BGL: Your work focuses a lot on how feminism has been appropriated by neo-liberal agendas and in particular how the concept of “women’s agency” has been used to fit these agendas within a neoliberal framework of development. Can you elaborate more on that?

KW: One of the things I am very interested in is the tremendous capacity which neoliberal discourses have to incorporate critical ideas, and transform them in the process into something compatible with neoliberal global capitalism. I think this is what has happened with some key feminist concepts. One of the very important ideas coming out from different strands of feminism has been the importance of recognizing women’s agency. But if we look at the way the ‘agency’ of women in the global South is increasingly emphasized within development interventions, by international NGOs, or institutions like the World Bank or DfID, it is used as a way of ignoring the effects of continuing structures of oppression and exploitation, implying that as long as women are exercising agency, we do not need to consider these structures, because women are making choices –even when in reality these are impossible choices – choosing survival. And secondly, in these contexts ‘agency’ has come to mean something very specific and limited. It refers to women’s assumed entrepreneurial potential – their ability to ‘succeed’ in the market, within the very limited parameters which the neoliberal model allows – we can see this for example in Nike’s ‘Girl Effect’ campaign or in a lot of the publicity around microfinance. And ironically, this approach to development – which the World Bank calls ‘Gender Equality as Smart Economics’ – depends on highly gendered ideas that adolescent girls and women will inevitably be more altruistic, more responsible, more hardworking than men, without questioning the whole array of ideological and material structures which tend to compel women to behave in particular ways. And without questioning the exploitation involved in an approach which assumes that women’s capacity to work is infinitely elastic. Meanwhile, it completely ignores and marginalizes women’s collective agency in transformative struggles which are challenging and resisting the ravages of neoliberal capitalism.

BGL: You have talked about the narrative change we are witnessing now – by large thanks to post-colonial feminists – of lesser and lesser portraying “Third World women” as an entity of passive victims, but as empowered “superwomen”. In the UK Feminista Summer School you asked: Is this really feminist? Can you tell us a bit more about that?

KW: Well of course there are many different strands of feminism, but what I was trying to do was make people at the Summer School question some of the representations which they were encountering which appeared to be ‘positive images’. The contribution of postcolonial feminists like Chandra Mohanty, – as well as of Black and Third world feminist activists in movements from the 1970s onwards – in challenging representations of ‘Third World Women’ as a homogenous category of passive victims is immeasurable. It is a battle which is far from over – we only need to look at the way women in Afghanistan – or Muslim women in Britain – are portrayed in dominant discourses to see this. But what has happened is that at the same time a new set of images has developed in which women are portrayed as dynamic, contented productive workers who never get tired – we see this particularly in the images promoted by Oxfam and the other big development NGOs. What is especially interesting is that these images are very close to many of the images produced in the colonial period – for example in advertisements for the tea produced on British owned plantations in India and Sri Lanka which showed women workers. There is also the same underlying implication that all is well within an imperialist global order. And like the representations of ‘Third World women’ as passive victims, these are highly racialised representations – this is something I look at in more detail in my recent work on Race, Racism and Development http://zedbooks.co.uk/node/16345.

BGL: Can you mention some feminist initiatives or movements that you believe are
resisting neo-liberal agendas?

KW: I wouldn’t want to list specific movements and in any case there are so many across the world in different contexts – right here in Britain there are for example the movements against detention and sexual abuse of refugee women, struggles of women workers against neoliberal casualisation and racism like Justice for Cleaners, the resistance to the massive cuts in resources to combat domestic violence – particularly for women of colour, as well as to the intensification of criminalization and surveillance which accompanies this, and many other interlinked movements. And feminist perspectives are essential to an understanding of contemporary imperialism – for example to understanding Israel’s war on the Palestinian people, and these perspectives are being voiced within anti-imperialist movements in many different contexts. Apart from Britain I am most familiar with feminist movements in India, where feminists are currently involved in movements against corporates grabbing land and using rape and violence against women to try and crush resistance in which women have been at the forefront, against the patriarchal fascist Hindu right which currently controls the national government and is completely committed to neoliberal policies, alongside moral policing of women and targeting of religious minority for horrific violence, against the militarization of Kashmir and the Northeast of India and the war being waged on women there…. For a more detailed discussion of some of these issues please see this interview with Indian feminist and left activist Kavita Krishnan http://freedomwithoutfearplatformuk.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/indias-anti-rape-movement-experiences.html

BGL: What is transnational feminist solidarity for you?

KW: For me the starting point for transnational feminist solidarity has to be where you are. It cannot be about offering ‘help’ to people ‘suffering out there’, it has to be about first engaging in your own struggles and then finding common ground, identifying overarching structures, while at the time recognizing differences and also acknowledging inequalities of power and privilege. I think this is something Chandra Mohanty expressed very well in her 2003 article ‘Under Western Eyes Revisited – Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalist Struggles’ where she calls for a ‘race-and-gender-conscious historical materialism’. I am currently involved in the Freedom Without Fear Platform which initially began with a number of black and ‘minority ethnic’ women’s organizations and individuals coming together in solidarity with the massive anti-rape movement which took place in India last year. We wanted to make the voices of activists directly involved in the movement heard here, and at the same time counter the racist, imperialist discourse which pervaded the media coverage of the movement in Britain – which was basically saying that Indian men or South Asian men were inherently and exceptionally violent – by making the connections with movements against gender violence against here and elsewhere. Since then we have been involved in organizing a number of campaigns, protests and public events – most recently we held a public meeting on ‘Women Resisting the Racist ‘Security’ State’. And we have been continuing to think about what transnational solidarity means and trying to build our political practice around that. We would welcome people who are interested in getting involved! (see our website http://freedomwithoutfearplatformuk.blogspot.co.uk/)
Dr. Kalpana Wilson is a Senor LSE Fellow in Gender Theory, Globalisation and Development. Her research focuses on the relationship between neo-liberalism, gender and concepts agency as well as experiences of women in rural labour movements.