Learning and unlearning: Reflections from SuPWR country leads

Bangladesh, India, Nepal

Across the world, women’s movements are increasingly facing intense backlash, including violence and delegitimization. This backlash is simultaneously episodic and continuous and seeks to undermine the gains women’s movements have accrued over decades of working towards transformative change.

The SuPWR team continues to engage with and learn from women’s struggles in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan to understand the ways in which they experience backlash, how they make sense of power, and the strategies they employ to sustain gains and contest backlash in their fight for a gender-just world.

In the lead-up to International Women’s Day, SuPWR Researcher Samreen Mushtaq spoke with Maheen Sultan (SuPWR Bangladesh Country Lead), Mona Sherpa (SuPWR Nepal Country Lead) and Mubashira Zaidi (SuPWR India Country Lead) to hear their reflections on what they have learned (and unlearned) from the research so far.

As women’s movements face increasing backlash, what do you think is an example of a major shift in feminist organising that is a result of or response to this backlash?

Maheen: It is difficult to point to one major shift in Bangladesh. Firstly, we have observed that international networking and alliances have increased, for example on women’s sexual and reproductive rights. Diverse stances, that could not be voiced nationally, are enabled in the international fora and as part of these alliances. There is hope that activism at the international and regional levels will have an influence on national governments’ policies and programmes. Secondly, online activism and networking have become significant, with COVID-19 also opening up this space, but it is used with safeguards as the digital space is also a site of backlash. Thirdly, there is more attention to inter-movement alliances (e.g. the women’s movement engaging with the workers’ rights movement, the climate justice movement, etc.), and a growing realisation that women’s movements must engage with the civil rights movements to preserve democratic rights and spaces. While these strategies are not new, they may have gained in importance to cope with backlash being faced.

Mona: The context of fluid and shifting backlash amid a changing socio-political landscape has necessitated tactical responses. Movement actors have taken refuge in diverse strategies, including turning into non-governmental bodies, the impact of which is evident in women’s movements in South Asia, including in Nepal. During the first election after the promulgation of a new constitution in Nepal, several women’s movement actors took part in the election process opting for different positions to influence systemic changes. While sustained efforts for policy implementation were undertaken, it also resulted in co-optation. However, building a caucus within the parliament for women’s rights issues across party lines, the movement backstopping with required evidence and experiences from the ground, and allies within academia and development sector, resulted in collaborative efforts towards some historical provisions in Nepal. Building alliances with political parties and getting into the political realm not only brought diverse women into leadership positions and opened possibilities to effect systemic change, but also enabled the movement to engage with structural causes of different intersectional agendas, with some repercussions. For instance, enumerating the landless informal settlers for rights redressal, designating local resources to deal with the issues of child marriage, architect mechanisms to ensure justice on the issues of different forms of violence, etc.

Mubashira: Backlash against women’s movements is taking the form of limited access to funds amid crackdown on dissent with increased threats of violence. This has pushed foundational intra-group discussions on movement sustainability and consolidation of existing resources. There are instances of increasing efforts towards a collaborative approach with the state in order to seek funding or inviting state representatives to programmatic activities to gain buy-in or build trusted relationships. With restrictions on foreign funding to non-profit activities, focus is shifting towards mobilizing local funds while being cautious about not de-politicizing movement activities, which comes with local funding agendas and increased state surveillance.

One of the movements we are engaging with as part of SuPWR in India has considered allowing its members to contest local government elections by joining mainstream political parties, realizing the impossibility of winning as independent candidates without money and muscle power. However, they are ensuring that members commit to taking the feminist agenda forward. Furthermore, more attention is being paid to increasing the membership base of the movement, focusing on inclusivity, strengthening the present leadership of women with a greater focus on enabling younger and new leadership for sustaining the movement, while also evolving strategies for safety and security.

Samreen: It is interesting to see this strategizing and re-strategizing on a spectrum, ranging from increasing collaboration with the state to fierce contestations in some contexts, to greater alliance building with other movements and a deeper focus on intersectional issues.

We have all been learning (and unlearning) on multiple levels from our work with these movements. What is a key takeaway for you?

Maheen: I have three key takeaways. Firstly, I have become more conscious of inter-generational tensions and attempts to build solidarities. Despite being in awe of the older feminist leaders, the younger generation feels disappointed due to the lack of recognition and credit for initiatives they undertake. The older generations value the engagement of younger activists but find their ways of organising as intense but short-term. Secondly, I now keenly observe and understand the mental and emotional costs of being part of a struggle and the toll it takes on people’s health. Despite forms of intra-movement resilience and support, there are also cases of individuals dropping out due to mental strain and burnout. Thirdly, there are continuities and breaks in terms of the issues movements prioritise at any given time due to socio-political crises, conflicting priorities and resources constraints (especially human resources), even as the ‘ownership’ of the issues remains.

