In the present climate of economic uncertainty meltdown, political hypocrisy and understandable social anger, I thought I needed to cheer myself up – and perhaps you, NotSoGentle Reader. The AWID Forum is a platform for feminists – of all shapes, sizes, sexualities, genders and agendas (!) – that is convened every three years. This time it’s mid-November in Cape Town, one of the beautifulest places in the world, inhabited by some of my bestest friends. However, I am not going for the Forum this year; the first time since the 1999 Forum. One reason is that I need to write this doctoral thesis that I have been promising myself – and others – to finish for the last ten years (aaargh). The other is that I do feel, increasingly, that every now and then, one should drop off the conference junket route (not that I’m on a plane every month, but certainly, every year so far in the last ten) to allow younger and newer – one doesn’t preclude the other – people to experience the energies of solidarity. And the AWID Forum is certainly a space for that energy.
I do feel like I’m missing out on something, though – particularly since this year’s Forum is on the power of movements. But then I think to myself that the struggle is fought every day, in the little moments, all over the world. And that power is shared, as I already know, with countless friends across the world. So perhaps then, just an opportunity to muse on the last Forum and a session we conducted there, based on the book – Defending our Dreams: global feminist voices for a new generation – that we launched at the Forum. Defending our Dreams is arguably the first international anthology of young feminist analyses ever; I’m proud of it, but I’m also proud of this session we did, with a bunch of contributors to the volume. And perhaps my reflections on the session go beyond the moment:
Do we really dream differently? It was easy enough to choose the title of our book – Defending our Dreams – once we had found Gabrielle Hosein’s quirky and questioning poem on feminism, but it was very difficult to judge whether a session at the AWID Forum on our dreams would be interesting at all. We shouldn’t have worried. Putting together a panel of extraordinary young women – articulate and honest – is all the recipe we needed. Five of our contributors, Alejandra Scampini (Uruguay), Indigo Williams-Willing (Vietnam/Australia), Salma Maoulidi (Tanzania), Jennifer Plyler (Canada) and Paromita Vohra (India), sat together to discuss what I, as moderator, had thought were banal, obvious questions: What are the dreams we dream – and how are they different, or not, from those dreamt (by feminists) before? What are the strategies we use that might be different? And where to, from here?
The questions may have sounded banal, but the session felt like magic. Like the others, I too struggle to understand why – how the last session of the day, with people coming in tired and overwhelmed, sitting at the edge of their chairs and at the back of the room (so they could exit quietly and quickly if needed), could have created a little oasis of joy, of reflection, of separately articulated dreams that somehow, wonderfully, fused together to be shared by others in the room, listening to them. Perhaps one reason for the magic was the simple truth we had overlooked in our grand theorising – that ‘dreaming’ is a very powerful word. That we so rarely use its power, both for ourselves and for others. That we are so caught up in the banality of the every day, that we forget we begin with a dream, and that somehow, somewhere along the way, that dream changes in shape and form and colour. Sometimes we even forget – in the cynicism of complexity and the routine efforts of struggle – that we had a dream at all, and that it whispers to us every now and then in quiet, unsuspecting moments.
What were the dreams that were shared? That not just ideology, or strategy, is about the personal being political; that our lives begin and end with the struggles of this truth and its reverse – the political is invariably, always, personal. Whether it was about a feminist daring to say that her dream is to be happily married to a wonderful man and have healthy babies, or about another feminist daring to say that perhaps body shape contributes to feminism (are ‘fat’ women more ‘feminist’???). That the struggles have changed in context over the years, but that our feminist histories have never been intimate enough for us to learn enough from them, or to acknowledge them in ways beyond the academic. We asked our older sisters in the audience: why is that we don’t have histories of the movement that tell us about the little struggles? About the jokes at the end of the day, the exhausted camaraderie at the end of a battle, the imperfections and human-ness of the process? Why is it that we feel we look at history as a series of perfect, coordinated responses to situations – when we know that the truth is sometimes painful, sometimes hysterically funny, always messy?
‘Intimacy’ was a word we used a lot. And ‘relationships’. And we came to the shared vision that grand political change is often about shared intimate processes of relational shifts. How we grow to live freely and well with our lovers, our families, our friends, our colleagues – and how they live with us – is often the longest, toughest journey. And that acknowledging that intimacy of change might make our future journeys easier. We ended with an acknowledgement to the wisdom of the past, while dreaming on. We quoted Gloria Steinem: ‘Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning’.