Peking's new Forbidden City

Teresa Poole

LONG BEFORE one reaches Huairou, host town to the international women's forum, the roads abruptly empty of traffic and uniformed policemen appear at every junction, checking all cars and passengers for the necessary access permits. Once in this normally bustling county town, the streets seem devoid of locals, who have reportedly been told to stay at home.

The presence of hordes of public security officials suggests one is approaching a sensitive military base. The difference in Huairou is that foreigners are allowed in, but the authorities are determined to keep ordinary Chinese out.

A glance at the Non-Governmental Organisation Forum programme explains why. Among more than 300 workshops on offer yesterday to the 23,500 foreign delegates were subjects normally taboo in China: "Making Women's Human Rights Real: Creating a Right of Petition", "Women's Human Rights", "Prostitute Women: Working Hard Against Poverty and Criminalisation", "Rights of Prisoners" and even "Lesbianism for the Curious". Worse still, from China's point of view, is the presence of such outspoken international groups as Amnesty International and Human Rights in China, who are pushing to the limit UN rules that Peking must respect freedom of speech within the official site. One group of delegates yesterday announced a Nuclear-Free Zone in the self-styled Peace Tent.

The forum, which feels like a cross between a feminist summer school and an alternative music festival, is in stark contrast to China's regimented political culture. Every available notice-board and table-top within the 42-acre site is already smothered with notices, flyers and photographs documenting abuses of women's rights around the world. From time to time, some of the carefully vetted 5,000 Chinese NGO delegates can be seen wandering around the site, but few speak good enough English to take part in the workshops.

To reduce the chance of "spiritual pollution", many Chinese delegates have been billeted at hotels up to 90 minutes' drive away, and are bused home before the more casual evening activities begin. Only the handful of Chinese-sponsored workshops are reported in the state-controlled press.

For foreign delegates disturbed by the security cordon that the Chinese government has thrown around the forum and angry at the difficulty of travelling between Huairou and Peking, there is an obvious irony in a meeting concerned with human rights issues being held in an authoritarian state. But most women point out that the business of the forum covers far wider questions than China's rights record.

There is growing resentment against the international media for its focus on the controversy over China's hosting of the meeting, rather than the global women's rights issues which delegates came to debate. Personal testimonies last week catalogued wide-ranging atrocities against women, the threat of religious fundamentalism, the disproportionate effect of poverty on females, and the barbaric practice of genital mutilation known as female circumcision.

The scope of subjects on offer has been matched only by the extraordinary mix of women at Huairou. During a tour of the workshop venues one morning, taking in a quick stop at the "Free Time Bar", it was possible to meet an illiterate Cameroon peasant, a group of Japanese single mothers, a Nigerian university professor, a Minnesota housewife, a Thai forest villager and a Ukrainian women's rights activist.

Despite complaints about facilities and transport, they were much more interested in talking about equality for women. In one of the tents, Ing Tawaisin, 42, on her first trip abroad from north-east Thailand, said: "In my area, when women marry they must please the husband's family; they belong to that family. Women should be treated equally. When I go back to the village I will tell everyone, both men and women." Many delegations belong to established organisations, charities and lobbying groups, but thousands have come as individuals. NGOs represented in Huairou range from Oxfam and the International Association of Lawyers to the Tree Lovers Association and the Institute for Planetary Synthesis. Most UN agencies are represented.

Every shade of opinion is here, and on issues touching religion and reproductive rights, delegates have engaged in heated debate. Wissal al-Sidiq al-Mahdi, the Sudanese secretary-general of the International Organisation for Muslim Women, offered her own agenda. "We are against the legalisation of abortion, against giving contraceptives to children, against the legalising of lesbianism and against absolute equality between men and women." Her colleagues, sitting in the Middle Eastern regional tent, nodded in agreement.

Other Muslim women, seeking to define an Islamic feminism, beg to differ. At a workshop on Religious Fundamentalism and Women, one Bangladeshi woman said: "In [Muslim] family life, males are dominant and women have no equal rights to share partnerships. They are not getting equal opportunities with their brother Muslims."

An Indian, Zarina Bhatti, who was born into an Islamic family but married a Christian, said: "There are some Muslim fundamentalists who say ... Islam provides respect for women because the man should protect women ... I say it's just surveillance."

The NGO Forum runs in tandem with the governmental UN World Conference on Women, which will be officially opened tomorrow at a grandiose ceremony in the Great Hall of the People in Peking.

The NGOs are lobbying hard to influence the wording of the conference document, The Platform for Action, which will outline the next decade's global agenda for women's progress.

Bitter conflict continues over the description of human rights as "universal", and attempts by the Vatican and some Muslim countries to redefine references in the document to reproductive rights and abortion.

Charlotte Bunch, director of the US-based Centre for Women's Global Leadership, summed up the views of many forum delegates: "We are here to challenge the conference and to demand accountability from governments and from the the UN and to ask, what are you doing to protect the human rights of women and fulfil promises made?"

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