Postcards from Brighton

This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 35, Summer 1997.

In November 1996 over 2,500 people (mostly women) from 137 countries attended a five day International Conference on Violence, Abuse and Women’s Citizenship. Ten women from several countries, with diverse histories and connections to sexual violence and feminist activism discuss what the conference meant to them. Several themes stand out: the importance of making connections between forms of violence and abuse and oppression, and the vital task of creating contexts in which feminist anger and vision can be rekindled.

Thoroughly life changing

Al Garthwaite is 49, and works for Vera Productions

This was one of the most significant weeks in my life.

Having been an active feminist since 1970, I rather dropped out in the purges of the eighties. Being shouted at in plenaries, or lectured about the early 70s movement by those who were primary schoolgirls at the time finally lost its appeal. I remained committed and active in my work and its feminist networks, organised in the mainstream and in safe spaces — small groups where I knew everyone, could work and feel secure from lies and blame. But I would not join an open group or campaign.

Friends persuaded me to attend the confer­ence, nervously I accepted, delegated by BECTU, my union. I organised the video programming at lunchtimes and evenings every day, and was thrilled to discover the range of powerful and inspiring, as well as distressing videos on male violence made by women from many different countries. From ‘Russia, War, Rape’ and FGM to ‘Women in Bosnia’ and domestic violence in Turkey, the activist-influenced, often low-budget videos give a very different picture from that put over on broadcast television. I now wish to compile as compre­hensive as possible a list of such films and videos (not Hollywood features), with details of distributors, and circulate it; let me know of any you’d like to see included.

And yes, we have all moved on in the nineties. Sessions kept to time. Distressed women could see counsellors. Appropriate anger was (mostly) constructively voiced by the women feeling it, and dealt with by the hard-working and under-resourced organisers and volunteers, without being allowed to destroy the whole conference. Media coverage was almost entirely positive, skilfully controlled by the press officer and her assistants.

I met with women I’d been in groups with over 20 years ago: still feminist, still out there fighting. Over 2500 women from 137 countries, aged 17-70, spent up to six exciting, informa­tive, by turns overwhelmingly upsetting and immensely enjoyable, ultimately thoroughly life-changing days in Brighton. I am delighted to have been among them.

The five ‘p’s’

Ailbhe Smyth is a long time activist in Irish feminism and is director of the Women’s Education, Research and Resource Centre, University College, Dublin.

The conference was a truly amazing feminist event. ‘Global Strategies for Prevention, Protection and Provision’ based on the Zero Tolerance anti-violence campaign was the guiding principle of the conference. Focusing on the ‘three p’s’ gave shape and structure to the massive and extremely complex problem of male violence, in its many forms, causes and consequences, although Liz Kelly reminded us powerfully on the last day that without ‘Politics and Protest’ we can achieve very little.

Each day keynote panels, research paper sessions, networking and action planning workshops focused on a specific strand of the continuum of male violence: rape; sexual harassment and domestic violence; harmful cultural practices; trafficking of women and children; child abuse and child protection.

Many of the keynote speakers were ‘the sort of women you collected photographs of’ as Lepa Mladjenovic (Belgrade) said in her hilarious introduction to her otherwise very serious keynote about women’s experience and resist­ance to the terrible violence of the war crimes perpetrated against them in former Yugoslavia. Christine Delphy, Beatrix Campbell, Liz Kelly, Charlotte Bunch, Andrea Dworkin, Kathleen Barry, Janice Raymond — it was wonderful to hear these women, to be stimulated and challenged by the clarity of their thinking and the continuing strength of their feminist commitment.

It was also crucially important to learn of feminist resistance strategies in places, and in ways that we in Europe are desperately (shame­fully) ignorant of. Although the majority of the participants were white British and Western European women, I heard powerful keynotes and papers by women from former Yugoslavia, Russia and Afghanistan, Fiji, the Philippines, South Africa, Trinidad as well as the tiny Pacific island of Belau/Palau when Cita Morei and Isabella Sumag spoke inspiringly of their struggle to introduce a nuclear-free constitution in the face of massive resistance from the USA.

