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The past, present and future of feminist activism in Pakistan

Rubina Saigol

Aurat March 2019 was one of the most exciting feminist events in recent years. Its sheer scale,
magnitude, diversity and inclusivity were unprecedented. Women belonging to different social classes,
regions, religions, ethnicities and sects came together on a common platform to protest the multiple
patriarchies that control, limit and constrain their self-expression and basic rights. From home-based
workers to teachers, from transgender to queer — all protested in their unique and innovative ways.
Men and boys in tow, carrying supportive placards, the marchers reflected unity within diversity, seldom
seen in Pakistan’s polarised and divisive social landscape.

Carried out in many cities across Pakistan, the march took both its supporters and detractors by
surprise. No one expected such a big turnout and in so many cities with truth-laden and daring placards.
The intensity of the vitriol seen in the backlash to the march testifies to its enormous success — it
certainly managed to hit patriarchy where it hurts.

Aurat March 2019 also marks a tectonic shift from the previous articulations of feminism in Pakistan. It
would not be far-fetched to say that it has inaugurated a new phase in feminism, qualitatively different
from the earlier movements for women rights. While the past expressions of feminism laid the
foundation for what we see today, the radical shift of feminist politics from a focus on the public sphere
to the private one – from the state and the society to home and family – manifests nothing short of a
revolutionary impulse. Feminism in Pakistan has come of age as it unabashedly asserts that the personal
is political and that the patriarchal divide between the public and the private is ultimately false.

The social, political and historical context of each previous form of feminism was different and the
feminist issues of each era arose from particular moments in national and global histories. In the early
years of Pakistan’s formation, the wounds inflicted by the bloodstained Partition were fresh. Women
activists were focused on welfare issues, such as the rehabilitation of refugees, because that kind of
work had social respectability within the traditional cultural milieu.

Pakistan also inherited many social issues – such as polygamy, purdah, child marriage, inheritance,
divorce and the right to education – from the pre-Partition times. Many of the demands for social and
legal reforms on these issues were acceptable even within the bounds of religion. So, there was no fear
of women upsetting the applecart when they asked for these reforms.

Participants of Aurat March in Karachi holding a symbolic funeral of patriarchy | Shakil Adil, White Star

The 1960s saw the proliferation of women’s welfare and development organisations but it was the All
Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA) that became the face of the women’s movement in the country
in that decade. The passage of the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance, pushed by APWA, reflected a minor
ingress by the state in the private sphere as it placed certain procedural limits on the men’s arbitrary
right of divorce and gave women some rights regarding child custody and maintenance. Even the small
changes repeatedly stirred public controversy with clerics clamouring for the reversal of the ordinance.

APWA’s approach was characterised by two salient features: one, the focus on social welfare and
development work involving girls’ education and income-generation activities; two, the collaboration
with the state to achieve its aims. APWA shied away from an overtly political position in that it did not
contest dictatorship. It did not ruffle any religious or political feathers and preferred to play it safe even
when Fatima Jinnah, a woman, remained the sole campaigner against dictatorship. The cooperation and
collaboration of women leaders with the state to attain women’s rights continued during the civilian
rule of the Pakistan Peoples Party (1971-1977).

The feminist movement and the women’s rights struggle that arose in the 1980s, spearheaded by
Women’s Action Forum (WAF) in the urban areas and Sindhiani Tehreek in rural Sindh, were significant
for their overtly political stance. As both these movements were formed in the context of a
hypernationalist absolute dictatorship that relied on a particular version of religion for legitimacy, they
consistently challenged both the military rule and the incursion of religion in politics. WAF struggled for
a democratic, inclusive, plural and secular state while Sindhiani Tehreek strove for an end to feudalism
and patriarchy, sought the restoration of democracy and championed the principle of federalism and
provincial autonomy.

These movements represent a significant break from the former paradigm of collaboration and
cooperation with the state. They challenged patriarchal power in every domain — political, religious and
legal. Unlike the welfare and social uplift-oriented movements of the 1960s, the struggles launched by
women in the 1980s were essentially political movements anchored in the ideas of democracy, basic
rights and sociopolitical change. As they confronted the authoritarian state, women in these movements
could ill-afford to play it safe like their predecessors. They, therefore, engaged in frequent street
protests and demonstrations. They took risks and were occasionally beaten, jailed, baton-charged and
otherwise threatened by the dominant religious-military patriarchies of the time.

WAF had to respond quickly and frequently because of the rapid pace at which the regime was
promulgating discriminatory laws and taking anti-women measures. The focus of the WAF members was
squarely on the public sphere where the state machinery was utilised to brutally repress anyone who
dared to stand up to the dictatorship. The aggressive and intrusive reconstitution of the private sphere,
through instruments such as the Hudood Ordinances, had to be resisted at the public level by fighting
legal cases, speaking up and protesting on the street.

