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The World Women’s Forum

By America Vera-Zavala

Open Democracy
31 January, 2004

“After 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 of Women.

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 way here.

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 it’s not enough to say that women’s situation is worse in India than elsewhere. If the situation is better in Europe or in Latin America, that’s all the more reason for making greater efforts to achieve further progress in these regions.

Perhaps it is Indian women’s experience in fighting for room, in a society that gives them so little, that has helped them succeed in taking over the WSF space. I’ve 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 to 10%.

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 women’s 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.

I’ve heard so many people say: “something must happen to this WSF process. It can’t go on like this.” But, this year, something did happen.

A “new” issue – women’s rights – has moved into the centre.

Giving and taking space

Many “old” problems remain. The approach to solving them may be through proposals that some will find uncomfortable. It’s like the women’s wagons. I’m 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 women’s 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 women’s issues – and that continues regardless of how many think it’s 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 men’s issues.

If people refuse to understand the obvious, perhaps we need to make rules until they do? I’m 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 world’s 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 Roy’s example, more women would become visible and be heard.

Something happened in Mumbai that makes this year’s forum deserve to be named the World Women’s Forum.