Last month, I attended my first World Social Forum (WSF) in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. I study social movements and teach about the WSF and the very different and more established annual scrum of the powerful in Davos: the World Economic Forum. I was eager to attend the 2013 WSF (26-30 March) because of its location, chosen by activists during the February 2011 World Social Forum in Dakar to honor the Tunisian Jasmine revolution that overthrew the Ben Ali regime. The WSF slogan, “Another World is Possible,” seemed especially meaningful.
Tunisians had inspired millions around the world, but especially people in the Arab countries of North Africa and west Asia. Their revolution sparked the hopes and energies of veteran and young activists in the region. It also helped produce tens of thousands of new activists who understood the Jasmine revolution as an invitation and opportunity to transform their lives and societies.
I went to Tunisia intending to blog each day of the WSF 2013. I was prepared with my excellent H2 digital fieldwork recorder, as well as a camera and laptop. I had also launched a new website that had taken many precious hours to create while only having two week prior to the WSF to familiarize myself with its use. I very early on recognized that attending the WSF would pose more than the usual fieldwork challenges. Nevertheless, there was a liberating aspect to approaching the event as a conference-festival combination rather than strictly a research trip. I knew from the beginning that the WSF experience would differ for me in comparison to most participants, since I attended as a curious academic observer rather than a representative of an activist organization or a longtime participant. In addition, it was not my intention to initiate a deep ethnography of the WSF (which is impossible for one scholar to accomplish).
In the time preceding the conference, I had to prime myself to get over my usual ethical discomfort with taking photographs, as well as my resistance to drawing unnecessary attention to myself while on research trips. However, I ultimately found the camera to be a crucial documentary and memory aid. This was particularly so given the noise level at the forum, the many languages and dialects spoken, the movement that marked even meetings and panels, and the multiplicity of agendas, messages, people, and images.
My best-laid plans to blog fell by the wayside as a result of the weak and spatially delimited Wi-Fi connection available at al-Manar University, where WSF-Tunis was held. My Tunisian hotel room as similarly plagued by an intermittent internet cable connection.
More significantly, it seemed impossible to determine “representative” people to speak with or focus on. Outside of panels I attended—wherein I took extensive notes—my camera became the most important tool. It allowed me a mechanism for quick visual documentation, which I sifted through and captioned every night without necessarily understanding (or pretending to understand) any given image or event in its full context. (Click here to access these photos and their captions.)
The People at the WSF 2013 Want Many Different Things…
As is well known, the first WSF was primarily organized by Brazilian leftists and held in January 2001 in Porto Alegre. The WSF, according to the Charter of Principles published in June 2002, gathered “from around the world groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neoliberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism, and are committed to building a planetary society directed towards fruitful relationships among Humankind and between it and the Earth.”
The WSF has convened every year since 2001 in some form, at least six times of which were in Porto Alegre. Although, in some years the forum has been decentralized into a number of fora occurring in multiple settings in one time period to facilitate the participation of people in different parts of the world. Over the years, regional networks such as the US Social Forum, the Asian Social Forum, and the African Social Forum were built. These, not surprisingly, reflect the positional dynamics and priorities of their political fields and the activists themselves.
The WSF slogan, “another world is possible,” continues to indicate the importance of alternative, albeit internally plural and contested, articulations of living in a transnational world. This plurality and contestation is nevertheless explicitly non-violent, relying on words, images, passionate body language, and the constitution of space within the larger space—including dedicated tents, rooms, meetings at outdoor café tables, and impromptu marches, dances, and music-making that temporarily reconfigure the shared and between-spaces of the WSF. Clearly, the WSF remains a space of proximal, heterogeneous, and unruly gathering for multiply-oriented activists. In an article in the March-April 2002 issue of the New Left Review, Michael Hardt characterized the 2001 WSF as having “overflowing enormity … in the number of events, encounters and happenings."  In the April 2007 issue of the Journal of International Women’s Studies Ara Wilson similarly described the 2005 Porto Alegre WSF as having a “cacophony of progressive agendas, …disparate spatiality, and … open-ended politics.” In WSF 2013 in Tunis, the unruly multiplicity included young anarchists from Africa, Europe, and elsewhere, who I witnessed erupt in joyous-angry chants and marches in open spaces at various points. I also photographed their anti-state, anti-police, and anti-capitalist graffiti on the walls of the forum space, and observed as they interrupted the anyway raucous Global Assembly of Movements on Friday night for being “capitaliste” and not radical enough.
