Joy, passion, and rage at women's meeting

``It's breathtaking,'' said the female lawyer from Bangladesh. ``It's overwhelming. We're here together -- we're different, and we're the same.'' Judging from the joy, the passion, rage, commitment, care, and inspiration expressed in Nairobi over the past two weeks, Forum '85 has been an unforgettable experience for some 14,000 women who came here from around the globe. Organized by an international network of nongovernmetal organizations (NGOs), the forum has been perhaps the most diverse and richly textured celebration of sisterhood the world has ever seen. Overlapping the world conference on the United Nations' Decade for Women, Forum '85 off icially ended Friday.

Forum '85 has been held primarily in the classrooms, lecture-halls, and on the eucalyptus-fringed lawns of Nairobi University. Its events, workshops, seminars, discussion groups, exhibits, films, plays, and other cultural displays began at 8 a.m. and continued late into the night. Ten days is hardly enough time for 14,000 women to get to know each other, and they packed each moment of those days with learning, listening, talking, sharing, and discovering.

Women are here from every nation of the world, but two groups seem to be especially well represented. Four thousand Africans and 6,500 Americans had registered before the forum began. English is the official language of the conference, but Swahili, French, Spanish, and Arabic are frequently heard.

The discussions took place at the hundreds of workshops held every day and addressed practical household concerns and broad international issues. On any given day one might have participated in a discussion organized by American women entitled, ``Women and Political Power (What if Women Ruled the World?)'' led by Bella Abzug, or a workshop sponsored by the Arab Women's Organization of Jordan on the exploitation of women: their legal and economic status, or a meeting on the role of women mana gers in community-based service programs sponsored by the Center for Development and Population Activities.

Outside the main building of the university the day before the conference ended, sheets of paper announcing spontaneously organized discussion groups had been hung like laundry on a clothes line: ``African American Hunger Network -- an Open Forum,'' ``Women's Libraries and Archives Workshop,'' ``Adoption from the Relinquishing Mother's View,'' ``Condition of Women under the Islamic Republic of Iran.''

The purpose of all these discussion groups is to compare notes, share solutions to common problems, and strengthen the effectiveness of the global network of women's organizations that has been steadily growing since the beginning of the United Nations Decade for Women in 1975.

One workshop entitled ``Women, Law, and Development'' focused on how to change legislation that is discriminatory or unfair to women. A young woman from South Korea explained how the United Nations Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women helped women's groups in her country lobby for legislative change.

Women are not the only ones to advocate women's rights at Forum '85. At the workshop on law a male lawyer from Kenya asked if he might have the floor.

``We have between 300 and 400 female lawyers in Kenya,'' he said. ``But they are not interested in the problems of women. Pressure should be put on women's organizations to broaden legal aid so that women can be specifically helped.''

A woman from Zimbabwe had brought to the meeting a booklet that explained how women's groups in her country had worked to change unjust laws.

Despite the countless examples of sharing and collaboration at Forum '85, political conflicts have also flared. The most venomous and aggressive attacks have been aimed by Palestinians and other Arabs at Israelis.

Two Israeli women reported encountering nothing but abuse at an exhibit known as the ``peace tent.''

Passions have run high on other issues as well. At a workshop on women and racism the panelists included a New Zealand Maori, a Sami from Lapland, and an American black.

``While the US may be described as the land of the free, it is also a land infested with racism,'' said the American. ``Laws that used to help women move up in society have been turned backward.''

The peace tent has been the setting for a number of confrontations as well as calm discussions on ways to bring peace to the world.

A discussion entitled ``What is Women's Role in Peace?'' focused on how feminine qualities -- expressed by men or women -- can promote the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

A woman from Nigeria spoke up. ``Women have special qualities that call for peace,'' she said. And an Australian woman added, `` Let's allow men to adopt women's traits. We all have to learn to be peacemakers.''

``Why do you want my opinion?'' asked the handsome, well-dressed Kenyan. ``We men are an endangered species.'' This quip, delivered with a smile of great charm, suggests the attitude of many African men here when asked to comment on the huge gathering of women at the world conference on the United Nations Decade for Women and the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum '85. In fact, the tenor of many men's remarks on the conference and forum is humorous but invariably polite.

The Kenyan gentleman who regarded himself as ``endangered'' had accompanied his wife to the NGO forum. After his first lighthearted remark, he launched into an explanation of some of the problems women here face.

``African women in the rural areas are in a particularly difficult position in recent years,'' he said. ``Men make the financial decisions in the family. Nowadays, they need money to buy school uniforms and books for their children. So they turn their farmland over to cash crops. Where the woman used to grow food for her family, she is now forced to grow cotton. As a result, the children often do not have enough nutritious food to eat.''

One young man from Ghana, who had recently arrived in Nairobi, was very enthusiastic about the meeting.

``I'm impressed,'' he said. ``If the women learn here, they are going to change things in their countries. Already the way we look at things is entirely different from before. I hope the African women can assimilate and learn what you Western women have to say.''

Remarks like these are taken with a grain of salt by many observers here, who know of the traditionally low status of women in African societies. But the men in Nairobi these days seem intent on coming across as strong supporters of progress for women.

But the offhand remark of a Nairobi taxi driver may more closely reflect the true attitude of most African men. When asked whether his wife was attending the NGO forum, he replied, ``No. My wife is not attending. Someone has to stay home and look after the children.''

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