The Women’s Movement: Report from Nairobi
Helen M. Hacker and Audrey Meyer Previously unpublished
We went to Kenya last July to participate in Forum ’85, the unofficial meetings preceding the official United Nations Conference marking the end of the International Decade for Women. As study tour members of the International Health Concepts Exchange, we visited hospitals and other health facilities as part of our safari. Since no sociological organization had established itself as an NGO (non-governmental organization with consultative status to the U.N.), we joined the International Women’s Anthropology Conference (IWAC) which held four workshops at the Forum, including one on “Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Women’s Labor: Producing and Reproducing,” at which we both spoke.
The Forum, which attracted more than 13,000 participants, compared to the 3000 delegates to the official conference, was a great free-wheeling mélange of several hundred NGOs, ranging from the Girl Guides Association, YWCA, and Housewives in Dialogue, to the Third World Movement Against the Exploitation of Women, the International Prostitutes Collective, the Greenbelt Movement, and the Feminist Anti-Nuclear Group (FANG).
Although we had made a tentative selection of workshops from the printed program, our procedure each morning was to crowd into the Education Building to note schedule changes posted on the walls as well as announcements of unscheduled events via posters, leaflets, flyers, and the daily FORUM 85, the invaluable tabloid produced during the night by the NGO news service. Having selected a workshop, actual arrival at any particular meeting was always problematic. The campus was a booby trap of tempting distractions. One’s attraction was drawn to women in enormous bright turbans and colorful African khangas, Indian saris, and Muslim chadors. There were also unexpected moments of mutual recognition of friends and acquaintances, unscheduled entertainments, and the lure of the outdoor settings of various organizations.
A thousand workshops had been scheduled for the Forum and 800 more were organized on the spot. The wide range of topics must have touched every aspect of women’s lives. At least 25 workshops dealt with the problems and status of women in various countries, but the only Eastern bloc nation represented was Afghanistan, whose Central Committee of the People’s Democratic Party held a workshop on “Afghan Women for Peace.” Only a few Soviet women attended the Forum and no workshop was sponsored by any organization in the USSR.
We found the city of Nairobi and the campus of its University, site of the NGO meetings, overflowing with women, so many in fact, that the Kenyan government ordered NGO women out of the first-class hotels in order to make room for the official delegates. This arbitrary action precipitated a minor crisis when, at one hotel, women gathered in the lobby sang “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and stretched out on the floor. The impasse was eventually solved by a compromise initiated by the women themselves. They refused the remote dormitory rooms offered by the government, but vacated the needed rooms by moving in with one another, three or four to a room. Although it was all settled peacefully, some women complained that they had been very badly treated by the Kenyan authorities when the police had rolled up their belongings in sheets and dumped them outside their rooms. We heard about two women who were assigned rooms in a brothel outside of Nairobi; that worked out well as the women took a professional view and used the experience as grist for their sociological mills.
Audrey chose to attend workshops on Violence Against Women, and came away encouraged by the groundswell of general awareness, mutual concern and support of women in different countries, and the burgeoning of activities being undertaken in all parts of the world for the protection and improvement of women’s lives. This exposure was also a valuable corrective to ethnocentrism as the extremes of injury and injustice endured by women in the Third World placed issues that concern women in the United States into a new perspective.
In the Third World, the problems of women are the grim, everyday hardships of extreme poverty and traditional male oppression that make women old before their time, that gradually destroy their health, and shorten their lives. Take, for example, the problem of getting water. Women carry water in jars on their heads; it is estimated that they spend one full day each week—12 to 15 hours—carrying water to their homes. Young girls are often kept home from school to help with this chore. There are also problems with water purification to remove the toxins contributed by the activities of the transnational corporations from the First World. Women and girls gather firewood, often walking five miles or more to collect it and then five miles back to their homes; this is another day out of each week. These problems of the increasing difficulty of getting water and firewood are interrelated with the larger problems of land use and deforestation, of the impact of policies of First World corporations on the economies and lifestyles of Third World people.
Other hardships of women’s lives are rooted in ancient traditions. A Kenyan MP was quoted as having said, in response to legislation introduced in 1979, “It is very African to teach women manners by beating them…If this legislation is passed, even slapping your wife is ruled out.” In some countries poor families sell their young daughters into prostitution. In India young brides are burned alive, and in many places in Africa and beyond “female circumcision” (genital mutilation) is still performed.
