Friday, 30 October 2015

Did you miss Feminism in London 2015? Don't worry, we think we've got most of it here (put the kettle on)

When thinking about attending this year's Feminism in London conference, it sparked an almost immediate feeling of anxiety. How could this seemingly harmless event cause such a ripple of discomfort within? I was worried, quite simply, because I didn’t think it would begin to top the sheer brilliance of last year (did you miss my review, read it here). The fact that this year's conference had doubled in size (from one day to two) and had a dizzyingly vast array of speakers and workshops certainly boded well, although not for writing this blog post as, yet again, there is just too much to do it justice, so here goes.

Kate Smurthwaite opening Fil 2015

The conference was officially opened by unofficial Head of Feminism (not her own words), the hilariously articulate Kate Smurthwaite, who dedicated the weekend to the late Denise Marshall, a leading feminist and Chief Executive of charity Eaves For Women, who tragically passed away earlier this year. The floor was then handed over to, according to the Sun newspaper, the most Dangerous Woman in Britain, Director of Liberty Shami Chakrabarti. Shami pointed out that whilst MPs might think the 800 year anniversary of the Magna Carta is an event this year worth celebrating, this glorified, archaic document actually did nothing for the protection of women. Shami went on to discuss her work at Liberty, including successfully changing the law in Britain to prevent people from being held as slaves - a victory that is just 5 years old! Not to mention a vast array of rousing quotes and my favourite of all: ‘be angry, get organised’

From here I moved onto Human Rights in Childbirth, a subject close to my heart and close to home, as one of the panelists was none other than Hackney Doula and co-founder of charity BirthRights, Rebecca Schiller. Also in attendance was the founder of the Positive Birth Movement, Millie Hill, who in 3 years has grown this organisation to in excess of 200 groups across the UK and a further 100 internationally. Millie described how there had been suggestions made that pregnant women shouldn’t be allowed to meet in groups to talk about pregnancy and birth, without somebody medically trained being in attendance. Millie also showed the photos of babies being born that were banned from her Facebook page and how, because of posting these photos, she herself was also temporarily banned. Interestingly one photo showing a mother’s derriere was removed by Facebook the same weekend that photos of Kim Kardashian’s own bottom were going viral, without any concerns from those in charge at the social media control panels. Also discussed was how pregnancy and birth are portrayed in the media, specifically One Born Every Minute, where some births that are filmed are then deemed ‘not exciting enough’ to be included in the programme. There is hardly any attention given to breastfeeding and when it is, the mother’s nipple is pixilated out. Also, the general lack of understanding about birth is exacerbated by the fact that in the current National Curriculum there is only one hour of education around the subject of childbirth.

Frances Scott, placard in hand.
Moving onto another cause that I may have already have talked about a few times here, here, oh wait and here: the amazing 50:50 Parliament, who had lined up an incredible panel of experts including: leader of the Women’s Equality Party Sophie Walker; Dr Helen Pankhurst; expert in Women’s rights and representation Lesley Abdela; leading Swedish feminist Gudrun Schyman, with the discussion chaired by the incredible 50:50 founder, Frances Scott. Lesley Abdela kicked things off, talking about her experience of co-founding and leading the 1980s campaign to increase women in politics in the UK, The 300 Group (Something which is very hard to find any record of online, although I did find something here). They succeeded in instigating a rise in the percentage of women in politics from 3% to 20%. Lesley then discussed her success in assisting other nations with achieving gender parity in government around the world, specifically Sierra Leone. Lesley also pointed out that every country in the world that built a gender balanced government achieved this by using quotas, something that is frequently highlighted as a controversial method - however everyone was elected and not appointed. Gudrun then took to the floor to talk about how in Sweden, whilst they achieved gender parity in the Swedish government back in the 1990s, this did not resolve their patriarchal society and that, to this day, they still have issues with the pay gap, domestic violence and unequal roles in parenting. Iceland, a country considered to be a leader in terms of women in politics still also has these problems. This highlighted how shortsighted it would be to think that the solution to achieving societal equality is found purely by topping up the female members of parliament.  Sophie Walker picked up beautifully from here, discussing exactly what the Women’s Equality Party would do support equality and women’s rights in the UK: how they would offer free childcare for babies from the age of 9 months, become a leading force to end human trafficking and put an end to women being criminalized for selling sex. 