Hardt observed that while the 2001 WSF was “populated” by a “multitude of protagonists,” the “most visible” political activities called for reinforcing “the sovereignty of nation-states as a defensive barrier against the control of foreign and global capital.” Given the sophistication and polish of the “Brazil” tent at the WSF 2013, which was the only space I observed that explicitly represented a state, I suspect that this orientation is particularly prominent when the WSF is held in Brazil. Although I cannot say for sure.
I would broadly and unsystematically categorize the events and discourses as divided between local, in-between, and transnational orientations: “Local” captures opposition to policies, laws, and practices of governments or corporations at the scale of town, city or country; “In-between” captures the appeals and projects of migratory, non-citizen, citizen-less, paperless, or refugee (recognized or not) individuals and groups; “Transnational” captures opposition to the practices and policies of multinational corporations, the UN, state-sponsors of imperialism or colonialism, and the national, international and regional capitalist banking and financial organizations that have so much power over all forms of life and livelihoods. Given the open and emergent spatial nature of the WSF, it required minimal attention for all these projects and activists to be exposed to each other.
For me, the WSF Tunis was a clamorous discursive and symbolic space of profuse messages that included a number of dynamics: challenges to the violence of capitalism and “world orders” built by imperialism, war, and economic and environmental theft; demands for national, ethnic, or indigenous recognition; and urgent appeals for a post-statist world of global citizenship, freedom, and mobility for millions who live precariously and often clandestinely in and between the world’s geographic and legal margins, borders, refugee camps and prisons. Given the forum’s location at the heart of the ongoing Arab revolutions, and my knowledge of Arabic, I paid particular attention in my photography and choice of panels to claims-making focused on economic, political, social, expressive, as well as embodied justice, freedom, and dignity in the region.
The WSF Tunis was a space where matters I was well-aware of in the Arab region were prominent: the intensifying life struggles by the laboring classes and the poor; continuing ethnic cleansing against Palestinians and expropriation of their resources by Israelis; violence and repression by authoritarian governments that continue to hold on in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, the UAE, and elsewhere; and the repressive geo-political, military, and economic practices of the United States and regional power-players such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In addition, Arab feminists focused on the continuation in some cases, and the rise in others, of physical, rhetorical, and legal assaults on women and women’s rights—much of which but by no means all from religious fundamentalists, the latter called the “Ikhwanji” (Muslim Brotherhood), even in Tunisia.
Indeed, the multiple political and social realities of Tunisia itself really came into focus on the very last day of the forum. It was at that time that tens of thousands of Tunisians and other WSF participants were attending the closing concert of the forum, and a subsequent march to mark Palestinian Land Day on Rue Habib Bourghiba. I left these events early to purchase sweets from a local shop about three kilometres away (near the zoo) to gift a Tunisian colleague who had invited me to dinner that evening. From where I stood, every Tunisian within a two-block radius, including the disapproving owners of the sweets shop, could hear an imam lecturing Tunisian zoo attendees about women and culture using language that would be familiar to any listener from Egypt, Jordan, and Qatar, as well as to consumers of conservative Islamic radio and television programs focused on these very matters.
Absences and Presences
The WSF Tunis was a space of multigenerational presence, but boys, girls, young women, and young men—particularly from the Arab world and Tunisia—were especially conspicuous. There were less Black participants than I would have anticipated given the WSF’s location in Tunisia (from where the moniker “Africa” emerged as a colonial label for the continent). In addition, there were few attendees from Iran as well as South or East Asia.
