Denouncing Discrimination—with Results

Prof. Mailyn Safir of the Dept. of Psychology who heads the University’s Kidma—Program for the Advancement of Women would not take an act of outright discrimination lying down. As a result, an international conference scheduled for the end of September in Turkey was canceled. The Women for Women’s Human Rights organization in Istanbul had invited Safir, who had set up the Women’s Studies program at the University more than a decade ago, to present a paper at a meeting on “Women, Sexuality, and Social Change in the Middle East.” The conference was co-sponsored by the International Women’s Health Coalition. Suddenly the conference organizers withdrew the invitation with the claim that Arab participants would boycott the meeting if Israeli-Jewish participants came. The U.S.-based IWHC, of which Safir ironically was once president, supported the decision.

Safir then went into high gear, making use of e-mail and the Internet to inform colleagues all over the world of the blatant act of discrimination and to urge them to denounce her exclusion from the conference. The incident found its way into a well-known specialized U. S. publication, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the article elicited more letters of protest. The adverse publicity and condemnations worked—to an extent. The president of the IWHC called Safir to say that the conference was being canceled. But as the psychologist and feminist professor commented, “My aim was not to have the conference canceled, but to challenge the thinking that went into the withdawal of the invitation and the more troubling response.”