Sophie went on to describe exactly how a gender balanced parliament could be achieved in just 2 elections. This involved quotas however, Sophie made a valid point that we use unofficial quotas by always appointing ‘the best man for the job’, thereby never allowing women an opportunity to demonstrate their skills. Sophie finished by saying ‘of 30M women in the UK, surely we can find 350 to become MPs’ (you can sign the 50:50 petition here)

Keeping with the subject of gender I then moved onto a workshop about gender marketing of toys, chaired by the founders of the brilliant ‘Let Toys be Toys’, a campaign inspired by a talk thread on Mumsnet. The almost militant organisation of toy shops and manufacturers, defining which toys are for girls and which for boys (with their very own designated colours), is something that has puzzled me for years. The talk began with looking at how toys were marketed back in the 70s, where many adverts featured both girls and boys. Over the years they have become more and more developed in their separate boxes of ‘pink for girls’ and ‘blue for boys’. However, more worryingly weren’t just the allocation of colours, but the fact that girls toys are centered around cooking, cleaning, caring and beauty whereas boys are focused around action, adventure, science and weapons. 

After all, what exactly does Barbie do for a living and what’s the male opposite of a tom boy? Of course, toy manufacturers and retailers motivation for this great divide is not just visceral misogyny, but of course capitalism: by separating the toys less are likely to be shared, therefore doubling their sales. However, the Let Toys Be Toys campaign has already successfully inspired 14 major toy retailers to remove all their signs pointing to ‘Girls’ and ‘Boys’ and replacing them with signs that tell whoever is interested where you can find Lego or Barbie. The campaign has now also grown to recognise that books can also be just as biased, with titles such as ‘Stories for girls’ for example, and so have now launched the #Letbooksbebooks campaign. You can sign the petition to stop gender specific books here

Bianca Jagger speaking on Day 2 of Fil2015

The next day, bleary-eyed from managing my children who, confounded by the clocks going back, decided the day would start at 5am, I eagerly returned for Day 2. The day began with an opening speech by Bianca Jagger, Founder of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, who delivered some sobering statistics: 60M women a year are denied the right to an education, an estimated 200M women are ‘missing’ as a result of being aborted because of their gender and there are up to 10,000 women raped every year in the Republic of Congo alone. To sign the BJHRF’s petition campaigning for a legally binding climate treaty please email Max Dashu, founder of the Suppressed Histories Archive, then took over to walk us through some incredible women that the history writers forgot including Essie Parrish, Hatsheput Mattkarea and Edith Garrud, who taught Jiu Jitsu to her fellow suffragettes.

A visual explanation of Neoliberal Feminism

From here I then high-tailed to the first of a few workshops focusing on something that I have long thought a fundamental to achieving equality: male feminists. The first of these workshops was run by David Brockway from charity Great Men who visit schools to run workshops for boys from the age of 12, their aim to create a space for boys to discuss gender equality and masculinity. As cases of bigorexia among young men continue to rise and suicide remains the main cause of death of men under the age of 35, it had never once dawned on me that a patriarchal society damages boys and men as well as girls and women. Of course the view that gender is a social construct is unavoidable here. However, David pointed out that whilst the nature vs nurture argument is a valid one and whilst the nature element will remain out of our hands, an immediate solution is tackling the nurture aspect. David then expanded on how they bring the focus of the boys they work with to thinking about the women close to them: mothers, sisters etc and how they could either wait for them to be harmed and then go and beat up the person responsible, or they could change society so no harm came about in the first place.  My favourite point was that the opposite of feminism is not masculine, it is sexism.   

The final speeches included announcing the winners to the Emma Humphreys Memorial Prize which this year, was awarded to joint winners: Cath Elliott and Gabriella Gillespie, with the group prize going to Million Women Rise. There is so much more I learned about: for instance, did you know that AIMS are the organisation we can thank for ending NHS’s practice of routine episiotomies and that respectful care in hospitals is proven to save lives? Half the UK female population has experienced abuse or assault and the world’s largest arms fair took place in London last month. If it goes on general release then do track down the film of the reading of ‘Count’, by spoken word poet Leah Thorn. Finally, my favourite story of the day, which I heard on conversation in a workshop, was about what the women of Iceland did to convince their Government to create a gender balanced parliament - they all got together and agreed to take a day off.    

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