Feminism in London 2009

Correction: The original version of this feature originally and incorrectly stated that all women on the panels other than the Sexism and Racism panel were white.

The Feminism in London conference, now in its second year, was an opportunity to bring together intergenerational, interfaith, black, white and minority ethnic women and men from various backgrounds, mainly based in London, but at times hailing from across the country and the EU.

Though the highly anticipated event wavered a little a week before it occurred due to some problems with clarity on whether trans women would be welcome at a women-only labelled workshop, it brought a buzzing crowd of hundreds of women and men together from 9.30am until 5.00pm.

The event circled around three panels with no limit on attendance, on: racism and sexism, what’s wrong with prostitution, and motherhood and poverty, and nine smaller workshops, covering pro-feminist men, media training, rape and sexual violence, self-defence and activism training, among other things. My focus of the conference was on the main hall and the Q&A panels so I can’t testify as to the points of interest in the workshops, or the outcomes.

fil1.jpgThe opening plenary, compered as ever by stand-up and activist Kate Smurthwaite, saw Beatrix Campbell and Susie Orbach set a tone of excitement and questioning to lead us through the day. Campbell spoke about how we’re now living under ‘neo-patriarchy’, the stagnation of progress, the effect of hyper masculinity as touted by the mainstream and the creation of a hyper-femininity. And how a militant femininity has blossomed, as women negotiate gender equality without the cooperation of men, as a subordinate, violent response to lack of options.

Orbach looked at the industries profiting from body fascism – in that the undermining of women’s confidence about themselves and their bodies creates extremely healthy and buoyant beauty, pharmaceutical and dieting companies. Although I did feel that the figures and facts used to illustrate the talk were a bit old and too US-focused to give us any strong insight on the situation here in the UK, it was a good exercise in joining the dots between industry, patriarchy and social ideology.

This was followed by the first Q&A session, Racism and Sexism, moderated by Femi Otitoju, feminist, activist and long term campaigner on women’s rights, which looked at the too-often ignored work of women of colour in the women’s movement. Speakers on the fil7.jpgpanel were Yasmin Rehman, chair of the Board of Trustees of the Domestic Violence Intervention Project; Ego Ahaiwe from the Lambeth Women’s Project; Shahida Choudhry from the Women’s Networking Hub in Birmingham; and Akima Thomas from the Women and Girls Network.

The panel used lived experience and feminist theory to frame the past, present and possibilities in the future. They touched on only being asked to speak about race; never broadly violence against women, only forced marriage or honour killing. About using your voice to speak of both racism and sexism, and falling foul of the condemnation from your own community and about racist organisations like the BNP. Creating and reviving oral history, as with the work of the Remembering Olive Morris Collective, to build stronger foundations for the mountain built of sand that is mainstream archiving of black women’s histories. The systematic and global destruction of women worldwide.

The Q&A started off rather badly when somebody made an openly racist statement about feeling alienated as a white woman in London – which showed a particular kind of white woman privilege that has held the movement back since inception. But where the Q&A worked, a young black woman talked about breaking the isolation from her community who saw feminism as a white movement – Ahaiwe offered the idea of reaching back to sisters from the past who were struggling with exactly the same problem; being inclusive to women from BME backgrounds by creating critiques that had a wider understanding of the exploitation of all women’s bodies and the use of neo-colonialism in fashion/advertising; and the need for white people to confront their racism in order to move forward.

fil4.jpgThe second panel, titled What’s Wrong With Prostitution?, was moderated by Finn Mackay, founder of London Feminist Network and co-founder of the Feminist Coalition Against Prostitution, and looked at the negative effects of prostitution on women. Speakers on the panel were Ann Travers, a formerly prostituted woman and organiser of Mothers Against Violence in Leeds; Denise Marshal, chief executive of Eaves Housing for Women and runs the Poppy Project; and Rebecca Mott, a formerly prostituted woman, and writer and awareness raiser.

Having been to so many awareness-raising panels about this topic I was not overly excited, but I was blown away with a new fresh life brought by the panelists, in particular Rebecca Mott’s clear, strong and hard-hitting presentation on her experiences in prostitution. Marshal brought statistics and background to the panel, and Travers and Mott provided lived experience. There was no place on the panel for a voice supporting the idea of legalising prostitution or as prostitution as a viable career – this was addressed by the panel who said they couldn’t encourage women into a career that shortened their lives drastically, lined them up to suffer abuse and trauma and cement the fate of women as objects not people. Marshal also cleared some myths about prostitution, highlighting agriculture as the more probable ‘oldest trade in the world’ and the oft-fantasized-about happy hooker.

The Q&A brought up questions of privilege in those that posit prostitution as a positive experience; providing a proper exit for women from prostitution; the shift of attention in the debate on legalising prostitution onto Australia and New Zealand; negative aspects of unionising prostitution and the fact that escort work was now being offered to women in job sectors.

fil3.jpgThe Mother and Poverty panel, the last of the three, was moderated by Lisa-Marie Taylor, a former single mother and who now juggles working full-time with home-schooling her son in a polyamorous relationship. Speakers on the panel were: Abi Moore, mother of two sons and co-founder of Pink Stinks; Sue Cohen, director of Single Parents Action Network and Ali Edney, who juggled parenting two children while working freelance stylist jobs.

