NWSA: Getting a Global Perspective; Nawal El Saadawi; Keynote Speaker
NWSA: Getting a Global Perspective; Nawal El Saadawi; Keynote Speaker
The opening session of the 1994 National Women’s Studies Conference in Ames, Iowa, featured the Egyptian doctor, novelist and activist Nawal El Saadawi. She gave the keynote address entitled “Thinking and Acting: The Challenge of Global Feminism.”
Pay No Attention to Those Transnational Corporations Behind the Curtain
She began by discussing what she means by global feminism. She believes that we need international solidarity on feminist issues, a solidarity that extends beyond color, race, class and gender lines. She cited the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (which she founded and of which she was the president until it was closed down by the Egyptian government in 1991) which has 30% male participation. She believes achieving solidarity across gender lines is important. She spoke of grassroots organizations as crucial in countering the burgeoning international “patriarchal capitalistic military system.” She mentioned the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), and the United Nations as organized efforts to come together from above to oppress and colonize third world peoples. She sees power increasingly coalescing across national lines.
As the fight against oppression is changing from national to international arenas, the oppressed peoples of each country cannot fight alone. There is increasing organization among international market, military and other forces. Transnational powers hide behind language such as “free market” and “democracy” to oppress and exploit. El Saadawi sees the need for people to organize globally from below and work toward the solidarity of oppressed groups in order to counter the global organization taking place from above.
She noted that increases in development projects in countries often correlate with increased poverty for women, increased religious fundamentalist movements and increased oppression.
She emphasized that women’s issues are always political issues, and talked about the trouble she encountered when she had tried to speak out about the Gulf War as a women’s issue. She also talked about the United Nations conferences in Nairobi and Copenhagen and the objections many people raised at those conferences because they felt women’s groups were trying to politicize women’s issues. But she said the women’s issues are inherently political and economic. Gender and economic oppression cannot be separated.
Veiling, Make-up and Nudity (Pay No Attention to those Women Behind the Curtain)
El Saadawi related an interesting story revealing how Western women sometimes fail to see connections between their own oppressions and oppression of women in other countries. After giving a talk in France, a woman with heavy make-up (so heavy El Saadawi could not in fact see her real skin) remarked how terrible it was that women in some Islamic countries are either forced to or choose to wear veils to cover their faces. El Saadawi pointed out how the Western custom of facial make-up for women is another facet of covering and masking women. The French woman, rather than seeing the connections between her submission to the Western beauty myth and the experience of veiled women, believed she was different and further along the path of women’s liberation.
El Saadawi pointed out that veiling of Islamic women and the excessive nakedness of Western women are simply two sides of the same coin, with the currency being women’s bodies. She stated that women are equated with their bodies and, whether by postmodern capitalists or religious fundamentalists, the motivation for both is the domination and exploitation of women’s bodies for patriarchy.
Her view on female genital mutilation is that, like veiling and monogamy, it is a part of the control of women’s sexuality which is a cornerstone of patriarchy. Under patriarchy, the rule of the father, the only way for men to be certain of their fatherhood is to control women’s sexuality. So under patriarchy, women’s sexuality is necessarily diminished. El Saadawi is also against male circumcision, saying that no part of the human body should be excised.
Reconnecting Artificial Separations
She attributed much of her trouble as a doctor in Egypt (her magazine was shut down, her health education association was closed by Sadat, and she even spent time in jail) came out of her attempts to link health issues to economics and politics. Rather than simply treating people after they became ill, she began to address the real causes of illness and poor health in Egypt, such as lack of access to clean water, health education, poverty, etc. These issues arise more from economic and political systems than from strictly public health problems. El Saadawi believes it is important to try to undo such artificial separations between many areas of life, so that, for example, public health can be seen as inextricably related to politics which is in turn related to economics.
Global Flow of Wealth
She next addressed the United Nations’ emphasis on population control as a way of trying to eradicate the poor rather than poverty. She explained that much of the cause of poverty nationally and internationally is the uneven distribution of wealth. She explained that there is a huge flow of raw materials from the third world to the first world, and only a small fraction of this wealth goes back to the third world in the guise of “aid” or loans on which they must pay interest. Thus third world countries are the “original donors” of such aid. Wealth created in the first world really originates in the raw materials exported from the third world. Third world countries increasingly “produce what we do not eat and do not produce what we eat.” So it becomes impossible for self-sufficiency and they increasingly serve as sources of raw materials for the first world. Development projects further this process.
Pay No Attention to those Immigrants Behind our Standard of Living
In the face of the problems of widespread global poverty, fundamentalists and populationists blame women for the world’s problems. (Sounds eerily like the attack on welfare mothers as the cause of poverty in the country.) This is also an issue in increasing anti-immigration policies. As worldwide poverty becomes more acute, large numbers of people attempt to migrate to other areas. But rather than address the causes of poverty itself, people try instead to outlaw immigrants. She notes that this will be an increasing problem as the transfer of resources and wealth continues from the third world to the first world.
Global Fundamentalist Backlash
She spoke of the global fundamentalist backlash against women, and described how it is embodied in political and economic attacks against women, blacks, the poor, Asians and Latin Americans. She stressed that the main operation is economic, but that fundamentalists and others in power use religion and God to justify injustices. She cited the example of the Gulf War as a war (like all wars) which was fought primarily for economic reasons but for which all kinds of moral justifications were made, using words like “human rights,” and “religion.” She mentioned fundamentalist backlashes in countries such as India and Sri Lanka, and, in addition to the more well known Christian and Muslim fundamentalists, Hindus, Sikhs, and Orthodox Jews are also participating in backlash movements.
She cited reasons that people join fundamentalists as a loss of hope and frustration with economic conditions such as widespread unemployment. She feels that fundamentalist backlash movements are in part a protest movement, but that rather than being a move away from oppression, the leaders of fundamentalist movements collaborate with the big powers. She cited the case of Egypt where Sadat encouraged fundamentalists, both Christian and Muslim, because they diminished the power of the socialists. But she warned that such tactics often backfire and mentioned how the United States had encouraged Egyptians and Saudis to fight against Russia in Afghanistan, but that these same fundamentalist fighters ended up spawning the group that bombed the World Trade Center in New York.
Under such fundamentalist regimes, women suffer the most — they are always very anti-woman. They tend to use the most reactionary part of their respective religions to oppress women.
Bashing the Backlash
El Saadawi concluded by saying that we face two challenges: internal powers and fanatic religious groups. To successfully counter these powers we must fight together and work together. We must network with women from all over the globe. We need globalization from below to fight the globalization from above. The enemy is changing all the time and is flexible. Most of all we need to unveil our minds, the most dangerous veil. She noted how the use of cassette tapes was crucial to the Iranian overthrow of the shah, and that perhaps circulation of tapes of our own issues might be helpful.
She also stressed that the upcoming United Nations Conference in Beijing (September 1995) will be an important opportunity to challenge the United Nations. She stated that the United Nations is working against people, that they use women, talking and writing about women, but that no action on behalf of women is actually taken. Women should challenge their governments’ representation in the United Nations on these issues. Women need to address backlash and continue networking and organizing to become powerful. We should attract women locally, nationally and internationally.
Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Aug 1994
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