Monday, May 11, 2015

Activists are thinkers

Cynthia Enloe
Cynthia Enloe is more than an academic: she is a living embodiment of the principles she teaches her students, and thereby, has come to live the very quintessence of feminist perspective. What better a way to be an effective teacher, than to teach by example? Having donned many hats, Cynthia has explored the perceptibly varied dimensions of Feminist Political Economics and Feminist Security Studies – and has bridled the two together to craft the wholesome perspective that we need, to be sound feminists and activists. In the following interview, Cynthia talks about her work and efforts at activism in her domain.

What got you into feminism and teaching feminism?
Feminism and teaching feminism are closely connected in my life. If I had not a teacher, I might have been slower in becoming a feminist. During my undergraduate and graduate years, I didn’t know a single person who thought of themselves as a feminist. That was in the 1950s and 1960s. Then two things happened. I began to have more feminist friends who couldn’t believe that I was not a feminist. They took me to feminist events in London and Boston, and also to feminist bookstores. I was so excited to sit amidst such smart and intelligent women at various events, and to be in the middle of a bookstore filled with ideas that I hadn’t yet discovered or been challenged by! The third thing that happened was that our students at Clark University, began to hear about a new phenomenon called “Women’s Studies”. They called all members of the women faculty together and pressed us to start offering Women’s Studies courses. It was all new to us. One of my colleagues offered Women in US Politics course at a time when there were very few women in formal US politics. Another colleague, Serena Hilsinger, offered a course on women authors in the US and UK. It was so exciting! My contribution was a course called “Comparative Politics of Women.” I looked at Russian, Chinese, US, French and the Algerian revolutions, read loads of then-new feminist histories and began asking feminist questions. Feminist historians have played an enormous part in shaping my understanding of politics of women and of gendered politics. 

Given that you worked in the field when it was still new, what kind of challenges did you encounter? How did you overcome them?
I suppose that the biggest challenge was to say out loud that I was working with a feminist approach to politics. It is hard to talk about feminism when the media reduce it to a cartoon, and translate it to mean “man-hating.” I realise that there are a lot of people who are new to feminist ideas; feminist questions about politics are rarely asked in most media. I make it a point to engage with people who respond to feminism skeptically; I try to answer them honestly, and do not dismiss their questions. I am always willing to explain and share perspectives. If you are not challenged, how do you know that you are alive? I don’t despair much when people seem to have cartoonish misrepresentations. I have tried to get people to engage with me, to tell me where they get their ideas from. I prefer a down-to-earth approach, talking in terms of concrete examples so we can together have a genuine conversation.

Having worked in the field, what has feminism and gender equality come to mean to you?
Feminism and gender equality aren’t the same. Feminism is essentially a challenge of all oppression, unfairness, injustices and hierarchies. Feminists ask how – and to what extent – each has been created and then perpetuated by the patriarchal presumptions, processes and structures. Once exposed, feminists try to dismantle them. One cannot dismantle patriarchy unless one makes the serious effort to understand and challenge patriarchy in all its old-fashioned and all its modernized forms. Patriarchy can occur anywhere, mind you, not just in the more unjust, heavy handed and blatantly obvious places. Patriarchy can take root even in arenas of peace-work.

Could you share an example that you have encountered, where patriarchy subsists within activist and peace-work circles?  
A lot of people teach me, and among them have been feminists in Okinawa, Japan, who were protesting militarization. They took me under their wing and showed me what it was like, to be feminists protesting militarization. There was a terrible incident in 1995 – the rape of a 12 year old girl by four US military personnel. Men and women in Okinawa tied in this incident to their protest against the existence of US military bases on Okinawa. Standing up in one of these anti-bases meetings, one of the feminist anti-bases women said that it was important for all of them, as peace activists, to take sexual assault seriously, not just sexual assault and violence against women perpetrated by American military men, but violence and abuse perpetrated by Okinawan men. Almost immediately, the feminists told me, the men in their protest group wanted to dismiss this linkage, calling it a diversion from the main cause, the anti-bases cause. It was a stellar example of how patriarchal peace activism can become, when activism against violence against women is only deemed “relevant” when it serves men’s own core narrow interest. That is instrumentalizing anti-violence against women. It’s patriarchal politics. I remember Cynthia Cockburn once telling me that many feminist peace activists in countries as different as Serbia, Colombia and India have told her that they have had to break away from their male-led peace organizations due to their male allies’ lack of support for feminist anti-violence goals, that is, because too many of those men just could not see the causal links between militarism and masculinized violence against women.