But so many of the speakers were inspiring, powerful and impressive. Beth Ritchie gave a strong and thoughtful keynote on the particular vulnerability to violence and abuse of young women of colour in the USA, while Teboho Maitse spoke about the connections between nationalism, violent conflict and men’s violence in the private sphere. On the final day Hilary McCollum from the North of Ireland gave a brave and very moving personal account of the acute pain of child sexual abuse. Earlier Mimi Ramsey (Ethiopia/USA) had spoken of her experience of female genital mutilation and her struggle to oppose it, while Norma Hotaling (USA) had talked about prostitution — again based on her own experience — and the difficulty in enabling women to move out of prostitution work.

Despite its scope — or perhaps because of it — there were omissions in the conference program­ming. At one stage, it seemed as if bitter controversy over different political analyses of prostitution might dominate the conference although — despite protests in plenary sessions — there were in fact few structured opportu­nities for women unfamiliar with the bases of the dispute to debate the issue with those centrally involved. Incomprehensibly, and curiously, there were no Black keynote speakers from Britain, and very curiously, since many of the main speakers were lesbian, none of the keynote sessions dealt with violence against lesbians. Lesbian issues were on the agenda, certainly, but not on the ‘big’ platform. Sheila Jeffreys discussed trafficking in women from a historical perspective in her keynote talk — while her paper on the lesbian sex industry was scheduled for a ‘parallel’ session. I went to some great research and networking sessions focused on lesbian issues globally. I heard about work on homelessness amongst young lesbians in Australia, citizenship issues for lesbians, lesbian pornography and much more. I also met and was stimulated by the work and reflection of both lesbians and straight women working in the area of violence and disability, which was really inspiring.

I learned an immense amount, as I think everyone must surely have done. Whatever the omissions, tensions and controversies, it was a remarkable conference, and I was proud to be there alongside so many Irish women who are doing so much, and so innovatively, to make sure that the 5 ‘p’s — Prevention, Provision, Protection, Politics and Protest — make a real difference in the lives of women and children.

Reassuring rage

Angela Beausang is chairwoman of ROKS, the National Organisation of Battered Women’s Shelters (refuges) in Sweden.

The Brighton conference was a great experi­ence. It was my first big conference aboard. A city full of women and feminist as well, it was a dream come true.

It took me a couple of days to get the hang of finding time for as much as possible. Once I found the location for a session, it was often overcrowded and sometimes you had to turn back — I missed some lunches in the process. You had to plan your participation very carefully the night before, but on the third day it worked!

What became so evident was that we all face the same problems and to fight against sexual­ised violence we need to stand united. The view on prostitution is particularly important. Several keynote speakers stressed the fact that we have to struggle to include all prostitution in our fight. Kathleen Barry, like many others, expressed her concern about the UN Declaration on violence against women excluding prostitu­tion, which means excluding millions of women. The fact that some countries and even some women talk about the difference between ‘free’ and ‘forced’ prostitution is appalling and very disturbing. We have to have a new declaration that includes all women.

The fact that experts are trying to take over and make their own definition of male sexual­ised violence against women and girls is something the shelter movement in Sweden has too much experience of! That is something we have to fight every day. Louise Armstrong told us what is happening in the United States and we know that the international male movement are copycats. We have to be aware of this and fight for our right to define male sexualised violence as we are the real experts.

The war against women everywhere became painfully clear. Afghani women being forced to stay in their homes, with no way of supporting themselves and their children, it being danger­ous for them to walk the street without fully covering themselves, not being able to hold jobs, is womanhatred.

The fact that so many women came together with the same experience and with the same feeling of rage is reassuring. There is no way to silence us. We will unite and fight as long as we have to. The conference makes me sure of that. The next time there is a gathering of this kind, I hope lots more sisters who could not come this time will be there.

Not victim or survivor, but resister

Anne Richardson is in her early 20s, and involved in local activism and campaigns in the North of England.

