Social Justice, Democratization and Social Movements

     Photo by      :     Cody Pulliam (Unsplash)


Myanmar’s anti-coup protesters defy rigid gender roles – and subvert stereotypes about women to their advantage

One of the first signs of the military coup that overthrew Myanmar’s democratically elected civilian government was a Facebook Live video of regional lawmaker Pa Pa Han being arrested, which was posted by her husband.

Soldiers stormed Pa Pa Han’s home around 3 a.m. on Feb. 1, 2021. While her young daughter wailed and her husband pleaded to see an arrest warrant, Pa Pa Han stalwartly grabbed her handbag and a coat and left with the soldiers.

Other parliamentarians were simultaneously being roused from bed and arrested across Myanmar by soldiers who claimed election fraud had occurred in the November elections. By daybreak, Myanmar was under military rule.

Ever since, thousands of people in Myanmar – most of them young, many of them women – have been protesting the coup daily and demanding the restoration of democracy. More than 770 civilians had been killed and over 3,738 detained as of May 6, according to the nonprofit Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Myanmar, formerly called Burma, is a conservative country with rigid gender roles. A 2015 survey rated it Southeast Asia’s most traditional society when it comes to family structure, deference to elders, respect for authority figures and conflict avoidance.

Yet Myanmar’s Generation Z activists, born between 1997 to 2012, are defying many of these social norms with their protests – and busting gender stereotypes while they’re at it.

A very traditional society

One act of creative resistance on March 8 involved hanging women’s sarongs on clotheslines above streets across Yangon. The young protesters suspected that many soldiers would avoid going underneath the clotheslines for fear that doing so would diminish their “hpon” – a kind of mojo that belongs to only men.

They guessed right: Soldiers sent to arrest the protesters climbed atop their army trucks to clear the clotheslines before passing underneath, giving protesters extra time to avoid arrest.

Such beliefs around “hpon” reflect a pervasive concept in Myanmar that men are superior to women and born with special spiritual protection. In a 2015 Asia Barometer survey, 60% of Myanmar respondents agreed that if they could have only one child, a boy would be “preferable,” compared with 46% in the Philippines and 30% in Cambodia.

Having grown up in Myanmar, I was raised to believe in these same gender roles and sexist superstitions. After being exposed to a U.S. liberal arts education, I came to question the gender inequality buried in traditions and Burmese culture. Now, as a psychologist who teaches about sex and gender, among other topics, I am tracking how Myanmar’s young protesters are rejecting sexism and subverting gender norms to their advantage.

After the sarong tactic, some of those activists questioned whether using sarongs to deter the soldiers might itself have been sexist because it played into old misogynistic superstitions. Shortly after the March 8 protest, activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi wrote on Twitter that women’s clothing should be flown proudly as “our flag, our victory” – not used as a weapon.

Gender violence in Myanmar

Spousal rape and domestic violence is still legal and pervasive in Myanmar, and when it occurs people often blame the victims rather than the perpetrators.

On April 20, a 17-year-old coup protester named Shwe Yamin Htet, who had just been released from jail after six days, reported on social media that a 19-year-old female protester detained with her had been “beaten with a metal pipe” and “kicked in her groin” and that her “vagina was bleeding due to the kicking.”

Rather than express outrage at the assault, some on social media worried that publicizing the young women’s sexual abuse would bring shame to her and asked Shwe to remove the post. She did not oblige.

A few women have defied the odds to obtain power in Myanmar – including the country’s deposed leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who came to power in 2012. Rather than seeing her as an inspirational symbol of women’s leadership, however, researchers Mala Htun and Francesca Jensenius reported in their 2020 study that most people in Myanmar view Aung San Suu Kyi simply as an exception.

Before the coup, women held 15% of political posts in Myanmar’s civilian government. Now, just one woman sits on the coup regime’s 17-member state administration council.

The military’s history of oppression

The military has run Myanmar as a dictatorship on and off since 1962. In addition to airstrikes and attacks with heavy artillery, it is known to use sexual violence as a weapon in its long-standing effort to crush separatist movements in the border regions of Myanmar.

