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A weekend of tears, laughter – and feminism

LYNNE WALSH reports from two action-packed and emotional days at FiLiA conference in Portsmouth

IT’S astonishing the things you can learn on a brief visit to a new city.

Most of us know that Portsmouth, nicknamed Pompey, is famous for its military and maritime connections. Some among you might win a pub quiz by recognising it as the birthplace of Charles Dickens, or knowing that the city crest includes a unicorn with a fish tail.  How many realise it was also the country’s “corsetry capital”?

It seems more than 7,000 women were employed, post World War II, in making corsets. It’s hard to image any image less feminist than this restricting, painful garment designed to gratify a “male gaze.” 

Although post-modernist fashion may have strained to reclaim the waist-cinchers and waspies for 21st-century women, there was no place for such frippery at the Guildhall last weekend. 

The vast 19th-century building played host to 1,000 delegates, for the annual FiLiA conference of feminist thought and action.

The two-day event, with 100 speakers, tackled the world’s major problems for women and girls, including prostitution, domestic violence and abuse, rape, murder and religious fundamentalism, as well as the risks run by those who speak up for women’s sex-based rights.

The charity’s work towards women’s liberation has a strong international perspective, and its global reputation secured renowned contributors from India, Afghanistan, Rojava, Palestine, Zimbabwe, Australia and Ireland.

A live link to persecuted lesbian and bisexual women, detained in a notorious refugee camp in Kenya, moved many in the auditorium to tears. 

Held in Block 13 of the Kakuma camp, the women had fled Uganda, only to find themselves in fear for their lives again. They slept in shifts, after other detainees had raped and attacked them. Their children were unable to go to school, or get enough to eat.

“Shifra” told the conference: “This is like living in hell. We have tried to escape from this camp but the police bring us back to this place where we are suffering. We are dying silently, and no-one is coming to our rescue.”  

Throughout the weekend, sessions gave a platform to experts — among them author Joan Smith on the new Domestic Abuse Act; Professor Selina Todd on current resistance from students and lecturers against gender orthodoxy in academia; lifelong activists Sheila Jeffreys and Linda Bellos on the ways young and old feminists are working together; Pragna Patel and Rahila Gupta of the formidable Southall Black Sisters, and human rights lawyer Harriet Wistrich, co-founder of the Centre for Women’s Justice.

Alongside them, women with their own personal stories, often harrowing, sometimes enraging, but bound by strong narrative threads: men’s inhumanity towards women, and the resilience, resistance and even recovery made possible by the bonds women can forge.

A male delegate, one of the very few men attending, said: “The speakers are excellent — experts in their field and so clear in the way they convey what needs to be done, what needs to change. But the women telling us about their lived experience — their narratives fill the space. In some sessions, even in the auditorium, you could hear a pin drop.” 

One, known as Daisy, won this year’s Emma Humphries memorial prize, for her campaign which secured the conviction of her birth father, who had raped her mother.

Carvel Bennett is now in prison for raping the then 13-year-old daughter of a friend. Some 45 years later, the child he fathered said in her “victim statement”: “Because you chose to rape a child I have sacrificed much to pursue justice and for rape-conceived people like myself to be seen and heard. I am more than evidence. I am more than a witness. I was a walking crime scene.”

Daisy told the packed Guildhall: “I must take a moment to give due respect to my birth mother’s incredible bravery. I hope that she now feels validated, empowered, and that some degree of justice has been served. 

“My experience of the criminal justice system … has been gruelling and hostile. This must change. We must recognise that children conceived of rape are secondary victims of the crime.”

There was evidence everywhere of collaboration between generations. A newly published anthology, featuring 56 collaborators over the age of 70, goes by the glorious title, Not Dead Yet: Feminism, Passion and Women’s Liberation.

In a live link from Australia, its publishers, Susan Hawthorne and Renate Klein, told of setting up Spinifex Press 30 years before. 

