Wendy Harcourt, Arturo Escobar and Michal Osterweil (2002) Women and the Politics of Place: An Introduction

Women and the Politics of Place: An Introduction

A paper written for the Society for International Development Research Project ‘Power Culture and Justice: Women and the Politics of Place’

Society for International Development Rome Italy

July 2001

DRAFT Version for contributors to Development Journal 45.1 ‘Place, Politics and Justice: Women negotiating globalization’ (March 2002)

The project is coordinated by the Society for International Development with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation. This draft version of the paper was prepared by by Wendy Harcourt, Arturo Escobar and Michal Osterweil

Table of Contents

Table of Contents *

I. Women Defending Place: Some Examples *

Defining Our Own Place— *
Politicized Bodies in Transnational Solidarity *

Cyber-networking for Local Change *

II. Why this project? *
A history *
III. Background: The fate of place *
Re-Imagining Globalization: A global sense of place *
IV. Exploring Concepts of Place *
What is “place”? Where does place start and end? *
Women and Place *

Body Politics *

Home *

Environment *

Public Space *

Re-embedding culture and justice *

Body politics across cultures and within international spaces *

The Complexities at the Intersections of Place, Power and Culture *

A Conceptual tool-kit *

Networks/Meshworks *

Glocalities *

Subaltern Strategies of Place *

Being in Place, Agents in Place *

V. Defining a Politics of Place *
VII. Annotated bibliography/ web sites *

Annex I Summary of the Project: ‘Power, Culture and Justice: Women and the Politics of Place’ *

Project Activities: *
Resource People for the Project *

I. Women Defending Place: Some Examples

Defining Our Own Place

In the famous struggle of the indigenous people of Chiapas, the first declaration of war was born to reclaim not only indigenous rights, but female ones as well. In the course of organizing, the Zapatista women produced the “Comunicacion e Informacion de La Mujer,” known as the “Revolutionary Women’s Laws.” The list of laws featured two sets of demands: one addressed to the Mexican government for fair salaries, reproductive rights, education, health care, protection and punishment against rape and other forms of violence. The others addressed their own indigenous communities demanding the right to choose their own partners, the right not to be forced into marriage, the right not to be beaten or raped, the right to leadership positions and even the right to rest. Notably when incorporated into the broader programme presented by the EZLN to the Mexican government, demands concerning women were reduced to one, and that one fell far short of including any of the really transformative parts of the women’s proposal. In fact, the demands referred to by several documents and committees– from both the rebels and the government, which meant myriad translations and dissolutions– all reinforced the women’s traditional role as mothers and nurturers, but little else. The Zapatista women’s struggles represent a remarkable effort as they both work to gain freedom, justice and cultural autonomy for their communities from the Mexican State, and at the same time to negotiate a place of their own in a critical relation with tradition, patriarchy and modernity.

Politicized Bodies in Transnational Solidarity

Recently Bal Rashmi, a Jaipur based NGO struggling for women’s autonomy and rights against sexual exploitation and violence —including child marriage, rape, dowry deaths and wife torture–came under attack by the State government of Rajasthan. In the aftermath of Cairo where for the first time, women’s reproductive health was recognized in a mainstream international forum to be a serious political issue, Bal Rashmi’s activities and the State’s reaction are telling. Through their organizing among the Dalit, Muslim and young women of Rajasthan, the organization has not only helped reduce violence and increase women’s autonomy, they have also created new spaces?from the local to the global level– for powerful and creative political struggle. For example, to protect themselves from the repressive actions of the state, the group used transnational connections to maintain the force of their grassroots presence. Based concretely amongst the women of Jaipur, Bal Rashmi uses international networks, the internet and their own situated perspectives to pursue equality, autonomy and protection of the integrity of women’s bodies.

Cyber-networking for Local Change

Go to and you will find the web page of a phenomenal organization that is making an impassioned call for improving humanity, securing peace and achieving social justice. The remarkable thing about this organization is that ODAG (The Organization for Alternative Development and Global Justice) is a “virtual” organization. ODAG has no office, no physical address: it pursues justice via cyberspace. According to the web page, ODAG sees itself “located in a place/space that is neither local nor global” but “shifts between and rethinks the politics of each.” It is first and foremost a networking space to promote horizontal communication between localities and then between different local, national, regional and international spheres. Notably, while it celebrates the possibilities of cyberspace it implores site visitors to use it only as a tool to effect real change in the concrete world beyond the computer screen: in the relations between humans and the environment. As such ODAG is itself a global and unlocalizable space, that seeks to defend the vitality of diverse and concrete places.

II. Why this project?

When we look around at the various social movements and women’s groups throughout the world, and at the examples mentioned above, there is amidst the diversity of struggles and strategies something subtle, yet common to each of them. In fact, thinking of the thousands of women involved in the UN conferences on development in the 1990s, the discussions, or the demands made by Zapatista women, or simply the very fact that violence against women, the environment and health are becoming major political issues, it is becoming apparent that in spite of the overwhelming presence of globalization and increasing marginalization, women are participating in a new and vital politics around place, and around their bodies. They are networking at local and transnational levels, seeking to defend their places while at the same transforming unequal social relations within them. Creating global networks facilitated by the Internet?which should not be understood as anything more than a potentially useful tool–and transnational NGO’s, these social movements are working to assert their own visions, fight for justice and shape global processes. How do we respond and be part of the creativity and expansiveness of these groups?

A history

The origins for this project are many, but perhaps the beginnings for the Society for International Development, that is coordinating the project, go back to two events in the early 1990s. The first is the Miami World Women’s Congress held in November 1991. Over 1,000 women came together to talk about the connections between women’s movements working on environment, health, reproductive rights and economic development. Perhaps for the first time women’s groups from around the world were in dialogue about the different crises they were facing due to global development — i.e. the shrinking of the state, structural adjustment programmes — in addition to the damage being done to the environment, their communities, their families and their own health. Testimonies spoke of the difficulties faced but also of the innovative responses by women’s groups to combat local and global interventions in their lives. The excitement and sense of strength generated at that Miami Conference was brought directly to what was known as the Women’s Tent at the huge NGO forum at the UNCED Conference in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. Here women met throughout the two weeks to strategize, to exchange stories, to celebrate and to just be together. From those meetings many new networks and alliances were formed. Some important examples are the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, the Women’s Coalition for Economic Justice and the partnerships that significantly influenced major global events, such as that in Vienna on Human Rights in 1993, at the UN Conference on Population and Development in Cairo 1994 and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, 1995. These links and partnerships continue to grow, shaping a new course for various international, national and local resistances around social justice, rights and empowerment issues.

SID’s own contribution to this story has been to participate as the SID-WID network in many of the coalition building activities and to contribute to weaving the links among issues and actors. The Society’s first attempt to link body, home, environment and public space through the concept of place was at the Women’s tent where SID participated in a panel along with a southern women’s research network Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era DAWN and Women in Development Europe WIDE to talk about women’s three levels of place. At the time we used the term “place” simply as a fitting word, unaware of the theoretical and political work already being done with it. SID then continued to explore those ideas in the build up to the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and beyond by looking among other issues at intergenerational transfer of knowledge on the body and reproductive health with the impact of globalization; cultural changes in women’s life stages with globalization the contribution of women’s knowledge of their environment to ecological critiques of development and the challenge to economics by feminists to include the caring economy.

Through all of these debates, journal issues, publications and dialogues, SID has built up a network of activists, academics, and movement people broadly committed to gender justice. It is important to note, though, that SID has rarely had definitive moments to consolidate the theory and ideas behind this work. Many of these debates have happened at politically opportune moments, with hastily put together pamphlets, journal issues, conference panels, joint strategy meetings, campaigns and lobby work around UN events. As such, the theory has developed with the doing — the networking, the sharing of stories, the discovery of potential partners, the gradual realization of the growth and strength of the women’s movement internationally and nationally as well as the many voices within it. Concepts of body, place, environment, development, economics, globalism, globalization have emerged, almost sporadically, from political discussions fired by the chance to read an erudite or controversial paper, or to hear a speaker who has had time to reflect, but generally, most of SID’s work has been on the run.

This project on women and the politics of place, then, is the chance for SID to gather together some of those inspiring people along with the doers of the women’s movement to sit together and puzzle over those concepts with more space and time than a normal SID activity allows. It is the opportunity to reflect on what is going on in women’s politics around body, environment and public spaces where women now find their voices and political entry points. It is the chance to bring the intellectual activists and activist intellectuals concerned with women, place and globalization together to look at the connections between the body and the political, the local and the global, to see the fit between theory and practice, and perhaps in this way to find new strategies and visions that will strengthen women’s politics and provide an analysis that not only describes, but also informs and shapes it.

