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Reflections on the Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing and Huairou, 1995.

Returning from the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing and Huairou in September 1995, participants were invariably asked "How was it?" in a tone that implied either that it was something akin to a mythical feminist encounter, or that it was the kind of disaster portrayed in much of the mainstream U.S. media. As U.S. readers are aware, much of the coverage used the occasion of the conference to portray China as the nemesis of capitalist democracy. Women's rights in an international context were thus overshadowed in the discussion of a conference whose focus was women's rights. At the same time, many of the "background" stories in the press were framed in terms of the need for other cultures to liberate "their" women so that they can modernize. This treatment is misleading, not least because it renders simple and predictable the story of a meeting that was fragmented into dozens, perhaps hundreds, of subcultures. The conference experience and its significance varied with where one was located geographically and professionally. Women came from all over the world to enact their political passions in Beijing. Our pervasive feeling was that thousands of us were attending different meetings from each other, and would all go home with different stories.

For many participants in the U.N. conference, Beijing represented only one final moment in a series of meetings, debates, and discussions among women's organizations in specific countries and regions. In Brazil, for example, feminist groups spent two years before the conference engaging in debates in preparation for the U.N. conference, and to a certain extent, the conference itself was less significant than the meetings and discussions leading up to it. For Chinese participants, too, the meeting was the capstone of several years of organizing activity, much of it newly supported by the Chinese government, which hoped to increase its own visibility and prestige both by hosting such a large international gathering and by showcasing the achievements of Chinese women in the People's Republic. One Chinese participant, director of the research office of a provincial branch of the Women's Federation, spent six months prior to the conference traveling to villages throughout her home province, telling local women about the U.N. conference, and requesting women from each village to produce one quilt square depicting some aspect of their life. The quilt was displayed at the conference site in Huairou. Her experience underlines the way in which for many political activists, the Beijing conference provided the occasion for many months, and in some cases years, of organizing and discussion.

The conference consisted of two related events: the official United Nations conference, for which participation was restricted to official delegates from each country and to representatives of organizations granted accreditation, and the NGO Forum, a gathering of nongovernmental women's organizations and grassroots activists. Because it was regarded as less predictable and potentially more disruptive by the Chinese government, the NGO Forum was moved to the suburban town of Huairou, almost an hour's drive from Beijing. The move dropped the conference into a town unprepared to receive it, with insufficient lodging and restaurants (the government issued a directive that no restaurants were to serve raw vegetables, for fear that foreign guests might contract a gastrointestinal ailment), and grossly inadequate meeting spaces. Many sessions took place under awnings in the pouring rain, which kept security people busy poking the awning roofs with bamboo poles during rainstorms so that the tents would not collapse under the accumulated water. Problems of noise and logistics abounded.

In spite of these problems, the NGO Forum was by far the larger event of the two conferences (with some 25,000 participants attending, compared to approximately 10,000 at the official U.N. conference). While the U.N. conference focused on the specific task of producing a final document, the NGO Forum was far more diffuse, consisting of more than 1,000 panels, each sponsored and organized by a specific women's organization. Panels dealt with issues from sexuality and reproductive rights to spirituality, forms of violence against women, and relations between Israeli and Palestinian women. To cite but a few examples: the National Union of Namibian Workers sponsored a panel on "Trade Union Women's Issues," the Southeast Asia Women's Information Network organized one entitled "Experiences and Definitions of Prostitution," the Islamic Assembly of North America held a panel on "Muslim Feminism," the Thai lesbian group Anjaree organized a panel called "Lesbianism for the Curious" as well as one on "Lesbian Organizing in the South," the Moscow Center for Gender Studies held a panel on "Gender Dimensions: Transitions in Post-Communist Societies," and a group called the Mills College Women Leadership Institute ran a workshop on "Women's Music of the Bay Area, USA."

Although the panels held at the NGO forum were all organized by nongovernmental organizations, the definition of "nongovernmental" was in some cases ambiguous and contested. For example, the NGO Forum was hosted by the All-China Women's Federation, an official, government-sponsored organization. More than a year before the Beijing conference, the Chinese delegation to a preparatory meeting in Manila comprised of women officials from the Women's Federation (accompanied by a male advisor) were shocked at the accusation that they did not constitute a "nongovernmental organization." They returned to China and began researching the question of NGOs. By the time of the Beijing conference, they had prepared literature describing some several hundred Chinese NGOs that dealt with women's issues, many of which hosted panels at the conference. In fact, many of these newly identified NGOs were groups sponsored by the All-China Women's Federation or its provincial and local branches. This does not mean that the Women's Federation is a monolithic organization that invariably represents the government; under its auspices some groundbreaking research and activity have taken place.

