Young Feminist Activism and Intergenerational Relationship Building
Reflections from AWID’s Young Feminist Activism Program Team: Sanushka Mudaliar, Australia/East Asia & Ghadeer Malek, Palestine/Canada
When we first sat down with our colleagues Hadil and Lindiwe to start planning for the forum we knew that it would be a great opportunity to encourage further discussion about age, young women and women’s movements. But we also knew that doing so would involve more than simply creating a supportive environment at the forum for youth-led sessions. We’d learned from the experience at the Guadalajara and Bangkok forums that the youth-led sessions were not well attended by older forum participants and that this limited multigenerational discussions. We wanted to change this dynamic.
We kicked off the planning process with a few key observations and decisions. We noted that recognition of the role of young women in women’s rights activism was increasing along with support for young women’s participation. But too often that support translated into a simplistic “add young women and stir” model of integration. We also recognized that even in situations where women of different generations worked side-by-side, the interaction between generations was often weak. We needed to encourage more women’s rights activists to move beyond participation and start actively strengthening intergenerational relationships within their specific contexts. We needed, in other words, to move away from the dichotomy of “young versus old” and start talking about the specific needs and contributions of every generation.
The forum theme - The Power of Movements - provided the perfect platform to generate dialogue on intergenerational relationships within our movements. But how, exactly, were we going to accomplish this? We decided that a committee was in order, and set one up with a roster of amazing and talented women of many ages from around the world. But rather than move directly to planning the forum, we started with a discussion about our personal experiences as younger and older women’s rights activists. We talked a lot about the power dynamics related to age and how these affect our attempts to learn across generations. We also challenged each other about the impact of a “young women’s identity” which, we agreed, has been critical in building a supportive community for young activists. At the same time this identity has alienated women of other generations as well as led to a glossing over of very real differences among young women themselves.
With these discussions fresh in our minds, the committee then developed a set of activities and inputs for the forum. Participation was the obvious first step, so we worked with AWID staff to ensure that presenters from a diverse range of ages were included in plenaries and breakout sessions. We publicized the Young Women’s Caucus as a place for young women to meet, share experiences and exchange ideas. However, noting the difficulties we’d discussed previously about the “youth identity” we decided that the Caucus should also reach out to all women by hosting a multigenerational lunch on the final day of the forum. We also set up a welcome booth and “friendship match-making” service for participants of all ages to meet others in their areas of activism. We did so in recognition of the fact that not all newcomers to the forum are young. And we actively encouraged participants to creatively represent their visions for ideal intergenerational relationships on the forum mural project.
Last, but definitely not least, we planned to bring hundreds of pink scarves to the forum. We agreed that the most interesting and useful conversations about multigenerationality would be one-on-one or in small groups that would enable people to really engage with this complex topic. We thought these more intimate discussions would also give participants the opportunity to share their personal stories of activism and, in doing so, actually build some of these relationships we’d been talking about. We wrote some questions to kick off the discussions, and then started looking around for something to get people interested in actually having this conversation with us. We chose scarves because we hoped people would wear them at the forum and take them home as a memento of their conversation. And why pink? Well, we wanted our message to be as noticeable as possible!
We had absolutely no idea whether the tactic would work, which made it all the more exciting to see people at just about every forum gathering proudly displaying their support for young women, intergenerational relationships and multigenerational movement building. The visibility of the pink scarves meant that everywhere you turned, you were reminded of the importance of these issues to women’s movements. These reminders, in turn, provoked a range of intense debates on everything from strategies to support new leadership and age-specific methods of organizing, to embracing diversity in our movements and organizations.
Thank you to the brilliant members of the forum committee and to all of you who listened and contributed. We hope you are continuing to nurture intergenerational relationships and discussing their role to our movements!
"Intergenerational Dialogue" By Perla Sofía Vázquez Díaz, Mexico, REDLAC-ELIGE
We arrived at the forum in Cape Town and after several days of complaints, talks and lobbying in the hallways or at the Young Women’s Caucus where young feminists invited other generations to converse and wear a pink scarf, they told us: “I support dialogue between generations. I’m ready to talk to them and for us to learn together.” -Young Latina woman at the AWID forum
Young women, whether self-identified as feminist or not, but most certainly engaged in transforming the world, participated in the 2008 AWID forum in Cape Town, South Africa. We used the opportunity to issue a strong call to action to our colleagues in social struggles to recognize the importance of youth in the women’s movement. Our message was this: to recognize the power of movements is to recognize the presence of new and older generations within those movements and the need to engage in dialogues. The power of movements is in recognizing and supporting young women as protagonists in the transformation of this world.
This is the view of at least some young activist women, and long before the forum took place (three or four months before) we designed strategies to promote reflection about difference, particularly to bring awareness to colleagues who don’t know young women in the movement or who still look upon young women as needing protection. We wanted to remind them that young women never again want to be thought of only as daughters or as having mothers; we want to be ‘sisters’.
The scarves were symbolically flooding the forum with pink. they were draped around necks, over clothes or tied into the hair styles of attendees, reminding and whispering that young women were present and that we had issued an invitation to recognize and dialogue.
Throughout the forum we invited young women to the daily Young Women’s Caucus. We invited them to discuss and re-think our agendas, our challenges, and the possibility of dialogue between young women from different regions speaking in different languages. On the last day of the caucus we invited everyone who said they would dialogue with youth and who were happy to wear the pink scarves to contribute a few hours of their time during lunch to this experience.