Self-identifying ethnic Burmese make up 32% of the population. For nearly six decades, several ethnic minority groups – the Kachin, Karen and Karenni – have been fighting for autonomy and self-determination. For just as long, the Myanmar army has violently suppressed them.

Human rights groups report widespread and systematic rape in Karen state, in southwest Myanmar, over many decades. When women are captured by the military, soldiers use them as porters to carry shells during the day. At night, they may be gang-raped.

In Kayah state, another conflict zone north of Karen, women generally do not go out alone even for basics like groceries, because the military is known to target women.

The military oppression and gender violence so familiar to rural Burmese in conflict zones is now affecting the urban middle and working classes – groups that were long sheltered from the country’s borderland conflicts. On April 24, soldiers were reported to have physically abused a transgender woman who spoke out against the coup online, forcing her to change into “male” clothing before arresting her.

Women’s political future in Myanmar

Despite the risks, women continue to participate in the front lines of Myanmar’s fight for democracy.

Some have been arrested, including Thin Thin Aung, co-founder of a leading independent news site called Mizzima, and union leader Myo Myo Aye. Others were shot dead, like Khukhu Cilena, of the women’s rights group Women for Justice.

After the coup, a group of pro-democracy advocates formed a parallel government called the National Unity Government led by the elected lawmakers, which is financially supporting the civil disobedience movement. Myanmar’s opposition lawmakers are also busting glass ceilings: Ethnic minority party affiliates make up 25% of its 32 members, women make up 28%, and one member identifies as LGBT – a first in Myanmar.

The National Unity Government and Generation Z offer Burmese society a vision of a more equitable, inclusive future – should democracy prevail.


By                        :                       Ei Hlaing   (Assistant Professor of Psychological Science, University of Lynchburg)

Date                     :                       May 12, 2021

Source                 :                        The Conversation


Why we must overhaul the funding of social movements

To adequately respond to the ongoing crisis of democracy, we must support care and protection strategies for activists.

Last year exposed the structural flaws of the multiple systems that hold our societies together. We witnessed broken health systems, crumbling democracies, increased repression, attacks on human rights defenders, the criminalization of movements and the pervasive violence that continues to proliferate across the globe.

As we enter 2021, we honor the lives of essential workers and health workers – as well as the many activists on the frontlines of movements defending land rights, natural resources, the right to have an abortion, workers’ rights, freedom of expression, sexual rights and gender expression, and many others.

We also honor and grieve the deaths of women activists who have been targeted for their activism and those who we have lost to suicide and chronic illness. We funders must now consider whether we are truly supporting the sustainability of movements and the safety of activists. To do so, we must analyze the context in which activists operate – by listening to those on the ground with first-hand knowledge of their needs and challenges.

When crises arise, funders are invited to be more flexible and willing to learn, adapt and take funding risks – as we have seen throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Some private foundations led by example, such as the Global Wallace Fund, which pledged to spend 20% of its endowment in 2020 on “organizations doing vital work to solve the social and economic crises sparked by COVID-19 while continuing to advance systemic change for people-centered democracies and fighting for a more just and sustainable economy.”

Changing the conversation on care

In the 1980s, ‘care’ was considered a practice innate to women (the caregivers) and a reflection of the societal sexual division of labor. In the decades since, the concept of care has been expanded upon by activists and practitioners. At the beginning of the 21st century, academics analyzed and reflected on the cost of care and started a conversation about the “economy of care”.

More recently, thanks to feminist activists and practitioners, the debate has moved towards care as linked to the protection of activists and the sustainability of movements. This important shift in the conversation brings us to the feminist phrase “the personal is political”, but this time focusing on the lived experiences of activists.

