By Carolina S. Ruiz Austria

The word "Heresy"

was used by Irenaeus in Contra Haereses to discredit his opponents in the early Christian Church. It has no purely objective meaning without an authoritative system of dogma.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Reflections on Feminisms of Today: Unities and Diversities

Paper and notes developed for the ISIS – International (Manila) discussion on “Global Feminist Strategies” July 25, 2006.
By Carolina S. Ruiz-Austria

“A gain in women’s equality in one space may matter little or become altogether meaningless in another space that itself undergoing a dynamic shift. This multi-centricity challenges the women’s movement’s ability to deploy our energies in different spaces simultaneously, as well as stretches our capacity for sustained inter-linkage so as to avoid eventual fragmentation…”

Gigi Francisco, in “Sighting paradoxes for gender in the social movements”
DAWN-Southeast Asia

Feminist Strategies: Situating Theory in Practice

One basic challenge (among many others) that we face in today's discussion is the consideration up-front, of the linkage between feminist theory and practice. Indeed, today's discussion is anchored on the core belief that reflective analysis and the realm of ideas can lead to more effective "feminist work".

On the other hand, one of my favorite feminists (also the one I quote in the beginning of my paper) once told me that "theorizing" is also work. (That said I have to say I agree and in fact find that, theorizing is often so much work.)

We often hear about the need to bridge theory/practice, or even the common disdain for theorists and intellectuals who either have their head in the clouds or aren't in the "thick of it," and thus often put down and viewed, less credible for their "work."

Likewise, activists, we have often been told, and we have often learned, are those who "engage" the patriarchy (whether institutional or otherwise) (preferably in direct confrontation or opposition) and theorists are either mere armchair activists or ivory tower intellectuals.

Indeed, the seductive power, status and legitimacy of "political" theorizing in the women's movement in a sense, often become akin to the privileged spaces within traditional institutions of patriarchal culture. To be sure, the parallelism comes partly from the privileging and the seductive power it held over new generations of feminists (not the least, feminists in academe).

Elsewhere I had the opportunity to discuss the elitism usually symbolized by "theory." French feminist, Collete Guillaumin (1995) spoke of the peculiar position of those who have the least power vis a vis the "products of intellect" and how in many ways, theory to the powerless is (and seems) "sacred verbiage" of those who dominate them.

I make the submission that is precisely these dichotomies between thought/action; the learned (schooled) and the unlearned (unschooled) that we need to challenge in the consideration of theory/practice, as feminists. After all, re-thinking hierarchies and binaries, is not new to feminist thought/practice.

I propose no singular paradigm nor purport an all-in one formula but would rather articulate a challenge at how we view theory and theorizing, as well as our notions of feminist activism.

More on Feminists, Academia and "Development work"

To be sure, in the beginning, the excitement and power of newfound spaces, left many feminist movements initially grappling with the prospect of working within what were new spaces that sprung not only around newly created spaces, but also within erstwhile formidable traditional institutions like the academe, government and "development institutions."

I also want to clarify that many of these institutional engagements were hard-worn feminist victories in their own time and place and allowed many feminists much needed space, legitimacy and others, income.

Beat as we may, the proverbial (though arguably living-dead) "dead horse" of UN Gender Mainstreaming concepts and practices, I would like now to turn our attention on how much of the self same concepts and practices were merely replicated by women's NGOs and the women's movement, as it engaged state agencies, the academe and development institutions.

To be very specific, I want to focus on the sex/gender dichotomy peddled in the name of feminism (though mostly in the name of equality feminism) and its built-in backlash on evolving feminist agendas.


We have all seen it and heard of it, many local feminists probably still use it (except Guy), but the usual training module or discussion on sex/gender usually begins with an elaborate distinction between the social construct and the supposed "biological" realm.

Because I am a lawyer I was usually not tasked to handle this purportedly preliminary topic in trainings but certainly I also grappled with it as a trainer and teacher.

The sex/gender distinction misleads. We know that to claim that sex is biological and gender, social is absurd because what SEX is (and is not) is also socially/culturally construed (hardly universal). (And if you doubt that, remember Bill Clinton's famous words: "I did not have sex with that woman.") Biology, is gendered (as the entirety of "science" itself, as a branch of knowledge, is also gendered).

Yet how many women's NGOs still premise discussions on such distinction?

No doubt, the short cut has often been relied on to garner the sympathy of the erstwhile "uninitiated" and new recruits to the women's movements. After all, the objective was to debunk the BIOLOGICAL bases of women's subordination, a worthy objective but does this make it an acceptable strategy?

