Beijing + 20: A Critical Reflection

Teaser Image Caption
Participants at the Non-Governmental Organizations Forum meeting held in Huairou, China, as part of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China on 4-15 september 1995.

One cannot expect specific practical results from large global meetings like the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, as their purpose is entirely symbolic. The Conference’s actual goal was to call attention to the problem of women’s inequality and to raise awareness of this issue among the world public. The fact that improvements in certain segments of society are immediately “offset” by declines in other areas is certainly due in part to something that we do not often realise: that the relationship between woman and man is the basic relationship between one person and another (Karl Marx)—an unusually complex relationship that pervades and influences practically every area of life.

In the Beijing Platform for Action, specific goals were laid out in the form of twelve points, and in this sense they have not lost their validity. The fact that over the past twenty years its goals were reached only partially at best—and in certain cases (for example the issue of poverty, and not just poverty among women) the situation is far worse today than it was twenty years ago—should not tempt us to conclude that Beijing 1995 did not lead to anything. Without the Beijing Platform for Action, we would not even have Gender Mainstreaming in the European Union, although even this has been markedly formalised in the bureaucratic EU system. In any case, Beijing succeeded in mobilising world public opinion and in validating the issue of equal rights for women as an inalienable component of human rights. And that is no small feat.

The Beijing Conference took place shortly after the breakup of the Eastern Bloc, which transformed the bipolar world (in which two societal systems essentially competed against one another—without this competition, for example, the social market economy system would never have emerged) into a unipolar one with the United States as the sole dominant power. The demise of the socialist system—defined as the victory of capitalism over socialism—created the idea that there were no alternatives to the Western form of capitalism. A consequence of this unipolarity was the utterly unimpeded rise of neo-liberal economics as the new ideology and interpretive schema for all aspects of life, not only of the individual but of society as well. This was accompanied by the idea of the market as a special kind of moral instance of human action with efficiency as its sole motivation.

In this historical situation, the course of the Conference was necessarily reformist in nature, which led—despite the fact that its motto was “the world through a woman’s eyes”—to a fundamental question being overlooked: namely, that of the societal, economic and political structures of the system and the individual’s place within it as an individual woman or an individual man. Instead, it was essentially only about women attaining men’s standards of achievement in society. On this point, the Beijing Conference remained far behind what had been formulated by the spiritual leaders of feminism: a woman’s right to her own interpretation of the world, to a different point of view than the hitherto normative technocratic conception of the world (and of the individual) as a resource for the creation of capital. This raises the question, however, of whether the conception of gender with its reduction of the difference between the sexes to a mere social fact did not contribute to a certain curtailment of feminist questioning. By this, of course, I do not have in mind some kind of revival of ideas of polar opposites between male and female principles, but rather the acceptance of equal rights as an equality of different entities, and their social roles as mutually complementary, i.e. a sort of “bipolarity” of the sexes.

Developments in the Czech Republic after the Velvet Revolution can serve as a textbook example of how capitalism changes the position of women in society. To the extent that nationalisation after 1948 had the side effect of weakening the normativity of the male models of agency and behaviour that were and are tied to the ownership of the means of production, the return of the capitalist system and the hierarchisation of a hitherto egalitarian society again strengthened these normative models—and the position of women in society worsened accordingly. One of the indicators of this deterioration was the return of ideas of the woman as a sexual object and of the female body as public property. The very women who had contributed significantly to the civic opposition against the Normalisation regime were essentially sealed off from political life in the process of institutionalising democratic structures (!), often justified with sexist arguments. Questions of women’s equality were simply ignored.

Women themselves initially underestimated this new situation and its significance for society, however, as this was followed by attempts to renew the traditional role of the woman and by ill-conceived anti-communist measures which condemned qualified childcare facilities as a socialist nuisance. The young Czech generation is now struggling with a lack of such facilities and with the ostracism as bad mothers of young women who want and need to work. It was only the preparatory phase of the country’s accession to the European Union that validated the question of women as an important political and societal issue. Although definite improvement can be observed in this regard, the basic question of whether capitalism—especially in its neo-liberal form—can liberate the woman and the individual at all remains open. Indeed, this is analogous to the fact that despite the venerable efforts of non-governmental organisations the gap between rich and poor continues to widen across Europe, making a mockery of their activities. The struggle for equality of opportunity is certainly an important aspect of the position of women in society, but it is insufficient to achieve their liberation if their unpaid work in the household is only replaced by exploitation in the workplace and their relegation to casual employment in the inadequately paid service sector, as we encounter daily at the supermarket cash register.

Translation from Czech language by Evan Mellander.