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Taking feminist questions seriously

What would we see differently in the world if we took feminist questions seriously?

Cynthia Enloe has written extensively about what she terms ‘the gendered politics of seriousness‘. If feminist questions weren’t sidelined–for later, for when we’ve solved ‘the real crisis’, the ‘urgent issues’–what would we be thinking about?

On Sunday, 6,431,376 Colombians outvoted 6,377,482 of their compatriots to reject the peace accords that would mark the formal end of a 52-year civil war. There are many thoughtful pieces that seek to explain what happened: here, and here, and here too. To them, I add some of what I ask when I try to take feminist questions seriously.

Taking feminist questions seriously would prompt one to notice that the peace table is shrinking. The negotiations process boasted consultations with those recognized as victims, with women’s groups, with female ex-combatants from various conflicts, and with international researchers who could shed light on a variety of issues the negotiators deemed essential for crafting a comprehensive agreement. And yet, three days after the failed referendum, much of the future of the peace process hangs on the fate of a meeting between current Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and former President (and current Senator) Álvaro Uribe. Where is the gender sub-commission now? After pronouncements that victims are at the heart of the peace process, where are they now?

Taking feminist questions seriously would invite curiosity about whom the referendum has made into a constituency of his own, and from where these closed-door-meeting constituencies derive their power. It would trigger questions about where power really lies. The Santos-Uribe meeting has become the space for decisions. “Civil society consultations” have now shrunk to an encounter of (often militarized) masculinity. If decision-making still–so many years later, as though it’s 2009 again–hinges on a Santos-Uribe meeting, how much power really lies in the consultative mechanisms? Who is the first to be dropped from the peace table, from the serious discussions, when matters become urgent?

In The Curious Feminist, Enloe turns her feminist attention to urgency. Who gets to pronounce matters urgent and what actions are justified in the face of urgency? Whose lives and questions become trivialized as a result? In one of the recent performances of urgency, militarization (and yes, militarized masculinity), President Santos announced that the ceasefire between the government and the FARC would expire on October 31. Many–myself included–have suggested that, though there may be other reasons underlying this announcement too, Santos needed to “look tough”, to “signal toughness against the guerrilla”, to reassure the No voters that he was not giving in to the FARC. Indeed, upon the conclusion of one day of meetings with President Santos, Uribe declared that the peace accord had been ‘weak.’ The feminist eye asks: What does toughness look like and what actions does it invite? How does it make itself appear essential?

Taking feminist questions seriously would require asking who speaks for ‘victims.’ Victimhood is contested terrain. It is not just a description of harm, nor merely an identity. It is a legal and political status, it is a form of power. Victimhood is a fragmented site: there is no singular, uniform agenda to which those recognized as victims subscribe, just as there is no singular, uniform experience of violence. Brushing over these gradations and contestations, the mantle of victimhood–and its consequent associations with innocence and the illusion of an uncomplicated purity–has become the weapon to wield to justify decisions across the political spectrum. The Victims: proper noun of legitimacy, obscurer of contradictions and differences.

In the name of The Victims, some voted against the peace deal. In the name of The Victims, the Head of the Americas desk at Human Rights Watch called the peace agreement “a piñata of impunity.” In the name of The Victims, some have vowed that the only way forward is for the FARC to die or spend the rest of their lives in prison. Taking feminist questions seriously would require asking: What gives rise to authority to speak for those recognized as victims? What about those who suffered harm but their recognition remains contested, invisible, or silenced? And what would happen if, rather than categorizing violence, we listened directly to those who have experienced it in ways that defy classification?

Meanwhile, “the places with the highest rate of ongoing conflict, which might have seemed most likely to vote against a peace deal that offered such incentives over harsh justice, voted overwhelmingly in favor of the deal.”

 Meanwhile, organized victims’ groups, human rights activists, students and allies are marching for peace. Meanwhile, is is human rights activists, individuals who suffered harm and, yes, even current and former combatants, who are doing the emotional care-taking of the Day After. Taking feminist questions seriously would prompt noticing the invisible labor of care, the draining but important work of fueling hope. In my world, the first messages of “this is not over” and “we still have work to do” and “we persist towards peace” emerged from those who have already lost unimaginably much. Grief, ever the teacher of compassion. We take turns holding the anger and the hope, the despair and the optimism. Taking feminist questions seriously prompts one to ask: Who can afford persistent dispassion?

Taking the feminist questions seriously comes with knowing that someone, sooner or later, will tell you that “this is not about gender.” And, in the next breath, it comes with knowing that someone–perhaps that same someone–will point out that it was because you made it about gender that you weakened a movement. Natalio Cosoy provides a thoughtful account of how the incorporation of a gender analytical perspective into the peace agreement caused some to fear that traditional notions of family and restricted notions of sexuality and gender performance were coming under threat. Taking the feminist questions seriously: What gets constructed as threatening? Who gets to be labeled ‘normal’, ‘traditional’ and ‘the default’, and whose lives become ‘diverse’, ‘anomalous’ and, indeed, threatening? Who does the labeling?

Taking the feminist questions seriously invites scrutiny of the politics of knowledge production.

Who gets to provide the ‘expert quote’–indeed, who introduces themselves as an expert? Who is slotted in to consistently narrate victimhood? And when we–myself included–consistently seek to make sense of developments in the so-called ‘global South’ by comparing them to our reference points in the ‘global North’ (“the new Brexit”), what does that tell us about the coloniality of knowledge?

These are not just my questions, and this is not the ‘just’ of modest hesitation that women are told to edit out of their speech patterns because it makes them appear weak. (Taking feminist questions seriously: Whose speech is policed and prescribed? Whose speech sets the standard for what strength sounds like?) Feminists the world over have been asking questions like this, in whatever language they speak, and in whichever words resonate in their context. Feminists have been doing the–often quiet, often marginal(ized), often silent (and silenced)–work of answering them. Taking feminist questions seriously requires asking: What will it take for all of us to retrain our feminist curiosities, to reset our sense of seriousness?

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