A CWPE Roundtable Discussion: A Post-Beijing Analysis
Present: Dianne Forte of IRRAG; Judy Scully, civil and human rights attorney; Marlene Fried, National Network of Abortion Funds; and April Taylor of BWHBC and Cross Cultural Black Women's Institute.
On Sunday, December 4, a small group of CWPE members who traveled to Beijing spent a good part of the morning discussing a progressive women's assessment of Beijing. There are important issues needing further discussion and action. Even if people were not privy to some of the "hot" issues we've briefly outlined, we feel the women's movement should take time to assess in post-Beijing dialogues the ideas and concerns we heard from the grassroots women who were at the Forum. We focused on women's leadership and accountability in the movement, Women of Color inclusion issues, the UN structure, broadening the definition of feminism, and where we think Beijing will ultimately lead us. We hope that these excerpts from our conversation will help in ongoing discussions about what feminist leadership really means, what the continual marginalization of Women of Color implies and how we can take the necessary steps toward truly globalizing our linkages to make the women's movement a force to be reckoned with.
On the Question of Women's Leadership
Marlene: Was there really a leadership in Beijing? It seemed to us that there
was a leadership vacuum. People said that in Cairo WEDO played the role of organizing
women's movements. In Beijing no one was really playing that role or did we
Dianne: The UN sort of "contracted" to WEDO and the coalition of women that had organized women's caucuses at some of the previous conferences. In the Forum, there was UNIFEM to handle it, but this body of women seems reactionary in the sense that while they are women centered and women inclined, they come primarily from a development perspective. They have a certain "Uneeze" and lack an understanding of the broader feminist issues. More progressive
women's organizations were very dissatisfied with the UN document coming out of the Prepcoms. For example, it did not address race and ethnic differences, stating that race is no longer a problem after the dismantling of Apartheid. There were many such problems with the document. But if we had gone through the distilling process, the way the women's caucus had done it for the other conferences then the product would have been much better.
April: So if WEDO had played the role it had in the previous conferences, there would have been a different document?
Judith: Dianne is drawing an interesting dichotomy. We speak of it as if it's two different worlds - the development world and the women's movement. For me what was positive about the conference was that those two worlds really began to have some type of marriage. I hadn't really thought about those issues in the way that I did once I was at Beijing. I knew about development issues and that there was the development world and the women's movement world, but it seemed as if there was a lot of networking to bring those issues together. That's a positive thing that came out even though it didn't start from the "leadership." It seems like the grassroots activists who were involved in a lot of the workshops were moving in that direction and although I don't know as much about the background politics that you all are talking about, there was a distinct feeling that things were happening, maybe in spite of the leadership.
April: I actually appreciated the fact that a certain "leader-ship" didn't play a major role. There were many women's groups on the ground, organizing and thinking sort of the same way we do and asking the same questions about the leadership! There were problems of who to hold accountable and, the process of the site being moved etc. But in all that turbulence, women got together and they are serious, as evidenced by the number of people who are meeting and reporting back about what Beijing means. We are all asking how do we make the Platform relevant to the work we do here and understanding that the issue is how to bring more grassroots women into this movement. We need to talk about the centralization of power in the "women's movement" and how to get representation from different regions.
Issues for Women of Color
Judy: I went to a workshop, I don't know what the political affiliations of
the women were but they were white American women in their late forties and
early fifties. You could tell they had been clearly involved in international
women's conferences for a long time. They had a sense of ownership over the
process. This was supposed to be an informational workshop to get people involved
in the UN process and the international women's movement. I went there looking
for information on how to get involved in the leadership. What I heard was a
conversation between women who had known each other for a very long time, speaking
as though they were at the kitchen table. There was no real sense of reaching
out to people who weren't in their kitchen. It wasn't about bringing people
like me in, it was more or less, patting themselves on their backs and talking
about how great they were. I walked away from that feeling very locked out as
an African American woman and feeling that it's just the same old network and
it's not meant to be an open process. On the other hand, I walked into other
regions where similar workshops were going on and felt very welcomed. It was
like the light going on again about how African American women and Women of
Color in the United States are still very much locked out of the women's circle
as defined by white North Americans.
Dianne: This came up strongly around the tent issue when African American women were unable to persuade the leadership that there was a singular and well-established need for them to qualify as a unit for tent space. It was clear to us that we desperately needed this space, yet they couldn't understand. They saw only that the US is part of the UN community as one of the five regions. This perspective means that there is no space for our issues. You had a true locking out of Women of Color in the North, from the women's leadership, the women's movement organizing within the UN as well as the UN organizing of itself. The UN organized itself into these regions and squeezed us into North America where we don't belong.
Judy: Is it really a question of where we don't belong or of where we choose to belong?
April Some women actually went through the process to get an African American/Women of Color space. They told us at the African American Women's caucus that papers were presented to try to obtain appropriate space. But once everyone got to the Forum there was no space to be found and no one to be held accountable.
Dianne: There is a fundamental lack of understanding that there isn't a safe space within North America and the European Union for marginalized communities of the north. We do need a separate space in recognition of women of struggle.
Judy: In terms of the Women of Color caucus, we had to go all the way from North America, to Beijing, to realize that African American women needed to meet among themselves in order to determine an agenda. This was before we could clue ourselves into this generic Women of Color grouping. You know we were saying we wanted a Women of Color caucus and yet the African American women needed to sort issues out among themselves first. It was something we had known but when we got to the conference it became crystal clear how necessary that process was.