The independent feminist company says it produces “innovative and controversial feminist books with an optimistic edge.” 

Recently released is Sheila Jeffreys’ book, Trigger Warning: My Lesbian Feminist Life, and the author told the session she felt privileged to be part of two movements.

“I remember the prolonged grief as the women’s liberation movement died in the 1990s and did not expect the new movement to happen — it was taking such a long time to get going!

“But it is now fair to say that there is a wave of feminist activism building internationally. Knowledge of our history is crucial as feminists plan and build this new wave, and one thing that’s immediately obvious is the way men are acting now. 

“In the 1970s, most men ignored us; some men even supported us. Meetings and conferences were women-only, and men did not try to gatecrash … The opposition to feminism now is huge. This is an extraordinarily hostile environment in which to build a women’s movement — and yet it is happening. Congratulations, sisters!”

Elsewhere, a panel presented the story of their plot to disrupt the Miss World contest in 1970.  

Jenny Fortune, Sue Finch, Jo Robinson, Sarah Wilson and Jane Grant recalled the direct action, which was witnessed by a global TV audience of 100 million. Infiltrating the Royal Albert Hall, women threw flour bombs and leaflets, sending host Bob Hope scurrying backstage.

Fortune said her arrest as a result was “the pivotal turning point in my life.” The thought of speaking for herself in court was terrifying, but “with the support particularly of these women here, I was kind of pushed forward to have the courage. 

“We tore the male establishment apart. We made that thing into a farce. We disrupted the thing so much that the magistrate put us in Holloway prison — mercifully, only overnight. I just never turned back after that. That’s when I experienced collective empowerment.”

In a powerful intervention in this conference session, Miriam Yagud of Stroud women’s liberation group said she remembered meeting the women in a local pub when she was 18, having come out as a lesbian at 15. 

She told delegates: “I told them I hated being female and wanted to cut off my breasts. I’d had years of male sexual violence and harassment and I felt that my female body attracted men’s unwanted attentions. 

“Over many conversations and beers down the pub, they convinced me that my body was not the problem — men were. 

“They saved my life and gave me a safe harbour in life — feminism. I dread to think what would have happened if I had been 18 years old today.”

Closing the event, FiLiA trustee Raquel Rosario Sanchez revealed there had been “considerable pressure to defame and abuse women, and to prevent this conference from taking place. Those efforts to silence, erase and cancel all of us have failed.”

The organisation’s commitment to running local, grassroots projects in its host cities would continue, she said. 

This year, a youth club to support vulnerable young women — many excluded from school — had been sabotaged by a few local dissenters. 

“We’re talking about vulnerable girls who oftentimes fall prey to sexual exploitation and abuse, but they’ve been prevented from accessing support because some people smeared us for being feminists.

“Here in Portsmouth, refugee and migrant women have been prevented from participating in the FiLiA legacy project because some people — who should know better — decided to smear women who want to help other women.

“But we move forward. The FiLiA conference 2021 is a story of endurance, perseverance and strength.”

There had been hundreds of moments, she said, of women greeting one another, wiping away tears, having a laugh, and dancing. 

In a wry homage to MP David Lammy, who’d recently claimed some women were “dinosaurs, hoarding rights,” three volunteers in dinosaur costumes danced outside, entertaining both local children and police community support officers.

“Those little moments ignite collaboration,” she said. “Those moments of rage, sadness, outrage — but also fun, laughter and joy — carry all of us forward. 

“FiLiA is also those quiet moments between women, to let one another know, ‘You are not alone, I also care about this and I want us to work together so that we can do something about it’.”

There had been some anti-feminist graffiti (much of it unrepeatable here) chalked on pavements, though a lot faded under the footsteps of delegates who came onto the Guildhall steps on Saturday evening, in a candle-lit vigil for murdered women.

As we headed for home on Sunday, the threatening placards had gone, and the final hate messages were being scuffed away — by the dinosaurs, still dancing.

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