Long Blog Post #2

Ray, R. and A.C. Korteweg. 1999. “Women’s Movements in the Third World: Identity, Mobilization, and Autonomy.” Annual Review of Sociology. Vol.25, pp.47-71.

“Women’s Movements in the Third World: Identity, Mobilization, and Autonomy” by R. Ray and A. C. Korteweg, Annual Review of Sociology 25 (1999): 47-71

Article Summary by Silvia Brigido

According to the authors there has been little attention paid to women’s movements by sociologists in general. Therefore the attempt of this particular review by R. Ray and A. C. Korteweg is to focus on certain issues brought up by various other interdisciplinary sources.  The main questions the authors focus on are as follows: the conditions under which women mobilize; the issue of women’s interests; and the issue of state and organizational autonomy.  They based the organization of the essay around those three topics.  By “women’s movements,” the authors mean the range of activities in which women engage to better the circumstances in their lives.

The authors have found that while there is a trend toward the increased visibility of women’s activism and the circumstances under which women in third world countries organize, there is a central dilemma in the literature, which they call the dilemma of particularism versus universalism.  That is, there are still too many case studies that either make a generalized statement about women’s movement while others only focus on one particular country and situation. Therefore, the authors feel that a bridge is needed to gap these perspectives in order to form a more well-rounded analysis.  Additionally, they point out that third world countries are so many and not all are included in the few studies already developed.  Hence, further studies need to get underway so to gain a well rounded and informed perspective on the matter.

Women’s Interests: Practical or Strategic

Accordingly, literature on women’s activism has shown that women are mobilized not only as women but also as mothers, peasants, workers and citizens.  Thus, the focus has been on identities, specifically how identities mobilize women.  This identity of “gender interests” can be practical (arise from women’s position in the sexual division of labor and how it affects their ability to fulfill their roles as mothers and wives) or strategic (seek to change the rules under which women live, and can be arrived at only after practical interests have been taken into account).

The contrast between practical and strategic interests does seem to be self-consciously deployed which points to the thriving links between analysis and activism.  However, despite the popularity of these two notions, the distinction between strategic and practical interests remains troubling because it tends to echo assumptions about the divide between middle class and non-middle class women, as well as between women of the first and third worlds.  This is mostly because practical gender interests, not strategic ones, seem to be driving many of the third world women’s movements.  Still, what seems to matter is not whether practical interests are met, but the manner in which these interests are met.

While the general notion of women’s interest lies at the heart of much scholarship done in this field, there is an increasing interest in the concept of women’s collective identity, thus placing it in a more subjective criteria.  Still, the literature considers several sets of competing identities that may be in tension with each other.  For example, Indian women’s movement has switched from mobilizing around women’s identity as mothers to women’s identity as daughters.   This shifts the focus from suffering and sacrifice to strength and rights. While in Korea and Niger, married and unmarried working women participate in separate organizations.  Also, the literature from the Middle East makes it clear that where Islamic movements are on the rise, women find themselves torn between their identities as women and their cultural identities as Muslims.

Overall, across different countries and cultures the literature places the focus on motherhood being the motivating identity for women’s social action, by participating in collective movements in defense of their roles as mothers.  Still, while mothers began their organizing so to address the conditions that made them unable to be mothers, they also came to address broader human rights issues and reworked into a political identity.

  1. Conditions Under Which Women Organize:

First, there are certain preconditions that motivate and facilitate women’s organization that are of a cultural, structural, or political nature.  In the literature, there currently exist two conceptualizations of conditions under which women mobilize. These are structural and universal, or historical and locational specific.  Those influenced by a structural and universal situation are stimulated by a rise in urbanization, industrialization and education.  While the second approach is stimulated by women’s mobilization against repressive military regimes, participation in colonial struggles or struggles for socialism, and their support for fundamentalist politics.  Therefore, it is said that feminism stemmed from situational and historical specific processes as well as opportunities and constraints.  In the third world countries, political constraints stemmed mostly from the fundamental changes in the nature of the state, such as the transition from colonialism to independence or from dictatorship to democracy.

Many studies show that women’s movements are fundamentally shaped by political processes, particularly crises of the state, and there is considerable variation in the outcomes even within each of the processes that involve shifts in regime type — democratization, anticolonial and nationalist struggles, socialist, and religious/fundamentalist movements.


According to the literature, women’s mobilization around human rights issues in bureaucratic authoritarian regimes was explicitly grounded in their identities as mothers.

