Friday, 29 October 2010

feminism in london 2010

What a day of inspiration! A great gathering of empowered, excited and inspired women and men, over a 1000 of them, in one building, all dedicated to ending gender equality.

We arrived a little late (having got up at 6.30am) and entered the main hall as Ceri Goddard was speaking. Her talk was framed around the cuts and the Fawcett’s challenge to the government. As well as exploring how the cuts will affect women, Ceri suggested that what we are witnessing is a regression into past sexism. That the cuts are part of an ideological push to halt the course of feminism, to halt the liberation of women, and push us back out of the public and in to the domestic sphere. As we witness the child benefit cuts (although – now unworkable? running parallel with proposed marriage tax breaks for stay at home mums, alongside massive penalties for single mums, I can only believe this to be true. Why are women being asked to bear the brunt? Why are more women likely to be made redundant? Why isn’t the impact on both sexes? Because they want women in the domestic sphere, doing unpaid or low paid work, rather than in the public sphere, changing and overhauling the status quo.

She was followed by Helena Kennedy QC, who told us about her feminist story as a second wave campaigner all the way through to today. She highlighted where change has happened, encouraging equality in a way that was out of reach when she started her career. The audience laughed as she described law firms saying ‘oh no, we already have a woman here’ in response to job applications. But once more, her tale was cautionary. We’re going backwards. Women are being pushed out. And it isn’t enough to be a woman in public life, if you weren’t going to change things once you are there. As women waved goodbye to the cabinet, as we watch women’s lives being changed by decisions taken by men in suits, her words rang strong and true. We need to be in public life, to make women’s lives better. And we need to make our presence count.

Lindsey Hills, a young woman from the YWCA spoke next about the prejudice young mums face. She explained the myths surrounding the benefits young mums get, and her struggles to get housing, and support. The ignorance and prejudice she faces are extraordinary. The talk celebrated the work of the YWCA in fighting against this, and supporting young mums.

She was followed by Rahila Gupta – writer, journalist and advocate of the Southall Black Sisters organisation. She explored the issues women in journalism face, particularly in so-called liberal spaces where women face so much prejudice. This especially rang true for me, when I think of all the hostility feminists can face on lefty blogs and sites. You know the score – what about the men-nery and blatant sexism. Coming from her perspective as an Asian woman as well, she explained how she often faced difficulty in getting her stories heard, as they did not always fit the approved Asian woman narrative of commissioning editors. She also told of the work the amazing and wonderful Southall Black Sisters do – an organisation that needs our love and support.

The final opening speaker was filmmaker Virginia Heath who showed us her project ‘My dangerous Loverboy’ about internal sex trafficking. This is an integrated project that works with school children and uses social media, film and music to explore the issues in a way that immediately engages with young women.

I wasn’t booked on to any of the morning workshops so me and some friends went to the talk on reproductive rights, which was open to everyone. We missed the first speaker as we were getting coffee, and came in to hear a talk about mother’s rights during birth, and the crisis surrounding taboos around home births and women’s decision making around her body. It was accompanied by a short film about women’s birthing experiences (produced by Ricki Lake!) and raised important issues about what a natural birth is, how mothers are being informed and cared for, and how hospital practises can cause more complications and harm to the mother. It was very troubling, but also uplifting and fascinating to watch the experiences of women giving birth on their own terms.

This was followed by a woman from Forward who was talking about FGM, the lack of prosecutions and the prejudices around this issue. She argued that when we talk about reproductive rights, we mustn’t forget to talk about women’s sexual pleasure and sexuality, that these are key issues. A stance I completely agree with. Lets not forget about sex! After all, if we empower women to fully inhabit and enjoy their sexuality, then we empower women to say yes to safe sex, we empower women to view their sexuality as vital and alive and not subservient to male desire. Obviously any talk on FGM is going to be upsetting, but she was such a vibrant and positive speaker, you felt hope.

The final speaker was the powerhouse that is Ann Rossiter, a passionate campaigner for women’s right to choose and safe, legal abortion. She opened her talk by announcing that she had had an (illegal) abortion, to cheers and whoops. She went on to tell the stories of women in Ireland and Northern Ireland who were forced to travel to England/Scotland/Wales – and increasingly further afield – to access abortion. She described the cost, the difficulty, the stigma, highlighting the terrible situation for women living just 45 minutes away. The abortion laws in Ireland are draconian.  But thank god for women like Ann. Women like her who offer safe houses, support, money and care for the women coming over to seek medical help. Who have fought and fought, and cared and cared, for countless women. Her strength and her spirit rang through the hall like a tonic, waking us up to the fragility of rights we all too often take for granted.

Lunch saw a protest leaving the building and heading to the M&S flagship store on Oxford Street. M&S have leased their Bristol building to Hooters, and an energetic and powerful group of women and men flyered the store to say that we would not put up with this green light to sexism.

I however, caught up with old housemate and great friend Hannah (, old friend Sian and fellow blogger and twitter friend Hannah ( whose blog is just an amazing collection of writing and feminist inspiration. A quick bite to eat, and then back to the hall for the next workshop.

