What would it mean to place feminism(s)--as movement(s), politics and ethics--at the centre of our understandings of the World Social Forum? The author argues that transnational feminisms have been among the significant forces constituting the WSF, although this has been uneven across different time-spaces and scales of the WSF. She further asserts that transnational feminisms, understood as movement(s), politics and ethics, are making particular and irreducible contributions to contemporary emancipatory movements in and beyond the WSF. This study historicizes and analyzes some major expressions of transnational feminism at the WSF with implications for understanding the inter-relationality of feminisms, anti-globalization movements and the WSF and for illuminating contemporary debates over the future of feminism taking place in transnational feminist networks.
Keywords: feminism, social movements, transnational networks
In an early article about the 'anti-globalization' movement, Angela Miles (2000) observed that despite the presence of great numbers of women and feminists, feminism as a discourse was strangely muted, both in the movement and in analyses of it. A similar claim could be made about the World Social Forum (WSF). A great variety of feminist activisms are everywhere apparent at the WSF yet feminism remains distressingly marginal to the discourses and politics of and about the WSF. What would it mean to place feminism(s)--as movement(s), politics and ethics--at the centre of our understandings of the World Social Forum? How would this shift dominant discourses about both the World Social Forum and transnational feminisms, and associated understandings of the anti-globalization movement, and contribute to fuller and more complex understandings of all of these and the relations among them?
Much of the scholarship produced thus far about the WSF is insufficiently sociological and ethnographic in exploring who is populating the WSF and how, through their discourses and practices, they are making the social forum what it is. Furthermore, much of this scholarship is profoundly masculinist in simply not seeing the presence of feminists and feminisms in the forum nor addressing their meaning. For our part, feminists have been too often preoccupied with questions of gender vis-a-vis the WSF or the anti-globalization movement rather than addressing these more broadly as political phenomena in feminist terms. In this article, I seek to contribute to knowledge about the WSF through a study of feminisms in, of and against the World Social Forum, and about the contours of contemporary transnational feminist politics as they have been articulated in, around, and through the WSF.
Conceptualizing both the 'World Social Forum' and 'transnational feminisms' is fraught with difficulty as the meanings of both are plural, contested and constantly emergent, and are shifting in relation to each other. The analytical task is made more difficult here in that I contend that (1) transnational feminisms have been and remain among the significant forces constituting the WSF; (2) the degree to which this has been so is uneven across different time-spaces and scales of the WSF; (3) that transnational feminisms, understood as movement(s), politics and ethics, are making particular and irreducible contributions to contemporary emancipatory movements in and beyond the WSF; and (4) that these contributions should be made visible and claimed as feminist.
In focusing on 'transnational feminisms' at the WSF, this article will not do justice to the 'grassroots feminisms' of the host countries, nor the women's and feminist activisms in mixed movements which, in diverse expressions, are very apparent at each WSF. Localized, grassroots and popular feminisms, as well as women's groups in mixed movements, produce a plethora of small-scale, often uni-lingual, events at the WSF which can be invisible to feminists coming from outside, including those active in transnational feminist networks (Moghadam 2000). These less visible feminisms, their practices and discourse with respect to the WSF, their effects on particular social forum events and processes, and the impacts of the WSF on feminisms in specific places and movements, deserve greater attention in any study of feminism and the WSF than I can give them here.
This article is one of a series on the World Social Forum. I have been a participant-observer at each WSF since 2002, at the Americas Social Forum in Quito, and at numerous local social forums in North America, and have been involved in organizing the Toronto Social Forum. In addition to participant-observation at numerous social forum sites over five years, I have relied on interviews, email contact, and on-line reports and interviews produced by key networks on their involvements, their understandings and assessments of the WSF. There is, as yet, little academic literature in English on feminisms at the WSF but there is some in Spanish rooted in the histories of and debates over Latin American feminisms, on which I have drawn.
