Sisterhood and Women’s Identities on a Global Scale; Can a Strategy be Established?

Paper presented at the Women Studies Conference

June 1995

To introduce the discourse that covers such issues as sisterhood and women’s identity will not be possible unless we view it in relations to and within broader concepts worldwide.    

How is the world shaped around concepts, practices and institutions? How do women live in reality and what shapes their identities? Do we need to focus our attention in a particular way to understand and conceptualise the situation of women-our sisters- in Zambia, Afghanistan, Iran or Brazil? How do women’s identities which are shaped by and disguised in rituals and indigenous cultures find their way into feminist literature? Finally, who is to gain what from a universalistic sisterhoodness if it enters feminist terminology and conceptualised and formulated in its theory?

My argument will focus on some key issues: the impact of politics on women’s lives and how elements outside women’s own interests at the national and international level divide women/us by nationality, ethnicity, religion and culture? Today, more than ever before we live in a world which is predetermined by politics at micro and macro level. Gender issues have been overshadowed by images of international relations and in the world of Patrick Morgan: “ our conception of international relations act as a map for directing our attention and distributing our efforts and using the wrong map can lead us into a swamp, instead of taking us to higher ground.”

In this paper, I will draw a sketch of the complexities that surround women’s lives and show inevitable consequences on women’s identities in general and feminist theory and practice in particular. I believe that once we come out of our domestic shell and observe the world around us, we will not be able to comprehend its complexities unless we elaborate a broad sense of political awareness. Although feminism has gained some success around the globe, even in the areas that speaking of it is a taboo, there has been some setbacks as well. There is a multifaceted dimension this. The change in world politics, the rise of religious upheavals, nationalism, ethnic conflicts and wars, especially after the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the establishment of the so called “New World Order” have had dire consequences on women. We need to understand and conceptualise all these developments in order to establish a strategy of global solidarity.

The situation of women globally

The data regarding how men and women are situated differently within global processes reveals, starkly, the extent of gender inequality. According to Ann Sission and Spike Peterson, women compose one-half of the world population and perform two thirds of the world’s workforce, yet are everywhere poorer in resources and poorly represented in positions of decision-making. Gender-labelling is so strong that although women participate increasingly in the paid labour force, they tend to do so in the areas regarded as “women’s work”: taking care of others and providing emotional and maintenance services. At a micro level, women are treated as second sex at home although they run the household and keep family traditions and values. Ironically, most of these traditions and values which women are their prime bearers and custodians work against women’s own interest and wellbeing.

The extent of inequality between men and women and specific attributes of masculinity and femininity vary dramatically over time and across cultures. What appears fairly through historical record, is the relationship between these two concepts. Masculinity seems to have a greater value than femininity. These terms are not independent but form a hierarchical relationship that exist almost in all cultures. What is important to focus on is the degree that these concepts construct women’s identities. While women are traditionally associated with childbearing and rearing and maintenance of the household, men are related to wage labour, physical power, intellectual achievements and political agency. The labour market is vertically and horizontally segregated and men and women’s roles are defined differently. Women are absent from positions of power, economy and social institutions because certain norms would not allow them. Women are restricted from certain activities because they are women and even their appearance and the way they dress is determined by a socially defined category. Women in some countries cannot find positions that require judgement because they are believed to be “emotional” and illogical to pass a just verdict.

In Afghanistan, after the so-called Mojahidin, with the generous assistance of US and UK governments came to power, women have been reduced to nothing but slaves at the service of warlords. According to Amnesty International reports, they are systematically being taken away by different factions, raped, tortured and used as slaves. Their voices is not to be heard by any man outside their family their faces not to be seen by anybody. Women in Bosnia are victims of ethnic cleansing, terror, rape and displacement. Women constitute two-thirds of refugees and displaced people.  Ideological powers, state control, gender stereotypes of the masculine/feminine structures, as well as international relations at political and economical levels assert women’s invisibility and powerlessness.

New developments in the 1990s have taken new forms which need to be understood. With the shift of production from the developed world to the third world, women’s economic situation has changed. They constitute the large army of cheap labour used by international corporations. Economic crisis and foreign debts of the poor countries has led to the feminisation of poverty, where women and children are the first groups to suffer. There is a lack of attention on the presence of women and where and how they are situated within the labour market differently from men. This is the consequence of practices, processes and institutions we identify as world politics. It must be stated that some developments have been made through women’s own campaigns and gender issues are raised particularly in the economic development policies, reproductive issued and population and planning policies. In general, small but steady improvement in the percentage of women involvement in formal politics can be identified. However, it can be argued that such developments are a token for the mass of women who live under very different conditions. International conferences and declarations and women’s involvement in formal politics will not generate an impact on women’s lives unless they are accompanied by an understanding of world politics. In sum, what I am trying to elaborate is the connection between political developments in a country and world politics and its general impact on women as a by-product of these developments.

