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Problems truly Asian

KALPANA SHARMA



Attempting to dispel barriers ... a delegate at the Asian Social Forum.

THREE countries, three women. A cloud of dust sat permanently on the grounds of Hyderabad's Nizam College. Here, for seven days, over 10,000 men and women walked, talked, sang, danced and shouted their defiance and rejection of the dominant world economic arrangement. The Asian Social Forum, the first of its kind, epitomised the exuberance and chaos of Asia. But the voices that rose above the din of drums represented a counterpoint to the hostility and tensions that mark so much of Asia.

The dust was democratic. It settled on everyone, regardless of age, gender, caste, creed or nationality. Yet, despite the haze, you could spot them — scores of women in black. Some wore the colour deliberately, as part of the coalition Women in Black, which represents women's groups opposed to war and violence. But others wore it by choice, young women from the old city of Hyderabad, who wore the hijab to announce their identity. As Muslim women. The garb sat comfortably on them as they roamed about, attended meetings, watched the dances and performances and met people from all parts of India and many parts of Asia.

Also dressed in black, but without a burqa, was young Marina Nawabi from Kabul, Afghanistan. She had never been to India before. But she knew all about Hindi films. And Shahrukh Khan, the favourite star of the majority of young women in Kabul, according to Marina. The eldest of three girls, Marina says that she is determined not to get pushed into marriage like other girls her age. She wants to work, learn other languages besides English, which she studied in secret during the years the Taliban had banned women's education. Today she is teaching 40 other girls how to read, write and speak in English. She is also a programme officer with Action Aid, Afghanistan.

What did she feel when the Americans began their bombing campaign on Afghanistan?

"We were happy," she said, "The bombing was better for us than the Taliban." And today, now that the bombing has ended, what does she feel? "Happy that the Taliban has left," she stated. But also concerned about the status of women and the absence of education amongst women in the villages. Black must be a favourite colour of many women, for Rana was also dressed in black. But no scarf covered her striking mop of henna-streaked hair. Rana Nashashibi, also attending the forum, does not share Marina's enthusiasm for American bombs. For Rana is from Palestine where she runs the Palestine Counselling Centre located in Jerusalem. She cannot invite American bombs because her people are the targets of Israel bullets, bombs and bulldozers that are powered by America's unflinching support for that nation.

Rana says that apart from Israeli aggression, the people of Palestine have to live with higher levels of poverty and unemployment. Survival, she says, has become the primary concern. As a result, women are not in a position to speak about their particular problems. All these have to be subsumed in the interest of the larger struggle for the rights of their people. Yet, she acknowledges, that women bear the brunt of greater violence inside the home even as men, women and children confront the daily violence on their streets.

Like Marina, Amal Shalash has had a taste of American bombs. But unlike Marina, she is certainly not an American bomb enthusiast as her country prepares for another round of bombing by America and its allies. Amal is an economist from Baghdad and an activist with the General Federation of Iraqi Women. Speaking at the forum, she stressed what many people in India know but many in the West choose not to acknowledge, that Iraqi women have been equal partners with their men in many struggles. "Women in Iraq have borne the brunt of war and sanctions. Women have proven themselves capable of surviving such situations." But as a result of these difficulties, she admitted that women's social status had been adversely affected because many of them had to abandon education and focus on finding food and safe drinking water for their families.

Like Rana, Amal too had a different perspective on the rights issue. "When war faces the whole country, human rights are not a personal or individual issue. Iraq has said `no' to imperialism, `no' to multinationals. So it has to suffer sanctions and now the threat of war. We are fighting for our independence once again. Iraq is the first victim of globalisation, but it is not the last," she warned.

Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq — countries that have similarities and differences. But what these three women presented at the Asian Social Forum also underlined the universality of women's situation as well as the particularity. That even as women face similar problems regardless of nationality or religion, their strategies and priorities are dictated by the particular political situation within which they have to survive. And that despite the differences of approach, and circumstance, women can unite and work together. Women in black, women in white, women in any colour under the sun.

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