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FiLiA 2017: My first experience of a feminism conference

Recently I attended FiLiA, formerly known as Feminism in London. It’s an established charity that has been running this event for years. Having never attended before, expectations were wide open. What I wasn’t prepared for was the extent to which this event is centred around emotion, trauma and activism.

Attending both days of the weekend, I left on the Sunday evening a little wiser, a lot more enlightened and with a huge amount of heartbreak. This however is not intended to act as a deterrent. Quite the opposite. It’s a call-to-arms. Affiliate yourself with the charity. Attend this event. Go with your eyes and mind wide open to a whole lot of truths you don’t want to hear. Why? Because you gain a true, overwhelming and mind — blowing understanding of the state of inequality that women face.

FiLiA is made up of a number of keynote sessions for all to attend and a whole host of subsidiary smaller sessions (workshops, panels, Q&As) for you to choose from throughout your time, according to what topics and themes within feminism interest you. From my personal experience over the two days, there were two pre-eminent themes:

  1. Violence against women and girls

  2. Intersectionality

As an organisation that clearly prides itself on multi-layered inclusion and creating a safe and accessible place for a wide range of feminist issues to be addressed, it was important for intersectionality to be given the emphasis it requires and deserves. For those unaware, it’s a concept by which Kimberlé Crenshaw advised we should examine how all types of discrimination and inequality intersect. This is a subject worthy of a much higher and focused word count. Needless to say: the fight for gender equality should be underpinned by this thinking.

As I sat in many panel sessions throughout the weekend on varying topics, it became increasingly apparent that women are frustrated. But in this context, devastatingly so, they were frustrated with each other: other women. During various discussions, I experienced woman confront other women for not verbalising or ‘considering’ the perspective of this group of women, or that group. Women offered up opinions that were contrary to the status quo and faced anger as a reaction.

This shocked me and my personal reaction was/is this: we are all products of the patriarchy. Have no doubt. We all live and behave with some level of unconscious bias. Furthermore, we as humans can only speak from our own experience. As a cis, white, straight woman I can only draw on my perspective from that exact identity make-up. It’s true that no one woman is equal until we all are. So, if we’re to progress, we cannot hold each other to such a high and unattainable standard that we so often do. We need forums and opportunities to be given feedback, to question, to learn from our ‘mistakes’ and learn what it means to be a woman of any other identify than our own. Listening and empathy are strong tools for women. We should use them with compassion and ambition.

But, easier said than done perhaps when women come with experiences of being silenced, overlooked, abused online, physically and sexually. Women are derided for being fat, for being thin, for having an image that doesn’t meet the media and the patriarchy’s standard. Women are derided equally for meeting that standard. It’s called objectification. Women face this and much more, each in their own unique way or combination of ways. Horrifyingly, what is less unique is the scale to which women undergo physical violence, from small but regular acts of physical harassment to instances all too often culminating in death. This is a reality. The scale of this systemic nightmare was highlighted by a campaigner who spoke on stage: “I don’t believe that little boys grow up wanting to be rapists”.

As consumers of media, as campaigners, as humans — we experience stories about all of this in siloes. A story about rape, a story about honour killing, a story online abuse. For me, it wasn’t until I was faced with a stage full of female campaigners fighting against violence against women its various guises, with little support from and in fact perpetuation in some cases, from the state. For me, it wasn’t until I faced a young South African woman, about my age, break down in tears on stage as the audience gave her a standing ovation for telling her harrowing and unimaginable story of sexual trafficking, drugging, physical abuse. It wasn’t until I was immersed in the rich tapestry of violence carried out against women. At the hands of who? Men. It was then that a wave of overwhelming heartbreak and desperation washed over me, pulling me down and battering me with emotion… and fear. Fear, because this is huge.

So, if I felt such desperation upon listening to these stories, while luckily having no personal stories of my own to draw on, I can only begin to comprehend the scale of desperation that those women, with personal stories, are experiencing. But women are not the enemy. We might not be perfect, we might be learning, we might need critique but we have to help each other become the change we want to see in the world. In some ways, men aren’t the enemy, either. The fault lies at the feet of the patriarchy: a system of social conditioning, that we can work together to bring down and create equality for all: men and women of every kind.

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