Academic journal article Social Justice

Reflections on the Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing and Huairou, 1995

Academic journal article Social Justice

Reflections on the Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing and Huairou, 1995

Article excerpt

Returning from the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing and Huairou in September 1995, participants were invariably asked "How was it?" in a tone that implied either that it was something akin to a mythical feminist encounter, or that it was the kind of disaster portrayed in much of the mainstream U.S. media. As U.S. readers are aware, much of the coverage used the occasion of the conference to portray China as the nemesis of capitalist democracy. Women's rights in an international context were thus overshadowed in the discussion of a conference whose focus was women's rights. At the same time, many of the "background" stories in the press were framed in terms of the need for other cultures to liberate "their" women so that they can modernize. This treatment is misleading, not least because it renders simple and predictable the story of a meeting that was fragmented into dozens, perhaps hundreds, of subcultures. The conference experience and its significance varied with where one was located geographically and professionally. Women came from all over the world to enact their political passions in Beijing. Our pervasive feeling was that thousands of us were attending different meetings from each other, and would all go home with different stories.

For many participants in the U.N. conference, Beijing represented only one final moment in a series of meetings, debates, and discussions among women's organizations in specific countries and regions. In Brazil, for example, feminist groups spent two years before the conference engaging in debates in preparation for the U.N. conference, and to a certain extent, the conference itself was less significant than the meetings and discussions leading up to it. For Chinese participants, too, the meeting was the capstone of several years of organizing activity, much of it newly supported by the Chinese government, which hoped to increase its own visibility and prestige both by hosting such a large international gathering and by showcasing the achievements of Chinese women in the People's Republic. One Chinese participant, director of the research office of a provincial branch of the Women's Federation, spent six months prior to the conference traveling to villages throughout her home province, telling local women about the U.N. conference, and requesting women from each village to produce one quilt square depicting some aspect of their life. The quilt was displayed at the conference site in Huairou. Her experience underlines the way in which for many political activists, the Beijing conference provided the occasion for many months, and in some cases years, of organizing and discussion.

The conference consisted of two related events: the official United Nations conference, for which participation was restricted to official delegates from each country and to representatives of organizations granted accreditation, and the NGO Forum, a gathering of nongovernmental women's organizations and grassroots activists. Because it was regarded as less predictable and potentially more disruptive by the Chinese government, the NGO Forum was moved to the suburban town of Huairou, almost an hour's drive from Beijing. The move dropped the conference into a town unprepared to receive it, with insufficient lodging and restaurants (the government issued a directive that no restaurants were to serve raw vegetables, for fear that foreign guests might contract a gastrointestinal ailment), and grossly inadequate meeting spaces. Many sessions took place under awnings in the pouring rain, which kept security people busy poking the awning roofs with bamboo poles during rainstorms so that the tents would not collapse under the accumulated water. Problems of noise and logistics abounded.

In spite of these problems, the NGO Forum was by far the larger event of the two conferences (with some 25,000 participants attending, compared to approximately 10,000 at the official U.N. conference). …

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