An important milestone in the conversation between activists and funders about care and protection was the 2007 publication of “What Is the Point of a Revolution if We Can’t Dance”, by Jane Barry and Jelena Djordjevic. More than 100 activists from across the globe contributed to the book, which was developed in partnership between women human rights defenders and Urgent Action Fund. They shared their experiences of burnout, exhaustion, isolation and illness, along with their intimate fears and struggles, and the book challenged the idea that self-care and community care are selfish acts that are disconnected from the work of activists to advance social change.

As funders we continue to grapple with how to best support activists, who often face criminal penalties for their work and who are part of organizations and movements that lack safety and protection strategies. We know that general support, multi-year grants and flexible grants are the best way to increase their safety and protection, as such funding allows organizations to plan ahead and be strategic with resources.

Developing new protection strategies

Many funders are unable to, or choose not to, provide flexible general operating grants. Often they develop capacity-building strategies, which aim to increase organizations’ digital and physical security, but do not include well-being and psycho-social support. Some funders provide emergency support for activists at risk, such as relocation funds, but do not include community-led strategies that aim to protect activists, their families and their communities.

Traditional funding strategies do not acknowledge cultural practices of care and protection, such as guardias Indígenas and rondas campesinas (both cultural practices of peasant and Indigenous communities to protect and take care of their territory and its inhabitants) or community-rooted spiritual expressions of care and protection, such as healing circles.

This is why women’s rights and LGBTQI activists in every continent have been developing and using individual, organizational and movement-level care and protection strategies and frameworks. These expand the notion of traditional physical and digital security to a more holistic idea of safety, focusing on care, well-being and the economic sustainability of activists and movements.

There is not a single strategy or framework being used across regions, movements or contexts. Activists use different strategies, sometimes simultaneously, depending on context. The following examples come from feminist and social justice movements in Latin America and the United States and are inspired by many global and local activists, organizers, human rights defenders, organizations, networks and movements:

Collective protection (protección colectiva). This concept is based on cultural practices that understand the individual as part of the collective, and protection as a value of the community as a whole – challenging traditional notions of protection, which focus only on the individual. It also emphasizes the idea of community safety, and cultural and conscious everyday practices of care and protection such as community patrol networks or Indigenous community protection guards (guardias Indígenas), rather than using external security forces.

The term, credited to Just Associates and the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders (IM-Defensoras), is widely used by Latin American social justice movements. It conveys the idea of protection as contextual and relational; people across different organizations and movements share cultural knowledge and practices that commit them to protect and care for each other.

Healing justice. This term, credited to the Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective, is based on the notion that generational trauma is a product of colonization, systemic violence & oppression and it strongly impacts Black, Indigenous, people of color communities, LGBTQI people and people with disabilities.

The movement’s organizers, Black and people of color feminist leaders who were part of US southern movements in the early 2000s, feel healing and care strategies are integral to political liberation. They worked to reclaim traditions that had been stolen from them and built new collective practices rooted in a southern context and ancestral lineage that would support and sustain emotional, physical, psychic, spiritual, and environmental well-being by helping to heal and counter the ways in which oppression affects people’s bodies, hearts, and minds.

At the heart of this approach is decriminalizing practitioners and traditional practices of healing (such as midwifery) and building an awareness and critical analysis of racism, slavery, and colonization and their impact for the collective care of Black people and people of color movements and communities.

Holistic security. This widely used term is credited to US social justice movements inspired by Occupy Wall Street. It was later used by Tactical Tech and adopted by many international human rights organizations, and it refers to a strategy that includes digital security, psycho-social well-being, and organizational security processes, in addition to the traditional focus on physical security.

Integrated feminist protection (protección integral feminista). This strategy, which originated from the Latin American feminist movement and has been developed and adopted by the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders and Consorcio para el Diálogo Parlamentario y la Equidad Oaxaca A.C., references and addresses the links between gender discrimination and violence against women human rights defenders and focuses on building strong protective community networks to enhance resilience.

Politics of care. This framework, which also stemmed from the feminist movement, looks at the issue of care through a political and feminist lens. This notion, expanded on by Urgent Action Fund Latin America and the Caribbean, encourages the “mainstreaming” of well-being, self-care, collective care and sustainability across an organization’s structure (in policies, decision making processes and community organizing models).