There are other issues which will be very conductive to the feminist discourse on the idea of building up a  global “sisterhood”. Although we try to establish a closeness among women universally, there are still interests that in the words of Yuval Davis: ‘are irreconcilable and  might put women in conflict with each other.’ Women’s membership of their ethnic and national collective is of a double nature. On the one hand they are included, at least to some extent, in the construction of the general body of members of national and ethnic collectiveness and or citizens that is always of the state. On the other hand -at least to certain extent- a separate body of regulations (legal/or customary) relate to them specifically as women, wives and mothers. This creates an inherent ambivalence within women’s politics visa-a-vis their collectivites on the one hand and women from other collectivities on the other hand.

The end of colonialism did not mean that many newly independent states were able or willing to get rid of colonial legacy. The complexities upon which political establishments base their strategies had handicapped women to see the roots of their subordinated situation. There many examples of social realities: nationalistic and ethnic interests which have led to bloody regional conflicts and religious movements are part of this. After the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the so-called socialist ideologies, nationalistic feelings were wage through many countries.

National identity based on shared citizenship became an alternative to the ideology that had lost its grounds. Nationalism cuts across religion, ethnic and linguistic differences and united people on the basis of a common nation. As Rouhini says:’ in India, while minority communalism can easily be denounced as anti-national, majority communalism –which in fact is far more destructive- can always pose as nationalism.’ A strong sense of national identity, even if it is not linked to religion or ethnicity is quite compatible with national aggression, imperialism and genocide”. National identity excludes people who are seen as aliens on one’s own soil and is sometimes compatible with the persecution of refugees, migrants and other foreign nationals. Waging wars against neighbouring states such as war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the old Soviet Bloc and many other parts of the world have had dire consequences for women. Such conflicts make it difficult for women to share experiences as women. While both sides of the conflict lose their homes and family members, there is little ground to explore the roots of their shared misery.  Women have no choice but to side with male family members of their communities, although it might severe their interests as women.

Culture as a source of identity or a tool of oppression?

Culture in the form of art, literature, music and language is either used as a tool at the service of the dominant ideology or rejected under ‘prohibition’ codes. In the word of Yval-Davis: “culture is never an essential and homogenous body of tradition and customs, but a rich resource, usually full of internal contradiction which is always used selectively in various ethnic, cultural and religious projects within specific power relations and political discourse in and outside the collectivity”. Although ideologies find culture a rich ground to ripe, there should be a distinction between the two. Culture works at micro and macro level. Political and patriarchal ideologies use cultural practices to develop their strategies and gender differentiation and safe-guard their permanence.

In recent history, culture being ambivalent in definition, works like a double aged sword. Women, as the prime bearers and custodians of tradition and customs and what is identified as ‘culture’ have at times been victims of cultural practices. Bride-burning and killing of in some parts of India, honour-killing in many parts of the Islamic world and women’s circumcision are parts of cultural practices, which women are the victims and at the same time accomplices. Policing traditional values, regardless of their benefits to the patriarchal regimes and harmfulness to women’s own interests in being carried out by women themselves as part of their culture.

Under conditions of increased nationalistic and religious upheavals, racism, sexism, marginalisation and patriarchal norms find a rich ground in the indigenous cultures to ripe. In an environment, where social movements and cultural practices are collaborating to tighten their grips on women, it would be hard to believe that other women/sisters in other parts of the world in general and Western feminists in particular will be interested to conceptualise the situation and raise their voices against sexism, violence and brutalism. Where have all these sisters been/are when their sisters were/are suffering in Iran, Algeria, Afghanistan, Parts of Indian, Bangladesh, Iraq, and Palestine, Bosnia and so on? It is true that women have different rooting and live under varied social environments, nevertheless, this should not make it ‘acceptable’ that millions of them suffer from injustices disguised in ‘cultural’ norms. Yuval-Davis believes that women are not only different from each other but have different interests and that their different interests are not always reconcilable and might put them in conflict with each other. I will argue that different rooting as well as seeing the world differently, should work as a colourful map to let women to transcend into each other’s territories, instead of making barriers.   