I surmised from various conversations that many activists who would wanted to attend did not do so out of fear of not being able to return where they would have left from. I heard of others who were excluded from entry by the Tunisian government. While women were certainly ubiquitous at the WSF, feminism was not a major focus, and even seemed marginalized rather than “uneven[ly]” integrated—as Wilson noticed was the case at the 2005 WSF. A scheduled women’s tent searched for by many feminists at WSF Tunis was either never erected or taken down for reasons that were never clarified. One Tunisian woman I asked in the green tent area on the second day called it “discrimination,” and another elsewhere at the forum cited technical reasons that made no sense given the dominance of tents at the forum.
Co-existing with such marginalization was insistent inclusion of language challenging “patriarchy” and “retrograde and conservative forces” in WSF positions, banners, and chants, especially at the Global Assembly of Movements. The Social Movements Assembly Declaration does not use the words feminist or feminism, although it mentions the “overload of women’s care work,” “the traffic of women, girls and boys,” and “violence against women … because they are considered objects or goods, because the sovereignty of their bodies and minds is not acknowledged.” The final sentence in the same point states: “We defend sexual diversity, the right to gender self-determination and we oppose all homophobia and sexist violence.”
In addition to observing the flows and patterns of the WSF as a whole, I attended a number of panels focused on the Arab revolutions. Here I will share some of what I learned from these events, which I organized by three evocative phrases: “Women first on the chopping block,” “Language is the avenue of exclusion,” and “Syrians do not want pity.”
Women First on the Chopping Block
At a panel on gendering constitutions, a Syrian feminist at the WSF argued that “women’s rights were first on the agenda and chopping block” for many of the revolutionary militias that emerged with the uprising against the rule of Bashar al-Asad. This was so even when the revolutionaries were self-identified leftist or Marxist. In a similar vein, a Libyan woman new to political activism shared that Libyan women of all backgrounds have quickly realized that many men rhetorically resort to claims of “protection of the family” in response to women’s demands for rights, but resist any restrictions on non-judicial divorce or plural marriage by men, which empirically “threaten the family” in Libya. Thus many Libyan women have become cynical about discourses that rationalize restricted rights for women on the basis of valorizing family life. They believe, rather, that the main motivation is to “consolidate male domination” in the new Libya.
There was a widespread sense among the Tunisian women I met that many Islamists and Salafists in the new Tunisia are obsessed with imposing family and gender norms that conform to a “complementarity” (takamul) logic of gendered dependence. Some conservatives, feminists contend, have questioned the very nature of women’s humanity and seek to naturalize the idea that women are inferior to men (takrees duniyyat al-nisa). Tunisians activists I met reported that operatives of the al-Nahdha (ruling) party have accused professional activist women of being lesbians in order to delegitimize their engagement in public life, committed rape and other sexual violence against women and girls active in public spaces, and used racist discourse against dark-skinned feminist activists. In an al-Maghreb al-Youm op-ed discussing the situation in Tunisia after the revolution, Dr. Amel Grami—a feminist and professor of Islamic Studies at Manouba University in Tunis—characterized the Nahdha ruling party’s conservative orientations to gender relations and rights as “patriarchal” and reflective of their “Islamawiyya ideology,” in accord with the instructions of their “brothers in the Gulf.” 
In an informal interview I conducted with Grami, she reinforced sentiments that other Tunisian women of different ages, ideologies, and classes also noted over the six days of my visit: male religious conservatives are arguing for legalization of plural marriage and an end to abortion rights, and some describe circumcision of girls as “an operation of beautification.” These developments have produced a slogan that “sharia is the rule of men, not the rule of God,” and led to feminist demands that sharia not influence law and policy in the new Tunisia.
Tunisian women reported a more general discourse among some men that regaining masculinity in a post-Ben Ali Tunisia requires restricting women’s participation and leadership in all aspects of life. Tunisian feminists insist, however, that the “dignity and freedom” slogans of the 14 January Revolution apply as well to the desires and lives of girls and women of all backgrounds, and are meaningless if they reproduce gendered and other forms of subordination.
