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Building solidarity against the misogyny of today

ROS SITWELL reports from the three-day FiLiA conference in Glasgow

IT WAS a conference that almost didn’t happen. Hours before FiLiA, the largest grassroots feminist event in Europe, was due to begin, organisers issued a statement from CEO Lisa-Marie Taylor, saying: “We were dismayed when we were informed by Platform at very short notice that they were not going to allow us into the venue. 

“It was clear to us that they and their staff had been pressurised by a group determined to undermine women’s rights and thwarting freedom of speech … We are very grateful to our legal team for acting so quickly to turn this round.” 

For those who haven’t been following the women’s rights movement for the past few years, this might be mystifying. But for many feminists it is now a familiar occurrence — that venues will face pressure to cancel or large angry protests for hosting women’s events that discuss sex and gender is frequently to be expected. 

Fortunately for the thousand-plus attendees — and the dauntless organisers — the venue, Platform, located under the serried brick arches of Glasgow Central station, reconsidered its decision and FiLiA was able to go ahead.

A group of around 30 avowed trans rights activists protested across the road from the women queuing to register on the first day. 

“Fuck you, fuck you” was among the chants and they waved placards with the slogans: “No to FiLiA” and “No feminism without trans women.” The group had vanished by lunch time.

Despite this disturbance, attendees showed no signs of diminished enthusiasm, and FiLiA conference itself — this one being its ninth, and sold-out before a single speaker was announced — showed no signs of diminished popularity.

So what is FiLiA? Trustee Claire Heuchan explained: “We are a woman-led volunteer organisation with over 130 phenomenal women in our team. What we work towards is a world free of patriarchy where all women and all girls are liberated from every form of oppression.”

FiLiA concentrates on “building sisterhood at local, national and global level, amplifying voices of women and girls, particularly those less heard or purposely silenced and defending women’s human rights.”

But it’s “more than an event once a year,” Heuchan pointed out, “we are promoting collaboration and network-building between women’s organisations, community groups, movements and activists. We are providing advocacy and activism training and skills informed by local community needs.”

Such laudable and necessary activity appears in jarring contrast to the hostility from the activists who claimed to be standing for trans rights shouting at women on their way in.

Speaker, SNP MP and KC Joanna Cherry, was emphatic — branding them “bullies,” and calling on the political class to speak out and defend women’s right to meet without harassment.

“The small group of people protesting outside — dominated by men’s voices — are not representative of my country,” she said, “Scotland historically has welcomed debate and discussion, from the Reformation on to the birth of the Enlightenment in the 18th century … and to the present day. 

“This time yesterday we did not have a venue. Because of the bullies outside we nearly lost this venue. Thanks to volunteers who worked round the clock and our legal team, here we are. I can’t say this strongly enough — how much we owe to the volunteers of FiLiA and Lisa-Marie and her team.

“We say to anyone who’s listening that we will never give in to those who want to undermine women’s rights, to those who want to erase lesbians and to those who want to thwart freedom of speech — we will never give in to that.

“The bullies outside, that small handful of anti-democratic bullies, do not have the law on their side. The law is on our side. Equality law, anti-discrimination law and human rights law is on our side and that’s why this conference has proceeded.

“I want to be absolutely crystal clear that the bullies outside do not speak for Scotland, they are not what my country is, and public opinion is on our side, not their side. 

“…the protest outside is not about what the press and some politicians like to call a culture war — it’s about a war on women. That war on women has been fuelled by irresponsible politicians who really ought to know better than to feed the flames. 

“And when those irresponsible politicians tell women, women like us, that our views are not valid, or when they make unfounded allegations of bigotry, transphobia or racism — or whatever pejorative comes to hand — they are making things worse, not better.”

She added: “I want to make a call on all the politicians and political leaders in Scotland to condemn the bullies who sought to shut this conference down.

“This is an enormous international feminist conference in Glasgow, and Glasgow and Scotland and our political leaders should be proud that it’s here … so I call on political leaders across Scotland to support this conference to welcome it and to endorse our right to meet and speak as women to discuss our rights and the rights of our sisters across the globe.”

Cherry went on to take part in an “in-conversation” session with United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls Reem Alsalem, whose work highlights the impact of war and displacement on women.

Alsalem explained a bit about her background — she had worked in Sudan at the time Omar al-Bashir was indicted and witnessed the horrors that the Janjaweed militias were inflicting, and said of her time in neighbouring Libya: “If you think the situation for refugees and migrants in Libya is bad, it is 100 times worse than you imagine.”

She said that what made her work demanding was that misogyny continually “reinvents itself,” adding: “It puts on a progressive face … So we still have the more classical forms of violence, whether it’s domestic violence, whether it’s sexual violence, whether it’s honour-based or FGM and also prostitution. Then we have new forms emerging which we still haven’t wrapped our head around,” pointing to, for example, the role of new digital technologies.

Attendees will have called to mind FiLiA and its own venue difficulties when Alsalem said that there is a “shrinking space for women and women’s organisations to act, to speak…” adding that “in some countries you can’t even commemorate the 25th of November any more” — the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Alsalem will have probably been best-known to her audience for making the headlines earlier this year when she intervened urging caution in the debate on Scotland’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill in a letter to the UK government. 

This controversial piece of legislation, which permits people to self-identify their sex, was passed by Holyrood but is now tangled in a litigation process concerning how devolved and reserved equality laws interact.