Given the dizzying pace at which the regime and its religious allies had to be countered, there was little
room for internal reflection in WAF. Although most of its founders had a strong feminist background and
a feminist lens for unpacking the dominant narratives, the space for interrogating private life had
shrunk. WAF members knew that patriarchies work through the bodies of women and write their
strictures on those bodies. They also understood that the traditional family, which controls and
organises the human body and sexuality, is the mainstay of patriarchies. Yet they were constantly
occupied with contesting the state’s laws being drawn from a singular interpretation of religion. In
private conversations, the politics of the body in the body politic were often discussed but, publicly,
WAF was only engaged in countering the imperious state.

Some of the reasons for the reticence were internal. WAF was composed of a diverse set of
organisations and individuals with differing perspectives on religion, culture and tradition. This diversity
grew out of the necessity to have maximum numbers to confront a heavy-handed regime. WAF was
reluctant to take too radical a stand on the body, sexuality and the family as many of its members were
religious, conservative and deeply embedded in traditional family systems. The conversations on the
body, sexuality and the freedom to express oneself in one’s own way did not become a part of the
official public agenda of WAF.

Ironically, while WAF members avoided public discussions on the body and sexuality, the state and
religious clerics had no such qualms; their focus was squarely on the woman’s body — the need to
conceal it, cover it, protect it and preserve it for its rightful ‘owner’. The state was consistently referring
to sexuality (for example, in laws on fornication, zina), the veil and the four walls of the house — all
designed to control the rebellious and potentially dangerous female body capable of irredeemable

This is where the new feminists break from the older generation and mark a powerful shift in the
feminist landscape. Even as new feminism retains many of the older critiques of the state,
fundamentalism and militarism and reflects the desire for equality and democracy, it reaffirms the
personal and injects it right into the heart of the political. ‘My body, my will’, it tells patriarchy to its
crestfallen face. ‘Warm your own food’, ‘I don’t have to warm your bed’, ‘don’t send me dick pics’ — in
curt one-liners, the new young feminists reclaim their bodies, denounce sexual harassment, stake a
claim to public space and challenge the gender division of labour on which rests the entire edifice of

The new wave of feminism includes people from all classes, genders, religions, cultures and sects
without any discrimination or prejudice. The young feminists are diverse, yet inclusive, multiple yet one.
There are no leaders or followers — they are all leaders and followers. The collective non-hierarchical
manner of working and the refusal to take any funding is similar to the functioning practised by WAF
and represents continuity with the past. But the entire framing of the narrative around the body,
sexuality, personal choices and rights is new. The young groups of women say openly what their
grandmothers could not dare to think and their mothers could not dare to speak.

They say what women have known for centuries but have not been able to voice. They have broken the
silences imposed by various patriarchies in the name of religion, tradition and culture. They have torn
down so many false barriers including the four walls of morality built to stifle their selves and curb their

The backlash has been swift, fierce and expected. Patriarchy began to shake in its boots and masculine
anxiety reached a peak as women hit it where it hurt. The self-appointed guardians of morality, who in
the past never touched the issues of violence and inequality, have been quick to condemn the marching
women in their television chatter shows, puny little newspaper columns and silly tweets. The blowback
from little people is not new for feminists.

The critics certainly cannot stop the marchers. Will money hinder their path? There are questions about
the sustainability of the feminist movement given that the young feminists do not take any funding from
corporate, government or foreign donors. The tremendous energy and passion generated by the march,
however, are enough to ensure that these activists will continue marching into unknown but exciting

Reactions to Aurat March, held on the International Women’s Day on March 8, 2019, ranged from
supportive to condemnatory and everything in between. The national conversation that followed raised
some important questions not only about the role and status of women in the Pakistani society but also
the significance of the issues highlighted by the marchers.

Partaking in this conversation, we devised a set of questions and sent them to different feminist
activists, all aged below 30, who had taken part in the march. Our endeavour is aimed at finding – as
well as recording – their responses to the criticism of the issues raised by the marchers. It is also an
attempt to explore their personal and ideological reasons for joining feminist activism.

The questions follow:

Q1. How and when did feminist activism become relevant to you and why?

Q2. How do you view the evolution of feminism in Pakistan? Do you see any difference between the
movement launched for women’s rights during the era of General Ziaul Haq and the contemporary
feminist activism?

Q3. There are always social, cultural, religious and even economic costs of being a feminist in Pakistan.
How do these challenges impact your activism?

Q4. What else, besides Aurat March, should women activists in Pakistan do to make themselves heard?

Q5. Do you think feminist activism in Pakistan can succeed in securing women’s rights without
addressing the divisions caused by class, caste, ethnicity and religion?

