in Women's Hands:
Ute ScheubMore than seventy percent of the female scientists that are visiting the "International Women's University" (ifu) from July to October in various German cities come from the so-called third world. The project could become the scene of a unique worldwide feminist exchange of knowledge.
The German philosopher Georg Lasson found some hundred years ago that "The most terrible of everything terrible is the scientificness of the gals." "Where spiritual issues are concerned, Amazons are contrary to nature too", agreed the renowned German physicist Max Planck. Only for about 90 years have women been allowed to enter a university in Germany. Even though the majority of students is female, just about four percent of professors are women. The better a science is paid, the more male it is. And: contrary to the USA or Scandinavia, gender studies are still just smiled at in Germany.
High time, therefore, to found the first modern Women's University on German soil. This is what a circle of women scientists and researchers thought about six years ago; they were lead by Ayla Neusel, an engineer born in Istanbul and living in Kassel. The initiators wanted to show that female science is 'in' threefold - innovative, interdisciplinary, international. Now, ifu has been opened on 15 July in Hannover, on the periphery of the world exhibition "Expo 2000" which is taking place simultaneously (see article by Isabel Rodde). Ifu's self-confident motto hints at the hope that the effect of what has been achieved can be sustained: "100 days for 100 years".
The intercultural mix of the just on 1000 participants is encouraging and perhaps even unique in the world. The women that want to dedicate three months to finding solutions for the problems of the human race from a female perspective come from a total of 115 countries. 70 percent of them come from what are called third world countries, predominantly from Asia but also from Latin-America and Africa. The countries of the former east-bloc are also well represented. It is highly unlikely that the ifu will become an event jubilant of the western industrial countries as will happen at the Expo taking place at the same time.
Any woman in possession of a degree and able to speak English well could apply from anywhere in the world - because the courses are in English. More than 1500 interested women responded, nearly 1000 were accepted. "We were especially impressed by the quality of the applications", says Ayla Neusel, president of ifu. Those that cannot afford the stay in expensive "Germoney" - the vast majority of women from the "third world" - will receive a bursary: from the Deutscher Akademischen Austauschdienst (the German academic exchange service), the German ministry for development, from foundations, associations and private persons. The claim to interculturalism is also reflected in the program. The ifu does not have traditional specialization areas but six interdisciplinary topic areas that correspond to problems of the human race worldwide and each is administered by a German and an international dean: Body, City, Information, Migration, Water and Work. Professors, junior scientists and artists are to work together in all areas to develop practical projects. In the mornings there will usually be lectures, the afternoons are kept for discussions and work teams. Further diversion in the program will be provided by topclass public podium debates, the motto being "Open Space", inter alia, Vandana Shiva, (India) and Saskia Sassen (USA) (see article), excursions to other cities, body-orientated workshops, artistic performances and exhibitions.
There was a run for the topic "Information". No wonder in the era of mass media and the internet that offer the wealthy minority of this world information in excess and relentlessly exclude the poor majority that has no electricity. The issues concerning the deans Christiane Floyd (Germany) and Cheris Kramarae (USA) are, inter alia, whether there is a "feminine style of internet communication" and what the media could look like that help to develop women's "consciousness of being citizens of the world" and further "female autonomy and freedom". In one of the projects the model of an information kiosk is to be developed which, installed in schools or rural areas, will afford every woman media access to the world. In other projects the "students" will work on their own homepages or come up with visions of an interactive democracy.
Numerous international participants flowed into the topic "Water", but the Germans did not find this very interesting. For them water simply comes from a tap - for the majority of people this is only a dream. At the Fachhochschule Suderburg (tertiary institution in Suderburg) the deans Sabine Kunst (Germany) and Josefina Mena-Abraham (Mexico) will head projects that concern effective water provision in Vidarbha (India), in rural areas of South Africa as well as in Chihuahua and Xochimilco (Mexico). "In Latin-America women are responsible for all water concerns", says Mena-Abraham. "The women make sure that they can cook and do the washing and that the children are able to drink."
Especially East-European scientists were drawn to the topic "Work" as the transformation of their societies often meant the loss of income and food. The deans Regina Becker-Schmidt (Germany) and Elena Meshcherkina (Russia) want to closely inspect all types of work, i.e. including unpaid work such as housework, subsistence economy or "care work". Their central questions: What part do these play in different countries? Are women the losers or the winners of globalization? Does this process accentuate or lessen the polarization between the sexes? What resistance strategies are there? Moreover, a comparative study will be compiled on women in men's professions in Germany and Russia. But at issue will be not only the establishment of objective discriminatory data but also subjective wishes and utopias about the future of work. How do women prefer to work? What alternatives are there to the neoliberal market?
The "City" too is an ambivalent experience for women: it is a place of poverty, of extortion, of exclusion, but also of emancipation and of solidarity (see article by Saskia Sassen). Today more than half of the world's population lives in urban areas. The deans Ulla Terlinden (Germany) and Aysegül Baykan (Turkey) want to use the metropolis Berlin, Istanbul and Santiago de Chile as examples when working on various issues such as: What symbolic signs of hierarchical power or democratic openness are entrenched there? Are feminine needs considered in city planning? Are there sustained plans regarding city development?
Some women move to foreign towns voluntarily, others have to flee to escape newly emerging nationalism and war - see Ex-Yugoslavia. The deans of the topic area "Migration", Astrid Albrecht Heide from Germany and Miirjana Morokvasic-Müller from Ex-Yugoslavia and France, have invited speakers who are all migrants themselves or who work for initiatives such as "Women Living under Muslim Law" and "Women in Black". Their projects are concerned, inter alia, with the phenomenon "trafficking" or women in war - as victims, aggressors and resistance fighters.
"Just say 'woman' and you imply 'body'", write Barbara Duden from Germany and Patricia McFadden from Zimbabwe, deans of the topic area "Body". The event program offers theory and sensuousness, talks and dance workshops - no wonder that this topic area is particularly popular among German participants. The symbolic level of body language, body fears and body symbolism, the French Marianne and other women as embodiments of nations are of interest here. It is about violence such as the circumcision of the clitoris, rape, burning of widows. But it is also about female lust, subversive cyber-fantasies and queer-theories. The female body has, long since, been the object of family heads, birth controllers, doctors, neo-colonialists and sex-tourists, but it is always, at least potentially, also a place of freedom.
In order for more than the 1000 participants to benefit from the ifu, there is the vifu: the virtual university on the internet. A lot of interesting material about the different themes has been available there for several months and the women's university is to be continued there after October. Of course, the organizers hope that the 'real' university will continue further than that. In the end this will be subject to the public echo.
Translated from German into English by Christine Spargel