This latter practice was the topic of a workshop attended by Audrey that opened with congratulations to the organizers and thanks to the Kenyan government for their efforts to end ritual mutilation of females. Flyers were passed around depicting a terrified little girl pulling away from a menacing figure towering over her with knife in hand. A male delegate from the Union of African lawyers announced that, as representative of an organization with consultative status at the United Nations Conference, he would present to the Conference a resolution condemning the practices. The Secretary of the International Women of the Legal Profession emphasized that her group had become involved in response to requests from African women themselves. A Kenyan woman describes the long struggle to wake up her “African sisters,” apologizing for a meeting in 1980 when the African women had spurned the concern of Western women. At that time African women felt that these practices were their problem and they resented the intervention of outsiders. Today, however, even though the issue remains religiously and politically sensitive, and even though African women feel that they know best how to approach their own people on this topic, international support is appreciated. The need for such support was underscored by the response of the director of a large regional hospital in Kenya, a Doctor of Medicine, and, needless to say, male. Asked if these practices were still going on in Kenya, he replied that “circumcision” of girls was now forbidden by the President but that it is still done in the rural areas, adding as an afterthought, “…it’s to calm the ladies down a bit you know.”! As such practices are carried by immigrant women into England and France, organizational liaisons between concerned European women and those in Africa and the Middle East have emerged.
An Inter-African Committee has established national committees in ten African countries, calling upon governments to assist women’s organizations in their search for solutions. Also, the Afro-Arab International Conference on the Condition of Women, organized by the Arab Lawyers Union, called on governments to “find ways and means to abolish…practices which are detrimental to the health and condition of women.”
Looking at the violence against Third World women, one is tempted to suggest that the problems of American women pale by comparison—but that is not entirely true, for, although American women are certainly free of some of the more extreme forms of oppression, too many of them are raped and beaten and consigned to poverty. There is a continuum here that links the extremely poor and oppressed women of the Third World to the less poor and oppressed women in our own society. Indeed, it was this awareness of the common threads in women’s lives around the world that largely shaped the “Spirit of Nairobi,” the spirit of mutual acceptance and support.
In the workshops on Violence, women from Kenya, Cameroon, Mauritania, Indian, Spain, Norway, France, Peru, and elsewhere offered facts and figures about their countrywomen victimized by poverty and poor health and too much childbearing, who suffered from carrying heavy loads, who were malnourished, raped, beaten, subjected to genital mutilation, sold into prostitution, or murdered by their husbands. The mountains of evidence were overwhelming. But along with these terrible reports came, like fresh air, the news of women organizing, networking, helping, supporting, and teaching each other.
Women from Argentina, Greece, and the United States described work being done with women who have been raped, and discussed the problems of working with the police, lawyers, and health care professionals. Violence against women and the sexual molestation of children was clearly a worldwide problem. An Israeli woman who had started an organization, “No Violence Against Women,” urged the need to change attitudes, to change laws, to raise awareness of the extent and seriousness of these problems. A woman from Cameroon said that in her country men’s protest against women is rising, that no organizations for women have been established because authorization has been withheld by the government. She hoped that the international solidarity of women would help open the way for her countrywomen. In Morocco it was reported that women came to a Women’s Center with various problems, but never with complaints about their private lives. In serious cases of battering, a woman will not seek help from the Center, but turns to her family who will designate an older male relative to talk with the husband. If the family complains to the police, there may be a trial and a three months’ prison sentence for the offending husband. But men can repudiate their wives, and can use battering and the conflict with the wife’s family as grounds for divorce.
A Spanish woman described male dominance in Spain as cutting across all political ideologies and all professions. Despite protection of the law, survey data indicated severe maltreatment of women, as well as their silence about it. A recent study showed that although 50 wives had been killed by their husbands over the past two and a half years, there were no data on the punishment, if any, of those husbands, except in one case a man who had killed his wife was sentenced to six months in prison. In contrast, a woman who killed her husband, after many years of being beaten by him, was sentenced to 20 years!