China is not the only country for which the nature of NGOs is ambiguous. At a panel about Iranian women, for instance, a debate erupted between the panelists, Iranian expatriates who deplored the conditions of women's lives in Iran, and members of the audience, women still living in Iran who defended Iranian women's progress and achievements. As the argument progressed, it became clear that the women from the audience who identified themselves simply as "Iranian women" were actually representatives of the government-sponsored women's organizations, the only women actually residing in Iran who could attend the conference. Despite their government affiliation, they called themselves an NGO, and their argument with expatriates about who could better speak for Iranian women was a vigorous one.

One of the many important discussions conducted across a range of panels at the NGO Forum concerned the status of women in post-Communist nations. Women from the Commonwealth of Independent States and the nations of Eastern Europe emphasized the degree to which their experiences were not uniform across (often newly delineated) national boundaries. Certain issues came up repeatedly, but were framed differently for each place. With respect to abortion, for instance, in Hungary the male-dominated parliament has raised the question of restricting abortion, although the 1992 abortion law is almost as liberal as that of the socialist period. East Germany used to have abortion on demand; now it costs money and requires counseling. Nevertheless, one woman commented, women appear to be on a reproductive strike - the birth rate in East Germany is 20% of what it was in 1988. Meanwhile, the Ukraine has the most liberal abortion law in the region because of Chernobyl, permitting abortion until the last stage of pregnancy. One speaker from the Center for Women's Studies in Ukraine voiced her fear of the possibility of mandatory scanning, framed under the slogan of national restoration.

Another common area of concern was the lack of women's formal political representation. In Hungary, 20 to 30% of all members of parliament were women under socialism; this dropped to less than seven percent in the transitional period. One speaker blamed "lack of trust in women's abilities" among the electorate. In Russia, a panelist reported, a women's slate won seven percent of the vote in the first set of elections, but because those elected did not behave independently in parliament, women are no longer supporting them. In the Ukraine, another speaker commented, few women had been involved in the democratic movement, so they have little claim on power now.

Some of the most animated discussion of post-Communist dilemmas took place at a panel on socialist feminism in post-Communist countries that was scheduled to be run by women from Croatia. The panelists failed to appear, so the audience ran it themselves. A woman from Slovenia reported on the mixed legacy of post-Communist politics for women: there is a new debate about restricting abortion, while maternity leave has been increased to three years in an attempt to move mothers back to the home and the number of workplaces willing to hire women has decreased; at the same time, there is a movement for gender studies, the development of lesbian groups, and a growing network for survivors of sexual abuse. In a wry comment on the benefits of capitalist advertising, she commented, "the TV is full of ads for how to get egg off a man's shirt. Before it never occurred to us to care if there was egg on a man's shirt."

At the same panel, the director of a women's resource center eastern Germany denounced the colonization of east Germany by the west, including feminists in her criticism: "West German feminists came with their men. They pretended they wanted to give us something, but they just wanted to take everything away from us. They never asked us what we had been doing. They knew nothing about us and they never asked." She went on, "We need to continue our own history. The Wall coming down is like being colonized. We no longer have our own food, clothing, and rituals." (When a North American woman asked eagerly, "What rituals?" she replied, "Well, the main ritual was going to work - put your kids in kindergarten and get on the bus, wait for the bus to break down, and sit with other women and talk.") Later she said, "We opposed the state and the system, but they were part of our culture. We don't want to be a socialist state again. We wanted more rights, but we got less. We prepared for changing socialism, not for capitalism overnight. We wanted to get rid of the secret police. We were very aware of how the East German economy didn't work, of the cheating, of the use of contacts with the west to make private sales. Now the west takes it openly." Both the speaker from Slovenia and the one from eastern Germany emphasized that the former socialist system cannot be directly compared with what they have now, and that they are not engaged in simple nostalgia for the past. As the German woman said, "We don't want the system as it was, but we want dramatic changes in the system we have now. We want to get our workplaces back."

