Saving Solidarity: Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World


Kumari Jayawardena's Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, out this week in a new edition in Verso's Feminist Classics series, is a landmark survey of nineteenth and twentieth century anti-colonial women's movements in Asia and the Middle East. 

Below, we present the Foreword to the new edition by Rafia Zakaria, attorney, a political philosopher and the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan.”

All the books in our Feminist Classics series are 40% off until October 2nd. Click here to activate your discount.

Rani of Jhansi Women's Regiment of the Indian National Army, training, early–mid 1940s. via End of Empire.   

The present de-colonial moment is not a hopeful one for feminist solidarity; the coming together of women from distant parts and portions of the world to claim in some unison the centrality of feminist identity seems an unlikely if not discarded project. The vagaries of power and privilege borne of colonialism have imposed disparate fates on the female; and as the dissection of these varied fortunes proceeds, the inequities unearthed, the injustices revealed have pushed dialogue into a realm rife with complication and recrimination. The replication of old colonial patterns in neo-imperial ventures such as the American foray into Afghanistan and Iraq, the former explicitly predicated on the ‘liberation’ of Afghan women, have further muddied the waters. US feminist groups such Feminist Majority have championed these allocations, ignoring their inherent attachment to bombings and raids. All of it recalls colonial patterns; and all of it has led to misgivings and an ever-expanding chasm between female activists, and questions about the possibility of solidarity.

It is not simply the formerly colonized who come with misgivings. In the West, post-feminist scepticism has rendered the very label ‘feminist’ irrelevant to some, and itchy, awkward and constricting to others. There have been arguments against the narrowness of the term feminist, against its capacity to include marginalized identities and to enable the intersections that such inclusion should garner. Resurrections of feminist discourse, to the extent they have occurred, have remained preoccupied largely if not exclusively with the concerns of the white, upper-middle-class woman, pushing tomes written around their careerist aspirations of Leaning In and Having it All to the tops of best-seller lists. Eagerly consumed and much discussed, they have moved feminist critique away from the state and instead to the individual female, her inability to speak up and model male aggression as at least partial reasons why gender inequality persists.

To modify Rousseau’s famous (and exclusionary) words, woman is born free but is everywhere in chains.

It is this quagmire of separation and scepticism that makes Kumari Jayawardena’s Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World a crucial text, the basis for answering questions that many believe have no answers. In tracing the history of early feminisms from India to Sri Lanka, Iran to Japan and several other countries, she provides a historical narrative that grounds feminist consciousness in indigenous histories, in the struggles of women whose names do not ordinarily appear in the nationalist stories that dominate most post-colonial societies. Even as she does this, she recognizes that such resurrections are themselves tainted by the sources from which they are constructed. The country studies in the volume, even while they refer mostly to historical periods prior to the advent of Western imperialism, rely inevitably on descriptions from ‘foreign missionaries and travellers, or from local nationalists, male reformers’ and only finally from ‘women who were active in feminist struggles’. This problem of sources that Jayawardena correctly identifies has led to one of two approaches to the task of excavating early feminist history. The first discards all for its taint; the second, equally a response to imperialism, reifies indigenous practices, even misogynistic ones, as a revitalization of lost cultural authenticity.

It is possible to evade both of these pitfalls, and Jayawardena’s work shows us how. Its relevance to two feminist audiences is the focus of the remainder of this essay.

The first are feminists in the West who seek to create more meaningful dialogue with feminists from the global south (the latter term having succeeded ‘Third World’ in global discourse). This includes everyone – aid workers, journalists, NGO staff, students and the ever growing cadres of Western female travellers – who want their experience of the world, and particularly of feminist consciousness, to be deeper than the puerile support of war-projects that sell themselves as directed by the emancipation of this or that group of impoverished females.

