By Zubeida Mustafa
A recent women’s conference in the US proved valuable for its contribution in reinforcing faith in the feminist interpretation of history, writes Zubeida Mustafa
When women from Pakistan, India and the US met in Westfield, Massachusetts recently what were they hoping to achieve? The Global Women’s History Project, which organized the meeting, is designed to give women the feminist perspective to their history.
The idea is that while their governments squabble, the women can meet unencumbered by the burdens of male-centred history and take a common female perspective of issues. Dr Elise Young, the founder of this project, is a professor of history at Westfield State College and describes her passion in life which is to bring together women on a platform of non-violence from the opposite sides of the political divide. She has already organized two such moots before bringing together women of Palestine and Israel, and from South Africa and Ireland to find common ground.
One has to admit that the April meeting was a conference of the already converted. The two leading feminist-activists from India, Urvashi Butalia, the co-founder of Kali for Women (a publishing house specializing in feminist literature), and Kalpana Sharma, a deputy editor of India’s most prestigious paper The Hindu, are strongly committed to India-Pakistan peace. Anis Haroon, Nuzhat Kidvai and Bina Sarwar from Pakistan have been involved in the track-2 dialogue, which is directed at ending the confrontational politics of South Asia. Two other participants whose presence could certainly have added weight to this exercise were denied visas by the American government. They are Muslim women from the Indian-held Kashmir and their perspective would have provided a major input in the exercise to understand the situation, especially now that Kashmir is the focal point of the crisis in the region.
Therefore there were no heated arguments, with one trying to convince the other of her point of view. The Indians were bluntly critical of the communal violence in Ahmedabad. We did not have to express our distress — they did it for us and more convincingly. Urvashi brought with her the report of a fact-finding women’s panel which was a scathing condemnation of the bestiality of the Hindu fundamentalists. The panelists wrote, “We have been shaken and numbed by the scale and brutality of the violence.”
The Americans — Dr Elise herself in no uncertain terms — condemned Israeli atrocities and were critical of the Bush Administration’s support for Ariel Sharon’s regime and its bellicose policies. The American government also came under attack for its policy of racial profiling and stereotyping the Muslims as terrorists.
The conference was valuable for its contribution in reinforcing our faith in the feminist interpretation of history. For me it was an invigorating experience, since I have always found myself out-voted in how I perceive inter-state relations to be. Dr Mubarak Ali, the eminent historian, would have agreed totally with what was said there. It was suddenly clear that the histories of nations, the international power structures and concepts such as peace, justice and security are the products of patriarchal societies. Women see these differently — of course they cannot articulate their perceptions because they are the silent half of the world population.
Prof. Cynthia Enloe, who was at the college a day before the conference for her lecture, originally scheduled for International Women’s Day but delayed on account of a snow storm, made a powerful presentation on how men perceive security as something quite different from how women see it. She pointed out that male policy makers tend to equate national security with military power, economic might and political force, all of which enhance their capacity to exercise control over others. But what does security imply for a woman? She is insecure if she is not sure if she will be able to feed her children or get health care if she is ill or send her children to school.
The delegates later took up this theme from India and Pakistan as well. They focussed on the negative consequences of the arms race between their countries and the nuclearization of the region.
The feeling was that 9/11 and the Bush Administration’s knee-jerk response to the New York Trade Centre attack had had the effect of enhancing the militarization of the state worldwide. Be it the BJP government in India or the military regime in Pakistan, they are now flexing their military muscles and speaking in the same tone as George Bush was. The BJP could blatantly massacre the Muslims in Gujarat with no international voice of protest being raised against it because it was on the side of the Americans. Musharraf could proceed to entrench himself in power by extra-constitutional means without any fear of external sanctions because he is an ally of the US in its war against terrorism.
As the women passionately discussed the issues at stake, some facts emerged from the deliberations. First, it was clearly recognized that militarization fostered inter-ethnic and religious strife, which hurt women most and so, must be resisted. An 83-year-old woman, Frances Crowe of Northampton, who has been campaigning against nuclear weapons ever since America dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945, inspired the participants. Frances was lucid, rational and confident and knew how to marshal her arguments to prove her point. She forcefully insisted that “another world is possible.” She sat through both the days of the conference and spoke up when a point had to be made. You looked at her and the thought occurred in your mind, “if she can do it, why not we?”
In this scenario, the agents of globalization are working to change the structures within and across states. Kavita Philips, who teaches philosophy at Atlanta, emphatically pointed out how the World Bank/IMF’s structural adjustment programme is enforcing financial reforms, which are affecting the education and health sector in the third world, and enhancing poverty. She didn’t suggest the rejection of globalization but called for an ‘alternative globalization.’
It was, therefore, agreed that women must organize themselves at the grassroots level to counter violence. Two young and enterprising activists who are working in the communities gave a lead. They were Bhairavi Desai, a co-founder of the New York Taxi Workers’ Alliance, and Ruchira Gupta, who has set up a union of the sex workers in Mumbai called Apnay Aap. The inspiring message they conveyed was that women (and also men) could be empowered to fight off oppression and exploitation.
It was similarly felt that by joining hands across borders, the women of India and Pakistan could also resolve the conflict between the two countries. These are pious hopes. Would networking at the grassroots make an impact? One feels sceptical when the issue is seen against the backdrop of the current debate on whether the women’s movement in the two countries is losing edge because it was not focussing enough on its struggle against patriarchy. Urvashi warned against despair. She felt the dimensions of the women’s movement had changed.
The struggle must be sustained. Hence the call by the delegates for the demilitarization of our societies and keeping ‘space’ for peace; an increase in budgets for health care, education, housing, literacy training for women; and the opening of the India-Pakistan borders. If seen in the context of the slide in the quality of life of the people in these countries, the women still have a lot to struggle for. Even talking about these issues gives one a sense of empowerment. It doesn’t have to be illusionary. A beginning has to be made somewhere. As the octogenarian, Francis Crowe, put it, “another world is possible”.