You have done some important work on the question of how women’s labour is made cheap in factories. Could you tell us how that came about?
I self-published my first feminist publication as a four page leaflet. This was in 1979, I think. I had gone to The Philippines to study the globalization of Colt’s M16 rifle manufacturing. I was not a feminist then – not that I was anti-feminist, just that I hadn’t yet conducted research from a feminist perspective. But, luckily, I by then I had feminist friends who pushed me to explore the women’s labour in factories. One of my British feminist friends, Judy Lown, asked me to tell her about the state of women’s labour in Philippines garment factories. By chance, a Filipina I was interviewing arranged for me to go through a Levi’s blue jeans factory in Manila. I took rolls of photographs with my modest Kodak camera. When I got home, I printed the photos and wrote captions for each of them. That was when I started to think about how realized the gendered division of export factory labour was causally related to the militarization of the Philippines. It was my first feminist analytical effort; I sent the 4-page leaflet out to friends and family – and to Judy, of course. Being prompted by feminist historians explorations of how gendered divisions of labour were created - and by whom and for what ends – made me suspicious of the common term “cheap labour.” I realized that no labour is inherently cheap. It is made cheap!

The more I researched factories, the more I realized that a whole stream of actors play roles in cheapening labour – husbands who don’t think their wives’ efforts are worth a decent pay and that their work is not important; mothers and fathers who do not see their daughters’ work as something important and contributory to the family’s needs. I found them to be unwitting allies of the capitalists and state managers running the factories. So an anti-neo-liberal and anti-capitalist analysis is not enough – we need to explore all the actors, all the power relationships which cheapen women’s labour. That is, we need feminist analysis.

You have also looked into how women's emotional and physical labour has been used to support many governments' war-waging policies. Could you talk about that?
One of the temptations these days is to separate security studies from international political economy (“IPE”) studies. Things are so elaborate in academia - the courses we offer, the issues we address and the structures we follow. We have begun to create new IR silos, academic communities that don’t talk enough to each other. That’s a loss. Feminist International Political Economy and Feminist Security studies must be in constant conversation if we are going to reveal how international politics operates in the way it does. From the start of my feminist work, I’ve been interested in both, military security politics and profit-maximizing political economics – and how the two processes depend on and inform each other. For instance, armaments production managers and owners – in Sweden, in India, in Russia, in China, in the US – today wield both femininity and masculinity in order to produce missiles, drones, fighter planes and rifles. We need feminist-informed studies of specific armaments factories in varieties of countries.

What do you see as the future of your work?

I am not much of a forecaster. I’ve written three books in four years, and that is a lot. This year I’m writing mainly short article. I never know when the next book will begin to take shape, though, I confess, I do already know what image I want to use for the cover of the next one! I love to listen and engage in forums to which I have the privilege for being invited. I recently went to The Hague, as part of the 100th Anniversary of the 1915 International Women’s Congress – in 1915, about 1300 women, during World War I, came together in the throes of World War I to create an agenda to stop war. In all the years of my study, I had never known that this happened! Our textbooks and academic courses should really be telling us about these events! Why isn’t this taught anywhere in IR? At the recent Hague event, organized by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (which came out of the 1915 congress) I met women peace activists from Ghana, Pakistan and India, to name a few countries, and it was amazing too see how much effort is going into making peace a reality even where there is no local war. I believe that activists are thinkers – they are the ones who created most of the concepts we use in our studies today. So, to stay fueled, to stay on my toes, I need to keep listening, to stay in the midst of lively transnational feminist conversations.