I hear this far too often when working on strategies to increase women´s political participation, especially in counties where such efforts are most desperately needed. The idea stems from this argument: feminism is an “export” or a Western phenomenon that does not translate because of the “cultural constructs of gender in our country.” News bulletin, feminism isn´t a widely popular construct anywhere, even in the United States and Western Europe.
Yet, this rationalization in developing democracies ends up sounding reasonable, even among advocates for the cause, and here´s why that´s wrong.
First, it´s important to recognize that creating more equitable systems for women does not automatically work anywhere. It takes effort to get women to take up the mantle of equality, even women MPs. It takes work to motivate people in countries with broken politics to believe that they can change the situation, and that women are valuable partners in that change. It is difficult to figure out what issues are most ripe for action. You cannot boil the ocean, so choices have to be made about which issues are most likely to capture attention, influence the public dialogue, and help create a greater space for women. But, it´s less work when you develop a strategy, and pushback a bit at the same time.
Secondly, let´s keep in mind that resistance to “feminism” is often the result of resistance to the values behind feminism. Simply stated, some people are rejecting to the concept that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities (see the clever infographic to the right). Some people don´t like the idea of equality, no matter what words you use. The trick is to find those people and avoid them in your communication´s strategy, because you will not likely win them over, at least in stage one of your efforts, which should build a base of messengers first in order to move to broader persuasion later.
Advice for dealing with the anti-feminists
There are three ways to constructively create a movement for women´s equality, no matter the country.
1. Find the right words.
So if feminism does not work here (wherever “here” may be), find the words that do. What is the shorthand, what language best connects? I am a big advocate of using research-based evidence to form arguments around women´s political participation and have been involved in several polls and focus groups to figure out the right language, and better understand the barriers. Sitting in focus group after focus group, I can confirm, concepts of women´s equality are not well understood because the conversation is often muted. It is no coincidence that the countries most resistant to the language of feminism are the ones with the lowest participation of women. As advocates we have to find the balance of being culturally relevant with our terminology (and just as importantly the narratives) that move public opinion versus being overly timid because we think we have a problem of syntax when really we have a conflict of values. Country´s like Georgia and Ukraine have done in-depth research to examine public opinion and use this information to shape smart advocacy campaigns, like the Women are 50% campaign. Efforts to help illustrate the impact of sexism are also necessary.
2. Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.
This famous quote is music to an organizer´s ear. Every country is at a difference place in the spectrum of women´s rights. Decide where to start, what issue to tackle, and what tactics to use. Progress will happen over time, but there has to be movement in this trajectory. Choose not to be cynical and convince others of the value. Even in the US and Europe feminism has gotten a bad rap. To some it is a proud way to identify not only their work, but their entire believe system which defines who they are. To others it is an old and tired concept with issues and ideas that a new generation of women don´t relate to. And so what? The walkaway lesson is to develop a theory of change, find your targets and organize around them. Do what you can, but do something. And spend less time worrying about the critics and instead build power with people who share the same values.
3. Put your communication`s strategy at the forefront.
The road to women´s equality is not filled with a bunch of handbooks (although I have helped author some of those!). Like any movement, change comes through the actions of people. You have to move from theoretical to the actual. I could talk for hours about quotas formulas (constitutional or legislative), mechanisms within political party for gender equity, and model legislation to protect women against domestic violence. None of these things matter if we don´t have the political will to challenge stereotypes about women and fight sexism in media and politics — the very foundation of feminism. Our policy cart is often before the organizing cart of social change.
There is good news. There are new openings in many countries where women activists and policymakers are pushing the boundaries on gender equality, by focusing not just on technical parameters for equality, but rather communication strategies to create an enabling environment for women´s participation.
- Technology, such as social media, enables advocates to change the conversation and question stereotypes about women as well as expose everyday experiences with sexism. Such campaigns are opportunities to bring more people into a conversation about the political implications of gender. Crowdsourcing or crowdmapping platforms are being used creatively to focus attention on a range of women´s issues, from projects to prevent violence, to those that motivate the armchair activists to action.
- As mentioned above, framing matters. There is more sophistication in efforts to engage the public in a dialogue around gender roles and how this impacts women’s political participation. Public opinion research has given advocates better tools to evaluate effective messages, choose the right messengers and make specific word choices in order to talk effectively about the implications of rigid gender roles and impact of discrimination. For more on effective message development, download my how to guide and Toolkit.
- Public attention to violence against women creates openings in which to redefine women’s roles in society. Creating a groundswell of “outrage” is important (check out recent examples from a range of different countries and cultures, Toolkit-Domestic Violence Campaigns). When women are subjected to inequality or violence, especially of a high-profile nature, we can turn these tragedies into opportunities and create a strong and more stable platform in which to demand changes for women. The role of civil society in this regard is extremely important.
Georgia case study and women taking the lead
A great example of all of these efforts can be seen in Georgia, a country I have been lucky enough to support in their efforts to increase women´s political participation, which is growing stronger month by month, year after year. Watch a newly released documentary on how the women´s movement is organizing their efforts, all across Georgia, to pivot from violence against women to women´s political participation.
It was a privilege to present some of these concepts at a recent forum on women´s leadership organized by National Democratic Institute with the support of USAID and in cooperation with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR). My ideas for developing a strategic communications campaign around pushback can be found here, Tools for Women´s Leadership-Research, Communications & Technology.
Sixty women came together representing 15 countries in southeastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Each participant was from a position of power in government, politics, civil society, and/or the private sector. A lot of great lessons were shared that give me reason to be more hopeful than discouraged at the power and potential of change happening all around the world for women.
In sum, there is no shortcut to the hard work involved in bring attention to discrimination, building resistance to it, and ultimately changing attitudes and behavior that make the world more open to the ideals of feminism, regardless of what you call it.