Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Women's worlds 2008: not a utopia

(See introduction above)

The Women’s Worlds Congress convenes every three years in a new country and naturally takes on a different flavour or focus according to its location. The first was held in Haifa, Israel. I attended the eighth Women’s Worlds in Kampala, 2002. That was the first time the congress had been held in Africa and it was an important event for Uganda itself, widely covered in the national media and actively supported by President Museveni. It provided a platform particularly for African women, and especially Ugandans, to highlight current issues of concern around government policies, political participation and women’s rights.

Co-ownership of land for women and recognised rights for second (unofficial) wives in a polygamous society were two aspects of the proposed Domestic Relations bill which had been under discussion then for four years by the government. Ugandan friends suggested to me that one reason for its slow progress was the fact that President Museveni had more than one wife himself.

At Makerere University, we had the official ceremonies in the open air under a large awning, were entertained by African drummers, enjoyed a fashion show featuring fabulous African prints and were able to browse the stalls of goods and services from local publishers, non-governmental organisations and women’s campaigns on the lawn of Freedom Square. And frankly, there was some dissonance between the language of western feminist academics and the articulation of hard-pressed needs of African women, whether working in national government or at the grassroots.

At the congress in Seoul 2005, aiming to address something of that paradox, the theme was north-south, east-west. For Madrid 2008 the slogan was “equality is not a utopia.”

At the congress opening in Spain, our first delight was the highly acclaimed flamenco singer Carmen Linares, whose powerful voice, interpreting raw pain and passion, transcends time, space and culture: “history is always the same for women.” And adding to the colour of this congress were the Arab women - both visitors and residents - in the hijab and shalwar-kameez.

The contradictions of the context also resonated clearly here. The (male) Secretary of State for Education and Innovation was convinced that the future of the world depends on bringing women and their talents on board, yet the (female) representative from the Ministry of Equality (with “an agenda fully supported by the government of Spain”) highlighted a list of problems still to be tackled: domestic violence, sex trafficking and the high level of abuse and discrimination against immigrant women. The (male) chancellor of the Universidad Complutense applauded the efforts of the (female) vice chancellor in pulling off the logistical feat of organising the Women’s Worlds Congress while the university’s office of gender equality talks about raising awareness among the academic community “by means of various actions including the gradual elimination of sexist language,” which scarcely sounds a hard-hitting approach.

To be fair, the opening ceremony provided a platform to air “the numerous obstacles to equality in our country” including inequity in the labour market and the “predominant white machismo of liberal democracy.” Spanish women are still in a minority in decision-making positions. Yet again, the congress is clearly a prestigious national event from which the male côterie wish to benefit.

My friend Irene Norman suggested that each country hosting the congress should be held accountable for achieving national changes in the three years leading up to the following gathering. (Irene was awarded “woman of the year for learning” by the Wales Assembly Government in 2002 and named one of Wales’ 2003 “top ten regenerators” in community education through projects such as promoting women’s enterprise.)

We were told by the convenors that the logo of this year’s congress represented “a woman, like a butterfly, emerging from her chrysalis, symbol of the change we are all going through, with her wings open to the future of possibilities.”

To what extent is this meaningful?

We can’t deny the fact that, in one sense, the Women’s Worlds phenomenon is located within what is still a man’s world, deriving permission, sponsorship and credibility from it. Can, indeed, women’s worlds exist independently outside? Yes, in terms of our collective intellect and imagination, our capacity to inspire each other, the connections we make and our conversations together. All this leaves little doubt that a woman’s world (for want of a better phrase) would be a smarter, safer, fairer, wittier, more colourful and sustainable place for both men and women to live in. Not a utopia, but a different paradigm – and an urgent necessity.

The Women’s Worlds 2008 website is at

Read more: Wales Women’s Studies Monographs

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