5 inspiring acts of feminist resistance in 2021
Time to celebrate! Here’s how women have made a difference across the world this year
“Oh, this is why I would resist whenever my Mum would try and get me to come into the kitchen to help her.” That was my revelation, aged 19, after reading the works of African American feminists such as bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins and Alice Walker.
Somehow, I knew it was unfair that she wanted me, and not my brother, to help her. I also didn’t understand why she begrudged doing certain things. Like staying up late with my Dad while he had his dinner because his after-work routine was to play squash and have a few drinks. Why did she feel she had to do that if she didn’t want to?
Feminists make the world a better place for everyone. Period.
People become feminists for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it’s because they have discovered language for something they’ve always inherently felt.
Get one whole story, direct to your inbox every weekday.
Books like ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ (bell hooks, 1981) and ‘In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens’ (Alice Walker, 1983) helped me understand that there was a socially constructed system (aka the patriarchy) that put men in positions of power over women, and sanctioned anyone who failed to prop up that system.
That understanding helped me to see and appreciate the ways in which my mother resisted some societal dictates – I was never forced to help her in the kitchen, I could choose to read in my room instead. And to also extend her grace (and in subsequent years, myself and other women) when she did what society said good women had to do.
As I’ve grown in my activism, I’ve also begun to appreciate how much of feminist resistance is simply holding the line; and, in this age of increased fundamentalism, how maintaining the bar (even when the bar is the floor) prevents an outright retrogression of rights.
In this spirit, I invited some colleagues from across the globe to answer the question: which acts of feminist resistance have most inspired you in 2021? I’m starting the process by sharing an instance of feminist activism from my own country, Ghana, which I have personally found incredibly inspiring.
Read our stories to discover the myriad ways in which feminists have resisted an erosion of rights and, in many instances, spearheaded initiatives that make the world a better place for us all.
Ghana: Feminist activists resisting state-sanctioned homophobia
Postcolonial Ghana has become a conservative country with little to no public dialogue about sex and sexual rights. Over the years, the grip that the Christian evangelical movement has had over the country has increased visibly, with religious leaders threatening that their followers won’t vote for politicians who do not do their bidding. There are at least six churches and one mosque within a kilometre of my home.
In 2019, the government faced fierce opposition when it tried to introduce comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) in schools. A coalition of far-Right civil society groups and Christian and other faith-based organisations went on the offensive, alleging that CSE was a gateway to introducing an LGBT+ agenda to the country. The government backed down.
Today, children in Ghanaian public schools are still not given the vital information they need to understand their bodies and the importance of bodily autonomy.
I didn’t think the situation could get much worse, but this year it did.
A homophobic civil society organisation, the incongruously named ‘National Coalition for Proper Human Rights and Family Values’, worked with some members of parliament to put forward a bill that bans the recognition of diverse sexualities and gender identities. It also bans people who identify anywhere on the LGBTQI spectrum to assemble, express themselves or advocate for their rights.
The genesis of this bill was evident two years ago when the World Congress of Families held its first Africa regional conference in Accra, Ghana’s capital – a “summit of hate” as my friend Rita Nketiah called it.
I have to confess that, in the past, I wasn’t too impressed with older Ghanaian feminists seemingly sidestepping or ignoring LGBTI rights, but, oh my, have they stepped up in recent times. Prominent activists and academics, such as Takyiwaa Manuh, Dzodzi Tsikata and Audrey Gadzekpo, have participated in public hearings and spoken loudly and publicly about how abhorrent this homophobic bill is.
These are people with long track records, who are well respected in Ghanaian society. They are people whose opinions cannot be lightly ignored, and I for one have felt both encouraged and inspired by the fighting spirit they are demonstrating.
In a homophobic country like Ghana, it is no small task to take on the media and political elites, to say, as Professor Manuh did: “Transgender people can have children, lesbians can have children […]This bill has so little empirical basis.”
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah
Nagorno-Karabakh: ‘Our fairytale is about peace’
Photographers, artists, performers, muralists, filmmakers and writers have always played key roles in liberation movements and feminist resistance. Sometimes, creative expression itself becomes an act of resistance, while in other instances, documentation plays an essential role in amplifying narratives that are under/misrepresented in mainstream media and cultural contexts.
More often than not, women have been the storytellers, the keepers of myth, of historical and cultural knowledge. The feature film ‘There Was, There Was Not’ (due for release in 2023) tells the collective story of a homeland nearly lost to war, by way of four women’s resistance to that loss.
Many people know that, in September 2020, war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, a contested zone between the two countries. What you may not know is that a complex interplay of global geopolitics fuels the ongoing conflict, let alone the roles that women play in these contexts.
The film, by American-Armenian filmmaker Emily Mkrtichian, explores the inner lives of four women living in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The women are: a political activist running for office to combat the corrupt politics of her city; an Olympic judo hopeful caught between her family and her career; a domestic violence activist getting death threats for her work; and a woman who disarms landmines from past wars in order to survive as a single mother.
