Emotions Run High as Women Confront Issues

Times Staff Writer

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."

They are protesting the composition of Greece's delegation to the official conference--comprised mainly of "governmental party executives." The federation and other groups have been excluded as delegates and in the preparation of the delegation's report to the conference, they claim.

The irony, two of the Greeks passing out the flyers say, is that five years ago at the time of the U.N. women's conference in Copenhagen, before the Papandreou regime upset the repressive government then in power, some of the Nairobi delegates were among those protesting the composition of the Copenhagen delegation.

(Meanwhile, across town Margaret Papandreou, wife of the prime minister and leader of the delegation, is explaining her lifelong radical feminism to a group of journalists. She defends the so-called "politicization" by saying women's issues are political by their very nature.)

No sooner do they finish than Hannah Busha, an Iraqi, comes in with leaflets from the Iraqi Women's League. "Where are these women?" the first leaflet asks over photos of six women.

Surely this will be about Iran.

Not at all. "Save the lives of 'disappeared' and detained women in Iraq . . . victims of Ba'ath (the ruling party) fascist terror," it says on the back in direct criticism of Iraq's President, Saddam Hussein.

'Democracy for Iraq'

"We are for democracy for Iraq and autonomy for Kurdistan. We are Arabs and Kurds working together," Busha says, explaining she is temporarily living outside Iraq, but has ways and means of passing in and out of the country.

They are, she said, against the war with Iran.

"After five years of this, our people see what this means, the losses, the terror. It's a bloody war, destructive--and we gain nothing."

(Later, Amal Shakri, a Iraqi government official and feminist leader, said the league was a communist group.)

Iranian Women's Situation

That same day, at the "Women in the Middle East Peace Dialogue" a woman from the London-based Democratic Organization of Iranian Women distributes her leaflet on the situation of Iranian women during the U.N. Decade on Women.

One sentence reads, "During the Decade for Women, Iranian women spent four years under the despotic and dependent regime of the Shah and six years under the reactionary Islamic republic."

She is followed by a woman distributing Waiting, a publication of the Contemporary Jewish Library and the International Council of Jewish Women. They are "waiting" for the thousands of Jewish women--seven of them pictured with biographical sketches--who are "refuseniks" (Soviet Jews who have been denied permission to emigrate).

It is midway through a crowded workshop on violence against women that at times shows signs of emotional violence itself.

At present it is a supportive atmosphere that the Bangladeshi woman testifying encounters. She is talking of dowry burning, of wife beating and of rape. The women are with her, their sympathy and outrage audible.

Ronshan Jahan from Bangladesh rushes in, finds a seat in the back and breathes a sigh of relief.

"I was so afraid no one from Bangladesh was going to testify,' she says, explaining that she is working on a project in her country on violence against women.

Commonality of Violence

The next to give testimony is from Souad Salloum from the Union of Palestinian Women, a branch of the Palestine Liberation Organization. She quickly mentions the commonality of violence all women suffer and makes the leap to the violence that she says both Palestinian men and women suffer at the hands of their Israeli oppressors.

There are restless murmurs in the crowd, and they sound increasingly impatient. Apparently she has made a tactical error.

But then, so does the Israeli panelist, Ruth Rasnic, who stands up and scolds her that this is not the subject.

There is an uproar, and it gets out of control. For several moments it looks as if the workshop will end in a shambles.

People are on their feet, shaking their fists and shouting, a few even have their heads lowered and thrust forward out in confrontation. Rasnic is protesting that Palestinians refuse to talk with her, don't want to talk with her, and reaches her hand out to Salloum, shouting above the crowd and the squawking microphone, 'you see. I offer my hand in friendship, and she won't take it.' "

"Oh boy," Ronshan Jahan says, "this is almost as bad as a session in Bangladesh. The mike not working, people shouting each other down. There it's the fundamentalists we have against us."

Finally, the emotions ebb enough for Salloum to finish her testimony. She keeps to the topic of physical violence against women, but her examples have to do solely with Israelis and not any violence of Palestinian men against them.

A woman from Spain has the women gasping as she describes the disparity in sentences of men who kill their wives (one got six months) versus women, battered ones, who kill their husbands (one got 28 years).

The testimony goes on to detailed proposals a Greek woman has for the legal system regarding these acts of violence, to a Moroccan woman's witness that the battering is severe in her country and exists outside the law, handled if at all by the wife's family. An Israeli talks of the conspiracy of silence about domestic violence, a Peruvian says torture of women is now common in prisons in her country.

An Iraqi starts to read a long statement about the Iranians and, to the crowd's objections, insists it is a resolution demanding that in war, countries be forced to reveal the names of prisoners. It is a form of violence, she says, that Iraqis do not know if their men are alive or in prison.

A woman from Cameroon talks of petty violence, of how it exists in the language and the gestures of the men of Cameroon, who "find ways every day to express pejorative views of women and subject them to all kinds of touchy-feely in their daily lives." She calls upon the others to support the women of Cameroon in their efforts to organize, telling them the only women's organization allowed is one set up by the government.

'Personal Is Political'

An American from Boston tells the group of a feminist dogma from home: "the personal is political."

"The enemy is the sexist values supported by racism and economic greed," says the Bostonian. "It is a system created by men. They are taught to solve problems by force and violence from the bedroom to international political violence."

"That is a very good point," Jahan murmurs.

"It's true," an American black woman says of the system, "but when we agree with what the men do, we become oppressors too."

They were ready to make some resolutions to bring to the attention of the official U.N. conference. Jahan could not stay. She was off to prepare for her presentation on "Women's Centers as Agents of Change."

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