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Sisterhood is Global
by Robin Morgan

The following is an excerpt from Sisterhood Is Global: The International Women's Movement Anthology by Robin Morgan (Feminist Press, 1996).

Foreword to The Feminist Press Edition

Sisterhood Is Global, as concept, project, book(s), and even international institute, has come to have more than one life of its own. This new Feminist Press edition is another welcome incarnation.

Conceived in 1969 (while I was compiling Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the [U.S.] Women's Liberation Movement), the international anthology covering over 80 countries grew during 15 years of networking, fundraising, researching, commissioning, and translating articles, until publication in simultaneous hardcover and paperback (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984). Gratifyingly, the book was hailed as "an historic publishing event," "an instant classic," and "the definitive text on the international women's movement," and adopted widely as a course text in women's studies, international affairs, global economics, and several other disciplines. In 1985, the United Kingdom/Commonwealth edition was published by Penguin Books, London. After an heroic translation effort, Mujeres del Mundo was copublished by Vindicacion Feminista, Madrid, and Hacer Editorial, Barcelona (hardcover 1993, paperback 1994)--thanks to the dedication of Lidia Falcón, the Spanish Contributor; that edition is being distributed throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

The original Anchor Press/Doubleday edition was expected to stay in print for perhaps five years, the normal life assigned by a commercial publisher to a reference work containing updatable statistical data. Given the limited life expectancy for Sisterhood Is Global, therefore, it's been a pleasant surprise that this "international feminist encyclopedia" as it came to be called, has remained in print selling strongly at a commercial level for more than twelve years. In 1996, when the publishing rights reverted to me, The Feminist Press expressed concern that Sisterhood Is Global remain readily available, since it continues to be the preferred course text on the status of women worldwide. Consequently, The Feminist Press--itself a cherished institution of the global women's movement--rebirthed this edition, which is in all respects identical to the original edition.

The essays remain as moving as when their authors first wrote them. -The statistical preface preceding each country's essay contains carefully researched, still relevant data on the status of women. In my Methodology section, I noted that in many cases my staff and I managed to locate and publish this data for the first time; I also appealed to scholars to work toward filling in the blanks--what our researchers came to call the "NDOs" and "NSOs" ("no data obtainable" and "no statistics obtainable"). In the interim, considerable research has been done, yet the surface is barely scratched. (Issue-specific and country- or region-specific research done since 1984 is, happily, too extensive to list here. Among general resources worthy of recommendation are The World's Women 1970-1990: Trends and Statistics, and The World's Women 1995: Trends and Statistics, as well as The United Nations and the Advancement of Women 1945-1995 (U.N. Blue Books Series)--all U.N. publications available from the U.N. Department of Public Information; and Women's Movements of the World (Keesing's Reference Publications, Longman Group United Kingdom, 1988).) Yet humanity still remains tragically ignorant about the majority of itself that happens to be female.

There have of course been dramatic geopolitical changes since 1984. Yet ironically, the condition of women remains virtually the same. In many regions and on many issues, it has in fact worsened.

Female human beings still comprise two thirds of the world's illiterates (30 percent of all women cannot read or write); we are now 80 to 90 percent (an increase) of the world's 1.3 billion poor and, with our children, over 90 percent of all refugee and displaced populations--populations that more than doubled between 1981 and 1993. We are the majority of the elderly, another growing population (rising by 2.7 percent annually since 1990, according to the World Health Organization). We still comprise the majority of the world labor force's unemployed and underemployed, still average 40 percent less pay than men at the same jobs, still have little if any access to credit or funding. Our unpaid labor--in the home, in childbirth, childrearing, subsistence gardening, farming, water hauling, wood gathering, etc.--if expressed in market terms of monetary worth, would yield a "staggering $16 trillion, or about 70 percent more than the officially estimated $23 trillion of current global output," acknowledged UNDP's recent Human Development Report: an understatement reflecting UN agencies' traditionally conservative estimates. Women still suffer disproportionately from state violence (custodial abuse, armed conflicts, etc.), and from domestic violence (rape, battery, incest, sexual abuse) so "normal" and widespread as to be finally recognized among the most significant causes of female disability and death worldwide. Global population, which has more than doubled in the past 45 years, currently grows by close to 90 million a year. Yet women still lack the basic human rights of full reproductive freedom and sexual choice: as you read this, 300,000 women--many children themselves, most malnourished, anemic, and lacking medical care--are in labor. According to the 1996 UNICEF/WHO/Johns Hopkins University report, 585,000 women--the number has risen during the past decade--now die annually in pregnancy or childbirth, and another 18 million suffer disabling illnesses or injuries from complications. Women are the primary victims of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) in general, and the planetary pandemic of HIV/AIDS has begun to take its worst toll in female victims, especially on the African continent and increasingly in Asia, and in many cities of the industrialized world. Women still suffer first, worst, and twofold from pollution of the environment: economically (as agricultural workers, etc.); and in health terms (e.g., the breast-cancer epidemic). Approximately two million girls a year are clitoridectomized, joining the estimated 100 million women alive today who have undergone female genital mutilation--although decades of feminist efforts combatting these practices have begun to effect a consciousness shift.

