Last Tuesday evening the Peterborough and Trent community gathered in Market Hall to find out if feminism had “gone astray,” and if so, what might be done to bring it back on track.
Dr. Shahra Razavi, chief of research and data with UN Women, was the speaker at Trent University’s 9th annual David Morrison Lecture in International Development on Tuesday, October 4, 2016 for a talk titled, “Has Feminism Gone Astray? The Struggle for Substantive Equality in a Neoliberal Age.” The event was open to the general public and was free to attend.
Dr. Haroon Akram-Lodhi of the International Development Studies Department opened the talk. He welcomed the public and congratulated attendees on the 40th anniversary of the International Development program before inviting his friend and colleague, Dr. Razavi, to the stage. She is a specialist in the gender dimensions of social development, with a particular focus on livelihoods and social policies.
For the sake of context, this article specifically focuses on liberal feminism, a branch of feminism concerned with the individual’s rights and opportunities and issues involving gender inequality within the economic sphere and within the legal system. Liberal feminism has roots in the suffragette movement of the 1920s, reappeared in the 1960s, and has been popularized over the last two decades alongside the rise of global neoliberalism.
Dr. Razavi was a concise, focused and personable speaker who organized her
lecture neatly into critiquing the problem, discussing a solution, and then reflectively answering questions posed by students. “Yes”, she argued, “feminism has gone astray”. She referenced the emergence of what she called a “shadowy” liberal feminism used within multilateral organizations and
corporations; feminism that launches initiatives for and is largely concerned with women’s economic empowerment, but which remains vague on actually changing and improving the lives of women.
Over the course of the lecture “women’s economic empowerment” was used more than the term “feminism”, which acts in itself as an example of the new direction that feminism has taken under neoliberal capitalism and how feminism has been successfully co-opted by corporatism. The problem with this new focus on “women’s economic empowerment”, according to Dr. Razavi, is that it continues to ignore the well being of women outside of the sphere of paid labor and consumerism.
Unfortunately, many other gender issues are remaining unchecked or in some cases even regressing to mirror a more repressive past. For example, in Canada and the United States, access to abortion is under constant attack, potentially reversing the long and hard work of feminist activists, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for poor and marginalized women to access abortions.
Dr. Razavi states that as women have won the right to work, the problems that must be addressed are her rights at work, and issues such as the fact that women still continue to carry double burdens (largely in the Global South where women perform both unpaid care work while also balancing a job outside of the home) are still not being addressed.
This emphasis on women’s rights at work lead into what Dr. Razavi believes is the solution; a focus on human rights with a monitoring mechanism enforced by a strong state. She says, in reference to the horrific collapse of the Savar building in Dhaka, Bhangledesh that killed over 1000 people, many of them women, that “Women’s economic empowerment cannot mean factories that collapse on their workers”. She advocates that now that women have more opportunities, they require protection and policy that acknowledge more structural disadvantages, ultimately critiquing a world that continues to view equality as meaning “the same”.
Though this emphasis on the importance of human rights within feminist discourse is an extremely important point, it seems problematic to seek and frame a solution within the neoliberal discourse she spent the first half of the lecture critiquing.
Throughout the lecture she very intentionally avoided any direct connection or recommendation of socialism, or even left-wing social policy. By doing this she safely and cleanly avoided stepping on the toes of the institution she conducts her work within, the UN, or directly challenging the current status quo of contemporary development work within the United States, where she lives. This is also why her lecture, so poised to pack a punch, missed its mark and instead left the listener unable to quite place their finger on what they missed; the solution to the evolution of misguided feminism still fiercely intertwined with the problem.
That being said, there is much to be admired and respected within Dr.
Razavi’s work, and the opportunity to hear her speak provided much fodder for thought and an opportunity for the community to gather and discuss feminism both within a Canadian and international context. It reminded one of all the work that has gone into a quest for a fair world free of oppression, and the tremendous amount of work left to do. When asked after the lecture what is necessary for woman to succeed, she responded, “passion” and that is certainly clear from hearing her speak.
We asked fellow Trent Student Ashley Fearnall what she thought of the talk.
What were you expecting from the lecture?
I never know what to expect going into the David Morrison lecture series. My
experience has been that these lectures always go beyond what expectations I do have, so I try to attend with an open mind without reading too much in to what I think the guest should say on the topic. I guess my expectation is to learn something special that will stay with me—meaning I will think about it more than just one evening.
Did she answer the main question of the lecture?
That is a tough question. I think it depends on where you start; do you think feminism has gone astray? Dr. Razavi gave a very compelling argument as to why the movement has gone astray in recent years and what can be done about it. I’m still thinking about it today!
Did the lecture meet your expectations?
Exceeded them. Feminism can be such a controversial topic right now. I think
anytime that we can talk about it in an open way and discuss the challenges of feminism is an important moment. Granted, that conversation may appear to be happening outside of academic spaces— but it is meant in a very hostile way. Why is feminism such a controversial topic, from those within the movement and those outside of it, right now? All of this fed into my expectations of the evening, and I left that evening very happy with what happened.
What have you taken from this lecture?
Never take the progress we have made for granted. It took work, and will continue to take work.
What do you disagree/agree with?
I’m still thinking it through. I know we have to hold the ideas of feminism that have entered the World Bank and other organizations accountable to the change they supposedly are advocating for, but is there a danger in focusing too much attention to inward critique? Does it make feminism as a whole more vulnerable to critiques from others? I think that is an interesting tension that feminists will always find themselves in (relatable to the tension of a singular voice of women or the diverse experiences of women), and I’m not sure what the answer is to that question.
Was the lecture addressing any gender issues?
Yes. I’m not sure how else to answer this. This is a deceptively easy question, but has so much to unpack in it. What do gender issues mean? Are we discussing a limited list of issues that (supposedly) only effect women, such as (to use a common example) the role of women in the household? Or are we discussing the impact economics of various kinds have on gender? It was all related to gender, but I guess it depends on what issue you are looking for. If you think gender issues are only those of formal equality, then you may not have found the lecture to be directly engaging with ‘gender issues’. But if you accept a broader idea of what ‘gender issues’ are, I think it was very relevant.
What is your overall feedback?
Brilliant. It was thoughtful, challenging, and well-argued. A fair criticism of where feminism is today, without calling for the complete abandonment of the movement. I think it is important to remind ourselves that regardless of the mistakes we make as feminists, there is still value in the ideas.