I had never attended a conference before Brighton but would again without hesitation. I arrived feeling quite nervous about what to expect and left feeling motivated and enthu­siastic about my feminism.

I have always associated conferences with professionals, academics and ‘famous’ femin­ists, being none of those I thought I would be out of place. I was pleased to discover that there was a wide spectrum of women from all walks of life who attended. It was great to be at an international event involved in actively chal­leng­ing and fighting to change the many forms of violence and abuse suffered by women throughout the world.

For me personally some of the most important changes are happening around feminist responses to ritual abuse. The Brighton conference not only included it on the agenda — pretty radical for some — but also encouraged women to look at ritual abuse in a feminist political context: one that doesn’t define it as different, weird or ‘other’, but as another form of violence against women and children by men. Talking to feminist survivors and supporters has given me hope that there is an alternative to therapy when leaving a satanic cult, and that more women will be encouraged to understand their experiences within a radical feminist framework.

I thought the best speaker at the conference was Hilary McCollum because she spoke about child sexual abuse as a ‘resister’. She spoke about personal experience of abuse, not as a status of pain or trauma, but to highlight the political context of male violence and to draw out links between the experiences of women. Too often we are separated into boxes as ‘survivor of child sexual abuse’, ‘victim of domestic violence’, ‘rape survivor’ — the list goes on. Hilary was also important to me because she was introduced and presented herself to the conference as a activist, not a survivor/victim who needed to speak out in order to ‘heal’. I hope I was not the only one motivated by this speech and the conference as a whole to become more active in feminist politics.

Sharing global perspectives

Patricia Connell is an activist, and is currently doing her PhD on African-Caribbean women’s experiences of domestic violence.

The tone of the conference was set by the first keynote speaker, Kathleen Barry, whose contribution addressed some of the serious issues around the conceptualisation of violence against women. She touched on the way much of the debate is filtered through Western liberal individualism, which limits a more holistic understanding. A good point of departure for an international conference, such an opening set the agenda for ensuing discussions, both recognising current work and calling for an expansion of its scope. One key to this expansion, which directly tied in with aims of the conference, lay in recognising the international linkages under­lying the problem, and the diversity in the position of women globally.

The conference also presented an excellent opportunity to share global perspectives on violence against women. There were many informative sessions with much cross-fertili­sation of ideas. It was particularly important to learn about the many initiatives by women in various social and national contexts, and diverse strategies operating outside the criminal justice system. Some serious challenges were also highlighted, like the complexity and dilemmas surrounding the issues of female genital mutilation and prostitution. The diverse backgrounds of participants also provided an excellent opportunity to engage in debate that would link theory and the work of activists; these are useful connections that are not always explored.

This conference departed from the usual pattern of discussion and one of the highlights was the contribution of Beth Richie. She highlighted what for me is one of the underlying problems in the area of violence against women — the need to contextualise the problem, and incorporate the various ways in which women bear intersecting and multiple oppressions, and how this limits choices. Not taking this into account results in some groups of women receiving inappropriate services, which works directly against their interests, but also against the wider interests of all women. Beth high­lighted the silences within the feminist move­ment which collude with and feed into the marginalisation of some women, and ultimately serve neo-conservative interests which see women as a public policy problem.

I sometimes see a failure to recognise the links with wider connections in struggles to end oppression, alongside a failure to challenge oppression in all its forms. This results in an unwillingness to address the plight of marginal­ised groups, and a failure to recognise that attacks on them are often the vehicle for wider attacks. The almost simultaneous protests of some disabled and Black women early in the conference served as pointers to lost oppor­tunities to push the boundaries of current debates, and to ensure that the issues were not seen as a matter of special group interest.

The planning of other international networks was one positive offshoot. The conference highlighted the excellent work being done, and the global connections being tapped, but it also illustrated the gaps in the struggles against violence against women; these must also be addressed.

A radical edge

Norma Hotaling is Executive Director of SAGE, a project in San Francisco ‘organised by and for survivors of abuse, prostitution and trauma’.

