Photo by FilippoBacci
Artillery Row

Feminists under fire

We defend women’s rights and get abuse from progressives

The excitement is already brewing. Women from all around the United Kingdom, and indeed the world, have already bought nearly 1,000 tickets to an annual conference that has been dubbed “feminist Glastonbury”, and hundreds more are expected to attend. The FiLiA Conference, held in a different city every year for almost a decade, will take place in Cardiff, Wales from 22 to 24 October

It is the largest annual grassroots feminist conference in Europe, pulled together by over 80 volunteers who donate their time and energy to make magic happen. FiLiA means “daughter”, because we are the daughters of the women who came before us, and we fight so that our daughters may be free.

I have been FiLiA’s Spokeswoman since 25 November 2019, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and I’d like to share some of the insights I’ve learned from the trenches. 

FiLiA is a wide-ranging feminist organisation, rather than a single-issue one. Among the issues that we have illuminated throughout the year, we have issued statements in support for reproductive rights in the wake of the overturning of Roe v Wade. We have conducted interviews with Nepalese campaigners against male violence and with women in Afghanistan who are trying to protect themselves and the women in their communities since the return of the Taliban regime. We have organised a grassroots fasting campaign that saw almost 1200 women pressure the government to release imprisoned charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. We have interviewed and platformed campaigner Zemzem Mohamed about the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the Tigray region and have amplified the voices of environmental campaigners in the Rojava region who are working to restore the environment after the devastation of war. Thanks to the donations of supporters, we are able to bring a small number of these international campaigners to the FiLiA Conference each year.

We are particularly proud of the work we do to amplify the advocacy of lesbians fighting for a life free from abuse and discrimination. This includes the creation of Labrys Lit, an international book club that is run by, for and about lesbians organised by feminist writer Claire L. Heuchan. Every month, women from India, the UK, the US and other countries read a new novel, short story collection or memoir written by a lesbian author. The women then meet over Zoom to discuss the book amongst themselves, bringing our aim to “build sisterhood and solidarity among women” to life. 

Cheap accusations of transphobia are intended to prevent women coming

Since July 2020, FiLiA has been raising awareness about the human rights violations against lesbian refugees under the protection of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, through the FiLiA Kakuma Campaign

Escaping violence and lesbophobia in their home country, lesbian refugees are sent by UNHCR to the Kakuma refugee camp. As they are seeking asylum due to their sexuality they are put in the LGB&T Block 13. This identifies them to other refugees in the camp and they suffer ongoing violence and abuse as a result. The UNHCR and Police have been informed of these crimes but do nothing to support them or keep them safe.

The breadth and depth of this movement and its work gets obscured when detractors try to smear it over a disagreement about sex, gender and gender identity. FiLiA has taken a strong and vocal position in support of women’s sex-based rights. Ever since we stepped up on this issue, the smear campaigns, targeting and shunning has been relentless.

They say “transwomen are women”, whilst we say: let’s have a proper conversation about what this actually means for women and girls. We actively amplify the advocacy of women standing up for sex-based rights, and contribute our own input as experts in this field. In April 2021, we were invited to address the Women and Equalities Select Committee regarding the proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004. 

Cheap and baseless accusations of transphobia are intended to prevent women coming to the FiLiA Conference. Indeed, what we hear from women on the ground is that sometimes such smear campaigns prevent them from engaging with the women’s liberation movement, full stop. Who benefits from that?

Why is a feminist organisation whose work is so broad that it encompasses environmentalism, anti-racism, male violence, reproductive rights, secularism and the struggles of refugee women, under constant attack from trans activism? A sober position would be to recognise that we may disagree on some topics while still supporting the work FiLiA does for women across the board. But it is not to be.

Instead, last year at our conference organised at the Guildhall in Portsmouth, we got protesters writing “TRANSPHOBES CAN SUCK MY PINK STRAP” in chalk at the entrance of our venue, while holding signs stating “SUCK MY DICK, YOU TRANSPHOBIC CUNTS”. This demonstration was supported by Amnesty International and local councillors, although Amnesty later tried to distance itself from the abuse hurled at our female attendees. During Julie Bindel’s session, protesters shouted “blow jobs are real jobs”, while this lifelong campaigner against sexual exploitation lent her microphone to Tigray campaigner Zemzem Mohamed, so she could speak about the rape and abuse of women in her region.

This year, the pushback has come in the form of political parties refusing us a stall at their annual conference. It appears that neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats want their attendees to be exposed to a grassroots organisation whose main remit is to defend women’s human rights.

This July, another form of shunning reared its head in the form of a motion from the National Education Union. After its General Secretary shared on social media that he had become a monthly donor to our feminist charity, an open letter written by the LGBT+ Organising Forum demanded he retracted and accused us of “transphobia”, claiming we “work to diminish the rights and recognition of trans women”. These allegations were unfounded, but the open letter became a motion that was passed by the NEU Executive on 16 July 2022. FiLiA and the trade union movement are natural allies, particularly given that 76 per cent of the NEU membership are women. So, why the hostility?

Connecting to push back against patriarchy is the entire purpose

The FiLiA Conference brings the women’s liberation movement to life during a weekend full of impassioned speeches about an array of difficult topics and instructive workshops where women learn how to take a hands-on approach to advocacy. That’s the formal aspect of FiLiA. The informal side of this conference, the one that no charity can predict or organise beforehand, is made up of those magical moments between women in which they show solidarity with each other. Lots of crying goes on at FiLiA, particularly because there is an urgency woven throughout most sessions to eradicate the systemic oppression faced by girls and women. Every year, we hold a vigil in remembrance of the women and girls we have lost to male violence in the UK. These sombre moments spread throughout the conference remind us of why movement building work matters.

There is also double that in hugging, laughter and genuine warmth between women. Particularly during the women-only dancefloor that takes place during Saturday night, representing a unique space for women to move their bodies as they please, away from the male gaze. 

Raising awareness of structural problems, building links of solidarity between women and connecting amongst us to push back against patriarchy, is the entire purpose of the women’s liberation movement. 

None of the work we do would be possible without encouragement from the public, not only in the form of donations through our Friends of FiLiA scheme, which enables the participation of women who would otherwise not be able to attend, but also in the 8340+ hours of work that women volunteer to make our annual conference happen.

Everyone is welcome to purchase a ticket and engage with our international range of feminist speakers. But nobody is allowed to be abusive towards women. As people around the country, and indeed the world, make reservations in anticipation of one of the feminist events of the year, our detractors sulk and huff at the sight of women who remain undaunted. Energised and inspired by each other, we refuse to back down. We know that feminists have been doing this for centuries. 

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