Gendered Globalisation and Social Change by Nira Yuval-Davis

22. Jun 2009

The social change affecting gender relations in society as a result of globalisation is paradoxical. On the one hand, as a result of globalisation women are allowed entry to roles and arenas of society in which they were not allowed in many societies before and thus the distance between the ways masculinity and femininity are constructed in the society lessens. On the other hand, however, the effects of globalisation on contemporary politics of belonging have been such that in many places we see new kinds of conservatism and tribalism which, under the claims of going back to ‘authentic’ culture and tradition, radically enlarge the differential ways manhood and womanhood are constructed, as well as overall power relations between men and women in the society.

Like Saskia Sassen I see globalisation as an ‘epochal change’ which is just in its beginning (Sassen, 2006) and following Scholte I consider the time/space compression, the ‘respatialization with the spread of transplanetary social connections’ (Scholte, 2000:3), as the most specific aspects of globalization, of which the conference ‘Gender at the interface of the global and the local’ is just one small example.

In addition to mass movement of people across the globe, the development of the virtual space via the internet as well as other means of communication and transportation, have made dialogues across different positionings and locations, across borders and boundaries much easier, cheaper and more frequent. This, in addition to mass movement of people across the globe, made Castels and Miller (1993) talk about ‘the age of migration’ as typifying contemporary society. Women have played major roles in these processes. One of the characteristics of ‘the age of migration’ is ‘the feminization of migration’. The 2004 world survey on the role of women in development states that 49% of all migrants are women. This includes women who migrated as family dependents – either with their husbands or following them, as well as the growing number of women who migrated on their own, leaving or not behind them families of their own in their countries of origin. However, the dichotomy between women workers and family dependents which exists in official statistics is fictitious as so many of the women who migrate as family dependents both want and need to work. The situation is similar concerning women asylum seekers and refugees. Often both husband and wife were politically active but only the husband received the status of refugee. As a result there have been many cases in Britain, for instance, when the husband dies and the legal protection of the refugee status is taken away from the family whose immigration status becomes precarious (Bhaba & Shutter, 1994).

The gendered character of women’s migration can be detected in several major ways, although it is important to remember that gendered analysis needs to be part of an intersectional one, as the situations of professional and unskilled women, single and married, young and old, who migrated from the South or from other European countries, are vastly different. However, it is usually only women who are dependent for their immigration status on that of their husbands’ and it is usually women who are super-exploited by family and other men from their diasporic community who mediate between them and the outside economic and social world. In many branches of the economy the labour market is gender specific. Women’s only migrations focus around traditional roles of women – as domestic workers (from cleaners to nannies) on the one hand and as sex and entertainment workers on the other hand. In the phenomenon of ‘mail brides’, in which women are selected, often not met beforehand, as brides for lonely Western men, these two roles merge together.

As Spike Peterson (2003) has argued, when discussing labour in general, but especially women’s work under globalisation, we need to differentiate as well as relate to its reproductive, productive and virtual aspects. In the latter two, like when women work in manufacturing in free trade zones or in call centres, women have entered sections of the labour market to which they have not had access before, either because they used to work outside the money economy, in their households or – in rural sectors – in the fields, and/or because these kinds of work did not exist before the micro-chip revolution. In the reproductive arena, women usually continue to work in what is considered traditionally to be ‘women’s work’, such as domestic work, child care and care of the old and the infirm, but often in new sites, either in national metropolitan areas or internationally, to replace care work of other women who have entered the formal labour market.

Women’s roles, belonging and the politics of belonging

It is important to differentiate between belonging and the politics of belonging (Yuval-Davis, 2006a). Belonging is about emotional attachment, about feeling ‘at home’ and – as Michael Ignatieff (2001) points out – about feeling ‘safe’. In the aftermath of 9/11 and 7/7 in London, such a definition gets a new, if problematic, poignancy. Belonging tends to be naturalized and becomes articulated and politicized only when it is threatened in some way. Belonging also assumes boundaries of belonging and the ‘natural’ division of the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’.

