Social Movements, Feminist Movements and the State: A Regional Perspective

By Abeysekera, Sunila | Women in Action, August 2004 | Go to article overview

Social Movements, Feminist Movements and the State: A Regional Perspective


Abeysekera, Sunila, Women in Action


Introduction

The task of defining a regional perspective on such wide-ranging matters as social movements, feminist movements and the State is challenging. First, it is necessary to address the diversity of South Asia, as well as the specificities of the social movements in the region. At the same time, it is also imperative to address the issue of 'the State,' particularly the complexities of the contemporary post-colonial State in South Asia, with the understanding that the concept itself is constantly being refashioned by political and social scientists, and by activists and practitioners, in the face of the contemporary processes of social transformation.

Social movements are processes of constant change and transformation. Despite their ever-changing nature, they have enabled the development of wide-ranging alliances that have led to tremendous social, political and economic change. Through women's movements, women have built alliances and coalitions across the divides of class, race, language, ethnicity and other diverse identities, and have engaged in collective action that has changed policies and decision-making structures. A critical part of this activism has addressed the subordination of women. Understanding the experience--both action and analysis--that makes this type of collaborative work among women possible, therefore, is critical to developing women's participation in political processes.

Social movements are generally described as conscious, collective activities to promote social change, representing a protest against the established power structure and dominant norms and values. A main resource of such movements is the commitment and active--often, unpaid--participation of its members or activists. Referring to the phenomenon that some academics and activists now call the 'new social movements,' Alberto Melucci calls attention to the 'invisibility' of those networks that help develop a sense of common interest, and facilitate collaborative work and collective action (Keane and Mier, 1989). According to him, contemporary social movements are no longer guided by the sense that they are completing a universal plan. Their agenda is not shaped by long-term or fixed goals, and the mobilisation they undertake is rooted in specific times and places. Thus, he refers to the actors in these movements as 'nomads,' dwelling entirely in the present. Leslie J. Calman claims that such movements are more easily able to embrace a diversity of ideological beliefs and choice of tactics because they do not adhere to one single, strict ideology, or demand that participants do the same (Calman, 1989). Melucci expands on the new social movements by identifying four key features that characterise them: treating information (both factual information and symbolic resources) as a resource; acting in the present; accepting the journey (the process) to be as important as the destination (the result); and striving for a complementarity between private life and public commitment.

Using these insights to describe and analyse women's movements in South Asia in the late 1990s could, therefore, provide us with some understanding of the processes that shape women's activism, as we move into a new century and a new millennium.

Feminist movements, or groups of women mobilising for change, have been constant, yet ever-changing, features of modern history. Actions organised by feminist movements in the early part of the century were focused at the national or regional level. By the second half of the 20th century, these movements had gathered force to become a global phenomenon. While differences in approach and analysis had to be accounted for, nevertheless, women across the globe succeeded in building networks on critical issues and in drawing public attention, at the international level, to their demands. Most of this activity has been based on a shared understanding of the need to make real changes in the situation of women. …

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