Protecting ‘Territory, body and spirit’

Over the past decade, the women’s rights and human rights philanthropic sector have worked to pay more attention to movement safety and to fund these protection strategies. Funders are also increasingly concerned with the best ways to support care, healing justice, well-being and prevention of burnout.

But good intentions are not enough. To embrace care and protection is not to simply develop a healing program, or hire a consultant to write a well-being manual for the organization, or fund workshops on collective care. These often do not trickle down to the organization’s base or its community – and might not achieve the needed cultural transformations.

To adequately respond to the ongoing global crisis of democracy, we funders need to make a paradigm shift in funding. We must broaden our understanding of care and protection, by listening to activists.

We invite the funder community to join us in questioning our own power and privilege. We must recognize that for human rights defenders, especially Black and Indigenous women human rights defenders, protection is not limited to humans alone. An anthropocentric view leaves unrecognized the fact that care and protection are intrinsically linked to our surroundings and environment. Women defenders of the Amazon have referred to this as “territory, body and spirit”.

The Urgent Action Fund Latin America argues that “there is a need for an intercultural approach to funding”. A dialogue between cultures is needed to understand the deep meaning of care and protection and to learn from one another. In short, we must become aware that care and protection are practices reflected in the way we relate to one another. This also includes grantee-funder relationships.

To start a conversation within our funding community, we have developed a set of recommendations to consider when thinking about expanding funding strategies to increase movement safety, well-being and long-term sustainability.

Implement care and protection funding strategies. Set aside resources to support care and protection practices – including for digital safety, as many activists and organizations continue to be targeted online. Communicate to your grantee partners that such funding exists, encourage its use and make it accessible with limited reporting.

Remember that there is not a ‘one size fits all’ care and protection model. In order to be effective, care and protection strategies should be local and should be rooted in grantee partners’ cultures, experiences, skills and needs.

Recognize economic security as integral to the care and protection strategies you support. This means promoting and supporting grantee partners’ fair wages, caring work cultures, and strong labor practices. By funding organizations and collectives to have enough resources to support staff salaries, we also contribute to activists’ livelihoods, well-being, and safety; and their ability to continue to do their work.

Include and fund well-being. Make resources available to address burnout, trauma, grief and psycho-social support for staff and leadership of organizations. Remember that activists are likely supporting themselves, their organizations/collectives, communities and families. Well-being also has to do with addressing different forms of oppression inside of our organizations, such as racism, patriarchy, ableism, classism and LGBTQI phobia, and the impact these have on individuals, organizations, and movements.

Promote and fund collective rather than only individual protection strategies. Promote shared leadership models within organizations and movements, as activists are less likely to be targeted if they are not the only visible leaders in their communities. A single attack is designed to have a ripple effect: when an activist is attacked, the effect is felt by their family, organization, community and movement. After an activist is attacked, it is common that inter-organizational conflicts arise, and trust is diminished.

Consider how your funding practices may be contributing to the stress and urgency that movements are experiencing and inadvertently putting activists at risk. Do not try to respond to an emergency by making rapid-response grants without having strong and necessary grantmaking infrastructure, internal capacity and the knowledge and care of what emergency grantmaking entails. Make sure your foundation’s pace and sense of urgency does not impact grantee partners and that your grants management practices are not unnecessarily burdensome.

Avoid putting those you seek to support at risk. Put in place secure digital platforms to communicate with and about grantees. Do not use the names of countries or grantees at risk in non-digitally secure platforms. Consider not listing the names and grant amounts of grantees in countries where social movements are being targeted. Ensure that resources are disbursed safely, especially in contexts where there is government scrutiny of foreign funding. Do not generate international visibility for organizations without checking with grantee partners first. More visibility in repressive contexts could be counter-effective.