The panel talked about their own experiences, and provided facts and figures to paint a picture of motherhood today – although I feel the message of the panel, the undervaluing of women’s work, was a bit lost. The panel covered bringing up children in a childhood now mired by strict gendered stereotypes, fighting the negative stereotypes forced upon single mothers in our society and the expectation for women not to work in paid employment – despite their need to. The panel also talked about how women are perceived as walking time-bombs in the world of work if they are of childbearing age and the need for change in working models.

The Q&A brought up the Nordic model, where all adults are treated as if parents, changing the workplace so it doesn’t just revolve around the needs and expectations of men, as well as breaking the stereotypes of black women as societies scrounging single mothers and championing the achievements of single mothers.

The closing speeches looked at feminism worldwide, starting with a message of solidarity from the World March of Women and then moving on to Mawete vo Teka Sala, a longtime feminist activist and chairperson and co-founder of Moyo wa Taifa (Pan Afrikan Women’s Solidarity Network) and Hannana Siddiqui, joint coordinator for Southall Black Sisters.

fil2.jpgTake Sala talked about the importance of looking to the past in improving the future, in securing women’s safety and making sure there are sustainable structures in place to do so. She talked of the rife violence against women across Africa and a sexism that was not apparent when she was given a gun and asked to fight for her country. In closing she spoke about the need for a global feminism built on more than UN papers that sat dusty in drawers while patriarchal powers in various countries continued their reign.

Siddiqui framed her closing speech about the problems within the women’s sector on the fight for funding Southall Black Sisters won last year. She went on to criticise the government’s social cohesion agenda, which can risk undermining women’s rights in minority communities.

As usual, Finn Mackay brought the final curtain down on the event, rousing the audience with a speech on the young women joining the movement. She highlighted the visible threat to women’s rights in the recession economy, that women’s rights are seen as important only during the economic good times. In a downturn, women’s right to equal pay is seen as less important, women’s services lose funding, including our rape crisis centres across the country.

fil5.jpgThe day was a wonderful opportunity to network, bond and learn with women and a smattering of men who wanted to push the women’s movement further, achieve more, kick start the engine again. And through all the joy there were some problems, with numbers in attendance this year blossoming, registration and lunch were a bit of a chaos – too many queues and too little room, something which should be fixed once they find a bigger venue, which I’m sure they can reach capacity on again.

I also have to call out the fact that even though they had a panel on sexism and racism, women of colour were not on any other of the main panels throughout the day [Ed: see correction above] – that is a huge mistake – and to me it only went on to highlight Yasmin Rehamn’s point about only being allowed to offer commentary on race. And next year trans women need to see themselves welcomed, and represented from the very beginning – to continue to treat their issues as an add on is an insult.

A great day, with improvements needed as always – but welcome to the feminist movement, we’re still struggling to get it right.

The text of some speeches are available on the Feminism in London website. Photos by Jess McCabe, see the full set here

A response from Anna Fisher and the Feminism in London 2009 organising group

I’m so glad that you enjoyed the Feminism in London conference. I just wanted to clarify some points and provide some background as I fear that your article may lead to some misperceptions.

The idea for a Racism and Sexism panel at Feminism in London 2009 came out of a conversation I had with a black woman shortly before Feminism in London 2008. She asked me whether we were running any workshops or sessions specifically for black women and she was disappointed when I said that we weren’t.

As a group of mainly white women, we felt we were not in a position to say what the panel should cover, so we asked Sabrina Qureshi to organise it and were thrilled when she said yes. We gave her an entirely open brief. Although we had drafted a rough description of the panel to put on the website, we said that they were free to set the agenda and come up with their own description. In the end they opted to keep the initial draft description and to add some more to it. My reading of Yasmin Rehman’s speech is very much that she was talking about the general situation rather than specifically about the Racism and Sexism panel at Feminism in London 2009.

On the website’s Policy page, we tried to make it clear that we don’t see racism as an issue that can be boxed off and dealt with in isolation. However, we wanted to provide a slot that focused on those issues – just like we provided other slots that focused on other issues.

It is misleading to say that women of colour were missing from the other panels – in total, nine out of seventeen panelists and speakers in the main hall were women of colour. That doesn’t mean we can’t do better and we are definitely seeking to make the day better next year and to make sure that we allow the voices of black women and women from a wide range of backgrounds to be heard.

I would also like to make it clear that trans women were definitely welcome at Feminism in London 2009 as they will be at Feminism in London 2010. Our mistake was simply in not spelling this out.

We will take on board all the lessons learned from this year and last year to make Feminism in London 2010 even more of an inspiring and thought provoking event. We look forward to seeing you all there.

Charlotte Cooper is the designer and co-founder of Subtext Magazine, Britain’s only print feminist magazine – www.subtextmagazine.co.uk and an active participant in both the British and US women’s sectors