In India there is a wide spectrum of organized women’s groups, including The All-India Anti-Dowry Movement, organized on June 20, 1981, the date on which an 18-year-old bride was burned alive by in-laws who had demanded more dowry. She was one of a growing number of “dowry victims” who receive no community help of any kind. When neighbors hear screams they close their shutters; police show no interest; and physicians are reluctant to get involved in a time-consuming court case. Even if a woman were to get to a hospital and survive, she would be unlikely to help an official investigation, for to return to her parents would be even worse. In 1983 some 690 cases of bride burnings were reported in New Delhi alone, an average of two cases each day, but it is a phenomenon not confined to any one caste or class nor to any single part of India. The Anti-Dowry Movement has fought dowry-death cases through the courts, held condolence meetings and rallies, organized anti-dowry seminars, workshops, and street plays, and staged demonstrations at marriage ceremonies and receptions where huge dowries have been given.
Indian women have also formed the “Action-Group Organization Fighting Against Atrocities Committed on Women,” dealing with such problems as wife-beating, murder, abetted suicide, bigamy, prostitution, early marriages, denial of maintenance, property rights, desertion, divorce, maltreatment, and the custody of children.
In sum, the vitality and seriousness of purpose of these meetings were unforgettable. Participants agreed that the anti-violence movement must provide channels of education and communication involving men as well as women, teaching boys that violence is stupid and girls that they can stand up for themselves. The goal is to change attitudes in order to prevent violence against women. An Israeli woman summed it up in her own way: “The problem of violence against women is universal and enormous; all else in feminism is a luxury. Violence must be the focus of our effort.”
The session in which we both participated was devoted to the Development theme of the Forum. Helen Safa (University of Florida) stressed the need for a fundamental redefinition of “work” to place proper value on women’s non-market production. Women predominate in subsistence agriculture, especially as men leave the household for wage labor. Third World women are also more involved in household production than other women, since they lack appliances and, even in urban areas, such basic amenities as electricity and running water. Census figures reveal a male bias in listing men as head of household even when women carry the major responsibility. Safa wants all work connected with the household included in the gross national product. She also elaborated the familiar notion that economic development is not always beneficial to women, pointing out that women’s labor participation in the 70s was primarily in the tertiary sector, while more recently it has been in the primary. This change represents not progress but de-skilling and fragmentation of jobs accompanied by male unemployment.
From her field work in India, Joan Mencher (Graduate Center, CUNY) provided a concrete illustration of technology’s disadvantaging women. In the village she studied women’s earnings constitute the mainstay of the household, while men’s are squandered in activities defining male status, such as drinking and gambling. Women’s traditional work is being replaced by mechanization—herbicides obviate weeding; rice mills pound the rice; weaving is done by machine—but, in the absence of alternative work, incomes are lowered and women lose.
Victoria Durant-Gonzalez (Georgia Institute of Technology) discussed the participation of women in the industrial process in Trinidad, Jamaica, and Barbados as affected by two forces: mechanization of women’s traditional work and the export orientation of industrialization strategy. When, in the late 1940s, the sugar industry became mechanized, women were forced out because of assumptions that they were incapable of learning new skills. A similar process occurred in Guyana when the government integrated small plots of land to permit the use of tractors, and women were compelled to return to service and domestic work.
The second force was the product of Third World countries’ desire for foreign currency and increased employment, and developed countries’ wish to cut labor costs by exporting labor-intensive jobs. The variability of result was shown in her contrast of the poor conditions of work instituted by Maidenform with the humanized workplace provided by Playtex. The solution, she said was not to ban multi-nationals, since women need the work, but for Third World governments to negotiate better conditions.
Anita Spring (University of Florida) described a project in Malawi in Central Africa from 1981-1983 which combined anthropological research and action in enhancing women’s agricultural roles in contrast to previous emphasis on “stitching and stirring.” The cookstoves they received in the past did not help weed nor harvest. An important aspect of the project was improved data collection, notably disaggregating work by sex to make women’s work visible and their needs and problems known. For example, women had not been given credit for stall feeding and other aspects of dairying. Women needed credit more than embroidery lessons. The researchers wanted to show that women are both interested in agriculture and capable of scientific reasoning. The emphasis was on changing behavior, not attitudes.