The Latin American debate about democratization takes the region-wide phenomenon of repressive military governments and the process of democratization and shows how variations in the nature of the ruling classes and the military regimes enabled the mobilization of different aspects of women’s identity. In the countries of Argentina, Guatemala and Chile, women organized and mobilized as mothers despite differences in their class status, previous experiences, and political ideologies.  Studies further that the realities of both state repression and class warfare were instrumental in shaping the Latin American feminist practice as distinct from that of feminist movements elsewhere.  However, once the process of democratization starts, some women’s demands continue to be addressed while others are discredited.  It has been shown though, that the longer the governmental transition period, the greater is the women’s involvement in transition policies.  For example, in Brazil, during the first wave of democratic elections, political parties actively courted feminist and women’s organizations. In turn, women responded by supporting specific political parties hoping to usher in equality and justice.  Brazil thus did indeed win some institutional political representation, nonetheless they continued to organize autonomously as well. It is important to note that the same experience did not translate equally throughout all of Latin America. Such was the case in Peru, where women’s mobilization remained separate from state institution and thus gained little institutional power during the governmental transition.

Anticolonial and Nationalist Struggles:

Many of the women’s movements in the third world have been tied to nationalist and anticolonial projects. The literature shows that while participation in the anticolonial struggle did indeed expand the sphere of women’s movement for middle-class women; ultimately, because women’s interest were secondary, the liberation they achieved was a by-product of national liberation.  While, during nationalist interests, women who made their specific interest subsidiary to national ones found that their interests were neglected once the national struggle was won. This failure of nationalist project with regard to women prompted them to create an independent women’s movement in both India and Algeria, for example. While looking at South Africa it was argued that separating the women’s movement from the nationalist movement generates a false dichotomy between these two struggles by placing the national liberation as a class struggle in a position that should take precedence over gender struggles. Still in another example, Palestinian women who have been displaced and oppressed, largely as a result of Israeli occupation, the struggle for women’s rights and the struggle for socio-economic and national self-determination become one and the same.  Therefore, not only are the links between women’s liberation and national liberation extremely complicated, national movements are themselves internally differentiated, and the political ideologies of their component parts affect the women’s movements they inspire.


According to the literature, Socialism has always held out a “promissory note” to women, and women in socialist countries from China to Nicaragua had high expectations and hopes of revolutionary governments. However, they found that the opposite was true while three sorts of reasons are given for the constraints that Socialism puts on the mobilization of women.  Those are: the rigidity of ideology, the organization and structure of socialist/communist parties, and the exigencies of the transition.  Also, Socialist regimes are accused of being too similar to nonsocialist parties, while they are conservative regarding cultural aspects of gender, they are thus unable to push forward any liberation of women that challenges the beliefs of such culture.

In the case of revolutionary China, the literature suggests that the Chinese Communist Party did indeed include a programmatic concern with women’s emancipation on their agenda, yet dropped these concerns when they were threatened. While in the case of Nicaragua, Cuba, and Vietnam the embattled economy becomes a major constraint to women’s emancipation.  That is, women’s dreams of gender equality slip away in a society permanently mobilized for war.

Religious and Fundamentalist Movements:

The rise of religious nationalism is mostly observed in the Middle East and South Asia where it is also closely related to the outcome of nationalist struggles.  The literature points that both Islamist and Hindu fundamentalist movements arose as populist reactions to western domination and as a result of the failure of nationalist projects.  Thus the family and women became the most significant symbolic markers of national resistance.  For example, “westernized” women in Iran were considered the most “dangerous bearers of moral decay.”  Nonetheless, despite an overall logic that is similar across several countries, the outcomes for women and for the possibilities of feminism are not the same. There is considerable variation in the extent to which Islamists have been able to win victories, as well as the spheres in which these have been won.

In Egypt, for example, the rise of Islamism has generated a new brand of gender activism. Both secular feminist and Islamic feminists practice this brand of pragmatic politics, which advocates a public role for women in society, whereas secular feminists feel compelled to reject the explicit label of “feminism” in the newly conservative atmosphere.  In Tunisia, women’s movements had been able to make headway partly because a feminist legislature passed several laws that were beneficial to women while overriding customary social practice.  On the other hand, in Algeria women were expelled from social, economic, and political spheres after independence because despite the socialism of the Algerian state, Islamic precepts were imbricated in state ideology. Thus, it is argued that the struggles in the Middle East cannot be understood solely through the lens of Islam.

