My reflections on Fem 11: inclusion, debate and building a shared movement

Just back after a very long day down in London for the Fem 11 feminist conference, so thought I would spend a few minutes organising my reflections on what was an enjoyable and challenging few hours.

The session started in the main hall with a general address from a small selection of speakers. There were about 1000 of us gathered altogether. Sandi Toksvig (who we think we spotted coming out of Euston about half an hour earlier) gave a warm and funny overview of her perceptions of the relationship between women, language and power which I disagreed with somewhat (particularly her anatomical distinction between “male brain” and “female brain” which I felt oversimplified the overlapping spectrum of individual male and female structural differences into a binary) but which was engaging none the less. Kat Banyard, who was visible at various points during the day remaining completely hands on in the running of the conference, highlighted the Fawcett society’s critique of the disproportionate impact of cuts on women, before outlining her belief in the importance of moving on from the sub-categorisation of different types of feminist, stating her belief that this is divisive and restricts progress. It is a theme I have heard her raise already this fortnight, as she spoke at the UCU women’s conference last week and was questioned about where UK Feminista falls politically by a delegate there. (Incidentally, I was proud to see UCU represented at the stalls at the conference and hope that as the Feminista movement develops engagement with trades unions grows.)

It is a sentiment I partly agree with and partly have reservations about. Certainly I share her frustration that at times debate is locked down into stating of ideological differences which impedes action, an issue which is not unique to feminism but shared in any political group I have ever participated in. Issues of shared concern can often get lost in quibbles over belief or language – one of the most common issues of debate at the moment, for example, is “the sex industry” (itself a loaded and disputable term), and while there are real differences between the radical feminist opposition to all forms of pornography and the counter-critiques that these raise, there are plenty of shared areas which the anti and pro-porn feminists could agree on, such as the necessity to highlight trafficking of sex-workers where it is taking place, or the nasty misogynist and often racist element to a lot of mainstream pornography. It isn’t an area I can ever make my mind up about – as a marxist feminist I think there is a class bias in the main “anti” critique of sex work and a need to engage the voices of sex-workers more thoroughly in the analysis, support improvement of working conditions, unionise etc, but I am also uncomfortable with certain elements of the pro-sex industry argument, at least where the pornography in question is mainstream, in particular the nagging suspicion that the statistics as to who actually forms the main labour force of sex work and why.

Coming back from that sex work tangent, I think we need to keep a dialectic approach, and that includes recognising that different “types” of feminist, moving away from the label and onto the actual critique that they bring, broaden and strengthen the movement. I would love to see the day where class, ethnicity, disability, sexuality and any arena for discrimination is embedded firmly within the core of mainstream feminist analysis, but until that day comes, there is a need to recognise that what is being presented as the united and central school of feminist thought has to be open to a spectrum of analytical positions.

Once we had finished the introduction session, we went along the the workshop on “Migration, cohesion and religion: A gendered perspective” from Southall Black Sisters. I have to say now that this was one of the most inspiring groups of speakers I have ever witnessed, with Pragna Patel in particular absolutely turning a light on for me and possibly the whole room, illuminating and drawing together a number of the murkier issues of culture, ethnicity, religion and prejudice. She spoke very coherently about the current political climate, in which ethnic communities are being relocated culturally as religious communities, effectively passing the right to decide who should speak for a whole group of people to patriarchal religious organisations within these communities and in doing so silencing internal dissent. This is located in parallel to a move towards “big society” in which state funding for secular and fem positive organisations such as SBS is being slashed with the gap in provision is fulfilled by patriarchal religious groups, further disempowering the most vulnerable. Also occuring in tandem is the narrative of “integration” in place of the previous problematic but less damaging concept of “multiculturalism”, with the result being that non-white cultures are framed as “others” who must adapt and be assimilated within UK society even as the very political voices stating this are structurally reinforcing the increase of religious authority. The group also spoke about the need for ethic/gender/class interscted issues to be heard within the Occupy movement, and about the discriminatory practices at the heart of the immigration system. Coming from a marxist perspective I am constantly aware of the extent to which the illusion of capitalism working effectively is built on a comfort for a global minority sustained by the sweated labour of the world’s poorest, women and children; ethnicity and class have to be at the heart of a feminist struggle otherwise it is a meaningless tokenisation of “equality”, and it was inspiring to hear this belief reinforced and further informed so eloquently.

During lunch we were able to hear a performance from the Woman Asylum Seekers Choir, which for me further added to the issues I was already grappling with by hearing some of the women most excluded by our society, and it was very moving but also troubling to hear the choir giving voice to their experiences and the ways in which these are denied by the mainstream: “I was not born an asylum seeker”. I was reminded of the SBS call out to us all to make sure we support black feminist groups and integrate a critique of the disproportionate marginalisation of black issues within our movement.

