World Culture War
In the past ten years, nationalist, communalist and religious fundamentalist social movements have surfaced all over the world, moving into the power vacuum created as local elites have been overwhelmed by the new global financial ruling class. The emerging struggle is not between East and West, as Samuel Huntington would have it, but within both; it is a struggle between the forces of globalization and the atavistic social movements that have sprung up to oppose it. Civilian populations, especially ethnic minorities, women and children, are caught in between. Among such movements are the Taliban in Afghanistan; the Serbian nationalist movement (and its opposing counterparts elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia); Islamic fundamentalist movements in Egypt, Algeria and elsewhere; the Hindu communalist movement in India; the Israeli settler movement in the West Bank; and a whole range of militantly patriarchal Christian groups, from the militias to Operation Rescue, in the United States.
These movements have in common a desire for racial, ethnic and religious homogeneity; an apocalyptic vision of purification through bloodshed; and a patriarchal view of women and the family. I call them atavistic because of the way they yearn back to a mythic past, often the age of barbarism, when their nation, tribe or religion was great. ("Atavism: Biol. the reappearance in an individual of characteristics of some more or less remote ancestor that have been absent in intervening generations." American College Dictionary) In Israel, to take one example, religious fundamentalists who believe they should control all the land that was biblical Israel's at its point of greatest territorial strength have repeatedly brought the peace process to a standstill. And in the United States, a cadre of religiously driven conservative leaders paralyzed the federal government for more than a year in their campaign against the Sixties and Sin, both exemplified by Bill Clinton.
As central to such movements as ethnic or religious homogeneity is the control of women. Atavistic social movements attack feminism not only as an obstacle to such control but as part of their war on modernity itself, for, like other movements for social and political rights, feminism is inescapably secular and thus part of the project of modernity, opposed to older forms of social organization in which women's needs and voices were subsumed into a communal or religious entity represented by male elders. Even in countries where the women's movement is led by female versions of tribal elders, feminism resists being swallowed up in male definitions of the class, the nation, the community; it sticks in the craw. Add to this the threat of female sexual and reproductive autonomy, then place both in the context of a volatile world situation where local males are losing power and the family has become the last bastion of unquestioned male authority and privilege, and what have you got? A world culture war, in which feminism becomes the scapegoat for every frustration and women become the focus of every contradiction.
This war takes culturally specific forms in each country, targeting poor women, because they are most vulnerable, and feminist intellectuals and organizers, because they stir up the others. Last month in the Bronx, Tabitha Walrond, a 19-year-old African-American, was tried for homicide in the death of her infant son. She had been breast-feeding him; her milk was insufficient, and he died of malnutrition. The prosecution also charged her with second-degree manslaughter and endangering the welfare of her child by failing to get him emergency medical care when his condition became acute. But Walrond was unable to get medical care for her son; she was repeatedly denied a Medicaid ID number by a city administration that has shown an unholy eagerness to get women off the welfare rolls regardless of what will happen to them and their children. Tabitha Walrond is but one example of the way American women are caught between the drive to cut government spending and release capital from all constraint on the one hand, and backlash tendencies invoking earlier, more patriarchal forms of social organization on the other.
To nationalist, communalist and religious backlash movements, feminism, no matter how rooted in local conditions, represents the globalizing forces that are undercutting patriarchal traditions. For them, it is intrinsically foreign, a fifth column undermining their efforts at unity. This contradiction is vividly apparent in the former Yugoslavia. Relatively weak before the Yugoslav federation began to unravel, feminist groups in the various republics did their best, in the summer of 1991, to come together against war; they even attempted to stage a women's march from Zagreb to Belgrade that was supposed to "surround the generals with a wall of love" (it was stopped by Serbian troops). During the wars that ensued, when most other contacts between the former republics were broken, some feminist groups stayed in clandestine communication and developed into pacifists, helping men who were hiding from the draft and moving into the leadership vacuum left by the men's absence. Many of these activists had done advocacy for battered women before the war; they moved into work with women war victims in the belief that rape in wartime and domestic violence are part of the same continuum, enraging nationalists by refusing to focus on the ethnic motives for rape.
One of the most consistent and effective antinationalist groups in Serbia is Women in Black, who held demonstrations against Serbia's war machine every week for seven years--and every week were denounced and threatened as traitors--until the NATO bombing closed down the small amount of political space that had been available for autonomous women's activities. On their seventh anniversary, they issued a statement that read, in part: "I confess to my longtime antiwar activity...that for the entire war I crossed the walls of Balkan ethno-states, because solidarity is the politics which interests me; that I understood democracy as support to antiwar activists/friends/sisters--Albanian women, Croat women, Roma women, stateless women; that I first challenged the murderers from the state where I live and then those from other states, because I consider this to be responsible political behavior of a citizen...that I took care of others while the patriots took care of themselves."
Women's political activism became a point of contention in Croatia last June, during a Zagreb television panel on the status of women. One of the male participants published the following post-mortem in the government paper Vecernji List; his association of feminism with the foreign, and his panic at the idea of women's controlling their own sexual, reproductive and political lives, are palpable: "These women, who speak the loudest in defending women's rights in the family, present in their personal lives a model that directly opposes that of the ideal and desirable Croatian family (that is, they are married without children, are old but unmarried, etc.).... Although they oppose the laws of nature, they would like to impose laws in Parliament. Without the support they receive from abroad (in the form of promotions, money and awards from international organizations), they are quite insignificant, and only through this support do they gain some importance."
Elsewhere, the successes of the women's movement are also seen only as symptoms of globalization, rather than as the result of an autonomous movement for female emancipation. Every gesture of solidarity, every offer of support from abroad, increases the danger that local feminists in such places will be called tools of the United States or the World Bank.