In writing this document, we have called on two sources. On the one hand, we have tried hard to listen carefully to, and build on, the knowledge that activists themselves have of their struggles and activities in defense of their localities, particularly those working with women’s groups and popular movements. On the other, we have learned much from theoretical debates in intellectual and academic circles about the nature of globalization and about the increasing usefulness of the concept of “place” for the construction of an alternative view of globalization as an overpowering, market-driven and unavoidable reality. We believe that there is an important synergy to be gained from bringing these two sources into productive dialogue. In the first place, we are interested in building a view of globalization that is not disempowering. Secondly, our aim is to contribute to crafting a critical language —a conceptual toolkit?that enables these two types of practitioners (grassroots and social movement-based activist-intellectuals, and institutionally-based intellectuals and academics) to be clearer about their own practice. In so doing, we also hope to bring these two dimensions of knowledge production closer together, and, to subsequently help make them more politically effective.

In this background paper we try to locate the project in both the theory and practice of women’s movements of the last decade in the face of globalization, their own growing power and creativity, the recognition of cultural diversity and change and the continued political need to transform underlying inequities of knowledge and power that are simultaneously creating opportunities for women and contributing to deepening their oppression.

This paper tells some of the stories that have been gathered in the last decade around the struggle of body politics, place based movements and resistance to mainstream economics and development and weaves them into some of the theory that helps describe and analyze the concurrent changes, possibilities and dangers. The paper is intended as a jumping off point to inspire a journal issue of SID’s quarterly and for an international workshop in Oregon but also as way to engage the SID network and its partners in new ways of thinking about globalization, body, environment and empowerment. We hope the paper will provoke, puzzle and ultimately encourage the reader to engage in constructive dialogue that challenges some of the givens in today’s discussion around development and, above all, about globalization.

“To live is to live locally, and to know is first of all to know the places one is in.”

-Edward Casey

III. Background: The fate of place

In mainstream and critical debates alike, globalization is presented as a totalizing economic and cultural phenomenon with no alternative possible. As such, concrete places seem to disappear under the unavoidable advance of things global. Globalization is seen as driven by global capitalist processes and neo-liberal principles. We see this in particular with the activities of free trade institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO), privatization of all economic activities, significant dismantling of welfare state policies, and the overall de-regulation of the economy. All of these give unprecedented power to transnational corporations (TNCs), and virtually ignore human beings. At the same time, globalization is understood as an increased interconnectedness of people and cultural homogenization throughout the world. More and more it seems that a single culture of consumerism, driven and dominated by North American culture, is monopolizing this movement, fundamentally facilitated by new information and communication technologies (ICTs).

These two facets of what we might call neo-liberal capitalist globalization — is what many people assume dominates all that we do. And that therefore, the best strategy for nations, regions, or social groups is to simply try and win a better place in that global economy and the global society, by producing more, consuming more and contributing to free-market growth. Even if the world is increasingly interconnected, it is far from becoming a placeless “consumer land.” The struggle over place continues

Re-Imagining Globalization: A global sense of place

This project will take as its starting point a very different, more constructive understanding of globalization. The assumption of the project is that it is misleading to imagine that globalization can be seen as all encompassing and that concrete places are disappearing or being rendered inconsequential for women’s lives. By shifting our vantage point, that is, instead of looking at globalization “from the top,” we can come to critical understandings by looking at how women are in fact shaping these global processes. This does not mean a simple view ” from below” but rather something “in between.”

Today the meaning of place has changed. Places are no longer isolated, nor are they pure, static, or just traditional; places are clearly made and affected by their encounters with global processes?but this does not mean they are now irrelevant for people’s lives or for the experience of culture. Even with globalization, place is still the way people know and experience life. For example, one might now find a McDonald’s in New Delhi, but that experience is still in and uniquely of New Delhi. In almost all of the discussions on globalization it is assumed that ‘the global’ is necessarily where power resides and that it will therefore inevitably determine history. In this view, ‘the local’ — concrete places, alternative economic models, regional identities?on the other hand, is left with the pathetic choice of either adapting or perishing.

This sort of thinking only perpetuates feelings of helplessness and ultimately undermines and dismisses the important resistances and realities unfolding at the local level. It not only leaves out the fact that in spite of global influences, experiences are still had and lived locally; it also neglects the way we use supposedly global spaces to defend place — that is to defend particular and different cultural perspectives, alternative conceptions of the social and economic good and the very idea that neo-liberal culture is not indestructible or outside the realm of useful critique.

We hope to come to a better understanding of how women are actually responding to and shaping global processes: How they are organizing around place, their bodies, using local and global networks to transform their lived realities to create a more just and equitable world.

The need for a new view of place, one that can simultaneously look at local specificity and global construction, one that can move beyond either/or dualism and appreciate the constantly changing and contested nature of places, their boundaries and their politics, is clear.

In order to break down this view of globalization and explore the possibilities of place, the project will begin with some key concerns and questions. How are women’s struggles around the defense of place the source of new forms of creativity, culture, ideas, and alternative development and economies? How do the lives of women-in-places interact with the global flows of information, media, and commodities? How do they shape and change the apparently increasingly homogenized global modern capitalist culture as they become interconnected? The aim of the project is to build constructive questions about the fate of place in the contemporary world in order to give shape to a place-based view of global processes and political action by analyzing the emergent politics of place through the actions of women’s groups themselves and in their interaction with different social movements.

Instead then, of thinking of places as areas with boundaries around, they can be imagined as articulated movements in networks of social relations and understandings ….this in turn allows a sense of place which is extroverted, which includes consciousness of its links with the wider world, which integrates in a positive way the local and the global. Doreen Massey

IV. Exploring Concepts of Place

What is “place”? Where does place start and end?

We intend to look at the politics of place not purely as resistance to modernization or processes of globalization, but rather as an alternative way of understanding globalization that also acknowledges the diverse manifestations of globalization itself. By ‘politics of place,’ we are referring to the various political activities carried out by women around the body, the environment, the community and the public arena where women’s groups are redefining political action. They are redefining the political to take into account their own gender concerns based on their encounter with various processes of globalization, and are challenging the dominance of political-economic logics by basing a politics in their own needs and their daily, lived experiences.

The project focuses explicitly on women’s place-based political activities in order to give prominence to the often silenced struggles of women who are too often viewed as the ‘other’ of public male dominated political engagement (as the example of Chiapas so vividly exposes).

First, rather than give an abstract definition, we prefer for now to identify and chart four domains in which, and from which, to explore the politics of place.

Women and Place

Women’s bodies are, for the majority of women, the first place that defines political struggle. These include struggles for autonomy, for reproductive and sexual integrity and rights, for safe motherhood, for freedom from violence and sexual oppression. The body is the site for many struggles over different identities, ways of thought and daily practices. Furthermore, because women are often silenced or ignored, their bodies become the only place to make their needs, sufferings and joys visible.

A second place is that of the home where many women still derive their most important social and political roles and identities. The home serves paradoxically as both a safe space where women have considerable power as well as a site where they experience a great degree of violence and oppression. The home is a crucial terrain of political struggle. Not only is it where many relations of power (within the family) are negotiated, it is also where much vital but undervalued labor is produced. Redefining their relationships within the home, as well as between the home and the wider community is then, another important site for elaborating new political practices.

The third place is the environment. In this perspective the environment is not limited to nature but is rather understood as a multi-layered web of economic, political and social relations that define women’s surroundings. As such it is inextricably connected to all aspects of survival: to issues of livelihood, justice and quality of life. While environment is clearly linked to survival the meanings of both environment and survival vary from place to place, but are continuously linked to and affected by broader, even global, contexts. The environment is intimately enmeshed in, and shaped by, gender relations. Environmental rights, responsibilities, and organizations are all deeply gendered processes. Women are often more directly affected by environmental destruction; this also means that today women are at the avant-garde of ecological struggles in many parts of the world.

The final place is the social public space, the male dominated domain to which most women still have limited access, and where many women find their gender-based concerns silenced or missing. For many years, women’s movements have been creating diverse avenues for entry into that space, even if they are still marginal to the pulse of dominant forms of political power. In redefining what counts as political, and at the heart of the politics of place, is an implicit challenge and renegotiation of what counts as public, and furthermore, what counts as real participation in that public space.

