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Women's Worlds 2008

Patricia Daniel
14 July 2008

In the first of two reports from Women's Worlds 2008, held in Madrid 3rd-9th July, Patricia Daniel is taken from Cambodia to Egypt, through moving presentations from Somaly Mam and Nawal el-Saadawi.

Held every three years since 1981, the international interdisciplinary forum Women's Worlds continues to flourish: located each time in a different capital, it has travelled across the five continents and more than 40,000 people from over one hundred countries have taken part. It provides the opportunity to explore all areas of academic study - and of life itself - from a feminist perspective. In Madrid there were discussions on fourteen different themes, with 130 invited speakers and hundreds of other contributions in exchange workshops every afternoon. This tenth event took as its overall theme "New frontiers: changes and challenges" and its slogan, open to a number of interpretations: "Equality is no utopia."

What does it mean? Why is such a forum felt to be necessary? And what does it achieve?

Last year Patricia Daniel led the collaborative 50.50 project "Women speak to the G8" which analysed the main issues of concern from women about the world - violence, macro-economics and climate change - which are still relevant to this month's G8 summit in Japan. The 2007 women's open summit blog is permanently accessible here.

Still talking about sex trafficking?

At the opening ceremony we heard a moving presentation from Somaly Mam about life as a child prostitute in Cambodia. "I was sold by my family to the brothel when I was young. How can I tell the story? The problem is still in the heart." Somaly Mam was one of the lucky ones, managing to escape and start a new life with the help of new friends ("Thanks to their love and trust, I was born again here in Spain... but I lost old friends when I wrote my books"). She campaigns to raise awareness about sex trafficking as well as funds for a clinic in Cambodia - where other young Cambodian victims (as she prefers to call them) can receive legal assistance, learn about their rights, develop vocational skills and become reintegrated into society.

As a poor country, Cambodia is a locus for trafficking to and from China and Thailand, although (surprisingly) 70% of the clients are local. And the practice of selling little girls into prostitution continues - along with the consequent psychological damage, guilt, self-harm and attempts at self-immolation: "I'm tired of talking," she tells us. "What's happened? I'm still talking and everyday more victims are dying."

Human trafficking has become the second-largest organised crime in the world, bigger business than drugs trafficking and netting an estimated $9.5 billion per year.

For more information go to the excellent Somaly Mam Foundation website here.

Unveil the mind

Nawal el-Saadawi on creativity, dissidence and the ‘free' market:

"We dream of a world where masculinity is not a threat to women. But not all women dissidents are victims, some are creators and Nawal el-Saadawi is a stunning example. Imprisoned for her books on female sexuality, she continued writing on toilet paper with a cellmate's eyebrow pencil."

For the Spanish colleague who introduced the Egyptian writer and activist, it was an experience ‘like all my birthdays rolled into one' and indeed, meeting Nawal el-Saadawi - even in the imposing auditorium of the Palacio de Congreso among three thousand other participants - is a real treat. She engages her audience as if we are all guests in her living room and, in fact, she acknowledges that instant intimacy herself:

"I feel more at home here than I do in Egypt. Women are homeless in the patriarchy - we only feel at home when we're together. We speak the same language (justice, freedom, love, creativity...) In the post-modern slave system, it's inevitable that we have to fight against the system; we are all dissidents..."

For Nawal, the dream and the reality are linked: "Hope is power. With optimism we can change the world." She shares the example of the Arab Women's Solidarity Association, which she set up and now operates around the world - with men counting for 40% of its membership.

Having eschewed the wearing of the hijab and any other socially imposed form of dress, she uses the veil as a metaphor in many contexts. "You can't separate sexual violence from politics and economics either at global or local level - that separation is a veil over the mind." Creativity is about making the connections and "undoing the fragmentation of knowledge". But, as she has experienced, "the minute we connect the sexual to the political, we're in trouble!"

Over seventy years old, with soft white hair and a lovely lived-in face, she decries what she calls the "post-modern consumerist veil" of plastic surgery. Warm, wise and wicked, with an irrepressibly impish gleam in her eye, she clearly derives huge enjoyment from the irony of being exiled from Egypt for what are judged to be her anti-islamic attitudes and ending up teaching in Atlanta - the buckle of the US bible belt, home to the worst of Christian fundamentalism.

Her talk makes lightning connections as she skips between religion, war, capitalism - and the need to fight against the veil of language itself. "The ‘free' market is the freedom of the rich to exploit others." As a writer she has experienced this in relationships with the publishing world along with their packaging and marketing processes. Even small, radical, independent publishers "control authors and misrepresent their work without permission, choosing (different) book titles, jacket blurbs and illustrations" in order to sell more copies.

Nevertheless, her final message (quoting from her printed article in the congress handbook) is positive and perhaps a justification for Women's Worlds in itself:

"The pleasure of creativity and truthfulness is much more than what the market can give, much more than money or sex or fame... it can erase all your pains or sufferings, can make you a happy person in spite of everything..."

 

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