Leila Dude (University of Mysore) reported major themes from the conference on women and the household which was held in Delhi in 1984. (A pamphlet is available which summarizes the papers.) An interesting point was that women’s work opportunities were limited far more by management of their sexuality than by home and child care responsibilities. There was also the saying, “Man earns a cartful; women earns only a lapful.” Here again, women’s home production is regarded as leisure time and not valued.
The speaker from Uruguay discussed that the “putting out” of system which provided shoes, leather, dresses, textiles, and clothes for export. Women accept low pay out of economic necessity and an ideology of responsible motherhood. Home work, even under harsh conditions, was accepted as compatible with child care.
The discussion which ensued brought out variations in the connotation of motherhood by culture and social class. Thus Indian landowners see a conflict between motherhood and work, but farm workers do not. Children may be valued for their “humanizing” effect on women, providing a power base in later life, and winning the regard of husbands. In the Caribbean it is thought that old men who have never been social fathers are deservedly lonely.
Helen then reported on her decade of research on a cooperative community in Israel, which demonstrated the importance of ideology in maintaining sex inequality. Audrey spoke on sexual tourism, an industry whereby countries like the Philippines and Korea obtain foreign currency through the prostitution of their women to visiting businessmen from countries as Norway, Japan, Germany, and the United States.
There were no formal meetings on Saturday, July 13, but the Women’s Front of Norway held an informal discussion on the lawn, centering primarily on pornography. The Front, composed of 65 groups with 1200 members, was organized in 1973 to fight oppression on all fronts, and its militant methods seem to have been effective. Each of about a dozen women, mainly pink- and blue-collar workers, introduced herself and explained her role in this effort. Their strength was that they set priorities and planned actions against such practices as “last hired, first fired.” They took cases to local newspapers, collected money on the streets, hired lawyers, got cases into court, and achieved results. Other issues of concern to them were the six-hour working day, the elimination of pornography and prostitution, and abortion rights. As in some parts of the United States they have joined with anti-abortion religious groups in a common fight against pornography. The Front claimed they succeeded in getting a law passed making it criminal to degrade women, but an unofficial translation of the law on May 24, 1985, obtained from the Norwegian Information Service in New York…. [illegible] “…offensive or in other ways may seem degrading or brutalizing to human beings, including sexual descriptions involving children, animals, violence, force, and sadism.”
An Australian woman described how a video game, “Custer’s Revenge,” in which the winner gains access to an Indian woman tied to a stake, was removed from the Angus and Roberts Bookstore as a result of WAVE (Women Against Violence and Exploitation) action. Similarly, the Norwegians asserted that their demonstrations in front of grocery stores which carried pornographic publications effectively eliminated such materials. Helen dropped a discordant note into this discussion by suggesting that (1) pornography was hard to define, especially as distinguished from erotica; (2) censorship of pornographic materials might backfire and be used against feminist propaganda; (3) research has not established a link between pornography and rape (Donnerstein’s experiments notwithstanding) (4) pornography is more a symptom than a cause of male dominance; and (5) it is doubtful whether women’s appetite for pornography, including that of feminists, lesbians, or both, can be attributed entirely to traumas of socialization. Television camerapeople were present, but we have not seen ourselves on screen.
The discussion moved on to the struggles of Third World women. A Kenyan woman reported that a woman who walked alone at night in Nairobi risked arrest as a prostitute. Her name was Elizabeth Njoroge, there with her eight-year-old son Eliud and ten-year-old daughter Mary. While Elizabeth was speaking Helen took a picture of her traditional African garb, and her subsequent apology led to friendship with the family.
While the children were sent off with a few schillings for ice cream, Elizabeth took us to shops off the beaten tourist path to buy our Kenyan souvenirs, and facilitated our negotiations with shopkeepers who were mainly Indians. All carried items keyed to the Conference, including a red and green khanga imprinted with the official symbol of the United Nations Decade for Women combining the mathematical symbol of equality, the biological symbol for female, and the dove of peace and progress. A khanga is a boldly printed rectangular piece of cloth with a central motif and a theme expressed by a Swahili proverb. Audrey bought a book demonstrating 101 ways of wearing a khanga, exclusive of household décor. Among our treasured finds was an ebony circle to hold skewers, capped with a small carved animal, suitable for serving hors d’oeuvres.
