Illuminating Global Feminism
The teachings of Shireen Hassim
Shireen Hassim is a professor of political studies who has published many works that aim to theorize and articulate the observed relationship between women, feminism, and political parties within Africa. Focusing primarily in South Africa, Hassim has done exceptional work attempting to increase the quality of education for South African women and increase the global knowledge of South African politics and women’s movements. In her scholarship, with publications such as Violent Modernity: Gender, Race and Bodies in Contemporary South African Politics and Women’s Organizations and Democracy in South Africa: Contesting Authority, Hassim works to communicate and analyze the intersections of nationalism, national liberation movements, and the politics of race and gender. In particular, Hassim outlines and discusses the different political movements that strived for different forms of liberation and how the social context influences these manifestations of political movements — whether it is the influence of nationalism or socialism or any other political variant.
As political activism goes, Hassim has done a great deal to illuminate feminism globally despite these dark times, a phrase thought to have originated in a Bertolt Brecht poem — with the famous line “Truly, I live in dark times! An artless world is foolish.” The phrase ‘dark times’ can be understood through the lens of the public versus the private. With the public, the focus is on shared values or experiences; Siobhan Kattago, an associate professor of Political Philosophy at Tallin University, explains that this is precisely what we are seeing diminished in the present socio-political moment: “Darkness refers to a lack of the public sphere and a shrinking of the world that people share in common.” In dark times, information that is honest in nature, that works to achieve a dialectic manner of communication and a materialist analysis, is considered scarce. The ability to communicate globally is chipped away by propaganda and fear. Despite the advent of newer and faster ways to communicate – or perhaps because of it — it appears that the political sphere can become like an echo chamber full of words that seem to carry no weight, especially when the implications of the word differs from context to context. Hassim’s writing succeeds at transcending this difficulty. As time progresses, Hassim builds progressively on each of her previous works, thus avoiding the polarizing habit of some political analysis and instead moving toward a whole and coherent analysis of globalized feminism. She clearly highlights that nationalism and feminism do not necessarily oppose each other and cannot be viewed through an oppositional lens without losing crucial aspects that each movement has given the other, a point that is not understood by all feminist movements.
Hassim doesn’t shy away from plainly stating the differences in the women’s movements from socialist and marxist to nationalist. Instead she describes how all of these movements existing at once have created a very specific world of feminism together through their debate rather than separately from each other. In her 2004 publication titled Voices, Hierarchies and Spaces: Reconfiguring the Women’s Movement in Democratic South Africa, Hassim makes this interdependence plain: “attempts to disaggregate gender identity are almost futile, as the cultural meanings of ‘woman’ shift in relation to the numerous other markers of identity and in different contexts.” She continues, “Gender is simultaneously everywhere, in that gender differences are inscribed in practically all human relationships as well as in the ordering of the social, political and economic structures of all societies, and nowhere, in that it is difficult to apprehend as an independent variable.” Throughout her work, Hassim illuminates something that becomes difficult to understand globally: the idea that feminism or other identity-based movements for liberation differ from place to place and that the feminists of one nation, or one country, can differ greatly in language and goals but this does not negate the need for global feminist unity. Instead, this promotes and exercises the need for communication-based support.
In the face of nationalism, we have to focus not on what we presume nationalism to mean but instead on the different factors that motivate its appearance on the global stage. Nationalism in one place is not necessarily the same as nationalism in another — the power dynamics within capitalist foreign relations create different forms of nationalism. The nationalism seen in the U.S., for example, does not have the same connotation or weight that nationalism in countries under imperial threat or nationalism in countries where the shared culture is at risk. Hassim writes:
[postcolonial scholars] have argued feminism and the ideological content of feminist consciousness, should not be specified a priori according to the abstract definitions of universalist theory, but should be defined in the context of particular social formations, and should have resonance in the historical experience and political culture of specific societies.
This quote brings to mind certain Western feminists of color such as bell hooks, who often writes about the role of men within feminism and the need for expansion in thought, the need to focus on root of issues as opposed to their immediate effects. She often criticizes other feminists from America and other Western countries for treating feminism as a monolith that adheres to no political compass but is instead an identity that all women can choose. In her essay “Global Feminism” from her collection Feminism Is For Everybody, hooks writes
problems arose as those individual feminists with class power projected imperialist fantasies onto women globally, the major fantasy being that women in the United States have more rights than any group of women globally, are “free” if they want to be, and therefore have the right to lead feminist movement and set feminist agendas for all the other women in the world, particularly women in third world countries.
Clearly, hooks shares a critical view of Western feminism and its habit of utilizing imperial standing to ignore the true landscape of feminist struggles globally. She paints a thorough picture of the effect that social context and varying identities can have on the demands of feminist activism and its cause. As feminism has progressed throughout the decades, the divisions in feminist thought have derived from the intersections of class, race, and other things such as nationality. The feminist scholars who have written careful analyses of the different intersections and how they ultimately affect the feminist movements are the feminist thinkers who have illuminated feminism in a way that will actually make it possible for a global feminist unity to occur. They bridge the gap from group to group, making pathways through which we can communicate and understand the separate manifestations of feminist thought and action to ultimately support and assist each other.
Within dark times the work of academia can seem almost futile. It becomes almost a habit to separate, not to reach out, to further divide and fold within oneself, like an armadillo in need of protection. Many radical movements and the radical work of fighting identity-based systemic oppression are seen as divisive efforts that deflect from the the greater good and the ultimate goal but the work of scholars like Hassim stands against against these ideas — these habits of dark times. Despite writing specifically about South African nationality and its relation to its feminist movements, her work also illuminates the ways in which other nationalist movements manifest outside of an imperial core. Hassim illuminates for her readers, her students, and other feminist scholars the intersectional nature of every feminist movement and the need for communication and understanding among them — creating a bridge between the feminist thinkers around the globe in their struggle for liberation. When considering Hannah Arendt’s concept of the public and the private, it is clear that Hassim illuminates the public sphere by creating these bridges and opening up space for more women’s liberation movements in need of unity and support, a global illumination. She takes feminism away from the individual by highlighting that it is not just the experiences of one single woman but is instead the experiences of women from many different contexts, in all their specific differences, that furthers the development of feminist thought. Hers is an analysis that can be utilized or referenced when attempting to understand other feminist movements and the extraordinary variance between them and most importantly, why they have developed as they have. As a feminist scholar and educator, Shireen Hassim’s work provides light in a time of darkness by opening up pathways for unity and understanding, for critical analysis and human compassion.