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Artillery Row

A conference that really was for women

The difference between the Labour Conference and FiLia could not have been more stark

At the October 2023 Labour Conference, held in Liverpool, front benchers stood up one after the other to declare their commitment to women’s rights. They were met with a wall of derision from women’s rights campaigners, who have felt ignored by Labour on issues pertinent to their rights. Lip service was prolific in Liverpool. Words felt cheap.

Why do Labour leaders feel that women should now trust them?

Lisa Nandy tweeted, “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are non-negotiable. My absolute priority will be to embolden and empower women and girls in every part of the world.” Nandy, however, was one of the leading advocates of putting trans-identified men, including rapists and child sexual abusers, into the female prison estate. She said in 2020, “I think trans women are women … I think they should be accommodated in the prison of their choosing.”

Keir Starmer asked the Labour Women’s conference:

So why can’t we imagine a society where violence against women and girls is stamped out everywhere? Why can’t the future citizens of our country look back at this generation as the one which set women free from the culture of misogyny?

The women’s movement raised its collective eyebrow so high it nearly floated off into the sky. We all remember September 2021, when Starmer told Andrew Marr that saying only women have a cervix was “something that shouldn’t be said. It’s not right”.

Angela Rayner vowed in her conference speech to “stand up for every woman”. Yet she said in an LBC interview in July 2022 that, “Trans women’s rights are women’s rights and it is our women’s movement collectively.” Rayner has always been clear that she includes men who say they are women when she is talking about women.

I’m not sure why any of these Labour leaders feel that women should now trust them when their lips overflow with the word “woman”. We are right to meet them with tremendous scepticism and instead respect MPs like Rosie Duffield, who turned up to the Labour Women’s Declaration fringe meeting, when she has been clearly and publicly snubbed by the front bench for saying “only women have a cervix”.

By contrast, this weekend over 1,400 women gathered in Glasgow for FiLiA, the largest grassroots feminist conference in Europe. It is in its ninth year, with women from 35 countries, and it sold out before a single speaker had been announced. It receives no funding, and it is organised totally by volunteers. These are women devoted to supporting other women globally in all their feminist struggles and against every form of oppression they face. No one is afraid of using the word “patriarchy”. Everyone understands what a woman is. It’s why we assemble.

An email received by ticket holders told any men who had purchased a ticket for the traditional women-only disco that they must return it for a refund. Women were waiting for those tickets. This summarises the spirit of Filia: women first, and always.

Even as women travelled at great expense to Glasgow to fill up rooms and listen to other women, men had begun to organise against them. The venue was targeted by a small group of trans activists called @glasgow_trans_rally, who branded the event, and women attending, as transphobic. The venue cancelled the event with hours to go. The organisers bravely took swift legal action and, of course, won. The conference was allowed to proceed.

Labour leaders, so keen on women’s rights and eradicating misogyny, have not condemned this.

The next morning as we headed for the venue, we didn’t have to hunt it down too hard. It was possible to find it just by following the voices of men shouting at women. Trans activists were assembled opposite the women queuing, yelling at them that they were TERFs. A man named Tom Harlow led a song, before shouting loudly “fuck you” at women waiting to discuss global feminist issues. Many of those women are survivors of male violence.

Labour leaders, keen to ensure violence against women is eradicated, have not condemned this.

Opening the conference, Julie, a member of Glasgow Tactical Feminists, introduced Joanna Cherry MP. She spoke of some of the issues to be covered, which included the weaponisation of rape as an instrument of war, the struggles of women in Afghanistan and Iran, FGM, coercive control, and femicide.

Outside, men claimed that we were only here to deny trans rights, but inside Salome Mbugua from “Migrant Women’s Network Ireland” spoke about women in Afghanistan and how the group helped those women to get out when the Taliban came to power. Morsal Aimal of the same network told us of the 64 rights taken away from women since the Taliban took over. She also spoke of the bullying and oppression that women living in exile outside Iran still faced and urged us not to forget them: “Stand with the women of Iran, Afghanistan and Kurdistan. It’s our duty.”

These women have worked in war zones, survived male violence, escaped the Taliban

This was followed by Linda Thompson of “Women’s Support Project”. which opposes commercial sexual exploitation. She spoke of sex trafficking, the horrors of prostitution and the need for abolition. She told us that after 15 years of incessant campaigning to help prostituted and trafficked women, there are only 15 members of staff to do so. She said, “The sex industry is the wallpaper of our lives. It has come into our bedrooms and our intimacy. The general public cannot see a different world.” She urged women to try to make them see.

A tribute was paid to the late Jalna Hammer who was a founder of Women’s Aid in 1974. Tribute was also paid to Consuelo Rivera-Fuentes, a lesbian feminist activist tortured by Pinochet’s Chilean military government, who died last month. Heroines of the feminist movement, utterly crucial to changing the lives of hundreds of thousands of women, they are little known outside feminist circles. They are certainly unknown to Tom outside. He would have probably said “fuck you” to them, too.

Still the likes of Glasgow Trans Rally assume what women talk about when it posts: “The way that FiLiA’s transphobia operates is insidious. They deliberately veil their transphobia behind ‘feminist’ rhetoric in a way that is calculated, tactical and deceitful.” It is deeply offensive to call global feminist discussion, addressing incredibly distressing areas of women’s oppression, “rhetoric”. These are women who have often worked their entire lives to ensure the freedom and safety of other women. They have worked in war zones, survived male violence, endured the horrors of prostitution and trafficking, escaped the Taliban, been forcibly married, and suffered FGM. Tom Harlow thinks we talk about men behind those doors? Too right we do. We talk about how to make a better world where women are free of the oppression of men. Meanwhile he is outside singing to oppress us. Where do the politicians stand — with Tom or with women? It cannot be both.

Sex and gender, and the important difference, were rightly discussed, of course. In a panel titled “Lost Voices of Women”, Dr Karen Ingala Smith spoke of the deceitful sign held outside the venue by the trans activists that said “Transphobia kills us”. She pointed out that there have been no murders of trans people in Scotland, but there is a murder of a woman by a man every month on average. Within the same session we heard from secular feminist Rahila Gupta from Southall Black Sisters about how she has had to avoid entering the debate in order not to “go to the wall” whilst they have so many issues to fight, with black women needing them desperately to be there. A heated yet crucial debate arose in this same panel around head coverings and feminist attitudes towards them. These are the debates women have with passion at FiLiA. It isn’t “rhetoric” — it’s important to how women choose to live their lives. Including contributions from the floor, hundreds of women spoke on a huge variety of feminist issues. The phenomenal Reem Alsalem, the United Nations Special Rapporteur, spoke on violence against women and girls. It was hard listening at times.

The weekend ended in tears — the tears of J. K. Rowling. She was overwhelmed at the welcome she received for appearing at the conference, where she said, “I’ve looked around and realised that it has to be someone who can take the hit. And it has to be me. I can afford it.”

Labour leaders worry about losing votes, hedge their bets, keep their cards close to their chest and pay lip service to women. Their eyes are on the prize of the next election. Women at FiLiA, and throughout the women’s movement, go all in for other women. It’s the only way to win.

As Dr Noura Raad said, “They will not stop us. We are women. No one will stop us.”

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