The waves of feminism, and why people keep fighting over them, explained

If you have no idea which wave of feminism we’re in right now, read this.

By Constance Grady

As the #MeToo movement barrels forward, as record numbers of women seek office, and as the
Women’s March drives the resistance against the Trump administration, feminism is reaching a level of
cultural relevance it hasn’t enjoyed in years. It’s now a major object of cultural discourse — which has
led to some very confusing conversations because not everyone is familiar with or agrees on the basic
terminology of feminism. And one of the most basic and most confusing terms has to do with waves of

People began talking about feminism as a series of waves in 1968 when a New York Times article by
Martha Weinman Lear ran under the headline “The Second Feminist Wave.” “Feminism, which one
might have supposed as dead as a Polish question, is again an issue,” Lear wrote. “Proponents call it the
Second Feminist Wave, the first having ebbed after the glorious victory of suffrage and disappeared,
finally, into the sandbar of Togetherness.”

The wave metaphor caught on: It became a useful way of linking the women’s movement of the ’60s
and ’70s to the women’s movement of the suffragettes, and to suggest that the women’s libbers
weren’t a bizarre historical aberration, as their detractors sneered, but a new chapter in a grand history
of women fighting together for their rights. Over time, the wave metaphor became a way to describe
and distinguish between different eras and generations of feminism.

It’s not a perfect metaphor. “The wave metaphor tends to have built into it an important metaphorical
implication that is historically misleading and not helpful politically,” argued feminist historian Linda
Nicholson in 2010. “That implication is that underlying certain historical differences, there is one
phenomenon, feminism, that unites gender activism in the history of the United States, and that like a
wave, peaks at certain times and recedes at others. In sum, the wave metaphor suggests the idea that
gender activism in the history of the United States has been for the most part unified around one set of
ideas, and that set of ideas can be called feminism.”

The wave metaphor can be reductive. It can suggest that each wave of feminism is a monolith with a
single unified agenda, when in fact the history of feminism is a history of different ideas in wild conflict.

It can reduce each wave to a stereotype and suggest that there’s a sharp division between generations
of feminism, when in fact there’s a fairly strong continuity between each wave — and since no wave is a
monolith, the theories that are fashionable in one wave are often grounded in the work that someone
was doing on the sidelines of a previous wave. And the wave metaphor can suggest that mainstream
feminism is the only kind of feminism there is, when feminism is full of splinter movements.

And as waves pile upon waves in feminist discourse, it’s become unclear that the wave metaphor is
useful for understanding where we are right now. “I don’t think we are in a wave right now,” gender
studies scholar April Sizemore-Barber told Vox in January. “I think that now feminism is inherently
intersectional feminism — we are in a place of multiple feminisms.”

But the wave metaphor is also probably the best tool we have for understanding the history of feminism
in the US, where it came from and how it developed. And it’s become a fundamental part of how we talk
about feminism — so even if we end up deciding to discard it, it’s worth understanding exactly what
we’re discarding.

Here is an overview of the waves of feminism in the US, from the suffragettes to #MeToo. This is a broad
overview, and it won’t capture every nuance of the movement in each era. Think of it as a Feminism 101
explainer, here to give you a framework to understand the feminist conversation that’s happening right
now, how we got here, and where we go next.

The first wave: 1848 to 1920

People have been suggesting things along the line of “Hmmm, are women maybe human beings?” for all
of history, so first-wave feminism doesn’t refer to the first feminist thinkers in history. It refers to the
West’s first sustained political movement dedicated to achieving political equality for women: the
suffragettes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

For 70 years, the first-wavers would march, lecture, and protest, and face arrest, ridicule, and violence
as they fought tooth and nail for the right to vote. As Susan B. Anthony’s biographer Ida Husted Harper
would put it, suffrage was the right that, once a woman had won it, “would secure to her all others.”

The first wave basically begins with the Seneca Falls convention of 1848. There, almost 200 women met
in a church in upstate New York to discuss “the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of
women.” Attendees discussed their grievances and passed a list of 12 resolutions calling for specific
equal rights — including, after much debate, the right to vote.

The whole thing was organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who were both active
abolitionists. (They met when they were both barred from the floor of the 1840 World Anti-Slavery
Convention in London; no women were allowed.)

At the time, the nascent women’s movement was firmly integrated with the abolitionist movement: The
leaders were all abolitionists, and Frederick Douglass spoke at the Seneca Falls Convention, arguing for
women’s suffrage. Women of color like Sojourner Truth, Maria Stewart, and Frances E.W. Harper were
major forces in the movement, working not just for women’s suffrage but for universal suffrage.

But despite the immense work of women of color for the women’s movement, the movement of
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony eventually established itself as a movement specifically for
white women, one that used racial animus as fuel for its work.

