NAIROBI, Kenya — Is Forum '85 politicized?
This continues to be the subject of much debate: Should it be? Will it be? What will that do to women's issues?
Now that the non-governmental forum is under way, with the official U.N. conference marking the end of the Decade for Women to start today, it seems at times that the question is skewed.
Perhaps the question should have been, "are women political?"
The answer, based on any number of casual and formal encounters, is yes. And it is within a political context that some women are defining and exploring the women's issues here. And at the same time, under the guise of politics, others are still avoiding women's issues.
Three Iranian women are standing outside the education building on the University of Nairobi campus involved in an extensive conversation with an Indian woman. The Iranians are enveloped almost completely in their black chadors, on which they have pinned their Hezbollah (a radical Lebanese Shia Muslim group loyal to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran) women badges--colored photos of Khomeini laminated in plastic. The Indian is wearing bright red cotton pants and a T-shirt, and she is in earnest with her carefully worded questions about the "so-called oppression" of women in Khomeini's Islamic republic--the gist of them being, "what's the real story?"
Helene Rosenbluth, an American reporter from the Los Angeles-based nonprofit RadioWest Productions that is producing a series of radio documentaries on the Nairobi events, approaches and asks if she may record the conversation.
They consent. The conversation is in English, and only one Iranian is really participating. Her accent and idiom are completely American. Not so her message.
She will talk of women, of how dead serious they are about their revolution, of which the war with Iraq is only the latest phase. Of how the woman standing next to her lost her husband, of how another in the delegation had a foot blown off in the bombing, another lost her children. Of how they are giving this revolution their flesh and blood.
To the Indian's persistent and careful questions about the position of women come such responses as "why isn't Amnesty International saying anything about the Iraqi chemical bombs being dropped on us. Instead of making up some stories about torture?"
When the Indian attempted to take up that question and the treatment of minorities such as Bahais, the Iranian quickly drew an analogy with the necessity of India controlling the Sikhs "once they killed Mrs. Gandhi," and while they were on the subject of India, she took the opportunity to say Muslims were being persecuted in India, although there were many things about India and its nonviolent, nonalignment ideals that Iran admired.
Stung and Puzzled
A small crowd has gathered around the group. A French woman has come up, peered at one of the Iranians, tried unsuccessfully to talk to her in French, and walked away muttering Khomeini's name several times in disgust. The Iranian looks stung and puzzled. She readjusts her chador, revealing her blue jeans in the process.
Rosenbluth starts to intervene in the conversation: Will the Iranians be talking with the Iraqi women at the forum?
The Iranian dismisses this as nonsense. Rosenbluth persists--after all, this is one of the aims of the forum, for women to succeed where men have failed, to come up with new solutions, make breakthroughs. . . .
"I think the women of Iraq already know what we have to say. They are the aggressors."
Someone in a mediating mood makes a remark about the male heads of government of both countries foisting the war on the victimized women and citizens.
A Quick Response
The Iranian's response rivals the speed of light: "The reality is the male heads of government are not in control of what is going on. The male heads of the superpowers control what is going on."
Rosenbluth has a go at it five or six times: She is talking about here and now, woman to woman. What can Iranian and Iraqi women do here?
And five or six times the answer is intransigent: To talk would be pointless. The Iranian can talk with the Indian woman because she is from a country that wants to be non-aggressive. She cannot talk with women who have been trying to oppress Iranians for hundreds of years.
It is time to move on, and the fascinated group breaks up. Rhetoric or not, people seem to feel they have witnessed a rare exchange.
Rosenbluth walks away pleased.
"Did you notice that Kenyan woman? She was so great. She kept trying to be helpful, saying to the Iranian every time I asked a question, 'no, no, no. What she means is what can you do here.' "
And there were the handouts:
As people begin to file into the classroom for "Women's Right to Work in a World of Peace," the Federation of Greek Women (Greece's largest women's organization--50,000 members from 148 associations, the flyer says) distributes copies of its "protest declaration."