2007 Annual Meeting

INTERAREA SESSION 23

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Women’s Transnational Political Activism in East and Southeast Asia

Organizer and Chair: Mina Roces, The University of New South Wales

Discussant: Mary Beth Mills, Colby College

Since the mid-1980s, the phenomenal growth in the number of non-government organizations (NGOs)in Asia, evidences the similar growth of civil society. A significant number of these organizations are led by women activists from the middle and lower classes who have seized on the opening up of political spaces for women in order to pressure for social and political change. The papers in this session examine the dynamics of these social movements in transnational contexts. How do women activists build a following and lobby governments both democratic and authoritarian? This session’s focus is on the processes through which these women champion their rights and translate their own ‘home grown’ versions of feminisms or activism as they mediate between transnational and local-to-national contexts. Our presenters offer interdisciplinary analyses of women’s activism in both theory and practice---from domestic violence in the PRC where activists cleverly shift the discussion of human rights discourse to the private sphere so that the government is not threatened by them, to the street vendors in Northern Philippines who literally contest public space, to the Malaysian women who have to negotiate between cosmopolitanism, human rights, and Islam, and finally to the Filipino activists who use performance protest to transform victims of trafficking and prostitution into feminist advocates. Although these case studies are grounded in country-specific contexts, they are located in transnational/cosmopolitan spaces as Asian activists engage with globalization to target both national and international publics, offering insights on the tenor of 21st century social movements. 

Women’s Activism in Combating Violence Against Women in China 

Louise Edwards, University of Technology Sydney

This paper explores the emergence of new actions on the issue of Violence against Women (VAW) and Domestic Violence (DV) in the People’s Republic of China. The matrix of relationships between interest groups working on VAW and DV reveals that a complex web of interactions propels changes in the party-state but also that influences from outside of the state have increasingly important roles to play in influencing the relationships between domestic actors within China. The activism by women on this issue over the past decade has produced significant changes in the Chinese party-state’s response to VAW. Three prime agents on VAW and DV are the All China Women’s Federation (ACWF), the professional, semi-official Domestic Violence Network, and the diverse and loosely connected anti-VAW activists mobilizing around V-day. The ACWF is an arm of the party-state, being an official Mass Organization of the Communist Party. The DV Network draws together professionals from law, policing, academia and social work. The V-day activists are a loose group of university-based individuals (both students and staff) in Chinese urban areas. All three groups have complementary agendas on the issue of eradicating VAW and DV yet maintain different relationships with different international partners. The activities of these three groups present an opportunity for exploring the new mechanisms for social change, driven by women, occurring in China today. 

Spectacles, Dress, Feminisms and Women’s Movements in the Philippines

Mina Roces, The University of New South Wales

Women’s movements since the 1980s expressed their activism through spectacles of protest that included performing oral testimonies, theater, demonstrations, songs and dance. This paper argues that these spectacles of protest communicate feminist ideological positions and are crucial in transforming former victims of patriarchy into feminist advocates for social and political change. Filipino feminist theorizing comes from the perspective of the lower classes, and examines the Filipina in the transnational context as a ‘colonized body’ servicing the First World as domestic helpers and prostitutes. Using the issue of prostitution and sex trafficking as a case study, it will be shown how the oral testimonies of trafficked women, theatre forums, and demonstrations, (including dress, the ‘costume’ necessary for performances), were successful in pursuing activist agendas. The campaign for the Anti-Trafficking Bill of 2003 was an important victory for the women’s movement. Here the feminist narrative that prostitution was violence against women, and that trafficking occurred with or without women’s consent, revealed how activists used the ‘victim narrative’ to initiate social and political changes. Empirical data for the arguments made above come from case studies of four transnational organizations: Lila-Pilipina (the organization of Filipino ‘comfort women’), Development Women’s Action Network (DAWN) which supports Filipino former overseas contract workers as entertainers (Japayukis), Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Asia –Pacific (CAT-W), and Third World Movement Against Exploitation of Women (TW-MAE-W). 

Refashioning Streetscapes: Women, Vending and Urban Activism in the Northern Philippines 

B. Lynne Milgram, Ontario College of Art and Design

In the Philippines, since the 1970s, the government’s policies of economic liberalization and structural adjustment have meant that poorer residents and women, in particular, have forged innovative livelihood opportunities given the dearth of formal-sector jobs. In self-employed enterprises (selling fresh produce, cooked food, secondhand clothing) increasing numbers of women have made urban Philippine streets their business venues for itinerant, but viable work. Such new enterprises evidence, not only a rise in people’s economic growth, but also fundamental shifts in class structure, the cultural organization of relations and the socioeconomic reconfiguration of urban streetscapes. This paper focuses on women’s work as street vendors to argue that female entrepreneurs sustain this new livelihood sphere by engaging in everyday forms of activism that unsettle essentialist categories of work, class and space. Specifically, I analyze the street trade in Baguio City, the Northern Philippines main urbanized and administrative center that continues to attract increasing numbers of rural migrants searching for work. The number of street vendors in Baguio has mushroomed to such an extent that in May 2006 the mayor implemented a “zero tolerance” law resulting in police actions to aggressively remove all vendors from the streets. In response, vendors have mobilized their group associations to lobby city officials to amend this law. This paper demonstrates that such women’s activism engages “a distinctly gendered politics of place” (Mills 2005) through which female vendors capture and operationalize contested spaces, despite the possibility for their positions to shift. 

Gender, Cosmopolitanisms and Rights Claims in Malaysia

Maila Stivens, The University of Melbourne

This paper explores issues around the gendering of cosmopolitanisms through a discussion of rights claims and transnational activisms within the Malaysian women's movement. The very small presence of gender issues in the now voluminous literature on cosmopolitanism is remarkable. Women and gender seem to be almost wholly absent from much of the theorizing about the linked futures of nationalisms and cosmopolitanisms, for example. Similarly, there is a voluminous literature on transnational feminisms which is de facto in dealing with 'cosmopolitanism(s), but mostly evades the term. This two-sided, twofold neglect is highly interesting--over the same period, many gender-based movements around the globe have had to work painfully through accusations of universalism, ethnocentricity, neo-imperialism and worse towards versions of grounded cosmopolitanism, notably the idea of 'transversal politics'. Global feminisms spent the two decades after the 1970s engaged in the most painful debates about the proper path for the search for gender justice and rights. The paper argues for redressing the omissions and neglect of gender in discussions of cosmopolitan political practices through an examination of the multi-layered and complex, highly gendered transnational spaces created by Malaysian women's activisms: it suggests that such a redressing will greatly enrich understandings of transnational political activisms. The paper pays particular attention to the relationships between the Islamic national and transnational worlds, within which some parts of the local women's movement operate, and wider feminist and womanist networks both local and global.