The 15th Amendment’s passage in 1870, granting black men the right to vote, became a spur that
politicized white women and turned them into suffragettes. Were they truly not going to be granted the
vote before former slaves were?

“If educated women are not as fit to decide who shall be the rulers of this country, as ‘field hands,’ then
where’s the use of culture, or any brain at all?” demanded one white woman who wrote in to Stanton
and Anthony’s newspaper, the Revolution. “One might as well have been ‘born on the plantation.’”
Black women were barred from some demonstrations or forced to walk behind white women in others.

Despite its racism, the women’s movement developed radical goals for its members. First-wavers fought
not only for white women’s suffrage but also for equal opportunities to education and employment, and
for the right to own property.

And as the movement developed, it began to turn to the question of reproductive rights. In 1916,
Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the US, in defiance of a New York state law that
forbade the distribution of contraception. She would later go on to establish the clinic that became
Planned Parenthood.

In 1920, Congress passed the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. (In theory, it granted
the right to women of all races, but in practice, it remained difficult for black women to vote, especially
in the South.)

The 19th Amendment was the grand legislative achievement of the first wave. Although individual
groups continued to work — for reproductive freedom, for equality in education and employment, for
voting rights for black women — the movement as a whole began to splinter. It no longer had a unified
goal with strong cultural momentum behind it, and it would not find another until the second wave
began to take off in the 1960s.

The second wave: 1963 to the 1980s

The second wave of feminism begins with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which came out in
1963. There were prominent feminist thinkers before Friedan who would come to be associated with
the second wave — most importantly Simone de Beauvoir, whose Second Sex came out in France in
1949 and in the US in 1953 — but The Feminine Mystique was a phenomenon. It sold 3 million copies in
three years.

The Feminine Mystique rails against “the problem that has no name”: the systemic sexism that taught
women that their place was in the home and that if they were unhappy as housewives, it was only
because they were broken and perverse. “I thought there was something wrong with me because I
didn’t have an orgasm waxing the kitchen floor,” Friedan later quipped.

But, she argued, the fault didn’t truly lie with women, but rather with the world that refused to allow
them to exercise their creative and intellectual faculties. Women were right to be unhappy; they were
being ripped off.

The Feminine Mystique was not revolutionary in its thinking, as many of Friedan’s ideas were already
being discussed by academics and feminist intellectuals. Instead, it was revolutionary in its reach. It
made its way into the hands of housewives, who gave it to their friends, who passed it along through a
whole chain of well-educated middle-class white women with beautiful homes and families. And it gave
them permission to be angry.

And once those 3 million readers realized that they were angry, feminism once again had cultural
momentum behind it. It had a unifying goal, too: not just political equality, which the first-wavers had
fought for, but social equality.

“The personal is political,” said the second-wavers. (The phrase cannot be traced back to any individual
woman but was popularized by Carol Hanisch.) They would go on to argue that problems that seemed to
be individual and petty — about sex, and relationships, and access to abortions, and domestic labor —
were in fact systemic and political, and fundamental to the fight for women’s equality.

So the movement won some major legislative and legal victories: The Equal Pay Act of 1963 theoretically
outlawed the gender pay gap; a series of landmark Supreme Court cases through the ’60s and ’70s gave
married and unmarried women the right to use birth control; Title IX gave women the right to
educational equality; and in 1973, Roe v. Wade guaranteed women reproductive freedom.

The second wave worked on getting women the right to hold credit cards under their own names and to
apply for mortgages. It worked to outlaw marital rape, to raise awareness about domestic violence and
build shelters for women fleeing rape and domestic violence. It worked to name and legislate against
sexual harassment in the workplace.

But perhaps just as central was the second wave’s focus on changing the way society thought about
women. The second wave cared deeply about the casual, systemic sexism ingrained into society — the
belief that women’s highest purposes were domestic and decorative, and the social standards that
reinforced that belief — and in naming that sexism and ripping it apart.

The second wave cared about racism too, but it could be clumsy in working with people of color. As the
women’s movement developed, it was rooted in the anti-capitalist and anti-racist civil rights
movements, but black women increasingly found themselves alienated from the central platforms of the
mainstream women’s movement.

The Feminine Mystique and its “problem that has no name” was specifically for white middle-class
women: Women who had to work to support themselves experienced their oppression very differently
from women who were socially discouraged from working.

Earning the right to work outside the home was not a major concern for black women, many of whom
had to work outside the home anyway. And while black women and white women both advocated for
reproductive freedom, black women wanted to fight not just for the right to contraception and
abortions but also to stop the forced sterilization of people of color and people with disabilities, which
was not a priority for the mainstream women’s movement. In response, some black feminists decamped

from feminism to create womanism. (“Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender,” Alice Walker
wrote in 1983.)