Ideology as a tool of oppression and a source of identity

Another phenomenon which has created many controversies among women worldwide is ideology as a source of identity. Ideology refers to a system of beliefs that distort reality and is maintained by justifying the status quo, social, economic and political arrangements. In the words of Margaret Anderson: “Ideologies serve the powerful by presenting us with a definition of reality that is false and yet orders our comprehension of the surrounding world. When ideas emerge from ideologies, they operate as a form of social control by defining the status quo to be the proper state of affairs.’ Ideologies are thus political, they order how we ‘see’ and in turn ‘create’ different eventual access to power. As an ideology, social Darwinism justified the accumulation of wealth by powerful men while fostering a racist belief that biological inferiority –rather than European imperialism- explained the subordinated status of people of colour.

The dominant gender ideology in the United States fuses gender stereotypes with masculinist beliefs about families, sexuality, division of labour and construction of power and authority. The belief that men are by nature aggressive and sexually demanding and women are naturally passive and sexually submissive encourages other beliefs that legitimises systematic sexual abuse. Ideologies are often couched in terms of biological determination, posing narrow genetic or biological causes for complex social behaviour. Ideologies resist correction and critique, depoliticising what is in fact a political matter. As part of an ideology, religion, myths, educational systems, advertising and media are involved in reproducing images and the ‘way things should be’. Depending on what is required, As Ann Scission Runyan argues: ‘gender ideology may promote women as physically strong and capable of backbreaking work as in the case of slaves, or as dextrous and immune to boredom as in    the case of electronic assembly industries, or as fulltime housewives and devoted mothers. Ideologies are reconfigured to suit the changing interest of those in power, not those whose lives are most controlled by them.’

Socialism as an ideology and a just system convinced many women to struggle for a proletarian state which eventually will bring equality and liberation, once the working class took control. In the countries that the so-called ‘socialism’ took control, this never happened, although women gained some formal rights in the constitution and legal codes. What became the by-product of that failure was the rise of nationalistic and religious movements in the vacuum that was created by the collapse of socialist ideology. Now, at the end of the twentieth century, religious movements have replaced the old socialist ideology. Although to some people, religion means spirituality and human belief as a need to reconcile with materialistic world that is not the case for all. In the words of Rahini, ‘religion is not just spirituality for both those who practice religion and those who do not. Religion is a hierarchal, authoritarian, male dominated institution, which divides, rather than unite those who practice it by a sense of difference from and superiority to anyone outside a particular religious community.’ Religion as a faith and identity codifies many patriarchal practices and gives them divinity that is hard to dispute. Political religion is the product of its time, bearing traces of underlying tensions between difference world-views. At the root of the debate is the shift of balance of power between religion and the state, brought about by a host of factors, among them the bankruptcy of other ideologies which had failed to deliver their promises. Political religion invades peoples’ private corners. Freedom is restricted to what is defined in the archaic texts and conformity and uniformity of human minds, behaviour, eating and drinking habits as well as dress come under codification. In short, all aspects of social and private lives of a nation is uniformed and conformed and disobeying brings about severe punishment which might range from detention to receiving lashes in the public or prison and even death.

Ironically, women seek a sense of identity that relaxes patriarchal control, provided women engage only in activities that is in the interest of the ideology of the dominant group. I my belief, religion as a state ideology or in the hand of those groups who fight to gain power, is a strong tool to deceive the masses. It is a populist ideology based on communalism, racism, sexism and social stratification. 

 Even more than that, religion as a form of social control acts on the deep psychic of the poor and underprivileged. Here, I am in no sense arguing about religion as a faith that is personal, private and between the individual and God. I am talking about a religion that is political and highly volatile. Ironically, it is this form of religious movement that is on the increase and has found firm grounds among certain groups of women. The populist nature of this phenomenon that is on the rise and has drawn large number under its umbrella, using them as an army of believers and propagandists. At the same time, in the countries that alienation with Western and the legacy of colonialism has left its marks, large number of women, in search of finding new identities which is rooted in their indigenous cultures have taken refuge in these religious upheavals.

The ongoing mobilisation of these movements have created an atmosphere of excitement, unknown to women who were house-bound all their lives. For the first time, they have been engaged in activities which does not require male permission. Activities which are carried out collectively and give women a sense of social identity. Since these movement have excluded other groups of women, those who identify with them find themselves in position of power they were never in before. Also, as it has been the case in some countries, leaders of these movements have given ambivalent promises which have added to women’s enthusiasms.