We start this conceptual exploration with the recognition that though women have been historically consigned to the less valued activities of body, home, nature and community, today rather than simply accept the low value placed on these domains, women have taken to articulating their own politics from precisely within these publicly denigrated spaces. Our place-based perspective recognizes that transformative political change can only come about through changes in societal practices and power relations so that women can challenge definitions of, as well as act on, all domains of place.

Body Politics

As groups like Bal Rashmi of Jaipur, various feminist groups rallying against female genital mutilation and even the Zapatista Women’s demands for freedom from sexual violence and the right to rest, show, the body and its integrity mark a critical site for both entering into the pursuit of, and ultimately defining, social justice. Until recently issues such as violence against women, reproductive health and policies associated with the home or “domesticity” were relatively absent from major political discourses. Today, however, women throughout the world, organizing within various cultural and economic backgrounds are using their fleshly knowledge of the world to organize resistance to particular practices based on their own bodily notions of justice.

For example, while the ultimate goal of Bal Rashmi?the group mentioned at the outset of this essay– is to create an equitable and socially just society, as well as to ensure the autonomy and self reliance of women, the group first engages with issues of reproductive health and sexual or domestic violence. Similarly, for thousands of African women, the Zapatista women of Oaxaca, and many others, the body is not merely a peripheral or instrumental issue that women need to “deal” with in order to get to the “real” issues of politics and economy, rather it is absolutely inextricable from their larger struggle for survival as well as these women’s understanding of social, cultural and economic justice. Why? Because it is through their lived?maternal, sexualized, strong, laboring, material– bodies, their lived experiences, that women know and engage with the world.

The power of groups like Bal Rashmi and others that base their struggles in female bodies is that they are simultaneously 1) helping to bring an end to silences that have caused so much pain for over half the world’s population; 2) contributing to the termination of damaging practices and 3) reconfiguring what society even considers to be political. In the process they are validating bodily experience, subjectivity and situatedness?perspectives often derided for being less effective than reason or science.

Validating lived experience, subjectivity, female identities, etc. means acknowledging that the meanings of things are produced not simply at some metaphysical or global level, but rather in particular contexts by concrete and particular actors.

In a world where dominant discourses and practices continuously abuse and marginalize women via their physical and socially constructed bodies, it makes sense that new knowledges, critiques and ultimately visions of how things should be, would be closely linked to women’s varied experiences of those bodies. While men certainly have bodily experiences as well, history and culture have rendered their relation to their own bodies very differently. This, then, is not a claim for privileging women because they are essentially, or fundamentally different than men, but a recognition that despite our evasions of essentialism, essential categories persist and as such must be addressed.

Noting, and even intentionally probing the unease many feminists have about theorizing of the body, we will try to work with and through the tensions around the particularities of female bodies, their fleshly capacity to nurture another life as well as their role as laborer, acknowledging that the body for women is a conscious and material entry point to their political identity. But we will also work against tendencies towards essentialism or biologism that suggest that all women, in all their diversities of history, race, experience, age have some essential “true” self or core. In other words we recognize that while there is no such thing as the “true” woman with certain essential or biological properties, we acknowledge and find useful recognizing that it is precisely their socially constructed closeness to their own bodies, nature and community that differentiate women from other political actors.

At the same time this project is concerned with moving beyond theorizing of women’s bodies that focuses solely on the women’s sexualized or maternal roles. Women’s bodies are physical, laboring entities, that, like a man’s must be fed must work for survival as Yvonne Underhill Sen suggests: “I want to take women’s bodies as being more than childbearing bodies. They are also hard working bodies capable of considerable effort and strain in their daily lives. Yet the strength that eventually comes from this hard work, like men’s bodies, is not invincible. Like men’s bodies, women’s bodies can be broken. And when this happens it is a tragedy.”

It is important that within discussions of the body, in both feminist and development discourses, we understand the conflicting need to account for women’s experiences of their maternal and sexualized bodies, while not reducing them to sexualized beings. Avoiding essentializing the conditions and properties of being a woman while still addressing her real, felt needs is a challenge that requires a flexible and reflexive process of analysis.

As such we feel that the intersection of feminist and development theory provides an important yet overlooked vantage point for the elaboration of new critical languages that deal more adequately with both the sheer materiality and politicization of female —and other?bodies. Our project, then, also looks to combine work by feminist theorists on political embodiment with the practice and theory of cross-cultural development work.

Development discourses rarely explicitly theorize the body as an important political site or entity. Despite needing to deal with women’s bodies as recipients of health or reproductive care, development theory because of its focus on the material is unable to acknowledge that women’s bodies are specifically implicated and produced as female– hence inferior, weak, victimized– bodies by development practices. Feminist theory on the other hand, though it has produced critical insights about political embodiment as well as arguments for privileging female vantage points, often inadequately addresses or acknowledges the importance of speaking of women’s bodies beyond sexualized or maternal entities. We are interested in seeing the intersections of these two approaches to women as agents of their own development and lives taking the insights of feminist theory to critique development practices and at the same time to bring back to feminist theory a critique of what means to live from the vantage point of different cultural constructs of the lived material female body.

We are interested in exploring the different cultural and ideological constructs of the body as both a fleshly political being and a point of departure for the production of knowledge. This means that we must understand the body not as bound to the private and to the self?the western conception of the autonomous individual– but linked integrally to material expressions of community and public space. In this sense there is no neat divide between the corporeal and the social, there is instead what has been called ‘social flesh’. (Beasley and Bacchi 2000) By this we hope to suggest an understanding of the body as itself a political site or place that mediates the lived experiences of social and cultural relationships. The fact, then, that Bal Rashmi and a plethora of groups organize around the body, challenging cultural and economic norms, is indicative of the way that cultural, social and political discourses are in fact mediated (or translated) through the concrete and lived body.

Since the 1970’s, feminist theorists (such as Judith Butler and Liz Grosz) have theorized the body as the place ‘closest in’ — an important political terrain for women’s identity and politics. Our project picks up this work by looking at the relationship of ‘being in the body’ and ‘being in place’. The body in most political theories is not a subject of politics but an object of political control and is the exteriorized terrain of public regulation. There is an implicit disconnection from the ‘private’ experience of the lived body and a person’s subjectivity. Instead our project finds it more useful to adapt a feminist theory of the body that builds on an understanding of the body as critical to modern operations of power.

Bodies, then, are not separate from politics rather they are their very embodiment, their corporeal, fleshly, material existence that determine our relations and experiences. In calling attention to bodies as political subjects, the project recognizes that ‘we are our bodies,’ and that every rational, emotional, or other experience or filtering of experience is ultimately had through the body. The political self is not distinct from the body; it is only through particular ideological and historical processes that bodily experiences and activities have been removed from political discourse.


It has long been recognized that the home is an ambivalent site with respect to justice and equality for women. On the one hand it is where women appear to exercise the most power, where her role as grandmother, mother, wife is recognized where women can make decisions and find respect. On the other hand it is where women are the most exposed and vulnerable to sexual abuse, to violence and to exploitation. It is often the intolerable conditions in the home that force women to seek alternatives to their lives, to defend their bodies and their children by creating other homes and places secure from the violence they suffer within the home. The ideology of the safe hearth and home is breaking down. Women are not only fighting to end the practices that contribute to their continued inequality, they are struggling to reapportion and create new value for practices associated with the home and domesticity.

If we take the case of the Zapatista women once again, we see that their demands are almost equally divided between demands for new rights within the public sphere, such as equal pay, equal access to leadership positions, and several demands that attempt to reassign worth to aspects of their domestic roles. When the Zapatista women include a demand for the right to rest, among the more traditionally recognized political demands for the autonomy of their communities and even for equal pay, they are drawing attention to the highly political nature of the home, domesticity, motherhood.


How do women in different environments face the current economic and environmental crises? What do they share in common with each other? What knowledge base do they draw on? How do they define environment? What hopes do they hold for the future?

The debates on women, the environment and sustainable development in the last decade are a fascinating example of how women are carving political spaces for themselves that challenge the hegemonic institutions of the state and market. As members of the ‘third actor’ in the modern polis– civil society– women have pushed the critique of the traditional economic development model on the grounds that it ignores the environment and people’s needs. Women have entered these debates vocally, and in large numbers, because their and their families’ livelihoods are at stake.