Consider being more flexible and creative when supporting organizations in democratic crises. Be willing to explore different funding strategies and mechanisms, support organizations to do context analysis, and listen to the solutions proposed by the organizations and movements that know their own challenges, risks and contexts best.

Strengthen care and protection movements at large. Fund movement infrastructure, such as safety houses and collective care houses for activists and spaces for reflection and knowledge building, such as research and conferences on this issue area, and by directly supporting and strengthening “care and protection” practitioners, advocates, and trainers.

Recognize that resources are needed to support the collective care and protection of multiple bodies and abilities. Consider funding organizations working on disability justice and organizations wanting to learn from and implement a disability justice approach to their work. Since access to care is related to assumptions of what bodies are valued and which are expendable, disability justice does not only apply to individuals with different abilities, but rather can be an approach to supporting more sustainable activism. It is also a way to support the protection and safety of all bodies.

Fund the sustainability of movements by responding to the current emergency with a long-term funding strategy. Funders need to adapt to the needs and contexts of organizations and movements, respond strategically to the emergency, and invest in the long-term financial resilience of organizations and movements.

We must ensure our grantees have the resources to get through the current crisis, and are able to continue to help us build and imagine a better future for all.

These recommendations were developed by Cara Page (Changing Frequencies), Mónica Enríquez-Enríquez (Foundation for a Just Society), Somer Nowak (Foundation for a Just Society), Tatiana Cordero (Urgent Action Fund Latin America) and were inspired by Astraea Foundation’s Healing Justice 2019 Report and a 2019 mapping on Holistic Safety and Collective Care conducted by lead researcher Sandra Ljubinkovic for Foundation for a Just Society.


By                                :                      Tatiana Cordero Velásquez & Mónica Enríquez-Enríquez

Date                            :                       January 15, 2021

Source                        :                       Open Democracy


Senegal's Democracy Faces a Crisis of Public Trust

Senegal is easy to admire.  It’s long been one of Africa’s most stable democracies, where vigorous debate and dissent are part of peaceful democratic discourse. It has maintained its security and territorial integrity, managing to avoid becoming engulfed in the instability that consumes so much of the Sahel. In fact Senegal is a security exporter, providing significant numbers of military personnel and police to UN peacekeeping missions.  A cultural powerhouse, it is a Muslim-majority country that defies stereotypes.

But the latest news from Senegal is worrying, and it forces observers to grapple with the country’s complexities and challenges.  On March 3, opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was arrested for participating in an unlawful demonstration while on his way to court to respond to rape allegations against him. Mass demonstrations followed, as youthful Senegalese took to the streets to oppose what they see as a pattern of politically motivated prosecutions (two major candidates were excluded from the 2019 election, which gave incumbent President Macky Sall another term, due to convictions in corruption-related cases). In addition, demonstrators expressed frustration at limited economic opportunities made even more scarce by the pandemic. Eight people were killed in the protests, and while tensions have eased somewhat since Sonko’s March 8 release on bail, more protests are planned for the days ahead.

Ironically, it was youth-driven civic action that helped bring Sall to power in the first place: the Y’en a Marre movement mobilized against efforts by Sall’s predecessor to seek a third term in office. Senegal’s history and culture of civic engagement have been a source of strength for the country, reinforcing principles of democratic accountability. But this will remain true only insofar as leaders respond to popular concerns and democratic institutions demonstrate the integrity essential for maintaining public confidence. Meanwhile, Sonko harnesses popular frustration with his anti-French rhetoric, reinforcing a troubling notion that the state and its economy are structured to serve narrow elite interests rather than the wider population.

Senegal’s democracy is resilient, but it will take more than just resolving the Sonko case to restore popular trust in the state. Adherence to term limits in the 2024 election—which would require President Sall not to seek a third term—accountability for both the powerful and opposition figures in the justice system, and a policy framework designed for the reality of Senegal’s demographic profile will all be essential for the country’s success going forward. 



