The FiLiA Women’s Rights Conference held last weekend at Portsmouth Guildhall
There’s nothing like being in a room with 1000 other women all of whom have come together because of feminism. There were as many opinions as they were women in the room, probably more, but what we were all united by was the campaign to end male violence, abuse and tyranny under patriarchy. We all recognised that patriarchy is neither natural or innate and that it can be eradicated, and women’s liberation can be achieved.
I haven’t laughed so much in months (and I laugh a lot) with the same women who were also talking about unimaginable horror – rape, femicide, child sexual abuse, forced marriage, rape as a weapon of war, violence against lesbians, and compulsory heterosexuality. Every single one of us had grown up girls in the world where our status is less than that of boys. We represented dozens of countries and regions in the world.
On arrival at the venue I saw the usual array of blue fringed students and other hangers on, some draped in trans flags, others with slogan T-shirts declaring themselves non-binary, genderqueer, he/him, they/them, zi/zir, idi/ot. They were protesting, yes, protesting, a conference with a key aim to campaign to end male violence towards women and girls, and to offer support and solidarity to the victims and survivors of that violence. Of course, the reason put forward by the blue fringes, including those that had waged a war against the conference venue from the moment it was announced, was that the organisers and attendees were anti-trans, as though everything is about them. A local councillor and trans activist was one of the anti-feminists that tried everything they could to cancel the event. They failed, but put the organisers, none of whom are paid, through hell in the process.
As I wrote on Saturday, some of the messaging from the protesters was off-the-scale misogyny. “Suck my dick you transphobic cunts” is one poster I won’t forget in a hurry. How can anyone who claims to be on the right side of history support misogynists protesting a women’s liberation conference?
Inside the conference, the sessions were packed and vibrant. I met some women I had only ever seen on Zoom, such as the amazingly talented Vaishnavi Sundar, a filmmaker from South India and the founder of Women Making Films. Vaishnavi has worked with marginalised women all her life and campaigns against male violence. Her achievements are impressive – Vaishnavi successfully fought for women to be able to access morning-after contraception in the state of Tamil Nadu. In 2018 she began making a film about sexual harassment of Indian women, including the voices of lower-caste women in the workplace as a way to hold the Indian criminal justice system to account for the lack of implementation of its laws. The film, But What Was She Wearing?, was finished in 2020 and Vaishnavi secured screenings in North America before showing it in India. Her reputation is such that her work is always warmly welcomed in both the Global North and South. But shortly before a screening of the film in New York, Vaishnavi was emailed by the organisers and told that she was no longer welcome and the event was cancelled along with Sundar and her film, due to her ‘transphobia’. Their evidence? Tweets such as “A safe space for trans women is not inside a woman’s bathroom”, posted by Vaishnavi.
I spoke about my new book to a packed room of more than 300, which included many women in their 20s and 30s. Four of them joined me on the panel to discuss issues affecting them, and to explore ways in which feminists can build bridges across the generations.
The final plenary session was the Emma Humpreys Memorial Prize (EHMP) awards that I co-founded in 1998, following the tragic death of Emma, who had served 10 years in prison for killing a violent boyfriend/pimp when she was just 16 years old. Emma’s courage and tenacity in the face of severe adversity was reflected in the prizes awarded on the FiLiA stage. A group of lesbians in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya that had escaped violence and persecution in Uganda, only to be targeted on the now notorious Block 13 in the camp by other refugees; a woman who has fought the sexist family court system; and Daisy, a formidable woman who has fought for years for justice. Daisy’s mother was raped when she was 13 years old, and Daisy was born of that rape. Her campaign resulted in the conviction and imprisonment of Carvel Bennett earlier this year. As the prizes were awarded, the clapping and cheering could be heard outside of the venue, where the sad bunch of protesters were gathering their placards, deflated at their collective failure to make any impact except to confirm to passers-by their true motives.
The conference gave us all a renewed energy and commitment. In the words of my old friend and comrade, Pragna Patel, founder of the inspirational Southall Black Sisters, “Women’s tradition: Struggle not submission!”
Julie Bindel is a journalist, author and feminist campaigner. She came out as a lesbian in 1977 aged 15 and has never looked back. Her new book Feminism for Women: The real route to liberation is out now and published by Hachette.
Photos: Julie Bindel and FiLiA.