After lunch we went along to Platform 51s session on teenage pregnancy. This was a lively and informative session, with three young mothers who have accessed support from the group testing us on our knowledge about teenage pregnancy, and talking about their experiences. Once we got into small group discussion I managed to get myself in a semi-heated exchange (nothing unpleasant, just somewhat passionate) which to me again brought home the need for marxist feminism as a critique within feminism as a whole (whether it is labelled that or not). Basically a couple of other people within the group were, in my opinion, coming from the point of view that teenage pregnancy is a problem which needs to be solved, and because it is in many cases unplanned should therefore be ideally prevented. As a lecturer who works a lot with Access students (often returning to education after teenage or young pregnancy) I have come to the opinion over time that it is in fact the social restrictions placed on teenage mothers which are the issue rather than the pregnancy itself. If our society did not centralise a patriarchal model of education as something done between the ages of 2 and roughly 25 before embarking on a career, and instead opened up strengthened multiple educational pathways throughout life, then motherhood (itself educational) could be integrated effectively within the system instead of being seen as a barrier which has to be circumnavigated by an add on. I also found it difficult to believe that someone in my group couldn’t understand the teenage mother’s perspective that childbirth is a process they are patronised and disempowered by in a lot of health provision. There are of course issues with health with very young mothers (as there are with older mothers, who face their own battles with dominant cultural norms but are not stigmatised in the same way), and below a certain age questions about consent become much more difficult areas to address. However, the reality is that the care to learn funding support for young parents has got an axe hanging over it, Access is in real strife, and I think the situation for young mothers is going to get worse. I really felt like some of the arguments I was meeting came from a lack of contact with teenage mothers and the relative cultural voicelessness they have in public discussions about their own lives. Anyway, it was a really engaging session and I was very impressed with Platform 51 and the work they do.

Once the workshop was over it was time for Feminist Question Time back in the main hall, with Shami Chakrabarti, Bea Campbell, Zoe Williams, Carlene Firmin, Matt McCormack-Evans, and chaired by Cllr Rania Khan (who spoke briefly about her work opposing local lapdancing clubs at the start of the day). The panel discussed a range of issues, including representation, the sex industry, the role of men in feminism (which I will come back to in a minute), and lots of other areas which have now escaped me as it has been a very long day! It was an interesting and lively panel, with Carlene Firmin particularly wooing the crowd with her articulate raising of the issue of feminism reaching outwards to engage young and disaffected women who without encouragement and discourse see no place for themselves within the movement.

There was some cat-calling when an elderly gentleman took a very rambling route towards a point/question, and while I can understand the frustration of those who wanted to move on, I did feel this was a low point of the day for me. I felt really uncomfortable about it happening, not least because I felt there was a certain element of ageism involved. Many people do ramble as they get older going on my experience, and it doesn’t mean they should be silenced. I’m also finding myself increasingly irritated by the standard dismissive line of “what about the menz” which a small but vocal minority seem to bring up whenever mens activity within the movement is discussed, and which was being expressed by a couple of people behind me when the sole man on the panel was clapped for talking about the need to engage men as feminist activists. This is something which as a marxist feminist (and a mother of a young son) I have strong opinions about too. Yes, occasionally a male comes along to a feminist event and is very vocal and dominates discussion (although there are plenty of female participants who do this too). However, in general for a lot of men coming along to a feminist event, knowing there is a small minority of radical feminists who don’t want them, and the micro-social group is one in which they are a minority. As a marxist feminist I firmly believe there is a lack of a strong, feminist critique of the systematic way in which the capitalist patriarchy hurts (mainly working class) young men. Who are the cannon fodder in the war machine? On a more local level, young women suffer horribly from the gang culture which grows out of poverty and marginalisation, but this is not to say young men don’t suffer from it too – how many die per year from knife crime? They are all somebody’s son, and they entered this world as blank and blameless as the next baby, to be manipulated by a system which may give them more power than women in most areas but it is not as simple as the oppressor and the oppressed for me. This is before any kind of analysis of the extent to which macho culture stifles the creativity and development of the young men who are as imprisoned by it as the women they victimise.

Lastly, three out of four of the London mayoral candidates took part in a q and a – Boris for some reason didn’t want to face us. It was interesting for me (although as I live in the west midlands arguably some sort of other option might have been useful, though I can appreciate the need to have a big audience to add to the appeal for candidates to come along. I will probably write about this for Labour Left tomorrow as it has been a very long day, but in summary, I felt that Ken was charismatic (if in places misguided) and generally very clear, the woman representing the green candidate was evidently fully engaged in feminist issues, and the Lib Dem candidate was something of an enigma, seeming to distance himself repeatedly from his party and his previous role in the police but taking a more partisan aggressive line on the other candidates than either of the others. I will be interested to see if the panel take up Kat Banyard’s challenge to don a muff and join the “muff march” (does sound like a feminist parody and perhaps not going to do much work in engaging “women not normally defining themselves as feminist” but highlighting the very serious issue of the rise of vagina surgery in the increased intrusion of public artificial norms on women’s bodies) down Harley Street.

I feel like I have been sounding quite negative up to this point but the day itself was really positive. I first heard of UK Feminista when I was asked to speak on a panel about everyday activism at the summer school this August, and when I actually went along I was really excited to see how big a thing it actually was = bigger still now and it is really positive to see the movement on the rise. Kat Banyard has worked immensely hard to bring everything together and as I commented earlier clearly continued to work hard through the day. There is no trace of egotism in her manner and it is great to have someone so committed to bringing forward a unified feminism doing all the work she does. We absolutely have to stand together and keep pushing forwards as a sisterhood – a shared sisterhood built on a recognition of the many fronts of power and exclusion, built on positive and dialectic spaces for debate.


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