ON 5 November, activists from Education Not for Sale Women attended FEM 05, the second “FEM” conference and pretty much the only large-scale event on feminist politics to have been organised in the last few years.
Since the collapse of the women’s movement there has been a general lack of discussion and activity on the question of women's liberation. NUS Women’s Campaign has historically been a bastion of campaigning socialist feminist politics, but since its capture by Labour Students and “independent” right-wingers in the last two years, its activity has declined dramatically.
FEM 05 was very successful in filling this vacuum. More than 200 women of all ages, many of them young and student women, attended, obviously motivated by a feeling that there is a long way to go in achieving equality and liberation and wanting to discuss how to fight for them. Unfortunately, the conference organisers had a far less radical agenda in mind.
Almost every speaker was an academic or from an NGO, rather than being involved in a trade union or grassroots campaign. The session on “Women in the workplace”, for instance, was led by the TUC Equalities Officer and a director from the Equal Opportunities Commission. No sign of the Gate Gourmet workers or any other women trade unionists currently organising for their rights.
This not only made the sessions fairly dry and academic - which was not helped by the fact that discussion was strictly controlled, with limited access to sessions, only direct questions allowed and these limited to thirty seconds. However, it also defined the politics of the event. Most of the discussions focused on the lives of university-educated, better-off and even bourgeois women. At times they even slipped into a quasi-Victoria, philanthropic, patronising attitude towards women “worse off” than “ourselves”.
In the session on ‘Violence against women’, for instance, an ENS member in the audience asked if prostitution should be legalised - not because it is a good thing, but so that prostitutes can join other sex workers in organising for their rights. All the speakers answered with a very firm “No”, and two of them directly equated all prostitution with violence against women.
That such moralising platitudes could be expressed by middle-class women without any reference to the socio-economic factors that cause some women - who were not there to speak for themselves - to become prostitutes is a pretty good indicator of the general tone of the conference.
Given the lack of speakers involved in real, living struggles, it was particularly strange that Houzan Mahmoud from the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq was not allowed to speak. When members of ENS Women asked the organiser if Houzan could speak in the run up to the conference, we were told that the agenda was simply too full. However, at the event, I got to talk to a woman who told me that the organisers had contacted her just two beforehand to ask if she could find them a black speaker, since everyone they had booked so far was white!
ENS Women wants to challenge the kind of cultural relativism that ends up with feminists from the Middle East being told that fighting for their rights makes them “Islamophobic”. I’m afraid this sort of attitude was probably behind the exclusion of Houzan from FEM 05.
It was good to see so many young women keen to become active in the fight for women’s liberation, but FEM 05 was a wasted opportunity in this regard. We need a women’s movement based on grassroots struggles that takes political discussion seriously. ENS Women is here to make that happen.