Women’s voices on environment and sustainable development emerged most forcibly on the international scene in the period beginning in 1992, the time marked by the UNCED Earth Summit in Rio, June 1992. Through the fora these conferences provided, women argued against the stereotypes of women as ‘savers of mother Earth’ or as those who can ‘clean up the mess’ to become protagonists in the more directed struggles: including the fights against the patterns of production (including the arms trade) and finance and global politics of structural adjustment which are destroying the ecological system. They argued that women, particularly poor women living in the South, have the biggest stake in protecting the natural resource base as well as basic health and sanitation of their surroundings and that it is the external forces of the state and global market which are breaking down the relationship between people and their environments. People’s environments include the meanings, values and general ways of being that characterize and distinguish between different communities.

The agenda established in Rio, and elaborated with different emphasis by women’s groups around the world was that it is not a question of adding women or environment into the equation but recognizing that the axes of oppression are more deeply, and inextricably linked. The international economic system has produced an unsustainably high level of consumption while failing to value nature, women’s labour, social stability and self-sufficiency. Many women (and increasingly men) have argued that we need to look for an integrated economic, ecological and ethical approach that takes into account women’s particular and local perspectives in addition to heeding both local and international levels of responsibility.

Their critique includes a challenge to the assumption that western scientific discourse is the only form of knowledge that can explain the relationship between people and the environment. They have instead proposed a holistic approach which values non-western ways of thinking and organizing and allows for the possibility of envisioning alternative ways of being. These might not be deemed good or worthy in the dominant economic system because they might view profit and productivity as secondary to peace and ecological sustainability. They have formed alliances and partnerships based on the belief that women’s everyday realities in sustaining their livelihoods have to be the basis of a reshaping of the international agenda on sustainable development.

Public Space

The political dimensions of the body, home and environment as place converge in the negotiation of women’ movements to enter the public sphere. The political struggles being elaborated by women are both vying for more access to the domain dominated by men as well as attempting to change the very terrain on which we consider politics and political change to happen. In a sense “body politics,” politics around the body, home and environment?beyond pursuing concrete changes?also works to validate issues and perspectives that were previously considered to be non-political, or private in the social public domain. The politics of place in the public sphere not only consists of efforts, through governmental and non-governmental means to participate in, or influence, institutional politics, but also to illuminate the political nature of culture. Culture is political precisely because meaning, and the power to produce or determine meaning are constitutive of our lived experiences as well as our analyses of them.

By validating women’s lived experiences as political through these emergent politics of place, women are in effect vying to change the dominant culture that supposes a top-down, unilateral view of politics and social change. Women’s public political work, then, has much to do with shifting cultural codes, and creating a critical language or vantage point that can not only open up the public domain to more participants in the decision making process, but also point to the ubiquity of those public sites within accepted cultural practices.

Re-embedding culture and justice

One of the most notable features about the four domains of place we have just introduced —body, home, environment, and the social public space?is that although they are often dismissed as private and unimportant sites of struggle, when they are politicized they challenge many of the most fundamental assumptions of dominant and global discourses. Politics based around these four areas question the presumption that “important knowledge” is detached, objective and rational and point to the importance of material, subjective and personal vantage points. These vantage points or perspectives of women are embedded in, rather than removed from, the material lives they are trying to change.

Using the politics of place as a way to explain the dimension of women’s lived political lives is important because this perception of place offers a possible alternative to the detached, de-localized and impersonal nature that many fear characterizes modern-day societies (and is only worsening with the onset of globalization). We believe that we can put body, nature and community back into place, what theorists have call to ‘re-embed’. In this sense, the ‘politics of place’ recognizes the importance of face-to face interaction, as well as a contextualized and situated approaches to politics. The politics of place works to re-embed the notions of culture and justice in body and place, and thus locate place in the terrain of ethics and justice.

This notion of embeddedness becomes particularly crucial not only because of the fear of a qualitative decline in social relations due to globalization, but also, almost paradoxically, because as the world becomes increasingly interconnected problems faced by distant strangers often have common sources. It is therefore more necessary than ever to explore how we can begin to understand and to speak across differences. In this sense the notion of embeddedness implied by the ‘politics of place’ corresponds closely to theories of embodiment taken from feminist theory, philosophy and practical political experience. Embodiment?locating philosophical and ethical discussions in their material and cultural contexts? is an approach to dealing with and speaking across difference in order to create solidarity and to avoid marginalizing “others.”

As such another aspect of the politics of place is a proposal for dealing with and mediating across differences, especially in those situations where cultural diversity, and global imbalances of power (generally, but not only, between the North and the South) often complicate the very act of making political statements and taking definitive stances. One issue that has brought out the power and culture-laden aspect of embodiment is female genital mutilation.

Body politics across cultures and within international spaces

The fight to end female genital mutilation (also called genital cutting) is an important example of women’s politics around body, home, environment and public space. It remains a fraught and difficult issue — not only in terms of the health implications for women but also in terms of how best to mobilize and organize around it. There is undoubtedly now strong international solidarity and support for African women’s groups that supports their placed-based strategies, but there are also disturbing public fascinations and intrusions — from overly medical to almost pornographic interest. The point is how to maintain the dignity, security and well-being of women who have survived violence in their lives rather than to expose in a raw and crude way violated bodies. The transition from a traditional practice that is physically life endangering but is seen as the norm for that culture (to be a woman, to have a woman’s body meant to have genitals incised) has been changed over time by new knowledge and structures that have created new meanings that are symbolic and life giving and have profoundly changed social, political and economic relations empowering both women and their community.

The nature of the heated discussions around FGM in both the human rights and women’s movements has made it clear that constructing a political stance– that both moves us in the direction of justice and respects cultural difference– is a difficult but critical matter. When we consider the many layers of power and inequality that surround each of those terms, acknowledging that “justice” at one level, or in one context, might produce growing inequality at another, finding a way to work through differences becomes imperative. For example, whereas it is clear that female genital mutilation is harmful to both the psychic and physical health of many women, the effects of Western human rights groups maligning entire systems of belief are similarly, if not more, destructive. Often the women, who have themselves organized to end such practices within their own communities, are portrayed by the international press as victims of “backward” cultures, denied their own strength and agency and ultimately relegated to a now doubly marginalized status. At the same time we cannot allow practices such as female genital mutilation to go uncriticized simply because it is considered a cultural or ritual tradition. That cultural traditions go unchanged because they are romanticized and preserved as aspects of an-“other” culture is simply another form of bigotry (and we would argue an inadequate attention to place). This project is subtitled “Culture, Power and Justice” precisely because these terms?and the tensions they represent– are central to our understanding of a politics of place.

In fact, allowing the cultural rationale to preserve the status quo is itself a direct result of an inadequate attention to the ubiquity and centrality of place. That is to say, ultimately it is only because many Western actors have (wrongly) come to conceive of themselves as universal actors who live outside of culture, and whose beliefs, practices and mores are not rooted in any places or times, that allows for both the romanticizing and belittling of African women in the course of transnational activism.

We all live within cultures, the recognition that everything is within culture; that cultures are both constantly present and constantly changing and that they are influenced by power dynamics, is central to our project. The notion of politics of place is closely linked to our recognition that politics is largely made up of contests over meaning: the interplay between culture and power. Just as women have redefined the political by illuminating the political nature of their bodies, place-based politics suggests that we take into account many more aspects of our social and cultural locations when constructing a movement in pursuit of social change.

The notion of embodied, or embedding, experience suggests the importance of placing someone in their social and cultural location without artificially binding them to a fixed cultural or social identity.

Re-embedding politics in place, thus, also means locating discussions and activisms squarely and deeply within all of their contextual complexity. This presents us with a vantage point from where we might develop potentially transformative solutions. That is, it provides us with a point of departure from where we can acknowledge (rather than hide or ignore) and consequently thoroughly address the crucial and difficult questions facing political movements in a global context. As experiences with movements against FGM suggest, if a practice is brought into question within its own cultural parameters, where actors can note the various political and economic interests of those arguing on both sides, where individuals and groups?rather than abstract notions of culture and modernity?can be seen and judged for what they are, an issue can be resolved without jeopardizing the specificity and autonomy of cultures.

Similarly, we need to acknowledge not only our cultural backgrounds and locations, but also our particular positions and roles as mediators, activists and academics. If we take seriously the importance of working from concrete positions we must consciously and constantly look for and draw attention to the parameters, boundaries, identities and privileges we are shaped by. This is not to argue that moving between cultures, writing about societies, or making judgements on the efficacy of certain practices is not a complex process, but it is to offer the suggestion that deliberately acknowledging and then interrogating these shifting limits is one of the most important strategies offered by a politics of place.

