Women as One St. Louisans Who Attended the International Women's Conference in China Remember 'A Glorious Celebration'

Article excerpt

THIRTY or so St. Louisans traveled to China with a heartfelt interest in doing something for womankind. There they joined 35,000 women with whom they found much in common. They also found much that was exceptional. They returned changed by the experience and still pondering what to make of it all.

The Post-Dispatch asked six local women (and a man) who attended the Non-Governmental Organization Forum on Women in Huairou, China, for their impressions. The gathering coincided with the fourth U.N. World Conference on Women, in Beijing. Their accounts follow:

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Linda Lindsey is a professor of sociology at Maryville University and a member of the board of trustees of the Children's Survival Fund.

Even while attending the NGO Forum many of us were acutely aware that media coverage, especially CNN, appeared to be focusing on the controversial aspects of the conference rather than the obvious support and unity which emerged.

The group that clearly received the most media attention was the large Iranian delegation of fully veiled women with male "escorts" who were always hovering nearby. They strategically placed themselves at the entrance to the "Global Tent," which was the logistical center for all conference activities, including registration, information and distribution of material.

And distribute material they did indeed - mountains of it. While China comes in as a close second, Iran takes the prize for the sheer amount of printed material attesting to the wondrous, beneficial and equal roles and opportunities of women who live in the Islamic state. wO

Periodically on each day of the conference they would march throughout the meeting site and chant support of their freely chosen way of life under the dictates of Islamic Law. The media would willingly toddle along behind with cameras and microphones and report on the evening news that religious fundamentalism was the issue tearing apart the NGO Forum and creating an aura of disunity over the entire gathering.

This could not be further from the truth. While religious fundamentalism was certainly one of several controversial topics discussed, the Forum was remarkable in its ability to bring together women of all faiths to discuss matters affecting their daily lives - from issues related to production, reproduction, parenting and violence - all of which had religious overtones.

When politics and religion were met head on, as between Palestinian and Israeli women, toleration and understanding emerged, even in the face of continued disagreement. I recall a packed workshop on the topic of weaving the connections of the world's religions when panelists were again drowned out by yet another Iranian demonstration. We waited in what I would describe as "bemused toleration" until they passed and then continued on with our discussion. I speak from the perspective of attending the NGO Forums in Copenhagen and Nairobi, which were more divisive but also smaller, less inclusive and had fewer women on the organizing bodies or official delegations.

I believe Beijing attests to the recognition that women's empowerment is beneficial to everyone and that, despite glaring misconceptions in the media, global sisterhood is a reality that cannot be denied.

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Beckah Voigt is associate artistic director of the Gash/Voigt Dance Theatre of St. Louis.

There were so many experiences to digest. The numerous sights, sounds and smells of issues, languages, dress, sizes, colors, perfume, food and women were incredibly dazzling.

There were many difficulties, but each woman seemed to speak and each attempted to listen.

Gash/Voigt Dance Theatre's particular niche at the conference was performance and teaching. This was greatly rewarding for us as we found many people who had never been exposed to modern dance. …