Special Report: The Feminist Wire goes to the Commission on the Status of Women, or the CSW Through My Virgin Eyes – The Feminist Wire

Special Report: The Feminist Wire goes to the Commission on the Status of Women, or the CSW Through My Virgin Eyes

By Special TFW Correspondent, Mazuba Haanyama

cswWeek one is rapidly drawing to an end and I feel like I have been hit by a train; a collision of cargo reminiscent of struggles fought by my ancestors in my dreams light years ago. This is the end of week one at the Commission on the Status of Women, in New York City. Perhaps rather naively I thought this space would somehow be different – not sure exactly how or what would be different, but I was hoping for something more igniting, and dare I say meaningful. Alas, it has been a whirlwind of long meetings, talk I don’t really understand, and when I do, can’t really connect the dots to what it might mean for women’s lived realities around the world.

This is my first time at CSW. I came into this space cautious, as all things UN-related make me tread carefully, but still interested in finding out what it may mean if anything for women’s organizing, livelihoods, and existence. What I did not expect was the sheer density, madness and complexity of this space, which I am beginning to feel serves only to alienate and distract from real change that could possibly be taking place.  To be sure, my gaze is limited.  I do not intend to articulate all of the happenings at CSW, nor do I aspire to offer an analysis on all of the possible gains we hope to make by asserting language into documents that most people will never see.

I offer simply my reading—the gaze of a young queer African feminist lover, grappling with the politics of an ‘international/global’ convening, which makes invisible my body and the millions of other black bodies I am deeply invested in.  Specifically, I am struggling to understand the core theory of change taking place at CSW. With the fight to assert language particularly on issues related to sexual and reproductive health and rights (which is the camp I’ve been hanging out with), I wonder about how arduous debates on language will meaningfully affect deep institutional racial discrimination and growing inequalities in our communities.

As it stands, we are trying to push our governments to adopt better more progressive language in big policy documents such as CSW. Because as the theory may propose, if we have better language this will ‘encourage’ our governments to adopt more equitable policies and laws in our countries.  Do we believe that this will eventually affect women’s daily lives? Because there is a major focus on “coming out” with agreed conclusions that will be ‘beneficial’ to women’s rights around the world, language and other similar declarations have super-human significance in this space. I also, perhaps naively, had not imagined the weird negotiations that take place across nation-states with regard to the bargaining that happens surrounding women’s rights—that concomitantly and fundamentally ignore the complexities between and amongst nations.

Five days into the process and I am still trying to figure out what it all means. I am wildly confronted by having to negotiate politics I thought we had moved beyond. Caught somewhere between figuring out why at this ‘global’ gathering I can count the number of black (African and African-American) women on my one hand (in the caucuses I have been attending on sexual and reproductive health and rights and the LGBT caucus), and why the resurgence of terms such as ‘grassroots women/movements,’ and “women on the ground” (because some may be in the air?!). In a space with so few black women, there are even fewer black queer women and maybe this is because they know more than I do and have long since given up the illusion that these proceedings may make a difference in their lives or the lives of their communities.

With all of this in mind, still, I have met many fierce women doing awesome work; people organizing around issues that matter to our lives, living the kind of feminism I used to dream of. And panels looking at violence against lesbians or in trans communities have sparked something in my belly about organizing, collaboration, healing and sharing strategies.  There are thousands of women here, working on a wide spectrum of issues relating to women’s lives. As I think about this past week and recognize and acknowledge the time, love and effort that so many have put into improving women’s lives, even with its complexities and disappointments, I honour this time and work, although treading carefully in reflecting on what it means to be here.

I write cautiously afraid, afraid that I may offend many, while yet, creating space to recognize my confusions. I have been particularly plugged into the sexual and reproductive rights and health conversations and speak from that standpoint. I have also been dabbling in the NGO Africa Group, which is predominantly a meeting of African NGO’s to discuss how best to lobby our governments, which again feels strangely unreal, colonial and negligent in terms of taking into account the myriad complexities between us.

This week has been an exercise in trying to retain my sanity, understand the whirlwind of events occurring around me, and fundamentally surviving this madness. Being in this ‘international’ space evokes a weird schizophrenia of wanting to claim an African identity and collectiveness with my fellow Africans, to state firmly that we are here, we are clear and we represent generations of knowledge, culture and substance—to then coming to terms with how divided so many of us are as Africans, as African feminists, and as African and diaspora women’s rights activists, and how a collective identity is perhaps romantic at best.

I am also reminded that I come from the ‘global south’ because I am continuously defined through white imperialist eyes.  I feel a strong impulse to push against this, but then I am reminded that this is part of the tactic to keep me small and un-attendant to the real issues at hand; the mass inequalities that exist all over the world, and the impact the latter has women’s lives.  Then finally there is this aspect of secrecy—‘safe information’ and a mad paranoia about the opposition (ever so narrowly defined) learning about our tactics and strategies and sharing them with our governments–the same governments we are trusting to negotiate our lives during these two weeks.

This is extremely ironic to me. There have been hushed tones, impromptu changing of venues, spotting of opposition through sideways glances—the kind my Mama would shout at me for doing—all very covert and Mission Impossible like, which further has me questioning where we have gone wrong in this space.  As an attempt to keep sane I have been imagining myself as a Black Panther member sent in to keep an eye on the opposition, deeply political and wildly organized, fighting a clear enemy, knowing too well the reality is so far from this.

I hope my reflections are necessarily contradictory and confused as this would mirror the aching’s of my inner belly. None of this experience has been clear or concise, but then again neither are our lives. I am conflicted, learning and going through a process to define who and what I believe in—that is the stuff my life is made of. Perhaps matters may illuminate after the second week and more reflection. Watch the space.


Me copyMazuba Haanyama is a young writer, thinker and activist. She hails from Southern Africa, more specifically Zambia. She grew up in various countries around the world. Her childhood travels have significantly shaped her social and political views. Mazuba is passionate about the continent, young people and writing & performance. These passions shape much of her life’s trajectory. Mazuba holds a Masters Degree in Gender Studies from the African Gender Institute, UCT. Mazuba manages a poetry performance group, called Rite 2 Speak. She also co-founded a multi-media production company called Black Salt Productions. She currently lives in leafy Johannesburg and works at OSISA (Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa).