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Limits of WOW

Limits of WOW

SINCE 1991, three significant streams of transnational social-political movements have gained force: the global justice movement against neoliberalism, the feminist movement for the rights of women and the marginalised, and the Islamist movement. Each has formed cross-border networks and gathered diverse memberships, and each movement has its own unique challenges. One additional factor that distinguishes these new transnational social movements from previous politics is the acknowledgement of the role of emotions, sentiments or effect.

In many of these new movements, solidarity and political discourse are as important as performance and entrepreneurship. One example of a movement with global ambitions is the Women of the World (WOW) event. As women’s rights become more accepted and absorbed within development agendas, a merger of feminism and globalisation can be seen in events like the WOW festivals. These are sponsored (in Pakistan) by development funds, corporate banks, commercial interests and multinational companies selling beauty products.

Worrisome though, are the inherent contradictions in this imagined millennial global culture and the instruments used for empowerment. The marriage of market and social equality is consummated through the ironing out of ideological contradictions between the monetisation and consumption of aesthetics and ‘culture’, entrepreneurship and social justice.

More transnational than fast food chains, world cities, free trade zones and offshore banking, the proliferation of the beauty industry best represents not just globalisation but its feminisation. Beauty salons are mushrooming commercial enterprises that have metastasised across the poorest of countries and are, perhaps, the most ubiquitous start-ups in low-income communities across developing nations. In 1990, Naomi Wolf wrote that, “More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before; but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers.”

The philosophy behind festivals like WOW is that social justice and capital enterprise can be hybridised. Zumba and kick-boxing will make women feel empowered, and in between sessions on violence and factory work they can look pretty too. This is social cosmetic surgery.

While donors are keen to support income-generation schemes and micro-credit for Third World women, they would not sponsor feminist or socialist study group salons in communities. The acceptable forum for such discussions is, therefore, funded and hosted by but not held at the British Council or the Arts Council but instead at the Alliance Française in Karachi. Globalisation, indeed. Did someone forget the Brexit memo?

Despite feminism’s historical successes for legal, social and political progress, many empowered women today are uncomfortable over the radical politics of (and even the term) feminism. Erroneously, they want to believe that their rights dropped out of the sky, evolved through the project of modernity, or came from the free market and buying lipstick that gives them ‘girl power’.

While it may be true that neoliberal policies do not apply with equal intensity nor have the same gendered consequences equally across geographies, corporate sponsorship is always a self-serving project. In its schematic, self-worth for women is commodified by the beauty industry. Further, feminist empowerment is self-defeating if it is sponsored by what Marx called a ‘modern bankocracy’ which contributes to loan economies that indebt and dispossess the poor. Multi­nationals are the agents who engineered globalisation that has resulted in a devastating pool of 99 per cent losers with 1pc winners. The one woman CEO is the proof of this ‘winning’ formula.

For too long now, the casualisation of social activism in Pakistan has given rise to a professional class of de­­velopment re­­sea­r­chers, experts, public intellectuals and NGO workers. The prime purpose of this class seems to be to sustain their existence in a cyclical way that is similar to globalised capital. The members of this club form networks; they gain power from their sponsoring global institution; and are far more available to perform and labour in a disciplined manner for their projects than they would for local volunteer, non-funded feminist activism. They also bypass the state as a failed and dysfunctional entity.

The usual defence for such shifts in allegiance to capital-driven, feel-good empowerment is that such networking events give women voice and agency. But defenders should decide whether this voice should be directed to the state or the market. To say both is to uphold the ‘boomerang effect’; bypassing the state and upholding the same contradictions that sustain the unequal and unfair market system. The lure of performance and symbolic achievement is not something to be ‘wowed’ by. The struggle for rights is far more mundane, difficult, time-consuming and unglamorous.


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