Border thinkers

Location in today’s globalised women’s movement is not always easy. For example the SID Women on the Net project found the negotiations in cyberspace among first, third and fourth worlds complex and not always successful. The editor of the book Women@Internet , one of the outcomes of the project in a response to a critical review comments on the importance of these moments of friction during the women on the net Internet discussions:

“We continually engaged with racial, gender and economic oppression in our conversations and in real life. Our cyberspace discussions dismantled and pushed us to limits as we founded friendships and explored experiences that come out of our political work and our conversations across traditional boundaries and borders that make up the experiences of women and men trying to bring about social transformation.

In terms of my role as mediator, the cyberfrictions … are moments in which strategies for change are being formed. This friction is loaded with strong differences of opinion related to experience and theory for minorities and people of colour. In the practice of the group nobody was strictly speaking ‘white middle class’ or ‘black academic’ or lesbian’ or third world’ or ‘fourth world’, at least not in any clear cut sense of these terms. The collective dynamic was more fluid and more relative that allowed us to go beyond the problematization of individual identities within the group. There might well be some lesson here for the politics of identity, though of course identities can never be fully transcended, the contact in the flesh and in the net is not a linear one.” Wendy Harcourt

The position of mediator or facilitator in this process is as a border thinker. We are border thinkers because many of us work to create and facilitate contacts in different areas with women and men of different political spaces and also because we might work on the limit of disciplines, missions, passions, tongues and languages. Ours is risky work, because … if the critic does not recognize their border position, s/he can misread the whole project. We must understand that the power comes from our positioning on the border, from facilitating crossings from academia to activism from international agencies missions to the roots of local struggles.’ Picture of Women in the Digital Age Booklet

The Complexities at the Intersections of Place, Power and Culture

“Can’t we re-think our sense of place? Is it not possible for a sense of place to be progressive; not self-enclosing and defensive, but outward-looking? ….. The degree to which we can move between countries, or walk about the streets at night, or venture out of hotels in foreign cities, is not just influenced by ‘capital’…. but by men. … … It is certainly the case that there is indeed at the moment a recrudescence of some very problematic senses of place, from reactionary nationalisms, to competitive localisms, to introverted obsessions with ‘heritage’. We need, therefore, to think through might be an adequately progressive sense of place, one which would fit in with the current global-local times and the feelings and relations they give rise to, and which would be useful in what are, after all, political struggles often inevitably based on place.”–Doreen Massey )

Simply noting that cultures are shifting, boundaries constructed, and identities malleable does little if we do not locate these insights within the concrete and power-laden contexts in which they arise. While arguing for the validity of place-based politics, we must also take into account the myriad paradoxes, challenges, and ambivalences that arise within, and on the fringes, of place. We must always consider that places themselves are sites of unequal, even oppressive, power relations, and that for many, even identifying ‘one’s place’ is a politically and personally complex task, full of painful ambivalences but potentially progressive possibilities.

For example, how do we promote the viability and autonomy of traditional cultures while still allowing space for change within those cultures? The experience of the Zapatista women is a case in point. On the one hand the Zapatista movement is admired throughout the world for its novel use of new technologies, global networks and incorporation of women in their guerilla forces for the express purpose of protecting a space for the indigenous Zapatista culture. But, despite the crucial involvement of women, many of the more radical demands they made on their own communities were marginalized, put aside and effectively labeled unimportant to the overall cause. Their demand for the right to rest, the right to choose their own partners, the right to freedom from rape, all demands to give them more freedom to choose their societal roles — to change the fundamental relations of power in Mayan society– were denied them. How can a woman’s group effectively pursue a transformative politics: one that includes the cultural autonomy of her traditional community, while reserving her right to make changes to it? How can she create or move in a new and currently unrecognized, undefined place?

Similarly, in our argument for the defense of places, we cannot ignore the fact that there is no such thing as a “pure” or easily definable place. We must address the paradoxes, challenges, and conceptual and practical needs that arise because of the unprecedented number of people that are forced (or choose) to leave home and place —the migrants, sex workers, displaced people, refugees, even the victims of natural disasters, etc.?require us to take into account the tensions between movement and attachment, displacement and re-construction, identity and belonging that many people live with.

Geographic double-think

Although commercial sex is now recognized as a global, multi-billion dollar industry, its workers –in their millions– are only referred to as ‘illegals,’ as victims of ‘trafficking’ and as potential ‘vectors’ of HIV/AIDS –when they are referred to at all. The same London newspaper that runs the story of ‘liberated sex slaves’ in Malaysia never mentions the problems migrant Chinese women have finding childcare (or fish sauce) in London. It is the age-old technique of ‘disappearing’ people simply by not acknowledging them.
To be deemed worthy of recognition and help, where you are is all-important. The same person identified as ‘indigenous’ in the Andes and included in projects of traditional aid is viewed, if she migrates to the north, as a job-stealer, welfare bum, ghetto resident, drug dealer and addict, candidate for deportation and firmly outside the scope of traditional development aid. Unless she puts on some kind of native dress and plays pan-pipes, whereupon she may qualify for ‘cultural’ funding and will probably be left alone by the police –that is, if she plays well enough to gather audiences.

Those who seek to correct this geographic double-think –whether they are involved in battles for fairer immigration law or for better working conditions for domestics, dancers or prostitutes– often talk about rights: the right to communicate, the right to health care. Similarly, when possible uses of new information and communication technologies are mentioned, we hear about the right to access. But access is a tricky thing with people who are being watched and controlled, do not have much money and are itinerant. Migrant labourers, whether women or men, whatever their labour, have difficulty finding and using the benefits of settled society. Migrants who do not enjoy ‘legal’ status or whose status depends on a certain amount of fraud or deception, must be extremely cautious about requesting and using services. Migrant prostitutes have the additional problems of having to navigate a labyrinth of laws concerning their work. The problems here are logistical and the need is for wireless, rapid and discreet connections…

Currently, the world of interested and ‘helping’ agencies, largely ensconced in comfortable offices, bemoans the manipulation of migrant women by criminal networks and wonders where women have gone when they suddenly disappear. The solution to this is evident: move out of those offices. Supporters need to stop producing and giving out ever more excellent written materials and do more following and listening. They should learn from the ‘criminals’ and start knowing not only where the women are but where they are going to next. The information available to women comes from those who go to them. To influence the empowerment of a migrant sex worker means accepting her reality and going to meet her there. Laura Agustín They Speak, But Who Listens? In Women@Internet London Zed Books 1999

A place-based politics must continually face the complexities of possibilities of place in a time where nothing is purely local or global.

A Conceptual tool-kit

In reflecting on the experience of women’s groups around the politics of place we have found useful a set of concepts that we hope can serve as both a basic ‘tool-kit,’ and perhaps the beginning of a critical language, that we?activists, mediators and academics, alike?can use for examining, understanding and strategizing around particular cases.

Part of creating either a ‘critical language’ or a ‘tool-kit,’ we believe, includes making analyses and strategies more transparent and communicable. As we suggested at the beginning of the paper, the process of creating such theoretical categories is not arbitrary. We proceed by both taking cues from reality as well as the background of other existing concepts and categories, often deriving from the academic world, with the intention of making our various place-based, and political practices, more focused and useful. “Theory,” then, is just a somewhat fancy, more or less abstract, description of reality, neither more nor less valid than the self-understanding that people or activists have of themselves and their situation.

When produced by “experts,” however, theories can be particularly disempowering because they are disengaged and because they contribute to hierarchical structures. We have argued that something of the sort has happened with most theories of globalization. However, it does not need to be this way. In what follows we introduce a few concepts that, we believe, can have an empowering effect when activists attempt to examine their situation in order to come up with political actions and strategies. These concepts, again, originate in disciplines such as feminist theory, anthropology and geography; in many ways, however they have a counterpart in the language that activists are themselves bringing into existence in their encounter with various actors and institutions (ranging from academics to the agents of global governance institutions.) We should emphasize that these concepts in no way constitute a blueprint for action, rather they should be seen as a provisional toolkit and emergent language that need to be continuously reformulated.