In India, right wing Hindu mobilization has occurred for many of the same reasons as Islamic mobilization in the Middle East. While the Hindu right puts much emphasis on purity, many women became attracted to the Hindu right and not to the women’s movement.  This increasing attraction of non-elite women to religious nationalist movements has led several scholars to question the failure of the secular feminist movement to make feminism relevant.

  1. State and Organizational Autonomy:

How activists understand the nature of the state profoundly shapes the form and content of their activism.  Yet, while third world countries have inconsistent policies regarding women (both internally and compared to each other), feminism is not immune to escaping state intervention.  As post colonial states attempt to build their power base and increase legitimacy, often constrained by their dependency on foreign capital, they control, survey, and discipline women’s lives.  There are various ways in which the policies of third world states shape women’s lives and thus create the possibilities of women’s activism. Economically, as many feminist scholars have argued, the policies of developing countries either make women invisible or actively exploit them.  For example, in Thailand and the Philippines, whose economies benefit substantially from the sex-trade, the state is then an active agent in structuring such exploitation.  In other cases, legal reforms and the creation of new legislations that seemingly favors women have afforded the state, and not women, more power.

Thus, political institutionalization of women’s movements is inversely related to its existence as a social movement in civil society.  As has been seen, many third world women organize in order to effect regime change. To grasp the relationship between third world women’s movements and state structures, attention has to be paid not only to variation among third world states but also to historical change within each individual state.

However, the question of autonomy arises not only in the context of the state but also when activist women collaborate with other movements for social change, since so many of them have emerged out of other progressive movements. Proponents of autonomy see left parties as hierarchical and nondemocratic. The predominantly male leadership is threatened by feminist demands and make weak attempt at bringing women into the topic while avoiding issues not considered to be in men’s best interest.

Those who argue against the autonomy of women’s movements, claim that affiliation to a larger organization enhances the efficacy of the women’s movements. That is, by not equating women’s movement to autonomy would avoid ignoring the many democratic, nationalist, and human rights struggles of which women are a vital part and in which they have come to challenge the dominant relations of gender.

Still, political fields structure the actions, rhetoric, and effectiveness of organizations in them. From this perspective, autonomy is more or less effective depending upon the political field within which women’s organizations are embedded. Therefore, it is difficult to argue conclusively whether autonomy is inherently better or worse for women’s organization.

Ultimately, international connections seem to provide the impetus for and the legitimacy of organizing around women’s issues in many countries thanks to efforts such as the United Nations declaring the International Women’s Decade and their push for women’s rights as human rights during their push for the consideration of a universal standard of human rights during the 1995 Beijing conference.  Framing women’s rights as human rights uses the human rights platform as developed by the United Nations to better women’s lives in terms of their physical, cultural, social, political and economic well-being. That was one way of getting gender-based violence on the main stream agenda of organizations such as Amnesty International in addition to the United Nations.

Nonetheless, those who argue for women’s rights as human rights assume that there is a global solution to what they perceive as the ultimately universal, if locally varying, problems of women; they turn to supranational institutions to urge individual states to address the issues they feel are important. In the end, however, what human rights mean and how they can be applied depend on the formation of identities, interests, and the impact of locally and nationally specific processes on women’s mobilizations.

So what is unique about women’s movements in the third world? That there is not a third world woman’s movement, but indeed third world women’s movements due to the specific historical trajectories that are unique and shared by parts of the third world. Thus, two recommendations are made by the reviewers, one that the understanding of regime change and conditions of postcolonialism should be incorporated in studies by sociologists. Also, that there be a shift in focus from the macro level to the local level where larger political, cultural, and economic processes are played out.

Overall this article had a very interesting topic.  However, the largely generalized title leads to its limitations.  That is, it is almost inappropriate to group all movements led by women from third world countries under one all encompassing group.  Third world countries, even when in the same continent, can be vastly different in culture, religion, politics, and ethnicity thus influencing women’s movements differently due to distinguishing social contexts.  Therefore, the limitations were found in the scattered presentation of the article.  Additionally, the authors, while comparing and contrasting different studies, managed to turn a compelling topic into a bore.  Clearly, there should be more specific studies that are focused on particular cultural subgroups that make-up the “third world” and more clearly distinguish these differences when it relates women’s movements.


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