Feminism in the Space of the World Social Forum (1)

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Abstract

Despite clear affinities, the integration of feminism into the World Social Forum remains uneven, in ways reminiscent of well-known histories of women's movements with various lefts. This essay draws on observations of the 2005 WSF at Porto Alegre, Brazil and the 2006 African Social Forum in Bamako, Mali, as well as secondary literature, to explore the articulation of transnational feminism and the World Social Forum. Using concrete practices, texts, and spaces, I discuss different dimensions of the interaction of feminism with the WSF, including political norms, political geography, and historical trajectories. The relation between feminism and the WSF hinges not only on how "feminist" the WSF is but also on what feminists are doing and trying to do at the Forum.

Keywords: transnational feminism, World Social Forum, anti-globalization

The Space of Arrival

My arrival in Brazil to attend the fifth World Social Forum in January 2005 was as delineated an experience as any I had at the surfeit of the Forum itself. (3) Delayed by an impressive snowstorm in the northeastern U.S., I obtained the last seat on a flight from Buenos Aires to Porto Alegre, agreeably sandwiched between a scruffy white American man and a Filipina, Mavic Cabrera Balleza. It turned out that they knew each other through activist radio work; Mavic and I knew people and projects in common from international feminist organizing; and the wife of the lanky community radio advocate, he told me, taught Women's Studies, as do I. We found our commonalities in the back row of a plane full of pilgrims to the "movement of movements", the World Social Forum.

In the Porto Alegre airport, U.S. citizens were gently escorted to a small office for digital fingerprinting, a tit-for-tat response to U.S. treatment of Brazilian visitors and a concrete reminder that the world does not share a commitment to American exceptionalism. While waiting for my finger scan, I talked to a bright young compatriot who corrected my efforts at Portuguese (obrigado, desculpe). She had majored in Women's Studies, she said, but after college wanted to partake of different--larger--issues, and was working for an environmental organization. My thumb scanned, I shared a taxi with my seatmate Mavic to a feminist meeting called the Feminist Dialogue.

My entree into the World Social Forum highlighted a number of elements relevant to the Forum, and feminists' engagement with it: the obvious--though at times problematic--role of participants from the global north, universities, and NGOs; the place of human relations that constitute politics, a feature resonant with the critical humanism of Forum and feminist values; the pervasiveness of feminism at the Forum, with both integration into and also distinction from other "larger" movements; and the weight of post-9/11 global contexts, all themes that unfolded in my experiences at the Forum Social Mundial.

The cacophony of progressive agendas, the disparate spatiality, and the open-ended politics of the Forum make it impossible to analyze feminist participation there in a simple, straightforward way. Even Michael Hardt, the coauthor of Empire and Multitude, was overwhelmed by the "unknowable, chaotic, dispersive" quality of an earlier Forum that was half the size of the 2005 event I attended (Hardt, 112). The pluralist diversity of the Forum raises two points for this analysis. On one hand, the event that is the World Social Forum can best be described from a particular vantage point, a recognition of partiality that accords with both feminist theory and with the Forum's embrace of multiple epistemologies and with its emphasis on providing an "open space" for a plurality of progressive and radical commitments. On the other hand, accounts of the Forum generally attempt to identify some core principles and meanings, as I note below. In this essay, I recast this effort by centering my account on feminism at the Forum and on the relationship between Forum politics and feminist presence. …