Letter from Penarth
Have you heard about the golden age of Welsh feminism? The Big Reveal
Last October the biggest feminist conference in Europe was held in Cardiff. Nigh on two thousand activists descended on the capital for three days of workshops, laughing, dancing and planning.
This site reported on the extraordinary Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, at last free to tell her own story. It was a fablas weekend for all of us who made it.
You hadn’t heard about it? That’s a shame, but you can hardly be blamed given the blanketing silence from Welsh government and those many organisations you’d hope would be partners in uplifting women’s voices in 2022.
It proved impossible to get coverage before the conference, almost impossible during and very difficult since. No elected representative was interested in welcoming so much political energy to Wales.
FiLiA 2022, nonetheless, showed that the Women’s Liberation Movement (remember that) is alive and kicking with a vengeance, and will not be kept down despite all such efforts to push women to the margins.
The three days reflected back to us just how much we are achieving, and how very much there is still is to do.
What do women want?
It’s not hard. Bodily autonomy, equality before the law, safety in our homes, workplaces and in public, a liveable planet.
And we want them for all women, not only in Wales but everywhere in the world. Men want those things too, of course.
The difference is they generally already have them (except the liveable planet bit).
Let me take just one example of the way institutions seem to think uppity women really should just go away. The culture of misogyny in some police forces has received a lot of publicity recently.
In such a context, it is hardly surprising that figures for the investigation of for sexual assault or domestic violence are appalling; it seems from Freedom of Information responses, that less than 10% of reports result in charges. The conviction rate is poorer still.
Yet all Welsh forces have consistently ignored requests to meet with groups concerned about male violence, sexual assault and the use of police powers. Of course, maybe coincidentally, none of our Police and Crime Commissioners are women.
Such wilful refusal is endemic in the Welsh political club. Members of Senedd will whisper to activist women that they cannot have an open conversation about our rights. Councillors will ignore us; some even abuse us on social media. Sports governing bodies and hospital trusts do not reply to requests for meetings.
Meanwhile, lobbying groups claiming to represent the views and interests of all women have clear access to discussion, funding and agendas.
My recent review of studies of devolution highlighted that ‘partnerships, originally created to promote diversity and inclusion [have] become the originators and endorsers of specific interests from which contrary voices may be actively excluded.’
This is precisely the dynamic which has silenced anyone, but especially women, who wants to make the argument that sex is real, immutable and important.
Welsh women have allied around these issues creatively and strategically for a long time but the last two or three years has seen activism flowering on many fronts.
It’s been a delight to talk to such energetic campaigners – here in Penarth, on zoom, at FiLiA, and across Wales from Bangor to Aberystwyth to Pembroke, Swansea and the Marches.
Friendship and more
A big theme has been the many new friends, the importance of those friends through challenges, their perceptiveness and ability to find the right words for our lives.
In this spirit the fantastic A Best Friend Handbook, to be piloted in South Wales schools next term, offers guidelines for girls to help their friends who are also girls to recognise and respond to violence in relationships and family.
We also know that lesbians have experienced some particular post-Covid difficulties, because they are often alienated from their families and their communities were the wrong side of local lockdown limits.
The WomenZone Lesbian Reconnection programme was devised in Penarth and Pennard and has been a great lift in rebuilding the community. It has spawned groups from kayaking to bouldering.
Whoever it was claimed we don’t access the outdoors enough has obviously never met a middle-aged lesbian!
In a very different spirit but also based on the importance of mutual support and recognising impossible legal conundrums, Welsh women have become active in the Hague Mothers Project.
International law has tried to prevent one parent taking their children across national borders without the permission of the other.
In practice, over seventy percent of cases seeking the child’s return are aimed against victims – almost always mothers – fleeing domestic violence.
The legal hounding by perpetrators is further abuse. Filia in Cardiff was the first time many of these women from all over the world, some of whom had travelled thousands of miles, had met in person. There was joy, solidarity and tears a-plenty on such an occasion.
Leadership at home and abroad
These examples highlight that across the UK and much further afield, Welsh women are leading the way in upholding safety, rights and opportunities for women and girls.