On the other hand, what has the short cut cost us?

Because of the sex/gender dichotomy, feminists have all but reinforced the "naturalness" of (binary) male/female sex/gender . In turn, it has also provided in linear fashion, a basis for so-called "feminine" and "masculine" gender traits (despite the fact that it never proves universal!), we are back to grappling with SEX differences and seemingly nowhere near a worthy challenge to essentialism. Scientific studies continue to demonstrate SEX differences (in their studies of "women" and "men") as scientific fact although also hardly by themselves EXCLUSIVE (nor fixed) "sex" categories.

Another reason that the dichotomy may have proven convenient is that it also served to provide a rational basis for explaining feminism's critique of power relations, quite tangibly. Afterall, in many societies IT IS the MEN who have POWER OVER the WOMEN. IT IS BOYS who have superior status and privilege OVER GIRLS. Why bother arguing over the premise of womanhood/manhood?

The point however is not merely to "quibble" with the labels (common as they are, and unquestioned as they go), but in fact the notions themselves. The dichotomy in fact forecloses a myriad of options and strategies for feminists. I will discuss more on the impact on legal theory and practice later.

Again before I leave this topic, I am compelled to make recommendations. Instead of asking the women here to tear up their NGOs/UN modules on sex and gender (we can recycle the paper instead), I would rather make a challenge to feminists in the academe to brainstorm and collaborate on holding informal feminist classes/discussions for feminist advocates (activist and armchair).

The SRR and Population Tension

The ICPD is a compromise document. This fact is well known to feminist advocates and the progressive social movements. While on one hand, the ICPD brought the challenges to development discourse, further than ever within the mainstream and the UN in particular, recent developments around “reproductive health advocacy” call for an urgent re-assessment. Reproductive health, which for the local social movement, is really the broadest frame to unite erstwhile issue based advocates whether in HIV prevention, family planning or choice, is also a term which is used interchangeably with “population management” and even “population control,” by mass media.

Indeed, even as “population and development” was precisely formulated in attempt to re-frame analysis and distance it from the traditional population control frameworks represented by draconian policy and associated with state agendas with a dark history of eugenics backed sterilization programs, not paying enough attention to these lessons can cost us big time backlash. Let me cite a specific example.

Contraceptive Technology, Corporate Interests and Women’s Decision-Making: Focus on the IUD and ECP in the Philippines

In 2001, Emergency Contraception was banned and Womenlead filed a case on behalf of RHAN to re-register the product. The long and short of the story is that while the petition was supported by a majority of the experts convened by DOH, the Secretary refuses to re-register the product until there are no actual corporate applicants for the product. Meanwhile, the IUD was petitioned for a ban, on the same basis by the same fundamentalist group in late 2005. Recently, in a memorandum issued by the DOH in response to the numerous inquiries and a Petition letter by RHAN, the DOH came out in support of the retention of the IUD within the range of its available services of contraception.

On one hand, it is a clear victory for women who choose the IUD as their primary method of contraception. While like any other RH advocate, I vouch for the safety and efficacy of the IUD, I also note the following observations.

The DOH continues to receive IUD donations from the USAID to date. In fact, it is the only product that has not been totally phased out. Studies in the developed countries show a steady decline in preference for the IUD. In fact, despite the common claim in both the websites of the pharmaceutical firms and the World Health organization that next to sterilization, the IUD is the most popular means of birth control, can be a misleading claim. It turns out that 70% of those women on the IUD are in China. (We all know China’s track record on draconian Family Planning policy)

Likewise, the most popular means to women in developed countries (that is most of the EU and the US), the pill combined with condom use is the most common method of choice.

The Political Economy of Choice

Notable is how compared to the IUD and sterilization, the pills and even the condom are methods high on agency, literally decision-making. Condom use in the Philippines is as we know, among the lowest primarily because of the belief that it will reduce male sexual pleasure!

A small scale study by a clinic in Nigeria I came across also noted that in the context of high demand for IUDs in their clinic, the women disclosed that the IUD was preferred because it was the method, which they could access without the husband’s knowledge. These were the women who were restricted by their partners in their choice to space or control pregnancy.

Likewise, US studies which boast that the level of access and preference for sterilization was almost the same for both white women and women of color (the difference was supposedly de minimis) is also misleading. It turns out that the actual number of women who had ligations is twice as high for black women. 10% of the white women who answered sterilization was their FP method actually meant it was their partners (husbands) who had vasectomy!

If we were to look at the local setting, the IUD is the method mostly used by women in the rural areas. Condoms and vasectomy, are hardly ever the FP method of choice. On one hand, it is better than nothing but on another significant level, it is a disservice to women who actually have no other choice in the matter. Likewise, the IUD is not suitable birth control for all women, especially when at risk for STDs.

