Most women would like to believe that "another world is possible". A world where you do not have to apologise for being a woman. A world where you do not need to live in fear because you are a woman. A world where you are given equal rights as men because you are recognised as a human being. A world where you are not tortured and killed because you are a woman. A just world, a free world. A dream world?
At the recently concluded World Social Forum in Mumbai, women were everywhere. They were dancing and singing as part of a continuous stream of humanity that clogged the pathways. It seemed as if "another world" must necessarily be an extremely noisy one. For the overwhelming feature of the four days when around 75,000 people turned up at the exhibition grounds in a northern suburb of Mumbai was the high decibel levels that made ordinary conversation impossible. Perhaps that was the object. If you didn't want to keel over with the noise and dust, it was best to join in.
Women were also away from the drum-beating, dancing troupes. They were "manning" stalls selling ideas and wares. They were carrying notebooks, tape recorders, cameras as they tried to make sense of this different kind of mela. They were also cleaning the toilets rigged up for the thousands of delegates. They were serving up food at the food courts.
But they were also absent in significant ways. In some panels, discussing important subjects like war, peace and conflict, or the economic impacts of neo-liberal globalisation, women were not so evident. They had their separate spaces where they discussed the same issues, where they presented the specific and terrible impact of war and conflict on women. But they were not present in significant numbers in some of the shared spaces. Of course, there were prominent women who spoke at some of the big meetings - women like Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi from Iran, the well-known writer Nawal el-Sadawi from Egypt, human rights activist and lawyer Asma Jehangir from Pakistan and our own Arundhati Roy, Laxmi Sehgal and Medha Patkar. But it was interesting that women's groups from around the world met a couple of days before the World Social Forum to discuss how to "engender" a process like the WSF. Why do we need to make social movements gender sensitive? One would have assumed that anyone who believes in a just world, and is fighting for it, would recognise that there can be no justice if half the population is excluded.
For instance, some of the women's groups pointed out that the anti-globalisation and anti-war movement needed to think about the impact of fundamentalism on people and not just revolve around an anti-U.S. or anti-Bush agenda. Women pay the price when conservative, fundamentalist forces take over. This is seen in country after country.
Similarly, women are concerned about their rights, especially reproductive rights. They see a link between economic changes that result in the denial of basic services to the poor and women's health and access to such services. Yet, as one woman activist stated, "men can talk about poverty but will not discuss abortion or sexuality."
On the impact of war, the Asian Women's Human Rights Council put together an impressive World Court of Women on U.S. War Crimes. They presented testimonies on how the U.S. has used the Weapons of Mass Destruction that it accused Iraq of possessing but never found, in many countries. It is the only country that has used nuclear weapons. It has used depleted uranium. And it has used chemical weapons. People in Japan, Vietnam, the Marshall Islands and in several countries in South America are still paying the price as they suffer incurable diseases, genetic and neurological disorders and stunted growth.
Whether you heard stories from Palestine, or Africa, or different parts of India, some of the most moving testimonies at the WSF came from women. They were not couched in ideology. They were simple stories, simply told.
The WSF was in some ways like a circus - a huge performing act with many artists, acrobats, entertainers. It was a feast for the eyes and a trial on the ears. It served up food to fill you stomach but also a great deal of food for thought. But when the singing, dancing and talking is over, we will still have to ask: how does all this affect the ordinary person, that woman next door. In what way will her life change for the better?