Subverse Women: Women's Movements in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean; Feminist Nationalism

Article excerpt

Subverse Women: Women's Movements in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean: Feminist Nationalism.

The danger lies in ranking the oppression. The danger lies in failing to acknowledge the specificity of the oppression.

Cherrie Moraga

As a teacher who frequently employs fiction to dramatize and ironize the history of social movements in the United States, I approach the two historical texts under review mindful of examples from literature. For instance, in Toni Cade Bambara's extraordinary civil rights novel, The Salt Eaters, today's undergraduates get some sense of what it meant (during the era in which the story is set) to fight on many social fronts, to cultivate precarious alliances among agents of change, and to situate oneself in the complex politics of liberation. Throughout the novel, the reader meets characters grappling with the need for wholeness. This quest unites the interchapters or separate narratives threading through The Salt Eaters. From one character who is labeled as a "Marxist-Maoist-dialectical-historical-materialist," to another who is concerned with the "political/economic/social/cultural/aesthetic/military/psychosoci al/psychosexual mix," Toni Cade Bambara demonstrates -- somewhat whimsically -- the hardship of uniting aspects of one's commitment or consciousness. Each aspect must join another (with hyphen or slash); they may not exist apart. One's identity/ies is/are inextricable from a range of human relationships having little but conflict in common.

In attempts to meet these conflicts creatively and to globalize the cultural work of freedom, women from all over the world have gathered at such meetings as the United Nations Decade for Women (1975-1985) and its ten-year reassessment in Beijing in 1995. Emerging from those sessions have been many projects which strive to link social insight to social action, as well as to develop the role of the scholar-activist. Two such projects find their record in the volumes edited by Saskia Wieringa and Lois A. West, Subversive Women: Women's Movements in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and The Caribbean and Feminist Nationalism.

Among Wieringa's previous publications is the co-authored Women, the Environment, and Sustainable Development (Zed Books, 1994) and Women's Struggles and Strategies (Gower, 1989). Subversive Women was conceived during the 1975 conference on the Decade for Women, and was carried out by fieldwork teams coordinated by the Hague's Institute of Social Studies (ISS), where Wieringa is a lecturer on women and development. The ISS is a multi-disciplinary center for postgraduate teaching and research, offering degrees in Women and Development, as well as Alternative Development Strategies. Wieringa's collection of essays, consisting of twelve chapters and an introduction, was ten years in the making. Contributors to the book examine women's movements, both historical and contemporary, in Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Somalia, Western Sumatra, India, and the Sudan. A clear emphasis within this volume is on the debates surrounding a social science informed by feminism -- its methodologies, its theories, and its praxis. As Wieringa attests, "It is important that feminist scholars create among themselves new forms of discourse which will lead to a collective knowledge" about the history and prospects of women's movements. (46)

Given this charge, perhaps the most striking contribution to Subversive Women is, "Methods and Power: Epistemological and Methodological Aspects of a Feminist Research Project," the chapter in which Wieringa offers a commentary on the dilemmas surrounding the book's basis in a collaborative fieldwork project. With candor and some self-consciousness, she describes the theoretical and practical differences among participants, whom she divides -- for the purposes of discussion -- into feminist Marxists, feminist post-modernists, feminist activists, and feminist empiricists. The chapter does not attempt to reify or to resolve these differences, but rather to offer a demonstration of the ways in which women must arrive at negotiated understandings if they are to work together to bring about change in the lived world. …