Dianne: It is very dangerous to acknowledge that marginalized communities in Northern areas, i.e., people of color need a separate space. Because then you have to concede there are problems.
ALL: of sovereignty, land, distribution of resources, wealth and privilege, etc.
Dianne: There is nationhood, there is cultural economy and separate identity issues - they have a right to be heard as a people. I remember Bella addressing the opening of a forum and she challenged the nations of the world to imagine that we are not looking for a piece of the pie but for a completely new pie. That was the challenge to the group that if we looked at women as wanting a piece of the existing pie then, we just have to make a little room here and a little room there. But if we look at it on the whole then, the entire pie needs changing.
On the UN Process, Structure and Participation
Marlene: Another related issue that April raised is the importance of creating
Women of Color groups who understand the UN process. There are Women of Color
who to work in the process but who are not given visibility. Being able to interpret
the documents and have an understanding of the process is an important step.
Dianne: There are things we need to strategize about in the years between the next set of conferences. If we can change, we must research how to raise these issues within the UN. What are the mechanisms for reasoning within the UN system?
April: I've been thinking about being a participant in last three UN conferences: Beijing, the Summit and Cairo. I think about our role in these UN meetings and what that actually means. What kind of system are we participating in? I'm not saying that we need to abandon the process but to broaden it. I find that activism gets swooped right into UN vacuum and we walk around and do our work in the basement. I've learned that if you're not in with the network you're out on the margins.
Judy: When you're saying we, do you mean activists?
April: Activists, people in the women's movement, NGOs, even though NGOs represent something very broad. I'm wondering what limits we hit participating in the UN and whether the UN is the proper venue for us to effectively promote the changes we want.
Judy: I don't know if the Beijing conference was about effecting change. I think that it was a platform for promoting dialogue and if that was the objective then I think that we were successful. But in terms of actually changing the status quo or achieving our vision of the world, I don't think we really can do that within the UN structure. It's not set up for us to have an active role. We have a voice filtered through some other officials who got there through a process we had nothing to do with. Changing the world, that has to be done in our backyards, where we live.
Marlene: At the conference, I got so excited; the idea of putting your backyard in the global picture was really incredible for everybody. It made you learn things about your own backyard that you didn't see before and I don't want to lose that. I also want to help figure out how more people can get access to the process and the power. Especially in the US where things are so bleak politically, we must find other places to raise our issues. I think you're right but what are you going to do? This is the challenge that we're left with. We see that the UN can't be the only process for us so let's create some of our own things that would be.
April: It comes back to that. This has been a decade for many UN conferences but the dialogue is taking place within the UN. If you're a grassroots woman how do you get access? My main concern is how to educate more sisters about the process but then what?
Dianne: The Forum was the biggest women's networking event of the century. It also was an opportunity for people to find out what was going on in their own countries. That became so clear as Chinese women didn't know what was happening to the Tibetan women. It was at this conference that African women understood what was happening with US Women of Color so that they couldn't call us all Americans in one big lump. It's also at this conference where Japanese women learned about what happened with the Korean "comfort" women. It was at this conference that African women really got the full impact of the deliberate action to screen out progressive women's groups from participating in this conference. It was at this conference that the issues happening at home made sense. So it was an opportunity for us to talk to each other about what we know and an opportunity for all of the people affected by the oppressions of the world to come together and tell each other about their side of the oppression.
Marlene: But that is a big step! It's important to see it as something that has happened and that women who previously were totally shut out, not just from the UN institutional process, but from any vehicle for making alliances internationally, are now in, and they are not going away. But now we need the leadership of genuinely diverse women's organizations.
On Broadening the Definition of Feminism
April: I was giving a talk about Beijing at a local college, trying to make
connections between women from a certain class background in the US and other
women from around the world when a woman walked up to me and said, "Our
issues are so very different from global women, we're concerned about glass
ceilings, and they're concerned about food." I said to her, "I don't
know where you come from, but my mom is laid off right now and she's wondering
about where she's going to get her next meal and the same thing for my aunt
and cousin. So I don't know what world you're talking about." You're right
about this diversity issue because I think that the women who are in the "leadership"
speak from a certain class vantage point and sometimes they want things as men.
And that's why I enjoyed Beijing so much because I held people accountable on
their "isms" because I found when they said the word "women,"
I knew they weren't speaking of me!
Dianne: I think we need to see the formation of coalitions of interest in which women have a strong woman-centered analysis. For example, in the labor movement, we really do need a strong women's labor perspective. The labor movement can achieve so many things because it's organized. If we only had a strong women's perspective we could change the world of work for women just like labor changed the world for the poor and blue color worker in terms of income, in terms of what the men wanted and what the men saw as priorities. If labor were able to have a strong women's agenda then we would be able to see the shorter workday, the child-care issues, the health care issues reflected in labor.
Judy: I'm thinking it seems like we have an even bigger problem than just "womanizing" (having a women's centered perspective) the issues. I feel we need to have a definition of what a woman is in order to really create the movement. It sounds so simplistic but I think about all these discussions where people are saying, women this and women that, and they're talking about working women or they're talking about women with children. But there are women without children, there are women without jobs etc. A woman means 5,000 or a million different things. And one of the things that was great about the conference is that you really in a very concrete way began to see that. You had to draw the connecting lines between women who live way up in the mountains whose issues are how to get water with women who are fighting for better wages. I think that is really the next phase of coalitions. I hate to use the word diversity because it's been co-opted by many different agents but I'm talking about a broadening of the definition of what a woman's issue is and really creating a women's movement that defines a new world women's order.