To comprehend how the major geopolitical shifts of the past twelve years have affected women, it's necessary to read between the lines, because female people are still not sufficiently visible in press coverage of big stories. For example, since 1984:

  • The USSR dissolved, Eastern European countries underwent major upheavals, the Berlin Wall fell, Germany reunified. Those hardest hit by the instability have been women, the last hired, first fired, and longest-stuck in breadlines; their parliamentary numbers have dropped, and in certain countries (for example, Poland) the Roman Catholic Church's reemergent power in politics has eroded reproductive rights.

  • South Africa achieved a relatively nonviolent transition from apartheid toward democratic government. It was largely women who pressed for nonviolence, demanded that gender equality and sexual- preference rights be enshrined in the new constitution, and even insisted that Nelson Mandela revise his "one man one vote" call to "one person, one vote."

  • Elsewhere on the African continent, dictators, warlords, and tribal- enmity agitators unleashed havoc in Somalia and Liberia, and attempted genocide in Rwanda and Burundi. The majority of the massacred and the devastated survivors were/are women and children, so it's no surprise that Hutu and Tutsi women have together pled for peace on more than one occasion--but no world press took notice. Nor has coverage of Nigeria's dictatorship noted that government policy is not to punish the latest "fad": Nigerian men flinging acid at the faces and genitalia of women who challenge their authority. Nor have media reported that Sudan's 1991 penal code, instituted by the military government, institutionalized a "modesty law" for women, violations thereof punishable by 40 lashes.

  • In the former Yugoslavia, dictators, warlords, and tribal enmities (euphemized as "ethnic conflicts" when the antagonists are white), also wreaked havoc and attempted genocide on civilians, for which read: women and children. Again, (ignored) women from all sides petitioned for peace. Serb, Croat, and Bosnian women all suffered displacement, and many Croat and Serb women were raped, but it is estimated that up to 100,000 Bosnian Muslim women were raped and forcibly impregnated by Serbs in a deliberate policy of "ethnic cleansing"; as many as 20,000 are estimated to have died in Serb brothel-camps. The 1996 UN International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague delivered landmark indictments treating rape/sexual assault as a war crime, a crime against humanity. This historic victory for feminists, who have insisted that international law recognize gender-related crimes, also challenges domestic law: if rape in war is a crime against humanity, then what is it in peacetime?

  • When the 1986 "People's Revolution" overthrew the Marcos dictatorship, the Philippines' intensely activist women's movement played a large (underreported) part. Three years later, the Tiananmen Square uprising--during which students chose a 23-year-old woman student, Chai Ling, as their commander-in-chief--ended tragically. Yet headlines rarely trumpet demographic changes potentially more revolutionary than uprisings: over 60 percent of China's population is now under age 25 and, despite the resurgence of female infanticide, half female. In the growing divorce rate (it topped one million nationally in 1995, and has doubled in Beijing since 1991), 70 percent of the cases are women-initiated; in 25 percent family violence is cited as the cause. Rape-crisis hotlines have begun, and the first shelter for battered women (private, not government founded) recently opened its doors, in Shanghai.

  • In South Asia, individual women (in Pakistan, Burma/Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh) gained access to power via their elite political families, but performed as leaders in their own right. Less noticed yet of greater ultimate impact are the organizations of formerly enslaved "comfort women," initiated in South Korea, now spreading across Asia; the birth of an autonomous women's movement in Vietnam; the ongoing mobilization by Thai, Japanese, Filipina, and other Asian women against sex tourism and the sexual traffic in women and children; the courageous lesbian feminist groups emerging in The Philippines and Indonesia; the legislative initiatives of feminist nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and women parliamentarians for women's property rights in Nepal. . . .

  • Iraq invaded Kuwait, over the (unreported) protests of Iraqi women still recovering from the eight-year war with Iran. Again, mass rapes, targeting especially South Asian women who had been employed--and frequently abused--by Kuwaitis as domestic servants. When the U. S. mounted "surgical strikes" against Iraq, "smart bomb" mistakes wounded and killed civilians, e.g., women and children, those also hardest hit by the economic boycott. (Interestingly, governments always manage to feed their armies.) Amnesty International notes that women's fatality rate in war--five percent of all victims in World War I, rising to 50 percent in World War II--soared to nearly 80 percent in the 1990s. Less than a tenth of war coverage on the Middle East/Gulf region focuses on female human beings--not even as victims, much less agents of social change: the Iranian women organizing underground, for instance, or the women who drove cars in defiance of the law in Saudi Arabia, or women still campaigning for suffrage in "liberated" Kuwait.

