Monday, 23 September 2013

Nottingham Women's Conference 2013

As Finn MacKay told us at the start of Nottingham Women's Conference 2013 (also known as NWC2013), Nottingham is one of only a few cities that retains a feminist liberation network, and this conference was the first in the city for more than twenty years.

The event started on a high, MacKay introducing many women new to feminism to key issues that affect us, such as only 20% representation in UK government, 15-19% pay gap remaining even 40 years after equal pay legislation came into effect, the 3 million women affected by male violence each year and much more. Did you realise that there are more licensed lap dancing clubs in this country than rape crisis centres?

We were left with a challenge, for all those embarrassed by feminism and feminists. What is embarrassing about demanding basic human rights for all?

This was followed by addresses from three key speakers. Pragna Patel spoke eloquently on behalf of the Southall Black Sisters about her 34 year old organisation that supports women with a whole range of gender inequality issues. She spoke about their achievements in the forced marriage act and concessions in immigration law, as well as how immigration issues and criminalisation are intertwined with gender-based violence and inequality. We heard of of the dichotomy of familial roles in feminism, that they perpetuate and enforce inequality, yet also provide protection against it. And we were told of the importance of contextualisation, that feminism is not a clinical theory and needs to be discussed in a political context.

The second speaker, Dr Julia Long, spoke about objectification and how it disguises as much as it conveys. She showed how it normalises violence against women and how physical objectification (such as beauty regimes and fashion choices) are used to moderate and control not only physical abilities, but our intellectual and creative potential. Long showed the relationship between a dominant and subordinate group through three main factors; violence (asserting dominance), objectification (removing humanity) and submission (disguise and compliance). If women don't buy into the "dream", the subordination doesn't work. Long was a powerful and emotive speaker, telling the gathered women that, "ultimately, to render a person as an object is to kill them. It is about reducing us to dead bodies."

We also heard from Chris Herries, the chair of the Co-Operatives UK group, who spoke at length about the history of the Co-Op and how women have been involved. She, interestingly, agreed that the "lads mags" sold by the stores are indeed pornographic, and that we should all become members so we can complain, campaign and change as joint owners of the corporation.

All three women raised an important point, that resurfaced throughout the day in various workshops. Male violence against women, societal enforcement of gender-inequality against women is a huge problem that needs to be named. Though Theresa May and other politicians are telling us that they acknowledge the problem and the significant and disproportionate effect on women, they are trying to promote a gender-neutral approach. They want to discuss violence. They want to discuss forced marriage. They don't want to discuss who is doing what to whom. But if we remove the gender-issue, we a removing part of the problem, we are hiding it from view. We need to address it, name it and keep talking.

Lunch was a wonderful opportunity to network, and I got the opportunity to meet with people working in schools, organisations such as Equation, and the wonderful Roweena Russell, who already feels like a sister!

The afternoon was split into various workshops, run by different organisations. The first I attended was run by the End Victim Blaming campaign. We looked at the definition of victim blaming as well as exploring our own frame of reference and how that affects our ideas and attitudes. I took away several things from the workshop, including the idea of a group learning agreement and some of the things to include in it. I will be using that one tomorrow!

We are, as individuals, all controlled in our response to victim blaming by a personal frame of reference. This includes both internal and external factors and affects thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Our frame of reference is not fixed, but it can be hard to change.

For example, as a child I was constantly told that I would never be attacked because I didn't look pretty and I wasn't dainty. The consequence of this message was that I believed that I must have been responsible for my experience, because I couldn't identify with the idea of sexual assault. Another example given by EVB was the media's portrayal of a case, saying that a woman had been "flirting all night" which led to her policing her own behaviour and that of others.

We get messages from everywhere, from the fact that women are targeted about postal safety, that girls are taught in schools, messages from other women, even. Our culture grooms young women to believe in Prince Charming and fairy tales. Men are seen as our salvation, so it must be us who are broken.

We're not.

It was a deeply personal workshop for many of us. Though I now speak openly about my experience of rape eight years ago, and am starting to speak about my experience six weeks ago, it is still a challenge. And the thought of discussing personal references with strangers left me physically sick and shaking, a reaction that I've not felt in quite some time! Some women were braver than me, though. They shared their experiences and they were thoroughly supported in that environment.

We were left with advice, advice that seems simple and obvious, but advice that need to be taken. How can we support victims and start to challenge victim blaming?
1. Acknowledge and challenge our own beliefs.
2. Respectfull challenge others.
3. Change our own language.
4. Complain to the Pess Complaints Commission and services when we see victim blaming in media.
5. Believe and support victims. Tell them that you believe them.
6. Support EVB Campaign and spread the word.

I can't speak about the next section of the event, as I decided to take some time out for self-care at this point in the day. It was an incredibly useful time for me to reflect and take stock of what I had learnt and where I was emotionally. D and all at Nottingham Rape Crisis have taught me well!

I went back in for part of the campaign planning session, where a myriad of local and national causes were represented. Everything from fighting bedroom tax to the No More Page Three campaign, from writing a feminist publication to a female skills base... It was all there.

The second round of workshops meant going to see Equation for me. Equation works with young people on a range of sensitive issues, such s violence and self-esteem. The session was based around their secondary targeted Know More campaign and the importance of female networks.

Using NSPCC statistics, Equation stated that 27% of teenage girls have been raped and that 90% of domestic violence incidents have been witnessed by children. Again, they asserted the problem of gender-neutrality approaches to VAWG issues.

We were introduced to different protective factors which help young women avoid or cope with violence and were statistically proven. These were:
1) self esteem
2) belief in their own ability to cope
3) ability to deal with change
4) ability to problem solve

There were also existing factors, which included:
1) family cohesion
2) presence of at least one consistent adult in their lives
3) a close bond with the survivor (if violence had been witnessed)
4) strong support networks
5) out of school activities

We were told about the importance of female support networks and how they decrease isolation, provide a check-in point, enable girls to identify support and let them see value in being a women. It reminded me of how invaluable Girlguiding and other femal-only space really is, when it is used well! 

Social messaging also featured as an important part of the mix, how the genders are engaged in competition and taught differently about their worth and competency, as well as taught that girls shouldn't trust each other. Our society is constantly trying to break the bonds between women and isolate us.

Equation spoke to us about how creativity is essential in memorable projects with young women, and how it builds esteem. Their Know More project (looking at emotions, choices, aspirations and relationships) helped young women change how they saw themselves and others, improved friendships and how they lt about being a woman.

The closing remarks of the conference reinforced the message that we had been hearing all day. It is not feminism that silences women, it's the men that rape and abuse women who are trying to silence them.

I know there has been controversy surrounding the event, and I know it is likely to arise here, given what I've already experienced on Twitter. What I want to focus on now, though, is the opportunity that NWC2013 gave women to come and explore feminism in Nottingham, whether they have been feminists for years or have not explored issues before. The event was massively over-subscribed, which is a testament to just how much interest and demand there is for these conferences, and a number of organisations and speakers who could have delivered workshops were encouraged to run fringe events as an alternative because the organisers simply did not have the room physically or temporally!

If there is anyone who wants to get involved, there is still time. There are fringe events running into next month, and I am sure planning will soon be underway for next year's event.

For now, though, I'm going to go and hide... At least until tomorrow!

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