After the shopping spree we picked up the children and queried them about their school likes and dislikes as we drove first to the Agha Khan Hospital, delightfully informal with its patient-decorated walls and garden spaces, then to a basket market where Elizabeth was greeted warmly by women vendors. (See photographs.) Here, using Helen’s camera, Eliud took surprisingly good pictures of us with our arms around Elizabeth and the basketmakers. Our visit was topped with the gift of a basket. (During our tour, at a moment when the children were out of earshot, Elizabeth recounted with greet glee and open admiration for his accuracy a school essay of Eliud’s in which he said that if he refused to eat after being beaten by his mother, she could beat him again.) Before we parted Elizabeth proudly showed us her office with its franking machine in a handsome building in the center of the town. She is responsible for incoming and outgoing mail [illegible].
The workshop on “Women in Islam,” sponsored by the General Federation of Jordanian women, had a male presider—a fact noted and objected to by a black American woman. Several Islamic women from Egypt and Jordan spoke, condemning Christianity and Judaism, praising Islam, and protesting they had full equality and opportunity to pursue careers as university professors. The double standard of sexual morality was defended as deriving from natural differences between the sexes. Helen got no answer to her question of what Muslim feminists were doing. None were present. She was told that everything bad in Islam, such as temporary wives, is confined to the Shiites.
In other workshops, though, it was reported that Islamic feminists confronted fundamentalists in matters ranging from the requirement of veiling to male monopoly of the interpretation of the Sharia, the 1300-year old Islamic code on which all Arab countries base their family law. Interpretations vary, however, from the very strict to the quite liberal. Tunisia is the only Arab country to see the Sharia as prohibiting polygyny.1
A prime attraction of the Forum was the International Women’s Filmforum presented at four locations in the vicinity. When meeting rooms were jammed to overflowing or nothing of high priority was going on, one could repair to one of the theaters for respite and refreshment. There was a small problem of censorship, however. We were disappointed on opening day at the Goethe Institute because the Kenyan government had not yet cleared the scheduled film, and later on a noisy demonstration protested the barring of a “Palestinian” film called “Laila and the Wolves.” (We wondered who could be the big bad wolf!) Among the films we especially enjoyed were “Don’t Call Me Girlie,” which recounted the participation of women directors and actresses in the Australian film industry in the 1900s. “No Virginity, No Nationality” revealed the shocking, if temporary, practice of physical examination of Indian girls by immigration officials at Heathrow Airport under the assumption that non-virgins might already be mothers likely to send for their children.
In “A Question of Silence” three Dutch women, strangers to each other, cooperate spontaneously in the murder of a male boutique owner who represents female oppression to them. Another Australian film “On Guard” demonstrated the organizational and athletic prowess of four women, unselfconsciously lesbian, in sabotaging a reproductive engineering laboratory. The Filmforum was an excellent source of classroom materials. Helen was pleased to learn of Behind the Veil, a Canadian study of nuns, for her course “Men’s Rites, Women’s Rights: Sociological and Feminist Perspectives on Religion.”
Another resource of the Forum was the plentitude of books and materials from all over the world available at tables set up on the campus lawn, at the University bookstore, and distributed at the workshops. Handouts from the Japanese women’s groups were especially informative and esthetic. And, as previously mentioned, the Forum women also published a daily paper, FORUM 85, which carried news of the activities of each day, and reactions to them.
Our organization of these remarks has been more chronological than topical. But we do want to underscore what has been called the “spirit of Nairobi”—the mood of collaboration and active listening prevalent among the 13,000 women in attendance from all regions of the world. Complete harmony was by no means attained. PLO women tried to disrupt many workshops on topics quite unrelated to their message. There were heated exchanges between Soviet and American women, and conflict concerning Iran and Iraq, apartheid, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Central America, but the spirit of sisterhood and mutual learning triumphed, in contrast to the previous conferences in Mexico City (1975) and Copenhagen (1980).
In most of the workshops the spirit of not letting politics divide women prevailed. Disrupters were silenced, especially by African participants. It was somewhat disappointing, however, that in some workshops women had nothing to say about their experiences as women. For example, indigenous women from Australia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Mexico were concerned only with indigenous rights—the problems these women have with other women’s men. They denied any separate women’s issues. Australian aborigines spoke only of their rights to mining royalties, protection of their sacred sites, retention of their land, and preservation of their way of life.
