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From prostitution, to grooming, to the Palestine question, women confront the power of patriarchy

LYNNE WALSH reports from the international feminist FiLiA conference, which took place in Salford last weekend

FROM a programme packed with speakers, survivors and sisterhood, there’s one short sentence that stays with me. 

A young woman told the audience of years of neglect, abuse and grooming. In the session “Failed by the State,” Zoe (not her real name) said: “I was groomed in the womb.”

“As soon as you know the sex of a baby,” she went on, “all the gender stereotypes start applying.”

Raped by a close relative at the age of seven, she endured time in a children’s home, three months in a secure unit, and 15 foster placements in four years. 

It was at the home, where taxi drivers took the children to and from school, that she and others were groomed and abused. In later years, it was the ethnicity of the drivers that made an impression on others. She calls out Tommy Robinson: “[He] uses your pain to further his own agenda.”

Zoe has told her story before, and delivers it in a prosaic way; there is no anger, no resentment displayed. But there is absolute clarity of what paved the way for her fractured, traumatic childhood. Adults, she found, considered her uncontrollable. Blame was dished out by police and social workers, along with her abusers.

“The idea that a child can be in a ‘relationship’ with a man, and they say: ‘Oh, some girls grow up quicker!’ We need to stamp that out. It’s unacceptable.”

Alongside her is Kendra Houseman, forced into gangs in Brixton, her young life stolen. With her mother a victim of domestic violence, whose fragile mental health often left her unable to cope, Kendra was coerced into making and selling drugs, and introducing other young girls to the gang, where they too were raped.

She also challenges the powers that be, for perpetuating damaging stereotypes, for not seeing beyond the troublesome teen with a criminal record.

“You can be a perpetrator and a victim at the same time,” she says.

Looking at the bigger perspective, and detailing the extent of the global trade in women and children, came from independent journalist Dr Francine Sporenda in a session on neoliberalism and patriarchy.

The sex trade had become a modern and thriving industry, she said, making use of low-cost, exploited labour. Increasingly women were lured and trafficked from poorer countries, including those in severe economic turmoil. A recent study said that in Germany, 90 per cent of women in prostitution were foreign nationals.

“What the industry does is to flood the market with migrant women,” she said. This ensured a ready supply of people forced to accept cheaper rates.

Not only were the women more easily controlled, as they could not speak the language and had no knowledge of the country they were in, but this appealed to punters who enjoyed “colonial fantasies,” as women were considered more “exotic.”

Following the money, said Dr Sporenda, was “a game of ‘catch me if you can’” for monolithic companies, which store their billions in tax havens. Many had what Naomi Klein had termed “a Nike-style management model,” with few employees, but hundreds or thousands on zero-hours contracts — or, in reality, no contracts at all.

Getting to the heart of this hypocrisy, in a pithy and erudite 10 minutes, was Dr Inge Kleine. 

“Men can appear to be allies,” she said, “so that they can make sure that what we gain is not a cost to them. Men will often stand up for women’s ‘right’ to be in prostitution!”

Turning to the discussion of gender identity, Kleine said: “What we see is another round in the re-enactment of men's dramas of the exclusion and appropriation of women, of femaleness and of femininity. 

“Women’s rights and demands, as well as those of other targeted and oppressed human beings, are reframed so that their affirmation can be used to push women again to the margins and beyond.”

Women had to “separate the foreground from the background,” she said, in trying to analyse the bigger picture, “when we are tied down, trying to keep open an abortion centre, or a refuge.”

Kleine, who is also active in Germany in the movement to abolish prostitution, was one among many international speakers and delegates at the two-day conference.

From Palestine, Nawal Slemiah spoke about the day-to-day challenges faced by women, including a lack of water, gas, electricity and food. 

“And I feel sorry that my children feel it is normal to see soldiers with guns,” she said.

Representing the “Women in Hebron” embroidery co-operative, Slemiah said that the thriving handicrafts business now had 150 women from eight villages involved in making products for sale.

She told delegates: “Our hope for change comes from the public who are showing more and more support for Palestine. I don’t know when and I don’t know how, but Palestine will be free.”

 

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