"Women's Worlds" 2011 congress Ottawa, 3-7 July

The Women’s Worlds congress is one of the biggest and most diverse women’s studies/ gender studies events.  It is held every three years, each time in a different country.  This year it was in Canada.

When the delegates got together for plenaries there were well over a thousand people in a cavernous and somewhat darkened hall.  But they dispersed through six university buildings and got rather lost at other times.  There wasn’t a central place where everyone mingled.

The organizers had made a big effort for diversity beyond able-bodied white feminists from the global North.  So there were a lot of sessions presenting ideas and practices from indigenous women in Canada, a real effort to be accessible for disabled people, and some money had been spent to bring delegates from Africa.  There was a Latin American contingent who ran some sessions in Spanish; and a scattering from eastern Europe, south Asia, Oceania.  Most delegates were Canadian and US of course, and the next most were from Europe.

There was, a celebration of women’s art and music in the conference, as well as the academic work.  The organizers had commissioned a Canadian artist to make a set of painted drums, incorporating indigenous women’s knowledge of plants and medicine, and the artist personally presented one to each of the plenary speakers.  I smuggled mine across two borders, but declared it to Australian quarantine, who looked at it very suspiciously, but let it through.

There seemed also a strong presence of NGOs, or at any rate papers based on work by or in NGOs, e.g. sessions about gender and development projects - consistent with what one hears about the “NGO-ization” of feminism.

I went to a number of interesting sessions, for instance a session about Russia, where Olga Shnyrova gave a good picture of the shaky history of feminism since the end of the Soviet Union.  The political system was more open in the 1990s but a national organization didn’t emerge and the situation is now tougher.  The authoritarian state consolidating under Putin, a revival of the Orthodox church, and withdrawal of NGO funds from the west.  They speak of a “patriarchal revival” in Russia now.

Our plenary was called “Breaking Barriers”.  The pattern was plenaries in the morning and parallel sessions in the afternoon.  The presenters met for breakfast in the “Green Room” at 7.45, not that I could eat much as I was nervous.  The line-up was Mary Simon, President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the organization representing Inuit people in Canada; Judith Heumann, a US disability activist now working in the State Department putting disability conditionality into US aid programmes; Malika Hamidi from Belgium who is coordinator of the European Muslim Network; and me.

The session was chaired by Alison Smith, a high-profile CBC television news presenter, who tried to give it an interview flavour but the time was mostly a series of declarations by the panelists on each successive topic.

The plenary was a bit formal right at the start, not helped by the fact that a storm was building up outside.  After the conference announcers had done the housekeeping, we were summoned up on the stage, the klieg lights turned on, the cameras rolling, a hush fell in the room – at least a thousand people there, you understand.  And just as Alison began to speak, an almighty peal of thunder rang out overhead and the rain came pouring down.  It was wonderful!  I fell about laughing, it was such perfect timing it could have been scripted.  The tension was completely broken, and it all went easily from there on, as far as I was concerned.

Day 3 Plenary Session pt.2 - Women's Worlds 2011 from Kaan Bayulken on Vimeo.

In the hour and a half we dealt with personal stories, education, setbacks and difficulties, allies & enemies, the Arab spring and what it means, globalization, and new growth points for change.  In the personal stories part I said a few words about being a transsexual woman, and had a very positive reception from the audience.  In the globalization part I talked about the femicide in Ciudad Juárez and international solidarity work, as far away as Australia.  More generally I stressed the changing character of feminism and the new growth points, especially in the global South and emerging issues such as environmental justice.

Lessons out of all that?  1. The greater feminist inclusiveness celebrated in the texts is turning into practice, at some levels at least.  2.  I’m increasingly convinced that the history of gender struggle and the dynamics of gender orders differ across regions of the world.  And if so, the familiar logic of gender theory (including mine) needs re-thinking.
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