Every year in New York at this time of year, thousands of women take over New York in the annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), to address gender equality and women’s empowerment. CSW takes place in March, to coincide with Women’s History Month, International Women’s Day, and the 31 days we’re allotted to address “all things women.”
The Commission itself was founded in 1946, shortly after the creation of the UN itself. The purpose was to raise awareness and develop policy around international women’s issues and to monitor women’s standing around the world. The Commission was engaged in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Beijing Platform for Action, and Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security — three historic and essential global agreements for women’s rights. Basically the backbone of global women’s rights work.
In 1987, the Commission started meeting annually. Ten years later, in 1997, the Commission adopted the policy of coming to negotiated conclusions through debates, panels and round tables. The annual conclusions form international commitments made by member countries. All this sounds great — and is important.
However, negotiation spaces are limited to government delegations and accredited organizations, leaving the voices of many activists and civil society organizations on the outside. Feminist organizations are forced to organize ‘parallel events’ on the periphery of the official meeting, outside the halls of power. There are political implications to who is present — and absent — from these spaces.
As someone who has worked on women’s rights for over twenty-five years, I have only attended one CSW. Yes, just one.
It was a few years ago, but I still recall the experience. I was wearing a suit, with a t-shirt underneath that said “feminist” — in Arabic. The security guard stopped me before I could enter.
“What does that shirt say?!” he demanded.
“Feminist!” I said.
“No. No politics here. You cannot enter with this.”
Meanwhile, this is supposedly the annual event to address women’s rights, and women’s rights are everything political — or so they are to me.
“Would you be stopping me if my shirt was not in Arabic?” I asked.
The line behind me was growing impatient. The guard waved me through and again called out “No politics!” as I quickly walked towards the entrance and onto UN premises.
I was there to speak on a panel, alongside a head of a UN agency, a minister, and a few key others. Big people. And I was the civil society speaker, the so-called “local partner,” the token grassroots activist.
Unsurprisingly, I was last to speak. The minister spoke first — and left. The UN agency head spoke afterwards, and excused herself after answering a few questions. By the time it was my turn to speak, the rest of my fellow panelists had disappeared. I was sitting alone.
This isn’t the first time I lament about being the so-called “local partner,” a box to tick and a brain to pick when it is convenient. Probably because the optics are better if I’m there.
I’m watching CSW from afar this year, wondering about the politics — yes, politics! — of who speaks, who doesn’t, and who’s in the room (or not).
So I asked a few seasoned feminists what they thought.
The words of one “very tired feminist,” as she calls herself, with over 20 years in conflict contexts and seven years in New York, in the so-called corridors of power, set the tone:
“This is a gathering of elite women, who flood New York for this annual pilgrimage,” she explains. “Simply being here means one has arrived, professionally speaking, in the corridors of power.”
“They wear their best attire and bring their best behavior and prepare their finest social-media blips. And so begins the annual deliberation for women’s rights.”
There is a great deal of politics — and politicking — around who comes and who does not. The women who are present are, as my feminist friend explains, the self-proclaimed “mouthpieces for the poor, down-trodden, disenfranchised women in conflict or insecure countries, who have no voice or knowledge of this momentous month.”
Many have also critiqued the physical exclusivity of the event, held at the UN headquarters every year. One activist put it this way:
“After the Beijing Conference, with the morale of the women’s movement high, we demanded that CSW be moved to a country in the developing world, to give it the right kind of representation and buy-in, to ground it politically in the grassroots feminist movement. That was in the 90s. And it’s still here in New York in 2023…”
Will anything change, I ask one of my feminist activists?
“Should we hold our breath for women’s status to change? Not here.”
Another seasoned gender advisor adds that this annual show happens “without tracking issues and outcomes.”
“Where is the accountability?” she demands.
“This event needs to be reformed. If women are coming in to discuss, then what is being discussed? What actions are being taken? And how will it be measured and reported in the following year?”
In principle, this happens. And yet, it doesn’t reach the women who need it most. They still remain under-represented — or entirely unrepresented — in the process.
“The women coming know this, but they still participate in hope of change.”
“I say no,” she continues, “change ain’t coming!”
“There’s lots of tired feminists in there as well…” she concludes.
So what actually happens in the so-called corridors of power?
“There’s no power in those corridors,” one explains, “at least not for women.”
Another expert with decades of grassroots feminist experience explains that “gone are the days when CSW was flooded with grassroots women who knew the issues, who fought for representation in the Beijing Platform for Action.”
She continues: “What we see now is that the language we gained back then has been eroded by right wing men — and women — who still question women’s bodily autonomy and agency.”
“Many of these elite women are here only to be seen, handpicked by their dictators to represent their countries, to maintain the status quo, as part of the patronage of their class to maintain power.”
“CSW is the Confirmed Status quo of Women,” one adds.
“As if we have gone backwards,” she concludes.
I think of my own brief experience at CSW. And I decided to ask a feminist activist, Yasmina Benslimane. Yasmina is also the founder of Politics4Her, a feminist youth-led blog and movement advocating for inclusive participation of young women and girls in politics. Yasmina is strong, outspoken, and has a lot to say!
When I asked her if she was interested in sharing her views, she enthusiastically responded: “Of course I’ll tell you! I’ve made a list!”
Here is what she shared with me:
“On the first day I waited for 3 hours 30 minutes to get my badge. Some women were waiting for five hours, outside, on the street, in the cold. Some older women were so tired they were on the floor. And then inside, in an event, young speakers were not seated next to the senior speakers but rather put in the audience, as if they didn’t belong there. The youth forum wasn’t even held on UN premises. And it was a Saturday. Sidelined in so many ways.”
“And, even when young people are invited to attend or speak, there’s no funding, no visa assistance. How are they supposed to get there!?”
“For women’s day itself, we had to get tickets for the commemoration. I missed getting tickets because I was waiting in line. We were outside like sheep. Anyway, I heard it was terrible! Generic speeches and the same BS every year. And white men speaking about women’s issues. Where is the representation?!”
“When I had a chance to speak on key women’s issues in Morocco, I was bullied by a Moroccan official, who was a young woman probably only a few years older than me. She criticized my right to speak up. Why should I not?! Meanwhile it’s always the same people speaking on behalf of others who aren’t even there!”
“Oh there’s so much more… I don’t think I want to attend ever again.”
A quick scan of Tweets using the hashtag CSW67 provides similar feedback.
@ZahraAlHilaly says “There’s no denying the power dynamics in rooms and the racism and discrimination many of us have faced from “supposed allies”…”
“We cannot ignore the discrimination and power dynamics in the room…” writes @Faridahally2. “We can do better.”
And to young people, she advocates that they speak up and speak out. “Let’s not tire of raising our voices; they will hear us!”
Yasmina echoes this. “My voice won’t ever be taken away,” she says, “and especially not by a neo-colonial and patriarchal organization!”
How might we view an institution that once helped establish the foundation for women’s rights and now fails to listen to the voices of women activists? Telling the story is one way to advocate for reform, bringing CSW back to its feminist roots.
In the end, we have nothing to lose for raising our voice, and everything to lose for NOT raising it.