The Social movement of black river communities in the Colombian Pacific

Since 1990, this movement has become a network of black organizations that is working for the social control of territory as a pre-condition for the survival and strengthening of cultural and biological diversity. The movement emphasizes four fundamental rights — to identity, to territory, to a measure of political autonomy, and to their own vision of development. Anchored in the rainforest and its communities, the movement has become increasingly transnationalized in its engagement with other networks, from dominant networks concerned with biodiversity to oppositional networks such as those formed by Afro-Latin American peoples and anti-globalization mobilizations world wide. Through this engagement, movement activists have developed what could be called a political ecology framework?their own ‘theoretical model’. Within their framework, the territory is seen as a fundamental and multidimensional space for the creation and recreation of the ecological, economic, and cultural practices as well as identities of the communities. While they struggle for their territory and the right to their black identity they do not fight for freezing their cultural community in time. They are fighting for the right to assert their own holistic vision of a political ecology: a view of the world and power that takes nature and social relations into account. They thus emphasize that biodiversity conservation must be based on local territorial control and existing cultural practices; that the entire rainforest region constitutes an ecological and cultural unit that has been historically created and maintained by the region’s ethnic groups; and that while the territory, and place, embody the life project of the communities, the defense of the “region-territory” describes the political project of the social movement. Furthermore, through the organizing processes many women’s groups have also formed both contributing to and challenging the vision of the larger movement.

The activities of this movement illustrates how the politics of place can be centred on the defense of local models of nature and cultural practices that links up with other dominant and oppositional networks and meshworks. In doing so, it engages in a politics of scale that results in the construction of glocalities, or alternative regional social and natural worlds, such as that which the Colombian activists call the “region-territory of ethnic groups.” In their political work movement activist are important and sophisticated knowledge producers. They refuse the disembedded understanding of nature, life, and community and propend rather for their re-embedding in local social life and context. But, while the movement has certainly spurred the creation of women’s groups, we have yet to see how transformative the strategies of localization will prove. A network of Afro-Latin American women has already been formed. Will women succeed in changing unequal relations of power while the movements fight for the autonomy of their political-ecological vision?


The concept of networks is central to many inquiries about globalization and resistance to it. Both global capital and movements for social justice are seen to operate through them. In the popular press, anti-globalization social movements have been portrayed as “anarchistic,” incoherent, and in lacking vision. The concept of network, however, allows for a different, more positive interpretation of their structure. In this respect, it is important to distinguish between dominant (capital, institutional, informational, etc.) networks and oppositional networks, even if they are more often than not inextricably interconnected. Most resistance networks operate partially through, or engaging with, dominant ones. Oppositional networks are those that connect up subaltern social groups and movements with each other. These might be better termed ‘meshworks,’ the difference being that, as opposed to dominant networks, subaltern meshworks tend to be non-hierarchicaland self-organizing. They are created out of the interlocking of heterogeneous and diverse elements brought together because of complementarity or common experiences, without having uniformity imposed on them. They grow in unplanned directions. Anti-globalization social movements, in their heterogeneity and self-organizing character, might be seen as incipient meshworks of this kind. Also, oppositional meshworks of indigenous peoples, women or around particular issues such as mangroves, dams, oil or GMO’s —to name a few?have been on the rise in the last couple of decades.

Meshworks involve two parallel dynamics: strategies of localization and of interweaving. Localization strategies contribute to the internal consistency of each site in the network (although it makes them more distinct from the rest of sites) One example of a localization strategy would be the celebration and consolidation of a particular territorial and racial identity, like the Colombian, wherein differentiating themselves from dominant Colombian identity was crucial to becoming a powerful movement. Interweaving, on the other hand, links sites together, making use of and emphasizing their similarities. The resulting meshworks of the anti-globalization movement, for example, could be in the position of holding the big financial and development institutions more accountable for the hierarchies they continue to support. Meshworks, are not necessarily ‘morally superior’ to dominant networks or hierarchies, but they do tend to be oppositional.


Many of these networks/ meshworks link together various sites that in the process become, or create, spaces that are neither local or global. These can be better understood as “glocal.” Although many writers have defined the glocalization as a process through which transnational capital overtakes or co-opts localities by for example adapting different marketing strategies to fit particular places and cultures; we conceive of glocalities as neither inherently good or bad, but potentially strategic. In a sense glocalities ought to be understood as descriptive of all places because no place is today constituted wholly by local or global factors. At the same time glocal spaces, understood as strategic, have tremendous potential to base new and transformative politics and identities. Glocalities, the places and spaces produced by the linking together of various social movements in networks and meshworks of opposition, or by the connection of places to global processes, are, then, both strategic and descriptive, potentially oppressive or potentially transformative.

This also amounts to saying that globalization does not really happen “above” or “from below” but always “in between.” Glocalities are simultaneously global and place-based, and their specific configuration will depend on their cultural content as well as on the power dynamics at play. For instance, a “plantation” is a glocality produced by the most conventional forms of capital and way of conceiving of food and nature. Very different are the culturally driven glocalities produced by peasant or indigenous groups who want to maintain a diverse ecosystem and landscape. We are particularly interested in those place-based glocalities or creative cultural-spatial configurations that harbor and enhance the cultural, ecological, and political interests of women’s groups. Our aim is to make these glocalities visible. We also want to see how glocalities work to allow for the preservation of certain visions of a place, while at the same time being accessible to a feminist reorganization of that place.

Ambiguous intersections and networks

In Sunnakhi, a small relatively isolated village in Punjab, women strictly practice purdah and are confined to both their homes and community. They are nonetheless participating in global processes as they sew shoes for transnational corporations. At the same time they are linked to women’s rights movements through their involvement with the women’s rights group Shirkat Gah, based in Lahore working on environmental, human rights and women’s rights. Through Shirkat Gah they find the means to have a health visitor come to their home, and convince their families to go to local hospitals. What effect does the direct impact of globalization have on their location between home and globality; modernity and tradition, traditional and modern knowledge and activities? What changes in terms of their lived experience of their bodies? their homes? Their community? Their multiple levels of place?

Subaltern Strategies of Place

Place-based politics is opening up possibilities for women’s groups to make meaningful changes at the local level, while at the same time valorizing the very act of making change locally. In defending place, women’s groups engage in what is called by theorists ‘subaltern strategies of localization’, at three levels: a) place-based struggles for the transformative defense of culturally-specific models of social life (e.g., visions of how the economy should operate, how nature should be treated, or how gender relations should be transformed); b) strategies of localization beyond place through an active engagement with both dominant networks and oppositional, like-minded meshworks (this is the transnational dimension of organization and struggle); and c) shifting political strategies for the defense of body, nature, culture and economy that link local, regional, national, and international levels. In other words, at the concrete places of struggle there is both an internal process of negotiation, consolidation and transformation?even by reinforcing, questioning, or establishing new boundaries or cultural practices?as well as an external reach for connection and alliance. Networking that is radiating out from place has the potential to enable women to work in support and solidarity across cultural differences and geographic distances, to make vocal the once unpoliticized issues around the body, reproductive health and women’s work in home and the community. The ‘subaltern,’ in sum, mobilize around the body, home nature and community in ways that link the local to the global, but always from the standpoint of place. They have a consciousness of globality that does not necessarily entail a disregard and disrespect of their places, even if it does entail fostering a critical attitude towards them.

Organization For Alternative Development and Global JusticeODAG is located in a place/space that is neither local nor global. It shifts between the two, and rethinks the politics of each. ODAG is a networking space where individuals and institutions from grassroots, national, regional, international spheres intersect/communicate/exchange on a par level to achieve change in their local realities.

As part of its programme strategy, the Organization For Alternative Development and Global Justice articulates three levels through which it works. 1) Local-Local: increasing the horizontal communication and relations between different localities, communities and alternative spaces. 2) Global-Local: making sure to bring global discourses, including the debates surrounding them, to localities and then working to create spaces where they can shape them. 3) Local-Global: working to represent the diversity of perspectives as viable sites of knowledge, both validating indigenous voices and defying the belief in monolithic or predominant forms of knowledge. This group’s multi-levelled strategy is only one example of the creative and complex ways movements, NGO’s and various actors are manoeuvring, and at times leaping, between different scales.

In addition, these processes are not limited to simply communicating between different intersections of various networks: their strategies are far more nuanced combining efforts to debunk universals through the simple fact of diversity, building deliberate coalitions, as well as re-asserting and re-claiming their own localized (though changing) knowledges and perspectives. In other words their political strategies within the multiple scales include both traditional political practices such as organizing and mobilizing, as well as organized struggles over meaning and the right to put forth culturally and situationally specific models of social life (e.g., visions of how the economy should operate, how nature should be treated, how gender relations should be transformed).