Language is the Avenue of Exclusion
While conflict continues in hot and cold battles at many levels in across Arab countries, I was struck by the degree to which words are significant sites of contestation in constitutional and legislative processes discussed at the WSF. These words are freighted with the historical weight of the context from which they emerge, although sometimes the struggles seem to be over subtle differences.
One WSF panel I attended was composed of activists (two men and a woman) from the Egyptian Center for Social and Economic Rights (ECSER) who discussed a grassroots educational campaign on constitution-making. There were about twelve attendees, half Egyptian and the rest from Europe, Tunisia, and the United States. The meaning of words emerged as crucial during the question and answer period, when it became clear that “social” rights as strategically used by these leftist activists excludes “women’s” rights. This exclusion is designed to avoid conflict among the over 120 independent labor unions involved in the campaign, whose ideologies on matters beyond class and workers’ rights were divergent. The campaign involved a first stage of popular drafting of a new Egyptian constitution, article by article, and a second stage where experts helped articulate the details of particular rights (e.g., health or labor). The organization relied on “new institutional” constitutional writing trends, and especially the Brazilian experience, where every “right is explained in detail” in order to avoid manipulation. Workers and unions (and certainly feminists) were not represented on the constitutional committee of conservatives appointed by the government of Muhammad Morsi.
Ultimately, the Egyptian activists’ constitutional campaign did not influence the constitution that was drafted and ratified in a “cartoonishly” quick process in December 2012. Preceding the vote, Egyptians were threatened with going to hell if they voted “no” and assured that going to heaven was attached to voting “yes.” The ECSER activists at the WSF 2013 meeting believe that the situation continues to shift and the
political scene in Egypt is ready for rethinking the constitution now that people see that the political ideology sold by Islamists is not concerned with people’s rights but uses political discourse to maintain its power. Ultimately, the constitution violates the values of justice.
The panel on “gendering constitutions” since the Arab revolutions was composed of feminists from Morocco, Tunisia, Syria, and Lebanon, with about thirty-five other activists in the audience. Tunisian panellists discussed how conservatives and feminists argue about “complete equality before the law” versus “complete equality in the law.” Feminists argued for both after realizing the parsing strategies in government proposals that prima facie appear to support women’s “dignity” and “freedom,” but in fact intend to violate and delimit them.
In Morocco, activists insisted on the principle of “no democracy without equality” in the new constitution, with feminists developing detailed language that would leave “no room for violation.” Feminists argued for words such as “male citizen” and “female citizen” rather than “men” and “women” in the Moroccan constitution, to stress women’s status as citizens rather than women. The so-called “19 Group” in Morocco, a committee of nineteen people appointed by the King to draft the constitution, had in contrast argued that it would accept equality only “if it does not violate Moroccan traditions and laws.” As the Moroccan activist on the panel noted, “they play with words to try to take women’s rights away.”
The Syrian feminist on the panel similarly pointed to the importance of words among feminist revolutionaries in Syria, who call for a “democratic and civil” Syria, choosing the word “civil” over their initial inclination to use “secular,” and developing strategies informed by Arab women’s experiences, socialist experiences, and international norms. Among their slogans is “religion is for God and the nation is for everyone” (al-din li-allah wa-al-watan li-al-jami). They are nevertheless not naïve about words, recognizing that while “complete equality” between men and women is stated in Syrian law, equality has never been the reality.
In keeping with pre-revolutionary gendered discourses, a number of Arab governments have said they will follow the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) “unless a CEDAW principle violates constitutional principles,” strategically begging the question of the troubling constitutional principles themselves.
Syrians Do Not Want Pity
I attended a panel on the “Global Campaign in Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution,” which included four Syrian activists who were in the room: two men and two women, among them the blogger Razan Ghazzawi, and two male revolutionary council activists in Syria who were eventually able to communicate with the audience through brief Skype presentations. The solidarity campaign is part of a strategy to “build a democratic and progressive Syria after the revolution” and aims to bypass governments, since—as one activist stated—they “do not care about the Syrian revolution and do not like revolutions generally.” The campaign is designed to make effective connections between progressive social movements around the world and Syrian revolutionaries, especially those active in “revolutionary local councils.”
