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Women, race, class and gender come under the spotlight

ROS SITWELL reports from a meeting organised by the London Morning Star Readers and Supporters Group to mark International Women’s Day last week

MORNING STAR supporters and women’s rights activists gathered last week on International Women’s Day to hear an expert panel of speakers discussing the theme of “Women, race, class and gender” at Friends Meeting House in Euston, central London.

Left-wing actor Maxine Peake had been due to speak at the event, which was organised by the London Morning Star Readers and Supporters Group, but due to a work engagement was unable to attend. 

She sent a solidarity message to the audience, warning of turbulent times for Britain and the world but drawing hope from “the mobilisation of women.”

“I have recently returned from a trip to Turkey and Kurdistan as part of an international peace delegation with Freedom for Ocalan peace in Kurdistan,” she said in a statement read out by the meeting’s chair Christiane Ohsan. 

“What inspired me the most and will leave an everlasting impression was the that the women were front and centre of the struggle. We met with the Peace Mothers, a group of Kurdish women whose children have been murdered or imprisoned for their political allegiances. 

“One of the mothers, who was in her 80th year, was facing trial with a possible sentence of 15 years for visiting her son’s grave. We then went on to visit MP Leyla Guven who then was on her 98th day of hunger strike. 

“Her pain and discomfort was palpable but also her strength, passion and humanity. When we were leaving she said: ‘Women don’t start wars but we have the power to stop them.’ 

“That for me has rung in my ears ever since. The power of sisterhood.”

The first speaker was Helen Steel of the activist group Police Spies out of Lives, who described how scores of campaign groups in the women’s, green and justice movements had been infiltrated by undercover police since the late ’60s.

Steel was one of at least 20 women who were deceived into relationships by police spies, some of which lasted as long as seven years. Some of these men had fathered children.

Steel had known the spy who was to become her partner for about three years before they began a relationship.

“We talked about the future and about having children,” she said.

“He said he needed to borrow money to go to the funeral of his mother in New Zealand. But in reality his mum, dad and brothers and sisters were still alive.”

The man had been using a dead child’s identity to preserve his deception. Steel first realised that something was amiss when she found the death certificate, but despite a long search it wasn’t until 2011 that she had confirmation that he was indeed a spy.

She managed to unite with other women who had been victims of spycops and they began to campaign for justice. 

By 2015 the police were forced to apologise but to date no officers — or their superiors — have been charged with any offence. 

These police officers were “working for corporate and state interests, not the public interest,” Steel said.

“The legal system exists to preserve power … The assumption is that women do not have the right to make a fully informed decision who they want to have a relationship with.”

She added: “We don’t know how much of our personal thoughts and lives are now in Special Branch files.”

Next up was Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters, who described how and why the group came to be founded. The ’70s were a period of mass mobilisation against racism and there were a number of racial uprisings in Southall led by mainly Asian youth who were being targeted by the police in the way that mainly Afrocaribbean youth had been before, she explained.

The National Front wanted to march through Southall, and the uprisings in response culminated in the death of Blair Peach in April 1979. Patel described this as a “seminal moment.”

SBS “emerged to challenge both racism and sexism. Our founding was an act of dissent.”

“We wanted to challenge the racism of the women’s movement and the sexism of the anti-racism movement. We laid down the politics of simultaneous dissent.”

“Community leaders have tried to shut us down on the basis that we are Westernised,” she said. 

“We were accused of fuelling negative stereotypes of minorities. We were accused of borrowing the clothes of Western feminism — the answer to this is that feminism is universal. It is not the preserve of the West.”

Patel explained that the politics of SBS “involved mobilising around the term ‘black.’ It was not common before that to use the term black as a political identity.

“It allowed for a more progressive identity against fundamentalism, to locate ourselves in wider movements for justice” away from “unelected community leaders” who were “usually from the religious or business class.”

SBS also engaged in a “robust critique of multiculturalism, which has its roots in colonialism,” Patel said.

Trade unionist and teacher Kiri Tunks then spoke about the work of the group she co-founded in 2017, Woman’s Place UK, and the battles it has faced. 