By                 :                         Michelle Gavin

Date             :                          March 12, 2021

Source         :                          Council on Foreign Relations


Democracy has always been fragile in Southeast Asia. Now, it may be sliding backwards

Just five years ago, many people were optimistic that Southeast Asia had finally turned the corner when it comes to democracy.

Myanmar’s military had finally loosened its decades-long grip on power when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won elections in 2015. Three years later, Malaysia’s opposition party swept the long-serving Barisan Nasional from power — the first regime change in the country since independence in 1957.

These were seismic political shifts. More importantly, both changes in power took place after free, albeit not completely fair, elections. There was no bloodshed involved.

Democracy rollbacks from Manila to Naypyidaw

Today, that optimism has gone.

Much of the world’s attention has been on Myanmar’s implosion following the military coup in early February, which has resulted in scores of civilian killings and disappearances. But democracy has been rolling back across the region.

In Thailand, we are seeing the return to a monarchy-military rule with the new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, demanding changes to the constitution to grab more executive powers for himself and take direct control of Crown Property Bureau, which manages the royal fortune.

In the process, he has become one of the richest monarchs in the world, with wealth estimated at between US$60-70 billion.

Crackdowns under Thailand’s infamous lese-majeste law (better known as 112) have intensified. People are regularly targeted under the laws for anti-monarchy social media posts, and last year, the government took legal action against Facebook and Twitter for ignoring requests to remove content it deemed against the law.

Worryingly, several prominent Thai dissidents have also died mysteriously in neighbouring countries.

In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte took power in June 2016 and started a popular campaign against drugs that has led to the deaths of some 12,000 people.

Duterte has also gone after the media for reporting on the killings, with one high-profile government critic being found guilty of libel last year. The country’s largest broadcast network, ABS CBN, was shut down by allies of Duterte in Congress, as well.

Optimism over the Malaysian Spring is completely gone. A year ago, the reformist Pakatan Harapan government collapsed and a new, all Malay-Islamic coalition came to power.

Given Malaysia’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, this backdoor establishment of Perikatan Nasional is not a positive sign for democracy.

Then, last month, the government declared a state of emergency and suspended parliament for six months. Many believed this was done to prevent the opposition from mounting a challenge to the new government.

Singapore, the richest state in the region, stubbornly remains under the stranglehold of the People’s Action Party, which just won another election last year. The PAP has been in continuous power since 1959.

The only bright spot in the region appears to be Indonesia. But there are dark clouds on the horizon. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo appears to be backtracking on reforms and pandering to the Islamists, who are keen to make Indonesia into a quasi-Islamic state.

Why is democracy so fragile here?

All this is happening in the midst of China’s determination to position itself as the dominant power in Southeast Asia.

Beijing has sent a clear message that it does not really care what sorts of regimes or political systems are running the countries of Southeast Asia, as long as they acknowledge China as the undisputed regional power and do not question its sovereignty over the South China Sea.

This, of course, has indirectly strengthened the hand of the anti-democratic forces in the region, with some openly admiring the Chinese “strong state” system.

The pro-democracy camp, meanwhile, faces a sizeable dilemma. On the one hand, its supporters have been hoping for more help from the West, principally the US and Australia, to promote democracy in the region. On the other, they are worried they could be accused of being Western agents, driving people into the hands of the autocrats trumpeting populist nationalism.

Another challenge is the diversity of Southeast Asia. There is no single template or historical model for a stable and democratic political system in the region.

Most of the countries were colonised by European powers, who imposed their different political ideas on the societies they controlled. The one thing the colonial rulers did not do was promote democracy. They only did this after their former colonies became independent.

And by global standards, many of the nations in Southeast Asia are relatively young. Most of them were created after the second world war, and their boundaries and political systems were largely decided by their colonial masters.

This means the process of nation-building is ongoing, and the West should not assume these countries naturally aim to build liberal democracies.

In many of these countries, traditional power — often autocratic, feudal and authoritarian — lies just beneath the surface. In fact, many elites within them have ambivalent attitudes towards liberal democracy.