When I was invited to be keynote speaker for the Brighton conference I was excited, but at the same time I thought: ‘one more conference and nothing will change. I will be the token survivor and we will hear intellectuals deliver well scripted papers and the result will be women and girls dying and hurt’. The dying and hurting is still going on at rates unimaginable, but there is a radical organised community of women coming together with survivors to speak of the harm that is perpetrated against women and girls and to strategise on ways to combat what is happening. Why is this radical? I heard women speak of the horrors they deal with on an ongoing basis, survivors came up to me through­out the conference with beautiful faces and knowing eyes. We shared a bond. The confer­ence organisers enveloped this experience in safety, comfort, support, sisterhood, and yes a radical edge.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to find an environment that is safe in which to speak about the harm of prostitution. This was a large conference and it was totally safe for me. That safety enabled all of us to layer information, create depth and come to a greater understanding of what the systems of oppression are, and what the impact of violence, sexual exploitation including prostitution and pornography has on women and girls’ lives, and how these issues control our ability to fully function in the world. There were a few disruptors and out of their mouths fell statements like ‘this is the most man-hating conference I’ve ever attended’. To which I replied, ‘I guess the answer is to love men more. That will solve things!’ It is interesting to see the dynamics of the oppressed doing the dirty work for the oppressors. As long as women are promoting prostitution and protecting men, the customers, pimps, traffickers and abusers don’t have to do anything.

Creating a world that is safe for all women and girls, a world that enable women to live self-determined lives free from abuse involves speaking about the abuse, naming it, but it also involves changing the status of women. This conference was a step in that direction. We need women to create more programs for women and girls that assist in prevention and healing from harm, develop vocational and educational programs so that women won’t have to be dependent. The media has a responsibility to be involved in the education of the public and not to advance negative stereotypes of women. Men have to held accountable and encouraged to adopt the feminist model and become involved in the world in more positive ways.

Passionate politics

Jane McMahon was a teacher, and now organises education training on sexual abuse for an Area Child Protection Committee.

From the moment of seeing the sign outside the Conference Centre to the end of the conference party the week was a rollercoaster of experi­ences: witnessing the conference hall filled with so many women from across the world was a powerful political statement in itself. Despite real divisions there was a feeling of commitment to radical feminist agendas. There was political insight that made me giddy with excitement, personal testimony with analysis that left me emotionally and intellec­tually in awe. Making the links between forms of sexual violence mixed with feelings of engaging with the issues was, for me, positively mind-blowing.

It seems incongruous to edit the whole experience, but here are some of my highlights:

  • Kathleen Barry’s analysis of prostitution provided me with the words and concepts to make sense of issues in ways I have never thought before.
  • Beth Ritchie confronted delegates with the scope of the issues feminism needs to address and the contradictions and dilemmas that must be faced. making links in order to address the differing realities of women’s lives is vital to radical feminism.
  • Ellen Pence developed the theme of inclusive resistance to all oppression as well as entertaining and ‘deconstructing’ the idolisa­tion of the women speakers by us ‘mere’ delegates!
  • Hilary McCollum’s speech exposed the difference between theory and practice in personal relationships in relation to sexual abuse. I acclaim her courage, honesty and presence.

The experience of Brighton has both empowered and unsettled me. It was empower­ing to be among other radical feminists — that validated my politics and increased my sense of collective integrity.

Since returning my resolve to challenge attacks on that integrity has been strengthened. I am prepared to take more risks and less willing to accept compromise at work and in my personal life. This is also frightening. the downside to being inspired is the realisation of just how far we have to go.

To conclude, despite the difficulties, Brighton was a celebration of feminists defining our realities. We must refuse to enter debates on the terms dictated to us, we can use the wealth of analysis to change the debates altogether and inform our activism.

So much to follow up

Purna Sen is writing up her research on women’s resistance to domestic violence in Calcutta, and has just completed a project on domestic violence and ethnic minority women in Camden.