WPUK was founded in response to proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act and campaigns to ensure that single-sex exemptions, which exist in the Equality Act, are properly enforced and, where necessary, strengthened. 

Tunks said that although WPUK’s demands might seem “reasonable” and “benign,” the group had been subject to almost intolerable abuse because “in debates around sex and gender it is easier to defame and slur than engage with very real concerns.”

She described a pattern of persistent violent threats online and the tarring of feminists as “fascists.”

Even though what WPUK is calling for is in line with the law as it currently stands, each of the group’s 21 meetings around Britain have been threatened, they have had “masked thugs” demonstrating outside, speakers or attendees have been reported to their employers, security has had to be hired, and on one occasion they even faced a bomb threat.

But Tunks was undeterred: “When, in history, have women won any rights without having to fight to make their voice heard? Without kicking up a fuss? Women are meant to know our place, keep quiet, stay in the shadows, acquiesce, do as we are told, behave. Well, as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich declared: ‘Well-behaved women rarely make history’.”

She slammed “the political cowardice of councils all over the country who are happy to casually change the protected characteristic from ‘sex’ to ‘gender’ without a thought for their obligations under the Equality Act but who won’t host a meeting for women to discuss their rights.”

LGBT charity Stonewall also came in for criticism, for having “lobbied to have single-sex exemptions removed from the Equality Act without any thought of the impact this might have on lesbians and other women. Many other women’s organisations have decided that self-identity is OK without consulting the women they claim to represent.”

Tunks condemned the labour movement, “which has a majority female membership but whose leadership is male,” for “not recognising the potential for a conflict of rights between groups with protected characteristics in their own unions,” and also the liberal press for failing to “facilitate the debate and represent differing views.” However she paid tribute to the Morning Star for having “stuck their neck out early on” and having “taken abuse for it,” and she thanked the Quakers who run Friends House and other venues that had provided space for women to meet despite facing threats and intimidation.

Tunks said that WPUK was regularly sent messages from women who say they are supporters of the group’s demands but are too afraid to say so, but she reminded the audience that “the suffragettes were hated at the time, so if you’re feeling hated, you’re in good historical company.”

Academic and historian Mary Davis of the Marx Memorial Library was the last speaker, who elaborated upon the thinking behind a motion adopted by the Communist Party of Britain at its Congress last year regarding women’s rights, neoliberal ideology and current government plans to permit people to self-identify whether they are male or female under changes to the Gender Recognition Act.

The Tory plans were “an invidious attack on women’s rights,” Davis said, “and an attack on the notion of ‘woman’ itself.”

In any society the dominant ideas are the ideas of the ruling class, and “gender identity has become the ruling ideology; it has usurped the materialist categorisation of biology.”

Davis highlighted the fact that “discrimination is not the same as oppression. Discrimination comes from inequality in society,” whereas “women’s oppression comes from their position in capitalism” under which they face a double burden of exploitation.

Oppression “is a function of class society as well as being a product of it. Sexism and racism serve to maintain class rule by dividing workers by the most easily identifiable characteristics of sex and race. Sexism and racism are essential to maintaining capitalism — it couldn’t operate without them.”

However, she cautioned, “Challenging discrimination faced by trans people is not served by undermining women’s struggle against oppression.”

Davis emphasised that International Women’s Day was a socialist invention, and at one point it was only celebrated in socialist countries.

However, the event these days is dominated by corporate sponsors which have nothing to do with what International Women’s Day was founded for. We need to “combat this fake history,” she said.

“Identity politics is the opposite of class politics — it is a wonderful weapon for those who want to rule over us.”

Davis said that she would not be using the term gender any more, because of how it is becoming conflated with the word sex.

“Gender” is a construct, in the same way that the concept of a main household wage, a single breadwinner, is a construct, she said.

“If I was a capitalist, I’d invent that concept — it means you can pay women less.”

Pragna Patel agreed that identity politics was harmful: “We’ve lost the structural analysis. Identity politics can be a way to get something started but it’s no way to get anything finished. Identity politics is regressive — anyone who dissents is labelled some phobia or other,” she said. “When we stop holding different views we descend into the politics of tyranny and fascism.”

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