The second are feminists of the global south who are faced with the tricky task of calling out misogyny in traditional and cultural practices under the omniscient shadow of an imperialism that has justified evisceration of all colonized culture as justified by the moral project of improvement and enlightenment. As a columnist for Dawn, the largest English newspaper in Pakistan, I routinely face these questions from feminists who are fighting on two fronts: against misogynistic cultural norms resurrected as emblems of cultural authenticity and a necessity for de-colonization, and against a resurrected imperialism that routinely latches on to women’s issues to paint the non-white others as inherently backward, always requiring external assistance to realize equity or empowerment. It is these two groups that I wish to address, in turn, in this foreword.

To Western Feminists

Every year on International Women’s Day and sometimes on one of the other days that commemorate and seek to draw attention to an internationalist feminist identity, there is an attempt to make the feminist conversation ‘global’. In line with this effort, women from prior colonies or new ones, Pakistan and Haiti, Afghanistan and Iraq, are gathered on a stage at one or another conference, often held in cities that were colonial metropoles or, in the case of New York and Washington D.C., are centres of neo-imperial internationalism, and given a few minutes to speak about the challenges they face. The conversation is hopeful but predictable; women from the global south, eager to participate in a global discourse from which they are usually excluded, say all the right things; it is what they are expected to do in these contexts, their presence often paid for by Western host organizations eager to put their inclusiveness on display. There are hugs and sometimes tears; awards are often handed out and the commitment to a feminism based on solidarity is deemed fulfilled: the formerly oppressed or currently bombed have been given a moment, a fully paid trip to the better world, a role as an emissary from the lesser world.

This sort of interaction, one continually replicated, does nothing for feminist solidarity and reduces it to its most superficial and banal components. By their very architecture, invitations by Western organizations, governments or even academic institutions preclude the capacity and possibility of their guests from the lesser world to truly take on the areas of conflict that undermine feminist solidarity. In simple terms, the larger project, underlined so clearly in this book, of extricating feminist history from colonial domination (past or present) is left untouched. To put it in actual terms, an Afghan activist whose NGO is funded by USAID speaking at a forum in New York is unlikely to be in a position to point out that attaching the construction of women’s shelters to the presence of an occupying army does nothing cumulatively to empower women. If anything, it leaves them with the moral taint of being the covert agents of neo-imperialist domination.

The silence on these issues may preserve decorum, but it reduces feminist solidarity to a empty husk. One reason is that feminist interlocutors from the global south who have twenty minutes to speak, sometimes less at an international conference, can never quite explain the complexities of a history where feminist consciousness has developed in constant dialogue with colonialism and imperialism. For this, Western feminists must turn to the work of Kumari Jayawardena. In reading her sharp and succinct historical accounts of feminist awakenings, pre- and anti-colonial, they can fill the contextual gaps that now define the interaction between these feminists and feminists from the global south.

Doing so is likely to be the progenitor for many revelations unavailable to Western feminists, even those who seek to account for the differences in power and privilege that currently typify the north– south conversation. Among them may be the realization that the colonial enterprise’s evisceration of tradition did not necessarily target some archaic patriarchy but rather whatever was noxious to a narrow colonial mentality. In one example, Dutch and Portuguese colonizers in the 1800s were aghast by the Kingdom of Kandy, whose offending traditions included, among others, the custom of polyandry and forms of marriage in which the husband was incorporated into the wife’s family and could be expelled at will. It is also notable that the Kingdom of Kandy was a stolid opponent to imperial presence, though the latter won out eventually as Jayawardena says: ‘When the British captured Kandy, they attempted to change the marriage laws; basing themselves largely on a moral repugnance to polyandry; marriages were to be monogamous and registration was necessary if the children were to be deemed legitimate.’