What does this mean for feminist advocates in SRR and even RH? This is what I submit, we need to look into and strategize further as we go about our advocacy. Indeed, both the population control forces and corporate interests searching for new markets for their surplus products can in fact exploit the “IUD victory.” Notable is that in the “Contraceptive Self Reliance” agenda of the USAID, it is the IUD which has not been pulled out precisely because demand has not reached a level which will make it profitable for pharmaceutical firms to market their products. As feminists, we must not and cannot end up unwitting marketing arms of mere corporate interest.

Feminist Lessons in Law

A few years ago, when I also spoke in an ISIS forum, I remember raising the issue of losing sight of feminist theories/critiques of law/legal institutions, even the state as women's movements engaged legal institutions. I remember asking "what did we expect the law to do for us in the first place?"

This time I will be quoting from a paper I recently had the opportunity to develop, reflecting about the notions of state and citizenship as well as (secular) human rights, in feminist strategies and claims making messages around sexual and reproductive rights.

In this paper, I consider rights claiming in the context of a country like the Philippines that is also taking place in the context of the contest to define, re-define, explore and challenge the ever-changing notions of the State in the era of globalization.

We have all probably heard about the usual critiques on the universalistic assumptions behind "rights, or human rights" claiming and its tendency to gloss over geopolitical inequality, not excluding the varied contexts of women's movements across the globe.

Taking off from this critique of "rights assertion and claims making" I turn to look at the actual levels and forms of engagement in my local backyard of "RH" and "SRR" advocacy.

When the Message is not the Medium

Indeed, various notions of classical "state welfare" and "state services" have permeated claims-making messages and advocacy positions of "reproductive health advocates" as well as parallel social movements, which include the local women's movements in the Philippines for the last twenty or so years.

Yet beyond this basic premise, of an ideal "state" (whether welfare or a sub-species of it), did we ever match (or develop) advocacy strategies which specifically targeted the decline (both a notion of and the presence of) such a state?

Did we actually think it (the ideal state) would take care of itself as we went about issue-based and largely law reform (that is the enactment of law) based initiatives? Sincere as we were in refusing to engage the state inspired by a particular reading of "Marxism" echoing a derision of "the state" way back when, how then did we ever rationalize our demands vis a vis states and institutions when we did our usual mantras on "Human Rights Violations or even Women's Human Rights?"

This for me is one aspect of prime importance to feminists everywhere. Even as recognizable forms of the same old militarist and police states re-emerge, this is also happening in a new context: symbols and their meanings are up for grabs, we have to constantly ensure we are being very clear about what we mean and where we are coming from. (This is why an EDSA redux is not possible). Again in another essay noting the state university’s reaction to Proclamation 1017 I wrote :

“In as much as blatant state abuses of power look and seem the same, there was more than one thing amiss and strangely awkward about a university trying to find its voice by heedlessly mimicking (and reliving) its “glory days,” through the use, re-use and over-use of not just clichéd expressions, but actually not being able to put forward anything new ideas amid the newly relit hotbed of meanings.

I can understand that trite as they may sound, our tried and tested vocabulary for protest actions somehow lend both nostalgia and a ready made “militant” air about our speeches and position papers. But as convenient as shortcuts many of our usual terms may be, there is every danger that we may not be moving forward (not even an inch) or that many of us are simply not being true to our own constantly evolving theoretical bases.”

Powerful as ever as the state is on one level of sheer military/police force/s vis a vis lowly civilians, the state we confront today is in fact puny compared with the state of old! Speaking particularly of the debt-strapped Philippine state, the state we have now has so much less to offer, much less to do with the daily lives of Filipinos by way of services and sheer presence! (Ironically, it is only MEDIA (emerging the most powerful) - which makes it out to be of such continuing central importance!)

All the while the irony is that even as the current state sheds itself of its traditional mandates (public services), it is continuously asserting itself by way of military/police presence and penal sanctions! From user fees to health programs premised around “private sector spending” (a.k.a. lessening state subsidy to expand the market), the dwindling state protection and coverage of overseas workers to active marketing and deployment of Filipino workers, we need to take a long hard look at the state we are talking about and engaging.

At this juncture, we already note the fragmentation across social movements as well as women's movements along decidedly political lines.

It is my next submission that despite whatever sophisticated analyses of state/power/sex/gender/class and race systems, decades of institutional engagement know-how and expertise, we have yet to begin working out on a practical level, what each of us whether in UN engagement, media, global feminist work, local, community-based and grass-roots work, and as feminists can do to face these challenges head on.