Quizzed on her intervention by Cherry, Alsalem said: “For me — more than what the law was about — I was concerned about the lack of space and the lack of participation that was given to women. And this was something that was not limited to Scotland. 

“After my intervention in Scotland I received an avalanche of letters and emails from women from all over the world who had draft legislation or similar projects being also pushed and we see there are certain things they have in common — very little consultation time, the attempt to shut out voices that disagree and the non-reliance on an evidence-based understanding of the consequences.”

Alsalem added: “It is our duty as societies to work out these tensions in a constructive respectful way and — as a society — to find solutions. But it’s definitely not the way forward just to sideline, undermine, delegitimise groups of the population for whom this is quite important under the pretext that it’s irrelevant or even hate speech just to disagree.”

FiLiA featured a strong international component, bringing together women from 35 countries over the course of the three-day event, according to organisers.

Morsal Aimal of the Migrant Women’s Network highlighted the ongoing situation facing women in Afghanistan following the return to power of the Taliban.

“Just in the numbers — [there have been] 64 restrictions, 64 rights, that have been taken from Afghan women and girls … It has been 719 days since August 2021,” she said, adding: “And let’s not forget those Afghan women and girls who are living in exile today, outside of Afghanistan, facing tremendous bullying oppression and difficult times.”

Despite the difficulties they faced, Aimal was upbeat and looking to the future: “When we women get together and decide to do something we can do incredible things and we are strong together. And I also have a call to all of you — you come from a lot of organisations from all over the world, I call for action. We need to stand not only with Afghan women but also women in Iran, with women in Kurdistan and other places. 

“I just want to call for action to do something. It is our duty. I need to have an answer to the next generation — if I some day will have a daughter — to have an answer, what I have done.”

And Congolese women’s rights activist Marie-Claire Faray, of a group called Common Cause UK, which was founded by refugees and migrants, spoke movingly alongside women widowed in the longstanding war in Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Widows are usually left destitute on the deaths of their husbands in war as they have no access to social security or pensions. In a population of 100 million people, more than half are women and half of the female population are widows, Faray explained. “Women become subhuman,” she said, “the crime of widows is the death of the husband.”

Meanwhile, sisters also discussed the importance of — and difficulties surrounding — women getting involved in the trade union movement.

Trade unionist and former NHS nurse Helen O’Connor described how she stepped up to become a rep in her union shortly after having a baby because she felt she “had no choice.” 

“Management told us they were going to do a restructure and that all of us would have to reapply for our jobs and that half of us would be downgraded. They told us they had no choice, there was no money. I had a young baby, I had bills to pay and I couldn’t afford to take a drop in pay,” O’Connor explained. 

She said that there was a boys’ club mentality in her local branch, which she overcame by engaging with the other nurses: “I spent hours ringing around the other nurses and I persuaded them to meetings without management to discuss the restructure … over time over 150 nurses from four London boroughs came to those meetings. I’d never done public speaking before but I had to speak to them. I circulated minutes about how angry we all were about the restructure. Momentum and anger started to build.” 

The result was that one of the largest mental health trusts in the country backed down, O’Connor explained. “In the end they didn’t make a single one of us reapply for our jobs and this victory made me see the immense power of trade union-led collective activity around a single purpose.”

She added: “There were times when I felt like giving up, but I never gave up and I carried on building campaigns and trying to draw new people into the branch because I felt and I saw the injustice of cuts and privatisation and the impact it was having on patients and on my colleagues.”

O’Connor was emphatic that women shouldn’t be put off getting involved and that they have an essential role to play in trade unions: “Women are 50 per cent of the population and our role in the class struggle is vital and it’s necessary — we simply cannot allow the struggle for women’s sex-based rights to be handed over to the Tories and the hard right. History has shown us that right-wing conservative governments oppress women as seen by the track records of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.”

The important thing is to “never give up, never go away!”

And Kiri Tunks of the NEU, and formerly the NUT, described her work over 30 years within her union — starting as a classroom teacher and activist and eventually being elected president — to improve women’s participation, through setting up a women’s network which then spread to different parts of the country where women started organising locally. 

“We had lots of really good events where we had speakers come and we invited men and women from all over the union to come and hear about women’s struggles, present and historic, and then we started getting ourselves into branch and district positions.”

Tunks continued: “We established a subculture of women’s activity in the union movement, we then started to move toward workplace organising. So we took the union to women where the women were. We didn’t expect women to come to us, we made it easy for them to get involved.”

“…Because we were working for women we got support from across the union which is how we managed to beat the pattern that had gone before … At every turn we challenged the boys’ club,” she said.

“You are there at the table, in the room, you can start calling out casual sexism — this historic ‘this is how we do things’ — and say, ‘The way you do things isn’t good enough.’

“So we did change the way things work and having taken the union to women in their workplace, we then took women’s experience back into the union and I’m confident in saying that the NEU is a very transformed union to when we started and it is down to the grassroots work of women activists all over the country.”

The passion, dedication and bravery of the women involved in FiLiA — organisers, speakers and volunteers — was infectious, and sisters will have gone away rejuventated for the many battles ahead.

The conference will be having a hiatus next year, returning in October 2025 with a capacity of 3,000. Judging by the popularity of 2023’s event, the countdown has already begun.

For more information about FiLiA visit www.filia.org.uk.

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