Even with its limited scope, second-wave feminism at its height was plenty radical enough to scare
people — hence the myth of the bra burners. Despite the popular story, there was no mass burning of
bras among second-wave feminists.

But women did gather together in 1968 to protest the Miss America pageant and its demeaning,
patriarchal treatment of women. And as part of the protest, participants ceremoniously threw away
objects that they considered to be symbols of women’s objectification, including bras and copies of

That the Miss America protest has long lingered in the popular imagination as a bra-burning, and that
bra-burning has become a metonym for postwar American feminism, says a lot about the backlash to
the second wave that would soon ensue.

In the 1980s, the comfortable conservatism of the Reagan era managed to successfully position second-
wave feminists as humorless, hairy-legged shrews who cared only about petty bullshit like bras instead
of real problems, probably to distract themselves from the loneliness of their lives, since no man would
ever want a (shudder) feminist.

“I don’t think of myself as a feminist,” a young woman told Susan Bolotin in 1982 for the New York
Times Magazine. “Not for me, but for the guy next door that would mean that I’m a lesbian and I hate

Another young woman chimed in, agreeing. “Look around and you’ll see some happy women, and then
you’ll see all these bitter, bitter women,” she said. “The unhappy women are all feminists. You’ll find
very few happy, enthusiastic, relaxed people who are ardent supporters of feminism.”

That image of feminists as angry and man-hating and lonely would become canonical as the second
wave began to lose its momentum, and it continues to haunt the way we talk about feminism today. It
would also become foundational to the way the third wave would position itself as it emerged.

The third wave: 1991(?) to ????

It is almost impossible to talk with any clarity about the third wave because few people agree on exactly
what the third wave is, when it started, or if it’s still going on. “The confusion surrounding what
constitutes third wave feminism,” writes feminist scholar Elizabeth Evans, “is in some respects its
defining feature.”

But generally, the beginning of the third wave is pegged to two things: the Anita Hill case in 1991, and
the emergence of the riot grrrl groups in the music scene of the early 1990s.

In 1991, Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Supreme Court nominee
Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her at work. Thomas made his way to the Supreme Court
anyway, but Hill’s testimony sparked an avalanche of sexual harassment complaints, in much the same
way that last fall’s Harvey Weinstein accusations were followed by a litany of sexual misconduct
accusations against other powerful men.

And Congress’s decision to send Thomas to the Supreme Court despite Hill’s testimony led to a national
conversation about the overrepresentation of men in national leadership roles. The following year,
1992, would be dubbed “the Year of the Woman” after 24 women won seats in the House of
Representatives and three more won seats in the Senate.

And for the young women watching the Anita Hill case in real time, it would become an awakening. “I
am not a postfeminism feminist,” declared Rebecca Walker (Alice Walker’s daughter) for Ms. after
watching Thomas get sworn into the Supreme Court. “I am the Third Wave.”

Early third-wave activism tended to involve fighting against workplace sexual harassment and working
to increase the number of women in positions of power. Intellectually, it was rooted in the work of
theorists of the ’80s: Kimberlé Crenshaw, a scholar of gender and critical race theory who coined the
term intersectionality to describe the ways in which different forms of oppression intersect; and Judith
Butler, who argued that gender and sex are separate and that gender is performative. Crenshaw and
Butler’s combined influence would become foundational to the third wave’s embrace of the fight for
trans rights as a fundamental part of intersectional feminism.

Aesthetically, the third wave is deeply influenced by the rise of the riot grrrls, the girl groups who
stomped their Doc Martens onto the music scene in the 1990s.

“BECAUSE doing/reading/seeing/hearing cool things that validate and challenge us can help us gain the
strength and sense of community that we need in order to figure out how bullshit like racism, able-
bodieism, ageism, speciesism, classism, thinism, sexism, anti-semitism and heterosexism figures in our
own lives,” wrote Bikini Kill lead singer Kathleen Hanna in the Riot Grrrl Manifesto in 1991. “BECAUSE
we are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak.”

The word girl here points to one of the major differences between second- and third-wave feminism.
Second-wavers fought to be called women rather than girls: They weren’t children, they were fully
grown adults, and they demanded to be treated with according dignity. There should be no more college
girls or coeds: only college women, learning alongside college men.

But third-wavers liked being girls. They embraced the word; they wanted to make it empowering, even
threatening — hence grrrl. And as it developed, that trend would continue: The third wave would go on
to embrace all kinds of ideas and language and aesthetics that the second wave had worked to reject:
makeup and high heels and high-femme girliness.