The definition of “women’s issues” was a difficult problem for the NGO Forum to resolve. On the one hand there was he need to resist the “kitchenization” of women’s issues as separate from the political and the economic. Obviously, nothing human is alien to women, and their input on policies dealing with militarism, colonialism, poverty, technology, conservation, apartheid, refugee status, and other issues is urgently needed. At the same time it must be recognized that such social conditions may affect women differently from men—indeed that women may be the greater sufferers. On the other hand, the term “political” is used narrowly to refer to ideological grandstanding motivated more by nationalistic rivalries than concern for women’s welfare. A delegate from Trinidad and Tobago, however, commented that while economic, social, and political issues were relevant to women, “we have to be careful not to repeat the debates which are going on in other fora. We should at all times focus upon how things impact women and the kind of contributions women can make to political, social, and economic development. We cannot lose sight of that.” Similarly, Dame Nita Barrow of Barbados, the forum’s convener, suggested that “women have begun to see that they may not be used for others’ political purposes, and they realize they can get together to discuss their own issues and solve their own problems.” Paradoxically, the attempt to avoid being manipulated by male politicians may itself be viewed as taking a political stand.
The tensions surrounding this question can be highlighted by considering the differential emphasis placed on the three main goals of the Decade—equality, development, and peace. According to Dr. Lucille Mair’s address on the last day of the Forum, at the initial U.N. Conference in Mexico City Western feminists were primarily concerned with equality, while Third World women (whose unpaid work hardly generated an interest in equal pay) put development first, calling for a New International Economic Order which would overcome forms of inequality other than sex. Completing the triangle, Eastern bloc women felt peace was prerequisite to any progress. The second U.N. Conference in Copenhagen marked the beginning of more dialogue among these three groups, but the three goals were not seen as inextricably linked until the Nairobi meeting. Post-colonial development policies not only have tended to exclude women’s participation but have often exacerbated gender inequities. Export-oriented production has led to crises of food, water, and fuel in which women are the hardest hit, yet their role is central in overcoming these crises and in fostering economic development in Third World countries. And, of course, while militarization and the arms race drain off resources, development is slowed. Peace, therefore, is prerequisite to both development and equality, whether between nations, classes, genders, or ethnic groups. The “forward-looking strategies” documented called for the equal participation of women in negotiations on international peace and security.
Indeed, the unanimous adoption of this document (Forward-Looking Strategies of the Implementation for the Advancement of Women and Concrete Measures to Overcome Obstacles to the Achievement of the U.S. Decade for Women) by the Nairobi Conference, once the infamous “Zionism is racism” equation was withdrawn and the word “single” substituted for “unwed” in a clause supporting the rights of mothers, demonstrated the superiority of feminine over masculine negotiating skills.
We came away with the impression that the Nairobi Conference had many positive effects. First, it confirmed the worldwide oppressive condition of women for all the world to see. Second, it showed that the women’s movement was far from spent, although its main impetus may have shifted to Third World countries. In contrast to Mexico City and Copenhagen, white Western women were far less prominent at Nairobi. Greatly increased in number were women of color, not only African but also women from the Middle East and Asia, indigenous women from Australia and Latin America, and Afro-American women from the United States and the Caribbean. The Decade has witnessed the growth of feminist consciousness among Third World women generally. Feminism is no longer regarded as hopelessly tainted with Western colonialism and imperialism. African women no longer defended “female circumcision” as a traditional practice not to be criticized by snooping Westerners. There was overwhelming concern for family planning and reproductive freedom. Third World women seem to have realized that overthrowing capitalism and imperialism will not solve all their problems as women, and that specific strategies for combatting gender subordination have to be devised. Notwithstanding the considerable diversity of issues and arenas of struggle, certain common problems emerged: how to prevent unwanted pregnancy, how to combine work with children, the need for education, whether it be higher education or simple literacy, how to deal with domestic violence, the importance of women’s representation in political bodies, how to organize women for collective action, how to train women for leadership, and so on.
Although all was not sweetness and light, one did get a sense of commitment to the building of an international women’s movement that could bypass old ideological cleavages and permit women to “think globally and act locally.” The Forum marked a giant step toward women’s self-empowerment.
1 Editors’ note: Approximately one page is missing from this section of the original manuscript.