Mona: One of my key takeaways has been understanding that structural issues need to be dealt with not just in a reactionary manner, but strategically with proactive planning, the right understanding, skills, and effort. Building alliances with likeminded movements is key to establishing alternative avenues to face existing powerholders and hold oppressive structures to account. The way the broader women’s movement works needs to change, as rallies alone will not result in the fundamental changes that the women’s movement is vying for. To make such alliances possible, we urgently need a clear vision to understand and integrate the intersectional agendas within the movement and to encompass it in the larger demands, with innovative tactics. This can bring new energy to the women’s movement for collectivised and concrete action. Being mindful and ‘rightful’ is essential to build the collectivised forces, and thus while tackling the backlashes from various ends, cathartically reflecting on the successes and losses within the movement vis-a-vis strategies is essential as well.

Mubashira: A key takeaway is the recognition that sustainable progress necessitates a multi-dimensional approach. Women’s movements go beyond singular issues, addressing survival concerns and simultaneously challenging ingrained gender norms. The journey involves navigating complexities, from securing basic needs (such as food security, income, or health), to reshaping perceptions and advocating for broader freedoms (such as women’s active participation in decision making, framing strategies across institutional spaces of the household, community, state and market). I have learnt that trust-building with communities takes persistent and long-terms efforts, often beginning with addressing the survival and acute poverty issues and gradually linking with societal power structures. This holistic, nuanced strategy is crucial for fostering enduring change in the diverse fabric of women’s lives. Another key learning is that the persistent manner by which the movement activities are carried out despite challenges and backlash can be extremely depleting for the movement actors. Despite being motivated by desire for change, these changes can be painstakingly slow, iterative, and not always visible (sometimes not even in the lifetime of the movement actors). Hence, the growing realisation to pay greater attention to the care and well-being needs of movement participants, including their safety and security!

Samreen: Absolutely! Burnout, especially in the present times, is a reality across many of the struggles. But we are also seeing greater attention to care within the movements and how it forms a crucial component of strategizing in the face of backlash and as struggles invest in building solidarities.

Reflecting on conversations around strategies, what do you think is one way to strengthen alliances and build solidarities with/within diverse movements?

Maheen: There appears a tendency in various organisations to be focused on their own activities and programmes with less knowledge of and attention to others’ work. There is also a feeling of competitiveness between organisations working for a common cause in terms of who gets more publicity or credit. This is a key challenge to building solidarities. Even as personal relations and friendships unite activists across organisations and platforms, they are not always enough to bridge organisational divides. In terms of the external environment, there is a tendency to look down on women’s rights activists and organisations as not having the technical skills or experience to contribute meaningfully to other movements (e.g. the environment, labour rights, democratic movements). While some of the women leaders have gained credibility, the women’s movement as a whole does not seem to have this acceptability. I feel the lack of space and time, as well as ongoing crises, have affected the ability of organisations within a broader movement as well as actors of different movements to come together, reflect on challenges and the best ways to work together, which is essential. Sustainable partnerships necessitate respect for each other’s work and for equality in collaborations.

Mona: In order to bring energies together and gain momentum for various causes, it is important that the women’s movement is engaging with emerging spaces, including digital platforms, and sites of allyship, as well as being critically aware of the changing course of backlash, co-optation and increasing stigmatisation. It is crucial to have consistent engagement with and acceptance of new and young leadership within the movement. It is also essential to create spaces to reflect, unpack, unlearn and relearn, and to recuperate from the physical, mental and emotional fatigue of being part of the movement for long-term change. Creating spaces for the struggles to establish networks of allyship for collective power and action (e.g. the farmers’ movement, the domestic workers’ movement) and sharing of knowledge, skills and spaces is also needed. The women’s movement needs to be tactical; although issue-based demands are addressed to some extent, it is important to keep long-term causes for transformative structures in sight, especially in a context of shrinking civic space. Often, women’s issues are depoliticised by projecting them as developmental issues alone. It is, therefore, important to strengthen conceptual clarity, political willingness and solidarity action across generations, intersectional agendas, and social movements.

Mubashira: In my view, active participation in inclusive discursive spaces, fostering cross-movement dialogue, sharing women’s lived experiences, and movement stories are pivotal for cultivating alliances and solidarities. Each of the four movements we are collaborating with in India as part of the SuPWR project emphasise the importance of formal and informal discursive spaces within their movement to address challenges, celebrate gains, share individual stories, strategize, and resolve issues. Similarly, the participation of the women’s struggles in the SuPWR project’s reflective workshops enabled cross learning and reflection on shifts and changes in the strategies of the movements in response to the socio-economic shifts in their context. The second reflective workshop, that took place in Nepal, brought together different women’s movements from across South Asia to share experiences and learning. This not only built excitement but also solidarities between the movements belonging to a country, as well as with women’s movements from other South Asian countries participating in the workshop. Engaging in such reflective workshops can facilitate mutual learning, strategy refinement, and the formation of stronger bonds among diverse movements. Such opportunities within and across the movements are necessary to continue building and strengthening alliances, especially in a polarizing world.

Samreen: Thank you all for your insights and critical reflections on this work. We view this conversation as ongoing. As we continue to witness unimaginable violence and backlash in South Asia and beyond, the task of building transnational, de-colonial and anti-colonial feminist solidarities has never been more urgent.