In part, the third-wave embrace of girliness was a response to the anti-feminist backlash of the 1980s,
the one that said the second-wavers were shrill, hairy, and unfeminine and that no man would ever

want them. And in part, it was born out of a belief that the rejection of girliness was in itself
misogynistic: girliness, third-wavers argued, was not inherently less valuable than masculinity or

And it was rooted in a growing belief that effective feminism had to recognize both the dangers and the
pleasures of the patriarchal structures that create the beauty standard and that it was pointless to
punish and censure individual women for doing things that brought them pleasure.

Third-wave feminism had an entirely different way of talking and thinking than the second wave did —
but it also lacked the strong cultural momentum that was behind the grand achievements of the second
wave. (Even the Year of Women turned out to be a blip, as the number of women entering national
politics plateaued rapidly after 1992.)

The third wave was a diffuse movement without a central goal, and as such, there’s no single piece of
legislation or major social change that belongs to the third wave the way the 19th Amendment belongs
to the first wave or Roe v. Wade belongs to the second.

Depending on how you count the waves, that might be changing now, as the #MeToo moment develops
with no signs of stopping — or we might be kicking off an entirely new wave.

The present day: a fourth wave?

Feminists have been anticipating the arrival of a fourth wave since at least 1986, when a letter writer to
the Wilson Quarterly opined that the fourth wave was already building. Internet trolls actually tried to
launch their own fourth wave in 2014, planning to create a “pro-sexualization, pro-skinny, anti-fat”
feminist movement that the third wave would revile, ultimately miring the entire feminist community in
bloody civil war. (It didn’t work out.)

But over the past few years, as #MeToo and Time’s Up pick up momentum, the Women’s March floods
Washington with pussy hats every year, and a record number of women prepare to run for office, it’s
beginning to seem that the long-heralded fourth wave might actually be here.

While a lot of media coverage of #MeToo describes it as a movement dominated by third-wave

feminism, it actually seems to be centered in a movement that lacks the characteristic diffusion of the
third wave. It feels different.

“Maybe the fourth wave is online,” said feminist Jessica Valenti in 2009, and that’s come to be one of
the major ideas of fourth-wave feminism. Online is where activists meet and plan their activism, and it’s
where feminist discourse and debate takes place. Sometimes fourth-wave activism can even take place
on the internet (the “#MeToo” tweets), and sometimes it takes place on the streets (the Women’s
March), but it’s conceived and propagated online.

As such, the fourth wave’s beginnings are often loosely pegged to around 2008, when Facebook,
Twitter, and YouTube were firmly entrenched in the cultural fabric and feminist blogs like Jezebel and
Feministing were spreading across the web. By 2013, the idea that we had entered a fourth wave was
widespread enough that it was getting written up in the Guardian. “What’s happening now feels like
something new again,” wrote Kira Cochrane.

Currently, the fourth-wavers are driving the movement behind #MeToo and Time’s Up, but in previous
years they were responsible for the cultural impact of projects like Emma Sulkowicz’s Mattress
Performance (Carry That Weight), in which a rape victim at Columbia University committed to carrying
their mattress around campus until the university expelled their rapist.

The trending hashtag #YesAllWomen after the UC Santa Barbara shooting was a fourth-wave campaign,
and so was the trending hashtag #StandWithWendy when Wendy Davis filibustered a Texas abortion
law. Arguably, the SlutWalks that began in 2011 — in protest of the idea that the way to prevent rape is
for women to “stop dressing like sluts” — are fourth-wave campaigns.

Like all of feminism, the fourth wave is not a monolith. It means different things to different people. But
these tentpole positions that Bustle identified as belonging to fourth-wave feminism in 2015 do tend to
hold true for a lot of fourth-wavers; namely, that fourth-wave feminism is queer, sex-positive, trans-
inclusive, body-positive, and digitally driven. (Bustle also claims that fourth-wave feminism is anti-
misandry, but given the glee with which fourth-wavers across the internet riff on ironic misandry, that
may be more prescriptivist than descriptivist on their part.)

And now the fourth wave has begun to hold our culture’s most powerful men accountable for their
behavior. It has begun a radical critique of the systems of power that allow predators to target women
with impunity.

So is there a generational war between feminists?

As the fourth wave begins to establish itself, and as #MeToo goes on, we’ve begun to develop a
narrative that says the fourth wave’s biggest obstacles are its predecessors — the feminists of the
second wave.

“The backlash to #MeToo is indeed here,” wrote Jezebel’s Stassa Edwards in January, “and it’s liberal
second-wave feminism.”

Writing with a lot less nuance, Katie Way, the reporter who broke the Aziz Ansari story, smeared one of
her critics as a “burgundy-lipstick, bad-highlights, second-wave-feminist has-been.”