Again, I have to acknowledge that such a feminist project, will probably not take-on a specifically centralized ala BPFA form type of coming together. (I was too young to be there by the way) but rather as Gigi said, it is clearly "multi-centric," even as the need to keep linking exists.

Law as Constitutive Discourse

In order to even begin mapping out such an agenda in whatever context we work from as feminists, there are a host of lessons in feminist legal theory and practice, which will aid us.

First and foremost for feminist activists, is to grapple with "law" as constitutive discourse that is to recognize that law does not describe situations or set ups but in fact constitutes them. Many feminists already have critical analyses of law and legal frameworks (as I always say: like any other people, harboring a distrust for lawyers is sure sign of a critical mind). But often they also hesitate when it comes to a deeper interrogation of legal discourse (beyond text and individual case narratives-although both are still important starting points).

Yet we must understand that to continue merely harping on "rights, human rights, women's rights, state mandates, duties and obligations, legal rights" (and I know you can think of many others) only means to reinforce how and what these notions are in the dominant sense.

Let me be specific. In our own experience of doing paralegal training, this is why specific skills and knowledge about legal provisions come in only secondary to an introduction to critical feminist perspectives about institutions of law and the law itself.

In fact, I submit that law's character as "framing discourse" is in fact common knowledge among feminists as can be gleaned from the passionate debates around terminology in the case of trafficking and prostitution.

The irony however is instead of using this awareness about the characteristics of law to debate the role of law or even the state given the scheme of things or given contexts, feminists have ended up battling with other feminists in the war over politically correct terms as if words, signs and meanings could have universal significance (that is absolutely) at every level and in every culture.

I am referring of course to the "them and us" (on either side) of the divide in the sex work/sex slavery binary that has often left actual women in prostitution and young feminists baffled.

Likewise, the battle over legal meaning always means "fixing" the sign and foreclosing any or all other possibilities. This is the function of law after all since traditional institutions draw part of their power and legitimacy through the myth of objectivity via legal methodology that is grounded on pre-destined "scripts" of uniformity and set precedents.

Again as examples of these scripts in my own experience of litigation and NGO services for women, I have often encountered some practices, which I feel urgently need to be addressed. These "scripts" or set narratives do not merely exist on written jurisprudence, reflective of the mindsets of a traditional judiciary, they also exist within the women's movements.

One of them is the "overprotective" tendency among some service providers when it comes to handling individual women victims. Time and again we will encounter victims who lie about their own circumstances or even withhold information because they fear it will affect the service provider's opinion of her. While I am in no way advocating that we turn away clients with genuine problems on the mere basis of such behavior, it is frustrating to see how often the problem is not addressed when feminists ignore the behavior instead of being firm and confronting the women about it in order to move forward.

Some of these "scripts" also include the set-expectation on the part of feminist advocates for each and every client/victim to decide to file a case (plus finish it to the very end) especially in cases of sexual abuse or rape. Many times, even the client ends up afraid to disclose that she is in fact open to entering a settlement or in the case of sexual harassment cases, a mere apology, because she thinks the lawyer or advocate will be disappointed in her.

How about the presumption of "sexual abuse" when the woman is a minor but already sexually active at say 16 or 17 years old?

To be sure these are difficult issues to even begin addressing at a practical level but nonetheless I feel strongly we should open up to reconsidering our positions if only to assess how empowering (or disempowering) our interventions have been.

Feminist Engagement of Human Rights

Another useful approach for my proposed feminist project, is to reflect on the products of feminist engagements of "human rights." (READ: not gender mainstreaming)

Feminism's critique of power relations not only along sex/gender categories but also throughout the intersecting social categories of race, class and ethnicity has always held the potential of moving human rights discourse from the delimited realm of law or even legal philosophy to the tangible, everyday realm of human relations, and eventually a basis for debating dominant paradigms of ethics, morality, as well as basic notions of freedom, citizenship, rights and sex itself.

Decades of work in, "women's human rights discourse a.k.a. feminist critiques of traditional human rights discourse," also brought with it the promise of breaking open and laying bare, the built-in limitations of legal institutions and systems in achieving the social change necessary to transcend inequality.

We are actually beginning to see some ripple effects already within the traditional Human Rights movements. By no means an easy task, the traditional human rights movements are now coming to terms with the challenge of SRR advocates to include choice as well as a host of sexual rights human rights.

One of such examples (recently brought to my attention, thanks to Guy's contacts) is the Amnesty International's current reconsideration of its position on abortion.

