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feminist leadership for social transformation40

carry them with us, no matter how honestly and deeply we
believe in egalitarian principles and values. As products of a
society organized around domination, the struggle to create
equal power relations is always internal as well as external. I
am suggesting that the same is true regarding powerlessness,
and that we need to pay the same kind of scrupulous attention
to power-under within social change movements that is needed
to struggle against tendencies toward power-over. In fact
domination and powerlessness are two sides of the same coin,
and are interrelated not only between individuals but also
within individuals in ways that are critical to examine and

An excellent example of the destructive and constructive capacity
of power under is what many seasoned African feminists call
the “ The Zanzibar Experience” - a promising meeting that
turned into a nightmare of pain, anger, and recriminations. In
2003, a group of feminists met in Zanzibar to plan the African
Feminist Congress. Thirty-fi ve of them met on a Monday, and
soon discovered that assumptions each woman had made about
the others’ unarticulated individual and organizational politics
weren’t holding up – in other words, there was a lot of powerless
rage playing itself out in the process. By Thursday, back-biting,
hostility, tears, bitterness and chaos reigned. The Congress didn’t
happen, and the participants learned the diffi cult lesson that
theory and practice don’t always go together. On the positive side,
the Zanzibar experience led African feminist leaders to realize
that one of the fi rst steps to eff ective feminist leadership is to
acknowledge that we come into the movement with diff erent
histories and experiences, and consequently, we need to create
basic rules of engagement to govern how we treat each other,
and how to handle our own destructive tendencies. The African
Feminist Charter53, the fi rst such code of conduct in the feminist
world, was the powerful gift of the Zanzibar debacle.

Power in organizations:

Leadership is practiced, for the most part, in organizational
settings. Having unpacked a whole range of concepts about
power, it is now necessary to understand the dynamic of power

52 Steven Wineman, 2003, ibid., P.48

53 Downloadable from www.africanfeminis�

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What’s in it? unpacking feminist leadership 41

within organizations, in order to address how feminist leadership
can create genuinely diff erent structures for the achievement of
their goals. So it is important to understand organizations more
clearly. An organization is defi ned as “a social arrangement
which pursues collective goals, controls its own performance,
and has a boundary separating it from its environment.”
54 Organizations can be either formal (legally constituted and
recognized entities like cooperatives, trade unions, companies,
foundations or NGOs) or informal (not legally constituted, but
structures created for the fulfi llment of some purpose or goal –
such as a farmer’s group, women’s savings and credit groups,
collectives, etc.).

Organizations – whether formal or informal - are microcosms
of the social environment from which they emerge. But most of
us assume that unlike social structures like the family or clan,
which are replete with gender and other biases and hierarchies,
organizations are rational, logical entities where stated values,
goals and policies will be operationalized in all its processes.
Unfortunately, research in organizational behavior has shown
that this is simply not true – organizations, after all, are created
and run by human beings, and human beings are not entirely
rational! What is more, organizations emerge from social
institutions in which a wide range of power imbalances and
inequalities are embedded. Rao and Kelleher note, for instance,

“Organizations swim in a sea of societal norms, which not
only infl uence organizational behavior but often operate
below the level of consciousness…. They constrain
organizational eff orts to challenge gender-biased norms both
in the society and in the organization…. [but] The building
blocks of many of our organizations are gender biased in ways
that are quite invisible.” 55

Consequently, another social scientist, Geoff rey Wood, argues
that despite the formal norms and values that we may create for
our organizations, we are not always able to leave behind our
familial and social conditioning when we enter our offi ces56.

54 See h� p://� ons

55 Aruna Rao and David Kelleher, 2008, Unravelling Ins� tu� onalized Gender
Inequality, Gender at Work Occasional Paper,
ing , P. 5-6

56 Geoff rey D. Wood, 1994, ‘Bangladesh: Whose Ideas? Whose Interests?’,

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