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September 8th, 2022

Iranian American activist Frieda Afary delves into the emancipatory vision of socialist feminism in the face of overwhelming patriarchal capitalism.


The US Supreme Court’s June 24th announcement of its decision (6 to 3) to take away women’s constitutional right to abortion (established by the Roe vs. Wade case in 1973) and to give states full authority to ban abortion, is a monumental disaster for women. Even prior to this decision, the Supreme Court had approved a Texas law which banned abortion six weeks after fertilization and gave authority to vigilantes to pursue abortion providers and facilitators and arrest them in exchange for bounties paid by the state.

Since the Supreme Court decision was announced, thousands have demonstrated nationwide to oppose it, and thousands have also faced the cancellation of their abortion appointments and are struggling to find alternate ways or places, hundreds of miles away, where they could terminate their pregnancy.

Many progressives hope that the nationwide protests will continue. However, there is a major concern among some feminists, expressed most recently by Michelle Goldberg and Susan Faludi, that the mainstream feminist movement in the US has not articulated an emancipatory vision that would capture the imagination of masses of women and bring about a sustained organization to stand up to the intensifying retrogression.

As an Iranian American socialist feminist writer and activist, I would argue that confronting and reversing the current retrogressive wave demands a global view and a socialist feminist vision and organization.

A global view starts with the following:

  1. Understanding that the current misogynistic assault on women in the US is part of the global rise of authoritarianism and fascism.It is a backlash against the tremendous achievements made by women and LGBTQ struggles over the past forty years, including most recently the #MeToo movement against gender violence. It is these achievements that have also led to a decline in the fertility rate on a global scale (with the exception of a few countries in Africa). At least, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, twenty-first century women around the world had more access to educational and job opportunities which were allowing them to delay marriage, pregnancy and have fewer children or in some cases no children.
  2. Recognizing that Black feminists in the US have strengthened our struggle by founding the reproductive justice movementwhich views abortion rights as part of a broader struggle that includes social justice, universal health care and education. They have consistently called for abortion on demand and opposed the forced sterilization of women. Their goal has been to create a society in which human beings, adults and children all have the rights, resources, support and healthy environment that they need to
  3. Considering the struggle for reproductive rights in the twenty-first century as a global one. In Ireland, Argentina, Chile, persistent mass protests of women have led to the legalization of abortion for the first twelve weeks after fertilization and longer in case of health concerns for the woman or fetus. In Colombia, a grassroots feminist movement recently brought about the legalization of abortion for the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. In Mexico, abortion has been decriminalized.In China, Uighur activists from Xinjiang province have appealed to progressives to defend all human rights, including reproductive rights of Uighur women who are being raped and forcibly impregnated or sterilized  in a state-run system of mass incarceration and ethnic cleansing. Women in the US must see their struggles for reproductive freedom as part of a global struggle so we can learn from others’ successes and defeats.
  4. Challenging the Right’s distortion of what it means to be truly ‘pro-life.’ The slogan of US women reproductive rights activists, ‘Right to Life, That’s a Lie. You Don’t Care if Women Die’ points to the need for our movement to reclaim the designation ‘pro-life’ and not allow the anti-abortion side to own that designation. The current capitalist, racist, sexist and environmentally destructive system under which we live, does not promote life. It promotes not only severe economic inequality but also commodification of women and human relations, alienation, hatred, gender violence and war. Around the world, whether in Ukraine where women are fighting Russia’s genocidal invasion and systematic rape campaign, or in Afghanistan where the US invading force bombed most of the country for 20 years and handed power back to the racist and misogynist Taliban in 2021, women are bearing the brunt of the assault.

Being pro-living and developing an emancipatory vision of an alternative to the existing system means that reproductive rights activists need to think outside the parameters of the existing system. Yes, we can and should vote for pro-choice candidates within our very imperfect capitalist democracy in the US. However, as our current system of voting is under assault by a new wave of Republican state laws aimed at voter suppression and nullification of legitimate results, this cannot be our only strategy for turning the tide.

What does it mean for us to think outside the box and promote the vision of a system that sustains life? In my new book, Socialist Feminism: A New Approach, I argue that a critical re-examination and rethinking of socialist feminist thought and activism during the past century can help us find a way forward to reverse global authoritarianism, and thereby, direct the conversation toward a deep transformation of human relations.

Gender oppression today is the result of the intertwining of capitalism, patriarchy and racism. None of these factors is autonomous. Rather, capitalism embodies both patriarchy and racism, forms of oppression that predate capitalism, which it uses for its benefit. At the same time, it is not sufficient to speak of capitalism as simply a mode of unequal wealth distribution, private property of the means of production, and market mechanisms.

Capitalism is a system opposed to human self-determination and to nature. To the extent that it promotes individual freedom, it is an alienated, selfish, and utilitarian individualism that promotes the production of value but stands in opposition to collective emancipation and critical thinking. It objectifies and commodifies women and has consistently opposed women’s control over their own bodies. Capitalism affects and alienates the mind and body and human relations in insidious ways that are not simply caused by private property and the market. Its alienated mode of labor affects all human relations and most deeply intimate and sexual relations. The problems of alienation, objectification and dehumanization exist under both private capitalism and state capitalism, including totalitarian and authoritarian forms of state capitalism such as those that have called themselves socialist or still do so.

By seriously addressing these issues, feminists can more effectively articulate an emancipatory vision that inspires women and non-binary people around the world to build a new type of sustained and thoughtful international feminist movement that can reverse the current retrogressive wave.

In the US, that effort must begin with recognizing and learning from the work of Black feminists, abolitionists, and #MeToo activists while simultaneously building solidarity with women fighting gender violence in Latin America, Africa, Ukraine, Russia, China, Myanmar, India, the Middle East and beyond.

Frieda Afary is an Iranian American librarian, translator, activist and author of Socialist Feminism: A New Approach. She lives in Los Angeles.

You can discover further resources on the author’s website here.