The revolutionary councils are the main bodies addressing Syrians’ daily needs and “emerged from need,” according to the activists. “Abu Walid,” who connected from the Yarmouk Palestinian Refugee Camp via Skype, noted that daily life is marked by the absence of state institutions because they are either not functioning or the councils exist in liberated areas, so the activists view themselves as providing much-needed services. He and others noted differences between different revolutionary local councils, which “cannot be reduced to one type” and are not “equally experienced or skilled.” Sometimes, these councils “are led by less than mature” men who are appointed or impose themselves by coercion or violence rather than being elected by a deliberative community. Most of the councils, however, are democratic and represent the communities who entrust them with leadership positions.
“Thair,” a male Palestinian activist in his twenties from the Yarmouk refugee camp, reported that many internally displaced Syrians now live in Palestinian refugee camps, with strong solidarity between the two groups. “If you are for justice for Palestinians, you must be for justice and freedom for Syrians because the sufferings are like one.” More than that, he added, “the suffering in Syria is familiar, with checkpoints, assassination, torture, and prison, and a shared struggle against dictatorships.”
Syrians who are injured by bombs or projectiles do not go to state hospitals in fear of being killed, tortured, or imprisoned. In response, Syrian civilian revolutionaries developed field hospitals throughout the country. Activists noted that rather than being non-sectarian, external “rescue” and “relief” efforts in Syria are often concerned with helping specific “minorities,” a dynamic they reported to be true of US and Qatari-sponsored projects, among others. The revolutionary councils avoid the language of “minorities,” even as the Asad regime describes the revolution as a sectarian Sunni-initiated civil war. Many of the health and other professionals involved in treating the injured and under siege are Christians and other so-called minorities. They reported that the suffering in Syria is great across sects, ethnicities, and religions, and the regime does not distinguish when it attacks neighborhoods.
An ethnically Kurdish physician on a revolutionary council in Homs (who requested that the screen was turned to allow him to see the audience, who in turn collectively waved at him) similarly insisted that this is not a civil war between Sunni and Shia Syrians. Their own council has hidden Sunnis, as well as Alawis, Christians, and Druze, he reported. While the regime encourages sectarianism and appeals to Alawi fears, he attested that “we absolutely want no future life except together.” “Our problems are with the regime,” he insisted, “and not each other.”
Panelists in Tunis and those who connected from Syria discussed the many challenges faced by civilians and revolutionary local councils, of which three were prominent: (1) A lack of financial support, which limits the services the councils are able to provide; 2) The basic needs of people are dire because many Syrians live in areas that are isolated by regime embargos which prevent the entry of goods, bread, vegetables, and medical and other supplies; and (3) Syrians in different communities feel disconnected from each other and people outside Syria.
Razan Ghazzawi, the blogger, activist, and former prisoner who left Syria three months ago noted that many Syrians could not leave to attend the WSF because they are “wanted” by the regime and thus “cannot speak directly to you; we wish they could.” She stressed that the regime will not release any prisoner viewed to be technically significant to the revolution, such as doctors, photographers, journalists, and filmmakers. She noted how her imprisonment as a privileged and educated person was much easier and shorter than the brutality experienced by women activists from lower social classes who do “not have the powerful social networks” that Ghazzawi’s friends used for a major media campaign that led to her release. Syrians, Ghazzawi insisted, “do not want pity.” Rather, they want support in the liberated areas and they want fellow revolutionaries from all over the world, “not necessarily to aid them directly but to help them survive existentially and politically with moral and political support until they can all sit at a democratic table and be involved in a democratic process.”
[This is an edited version of an article that was originally published on 23 April 2013 in ISLAMiCommentary. The author’s participation in the WSF 2013 in Tunis was made possible by the Duke Islamic Studies Center’s Transcultural Islam Project, supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.]