CW: contains references to femicide, racism, violence against women, rape, child abuse
Across the weekend of 14-15th October, FiLiA held its annual conference. The organisation formerly known as ‘Feminism in London’, has recently been renamed after gaining charitable status. One of the goals they outlined from the onset was to make feminism for all women, not only certain groups. With this stance in mind, I wanted to see whether the conference would live up to expectations of inclusivity, as previous years had seen panel members shut down audience questions in regard to pornography and sex work. Would there be more open discussion in these areas?
The opening panel included an introduction by comedian Kate Smurthwaite, who always manages to combine radical feminism with hard-hitting comedy, and a presentation from Sophie Walker of the Women’s Equality Party, giving an overview of the political picture today. The keynote speaker was Cordelia Fine, who I was particularly excited about hearing speak, having read her book, Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. What was most interesting here was the analysis of particular stereotypically ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ traits,. During this discussion, she also mentioned that the research she was talking about included trans women. A nearby audience member commented, “there’s no such thing”. Whilst it was unclear what they meant by this, it smacked of denial of the experiences of transgender people, showing there are still issues of inclusion for all women by certain individuals or groups.
It is easier for white women to look at sisterhood as being about finding the common ground, rather than examining how race and gender intersect
As Fine set out a subtle message of inclusion, Claire Heuchan of Sister Outrider cut straight to the heart of the matter in terms of the racism that can exist in feminist spaces. A softly-spoken Scottish black radical feminist, she asserted she would be gentle with the audience, but at the same time would not hold back on expressing herself. At the end of a long conference, the opening presentations can seem like a blur, but on reflection, Heuchan remained a highlight of the day. I admired her for speaking about racism so frankly in a room dominated by white women. She said she was talking in hope that her points would be well-received, but also explained that a lot of women of colour, are wary about entering feminist discussions with white women due to the need to unpick racism from feminism. She identified white women’s resistance to acknowledge race within feminist discourse as being due to a dislike of seeing themselves as occupying a space they usually attribute to men – in terms of systemic power. It is easier for white women to look at sisterhood as being about finding the common ground, rather than examining how race and gender intersect. Heuchan asserted her dislike for the term ‘ally’, urging audience members to aim for interracial solidarity instead.
In thinking about inclusion within the feminist movement, it is important to acknowledge that when we talk about violence, children and men can also be victims, that intimate partner violence can occur in non-heterosexual relationships, and that transgender people face disproportionate levels of violence. Yet it is also important to see that it is overwhelmingly women who are killed by men, and that often women who kill men have sustained a long period of being victims of abuse at the hands of those men. One of the panels I attended at the FiLia conference was entitled ‘Femicide’ – a term that was new to me, yet a definition has been in place since the Vienna Symposium of Femicide in 2012.. Karen Ingala Smith of Counting Dead Women, stated that this definition excludes both the fact that men are the perpetrators in most cases, as well as the problem that women who are killed often become a statistic, and it is important to tell these women’s stories. Whilst intimate partner homicide is the biggest form of violence against women, domestic homicide and women killed by other men also need attention. For example, Smith notes a pattern of young men killing older women, who are targeted during robberies. What was shocking is that there are accounts of men who have confessed their desires and fantasies to carry out rape and murder (for example, when having committed other violent offences), yet no protection is offered in these cases. During the panel, we also heard from a survivor speaking of this year’s hunger strikes in Madrid, which highlighted the importance of giving such people a voice. This is an issue on a global scale, and must be seen as such when we consider the feminist movement as a movement for all women.
The most contentious issue that I was keen to see addressed was the matter of sex work. I attended a workshop on how to tackle the licensing of Sex Entertainment Venues (SEVs), which came from an abolitionist perspective. It was clear from the start that the workshop, run by representatives of #notbuyingit, Fawcett Society Bristol, and Zero Option, was not a debate. It was very informative in terms of taking direct action on this issue, and ended on an example where two SEVs had been turned into a restaurant and a cat café.
Leading on from this, there was also a panel entitled, ‘Sexual Exploitation and Women: Where Misogyny and Racism Meet’, chaired by Julie Bindel, who spoke about her book ‘The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Trade Myth’, but compared it to pro-sex work books by saying hers tells it “as it is”. Salome Mbugua talked about poverty in the context of African women in prostitution in Europe, where she described cases of asylum seekers being bribed to exchange sex acts for basic human rights, and how women can turn from victims to perpetrators by becoming leaders (Madams/Mamas) of trafficking, as well as the causes and effects of women who are prostituted. Sadia Hameed looked at South Central Asia, and focused on the concept of girls and women becoming ‘Devadasis’, who used to be ritual dancers, but have since become sex workers and been driven underground since 1988 when the tradition became illegal. Yet states of Yellamma, the “goddess of prostitution” can still be found outside brothels. Hameed spoke of the link between poverty and the caste system, and how girls hitting puberty become Devadasis through a ceremony, often as young as nine, but the earliest case was of girl aged just four. Hameed also discussed “temporary marriages” which link to sex tourism, and Julie Bindel noted that there are white British men selling women as “Devadasi” in the UK. Alicia Arbid is a Lebanese Belgian woman who spoke about the clash between conservative cultures, and the underground sex trade. While, Anna Zobnina spoke from a Russian perspective, stating that the EU has no position on sex work. She asserted the importance of taking a position on this issue, both as organisations and individuals.
The tone that certain speakers used, presented anyone who may have alternate views as uneducated, mocking them in scathing tones, under the assumption that audience members would laugh along
However, due to the outspoken abolitionist views of participants across the conference, it seemed there was a danger of silencing and exclusion of anyone who took a different view on sex work, or those who may be sex workers themselves. The tone that certain speakers used, presented anyone who may have alternate views as uneducated, mocking them in scathing tones, under the assumption that audience members would laugh along. Thankfully, in the interest of balance, the audience spoke out when given the chance at the end. One attendee said that women who do take the view that sex work should be decriminalised, as opposed to abolished, often feel that there is no way out, that abolishing the sex trade is impossible. Another asked whether it was ever a woman’s choice to do sex work, saying they may be wrong/naïve. These comments and questions were dealt with respectfully, but it was a shame they weren’t addressed earlier.
In aiming to be an inclusive event, FiLiA has certainly progressed in terms of including women of colour, and looking at the movement from a global perspective. However, at one point there was a speaker who used the idea that feminism is for “all women” to actually subvert the message and exclude certain groups of women. Arguably, there was no talk focused on the experiences of transgender women, but more explicitly it was current sex workers who were excluded from the conversation. Despite the organisation’s position statement on the sex industry, as an audience member who is torn on knowing the “right” view to take on sex work, I couldn’t imagine how a sex worker would feel in the audience, with some of the opinions exhibited. For future conferences, I would love to see more progression in terms of engaging with the views of those currently working in the sex industry who do see it as a choice, in order to “strengthen, rather than divide, our movement.”
Featured image from Pixabay
The Norwich Radical is non-profit and run by volunteers. All funds raised help cover the maintenance costs of our website, as well as contributing towards future projects and events. Please consider making a small contribution and fund a better media future.