The politics of belonging are comprised of specific political projects aimed at constructing belonging in particular ways to particular collectivity/ies which are, at the same time, being constructed themselves by these projects in very specific ways. Central to these projects is the construction and reproduction of the boundaries of belonging according to some specific principles which can be of many different kinds, from the phenotypical to the social.

The analytical differentiation between belonging and the politics of belonging is, therefore, crucial for any critical political discourse of nationalism, racism and other contemporary politics of belonging. It is also crucial for any analysis of gender relations and the constructions of femininity and masculinity.

It is crucial in two different ways. Firstly, in the same ways that they naturalize boundaries of collectivities, political projects of belonging also tend to naturalize gender roles and relationships. The feminist political struggles aimed at women’s emancipation depend on the denaturalization and debiologisation of women’s roles and thus the possibility of change. This is one of the reasons why so often feminists find themselves in oppositionary roles to hegemonic political projects of belonging which construct women’s roles as wives and mothers as part of women’s bio
logical destiny and equate between hearth, home and women’s domestic roles in their constructions of safe belonging.

Secondly,  this is important because so often political projects of belonging tend to construct differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’, civilised or moral ‘us’ vs barbarian or immoral ‘them’ in cultural terms in the heart of which are different constructions of gender relations in general and womanhood in particular.

Globalisation, social change and feminist ‘transversal politics’

Feminist activism related to situations of ethnic and national conflicts and wars has been another major front for the development of the international women’s movement (Cockburn, 1998, Zajovic, 1994). Meetings among women who came from different sides of the conflict often took place in neutral zones and with the support of other international women’s groups, as well as in NGO UN forums. Identity politics could not survive in their previous feminist format during these activities. The women who took part in the meetings were conscious all too often that they could not be seen as representing all women, let alone all members of their ethnic and national collectivities, as most of the latter often supported the continuing confrontation and conflict. While the membership of these women in the conflicting collectivities was crucial to their participation in the encounter, their common aspirations to find common emancipatory solutions to the conflict have been just as important.

A new kind of feminist politics has been born, called ‘transversal politics’ by the Italian feminists who sponsored many of the initial meetings of feminists from Israel/Palestine and the different components of Former Yugoslavia (Yuval-Davis, 1994; 2006c; Cockburn & Hunter, 1999). Based on common feminist emancipatory values, dialogical in nature and with transnational participants of feminist advocates across borders and boundaries, it made important contributions to general human rights and feminist struggles across the globe and has presented an important front for local and global progressive social change. This has been recognized by other glocal networks of conservatives and fundamentalists, and in forums like the Beijing +10 and other UN +10 forums, the close relationships between the participation of women and the participation of feminists has been problematised. In many cases feminists have had to work very hard in order to be able to keep the achievements of the 1990’s conferences, let alone improved on them. The cooptation of ‘the women’s question’ to discourses such as the so-called ‘humanitarian militarism’ and the wars in Afghanistan, and to a lesser degree in Iraq, have also been reflected in the recent election campaign in the USA, for instance.

This brought many feminists active in these global networks to question whether the NGO Forum of the UN is the best arena in which to continue to carry out feminist struggles for emancipatory social change, and to some extent global feminist organizations such as AWID (Association for Women’s Rights in Development) have taken their place. Currently for instance, AWID is carrying out a comparative action-research in 140 countries in which it examines the effects of and struggles against religious and ethnic fundamentalisms in these countries. The stakeholders are all those who work in various feminist, human rights and development organizations in these countries.

A concluding remark

This is a time of global economic and political crisis. Women bear the brunt of this crisis both as members of their societies and as participants in the labour market, as well as symbolic and embodied targets for the fears and frustrations of the men in their societies, mobilized by various defensive political projects of belonging. This is a crucial time for global women’s and feminist solidarity. However, it is also crucial that such solidarity will be transversal in that it will recognize the intersectional differences in women’s ‘situated positionings and power, carry out the dialogue within the boundaries of  emancipatory value systems, encompass discourse of difference with discourse of equality and conviviality and will not confuse the notion of ‘women’ with that of ‘feminists’. This is not the time to go back to identity politics.


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