Which was on porn. Entitled ‘It’s easy out here for a pimp’, it was a challenging subject to me, which came with lots of warnings about explicit content and images we may find disturbing. There were lots of people in the small hall, as Rebecca Morden took us through a slideshow that explored the influence of porn on our lives and the effect it was having on our young children. As a woman with strong views on porn and the sex industry, even I was horrified by the proliferation of images of violence and misogyny that was displayed. It confirmed my belief (backed up by plentiful research) that porn is an expression and visual presentation of violence against women. From porn that showed women’s face contorted in physical pain, to making ‘that bitch airtight’ to ass to mouth – a process that doesn’t enhance male sexual pleasure but does utterly degrade women, and incest porn, accompanied by tag lines that I cannot repeat here in case they are triggering. And, of course, the porn was incessantly racist, playing on nasty, degrading and horrific stereotypes. What was very concerning was the amount of porn that falls under the ‘barely legal’ banner, blurring the line between adults and children. Items such a slut on the bus encourages people to find violence against women as funny. It isn’t funny.

I just cannot agree with porn, so long as we don’t know what is consensual and what isn’t. When you consider that ‘cult film’ Deep Throat is basically the live rape and forced imprisonment of Linda Lovelace, when you look at these images that tell the viewers that women’s pleasure or consent is unimportant, when you consider that no one is wearing a condom – we need to ask these questions and stop saying it is just one of those things, it’s free speech, if you don’t like it you don’t have to watch it. We have a huge problem of violence against women in this country, and a growing rate of STIs in teens, and when you see this stuff it is easy to understand why. Young men are learning from porn that sex is something they do to women, and young women are learning to put up and shut up. The links are there for those who want to see it. (I wonder if my SEO count is going mental for the word p*** now?)

There were moments in the slide show that I took issue with, and I think this was because of its American bias. The final slides were about what we can do to help teens discover and explore their own sexuality beyond learning from porn, with the suggestion that sex should be about love. I don’t think sex should be only and always about love and I really praise Ariel Levy for saying that sex is about that indefinable attraction that can be towards someone you love, or someone you don’t even like. It is my belief that we should teach teens about sex as something they engage in because they want to, because they actively consent to it and because they feel desire, their own, owned desire. Saying you should only have sex with someone you love can cause confusion and even shame. My sex ed (at a secular school) was always going on about ‘waiting for the one’ and marriage when all I wanted to hear was about consent, respect, safety and being an active agent in my own desires. I have had sex with people I love, and people I haven’t always liked, but the hurt was when the sex was coercive or unpleasurable or accompanied with disrespect. This is what needs to be tackled. And, unfortunately, coercion, lack of pleasure and disrespect are all part of the visual and spoken language of porn.

The slideshow was followed by a panel discussion with the incredible and inspirational Rebecca Mott and Object powerhouse Anna Van Heeswijk. I was a bit disappointed with the discussion as I felt the questions were dominated with people asking whether being anti porn meant condemning women who liked rough sex or BDSM, or who liked erotica. Rebecca Mott spoke eloquently on this – that there is nothing wrong with images of people’s bodies, there is nothing wrong with pleasurable and mutually consensual sex. There is something wrong with degrading people and treating them as objects to be hurt. Anna discussed how pervasive porn is and the influence it has on our everyday lives. I just felt disappointed that we seemed to be having a debate about whether feminists are trying to police women’s sex lives (uuh, no!), rather than the very important debate over the affect of porn on our sex lives/society/children/levels of violence against women. I am anti porn because I am pro sex and think sex deserves more respect than being reduced to violence, hate and degradation.

A bit shaken, we went to the closing speeches in the main hall, compered by the fabulous Kate Smurthwaite ( and kicked off by Natasha Walter. She was fabulous. She discussed how, after the publication of Living Dolls, the media approvingly said she wasn’t an angry feminist. Well, she rebuked, I am angry! She told us that women were being denied the chance to explore their full potential, how gender stereotyping still limited our choices. She also told us stories about her work with refugee women and how we needed to do more to help the vulnerable women seeking help in our country. Damn straight sister.

Anna Fisher was up next, who paid tribute to all the amazing women who had volunteered to make the fantastic day happen. She spoke from an anti-capitalist perspective (whoop!), enforcing the message that we did not want equality with the ruling class if it meant we exploited and oppressed other groups. A message which we need to hold on to if we want to avoid what I call ‘margaret thatcher syndrome.

Finally Finn McKay spoke. I have met Finn and have seen her on TV, so I was excited to see if she really was as charismatic and exciting as a public speaker as I had heard she was. And, of course, she blew me away. Feminism has to mean something, she said, or it risks not meaning anything at all. People say we should rebrand feminism, as if the great and incredible changes and achievements in our movement were something to be ashamed of. But it is not. It is something we should be shouting and proclaiming from the rooftops. She paid tribute to the women who are survivors. She told the audience that women are told to be ashamed of the violence committed against them, when it is society’s shame. My eyes were full of tears.

We are a movement, I thought. We are a movement.

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