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Women in Revolution: A Fourth Wave of Feminism?

Lina Abou Habib | Friday, March 6, 2020 #InternationalWomensDay2020 shutterstock_1064991044-[Converted].jpg

Since the beginning of 2019, I have been very much involved in the process leading to the Generation Equality Forum in Mexico City in 2020 and the subsequent meeting in Paris in July 2020 - otherwise known as “Beijing + 25” marking the 25th anniversary of the UN IVth Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.  A main feature of the Generation Equality event is its emphasis on the youth (at least 30% of participants are expected to be under the age of 30) and its reflection on the aspirations, concerns, and priorities of civil society.  This very complex process has led many of us, the generation of feminists who were part of the global 1995 convention, to engage in an inter-generational dialogue with younger feminists who are bringing in new voices, analysis, and interests as well as different ways of organizing and mobilizing.

Throughout this process, discussions and critiques focused on the seemingly generational rupture between feminists with the absence of a consistent common discourse, and the growing estrangement amongst feminists based on age as well as feminist ideologies.  This phenomenon is a particular feature within the women and feminist movement in Lebanon where multigenerational spaces of dialogue and collaboration are not easy to track. 

With the start of the Lebanese Revolution on October 17th, young feminists were an integral part of an unprecedented social movement in Lebanon.  In fact, young feminists have been engaged in formulating the revolution’s demands pertaining to equality, justice, inclusion, dignity, rights, and the rule of law in our country.

Feminist demands during the revolution included but were not limited to calls for an egalitarian family code, an end to violence against women, call out against sexual harassment, the abolishment of the Kafala system - which holds migrant workers in a servile relationship with their employers - inclusion of all women and girls, rights for LGBTQI, rights for individuals with disabilities and special needs, dignity, as well as freedom from oppression and violence for all.  Young feminists emphasized the right to individual freedoms and bodily integrity. These demands were beautifully and intelligently framed in an analysis of patriarchy and how it is reproduced by within the political, economic, social, and cultural spheres. 

For young feminists, these demands will not be put on hold, as they are at the core of the revolution.  As such, sexist comrades in arms were no longer tolerated for the sake of the greater good.  This is a total break from former experiences of revolts where the leading and loud voices were invariably male. Previously, demands were narrow and sector specific, while issues related to the rights of women were not deemed to be a priority.  For instance, the mobilization of 2015 which was sparked by the enormous waste disposal scandal, failed to bring in diverse voices and comprehensive analysis of the ways in which the patriarchal/confessional system has affected all aspects of life, in both the private and public spheres.  In fact, the social movement of 2015 revealed signs of misogyny and hostility especially with the brutal attacks against trans-women who were exercising their rights to participate in public mobilization.

Revolutions in other countries of the MENA region have also shown clear indications of strong feminist expression. Sudan, Algeria, and more recently Iraq, have witnessed a significant mobilization of young feminists, often calling for women demonstrating against oppression and violence and always framing their demands within a call for change and transformation towards the rule of law, justice, equality, and dignity for all. Women’s role in the ongoing revolutions transcends the media representation of the “iconic woman of the revolution” or simplistic slogans such as “the revolution is female” but is actually a call to overthrow the current patriarchal political, economic, and social system.

A rapid overview of the new generation of feminists who are shaping the current revolutions seems to indicate the evolution of what the literature is currently calling the fourth wave of feminism. The main characteristics of what we are observing during the ongoing revolution is certainly a feminist movement that is intersectional, that emphasizes agency and bodily rights, has a critical and deep understanding of linkages and connections, and uses different modern and creative strategies for mobilization and communication including social media. But critically, the movement is not limited to or bound by geographical or thematic confines, but rather moves away from defining gender as a binary, and employs an all-inclusive and an uncompromising approach to its understanding of human rights. Of equal importance is the growing cross borders connections amongst young feminists in the MENA region using different networks and platforms.  Indeed, this is a new generation of feminist sisterhood and solidarity in the making.

With this in mind, it is certainly a privilege to witness the organic process of growth and transformation in the feminist movement in Lebanon from the eighties and until the present day, and the ways in which feminist analysis, discourse, strategies, and methods have evolved with changing times and contexts. As we look back at the Beijing 1995 era, and the issues around which feminists were mobilizing and strategizing in Lebanon and across the region, we cannot dissociate that period from the circumstances that defined it. 

When I began engaging with the Beijing + 25 process as a civil society feminist activist, I was convinced that what we should simply do is to “pushback the pushback” on women’s rights and hold the fort on previous gains. However, the strength, vigor, and sophistication of the young feminist voices which are making and shaping the revolutions, are pushing us to surpass our earlier gains. These new voices emerge from civil society, media professionals, young scholars, students, artists, activists, and young feminists from all walks of life, sexual orientation, and gender identities. 

Such a transformation inspires us to look at new and relevant feminist research questions such as:

  • How will we capture ways in which feminist messages are shaped and communicated? How do they influence the ongoing revolutions?
  • What are the new and different ways of mobilizing for feminist demands?
  • How did the transition happen between the old and new generation of feminists?
  • What was the impact of regional connections? How did the congruence of events affect the shaping of feminist messages and actions on the ground?
  • What does this tell us about previous methods used in feminist advocacy, lobbying, and attempts to influence and change public policy? How do we deal and engage with social institutions in the current era without being inadvertently, or otherwise, complicit?
  • How do we document and archive the narratives of the young and emerging generation of feminists and their role in shaping the revolution?
  • And, most importantly, how do we collect the significant indigenous knowledge produced every day by young feminists who, for the first time, have reclaimed both space and voice from the older generation of feminists, as well as from Northern-based feminists?

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Note from Author: These thoughts and reflections were developed together with feminists colleagues in Morocco.  I am thankful to Rabea Naciri, Houda Bouzzit and the feminist activists of the Association Democratiques du Maroc for sharing their insights with me.

Lina Abou Habib, Senior Policy Fellow at IFI. Strategic MENA advisor for the Global Fund for Women.

In line with its commitment to furthering knowledge production, the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs publishes a series of weekly opinion editorials relevant to public policies. These articles seek to examine current affairs and build upon this analysis by way of introducing a set of pragmatic recommendations to the year 2020. They also seek to encourage policy and decision makers as well as those concerned, to find solutions to prevalent issues and advance research in a myriad of fields.

Opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.