In numerous panels on women and Islam, a completely different set of conversations transpired. One panel run by a woman with a doctorate in Islamic Studies who teaches in Jordan was attended mostly by Muslim women from around the world. At this panel, debate centered on the question of whether actually existing Islamic law in various nations is in perfect accord with the teachings of Islam, or if it is imperfectly in accord because it has been misinterpreted by ignorant male clerics, and therefore open to revision. This framing of the question, fundamentalist in its premises, was used to argue for more rights for women in Jordanian marriage law, for instance.

Some panels were explicitly global in their orientation. A number dealt with global trafficking in women, including both sex work and domestic labor, while other panels focused exclusively on sex work and prostitution. One group that deserves particular mention is a group from Thailand, GAATW (Global Association Against Trafficking in Women).(1) This group was notable for the creativity of its program regarding the needs of women who have been brought to work illegally in countries other than their country of origin. The platform addresses the imperative to offer immediate citizenship rights to these women and, quite provocatively, uncouples legal residence and citizenship rights from national identity. That is, women who have been trafficked wouldn't need to become "American" or "Japanese" to gain legal rights in their country of residence. This political change would enable such women to bring legal complaints against their employers and others who are currently able to take advantage of their undocumented status.

In panels on prostitution, many speakers emphasized the point that prostitution is sex work that needs to be respected. At one panel, women from Mexico, Brazil, the United States, and West Africa talked about the contrasting conditions of sex work in their countries. Most striking were the different kinds of alliances sex workers have developed in various countries. In Brazil, for example, prostitutes have developed an organization that addresses not only sex work, but also AIDS and transsexuality. The reason for this alliance is the recognition that those who grapple with these issues face similar forms of discrimination about sex and sexual rights. Although sex work is legal in Brazil, sex workers, people infected with HIV, and transsexuals face continued harassment by the police and victimization by popular prejudice.

Activities on lesbian rights included a very well-organized presence on the part of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), which formed an energetic caucus to lobby for the inclusion of the language of sexual orientation in the final U.N. document (see below). At the last U.N. Women's Conference in Nairobi a decade ago, only one country was willing to stand up in favor of putting language about sexual orientation in the document. This time, about 30 countries were willing to support that language. That is a tribute to the kind of work that IGLHRC has accomplished.

IGLHRC also sponsored a"lesbian tent" that allowed different groups to meet under its rubric, including lesbians of color, Asian and Asian American lesbians, and African and African American lesbians. There was also informal socializing at the lesbian tent, which served as a place for people to come and feel safe and also to take the risk of making a statement just by their willingness to be visible.

Organizations focused on sex work and sexual rights seemed to have more creative agendas for challenging transnational capitalism than did those organizations addressing the economics of transnational capitalism more directly. Many trade union women at the conference seemed frustrated and pessimistic about prospects for developing a viable platform of action. The trade union women who gathered together at the conference had a clear and cogent analysis about the insidiousness of how transnational capitalism operates, but they had a difficult time developing radically new suggestions for how to address it and organize in response to it. No small part of that problem lies in the fact that the main U.S. trade unions frustrate international trade union efforts because they ally themselves with U.S. foreign policy. There are other problems as well in thinking through what one can demand in the context of conventional approaches that focus narrowly on wages or incremental demands.

How is "the global" being constituted in relation to gender? Which issues were framed in global terms and which seemed to devolve into a nationalist focus? Paradoxically, conversations most directly about transnational capitalism, especially those about development, seemed to move most easily into discussions framed by national boundaries. In contrast, the panels and discussions that revolved around race and sexuality were the most global. Some of the global discussion about race and sexuality came out of Charlotte Bunch's ongoing tribunal about crimes against women, held in the main auditorium. There the argument was that women around the globe face the same kinds of experiences and dilemmas because they share a basic similarity as women. Other discussions, however, insisted on the specificities of difference while emphasizing the processes of sexualization or gendering that are taking global form. For example, the women from Thailand were not simply talking about conditions in Thailand. The global trafficking they discussed encompassed the specificities of coming from certain Third World countries and ending up in other wealthier countries.

In all the panels, there were numerous differences and controversies. This conference should by no means be pictured as one in which women happily sat down and calmly discussed issues of mutual importance. During one panel on global trafficking in women, for example, a woman from the United States booed from the back as the women from Thailand were speaking. Her reaction exemplified the controversy throughout the conference about whether to treat global trafficking in sex work as a type of work or whether to see it as sexual slavery. The woman who booed felt that demands for sex workers' legal rights in effect support and collude with patriarchal governments who will continue to encourage women to engage in sex work. She was a lone voice, however, at least at this panel.