A major issue for women everywhere is preserving our sex-based boundaries, in hospitals, prisons, religious spaces, swimming pools, lesbian groups and so on.
Sometimes Welsh law has diverged from England, Scotland or Northern Ireland, but it is often similar, so women can use the guidance developed by women for women across the UK.
Similarly, the support for lesbians defending their boundaries (applies wherever the (non-devolved) Equality Act is in force, although it was developed by Welsh lesbian groups.
Many parents are extremely concerned about the spread of pornography, with its inherent violence and the numbing effect on its users. You can’t avoid knowing that most users are male and most images are of women and children.
Welsh feminists have been key to devising new resources for teachers to reframe pornography and to demonstrate its coercive harms.
In another partnership, the same women are working on a programme tackling the grooming of incels (men bitter about their lack of sexual access to women) and other forms of radicalisation.
Prostitution is also inherently abusive. I, like many women, don’t believe that such forced labour can or should somehow be sanitised or made safe, let alone valorised as some advocates seek to do.
Instead we want to see women helped to escape this abuse, so I am delighted to see a toolkit created by Swansea women for agencies working with women to help them exit life in the sex trade.
This is a first for the UK, and is being admired far beyond our borders. Just last month, one of the authors of the toolkit visited Japan, where she made a brilliant speech.
These connections only highlight that that globally, attacks on women have been ramping up for some time: the control of women’s bodies in the United States, the everyday denial of education in Afghanistan, the attacks on lesbians in refugee camps or the impact of sex-selective abortion and infanticide leading to tens of millions of missing women around the world.
Welsh feminists are close to these struggles. Their work, often relying on pennies donated by individual activists, is closely intertwined with Wales’s notion of itself as a country of sanctuary.
Shoestrings and shut doors
I am beyond proud to see these projects – and many more I have not got space to mention – which have been created and supported by so many Welsh women.
I have to tell you, though, they rely on the goodwill and unpaid hard work of women all over the country. There is almost no public funding for these resources and very little from charities.
Many women I know put in at least a half-time week, for pennies or as volunteers, compared to the well-paid jobs available elsewhere in the ‘equalities’ sector.
Why is this?
Perhaps it goes back to the lack of representation amongst decision-makers. In Wales, despite the vigorous assertions of a government committed to ‘gender equality’, we still have a long way to go.
There may be parity in the Senedd, but elsewhere the situation is lamentable. In October 2021 it was reported that only 28.9% of local councillors are women – almost no change in over seven years.
But even where there are women in positions of power, many are shamefully uncomfortable recognising feminist activism at home or abroad.
The golden age is now
The still-building fifth wave of feminism is our current golden age, despite such wilful opposition. Our activism demonstrates that our rights do indeed matter to thousands of women across Wales, even if they cannot be mentioned in the environs of Cardiff Bay.
We are the inheritors of a proud tradition of feminist activism: we and our foremothers fought for the vote, founded magazines, marched for peace, protected our mining communities and so much more.
We continue to campaign on all the issues in this Letter and more: an end to the monstrosity of female genital mutilation, capturing the extraordinary history of Bute Town and evidence-based, age-appropriate education amongst other issues.
In the 1970s, feminism’s second wave defined seven demands. Some of them have been achieved, such as removing more restrictive definitions of women’s dependence. Sex is a ‘protected characteristic’ in equality legislation, and there are specific provisions for women.
Yet, we still fight to assert and defend our bodily autonomy and our boundaries as women living under patriarchy.
We still need to campaign for safety, and the end of discrimination in pay, healthcare, policing and all the rest.
Our activism builds on the successes of the second-wave, and we will do what it takes to protect and preserve those sex-based rights we already have in law.
Raising our voices
To achieve all that, we need to talk and be heard.
We are raising our voices – in letters, in print and on the streets – till those policy makers and legislators who frame our lives stop shouting us down and start listening.
The fantastic campaigners in Scotland aren’t weeshting. Ni fydd merched Cymru yn cael eu tawelu.
From here in Penarth, to Pembrokeshire, Amlwch or Powys, the women of Wales will also not be silenced.
I hope you will join us.
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