A rolling think tank, a slumber party, a ‘prison cell’: THE MOST EXCITING JOURNEY OF A GENERATION: The WILPF Peace Train carried 230 women and 10 men across two continents, from Helsinki Finland to the fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing China for three weeks in August, 1995. Organized by WILPF Secretary-General Barbara Lochbihler, the train stopped in seven cities and met with women from all walks of life.
It was an exciting time to travel in Russia and Eastern Europe. Women were trying to negotiate a new life since the fall of the Berlin Wall five years earlier, and to come to terms with the new “predatory capitalism”. In streets and marketplaces, as well as at formal gatherings, women revealed their personal hopes and fears. Officials were calling it a time of transition: but transition to what? We were told “when the Berlin Wall fell, it fell on women.”
We discussed the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the impact of rising fundamentalism on women, the war in the former Yugoslavia, violence against women, and the changing economic status of women in eastern Europe and around the world. We also discussed the challenges of creating a ‘metaphorical community’ during the intense three week journey.
SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA
We learned that women faced difficult problems in the workplace. Some single mothers were working two jobs and taking care of their children. “Russian women are used to standing on our own two feet…but…we don’t know what the future will bring…” we were told by one of the nightclub dancers.
In Kiev, the most beautiful and saddest city in the world we heard that Chernobyl caused the incidence of leukemia in children to rise from four cases a year to over 100. “There is not a square inch of uncontaminated soil in the country.”
In Bucharest, Romania we visited the palace built by Nicolas Ceausescu during the later years of his dictatorship. He depleted the national treasury building this monument. For four years, 20,000 workers and prisoners labored around the clock. Inside were the largest Persian carpets we had ever seen. “This is unbelievable! This is the poorest country in Europe, and look at it!” exclaimed one of our members.
SOFIA, BULGARIA In Sofia we met with women from three sides of the war in the former Yugoslavia. They agreed that the only people to profit from this war were the arms merchants. They plan to bring together women from all sides to put forward an economic plan as an alternative to bombings and weapons sales.
ISTANBUL, TURKEY In Istanbul, Turkey, one of the only cities we visited that was not part of a former soviet bloc country, the feminist movement is far more organized but faces challenges from state secular power and political Islam. “Feminism is possible under Islam as far as it is possible under any religion. I don’t think Islam is worse than other religions. All the religions are bad for women.” Ayse Duezkan, Turkey.
In Odessa we were met with a brass band and the orthodox bishop. Spontaneous talk sessions took place, on and off the train: “Women must ask, ‘What is the nation-state doing for women?’ Within every country there are oppressive structures against women, so, why is nationalism important to us? There is no country that women have. As Virginia Wolff said, ‘We have to construct another country.’” Krishna Ahooja Patel
In Almaty, Kazakhstan we met with physicians and leaders of women’s organizations who described their long struggle against Russian nuclear testing. Now they are facing fallout from Chinese testing at their site at Lop Nur. They asked us to take a message to Beijing: HALT ALL NUCLEAR TESTING. “It means all women who are going to Beijing must do their utmost to close the Lop Nur site in China.”
BEIJING “Beijing, Open!” The torch was lit! Equality/Development/Peace were the three all encompassing goals of the NGO Forum at Beijing. Because WILPF believes that without peace the first two goals cannot thrive, WILPF and other women’s groups sponsored a Peace Tent. It became a beehive for networking: a sanctuary: a safe haven. We felt we were all kindred souls. Lots of hearts opened up. Edith Ballantyne declared the tent a nuclear free zone!
During our days at the NGO Forum, we came to the realization that both males and females have been victims of poverty and disease over the centuries, but women have been – and continue to be – the targets of totally unnecessary societally-imposed suffering. No nation or region of the world has a monopoly: girl infanticide, dowry deaths, genital mutilation, sex trafficking and blatant discrimination in economic, social and religious spheres constitute a global plague.
At times during our time in Beijing the burden of this collective trauma was almost too much to bear. And along with the pain came the awareness that not one of us has escaped this discrimination. I am you, you are me, and we’re all in the same boat. But beside us are our grandmothers, our granddaughters to come, and all the women striving to make the Platform for Action adopted in Beijing a liberatory manifesto for the whole world.
“There is hope, no matter how subjugated we feel…especially in my region when we remember Somalia and Rwanda and Liberia, where slaughter goes on all the time. We speak against the arms trade. Guns are being sold to poor Africans to kill each other, so that they remain poor and marginalized. But we cannot lose hope. Here in Beijing, in the midst of all of you, we feel that the sun shall rise!” Wangari Maathai at the vigil of Women in Black: NGO Forum, Beijing