The Western press missed the story at the women's conference in Beijing by focusing on the attendance of high-profile figures such as First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and the sometimes inhospitable treatment women delegates received from their hosts, says Cal Lutheran professor Hoda Mahmoudi.
The real story, she says, was the 23,000 other women at the conference.
"That's really where the action was," said Mahmoudi, sharing her experiences Tuesday with a small group of faculty members and students. "Those of us that live in the U.S. don't realize how important the outcome of this conference is to the people of the developing world. For them, it is a matter of life and death, literally of where the next meal will come from."
Mahmoudi, a sociology professor of Iranian descent, spent nearly two weeks in China that included leading a workshop on global peace at the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women and visiting the small village of Huairou.
Forgoing elaboration on her workshop for what she called "more interesting stuff," Mahmoudi on Tuesday berated the press for focusing on issues such as Winnie Mandela's scuffle with security guards.
Mandela made news after security officials refused to let her into the opening ceremony because she was late. "Most of these woman face bigger problems in their own war-torn countries than getting into a ceremony," she said.
In some Middle Eastern and Asian countries, for example, boys are valued more than girls and are fed first, while their sisters eat their leftovers, Mahmoudi said. She also said infant girls in India have been killed at birth by having their backs broken or being buried alive.
"I'm not making this up or trying to dramatize," she said as a woman in the audience winced. "Girl children are becoming an endangered species in Asia."
The good news, she said, is that grass-roots organizations of women are gaining power. At the first World Conference on Women in 1975, 6,000 women from non-governmental organizations attended. By the third in 1985, that number had more than doubled to 14,000 and this year jumped to 23,000.
"Nobody expected them to become such a strong entity," she said. "We are at a point when government and the private sector are incapable of meeting the needs of people at the grass roots."
Focusing on women's human rights, Mahmoudi will speak again about her experiences on Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Nelson Room of Cal Lutheran.