Colonial enterprises have long been constructed, as neo-imperial enterprise is today, on being accompanied by women’s liberation – but women’s resistance to their own fetishization have been just as longstanding. Jayawardena introduces us to Raden Kartini, whose early feminist writings reveal not only a passionate commitment to women’s equality in Indonesia but also to the role of the newly liberated colonized woman within the larger political discourse of the colonizers. As she says: ‘We know why The Echo is glad to publish our articles. It is because we are a novelty and make fine advertisements for that paper. The Dutch “Lelie” placed its columns at my disposal and time and again the directress has asked for letters from me. Why? For the advertisement letters from the true daughter of the Orient, from a real “Javanese girl”, thoughts from such a half wild creature written by herself in a European language, how interesting.’

Kartini’s words could well capture the position of the Afghan or Iraqi woman of today, whose ‘authentic’ reflections are much in demand on the feminist conference circuit or in publications as a moral gloss for American intervention for those countries. Instead, Jayawardena provides a substantive genealogy for the sort of feminist engagement that is dictated by the production of a moral basis for intervention, rather than true dialogue. In considering how central colonialism and the nationalism birthed alongside resistance to it is to the ontology of feminism in the global south, one hopes that Western feminists can see how the flaws of current international engagements fit into a historical legacy. In providing us a history that is centred so integrally on the feminist experience, Jayawardena has given us a connection to the past, which inevitably presents us with a path to the future.

To Feminists in the Global South

As a young girl growing up in Pakistan, I barely ever heard the word ‘feminist’. There were strong women around me, even a female prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, but never this idea of a commitment to gender equality being somehow central to one’s identity. On the obverse, I saw a vast chasm between Bhutto and her glitzy entourage and the general condition of women in Pakistan, which was defined by powerlessness and poverty. Jayawardena’s introduction to her chapter on Sri Lanka hence struck a chord: she recalls the great attention Sri Lanka garnered in 1960, when a woman, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became the world’s first female prime minister. There is a tendency, Jayawardena points out, to elevate the extraordinary achievements of individual women as indicative of the general condition of women in the country. It was a problem in 1960 when Bandaranaike was elected, it was a problem in 1988 when Bhutto was elected, and it is still one today.

This dominance by an elite-led feminism, constricted by class-bred opportunity, is one of the most important themes of Jayawardena’s book. In her descriptions of early feminisms in Afghanistan and India, in Iran and Egypt, one sees the charge for emancipation led primarily and sometimes exclusively by women from the highest echelons of society. In Afghanistan, for instance, ‘in 1928 Queen Surayya appeared unveiled in public and it was decreed that women should in future discard the veil’. Attaching veiling and other women’s empowerment projects to a monarch’s agenda proved, of course, to be a bad idea; for when the king fell, so too came an end to the women’s empowerment agenda that he had ‘decreed’.

A similar trend of ‘queen feminism’ can be seen in early feminist organizing in India. Consider for instance, Jayawardena’s description of the activities of the All-India Women’s Conference:

At the 1928 sessions of the conference in Delhi, Muslim women’s participation was much in evidence; the name was changed to All-India Women’s Conference (AIWC) and a Muslim president was appointed, the Begum Mother of Bhopal, Maimoona Sultana. In 1929, the AIWC conference in Patna elected the Rani of Mandi as President. There is hopefulness and distress encapsulated in this description. On one hand it is hopeful that Muslim women were joining the ranks of feminist organizing in India; on the other it is notable that it is mostly the queens who seem to ascend to leadership positions.

Sometimes, the passage of time makes the past more palatable; at others, it inflects it with even further tragedy. In the case of this particular description of Muslim feminist organizing in India (or the soon-to-be-created Pakistan), it would be the latter. Jayawardena’s isolation of class as an obstacle that feminist organizing confronted is an important one; in some countries like Pakistan, this obstacle remains un-surmounted with the feminism of workers’ movements unable to coalesce successfully with that progeny of ‘queen feminism’. For a more robust feminist future, class divisions within the global south must be confronted and overcome.

