Women and the WSF

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LETS build another world, because another world is possible, cried the recently concluded World Social Forum 2004 at Mumbai. The World Social Forum was formally born in 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil as an alternative to the World Economic Forum. Having started off as an alternative to the WEF, the WSF has over the years grown, not as one unified response to the hegemonic globalization of the WEF (read WTO), but as a space for diverse democratic struggles in this very globalized world. Herein lies the WSF’s greatest strength and challenge.

From pioneers of social movements and economists to anti-war protesters, dalit workers and farmers, to students and teachers, people from all walks of life made the WSF historic. They came from across the globe with separate agendas to contribute to the overarching theme of anti-globalization and imperialism. But if anything united the random groups, it was surely the much-quoted determination to make the WSF ‘the voice of the voiceless’.

It is ironic that even today, after almost four decades of their so called ‘liberation movement’, one social group is still voiceless and strives to make itself heard, not around any one social or economic issue, but on the very question of survival. Women across the globe still have horrifying stories to tell of their quest for survival, for equal rights, for freedom in a most limited sense, in a brutally patriarchal world.

As in the first three world social forums, at WSF 2004 too, women were everywhere. Irrespective of whether they were dressed in saris, kurtas or jeans, one could find women leading rallies, chairing sessions, serving homemade Maharashtrian food, walking with cameras or dancing along with the protest marches. The common denominator in this sheer diversity of women was their dream to build a more egalitarian world, a new world where women were treated as equal to men. It may, however, be noted that women were conspicuous by their absence in the more prominent debates on economic globalization, and a post-Cancun world. But this did not in any way diminish the brilliance of what they had to say, or the hope that they wanted delegates to take back with them.

Apart from faces like those of Medha Patkar, Arundhati Roy and Asma Jehangir, familiar to Indians, it was great to hear what women from Latin America, Africa, Europe, Afghanistan and Bangladesh had to share. Prominent among these were human rights lawyer Irene Khan from Bangladesh, Egyptian novelist Nawal El Saddawi, Piedad Cordoba from Cuba, Iranian Nobel Laureate Shirin Abadi and Sahar Saba from Afghanistan. What set these women apart was that they were not stuck in a whirlpool of mere rhetoric. They had stories to tell, stories of real women.

Prior to the opening of the WSF, independent of WSF 2004, a group of women organized a strategy meeting in Mumbai, dubbed as ‘Feminist Dialogues: Building Solidarities’. It comprised a core planning team from several feminist groups that first convened in Porto Alegre, Brazil during WSF 2003 in support of the Campaign against Fundamentalism. The team included representatives from Articulacion Fem inista Marcosur (AFM), Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET), INFORM, Isis International-Manila, Women’s International Coalition for Economic Justice (WICEJ) and the organizing group of Indian women’s organizations gathered under the National Network of Autonomous Women’s Groups (NNAWG). The Feminist Dialogues was an attempt to transnationalise feminist debates and visions and examine the interlinkages between feminist movements and other social movements.

The WSF, however, was not characterized by an over-emphasis on the ‘women’s angle’. The only WSF sponsored seminar on women was titled ‘Wars against women, women against wars’. It was a theme that encapsulated not only the effect of real war, but all forms of violence that women are victims of by virtue of being just that, women. In addition to the main seminar, two smaller seminars stood out – ‘Women and permanent war’ organized by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, Germany, and ‘The world court of women on war crimes’ by the Asian Human Rights Council. These seminars were chaired not by academics, but women driven to activism. Resultantly, what these women had to share were not feminist theories but real stories, simply told from their own country.

One heart-rending story was narrated at a seminar where Arundhati Roy spoke. Roy cut short her speech and shared time with Gayatri, a young girl from a village in Madhya Pradesh. This young woman is a victim not only of a patriarchal society, but also of brutal and insensitive state machinery. She stood boldly on the stage and screamed in rage at the injustice that she faced at every step in her life.

One day, a cow was killed in front of her house, an event that was to irretrievably change Gayatri’s life. In the enquiry that ensued, her family was taken to the local thana and kept in the lock up. The family had no hand in the killing of the cow, but instead of releasing the family, all except for Gayatri were sent to jail. She remained in the lockup. Upon nightfall the policemen gang raped her. As is usual, she was then released with the threat that if she spoke about the rape incident, the police would destroy her family and property.

Gayatri was not one to be scared by police threats. She implored the local authorities for help, but as is the sad state of our country, the state only sided with the police and refused to acknowledge her story. Instead, Gayatri’s house was reduced to rubble, her land was seized by the authorities and redistributed among other people, false criminal charges were levelled against her brothers, her younger sister was constantly threatened with rape, and her son and husband with death. Gayatri and her family are marginally safer today with the help of a women’s organization, but the state is yet to give her the justice that she deserves.

To narrate such a horror story to an audience of over 80,000 people require enormous courage. Gayatri mustered that courage in the hope that those present at the Forum would spread her story of injustice and wake up to the reality of the status of women in India. It is a reality where in theory a woman is raised to the level of a goddess, but in practice, the life of an animal is valued more than a woman’s.

