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Investigating spaces of resistance : Jordanian women’s non-governmental development organizations’ ‘resistance from within’ at the intersection of neo-liberal development and neo-patriarchy





Today’s international development cooperation is an integral element of a transnational neo-liberal project which continues to rely on unequal power relations between the Global Norths and the Global Souths. The discourse, on which it relies and which divides the world into the developed and the under-developed, is one that builds on colonialism, racism and sexism. While this discourse sets the rules of what development is, how it appears and the ‘right’ way to get there, as well as who is entitled to speak about it – and which viewpoints are accepted, it has not remained stable over time and space. On the contrary, as all discourses, the meanings and impacts, together with the power dynamics the development discourse creates, are embedded within socio-historic contexts, and therefore, evolve over time and space. Especially since the 1970s, the development discourse has adopted new language, integrated new concepts and, most importantly, absorbed the criticism to which it was subject. Part of this criticism were feminist critiques reproaching development for under-estimating the role of women and, instead, reproducing patriarchal and oppressive structures. Instead of rejecting the critiques, step by step, the development discourse integrated feminist concepts such as equality, gender and empowerment, and thereby became incoherent. These feminist incoherencies that still appear within the otherwise racist and sexist development discourse have made the powerful discourse permeable to contestation and resistance. The thesis sheds light on this resistance, namely through the study of Jordanian non-governmental women’s organizations (WNGDOs). These WNGDOs are embedded in the power relations created and reproduced by development discourses through their complete financial and discursive dependence on Northern-based development donors on the one hand. On the other hand, they are entangled in a power relation with the Jordanian State, which is a neo-patriarchal one that builds on patriarchal customs and modernity, the latter being closely linked to development. These two power relations, which may, for example, manifest in increased administrative and bureaucratic requirements, are perceived by these organizations as extremely restricting: they highly influence daily working routines and often occupy staff members to a maximum, thereby taking the organizations’ focus away from what is really important to most of them: social change end equality for all. While organizations perceive their space for action as constantly shrinking, they are neither at the mercy of their donors, nor the neo-patriarchal State. Instead, they use remaining spaces to achieve their goals, and create new spaces through acts of daily resistance. These seemingly small resistances may take place behind the scenes and remain hidden in front of the powerful donors and the State. Interestingly, however, they are also performed for everyone to see, namely in cases where these resistances are perceived as rightful by the resisters themselves and, at least officially, ‘authorized’ by the dominant, yet highly incoherent and ambivalent discourses of development and modernity. Based on field research with staff members of WNGDOs, donor and State representatives in Jordan between 2017 and 2021, the thesis shows how WNGDOs and their staff members make use especially of the feminist incoherencies of the two interrelated discourses to navigate both power relations simultaneously, contesting structural racism and sexism, all while remaining within the boundaries set by the discourses. This results in relatively safe practices of resistance that, nevertheless, turn the tables of power and make place for a transnational social change in Norths/Souths-relations that goes beyond gender equality.

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