Serving as Peace Tent Mother for a day means negotiating with black-robed Iranian women and the tallest man in China
Under heavy rain I left my hotel in Beijing for Huairou at 7:30 a.m. on a rattling bus. Even though the U.N. conference had started on September 4 in Beijing, after spending a day there I had decided to concentrate on the NGO Forum, where 26,000 dynamic and passionate women were reinforcing their resolve to create a better world in simple, sensible ways. The U.N. process was byzantine, bureaucratic, and built on empty words. I would have sufficient time for it after the Forum closed on the 8th.
Arriving at the Peace Tent at about 9:00 a.m., I found it inundated under five centimeters of water and mud. That day I was "Tent Mother" on duty at the Peace Tent and responsible for logistics. It was up to me to ensure that the audio-visual equipment was present and working, that groups kept on schedule without interfering with each other's activities, and that information tables were staffed.
The wind had blown leaflets all over the place. Washed by rain, the ink from an Iranian banner (asking for a stop to the embargo on humanitarian grounds) had bled over a peace quilt made by Minnesota peace activists. The audio-visuals were nowhere to be found, and neither was our "guardian angel," our Chinese student volunteer.
An hour later, having put the tent back into working condition with help from passersby and audience, I was soaked and cold, but prepared to listen to a presentation on conflict mediation and conflict education. Just then, three young women arrived, looking worried and tired. One said, "We are Iranians in exile. I live in Sweden, she is now in the United States, and she lives in Germany. We are being harassed by the fundamentalist Iranian women at the NGO Forum, who claim to be NGO representatives, and mostly by their male security guards, who pose as reporters and cameramen. We do not have any organization supporting us here, and we were told that maybe the people at the Peace Tent could help us. Can you?"
We assembled a group in a corner of the tent and listened to their tale of stalking incidents, accusations of being prostitutes, verbal and physical attacks, and threats of retaliation against their family members still in Iran.
They had worked double shifts for over six months to pay for the trip to Beijing to expose the persecution women are suffering under the extremist mullahs and the fundamentalist police in Iran. Their agenda did not sit well with the people they had come to accuse. They wanted to attract the attention of the press, they wanted the women from all over the world to know the plight of the women in Iran, and eventually they wanted progressive governments to take a stand against this ongoing persecution of half the citizens of Iran.
We did not know how much we could help. We put them in touch with some open-minded journalists and we set up a "buddy" system to help them move around the Forum. They felt gratified by our support and a stronger sense of sisterhood linked us.
Shortly afterward, a representative of the Iranian NGO delegation came to book time for a meeting in the Peace Tent. We gladly (though with some anxiety) acceded to their request and offered them the only free time available: noon the next day. Because noon time activities were less structured, various groups could assemble in different parts of the tent, as long as each respected the needs of the other groups. The next noon, about thirty women, totally covered in black cloth, accompanied by two men, arrived with musical instruments, cassette player, a floor heater, and extension cord for their meeting in the Peace Tent.
Lunch time at the Peace Tent was always busy, with activities going on in all corners and in small clusters. A Mozambican group was showing a small audience a Canadian National Film Board video on the life of child-soldiers. Some Japanese women were staffing an information table and circulating a petition to stop all nuclear testing, dismantle all nuclear weapons, and find alternatives to nuclear energy. Two men from the Norwegian White Ribbon Campaign were presenting their work in sensitizing men to their responsibility to stop violence against women. A group of women from the "Mouvement des Femmes Rwandaises pour la Paix et l'Action" were putting the final touches on a comprehensive expose of rape used as a weapon for social annihilation and ethnic cleansing during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Everybody was working on their agendas for advancing the cause of peace.
The Iranian women wanted to make music and, essentially, take over the space that was shared by everybody. The "Tent Mother" for that day was Pamela. In a short time, she defused a potentially nasty situation. She respectfully accepted the desires and needs of the Iranian women, while reaffirming the conditions for the use of the tent and the rights of the other groups to be able to work their projects. After accusing the peace tent organizers of having sided with the exiled Iranians against the legitimate Iranian NGOs, the black-robed women had a short quiet meeting and left on friendly terms with the organizers.
To protest the nuclear testing by China and France, the Peace Tent organized a march. In Huairou a specific site within the fenced and security controlled area, about the size of two tennis courts, was designated as the "demonstration site." About fifty demonstrators started there and went on, chanting, into the larger NGO Forum secured area. When we started on a second tour, I felt like an animal going round in a cage. I suggested that we go outside the metal detector-protected gates. After some hesitation about breaking the rules, off we went. As we started down the main alley toward Huairou, half a dozen volunteers came to stop us, saying that we were not allowed outside the compound. We thanked them for the information and continued on our way.
Two minutes later the tallest man in China arrived with an interpreter. He politely told us that we could not continue our demonstration. I noted that the rules had been made unilaterally by the Chinese government and that this was not the standard that a U.N.-sponsored forum should have to accept. Polite statements of mutual understanding were exchanged for a while. He kept pushing us back, but we managed a steady advance of a few centimeters. Eventually, with a tone of finality he said, "You can only demonstrate within the NGO Forum, and that is final."
The building for the plenaries," I rebutted in an improvised flash, "is part of the NGO Forum and we want to demonstrate on its steps."
Taken aback, he hesitated and then said, "I'll allow you to go to the plenary building but only from the back way. Follow me." Not totally trusting, we followed him and, indeed, he led us to the parking lot in front of the plenary. The new condition was that we should not go on the main road. We accepted that, as the steps afforded a perfect staging ground for our banners and chants. We thanked him for showing flexibility in accommodating us and recognized that he had not made the rules, but was enforcing them with openness. By backing down from going on the main street we had extended the area for all demonstrations thereafter. It was peace negotiation and we both felt good about the process and our results.
Bruna Nota is a Toronto activist.