As we say in Mexico, actions speak louder than words: There were many young women present at the caucus planning how we might hold a dialogue with the large number of women we anticipated would participate in the intergenerational dialogue. Recognizing the cultural and language diversity of the women present at the forum we decided on a methodology based on regions of the world.
Eventually it was evident that there were many young women prepared for the dialogue (about 50) than older women, of which there were no more than 10. This outcome meant that possibility for dialogue was limited, but we made the most of our situation. We decided to hold a dialogue among the young women on what had happened. Sitting in groups by region, the young women of Latin America (LA) sat to discuss what was happening in our own region with these types of alliances between generations, and little by little, like sprinkles before the rain, our older adult colleagues from LA began to arrive. After a little while we formally opened a rich and flavorful intergenerational dialogue, which was the only one of its kind in the caucus.
When did you begin to call yourself a feminist? What were you like as a young person? How did you become involved in the feminist movement? We began our dialogue with these three questions. They proved to be sufficient, unleashing a steady flow of sharing, debate and the retelling of memories. We talked for an hour, reflecting on the histories of others and recognizing the histories of the youth of Spanish-speaking women in Nicaragua, Germany, Colombia, the United States, Bolivia, and Mexico. We became aware of our fears of calling ourselves feminists or the fear that someone else, generally our fathers, brothers or friends, would call us feminists. We saw in other women our critical and tense relationships with our mothers. We looked at ourselves with complicity when we remembered caricatures or with remembrance when we remembered the impact of the ideals of Central American revolutionary guerilla warfare or of liberation theology on our lives. It touched our hearts when we remembered our violent loves and the domestic abuse that we survived, as well as when we accepted lesbian love.
We recognized that for at least some of the Latinas that we spoke with on the last day of the caucus, the intergenerational dialogues brought us closer together than the political agendas or the recognition of youth as rights holders or protagonists of social change. They/We reminded us that the power of movements is in the people who make social change happen from their own hearts and who recognize in another colleague in the struggle the capacity to build together without abandoning our own history.
"Multigenerational Dialogue at the Young Women’s Caucus" By Kathambi Kinoti (AWID), Kenya
The final session of the Young Women’s Caucus was a multigenerational dialogue between older and younger feminists. The Caucus members had worked hard distributing its signature pink scarves to about seven hundred Forum participants, but the number of people over 30 years old who attended this session was small. However, despite the dismal showing by older women, the session provided for rich and meaningful discussions.
One of the key issues multigenerational dialogue proponents constantly grapple with is the power dynamics within feminist movements. Rathi Ramanathan, a Malaysian activist says that feminist spaces can be cliquish and that she and many other women tend to feel more at home in pro-democracy movements.
Peggy Antrobus from Barbados, who is 73 years old, offers an important insight; “young” isn’t always about age. She joined the women’s movement when she was 40. “The people who mentored me were younger,” she says, “and I have always looked up to them.” She does however acknowledge that there are issues of power related to age, class and other diversities. For instance in some situations a young white woman may be perceived as more powerful than an older black woman. Ponni Arasu, an Indian feminist agrees that older women can learn from young women. She points out: “It is never one-way learning.” She says that there is often an assumption about the role of young women, without an understanding that they do possess different sets of skills.
Vinita Sahasranaman, who is also from India, feels that some of the angst about multigenerational relations comes from the set up of feminist organizations. They need to have strategies for transition from one generation to the next, and older feminists need to recognize when it is time to make way for younger ones. “Dialogue and debate won’t work if one party doesn’t leave!” she points out.
Older feminists often want to be supportive of their younger colleagues, but do not know how. Some feel that there has not been a clear articulation of what kind of support young feminists need. Bonnie-Lou Fatio from Switzerland says, “We can’t read minds, so we need to know what it is that you need.”
Many young feminists, like Marwa Sharafeldin from Egypt, have had very supportive older mentors. Marwa’s mentor would tell her about important opportunities like conferences and would introduce her people who could contribute to her professional growth. Marwa suggests examining the way we speak to each other, because sometimes what we say valid, but the way that we say it discredits our words. “In the South,” she says “we honour and respect our elders and in return we are respected. As young women we need to realise that we have both rights and obligations within this respect paradigm.”
Many young feminists are in awe of older feminists whom they have heard or read about and feel nervous about introducing themselves to them or striking up a conversation. Abiosseh Davis from the USA says, “In meetings like this we meet people we admire and aspire to be like. Often we don’t want to walk up to them and talk to them, but we shouldn’t be so consumed with ourselves that we can’t do so.” She says that on the other had older women should not be so aloof. They need to acknowledge younger women.
Charlotte Young from South Africa appreciates hearing some of the older feminists candidly speak about their regrets. “It helps to realize that I don’t have to be perfect. These women are incredible, but it is helpful to know that they are human.” Merle Van Den Bosch from the UK feels that our behaviour is strongly influenced by painful childhood experiences and most people never deal with their pain, even into adulthood. She says that this pain is reflected in the ways we relate with others, and informs intergenerational tensions. She advocates emotional healing as a way to promote cohesion among the different generations.
Peggy Antrobus says that young women are more in touch with their world, and the world is changing all the time. “We need to listen to what they are saying,” she says “The ideas that come from young women just blow my mind.”
Young Feminists blogging at the AWID Forum
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