Panelists Explore Issues of Gender Equality

After U.N. Conference in Beijing, Speakers Debate Future of Women's Rights Movement

Professors, politicians and the Secretary-General from the United National World Conference on Women in Beijing gathered Saturday at to discuss gender inequality and women's rights.

Five panelists and the keynote speaker, Secretary-General Gertrude Mongella, spoke before an audience of about 50 people at "Beijing and Beyond." Individual panelists addressed topics including Islam, Buddhism, freedom of expression, leadership and women in the workforce.

Only three men were present at the day-long Dudley House conference.

Panelist Meridith Tax, a novelist and historian who is president of a group called Women's WORLD, struck a note of humor during a discussion about the ideal, albeit hypothetical, 'superwoman' who can skillfully balance a family and a career.

"I myself would find it difficult to do my writing, do my political work, raise my children, and be the mother of a 50-year-old man who should have grown up a long time ago," she said.

The United Nations (UN) Conference in Beijing, according to Mongella, had a definitive purpose: "Not to come and see good speeches, but to see what governments will do afterwards."

During a question and answer period, Tamara Chin '97 called attention to importance of circulating the "Platform for Action" drawn up at the UN Conference on Women in Beijing.

"If every woman knows what her rights are, wouldn't she have a better chance of obtaining them?" asked Chin, who was at the Beijing conference.

The "Platform for Action" outlines the measures which delegates from 181 countries drafted in order to improve the condition of their female citizens.

Forty of those states expressed reservations over certain paragraphs, where religious or cultural differences conflicted with ideas in the document.

The conference at Harvard was part of a global effort to continue the work started at the conference, Chin said.

"Forty thousand women and men met in Beijing," she said. "Hopefully this was just one of hundreds of thousands of meetings taking place."

Barbara Roberts, one of the panelists and the former governor of Oregon, spoke out on women in leadership positions.

"Our cultural yardstick for measuring leadership is definitely a white male one," Roberts said.

Samah Jafari, a panelist who is a graduate student at Harvard Medical School and the former chair of the Harvard Islamic Association, spoke about her own interpretation of the Koran.

"In the Koran, man and woman were created from one 'self,'" she said. "It is not specified that one was made from the other."

"Women need to be heard and they should think critically about what is said about their religion," she added.

Catherine C. Farragher, a graduate student in the School of Education, said she felt obliged to attend the conference when she saw the advertising flier.

"It's not enough to say 'isn't that wonderful, women should go to that.' It's 'I' who matters," Farragher said.