While they accept the concept of mass elections to choose political leaders, they also believe in the concept of “guided” leadership to elect the “right” kind of leaders.

Indonesia’s first leader post-indendepence, Sukarno, for example, was famous for practising a “guided democracy”, in which the government would force a political consensus and ensure elections were used to legitimise leaders hand-picked by the regime.

This is why cheating, vote buying and rigging the ballot box are common features in Southeast Asian elections — they are sometimes seen as justified to get the “right” kind of leaders.

There are no easy answers to the promotion of real democracy in Southeast Asia. We may simply have to wait for a generational shift before this takes root in the region. Young people do yearn for real democracy, but at the moment, they do not hold the guns or control the parliament.


By                 :             James Chin  (Professor of Asian Studies, University of Tasmania)

Date              :             March 31, 2021

Source          :             The Conversation


Book Review: The University and Social Justice: Struggles Across the Globe edited by Aziz Choudry and Salim Vally

In The University and Social Justice: Struggles Across the Globe, editors Aziz Choudry and Salim Vally offer a new collection exploring university-based activism and social justice movements around the world. With rich accounts that cover diverse repertoires of action and collective struggles, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in the state of Higher Education across the globe, finds Shreya Urvashi.

The University and Social Justice: Struggles Across the Globe. Aziz Choudry and Salim Vally (eds). Pluto Press. 2020.

Compiling an edited volume is always a daunting task; and to do so on a topic as contemporary and interdisciplinary as student struggles, even more so. In The University and Social Justice: Struggles Across the Globe, editors Aziz Choudry and Salim Vally do just that – and brilliantly. The book is a collection of studies on university-based activism, essential reading for anyone intrigued by the state of Higher Education in the world. Over the last few years, a lot has been said and written about social justice movements in universities all across the globe. Thus, to draw out researched pieces from amongst a barrage of fake news is a big task, yet extremely necessary at this juncture.

To the larger public, the university takes on a lot of different meanings. It is considered as a training ground for the elite or as an institution to reproduce the norms and cultures of the dominant few. Nevertheless, universities are also seen as sites of dissent, of unfamiliar ideas and of resistance. Campuses globally have turned into sites of struggle, with many of these struggles drawing on, as well as influencing, longer histories of popular resistance, broader social movements and radical visions of a fairer world. This book is an assemblage of such accounts of deep engagements with leaders and protagonists, activists and reformers. While some chapters are autobiographical ethnographies, others are historical analyses. Most adopt social science methods within a qualitative framework, looking at the characteristics of social movements, at the social, cultural and economic conditions on the ground and at political trends.

From student movements to staff unions, these twelve accounts from twelve different countries present the diverse forms that the fight for accessible, critical and quality public education has taken. For instance, Jamie Woodcock in his chapter gives an insider view of the student movement in the UK, looking at the recent genealogy of the twenty-first-century student movement and the extension of these skills and knowledges. He identifies the different types of students who organise, and how they apply the skills learnt during their participation in the movement in their later lives. In a similar vein, Juliet Le Mazier explores the repertoire of actions and tactics available to the French student struggles over a longer timeframe, and the tensions in the emphasis on those tactics when deployed by different political tendencies.

Prem Kumar Vijayan considers student movements as both left-leaning and progressive, as well as conservative and having reactionary tendencies, in his discussion of Indian activists. He problematises students as ‘unruly’. Although the chapter is mostly filled with theorisations of the different concepts of Higher Education from access to exclusion, Vijayan manages to give a very informative account of the tensions and contours of student organising happening in India. In another account from Asia, Sarah Raymondo and Karlo Mikhail I. Mongaya write about a very intriguing relation between sports and activism, with a coach saying that ‘basketball is life’. The chapter goes on to discuss Higher Education in the Philippines with the struggle between postcolonial and transformative education. The authors consider the tensions between education and social change, and delve into the role of militant organisations in the larger struggle for social and economic justice.

