Although the angry women from Washington and elsewhere who face eviction tomorrow may not agree, the hotel hassle that has engulfed this city with the arrival of 10,000 women for the international conference of women may turn out to be a disguised blessing for the larger cause.
Women began arriving last week for the conference of nongovernmental organizations that precedes and meets simultaneously with the United Nations-sponsored world women's conference. But on Monday, the Kenyan government gave many the surprising news that they would have to vacate their hotel rooms by Friday to make room for official government delegates, whose convention begins next Monday.
But hundreds of participants in the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) Forum, led mostly by women from the Washington area, vowed to remain in the rooms they had booked and paid for in advance. "The pressure to evict us has come on the Kenyan government from the United Nations Secretariat," said Jessie Hackes of Northwest Washington, who is representing Planned Parenthood at the NGO gathering.
While rejecting the government's alternative offer of dormitory rooms at Kenyatta University about 10 miles away, the women said they would be glad to share their hotel rooms with the government delegates. "This is a violation of the spirit of the conference when women who have traveled thousands of miles are being told to leave," said Toni Killen, also of Washington, at a press conference Tuesday.
According to Kenneth Matiba, the Kenyan minister of culture and social services, the NGO steering committee had agreed in advance to use university dormitories, provided that became necessary, and were booked into hotels only "because some tour operators tried to pull a fast one on the government." He conceded that university accommodations were below the hotel standards. "What we have done is a favor to the NGOs," Matiba told the Standard newspaper. "The government had no obligation to house the unofficial delegates."
I certainly can't agree with Matiba that the government has no obligation to the delegates. And as of Wednesday, some women were predicting that the Kenyan government, with the help of the American Embassy, would come up with some satisfactory alternative housing.
But if the hotel hassle has been a major inconvenience, it has also symbolized this conference in microcosm and highlighted the status of women around the world. "Can you imagine them trying to throw a group of high-powered men who had come thousands of miles out of their hotel rooms?" was the question asked repeatedly. The most common answer -- "Of course they wouldn't" -- is one barometer of women's progress: They still have a long path to equality.
The eviction threat also highlighted longstanding tensions between nongovernmental and official U.N. delegates. In the two previous conferences, in Mexico City and Copenhagen, the nonofficial delegates were considered less important than the official delegates and occasionally have been at odds.
Mariflor Parpan, a Filipino anthropologist, said the hotel problem was a calculated undermining of the solidarity of women who are being divided as delegates and as participants.
The powerlessness of women can be seen in a problem like this that sets them apart from each other rather than bringing them together as the United Nations decade intends.
Thus mixed emotions dominated the days leading up to the forum opening yesterday. The hotel crisis made some women ashamed to be treated like second-class citizens. Some were resentful of those whose accommodations weren't threatened. None, however, were saying they wished that they had not come.
Ethel J. Williams, chairwoman of the D.C. Commission for Women, who is here representing Mayor Marion Barry, was among the women threatened with eviction who was optimistic that "there will be plans forthcoming that will assure all of us that we will be able to participate in this conference and exchange views and experiences with our sisters all over the world."
And while it is important that this problem not detract from important issues, it has in one sense helped illuminate them. As one delegate put it: "Sometimes logistics are more important than issues."