And there certainly are second-wave feminists pushing a #MeToo backlash. “If you spread your legs
because he said ‘be nice to me and I’ll give you a job in a movie’ then I’m afraid that’s tantamount to
consent,” second-wave feminist icon Germaine Greer remarked as the accusations about Weinstein
mounted, “and it’s too late now to start whingeing about that.” (Greer, who has also said on the record
that she doesn’t believe trans women are “real women,” has become something of a poster child for the
worst impulses of the second wave. Die a hero or live long enough to become a villain, etc.)

But some of the most prominent voices speaking out against #MeToo, like Katie Roiphe and Bari Weiss,
are too young to have been part of the second wave. Roiphe is a Gen X-er who was pushing back against
both the second and the third waves in the 1990s and has managed to stick around long enough to push
back against the fourth wave today. Weiss, 33, is a millennial. Other prominent #MeToo critics, like
Caitlin Flanagan and Daphne Merkin, are old enough to have been around for the second wave but have
always been on the conservative end of the spectrum.

“In the 1990s and 2000s, second-wavers were cast as the shrill, militant, man-hating mothers and
grandmothers who got in the way of their daughters’ sexual liberation. Now they’re the dull, hidebound
relics who are too timid to push for the real revolution,” writes Sady Doyle at Elle. “And of course, while
young women have been telling their forebears to shut up and fade into the sunset, older women have
been stereotyping and slamming younger activists as feather-headed, boy-crazy pseudo-feminists who
squander their mothers’ feminist gains by taking them for granted.”

It is not particularly useful to think of the #MeToo debates as a war between generations of feminists —
or, more creepily, as some sort of Freudian Electra complex in action. And the data from our polling
shows that these supposed generational gaps largely don’t exist. It is perhaps more useful to think of it
as part of what has always been the history of feminism: passionate disagreement between different
schools of thought, which history will later smooth out into a single overarching “wave” of discourse (if
the wave metaphor holds on that long).

The history of feminism is filled with radicals and progressives and liberals and centrists. It’s filled with
splinter movements and reactionary counter-movements. That’s part of what it means to be both an
intellectual tradition and a social movement, and right now feminism is functioning as both with a
gorgeous and monumental vitality. Rather than devouring their own, feminists should recognize the
enormous work that each wave has done for the movement, and get ready to keep doing more work.

After all, the past is past. We’re in the middle of the third wave now.

Or is it the fourth?

WID, WAD, GAD or What?

Exploring where women fit into development theory and practice

Devon Matthews

There are currently 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty in the world, and two thirds of these
people are women.

In the Global South, 80% of employment opportunities for women are in the informal sector.

Of the 110 million children who do not have access to education, two thirds of them are girls.

What is critical about these statistics? They exemplify the pervasive sexism, misogyny and exclusion that
women around the world experience today. These statistics show the reality of living as a woman in the
Majority World.

So why has there been so little genuine effort to address these inequalities within the context of
development? There are a lot of broadly termed “women’s issues” campaigns, but these are merely
projects — they have start dates and budgets and end dates. “We managed to get 1,000 girls in Malawi
into primary school,” the organizations tout. But what does this mean to those girls?

I get to go to school.

I get to go to school and feel guilt for leaving my mother to work all day.

I get to go to school and risk being raped by my teacher.

I get to go to school and I am afraid to walk home by myself.

I get to go to school but I do not believe I will find a job.

I get to go to school but I will be married next year.

It isn’t as simple as sending a girl to school. The complexities, pressures and risks that women
experience when attempting to access education frequently leave women in vulnerable circumstances.
More needs to be done about this. Much more. It is not adequate to approach these issues as “women’s
issues” or projects; long-term systemic change needs to be prioritized in order to address these
inequalities and abuses directly. So why isn’ this happening within the field of development?

One reason is that there seems to be no clear consensus on how to involve women in the conversation
about the provision and security of rights and freedoms in the majority world. This discussion of the
place of women in development brings with it ample debate.

Rathgeber (1990) provides a useful breakdown of some of the major vocabulary used in development
discourse to explain the involvement of women’s rights and issues in the field. Rathgeber’s analysis is
helpful in isolating the nuances of these discourses. As Rathgeber notes, there have been three notable

phases in the lingo, including Women in Development (WID), Women and Development (WAD) and
Gender and Development (GAD) (p.489).

WID: Women in Development

The WID approach was introduced primarily by “American liberal feminists” and focuses on
egalitarianism, especially in terms of economic participation and access (Rathgeber, 1990, p.490). This
economic focus led WID activists to address the disparity of employment opportunities between men
and women in the majority world. The WID model did not question modernization, and placed the onus
of development and growth on women’s economic capacity (T. Ulicki, personal communication, January

What is most striking about the WID model is that it does not deal with the disparities and power
relations between men and women. In my opinion, the roots of inequality are the most critical thing to
address when discussing women and poverty. However, the WID model is known as being the “non-
confrontational approach” as it does not confront these issues (Rathgeber, 1990, p.491).