The place of university-based struggles for social justice is seen through the discourses and practices of nationalism in rosalind hampton’s evaluation of the Quebecois movements and Gülden ?zcan’s account of the Turkish student movement. Being from a different part of the world, I hardly knew about these except from coverage in the global news, such as of the Turkish movement in 2016. Thus, while I am not equipped to say whether the complexities were delved into sufficiently, the chapter was informative and led to a lot of food for thought.

Latin American student political activity is fascinating in more ways than one, since not just university, but even secondary school students are involved in the struggles. In one chapter, Javier Campos-Martinez and Dayana Olivarria talk about the social and political gains made through university activist politics in Chile, focusing on the generation born after the end of the dictatorship around the 1990s. Alma Maldonado-Maldonado and Vania Bañelos Astorga discuss recent events in the Mexican student movement in a similar vein. These accounts give an insight into the temporality of student movements, with them being a long and continuous process, constantly learning from past events.

The book mentions the Palestinian cause in two chapters. Using San Francisco State University (SFSU) as a case, Rabab Ibrahim Abdulhadi and Saliem Shehadeh discuss a lot of pertinent issues regarding activism around Palestine. The chapter covers racism, communalism, privatisation as well as the corporatisation of Higher Education through attempts to regulate university spaces and suppress voices. The chapter states that while there have been what one could call ‘little victories’, the movement is a work in progress and it is far from over at SFSU. In another account, Lena Meari and Rula Abu Douhu focus on the complex issue of the tensions between class and national liberation struggles in the Palestinian student movement, focused on Birzeit University, Palestine. Reading this chapter was in part challenging, especially with the numerous names and events mentioned, but for the most part it was a wonderful read.

Finally, there are two chapters about Africa. I had made a conscious attempt while reading the book to not look at the content first so as to feel a bit of suspense every time a new chapter, and with it a new country, came up. When I was ten odd chapters down, the absence of Africa from the discourse started to seep in, but that is when the chapter by Asher Gamedze and Leigh-Ann Naidoo appeared. The chapter discusses South Africa; it begins with the famous Rhodes Must Fall movement and goes on to talk about the racial bias of academic publishing and knowledge production. While every non-Western scholar is familiar with this situation in some ways, there is an impressive discussion of a project centred on a decolonial methodology to produce a movement record, a publication (or what they call publica(c)tion) that drew on the range of struggles across South Africa and engages local and specific issues alongside providing a pedagogic project. As the activists put it, ‘Publication is a mode of public action’.

Next, Rhoda Nanre Nafziger and Krysta Strong write on the forms of student struggles in Nigeria. As is the case in many former colonies, Nigerian students have historically played a critical role in social struggle, but in the near past have somewhat lost their focus. They are what the authors call a ‘contested elite’ – being an enforcer of sociopolitics but also a Gramscian elite. Students are in a state of paradox where on the one hand, they are supposed to promote the norms and culture of their society (as opposed to external forces), and on the other, are supposed to be the harbingers of change to prevalent conditions. This dilemma puts students in a peculiar position, and at constant loggerheads with state forces. The Nigerian student struggles are a depiction of this tension since successive governments have attempted to suppress student bodies, while the organised student bodies continue to maintain a certain degree of independence. While there have been positive outcomes, the Nigerian student still enters into the legacy of a complex student body.

One of my reasons for taking up this book was my own engagement with education and student movements over the years, and it was a pleasant surprise to see the depth of these explorations and the broad range of political tendencies explored, with Australia being the only continent left out. Further, the representation of authors, albeit better than most literature on this issue, could be improved with more writers of colour and different genders being included. Nevertheless, this curated work comprises an undeniable richness due to its multifarious texts covering diverse repertoires of action; and it is exactly the kind of collective analysis we need to understand contemporary university activism.


Shreya Urvashi is a research scholar based at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She writes about sociology of higher education, sociology of identity and politics.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of USAPP– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics. 


By                        :                           Shreya Urvashi

Date                    :                            February 28, 2021

Source                :                             LSE Blogs Phelan US Centre