by Laura Schwartz
There were 220 people at Feminist Fightback on 21 October in London. This was an activist conference organised by the socialist feminist student group Education Not for Sale Women. ENS Women wanted Feminist Fightback to be a forum in which feminist voices of all perspectives could be heard, where everyone felt comfortable in joining in the debate.
The lively discussions which took place in many of the sessions were, we hope, proof that we achieved this.
The role of religious fundamentalism in contributing to the oppression of women world-wide came up time and again. Alejandra Rios, from the Argentinian women’s group “Bread and Roses” spoke of their struggle for abortion rights in the face of opposition from the Catholic Church, while Iranian activist Azar Sheibani told the story of the underground women’s movement demanding freedom from oppressive Islamic laws.
The session on British Asian women’s struggles led to a discussion of the recent furore surrounding the Muslim veil or niqab. Most agreed that Jack Straw had cynically exploited this issue in order to raise his own profile and also stir up hostility towards British Muslims and Asians. Whilst the Blairites and right wing are using the veil and the position of Muslim women to talk about “integration”, some elements of the left are claiming that any criticism of the niqab was automatically racist.
We discussed the need to bring the question of women’s rights back into the centre of this discussion — women’s right to choose what and what not to wear. Some were concerned that in making a feminist critique of the veil they would be playing into the hands of racists, while others argued for the need to not be afraid to face head-on questions about women’s freedom and women’s bodies, despite a highly politicised and sensitive context.
The other main area of debate inevitably focused on sex. ENS Women support the International Union of Sex Workers, just as we support any other organisation of women workers organising to fight for their rights. Within this broad support our members hold a variety of views regarding the status of sex work in terms of the way it impacts on women, sexuality and violence against women.
We were surprised, then, in organising this conference, to discover that our support for the IUSW put us beyond the pale of much of mainstream feminism and led to some radical feminists boycotting the conference. Although some of these feminists turned down all our invitations to have their position represented on the platform by debating the IUSW, many different opinions were expressed in the discussion during this session.
Giulia Garofolo from the IUSW argued that the best way to improve the conditions of sex work and to empower women to make a real choice about whether they wanted to work in the industry, was for them to organise as workers. Others, including Carolyn Leckie MSP from the Scottish Socialist Party (who have recently voted against the unionisation of prostitutes) claimed that “doubling someone’s wages for a blow job” was not real liberation.
No conclusion or consensus was reached but we were pleased that we had managed to create a space in which this issue could be argued through rather censored as an illegitimate topic for feminists to discuss.
The most heated debates took place in the forum on “Feminism and sexual expression”. As the chair I found it fascinating the way in which the subject of female sexuality, and its representation, exploitation, and imagination, could provoke such incredibly intense and conflicting responses. For me this shows the extent to which sexuality continues to be restricted and repressed even in our apparently libertarian society. When people do begin to talk about it honestly and openly very powerful feelings and opinions are triggered.
The session began with a discussion of pornography and censorship but soon moved onto arguments about legitimate subjects for women to fantasise about. If you fantasised rape about could you still call yourself a feminist? Could feminists tell other women what should or shouldn’t turn them on?
ENS Women didn’t just want the conference to be about talk, but also about action. We wanted to offer the young activists and new feminists who attended the conference, practical ways they could fight for their rights and to change the world. A number of campaigns and projects of this kind arose from the conference.
It was decided to hold a demonstration for abortion rights on international women’s day 8 March 2007. An organising group has been set up, open to all women, to build for this event. ENS Women will host a forum for international activists, including women from Zimbabwe, Argentina, Iran and Iraq, to share experiences and skills and build solidarity.
ENS Women are socialist feminists. While we fight for equal rights today, we also believe that for women to achieve real liberation, we need to change the world. I hope that Feminist Fightback was a small step towards this.