The biggest women’s rights conference, FiLiA, took place this month. Rachel Bell shares how this annual conference motivated her why it is radical, revolutionary and the voice of reason in a world saturated with sexual objectification and male sexual violence
The biggest women’s rights conference in Europe, with global activists, campaigners and academics speaking on subjects including FGM, the harm of strip clubs and gender identity laws took place in Greater Manchester on 20/21 October. It is called FiLiA. It means Daughter, ‘reflecting that we are the daughters of the women who came before us’. Previously named Feminism in London, this major global meeting of women from around the world has taken place for five years and has received little media attention. Currently, women meeting up to discuss their rights is itself a right under threat, as the experience of A Woman’s Place UK has shown. FiLiA has made an immeasurable impact on my life and I probably recall moments from it on most days, which is why I will shout about it here.
As FiLiA recent tweets inviting BBC Woman’s Hour along (they have never covered the conference) highlight, FiLiA amplifies the voices of women and girls on issues including femicide, abortion rights, immigration, class, equal pay, rape, media, prostitution, race and secularism. The annual conference has platformed hundreds of speakers – grassroots activists risking their lives to help women in danger, NGOs and academics from Afghanistan, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Russia, Norway and more. This year’s speakers include Professor Liz Kelly, Sheila Jeffreys, Sodfa Daaji, Hibo Wardere Kendra Houseman, and Dr Sasha Rackoff, founder of Not Buying It. FiLiA met with women’s groups in Germany to witness the devastation of a legalised system of prostitution, in Argentinia to support women fighting for abortion rights, and in Palestine, Norway and Ireland to understand women’s experience. FiLiA has created an Emerging Female Artist Prize and creative projects bring poetry and art to women in prisons and those who have endured domestic violence. That’s just a taster of its work and reach.
By attending the annual conference since its inception, I have listened to the stories of women exploited around the world. Many survivors of prostitution have told their harrowing truths of exploitation that begins in childhood. The suffering and courage of the women I have heard at this conference is seismic. Thanks to them, I got my head straight on prostitution, understanding how neo-liberalism and patriarchy leave women in extreme poverty, how foreign migrant women have become trafficked goods for men in the west, why prostitution is a human rights abuse of the most vulnerable, why it completely undermines gender equality. I viewed the vital anti-porn documentary Pornland, and heard the compelling, no-nonsense Gail Dines, founder of Culture Reframed, show how the porn industry grooms boys to get hard on women and girls’ suffering, and ultimately, to become johns. How it take boys’ and men’s humanity, too. I heard from Campaign Against Sex Robots on how human, mutually consenting relations are under threat – and I will never forget the experience of hearing Bolton mum, Gemma Aitchison, who founded Yes Matters to challenge sexual objectification. Gemma’s 16-year-old sister, Sasha Marsden was stabbed 58 times and set alight before being dumped in an alley in what the press described as a ‘sexually motivated, sustained and ferocious attack’ by David Minto. Gemma told us how he referred to Sasha as ‘it’ in court. I had the privilege of listening to Susie Orbach, who showed how the beauty industry – by making profit from making women feel self-conscious, insecure and ashamed of their bodies – is a form of violence against us. Jameela Jamil is bang on. FiLiA is a wonderful hub for making contacts and friends. After talks from groups such as Pink Stinks, I connected with parents like me, giving their children a ‘gender neutral’ upbringing and wrote about them in The Times (a long time before anyone else was discussing stereotype-free parenting, hence the number of emails from journalists hoping I’d hand over my contacts after it published), and I heard from Let Toys Be Toys and the harm of gender stereotypes that are instilled from birth through pink and blue.
Each year I have been heartened by the diverse age range of women attending, sharing the opportunity to hear radical feminists and learn about feminist history from authors, academics and activists including Pragna Patel, Karen Ingala-Smith, Codelia Fine, Nawal El Saaadawi, Fiona Broadfoot, Julie Bindel, Natasha Walter, Beatrix Campbell and Bianca Jagger. Incredible feminists are remembered, such as Denise Marshall, Chief Executive of feminist charity, Eaves for Women, who founded the internationally acclaimed Poppy Project to house victims of sex trafficking and set up the groundbreaking Amina Scheme, giving me the opportunity to peer mentor survivors – thus give meaning to my own experience of male violence. As a campaigner against the porn and sex industries with Not Buying It and a journalist writing about male sexual violence, I have heightened my awareness of how all exploitations are linked. By attending FiLiA I have received an education in women’s history, women’s struggles in different parts of the world and joined the dots between patriarchy, war, climate change and capitalism. I have listened to the rousing closing speeches of Finn MacKay each year and seen the silent tears yet sensed the injection of drive and sisterhood that her passionate intelligence and grasp of how global events impact women always brings. Finn showed us the power of being active in our own communities, a vital message in a world where the many forms of male violence against women and girls, backed up by attitudes and institutionalised sexism can be overwhelming. While being a reactive feminist journalist while being a mother of small boys and working in a safehouse remains a challenge, I have spoken to staff at my son’s school about gender stereotypes and sexualisation, to community police about rape myths and domestic violence myths, given talks on the harm of porn and sexism in the entertainment industry at the POW!Thanet festival to mark International Women’s Day and become an Ambassador for a domestic abuse service. And public speaking was never my thing. FiLiA played a transformative part in my motivation. To all the girls and women who I read about in study and after study enduring exploitation, discrimination, sexual harassment, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, come if you can, because this is what empowerment feels like, and empowerment emboldens and heals.