Over three thousand people attended this conference; they came from all over the world to work on the elimination of male violence against women — how inspiring. The organisers and volunteers did a fantastic job. But meeting and talking to so few was frustrating. For me the tension between so many different interests is a strong memory of the conference.

A year and a half after leaving Calcutta, where I had gone to do some research on domestic violence, it was good to meet the women from Calcutta again. Talking to others was the highlight of the conference — other Asian women from the UK and elsewhere, colleagues, old friends and new friends. Discussions about papers and speakers always seemed very intense, with people who seemed to have either very deeply held views or reactions. One of the strengths of the conference was the way in which time was found for policy makers, activists and survivors on the platform. There were times when it seemed the whole Confer­ence Centre was tearful in response to the personal testimonies of women who shared their lives with us.

The discussion at the South regional caucus, or rather the debate about what should be discussed, was for me a disappointment as it became exclusionary for women from outside South Asia, although this did not seem to be the intention of the programme. there certainly was a large and vocal demand for a south Asian caucus, for which there was definitely a need, but it need not have displaced the one for the south. We might take more care not to be unnecessarily exclusionary in our ways of working.

The papers and meetings were so many and varied that it was simply not possible to arrange to get to all, or even most, of those that were of interest. Even arranging with friends to spread out between us still left much we could not attend. There is so much to follow up.

Bringing it all back home

Gudrun Jonsdottir is a researcher and worker at Stigamot, a feminist collective of survivors who run the only counselling and information centre for survivors of sexual violence in Iceland.

Three of us from my workplace, Stigamot in Reykjavik, Iceland participated in the Brighton conference. We were looking forward to the conference and were not disappointed. We learned a lot from all that was offered and from many women we met who we had discussion with about our work. We came back home encouraged and filled with enthusiasm. As proof of that we have now organised, with women from other organisations in Iceland, a conference on different forms of sexual violence.

The only thing that went wrong was to us a funny mix up of names in the workshop I had intended to give about out work. It so happened that a woman from Norway bears the same name as me, so Iceland and Norway became one and the same country and we one and the same person.

We appreciated very much the book market and information leaflets from various women’s initiatives against sexual violence. The confer­ence and all that went with it was inspiring and has given us many new ideas, deeper under­standing of different forms of sexual violence. We also came home with an increased sense of solidarity among women working in different corners of the world.

At the same time the enormity of our task, to overcome all forms of sexual violence, became also clearer for us. It seems to me that we have to know, map and connect convincingly, through our research and work all these forms to patriarchal social relations. The task to hand is to collect, document and publish different forms of feminist actions world wide against sexual violence. We have to renew our struggle constantly, and we have much to learn from each other in this respect. We have to write our history of struggle otherwise it will soon be forgotten. Finally we want to express our warmest thanks to the organisers for an informa­tive and good conference.

Time to fight back

Bub Mackay is 19, lives in the North of England, and intends to get involved in feminist activism.

I went to the conference thinking that I was quite aware of women’s rights issues and of the abuses that woman all over the world face from male violence. I can definitely say the confer­ence was an education. It opened my eyes to many things I had no idea were going on, and highlighted the significance of everyday oppression I had got used to ignoring.

I came out of the conference with a ‘super sense’ and every sexist advert, every degrading poster seemed to leap put at me. This was pretty depressing and upsetting at first, and then it made me angry and that made me stronger. I felt more motivated than ever to get involved in campaigning with women’s organisations.

The conference also made me realise how crazy it is when women today say we have equality. Too many women here in Britain have had to blinker themselves to the oppression and exploitation we face in a patriarchal society. I think that women have settled for less in order just to have something. Women have had to try to fit into a man’s world instead of endeavouring to change that world to a better one.

Coming home to the real world I felt like a war was being waged against all women. Now I have accepted that and, as Andrea Dworkin said, I think it is time to fight back. I’m sure that all women there felt like this and that together we will keep doing all we can to work towards liberation, because what women started many years ago is not over yet.

The conference made me feel part of a huge, strong group of women who have power to change things and it has given me great hope and inspiration.

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