If this is the reality of India, then that of our neighbour, Afghanistan is much worse. There are many Gayatris there, but no platform for them to vent their angst. Representing RAWA (Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan) was Sahar Saba, today a well-known international face. But here is a story of a woman, who like all other women in Afghanistan today, is a daughter of war. RAWA, since its inception in 1977, operates secretly, under the threat of death, to struggle for full freedoms to the women of Afghanistan. Saba was born in Kabul; in 1979, her family fled Afghanistan to refugee camps in Pakistan to escape the Soviet invasion. Once in Pakistan, they moved again to give her an education at one of RAWA’s underground schools. Now in her mid-twenties, Sahar serves on RAWA’s foreign affairs committee.

This is not the space to narrate the atrocities that continue to be committed on the women of Afghanistan, but it is important to tell that there is little change in the life of Afghani women with the fall of the Taliban. Women still do not have the basic human rights to education or even freedom of speech and expression. And if all this was not enough, with regard to human rights and civil rights, the constitution of the newly formed grand assembly (Loya Jirga) explicitly lays down that women need not even try and put themselves on a level with men because ‘even god has not given you equal rights…under his decision two women are counted as equal to one man.’

Clearly, the wait for justice for women across the globe is still far away. One criticism of the WSF has been that the forum was nothing but a huge ‘mela’ with no concrete solutions. But to say so is to ignore not only the spirit of optimism and hope that the participants shared but also the very phenomenon that gives the WSF its strength; a space for diverse democratic movements and organizations to come together, share experiences and create new ideas.

Sandhya Kumar


Multiple sites of protest


WHAT better world than an open, unlimited, democratic space, where more than a hundred different languages were spoken, and it did not take much to be understood; where victims, be it the ousted railway workers of Japan, displaced adivasis from different parts of India and sex workers rubbed shoulders in support of a dream; where music united people. Such was the world at the NESCO grounds, Mumbai, venue for the World Social Forum held from 16th to 21st of January 2004.

It was a world where information technology was not captive to monopoly capitalists but a truly emancipatory instrument, to be shared between nations and peoples bringing ideas, not commerce, on the table through the Free Software Foundation, which functions in the belief that free information access is possible and feasible.

It is also a world where books and knowledge are to be shared – as the French activists showed through their Green Tree where pamphlets and literature could be picked (read, and returned) off a make-believe tree, of art installations demanding to be touched, felt, and become one with the viewer, without alienating. Where it took very little to get intimately involved with the joys and sorrows, hopes and disillusionment of fellow participants across culture, language, ethnicity, sex and other historically given ‘qualifiers’.

Whether or not such a world will be built in some future time, that such a world could be a possibility was proved beyond doubt within six days of being – eating, living, dancing, singing, protesting – together. It is another matter, however, as to what it takes, in terms of time and resources to even sample this probability.

Despite varied historical and social contexts, it is intriguing that our entire history seems to fit into one vicious cycle of violence and displacement by casteism, racism, war and the violence of imperialist hegemony. At the same time, this history converges in the act of protest against these forces in all ages. This is what Firdous, a 20 year old from the slums of the ‘old city’ of Hyderabad wrote in her diary: ‘From the Brazilian tent mates (at the WSF youth camp), I got to know that Brazil has a lot of problems, lot of poverty, electricity problems… this was new as I thought fair skin people are very rich!’ Her impressions were also shared by many others from the rural districts in India – the safai karamcharis from Tamil Nadu and the adivasi women from Chattisgarh – that somewhere they are together in/against an exploitative global system.

‘Poetics’ apart, in the Indian context for the WSF to have been held at Mumbai carries economic and political significance, even though there is need to critically assess the event and its many facets.

In the current context of the privatization of health, education and communications, the displacement and impoverishment in both urban and rural areas, growing fascist tendencies and worse, a forum such as the WSF – which raised all these issues – cannot be wished away. The numbers present remind us of the numbers who protested across the globe against the war on Iraq. These numbers matter, especially in a world where media plays an important role and where more than half the media space is sold to the glamour and ‘feel good’-ness of globalization. And these spaces have ‘icons’, faces that endorse it – sportspersons, artistes, and film/TV personalities.

In terms of participation, there was a visible increase in the presence of NGOs and funding agencies at the WSF, when compared to a similar event held in India last year, the Asian Social Forum. And this in itself may be problematic, if one considers that significant people’s movements have often been taken over by the concept and structure of NGOs and funded initiatives. There was, and still is, a marked dichotomy between social activists and the NGOs in developing countries. Unfortunately, despite forums on the role of people’s (political) movements and trade unions, no one session focused on the increasing distance and blurring of lines between people’s movements and NGOs/funding agencies, especially when you consider that there is little clarity, even in the NGO sector, about the politics of funding, and the limitations thereof. On the other hand, if NGO structures are here to stay, what kind of another world can be visualised – will a forum like the WSF give rise to another, ‘alternate funding’ paradigm for the developing world, questioning the agendas of the World Bank and DFID?