In the conclusion to her book, Jayawardena writes hopefully of the raising of consciousness among women workers in Asia regarding their rights and feminist awakening. It is indeed true that the labor of these workers, who produce so much of what the rest of the world wears, plays with, eats with or sleeps on, is where the future of feminism in the global south lies. The narratives of these women who participate in the global capitalist economy, are sidelined by a feminist discourse dominated by white Western women preaching fast tracks to CEO positions.

The chasm is a significant one. But this book, as a compendium of female courage from long before feminism was a term, and far beyond the existence of most nations as we know them today, provides potential for a bridge. In Jayawardena’s snapshots of Asian countries and in her excavation of feminist histories, is the possibility of reclaiming a belief in the broad, global universality of women’s struggles, in a dialogue and a feminist solidarity built on a material interconnection that requires urgent and immediate resurrection.

Kumari Jayawardena: Feminist, Scholar, Socialist

In her essay on Kumari Jayawardena’s work, Selvy Thiruchandran writes that ‘socialist feminists were and still are criticized by orthodox Marxists for shifting the analysis from class analysis to gender analysis.’ The description is important; it reveals how feminists, regardless of their location in the global north or south, face opposition from the generally male-dominated cadres of intellectual discourse because of the project of interposing gender identity into systems of analysis that they (men) believe to be perfectly adequate.

Jayawardena’s life and work are both testaments to her intellectual and personal perseverance, the destiny perhaps of all those who seek to chart a different course from the well worn and best known. Born of a Sri Lankan father and a British mother, the home she grew up in likely modeled the very bridges that underlie much of her scholarly work. Her father, Dr. A.P. de Zoysa, was a politician and a Buddhist scholar; her mother, Eleanor Hutton, an avid patron of the arts. Their cumulative influence must have created a vibrant household and an international one. Activism must also have come early; Eleanor was a member of the Sri Lankan Women’s Conference and attended many international women’s conferences. Zoysa’s views on women were not only enlightened but also revolutionary for the time; as a member of the State Council, he introduced a motion to abolish the Dowry system in Sri Lanka. The vote was tied and the deputy speaker, a man named Susantha de Fonseca, had to break it. He voted no and the motion was defeated.

As a young woman, Jayawardena attended the London School of Economics in the 1950s, befriending many young politicians, including Ralph Milliband, and becoming a part of the anti-colonial left. Thus began an academic and activist career that continues today and that has been marked by pioneering achievements. She joined the faculty of the University of Colombo in 1969 and served there until 1985. Jayawardena’s commitment to both scholarship and activism can be seen in her efforts to establish the Worker’s Education Centre at the University. In 1978, she helped found a magazine called Voice for Women, published in three national languages in Sri Lanka. The Women’s Education Center was established in 1982 as a means to further develop the Voice for Women agenda of gender equality and to bring together South Asian feminists to share their experiences and activism. It also led to the creation of the South Asian Feminists Research Association (SAFRA). Jayawardena has held visiting professor appointments in different parts of the world, and was a fellow of the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College, Harvard in the United States.

These of course are the points on a resume that make up the official account of Jayawardena’s work; its more crucial contribution is her commitment to the dissection of how histories, both global and local, are constructed to exclude women and underscore narratives of a dominant majority. When her compendium of essays Ethnic and Class Conflict in Sri Lanka was published in 1984, it was met with much criticism by Sinhala nationalists who took issue with her project of analyzing distortions in Sri Lankan history. It is but one example of the virulent backlash faced by feminist scholars who seek to underscore how narratives are manipulated by both imperial and colonizing powers as well as post-colonial nationalists. This two-front war, academic and activist, is the central theme of Jayawardena’s work and of this volume in particular.

1 December 2015

Kumari Jayawardena's Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, out this week in a new edition in Verso's Feminist Classics series, is a landmark survey of nineteenth and twentieth century anti-colonial women's movements in Asia and the Middle East. 

All the books in our Feminist Classics series are 40% off until October 2ndClick here to activate your discount.