World Womens Forum
By America Vera-Zavala
31 January, 2004
the rape they made us walk home naked. When our men saw us they took
off the clothes that they still had and gave them to us so that we could
wrap something around us. The woman starts crying, and she bows
her head in shame. The other woman chairing the meeting gives her a
warm clap on the shoulder and asks us to applaud for the survivors
the survivors of the massacre in Gujarat in February 2002.
The meeting is a
workshop at the World Social Forum (WSF) in Mumbai called Religious
Fundamentalism, Communalism, Casteism and Racism Actually a Globalisation
Agenda, organised by the World March of Women: National Alliance
The event is packed.
People overflow out of the large tent and stand outside in the hot sun,
listening attentively. A large majority are
women: Hindu women,
Muslim women, Dalit women. Very few men and westerners have found their
Never before at
the World Social Forum have women been so visible, nor has the issue
of gender played such a central role. Everywhere, women are talking,
dancing, leading, organising, crying and laughing. The most charismatic
names are women (Captain Laxmi Sehgal); the big movement leaders are
women (Medha Patkar); women deliver the best speeches (the Dalit human
rights campaigner Ruth Manorama) and organise the most interesting seminars.
Women get on board
Yet it is hard to
say why we had to go to India for this to be so.
Oppression of women
exists all around the world, and its not enough to say that womens
situation is worse in India than elsewhere. If the situation is better
in Europe or in Latin America, thats all the more reason for making
greater efforts to achieve further progress in these regions.
Perhaps it is Indian
womens experience in fighting for room, in a society that gives
them so little, that has helped them succeed in taking over the WSF
space. Ive never seen a society where oppression of women is so
cruel, where they are constantly deprived of space, and where it is
necessary to fight to obtain even a little. If you calculated importance
by space officially allocated, women in India would not amount even
Trains are a good
example. Seldom have I been so scared as when I took the train to the
forum one morning and did not go on the womens wagon. There was
no space there, I thought before discovering that the space given
to me in a wagon full of men was a form of hell.
In this appalling,
everyday situation women struggle to find space for themselves, and
somehow they succeed. The WSF is the same; neither women nor the gender
issue in general was better represented in the official programme this
year as compared to previous years. The same men dominated the star
panels; some, who clearly think too highly of themselves, participated
in several seminars at the same time. Who (to name just one) did not
see Walden Bello deliver a speech and then say: excuse me, I have
to go, and run off to the next seminar?
Many panels consisted
entirely of men. Some trendy activists, who think that they are super-feminists
because they know a bit of gender theory, agreed to sit on panels without
a single woman. Everywhere you could see homosocial relations:
men preferring to talk to men, men favouring men when organising a seminar
or editing a book. Women being forgotten and given the same proportion
in a space as Indian women will get in the train. All of this has been
there since the forum process started and was still there in Mumbai
but somehow it was challenged and overtaken by women who decided
to occupy more space than they had been given.
so many people say: something must happen to this WSF process.
It cant go on like this. But, this year, something did happen.
issue womens rights has moved into the centre.
Giving and taking
problems remain. The approach to solving them may be through proposals
that some will find uncomfortable. Its like the womens wagons.
Im sure that many would oppose the idea of separating men and
women travellers. Well, before judging you should be a woman travelling
in a train in India. The wagons for everybody consist only
of men, who will harass and molest any woman who ventures aboard. It
was women themselves who fought to have the womens wagons.
If the WSF panels
for everybody consist only of men, who talk about and analyse
everything, and the women-only panels speak solely of womens issues
and that continues regardless of how many think its wrong
then maybe we have to make rules. One rule we could make for
the WSF is that all-male panels are allowed only to talk about mens
If people refuse
to understand the obvious, perhaps we need to make rules until they
do? Im not suggesting that that would be a positive thing, but
the success of the women this year will have an impact that will mark
the forum process for more than just a few days in Mumbai.
But this World Social
Forum should not primarily be remembered as an event where we started
to make rules, but as a beautiful political festival dominated by women.
According to gender research, women are perceived as many
or in majority when we occupy 30% of a space. At this forum,
women were approximately represented in accordance with our proportion
of the worlds population: around 51%. I think that is why many
observers perceived women to be everywhere at this forum.
One of the largest
and most important panels perhaps the most significant of all
was called Wars against Women, Women against Wars.
There, Arundhati Roy did one of the most beautiful things one can do:
she gave away space, space that she had fought for to get, that today
she can access in a privileged way.
She spoke mostly
about the massacre in Gujarat, but also about women doing horrible things
to other women. And then she spoke less, to give space to another woman,
to tell her story about police brutality. That made me think about our
Achilles heel: women not showing solidarity with other women.
If more women followed Arundhati Roys example, more women would
become visible and be heard.
in Mumbai that makes this years forum deserve to be named the
World Womens Forum.