WAD: Women and Development

The WAD approach is not as frequently discussed, however it was an important bridge between WID
and GAD. WAD is a “neo-Marxist feminist approach” and it grew out of the “limitations of modernization
theory” that was foundational in the WID approach (Rathgeber, 1990, p.492). The WAD approach comes
from the perspective that equality will be essential to improving women’s positions, but still frames
change in terms of providing women access to the productive sector (p.493). WAD, while perhaps more
critical than WID, also fails to dig deeper into the systemic problems associated with the relationship
between men and women (p.493).

GAD: Gender and Development

The GAD approach, which was developed in the 1980s, stepped away from both WID and WAD and was
founded in socialist-feminist ideology (Rathgeber, 1990, p.493). The GAD approach holds that the
oppression of women stems largely from a neoliberal focus on improving women’s reproductive and
productive capacities (p.494). According to Rathgeber, the focus of GAD has been to examine “why
women systematically have been assigned to inferior and/or secondary roles” and also to confront
questions of power and agency (p.494). The GAD approach is exceptionally difficult for non-
governmental organizations (NGOs) to implement, as it seeks to confront the root causes of gender
inequality, rather than implement short-term augmentations to the existing system.

An interesting shift that happened between WID/WAD and GAD was the change in language from
dealing with ‘women’ in the context of development, to ‘gender’. Nighat Said Khan, founder of the
Women’s Action Forum, argues that this shift to a focus on gender rather than women became
“counter-productive” because the discussion shifted from “women, to women and men and, finally,
back to men” (as cited in Baden & Goetz, 1997, p.6).

Action and Inaction

Where is an organization to go from here? Smythe (2007) argues that for the past 30 years,
organizations have made a significant shift from considering “gender issues” as a minor part of their
agendas to a large aspect of their campaign advertisements — this is also known as “gender
mainstreaming” (p.582). I have seen endless campaigns from NGOs that claim to place women at the
centre of their campaigns or projects; I tend to question whether these organizations are just grazing
the surface of the problem of oppression and inequality, or if they attempting to create lasting systemic

The campaign visuals that these organizations utilize is striking. It tends to characterize women in the
majority world as being:

Full of potential

Economic assets

Responsible for solving poverty in their communities

In need of empowerment

An investment in the future of men

Rhetoric such as this, and the majority of campaigns that follow, fit cleanly into the WID model that has
limited the potential for fundamental change for decades. What strikes me about this video is the extent
to which women’s lives in the majority world are so easily simplified. This way of communicating the
struggles women experience reduces the complexities of inequality to a simple fix that merely requires

Most organizations know that this is not the case, and that those involved in crafting these campaigns
understand the difficulty of ‘solving’ the injustice that women and girls face. So why don’t organizations
step outside of this model and attempt to address the root causes of inequality that the GAD model
suggests is critical?

Scholars such as Smythe (2007) argue the NGOs are afraid to dive into GAD theory and practice because
it is too polarizing. Smythe argues that the use the word ‘feminism’ is a part of the GAD model and is
unappealing because it is perceived as too extreme by the general (read: donating) public. I agree with
Smythe, and from my own personal experience working as a fundraiser for NGOs, I know the degree to
which programs and objectives are simplified in order to reach the widest number of potential donors. I
worked for the Because I Am A Girl campaign as a fundraising supervisor for six months and know what
it is like to have to change one’s language in order to accommodate the ideological positions of potential

Organizations are afraid of the ideological confrontation that may occur if projects are framed in terms
of pursuing feminist ideals or activism. While I know this is true, I also find it deeply disturbing. Why is it

that our society is so opposed to the word feminism, even after three waves of feminist theory and

A conversation I recently had with my brother made me consider how we conceptualize feminism and

Brother: Devon, are you a feminist?

Me: Yes, of course I am a feminist, aren’t you?

Brother: No.

Me: What makes you say that?

Brother: I just don’t believe in what feminists want the world to be like, it’s crazy.

Me: Let me ask you a question, do you believe that men and women should have equal protection, rights,
opportunities and voices in the world and in their day to day lives?

Brother: Yes, of course.

Me: Congrats, you are a feminist.

So is this all a big misunderstanding? I know that this is idealistic, but perhaps we need to reframe the
way we talk about feminism, and work to mainstream the idea of equality and gender justice, in a way
that does not undermine the issues. Is it possible to move towards a more GAD-centred model that aims
to confront the complexities of women’s lived experiences by addressing all areas of inequality? I
wonder if men can be a constructive part of this process. NGOs may never adequately address the
gender gap without addressing their “fear of feminism” (Smythe, 2007, p. 582).

Ultimately, I am always left with far more questions than answers.