Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Representations of women

At CSW, women represent not only themselves, but their countries and other women within them. As a woman who has read about women's and feminist movements in various contexts, it was extremely exciting and tangible to hear from and meet with the women who I had read and heard so much about for the past four years. It's so different to hear directly from women about the issues they and other women in their countries face rather than through the filtered lens of a scholarly journal article or book. I am so grateful that those exist, and going to CSW is only possible with a certain level of privilege due to the money it takes to get and stay there, but I cannot emphasize enough the importance of women speaking from their own contexts and experiences in a very direct, personal way.

This is what I have been relaying to my family members and friends who have been asking me about my experiences at CSW 55. This is one of the most important aspects of the fellowship; hearing from and connecting with women who are often represented as ahistorical, or outside of history, in popular narratives. I am reminded of the Fiji feminist I met who was finishing up her graduate degree in Women's and Gender Studies at Rutgers University during a session I attended called "Pacific Women Claiming Space in the International Arena." Sadly, I knew little about the specific challenges Pacific Island women face, as they had not been a major part of my Women's Studies courses and I had not had a reason to follow their activity due to my privilege as a U.S. citizen and white person. The woman spoke genuinely and passionately about women's activism in the midst of Fiji's volatile political climate and commented on the West's imagining of the Pacific Islands as solely the Philippines. She said that it was important to recognize the rich history of women's organizing and movements in Fiji and that the Pacific Islands face very specific issues that cannot be collapsed into the larger Asian grouping in which these countries reside within the United Nations continental areas.

I was honored to be in this woman's presence. Feminism and women's studies are all about building from your own personal experiences and this is exactly what this woman had been a part of and relayed to all of us in the room. Her remarks would not have been nearly as meaningful or real had they come from a scholar who had studied these movements, but had never been a part of them, or from a non-Fijian. They were significant because they came straight from a woman who was a native of Fiji, understood the history and politics of the country, and had worked on the ground in the feminist movement for four years.

It is crucial that we create more opportunities for women to hear from women who have worked or are working on the ground because they have a unique lens into the various factors that shape the success of women's movements. If women cannot hear from those who are natives of and working directly with the contextual issues within their country of origin, then they will not be able to link the human rights frameworks through which they operate to the practical programs and initiatives that are derived from community needs. This is why I believe it is crucial to consider convening these conferences in different places each year or every few years to ensure that women who do not have access to CSW can represent themselves and so that those few women who are there from Fiji or Mozambique are not expected to speak for their entire race or nationality.

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