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Strategic Sisterhood or Sisters in Solidarity? Questions of Communitarianism and Citizenship in Asia

Aihwa Ong
Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies
Vol. 4, No. 1, Symposium: Feminism and Globalization: The Impact of the Global Economy on Women and Feminist Theory (Fall, 1996), pp. 107-135
Published by: Indiana University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20644642
Page Count: 29
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Strategic Sisterhood or Sisters in Solidarity? Questions of Communitarianism and Citizenship in Asia
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Abstract

The Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing 1995) has spawned a triumphant sense among Western/Northern feminists that they are forging a strategic sisterhood with less privileged women in the South. Feminists from metropolitan countries seek a new North-South alliance whereby they make strategic interventions on behalf of third world women by putting pressure on their governments. Professor Ong critiques strategic sisterhood on the following grounds: First, strategic sisterhood is based on individualistic notions of transnational feminine citizenship, ignoring the historical and cultural differences between women from the first and third worlds. In particular, the concept ignores geopolitical inequalities whereby postcolonial countries are sensitive to what they view as new forms of cultural imperialism. For many Asian leaders and subjects, women's emancipation is seldom just a question about individual rights, but fundamentally about culture, community, and the nation. Second, strategic sisterhood brushes aside other forms of morality--whether expressed in nationalist ideology, or embedded in religious and communal practices--that shape local notions and relations of gender, hierarchy, loyalty, and social security. These webs of power relations are the everyday contexts within which third world women must struggle for their rights. To illustrate both points, Professor Ong draws on cases from China, Indonesia, and Malaysia, where popular struggles for human rights are usually couched in terms of community--class, religion, or nation--not gender. The silence regarding women's problems is especially striking in resurgent labor movements where a significant proportion of workers are young women working in abysmal conditions. Foreign feminists must first understand the conditions shaped by communitarian ideologies--produced by ruling regimes, labor, or religious elites--within which most third world women must negotiate their rights and self-identity. Professor Ong presents the example of Muslim feminists in Malaysia struggling for women's rights, not by forming strategic partnerships with Western feminists (a strategy guaranteed to fail), but by engaging local men in (re)defining gender rights within the framework of Islamic morality, nation, and civilization. The struggles of these courageous women deserve respect from Western feminists who are ever-ready to dismiss any accommodations with Islam or non-Western moral ethos. After all, feminism and women's rights only make sense in terms of the imagined communities within which people live and, through their embeddedness in local social relations and cultural norms, decide what is good and worthwhile in their lives. Globalization thus produces not a single international sisterhood (dominated by Western feminist ideals and agents) but many possible, negotiable, and partial collaborations between feminists in different countries. Feminist sisterhoods are strategic when they can create a transnational public that does not exclude the variety of alternative visions of female citizenship framed within alternative political moralities. Strategic sisterhood will be most effective when it adheres to such a "weak" universal of female emancipation.

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