These issues (perhaps understandably) did not figure at the sessions of the WSF. Funding (of WSF) as an issue was, however, raised at the alternative Mumbai Resistance forum – just across the street. But only as propaganda. In the context of global initiatives such as the WSF it is worth asking whether it is inevitable that people’s movements will ultimately become part of funded campaigns with their structured programmes such as ‘gender’, ‘displacement’, ‘sustainable livelihoods’ which become separate, mutually exclusive activities only to end up as ‘reports’/findings at meetings like the WSF.

At another level, the delicate question of difference between NGOs, political and social movements seems to have assumed a new form. The contours (once sharply drawn out) between activists and the NGOs seem to have blurred at the WSF, despite the fact that the NGO movement ever since the late ’70s has contributed in many cases to a dampening of political activism as people’s movements metamorphose into funded/aided projects. The sharp distinction/divide evident some years ago between grassroots activists and NGOs was not easily discernible at the WSF.

There were, however, significant sessions – not part of the funded campaigns – addressing markedly political issues, Kashmir for one, which drew a packed house. Or the session on media in the context of globalization.

Culture – literally and epistemologically – remained at the fringes at the WSF, much the same as at the ASF. And this is indeed a problematic that movements and spaces such as these need to address. ‘Cultural evenings’ and cultural programmes become the ‘comic relief’, de-contextualized as it were. Dances, songs, theatre, seem to have no other rationale than to entertain (and for the non-Indians, a ‘kaleidoscope of India’). It is indeed troubling that when it came to culture, WSF failed to adequately engage with crucial concerns – how globalization alters cultural forms or the question of universalization of symbols, images, and sounds. Even in sessions on mining and forestry, where adivasi people’s lives (still believed to be rooted to their culture) and displacement was discussed, cultural hegemony and displacement were seen narrowly in dichotomous terms – adivasis versus the mainstream. There was no focus on Hinduization in the adivasi/tribal areas, or in the larger electronic media – the serials, for instance. Universal cultural symbols dominate both the interior and external landscape of the country across rural and urban areas – Coca Cola kiosks lining up the rural landscape. What does this mean in cultural terms? Some of the art installations did touch upon these ideas but they remained a singularly disconnected part of the whole affair. It may have helped to have the artists interpret and share their ideas on an issue so central to the larger debate on globalization.

The coverage of WSF in the Indian media pointed to the polarization in mainstream media vis-à-vis globalization. While one section was more inclined to either ‘celebrity hunt’ or offer snide remarks on the ‘mela’, only waking up to the WSF post the alleged rape of a South African woman delegate, another gave undiluted attention to the event without, however, a critical engagement.

Some significant fallouts can be traced in the declarations made at the WSF as also a few events that followed – the most important being the call for a world protest against the war on Iraq on the 20th of March this year. The Anti Nuclear Alliance (including groups from India, Japan, South Africa, among others) demanded an end to uranium mining across the globe ‘until such day as the indigenous peoples… the custodians of the land… give unanimous, unforced… permission.’ The Mumbai Forest Initiative signed by the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW) called for a ‘global forest movement for forest peoples’ rights and forest conservation.’

The visit of French agriculturist-activist José Bové to Plachimada and George Monbiot to Hyderabad may be considered as an important follow-up on issues of water privatization and World Bank aided development. Both these visits, immediately after the WSF, strengthened the struggle against globalization, in two states, one relating to the struggle for water rights against the giant Coca Cola and the other against a corporate governance agenda following IMF-World Bank conditionalities.

Far more significant were events such as the Dalit Swadhikar Rally, which culminated at the WSF. Spanning 33,000 kilometers across 20 states and union territories, the NCDHR led rally ‘took the issue of the dalit consciousness beyond, and deeper, than any seminar or workshop would,’ as Paul Divakar (representing NCDHR) put it. ‘At the WSF, the Indian dalit movement merged into a pan global caste movement – with people from Nigeria, Senegal, Bangladesh and Nepal. Spaces such as these… are luxuries we cannot continuously afford… Struggles need solidarity spaces and opportunities to forge alliances.’

On democratic spaces, however, future forums will need to think through their policy on whom to include – can an open space be non-problematically ‘open’? What explains, for instance, the presence of the Anand Marg at the WSF? Or the Art of Living? True, it takes all to make another world possible – believers, agnostics, atheists – but does that imply legitimacy to those who had tacitly (and otherwise) supported the fascistic Hindutva agenda?

Finally, how does one understand the significance of the WSF in today’s context. Globalization and convergence of economy and markets have contributed greatly to increasing the exploitation and violence at various ‘local’ levels. We are at a juncture where it is difficult to delink affairs/issues of one nation from another – the liberation of Palestine, US war on Iraq, US propaganda on clash of civilizations (feeding into the Hindutva agenda against the Muslims in India), and destructive consumerism. All of these are so intertwined that a fight against one necessarily mutates into a fight against the other.

The terms global and local are now indistinguishable by virtue of globalization, both in a positive and negative sense. It is no longer difficult to imagine that we are ‘one world’, even if only by virtue of displacement – of cultures, peoples and practices, and marginalisation. When it comes to forging workable alliances against the dominant forces, regional forums like the ASF show greater promise. Perhaps this ‘one world-ness’ is all that validates and vindicates the WSF.

R. Uma Maheshwari