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Fighting the Hijab is a Diversion

Liberating women from the global south means a lot more than giving them low-wage jobs and freedom from headscarves.

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The demands they presented were incredibly intersectional. The right to organize was at the top of the list. In Tunisia, the massive popular movement that overthrew decades of dictatorship was preceded by women garment worker strikes in rural areas. The movement sought to defend the right to continue that organizing work, lifting up women's economic justice demands.

And the list went on. From family survival issues like the price of bread, to leadership issues like equal representation of women in the planning of the forum, to regional campaigns like the right to inheritance for women, to liberation from interpersonal and state violence. It ended with the demand for free, legal and safe abortion. The room was eerily quiet by the end of the list. I was still catching the last bits of what was said via the headset, and, eyebrows raised, I scanned the room – how is this going over? I wondered. Would people support these bold demands? These women had just laid down the gauntlet. In a context where Salafists (hardcore Muslim fundamentalists) were regularly attacking women and their organizations, they were demanding that the movement as a whole carry women's economic and social justice demands and lift up women's leadership.

From the back corner of the room, a small chorus of male voices started singing. The Iraqi man sitting next to me leaned over to interpret: "They are from Morocco, this is a movement song that says 'only men and women together can win the revolution.' " I was floored. Not only did the Maghreb/Mashreq region not need "saving" by northern feminists. They had a men's anti-patriarchy chorus! In 15 years of community organizing in the United States, I have never seen such a beautiful display of solidarity as the one I saw that afternoon in Monastir.

This experience brought me to my own question, my own challenge, and our challenge in the US, the west, and the global north: what is our solidarity song with the women of the Maghreb/Mashrek? How can we build the kind of solidarity that does not impose from the outside, but instead learns from frontline communities by walking alongside them, looking directly at the imbalances of power and privilege that threaten to fragment our movement, and finding common cause? How will we weave together our own struggles and visions, coming from the US grassroots, to the struggles and visions of the women of North Africa, the Middle East, and the world?

Building our capacity for solidarity is a long-term, dialectical process. Generations before us have grappled with questions like this, we must learn from them, and step up to our challenge, in our time, place, and conditions. As we build dialogue on an international scale, crossing race, multiple genders, and languages, these ideas will grow, change, be challenged and expanded. Each country has its own unique dynamics and conditions, which set the stage for its social movements. As our concept of ourselves, and each other, grows deeper, so will our capacity for a truly internationalist feminism.

This month, the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance will take a group of us to the World Social Forum in Tunis, to learn & connect with social movements and the women who lead them, from South Africa to Tunisia, from Italy to Brazil. We will co-convene a session to explore these questions, and more: Stay tuned via our delegation's  blog.

Maria Poblet is the Executive Director of Causa Justa :: Just Cause ( She has worked more than a decade in community organizing for racial and economic justice in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is active in movement building nationally & internationally. You can follow her @mariadelpueblo on Twitter.

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