The course of their lives is changed forever when the war breaks out – whether that’s taking up arms on the front line or providing emergency relief for people fleeing their homes. In the words of one of the women featured in the film, “Our fairytale is about peace.”
El Salvador: A feminist win for reproductive justice
Although El Salvador may be known as el pulgarcito, ‘the little thumb’ of Central America, this small country gave the region a big win for reproductive justice at the end of November. The feminist movement took the government to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights – and won.
Abortion is illegal under all circumstances in El Salvador, and the feminist movement has been fighting tooth and nail against the cruel reality of women being incarcerated after they have had miscarriages.
One of these women was ‘Manuela’, a single mother of two living in rural poverty who delivered a stillborn child in 2008. She faced interrogation and harassment in hospital, was subsequently reported by the doctors and sentenced to prison for 30 years on “aggravated murder” charges. She died in 2010 of untreated cancer while handcuffed to a hospital bed.
Manuela’s family and local feminists cried out for justice and took her case to the Inter-American Court. The case was brought by the Center for Reproductive Rights and its partners in El Salvador, the Colectiva Feminista para el Desarrollo Local and the Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto. An international feminist campaign of letters in solidarity filled the mailboxes of the court.
The court ruled that El Salvador was responsible for the death of Manuela, and ordered the state to make full reparations to her family and to reform its legal and healthcare policies, which criminalise women for seeking reproductive healthcare.
The ruling – which applies to countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean that fall under the Inter-American Court’s jurisdiction – says that healthcare staff can no longer refer women seeking abortion care and other reproductive services to the police.
The government was also mandated to develop comprehensive sexual education (CSE) policies and modify its legislation on doctor-patient confidentiality, to ensure that women are not denounced by the medical staff who care for them.
Afghanistan: Women human rights defenders speaking loud and clear
Imagine your life being turned upside down overnight. One day, you can go to school or to work; the next, the streets are so dangerous that you are locked at home, fearing for your life, your freedom and your loved ones.
As the Taliban seized power across Afghanistan from May to August this year, we saw all the achievements of the Afghan women’s rights movement frozen, and the rights and lives of women, girls and gender-diverse people put at the gravest risk. We had no doubt that what has happened in Afghanistan is the result of an ongoing historical cycle of violence by foreign military powers, imperialist interests and corporate greed.
Afghan feminists and women human rights defenders spoke loud and clear about the harsh reality of their changed lives, and what they needed from the international community, at an online event organised by AWID at the end of August. Nearly every foreign politician and international agency spoke about committing to women and girls, yet the rhetoric didn’t match the reality.
Women facing the risk of death, who needed urgent evacuation, encountered numerous physical and bureaucratic hurdles. Today, they’re still struggling to secure visas and passage to a safer country, and many are hiding for their lives.
The women who have been building Afghan society for the past decades –politicians, journalists, judges, artists – were bluntly excluded from international debate and decision-making about the future of Afghanistan.
Political analysts and commentators spoke at length about gender issues in Afghanistan, while Afghan women leaders – the real experts – struggled in hiding, in transit, or trapped in the hostile environment of asylum seekers’ camps, unable to travel, to work or to engage in politics.
Despite these enormous obstacles, and with the international solidarity of feminist and women’s rights activists and organisations, Afghan women are not staying silent. They are continuing to fight for the right to determine their own future and the future of their country.
Across the world: Feminist climate justice
The current climate crisis is one of the biggest threats to all forms of life and livelihoods on the planet, and its global consequences are known all too well: pandemics, food insecurity, man-made disasters, huge biodiversity loss, rising sea levels, economic recessions and deepening socio-economic inequalities, among many other problems.
This year, following yet another politically shameful climate summit (COP26) that failed to foster the global solidarity and cooperation needed to tackle the climate crisis, we want to celebrate the struggles of grassroots feminists at the forefront of environmental justice around the world.
We are humbled by their relentless struggle against land grabbing, deforestation and the ever-increasing pace of the commodification and extraction of natural resources that are required to sustain our current economic system.
We are inspired by the knowledge and practices emerging out of their defence of their territories and ways of life. These are based on care and sustainability, as well as ecological wisdom and respectful coexistence with nature.
For example, women farmers in India are collaborating to secure access to land and other resources and to create livelihoods that are empowered, self-reliant and sustainable. Networks of women and LGBT people in Fiji and the Pacific are advocating for the phasing out of fossil fuels and the transition to a low-carbon economy.
Rural women’s groups in West Africa are trying to build an agro-ecology movement – to make local economies more resilient, help feed communities, mitigate climate change and amplify the knowledge of women farmers across Africa. All these women, feminists and queer people are proof that more just worlds are not only possible, they already exist.
Finally, as we remember and honour the women land defenders and human rights defenders who have been murdered in record numbers, we adamantly re-affirm that we will continue to fight ceaselessly for climate, gender and economic justice. To borrow the powerful words of the Women and Gender Constituency:
“Civil society and feminist movements know that there is no choice but to continue pushing for the action and justice that our communities and our world needs. And we will continue to do so, together and with fierce care for people and the planet.”
Get our weekly email