Historically, women in the third world are vulnerable to promises. This is due to lack of political and democratic institutions, through which women could organise and raise their consciousness. Reforms had always been carried out from above, without women’s participation from below. Illusionary sense of security and identity, the notion of taking the followers to the ‘glorious past’ and extreme use of violence to silence ‘others’ has added to these ambiguities. Glorious past rejects notions of modernity and scientific and technological developments, in the name of ‘Western Corruption’, although at the same time uses all technological gadgets to achieve its goals. In the words of Ziba Mir-Hosseini, ‘What is novel, is the way in which gender relations have now become an integral part of these politics, a reflection of the changed position of women in these countries. While in the earlier parts of the twentieth century the modernists had the upper hand and aimed to change the laws in line with Western models, in the latter part, it is the fundamentalists who have the upper hand and argue for a return to the traditional values and structures.’ Even some women intellectuals and feminists have been confused and a backlash to modernity, modernism can be noticed within feminists in some parts of the world. Feminist notions have found some grounds to advance, however, there is also a concerted attempt to shy away women from ‘Western ideas’ and incorporate their energies into the so called ‘development’ projects. The argument is based on the assumption that development projects serve the interest of the whole population, while planning a feminist strategy, is a ‘Western’ notion and therefore not ‘suitable’ for women of the Third World.

Feminist politics of identity; can a strategy be established?

Although feminist strategies for change might be capable of offering a suitable alternative and build close links among women, they themselves are limited by the same tradition-bound concepts and therefore handicapped to understand and conceptualise the difficulties overwhelmed by the lack of sufficient discourse on the issue of women’s sisterhood. A discourse that aims to build up women’s solidarity takes into account the elements of world politics, international developments which effect women’s lives on the one hand, and elements of nationality, ethnicity and religion, on the other hand. Diversity and politics of difference, away from ethnocentrism, eurocentrism and hegemonic notions make it possible for women to transcend the barriers created by patriarchal systems. If the multiplicity and multidimensionality of women’s experiences and identity cannot be conceptualised, feminist agenda around sisterhood will face complexities that might problematize setting a strategy.

Simplistic answers to a discourse that is already contaminated by a lack of understanding the politics of ‘difference’ would lead to the swamp.  It is true that women suffer oppression within patriarchal systems, nevertheless, women’s experiences of oppression varies across social groupings. It is precisely this multiplicity that makes it problematic for Western feminism to establish its strategies.

Yuval-Davis points to the ‘Transversal politics’ which will be the basis of feminist solidarity and coalition. I am not certain if feminism can ever establish a universal strategy of sisterhood. However, transversal coalition seems more feasible. Yuval-Davis believes that the notion of transversal politics aims at avoiding the pitfalls of ‘universalist politics’ of early feminism on the one hand, and cultural relativism of some ‘anti-racist’ and multicultural feminism on the other hand. To work our way towards such politics, ‘identity’ must be defined and redefined in order to equate hegemonic notions. Transversal sisterhoodness breaks the boundaries between North and South by understanding the complexities surrounding women’s lives, by conceptualising the diversities and finding common grounds. Coalition solidarity are firmly based on women’s individualistic ‘rooting’. Women feel free to share their experiences. The right to criticise and further the discourse maintained on an equal basis. Women, without fearful of ‘decentring’ themselves contribute to a coalition that keeps their perspectives on things while empathising with, and respecting others.

Finally, it is essential to remember that so many concepts have separated us/women from each other that with all the good intentions, sisterhood and solidarity might not be achieved, at least on a large scale, no matter how hard we try. A fact that leaves a bitter taste in our mouths.


  1. Anderson, M.: Gender as a lens on world politics, in Global Gender Issues, by Spikes Peterson, V. and Sission Runyan. A. (1993) Westview Press, US
  2. Mir-Hosseini, Z. (1993) Marriage on Trial, A Study of the gender of world politics Islamic Law, Iran and Morocco Compared, I.B. Tauris & Co LtD
  3. Morgan, P.: The gender of world politics, in Global Gender Issues, by Spikes Peterson, V. and Sission Runyan. A. (1993) Westview Press, US
  4. Rahini, PH. The struggle against communalism: Defining our positive alternatives in Women Against Fundamentalism Journal no 6, 1995

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