LEADING ARTICLE: Contradictions and ironies on the road to Peking

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The Independent Online
HOW ON earth do you set about covering an event like the Fourth United Nations Women's Conference in Peking? One approach, if you're hostile, is to commission mocking pieces about Jane Fonda's power suits and the notion that privileged Western women know anything that their oppressed Third World sisters want to hear.

This works only if your readers have very short memories and fail to notice that you've never previously shown a jot of concern for raped women in East Timor or exhausted mothers in Bangladesh. But even if you're sympathetic, the conference poses awkward dilemmas. Journalists instinctively mistrust conferences and anything to do with the UN, an organisation whose aims and achievements tend to be dismayingly far apart.

There's also the certain knowledge that elements of the conference will make you cringe. Last week's picture of veiled women with guitars from the "international Ananda Marga organisation, which combines activism with spirituality", at a women's meeting in Huairou, sent embarrassed shudders down my spine.

As it happens, their presence makes a useful point. When the UN conference got going last week with speeches by Benazir Bhutto and Hillary Clinton, it became apparent that what unites women is not some essential caring- sharing nature but the common forms of oppression we face. This is exactly the kind of analysis which infuriates people who are hostile to the conference but that's because they wilfully miss the point.

Those of us who live in countries where we have control over our own bodies, where we can escape from violent marriages, where we do not live in dread of the double punishment of being raped and then shunned by families and friends, know that these freedoms have not been easily achieved. Nor can we take them for granted; think of how often women in the liberal Western democracies have had to mobilise to defend abortion. The chief function of Peking is to bring together women whose circumstances are different but whose aspiration - control over their own lives - is identical.

That, I think, is what Hillary Clinton meant when she argued that women's rights are human rights. The only sense in which we're demanding special treatment is, paradoxically, in refusing to tolerate any form of behaviour, benevolent or sadistic, which lumps us together as a sub-section of the human race. There's an obvious irony in women coming together to discuss how to escape from the age-old oppression of being treated as a class but the diversity of the delegates goes some way to proving that all women are not the same. It's just more convenient for totalitarian states - and some which would shriek with horror if you included them in that classification - to behave as though they are.

ONE OF the saddest criticisms levelled at the UN conference is that it's being held in China. "So what is next for the UN?" demanded a letter in Thursday's Guardian. "A conference on religious tolerance in Tehran? A symposium on self-determination in Baghdad?"

Yes please! One of the features of totalitarian regimes is rigid censorship; by their very nature, despots are terrified of ideas. The last thing we ought to do is collude with that censorship, which was the result of the ill-thought-out cultural boycott of South Africa.

I don't know anyone who looks more favourably on the Chinese occupation of Tibet because the UN happens to have staged a conference in Peking. But I got enormous pleasure from the spectacle of the Chinese government impotently fuming over Hillary Clinton's speech attacking its compulsory family planning policy. If the prestige of hosting an international conference means that dictators allow radical ideas to be aired, it's something we should encourage.

I RETURN now to the important subject of princes' rights and the increasingly bizarre behaviour of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Desiring privacy for their first-born in those tricky first days at a new school, they began by staging two press calls on successive days. The nation was regaled with pictures of Prince William in "normal" clothes - the kind of tweed sports jacket any adolescent boy in Wilmslow or Brixton would wear - and then in Eton's absurd school uniform.

It's axiomatic that any scheme dreamt up by the Waleses' advisers will have the opposite effect of what was intended, so that enterprising young Etonians have been tipped off about the value of royal stories and provided with valuable introductions to members of the royal rat pack. This will not prevent clamorous denunciations from Lord Wakeham as soon as someone leaks a story about the wretched child failing to finish his prep.

THE PUBLICITY also resulted in the startling revelation that you and I are going to have to pay for 19 police guards while William is at Eton. Since it's his parents' choice to send him to a boarding school, rather than a convenient day school such as Holland Park Comprehensive, I can't see why we should have to stump up pounds 600,000 a year for on-site, round- the-clock protection.

One of the curious things about rich people is that they like other people to pay for them. The Queen has protested to the magazine Business Age over its claim that she is the richest person in Britain, presumably because she knows that too much talk of her personal wealth, whether it's a mere pounds 158m or pounds 2.2bn as the magazine suggested, might prompt awkward questions about the Civil List.

They might also wonder why her daughter-in-law borrowed a 2.3-litre Cabriolet from Audi for four months last year, just to see if she liked it. The Princess of Wales eventually decided on a slightly different model and the man who bought the reject has put it up for sale at Sotheby's. Perhaps the Princess will give him some free publicity by reclining prettily on the bonnet on the day of the sale.