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Women have always been at the heart of the battle against the far right

Dr LOUISE RAW explains why the seventh annual Matchwomen’s Festival is proudly anti-fascist

IN A chilling phrase, state school teacher Roksana says that, as she helped organise a peaceful protest for women’s reproductive rights in Poland in 2016, she “felt the breath of the government on my back.”

Thousands demonstrated against the attempt by the ruling Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc, PiS) to completely ban abortion.  

When the ban failed, it seemed like a victory. But two years later, women’s rights activists and organisations in Poland remain under direct attack. 

Roksana’s colleagues had warned her not to take part: “You’re crazy — you could lose your job.”

After the protest her teaching hours were suddenly cut in half with no explanation, and then halved again. 

Since coming to power in 2015, the PiS government has targeted women’s rights groups through raids on their offices and denial of funding.

Government agencies have dragged openly feminist state employees before disciplinary hearings and threatened their jobs. Some women say they have lost their jobs. 

Across Europe, the far right is launching these new-style attacks on feminists, as well as maintaining more traditional misogyny. 

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro told fellow congresswomen: “I would never rape you because you do not deserve it.” He is revising school textbooks to remove references to feminism. 

If this is shocking but unsurprising for Brazil, women in Spain are reeling from attacks by new far-right party Vox. 

Vox actively campaigned on an aggressively anti-feminist ticket and wants strong anti-domestic violence laws swept away. 

In exchange they offer what Spanish feminists call “modern sexism” — longer maternity leave and appreciation if they fulfil their perceived role as mothers.  

We should never think it couldn’t happen here. 

I’ve reported before on how the so-called “pick-up artists” movement grew into “men’s rights activism” both here and in the US. 

The far right saw this as a fertile hunting ground for recruits and has actively targeted disaffected white “MRAs.” 

This came to fruition in the US with the incel movement — it seemed like a joke, but men who consider themselves “involuntarily celibate” and blame feminists for it have committed 18 murders to date and injured many more.

Feminists in Britain have also noticed a huge upswing of openly misogynist abuse just because of their feminist activism. 

Failed MEP Tommy Robinson has been recorded sneering at a black woman as “too ugly to rape,” called a young Palestinian activist a “little slut,” and told a 15-year-old girl on Twitter she was “pretty fit for a Muslim.”

Robinson is employed by Ukip and the party’s MEP candidate Carl Benjamin infamously and unapologetically “joked” during his campaign about raping MP Jess Phillips. 

When I’m harassed for my own anti-fascist activism, it’s always with extremely misogynistic insults — though I am quite proud of the “Dr Bitch” bestowed on me face to face by a member of Tommy Robinson’s staff this year. 

As ever, solidarity is the answer — we should be organising internationally to support our sisters, as we would with any other targeted group.

The good news is that women are, and always have been, passionate fighters against fascism. 

From the Battle of Cable Street to the Spanish civil war, from the London-based 43 group after World War II to the Anti-Nazi League and still today, women are in the forefront of standing up to the bullies. 

It was a woman, Dolores Ibarruri, who gave us the phrase “No pasaran” (They Shall Not Pass).

That’s why this year’s Matchwomen’s Festival, the seventh, is proudly anti-fascist. Our speakers have resisted racism and Islamophobia as well as “everyday” misogyny. 

MatchFest will help recharge political batteries with warmth, humour and inspiration — as well as gin cocktails — a stone’s throw from the old match factory in Bow where the fearless Bryant & May matchwomen began their 1888 strike against one of the country’s most powerful employers. 

Matchwomen faced misogyny as well as class prejudice and actual racism — many were from Irish backgrounds at a time when the Irish were designated a “negroid race” by Victorian eugenicists, at the inception of that deadly pseudo-science, later employed by the nazis to genocidal effect. 

The matchwomen faced it all arm in arm, with tremendous loyalty, a love of life — and amazing hats. They helped begin a new trade union movement which led in time to the formation of the Labour Party. 

Our speakers all have more than a dash of that spirit. Caroline Criado Perez OBE, writer and feminist activist who was harassed so hatefully her abusers went to prison, dealt with it by getting women back on our banknotes, and writing two best-selling books.

Writer Hallie Rubenhold’s new book The Five about Ripper victims has been a runaway success even though, as she will tell us, some “Ripperologists” didn’t want it written; Rachel Thompson survived being shot at close range by her ex-husband to become a writer, campaigner and advocate for other women.

Sabby Dhalu of Stand up To Racism will tell us why a woman’s place is resisting the far right. Nina Malik is a courageous, funny Muslim, feminist, non-hijab wearer and survivor of domestic violence; Carla Montemayor of Maternity Action will tell us why she won’t give up until every pregnant woman, new parent and child is treated fairly, and our legendary “token bloke,” writer and broadcaster Michael Rosen, will end the day with his co-authors Jane Rosen and Kim Reynolds, talking about their brilliant anthology Reading and Rebellion.

As London’s only “anxiety-friendly” festival, our friendly stewards make sure guests are as looked after or as left in peace as they choose. 

Our bar will help it all go with a swing, as will our fabulous evening bands. Unique, original, beautiful and political harmonies from talented singer-songwriter Maddy Carty, the joyful beats of the Samba Sisters Collective, and, back for their seventh triumphant year at MatchFest, Steve White and The Protest Family. 

The Matchwomen’s Festival 2019 on Saturday June 29 from 2pm-11pm at Bow Arts Trust, which is an accessible venue. Nearest Tubes, Bow Church and Bow Road. Sponsored by The Freedom Programme. Media Sponsor, the Morning Star. Tickets are available at mstar.link/MatchFest19

 

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