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Transnational/Global Feminism: Issues, Contestations, Challenges

Opening address to the international seminar 25-26 May 2010, Bergen

In the following I will address the debate on transnational/global feminism by drawing on political and theoretical contributions from postcolonial feminist thought:

An antidote against past colonial misdeeds and complicity as well as feminist notion of “global sisterhood” was found in a relativist rationale that prescribes the focusing on difference to avoid reproduction of a colonial legacy and other imperialistic sentiments. The postcolonial feminist theorist Uma Narayan (1997, 2000) has however emphasised that the notion of difference was in fact at the base of the colonial project, and likewise that cultural relativism tends to lock women up in gendered essentialisms. One consequence of a focus on difference is that women sitting under the tree breastfeeding their children tend to be seen as more “authentic” than the women from their neighbourhoods frequenting international conferences.

Feminism's political project of transforming structural inequity based on gender continue to be contested by political and religious institutions that see feminism as a threat to the foundation of their hegemony in the North as well as in the South, by both women and men. As acknowledged by many, and also seen in many of the abstracts received for this seminar; it is much safer to talk about women and gender than feminism. The fact that feminism is also a political strategy, or rather strategies in plural, continues to make it difficult to handle within academia.

The insistence on that feminism is a “western” construct also continues to devalue and undermine non-western women’s use of feministic strategies for their own purposes. Writing on a selection of African women’s movements, Aili Mari Tripp and colleagues (2009) point out that women’s mobilisation in the South draws on a well of historical traditions of collective resistance, localised forms that have been transformed through anticolonial protests and liberation struggles, whereof some tactics are used today in contemporary protest movements – feminist or other. While the internationalisation of feminism through global forums has no doubt represented inputs to women’s mobilisation world-wide, the social mobilisation around feminist issues and women’s rights has since the 1990s however increasingly shifted its momentum to the South; a significant impetus being forged by South-South relations. While transnational feminism is seen to have enabled the visibility of these local scenes, the global dialogue and interaction taking place, is also understood to be increasingly shaped by the global South (cf. Tripp 2005, Tripp et al. 2009). While feminist concerns has commonly been close to the anti-globalisation movement, the impact of globalisation for feminist mobilisation and communication – together with global migration – means that what has been conceptualised as the global South is now also situated in the North; further blurring old dichotomies.

These points are not an argument against being alert to the power asymmetries that continue to criss-cross any interaction; sometimes with historical weight. When the insights from postcolonial feminist debate is incorporated into the present transnational context where feminism is played out in diverging ways with different names and interpretations beyond former boundaries – national or otherwise – the result is however that there is no “safe” haven, no position based on belonging to a specific location that is exempt from critique. While standpoint theory played an important role at a specific historical moment to make women’s experiences and knowledges visible to counter exclusion in knowledge production, privileging any particular standpoint – marginalised or not – does not hold when the contemporary transnational scene – informed by conflict and insecurity – require critical dialogue and responsible critique more than ever. By including keynote speakers from different corners of the world (also the North), we, the organisers of this international interdisciplinary seminar therefore hope that this event can represent a space for creative thinking around urgent issues pertaining to transnational/global feminism and contribute, if only in minute ways, to building a sounder platform for solidarity.

©Thera Mjaaland 2010


Narayan, Uma (1997) Dislocating Cultures. Identities,Traditions and Third World Feminism. New York & London: Routledge.

Narayan, Uma (2000) Essence of Culture and a Sense of History: A feminist Critique of Cultural Essentialism, in Decentering the Center. Philosophy for a Multicultural, Postcolonial, and Feminist World. Narayan, Uma & Sandra Harding (eds.), 80-100. Bloomington & Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Tripp, Aili Mari (2005) Regional Networking as Transnational Feminism: African Experiences. Feminist Africa (4).

Tripp, Aili Mari; Casimiro, Isabel; Kwesiga, Joy; Mungwa, Alice (2009) African Women's Movements: Changing Political Landscapes. Cambridge University Press

Link to På Høyden's coverage of the seminar (in Norwegian).