The Book Club: Women, Dictatorships and Genderwashing

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In the latest instalment of our popular Book Club feature, which brings you the latest and greatest works on African politics, Joanna Allan draws out the key lessons from her important new book on the gendered dynamics of resistance movements and the genderwashing of authoritarian regimes.

Which factors determine the gendered make-up of a nonviolent resistance movement? How do hegemonic gender roles affect participation in resistance movements on the one hand, and state punishments of activists in these movements on the other? What gendered (and other) struggles exist within the hierarchies of nonviolent resistance movements? How do Western, neoliberal ideas about so-called ‘gender equality,’ and Western orientalist preconceptions about African women, impact on women nonviolent activists in Africa?

I broach these and other questions from an interdisciplinary perspective in my new book Silenced Resistance: Women, Dictatorships, and Genderwashing in Western Sahara and Equatorial Guinea.  I foreground the gendered dynamics of Saharawi and Equatoguinean struggles for independence from Spain in the first instance, and for, respectively, independence from Morocco and for democratic reform in Equatorial Guinea later. To do so, I rely on archival research in Spain and the Saharawi state-in-exile, and extensive field research undertaken between 2006 and 2015 in the Saharawi refugee camps/state-in-exile in Algeria, the occupied zone of Western Sahara, the Polisario-controlled zone of Western Sahara, the north east of Mauritania and Equatorial Guinea.

Going back to the Spanish period is essential to understanding the gendered make-up of modern movements. I explore the concept of intersectional resistance, arguing that Saharawi (black) women’s internal struggles encouraged the overall pro-independence movement, headed by the Polisario Front, to support highly visible roles for women in the resistance against Spanish, and now Moroccan, colonialism.

In Equatorial Guinea, Spanish rule, which was far more forceful in ensuring Spanish cultural hegemony than it had been in Spanish Sahara, gendered political space as male. The emerging Equatoguinean organised pro-independence movements did not fully challenge this. Women’s role in the fight against Spanish rule was (and generally still is, albeit with significant individual exceptions) therefore behind-the-scenes, and has largely been silenced in historiographies of the period.

But it is not just historiographies that make people invisible. Women nonviolent activists are silenced in more physical ways. In Equatorial Guinea, leaders of pro-democracy political parties like Clara “Lola” Nsegue Eyí and Natalia Angue Edjodjomo have faced time in custody for coordinating peaceful demonstrations demanding political reform.  In occupied Western Sahara, the Moroccan regime has forcibly disappeared thousands of nonviolent anti-occupation activists like (the now re-appeared) Aminatou Haidar, whilst several others are detained and tortured for short periods in secret detention centers. Such were the cases of then teenager Nguia el Haouasi, whose ‘crime’ was to attempt to travel to Oxford, UK, to take part in a British Council and European Union-funded youth peace workshop, and Sultana Khaya, whose eye was beaten out of her head by Moroccan police after she participated in a nonviolent sit-in.

Ms Khaya’s is a particularly pertinent example because of her professional focus on the human rights abuses associated with natural resource exploitation. In the book, I explore the role of Western corporations, their governments and authoritarian regimes in (covering up) gendered human rights abuses. I argue that genderwashing is key to silencing efforts. Through PR campaigns that focus on hollow efforts to promote so-called gender equality, authoritarian regimes and their Western partners, the latter keen to gain access to oil, phosphates and other resources, attempt to cover up their crimes, which have foundationally gendered impacts.

One such impact is to attempt to make the detention of women activists invisible.

‘Official,’ post-trial custodial punishments for women decline in favour of imprisonments without trial in secret detention centres. This conveniently ensures the silencing of women whose stories might shed doubt on the myth of  government and corporates as champions of gender equality.

Policy makers investing in ‘gender equality’  in contexts of authoritarianism and military occupation should be aware of how their work could be co-opted for genderwashing purposes, whilst consumers should be wary of corporate PR campaigns that claim to be empowering women in partnership with government in such contexts.


Joanna Allan is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, Centre for International Development, Northumbria University









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