In this article, I begin with the challenges of conceptualizing and representing the WSF, its feminisms and the relations between them. I then survey and historicize the presence of some major feminisms at the WSF. The 2004 WSF in Mumbai and the Americas Social Forum in Quito merit special attention as historical high points in making the forum feminist. Then, drawing on a range of feminist commentary about the forum, I suggest that feminist positionalities have varied historically and that they continue to shift vis-a-vis the forum. Furthermore, feminist encounters in, over and around the WSF involve contestations among major transnational feminist networks over the character of feminism itself. Throughout, the discourses and practices of the World March of Women (WMW) are important reference points, especially in terms of feminist struggles over the shape and future of the WSF as they are playing out at the WSF's International Council. While no one feminism can represent the heterogeneity of feminisms at the WSF, the character of the WMW's presence, involvement and positioning provides a window into wider debates and dilemmas posed by the WSF, particularly among transnational feminist networks, and regularly anchors my discussion in a specific feminist practice. I conclude by returning to the analytical questions with which I began by advancing some claims arising from this study about (1) the interrelationality of feminisms, anti-globalization movements and the WSF and the implications for scholarship about all three; (2) the character of transnational feminisms/its positionalities vis-a-vis the WSF and contests over the future of feminism more broadly; (3) the significance of place and scale in studies of feminisms, anti-globalization movements and the WSF and the relations among them; and (4) feminism's particular contributions to emancipatory politics at the WSF and beyond.
The Forum and its Feminisms: Problems of Representation
The development of the World Social Forum, understood as an annual event, is central to most discussions. However, the WSF is more accurately represented as a worldwide, movement-based, multi-scale, and multi-sited cultural process that is evolving daily. The WSF is often characterized as a space of spaces, a network of networks, and a critical instantiation of the movement of movements against neoliberal globalization, but it is not itself a social movement. In this and any discussion of the WSF, it is critical to maintain a distinction between the WSF and its constituent social movements. Likewise, it is important to distinguish between the WSF and its governing and organizing bodies, the key one being its International Council (IC).
Central to the functioning of the WSF to date has been the understanding that the WSF is not a deliberative space. The WSF qua WSF does not make decisions, issue statements nor embark on common actions. No one can represent the WSF because it is not a unitary entity and its architects repudiate the notion that it should be. This position is occasionally contentious in and beyond the WSF's International Council but it has been definitive of the WSF thus far. While IC deliberations are an important pole in shaping the world-scale WSF process, the proliferation, dynamism, geographic dispersion and multiculturalism of WSF processes continually overwhelm the IC and any occasional attempts to control and or represent the WSF. In terms of this study of the character of the forum and its feminisms, it is important not to conflate the conflicts and limits apparent at the IC with the forum itself.
In 2002, at the second WSF in Porto Alegre, organizers called on participants to organize social forums in their own places, defined by their own priorities, and at whatever scale made sense to them. Hundreds of social forums have appeared world-wide on every continent inspired by the world event and organized in accordance with the WSF's Charter of Principles. Notably, important and increasingly autonomous regional processes are emerging. In 2006, the World Social Forum was 'polycentric,' meaning that the global event was dispersed over three sites: Caracas--Venezuela, Bamako--Mali, and Karachi--Pakistan. This innovation in the process is reflective both of the depth and maturity of regional processes and the arguments of many on the IC that the WSF has to be more regionally rooted in order to reflect and respond to the specificities of popular struggles underway in different parts of the world.
The annual global gathering known as the World Social Forum is a critical node in space and time for the consolidation and articulation of the process on a world scale, but the world process cannot be reduced to it. The annual event is growing exponentially and is spawning parallel forums, thematic forums, and forums within the forum. As a global process and multi-faceted phenomenon, the social forum is evolving daily. It is characterized by great ongoing creativity and dynamism and some degree of shape-shifting that presents multiple problems of representation and analysis. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly untenable to refer to the WSF, as event or process, in the singular.
Furthermore, the world event/process is significantly re-created when it is taken up by groups in different parts of the world, and this changes what follows, locally and globally, as happened with the move from Porto Alegre, Brazil to Mumbai in 2004 and to Nairobi in 2007. Likewise, when the social forum is enacted locally and regionally, it assumes specificities that flow from place and scale, the historical-geographic conjuncture in which the process/event occurs, and the discourses, practices, preoccupations and strategies of the social movements and organizations that constitute any particular iteration of the social forum. Furthermore, particular movements that make a claim on particular instantiations of the World Social Forum through the particularities of place and or scale, are also intervening in the world process, albeit unevenly. These assertions and their relevance for feminisms at the social forum will become …