Creating glocalities: From the dhows to the cybercafes

An innovative creation of cyberculture by the Zanzabari is the adaption of the medium to a traditional form of communication –the kanga. Kanga is the traditional cloth worn by women, where women are able to express their sentiments in a culture of silence. Every kanga has a philosophical saying. These sayings are part of the swahili culture along the East Coast of Africa which as they say can often move a mountain.

The Internet is used to exchange new sayings, keep the information flow about the latest kanga patterns both in Zanzibar and the Zanzabari community globally. Cyberspace has provided the opportunity for a vibrant cultural community to build its creative wealth of sayings and debates in Kiswahili language. And the Zanzibar community log on the Internet for views and news in order to join the debate wherever they are globally…

Here we have a paradox growing up around how the Internet or cyberculture is serving the Zanzibari ‘community.’ The question here is who is the community? Community is another buzz word for the developing world and development agencies. It appears as a positive word but it in reality is a vague concept in the world of shifting borders of the here and now. For example, does the Zanzibari global cultural identity form a community? Or do the NGO/CBO movement form a community? Where do the yuppies living in Zanzibar but striving to be part of a global modern world of business fit in? Is a Zanzibar community linked to its historical roots or to its contemporary abode? Does it just describe a sense of belonging? Can such a sense of community enable people to unite and resolve conflicting social struggles, or should communities be more self-consciously crafting out internal political compromises in the pursuit of development, democracy or environmental conservation?

… This is the challenge we face not only in Zanzibar but also in the global realm of cyberculture which we are trying to build.

From ‘Information Technology and Cyberculture: The Case of Zanzibar’ by Fatma Alloo, Women@Internet Zed Books 1997

Picture of a WoN workshop

Being in Place, Agents in Place

We already referred to the increasing disembedding of social life from local context, and the fact that the ‘subaltern’ through their strategies, in many ways pursue a re-embedding vision that has implications for how we think about politics, culture and justice. Women and various social movements are reasserting their political and historical agency: they are recovering the capacity to make their own history. They are reclaiming the ability and authority to use their situated and contextual understanding of problems and situations critical for social transformation in ways that would be impossible for outside experts to do. Outside experts lack the deep, nuanced knowledge that comes from another critical aspect of place-based politics: that of simply being in place.

Although it might sound intuitive, the validation of face-to-face interaction, as well as the importance of being privy to the myriad and interwoven stories and details that accompany the various histories of any given place, are generally neglected in discussions of political efficacy. Being rooted in particular places and problems enables a type of ‘skillful disclosing’?the ability to reveal, or unveil possibilities for new ways of being. Place-based activists or engaged persons do not act as detached participants in the public sphere but precisely out of their deep commitment to, and understanding of, the cultural background of the group in question. For instance, some women might discover new ways for dealing with long-standing discriminatory practices in their communities in such a way that the entire cultural background shifts.

Local, local, local!

Shramjeevi Sanghatan is a popular movement in the South of India that uses the human rights discourse as a part of its strategy to end the oppression and marginalization of tribals, dalits and women. Unlike many other groups or movements that also use the discourse of human rights to improve their living conditions or fight for justice, Shramjeevi Sanghatana has a remarkable record of both longevity and success at obtaining services from the state and reforming long-standing societal practices such as untouchability and denigration of women. What was the secret?

Being in one place and region from 1979. In discussing his strategy, Vivek places a strong emphasis on the scales within which he believes it is appropriate to organize. His cry is “local, local, local!” ?referring to the need to always emphasize the local space of struggle. For Vivek emphasizing locality is as much an expression of an ethical stance as it is a description of actual conditions. It is because he focuses on building a movement within a given place, for many years that the movement is able to move from fighting external oppression to changing internal relations of unequal power and violence. For example, it is because of the movement’s embeddedness in the region that the parallel between the injustice of untouchability and violence against women was successfully made. The hypocrisy of men who had fought to be freed from abuse of members of higher castes, could be illuminated precisely because the activists knew the culture, history and many individuals of the community.

Furthermore, by stressing the local, Vivek points to the most effective category for locating both local and global change. Not only are localities sites where a great deal of institutional and political power is wielded, through laws and enforcement agencies, but locality is where power?in both its dominating and resistive forms? is produced.

As such, Vivek’s emphasis on the local is part and parcel of both his vision and his ethics of organizing. That is to say he does not merely “prefer” the local because it allows him to avoid the national bureaucracy, but rather because local spaces are where things happen: where change is made and felt, and where sustainable oppositional movements exist on a day to day basis. In a sense an organizer can only effectively and ethically work within and through the place where he/she is situated. That lived scale is the only place where one can see the way ideals are actually embodied in action. This does not mean that locality prevents groups from belonging to larger movements, but it does suggest that larger global and coalitional movements are irrelevant if they do not refer back to the concrete places where the needs that both create and ground them reside.

Being grounded in place is both more politically effective, and some would argue qualitatively more desirable. Thus the politics of place is also a call to bring back a contextualized notion of human action.

As Arif Dirlik states: “Groundedness, which is not the same thing as immutable fixity, and some measure of definition by flexible and porous boundaries, I suggest are crucial to any conceptualization of place and place-based consciousness….What is important about the metaphor (of place) is that it calls for a definition of what is to be included in the place from within the place?some control over the conduct and organization of everyday life, in other words?rather than from above, from those placeless abstractions such as capital, the nation-state, and their discursive expressions in the realm of theory. It is these features, I think, that justify attention to the place-based against kindred notions of local and spatial.”

V. Defining a Politics of Place

” For all its variety, the discourse of Capitalism is so pervasive it leaves us ‘embarrassingly empty-handed when trying to come up with a different view of things.’ (quoting Arturo Escobar). Perhaps under these circumstances the way to begin to break free of Capitalism is to turn its prevalent representations on their heads. What if we theorized Capitalism not as large and embracing but as something partial, as one social constituent among many?”J.K Gibson-Graham

When one looks around at the various social movements and women’s groups throughout the world, places and the politics in defense of them are brimming. Women’s empowerment, violence against women, the environment and health are becoming major political issues. Rather than being subsumed by “global logics,” women and other social movements worldwide are engaging in politics that are actually very rooted to their specific social, economic and cultural locations and do not yield easily to the trends of capitalistic globalization. Instead of simply accepting the capitalist system or the inevitability of homogenized social and cultural systems as natural inevitable truths beyond their control or choice, women and others are working to form what we might call: a “politics of place.”

With the term “politics of place,” we do not mean to suggest that women and social movements are simply defending their own places against modernity and global capital. Rather, by “defending place,” we are suggesting that they are not simply accepting or adhering to the idea that capitalist globalization and its impoverishing consequences are inevitable. Women throughout the world are using their own knowledge and experiences to create new and distinct places: places that are neither wholly modern, nor entirely traditional, not untouched and pure, but not irrelevant either. Using global networks such as the Internet and transnational NGO’s, these social movements are working to assert their own visions, fight for justice and shape global processes. How do we explain the creativity and expansiveness of these groups in lieu of the growing monopoly of transnational corporations and neo-liberal thought? How do we support them? We need a new conceptual framework within which we can make sense of these politics.

In rethinking political responses to modernity and global capitalism it is important to build on the creativity, knowledge and experience of women’s groups engaged in place-based politics. The conflicts that women are experiencing within the different domains (body, home, nature and community) usher in new forms of cultural and political relations. As actors in their own lives, women are leading activities around the politics of the body, the home, the community, the environment and local government. They are working together towards greater equity respecting and working with their cultural and other differences. Strategies for greater equity and feminist transformation that respect cultural difference can be crafted from these global connections. Such strategies could well repudiate dominant development in the name of the defense of place, creating new structures of power and new forms of culture. In calling for a politics of place, then, it is imperative that the critiques and negotiations take place at both the interior and exterior ( as well as on the borders and within the margins) of localities and communities.

In this background paper we have aimed to introduce some of the central questions and concepts that are guiding our interest in these movements, and ultimately to try and characterize what a politics of place actually is, and whether it is politically useful– for women and social movement activists and mediators and other participants in these processes. We have aimed to frame the questions we need to ask in order to understand more clearly the relationships between globalization and women’s places. What are the relations of bodies and places to modernity, to delinking, to escaping? What are the dialectics, the casualties, the contradictions, the reconfigurations and the strategies of recovery?