These unfolding confrontations forebode further division within parallel social movements but also promises to push the discourse of Human rights further than ever.

Feminist Leadership

Meanwhile, even as the feminist critique of power relations gained familiarity (or notoriety in some cases) and in many cases gained legitimacy and acceptance whether as sound theory or practice, feminist critiques of power (and its exercise) were seemingly slower in taking root – even among feminist movements.

As feminist leaders emerged amid many hard won battles over women's empowerment, many found themselves occupying seats of power within the status quo without models of feminist leadership and even feminist critiques of power to begin with.

For many feminist movements, having done so well as to be in a position to constantly engage entire governmental systems and institutions like media and religious establishments on a full-time basis, perhaps such a preoccupation leaves little room for reflecting on the mundane and everyday question of how feminists treat each other.

In other words, as empowering feminism and feminist movements have been to women in general, how empowering have feminists been to other feminists?

It's a tricky question and one I am sure many other feminists have pondered about on many an evening, finding themselves embattled not by the usual conservative establishment, but their own kind – women who share the label, feminist.

At the risk of being accused of claiming homogeneity within women's movements or even among feminists, acknowledging that there is a common trend of fragmentation occurring amid many women's movements is the first step in trying to understand and eventually address such issues.

No single report, let alone a single essay hope to fully represent the myriad forms of fragmentation and conflicts between and among feminists occurring in our time but each contribution has to be a significant one.

Indeed, addressing fragmentation in women's movements entails the laborious process of sifting through our collective experiences and coming to terms with strategies to strengthen movements, unite and to foster dialogue.

In the myriad of reasons for fragmentation and conflict within feminist movements and among the ranks of feminists, I only propose to examine a handful of significant issues which I have been in a position to observe as a feminist.

For I have always believed that more than being a legitimate, sensible and credible point of view as a political standpoint and analytical framework, feminism is also represents paradigms of ethics in human relations.

Life as a Feminist: Brutish?

It's not easy being a feminist in this day and age. At first glance, it is tempting to conclude that life is simpler now because of the achievements of those who came before us. Young girls in our country don't even realize that there was a time, women were not allowed to vote. Elsewhere, young women take what rights they have now for granted, thinking things won't change and take a turn for the worse. In many circles of young women, I have often heard about qualms and objections to being called “feminist” or simply not wanting the label. Of course in many respects, things have taken a turn for the worse with the rise of religious fundamentalism and the backlash of "anti-discrimination" and "equality" argumentation in the limiting classic liberal context.

Yet in seeming confluence with the factors that threaten women's movements, one of the worst perhaps is the damage inflicted by other feminists.

Yes, it hurts being a feminist. For me, the worst battle scars aren't the ones inflicted by the "enemy" (in my line of work: rapists, batterers, sex traffickers or Catholic Bishops) but by former trusted avowed feminists.

While I do not presume I have never made the same mistakes myself, I have thought long and hard about many of the factors that have given rise to unethical behavior among feminists and within movements, especially in my own context. These are some of my observations.

It seems somewhat presumptuous to even begin delineating feminist activists from careerists so to speak. Who has not been interested in furthering one's own advancement whether academic or even strived for security? Isn't celebrating women's achievement and advancement part of the feminist agenda? Yet from my own experience, "Feminist Careerists" aren't even the ones with the advanced degrees or fancy titles and appointments but those who put other feminists down in hopes of their own advancement.

Like it or not, one of feminism's primary standpoints and analysis is its critique of power relations. Hierarchy and dominance and not mere gender differentiation, feminists articulated social theory that is all at once of macro and micro socio-political and cultural significance. As feminists we directly challenge gendered power relations along sexual differences but when it comes to "the exercise of power," we have yet to distinguish how the feminist agenda and alternative can lead to a more compassionate world?

Indeed feminists are human too and clearly are also entitled to differ in opinion and positions. I'm not taking a position so naïve as to request those who have differences to kiss and make up (not unless they want to), but rather merely express the hope that perhaps we can find better ways of moving forward other than dragging each other down. Let's all get a life because we have so much to do.

Some References:

“The Church, State and Sexuality in the Philippines: Secular Rights and the Monopolies of Morality,” paper selected for presentation at the International Conference by the AHRC Research Centre for Law, Gender, and Sexuality in “Up against the nation-states of feminist legal theory,” Friday 30, June, 2006, University of Kent, United Kingdom (Unfortunately, I was unable to present the paper in the Conference)

"Theories for Our Time: Feminist reflections from “freedom zone” (UP Diliman)" (Written between February 24-March 3, 2006) posted on


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