At the formal U.N. conference, which began in Beijing as the NGO Forum was concluding in Huairou, three main arguments emerged about the language of the final document on the status of women. These discussions suggest how important language is in any political debate, but also how contingent the meaning of words can be. One argument was whether to include language about "sexual orientation." While the delegates ultimately deleted that language, paragraph 97 does include language about women's rights to their own sexuality.

The second argument was whether to use the word "gender" or the word "sex." The Vatican and various other religious groups wanted to use "sex" because "gender" to them implied support for homosexuality, a connection not obvious to other participants in the debate. Gender, for the Vatican, implied something not given by God, but something changeable. If it could change, then anything could happen; identities would become unfixed and anybody could turn into anything, for instance by becoming homosexual.

A third argument concerned the use of "equity" versus "equality." In recent U.S. debates, the word "equity" has been important in the fight for comparable worth, which would guarantee women comparable pay for female-dominated jobs (so that nurses, for instance, could be paid comparably to firefighters). Yet words such as "equity" take on their political meanings in contingent contexts, and at the Beijing conference "equity" became the word that the Vatican and others wanted because it implied to them "separate but equal." In this framing, women could have a type of equality, but they should have it in their separate, God-given sphere. "Equality," for those who made this argument, implied breaking down those spheres. It was finally agreed, in committee, to use the word "gender," while the argument about equity versus equality was resolved in favor of using the term "equality."

The effects of the conference on Chinese feminists were contradictory. It did enable them to develop international networks on a much greater scale than they had been able to do in previous years. This was especially true in their travels to planning conferences in the Philippines and Egypt before the main conference. However, the U.N. conference also made life more difficult for feminists in China. In the decade prior to the conference, China's central government paid little or no attention to women's issues. Paradoxically, the marginalization these women experienced vis-a-vis the government gave them room to pursue important research. Quietly, and with little fanfare, Chinese feminists located in universities, research institutions, and the Women's Federation had begun to chart how the recent history of socialism had not really addressed many of women's most pressing problems, how the economic reforms were creating new problems for women, and how Chinese women need a new kind of consciousness of themselves as women. They were able to make quite radical statements without stirring much controversy. Before the conference, the central government, for whom "human rights" is a very sensitive issue because of the international criticism of China in this regard, generally did not associate "human rights" with women's rights. As the conference neared, increased government support for "women's studies" actually helped make it possible to bring a national women's studies network into being, one that exceeded the capacity of the government to control its agenda or interests.

For better or worse, the preparatory meetings and publicity leading up to the Beijing conference made it very clear to these government officials just how political women's issues and women's studies can be. To make things worse, the conference came at a time when China was facing the imminent demise of their top leader, Deng Xiaoping, when tensions between the U.S. and China were at an extremely high level, when the issue of Tibet was rattling government leaders because of tensions over who would get to pick the successor to the Panchen Lama, and when China was raising the specter of a military takeover of Taiwan because of the latter's efforts to win international recognition. All these tensions were exacerbated when the top leadership realized the issue of human rights would be raised at this conference.

In the short term that meant much closer scrutiny of what women's studies scholars and feminist activists were doing. At the same time, these feminist activists had been asked to take a leading role in organizing the logistics of the conference in China. The result was that in the months immediately before the conference, feminists had a great deal more difficulty pursuing their own research without worrying about the ramifications at the highest levels of government. They found themselves contemplating the possibility that, if the meetings embarrassed the government, women's studies and women's activism might face an early demise. Many adapted by toning down their research and waiting to see how the political winds would blow after the conference. For the moment, the heat seems to be off, as the government has apparently decided that the conference was a great success and a boon for China's international prestige.

NOTE

1. Their address is: GAATW Coordination, c/o FFW, P.O. Box 47, Bankoknoi 10700, Bangkok, Thailand.

GAIL HERSHATTER teaches Chinese history at the University of California at Santa Cruz (Merrill College, 1156 High Street, Santa Cruz, CA 96064). EMILY HONIG teaches women's studies and Chinese history at U.C. Santa Cruz, and LISA ROFEL teaches anthropology at U.C. Santa Cruz.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Crime and Social Justice Associates
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Author:Hershatter, Gail; Honig, Emily; Rofel, Lisa
Publication:Social Justice
Date:Mar 22, 1996
Words:3762
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