We are acting on our hunch that there is in fact something about the notion of place?both as a concrete and physical entity as well as a conceptual or metaphoric tool?that can provide us with both a descriptively and prescriptively helpful framework. Place-based politics not only describes how different women’s groups and social movements are redefining politics and political knowledge both from their own particular locations and through global networks such as the internet; we believe that it might also prescribe, or at least suggest, potential resolutions to many of the tensions that have tended to riddle progressive political movements in their attempts to speak in solidarity across diverse cultures; pursue improved livelihoods without succumbing to Western notions of development, and more generally to help orient struggles for social justice without attempting to posit all encompassing theories and models.

” The struggle for place in the concrete is a struggle against power and the hegemony of abstractions” Arif Dirlik

VII. Annotated bibliography/ web sites

Compiling a recommended and annotated list of written materials for this project is an interesting and rather immense task. Not only are there currently many good books and articles being devoted to the issues of place, body, networks and globalization, in addition what we find as we unpack and explore the very term “politics of place” is that it is also useful as a new lens through which to read material that was not explicitly interested in the term itself. Both in terms of theory and more case-or practice based pieces, when re-read with the concepts we have elaborated in this paper in mind, take on new meaning and lead to further insights. The following list is only an initial guide to literature that we think does a good job at pushing many of the questions and ideas behind politics of new place to even more interesting and inspiring levels. (Some pieces are certainly more academic and perhaps difficult to read than others, but we have tried to include only those that we believe worth the effort!)

1. Place in Globalization: Theoretical Background

books and articles that are both comprehensive and historically important in terms of elaborating theories and conceptual schema of place specifically in globalization.

Globalism and the Politics of Place

Arturo Escobar Guest Editor

Development 41.2, June 1998.

A Place in the World? Places Culture and Globalization

Doreen Massey and Pat Jess, eds. Oxford: The Open University. 1995.

Space, Place and Gender

Doreen Massey. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

Places and Politics in and Age of Globalization

Roxann Prazniak and Arif Dirlik, eds.

Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2001.

“Culture Sits in Places: Anthropological reflections on Globalism and Subaltern Strategies of Globalization.”

Arturo Escobar Cultural Anthropology., 2001.

The End of Capitalism (as we knew it)

J.K. Gibson-Graham. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.


Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 2000.

2. Embodying Justice: Working through Difference/Diversity

books and articles highlighting various perspectives, strategies and theoretical approaches to dealing with diversity and cross-cultural perspectives. Our perspective is both informed by and in critical dialogue with many of these perspectives.

Women’s Lifeworlds: women’s narratives on shaping their realities.

Edith Sizoo, ed. London: Routledge. 1997.

Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third World Feminism.

Uma Narayan. London: Routledge, 1997.

“The Politics of Women’s Rights and Cultural Diversity in Uganda”

Aili Mari Tripp. United Nations Research Institute for Social Development

June 2000.


Marianne H. Marchand and Jane L. Parpart, eds.

London: Routledge, 1995.

From the South to the North: evolving perspectives on gender and poverty”

Fatma Alloo (with Wendy Harcourt)

Gender and Development, vol 5 no 3 November 1996.
Talking Visions: Multicultural Feminism in a Transnational Age.

Ella Shohat. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999.

“Struggling for Autonomy: Lessons from local governance”

Development, vol. 41.3 September, 1998.

Pramud Parajuli and Smitu Kothari

Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures.

M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty, eds. New York: Routledge. 1997.

3. Women/ Body/ Nature?Blending Theory and Practice

books and articles with perspectives on the bodily and environmental domains of place.

Feminist Political Ecology: Global Issues and Local Experiences

Dianne Rocheleau; Barbara Thomas-Slayter; & Esther Wangari, eds.

London, Routledge. 1996

Women the Environment and Sustainable Development: Towards a Theoretical Synthesis.

Rosa Braidotti, Ewa Charkiewicz, Sabine Hausler, Saskia Wieringa

London: Zed Books and INSTRAW, 1994

Patterns of Dissonance.

Rosi Braidotti. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991.

“Body Politics: Revisiting the Population Question”

Wendy Harcourt. In Feminist Post-Development Thought, ed. Kriemeld Saunders

London: Zed Books. Forthcoming

” The Right to Rest: Women’s Struggle to be heard in the Zapatista movement.”

Maria Belausteguigoitia.Development, vol. 43.3. September, 2000.

“Intra-generational knowledge transfer and zones of silence around reproductive health in Sunnakhi”

Khawar Mumtaz and Fauzia Rauf. In Power, Reproduction and Gender: The Intergenerational Transfer of Knowledge

Wendy Harcourt, ed. London: Zed Books, 1988.

4. Networks/Meshworks

explorations of current spaces for and existent transnational and activist networks.

Women@Internet: Creating New Cultures in Cyberspace.

Wendy Harcourt, ed. London: Zed Books. 1999.

Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics.

Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1998.

5. General

useful and current literature that incorporates some important/ dominant perspectives on the women’s movement and other rela.ted social movements

Feminist Futures: Re-Imagining Women, Culture and Development.

Kum Kum Bhavnani, John Foran, and Priya Kurian, eds.

Forthcoming London: Zed Books. In press.

The Challenge of Local Feminisms: Women’s Movements in Global Perspective.

Amrita Basu, ed.

Boulder: Westview Press.1995.

Cultures of Politics, Politics of Cultures: Re-Visioning Latin American Social Movements.

Sonia Alvarez, Evelina Dagnino and Arturo Escobar, eds.

Boulder: Westview Press. 1998.

Gender Works: Oxfam Experiences in Policy and Practice.

Fenella Porter, Ines Smyth, Caroline Sweetman, eds.

Oxfam 1999.

Annex I Summary of the Project: ‘Power, Culture and Justice: Women and the Politics of Place’

The Society for International Development research project ‘Power, Culture and Justice: Women and the Politics of Place’ will seek to understand how ‘women’s place-based politics’ is effecting social change– particularly through networking– creating and providing new ways of thinking about culture, identity and rights in today’s globalized world.

In focusing on what is new in globalization for women’s particular experience of place, the project takes ‘place’ as a new and potentially transformative site of political practice. The project aims to rethink globalization in ways that disrupt the notion of a binary relationship between ‘the’ local and global and helps clarify the historical continuities and discontinuities of today’s experience of globalization. The project’s interest is in how diverse groups of women, often marginalized or invisible in mainstream politics, are engaged in new forms of politics centred around the body, home, environment and community. The project will explore how these activities link body politics and globalization, modernity and tradition in new culture identities.

The project will look at the experiences of women on the margins of modernity/ tradition such as migrant women, sex workers, women in industrial zones, guerilla fighters, refugee women and displaced women in war zones, as well as women against violence against women, the protection of the environment and community, against the negative impact of globalization. In gathering together these stories the project will explore how women are actively shaping and confronting globalization. Their stories will chart out the lines of escape, and the strategies women (in communities and as individuals) are creating to transform their ‘place’.

Project Activities:
  • A quarterly issue of the SID journal Development will invite different intellectual activists and activist intellectuals to share their experiences and responses to this background paper.
  • A dialogue within the SID network in order to open out the concept of the politics of place to the SID network strengthening SID’s programmes that organise with women’s groups around violence against women, reproductive rights and health and other issues as well as help to build alliances with other social movements.
  • An interactive SID web site as a resources and place to exchange ideas further
  • An intellectual encounter with activists and academics at the University of Oregon that will help forge a bridge across the divides across academia and activism, across feminist and social movement politics, across ecology and development.
  • A CD Rom, booklet or other interactive media product that will provide ways to analyze and strategize for peoples’ movements

Resource People for the Project

Fatma Alloo is a Tanzanian journalist and women’s movement leader currently working as a media and development consultant in Zanzibar.

Marisa Belausteguigoitia from Mexico teaches at the UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), in the Department of Education and Gender Studies since 1984.

Arif Dirlik is Professor and Director the Centre for Critical Theory and Transnational Studies at Oregon University

Arturo Escobar is Professor Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as Professor of Anthropology

Julia Graham is Professor of Geography and Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Wendy Harcourt is Director of Programmes and Editor of Development at the Society for International Development Rome, Italy

Smitu Kothari is editor of the Lokayan New Delhi India

Khawar Mumtaz is coordinator of Shirkat Gah – Women’s Resource Centre, Pakistan

Michal Osterweil is a graduate student at University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill USA and summer assistant for the project at the Society for International Development, Rome Italy.

Dianne Rochealeu is Associate Professor of Geography at Clark University in Worcester MA.