming from mainly African universities and a smaller number of European students, had gathered in Ghana to spend eight days exploring key themes such as feminist research methodologies, land policy, customary rights and the role of the state in land reform.

Christian Aid Ireland was invited to offer a civil society perspective on resistance to the commodification of land, following our recent set of publications Land Matters: Dispossession and Resistance.

The organisers had a simple yet inspired idea: they wanted to bring together land specialists with gender specialists and see how they could influence each other’s research.

Too often reports, reforms and actions on land fail to address the simple fact that women depend on land in ways that are often under appreciated. Land matters if you are a woman living in poverty in a developing country.

It shapes your livelihood, where and how you feed yourself and your family, it’s often connected to identity and culture.

For a woman, it can be the deciding factor in the quality of your life. On one hand it can be a resource, on the other hand it can be a source of insecurity, taken away when a partner dies, when inheritance laws grossly undermine women’s rights in many countries.

Likewise for those working on gender there is often a failure to appreciate how important land is for women’s rights in many developing countries. Land is central to addressing gender inequalities. The control of land as a resource determines both livelihoods and social and economic power.

Feminist research

Throughout the first week of the Summer School we heard about how funding for research using a feminist lens is on the decline as there is now added pressure to demonstrate the ‘market value’ of research studies. Therefore feminist scholars argue that creating spaces for feminist research is key.

Also key is clear sets of feminist research ethics in order to ensure that how you do research (your methodology and means) is aligned with your goals (transformative change). Many argue that feminist research is therefore informed by solidarity.

So if, for example, you are researching the effects of dispossession from land on the poor, the goal would be to capture the experience of the most marginalised or impacted.

Such an approach says that feminist research can ever be truly objective or should be. Ultimately many believe research should be informed by a model of solidarity- supporting the struggles of those researched while reflective of the researcher’s own position and status.

Some caution was given about the emphasis in development to ‘add women and stir’.  The approach of ‘Women in Development’ has been particularly criticised in this regard. Connected to this is the dominant model of neoliberal economics in perpetrating inequality - just integrating women into an already unequal system has not led to necessary transformation.

Access to an unequal system alone does not address women’s access to key sights of power– like the state, labour, public participation.

There were many excellent inputs on the theoretical approach of looking at inequality and discrimination through a focus on intersectionality.

Simply put, this is recognising the different ways an individual or group of people experience unequal power dynamics, inequality or discrimination.

Any one woman will not operate the same status at different times - a woman will experience power differently as a mother-in-law, a wife, a worker. In occupying those statues she may be of a particular class, ethnicity, status - intersectionality draws attention to this. Intersectionality means different things in different contexts.

Originating from the work of African American feminists in North America, the notion challenges us to not approach the issue of gender equality with an analysis that reduces women down to the simple category of being a ‘woman living in poverty’. 

Starting from a place that says the key things we need to consider is how development or power is experienced differently by men and women is flawed in the views of those introducing intersectionality.

It starts with our assumption of what the problem is, rather than starting with where or how people experience discrimination or inequality. It may be because they are a women, it equally could be because of her ethnicity or sexual orientation.

There are always going to be many complex categories that explain people’s lives – we shouldn’t assume we understand the inequality they experience in any different context or over any given issue.

So back to the key question of the day:

Would you call yourself a feminist?

Charmaine Pereira (a writer and feminist scholar in Abuja, Nigeria) in her session highlighted why some people struggle with this term.

People tend to use the term as if it means the same thing everywhere and as if we all know what it means.

Charmaine highlights how in Africa, there are often assumptions that radical feminism is a Western concept, ill-suited to many cultures.

However, in reality, many contexts from the global south have written and driven feminist national struggles.

What is feminism to her?

It is a recognition that men and women are not homogenous groups and that the continued subordination and marginalisation of women is unjust and should be changed.

It challenges what is taken for granted and what is accepted as normal (whether culture or religion) in any society.

It is not simply a set of ideas but aims to change relations between men and women in the direction of greater social justice so that all have a greater chance of fulfilling their human potential.

In this way feminism is an idea but also a political practice - it’s about understanding the power dynamics and seeking to change them.

Seems to me compelling reasons to call yourself a feminist.

 About the author

Karol Balfe

Karol Balfe is our Adviser on Governance, Peace Building and Human Rights

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