  • In the Caribbean and Central and South America, these years witnessed the end of a several civil wars (El Salvador, Nicaragua), and the fall of some infamous juntas (Argentina, Chile, Haiti). But how to estimate the influence on these outcomes by, for example, the Mothers of the Disappeared, who inspired women worldwide to similar action (as did the Israeli Women in Black), or the crucial role women played in various liberation movements, or the effect of the now highly networked regional women's movement?

  • The international economic crisis, combined with certain World Bank and International Monetary Fund requirements for overhauling economic policies in developing countries--"structural adjustment," for instance--have the most negative impact on women. The 1996 UNDP Human Development Report describes a "two class world," a global widening gap between the rich and the poor, with 89 developing countries worse off than a decade ago--and poverty wears a woman's face. In industrialized countries, too, draconian cutbacks of social welfare programs have intensified the feminization of poverty.

  • Peace negotiations in both the Middle East and Northern Ireland have been praised and closely watched; women--key to both processes--have introduced a markedly different style. - Palestinian feminist organizations have for years been building the infrastructure of a future state, by the mid 1980's already drafting legislation to guarantee women's rights under secular law. The Irish feminist movement has seen at least 25 years of work bear fruit this past decade: contraceptives are now legal, nor is it anymore criminal to travel abroad for an abortion; same-sex love is now decriminalized; and in 1995 legal divorce finally passed a national referendum. Such organizing is contagious: in Northern Ireland, The Women's Coalition ran for and won a place at the 1996 peace negotiations. The Coalition, including Protestant and Catholic women, describes itself as bringing a "nonpartisan, nonsectarian, energetic voice to the table . . . traditionally dominated by men," and vows to stop any temperamental walkouts by negotiating parties.

The real work always takes place locally, but "trickle up" phenomena have begun to affect international fora. After the 1975-85 UN Decade for Women (Mexico City, Copenhagen, and Nairobi Women's Conferences), activists began mobilizing for UN general conferences: Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), Human Rights (Vienna,1993), Population and Development (Cairo, 1994), and Social Development (Copenhagen, 1995). At each--and at the 1996 Second UN Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II) in Istanbul--a daily Women's Caucus was organized for NGOs by former U.S. Congresswoman and activist Bella Abzug and the Women's Environment and Development Organization, the NGO she founded. Women's groups also honed strategies, applied for UN-accredited NGO status, attended regional meetings (where agendas are decided and documents drafted) before each conference, and pressured for inclusion of NGO representatives on government delegations. One result: the Platform for Action passed by the UN Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995), is the strongest official statement on women internationally to date--and it was preserved against fundamentalists' attacks during the Beijing Plus 5 Conference in New York in 2000. Governments have begun to glimpse that all issues are "women's issues."

One of the international NGOs working toward that day is The Sisterhood Is Global Institute (www.sigi.org). This activist legacy of the book was founded in 1994 by Suimone de Beauvoir and myself, together with the book's Contributors, as the first international feminist think-tank and the first NGO to organize actions regarding female human rights. The independent, nonprofit, tax-exempt Institute, currently based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, boasts a resource library, publishes a Newsletter, has "mothered" its first branches (in Beirut and Jordan), and has organized public events, scholarly conferences, investigative commissions, and campaigns in 13 countries. It has an activist arm, SIGNET, and its Urgent Action Alert System mounts international campaigns of support for women prosecuted or persecuted for activities on behalf of women. Other projects focus on female human rights literacy, women prisoners, making visible women's unpaid productive and reproductive labor, and developing strategies to combat fundamentalism in all religions.

I remain brazenly proud of this book, of what we accomplished, of our being so ahead of the times that it's taken years for them to (almost) catch up with us. In 1984, such terms as "battered women," "sexual harassment," "female human rights," "herstory," even "feminism" itself, were still considered suspect coinages of radical feminists; today they have attained respectability, appearing in UN resolutions, policy documents, academic treatises.

Then again, my motto while working on Sisterhood Is Global was "Only she who attempts the absurd can achieve the impossible." I'm older now, a little wearier, and a lot wiser.

But I still believe it.

- Robin Morgan

* * *

The above is an excerpt from Sisterhood Is Global: The International Women's Movement Anthology by Robin Morgan (Feminist Press, 1996).


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