International women’s month reflection
CW: violence against women, police brutality
March has been a total whirlwind, buzzing with amazing feminist energy! Of course, it’s always a mixed bag between grassroots activism and the growing commodification and depoliticisation of what once was a women workers’ strike. Still, the vast array of events and activities – from marches to walking tours and talks – have been a total blast and have left me inspired and energised.
To the barricades!
How amazing to be marching TWICE in a less than a week! The first time with Million Women Rise in solidarity with women of colour who, for years now, have been organising and creating a safe and brave space to call out male and police violence, and the second time, on international women’s day, with the Women’s Strike - the fierce, rowdy, exuberant demo that brings together women of colour, indigenous, working class, disabled, migrant, Muslim, lesbian, queer and trans women and sex workers – all under one red umbrella. The Women’s Strike brings us together to protest against a system of power that keeps us isolated and divided from one another. These are two very different yet critical spaces … the next stage is for these groups to find ways to come together, whilst retaining their uniqueness. In the words of Angela Davis: “Any movement for change – any revolution – must encompass difference, not insist on assimilation. If we can’t figure out a way to come together WITH our differences, then we’re not going anywhere.”
The path to abolitionism
This year, I attended my first in person WOW - Women of the World festival - not because I’ve just discovered it or because it hasn’t had great line ups … but because it always pains me that feminism is somehow inaccessible. As bell hooks famously said: feminism is for everyone – and it really should be!
My main reason for going was to see, to hear and to experience Patrisse Cullors, in conversation with Afua Hirsch, about her latest book An Abolitionist Handbook: 12 steps to changing you and the world (put it on your reading list – and buy it from an independent bookshop) And WOW, literally! Both of them were incredible and mesmerising. This discussion crystallised so much for me on where next for feminism. Of course – White people reading this – feminism has to be primarily antiracist and intersectional – as Patrisse Cullors put it “the intersectional framework is a framework for our freedom” – because it recognises the rights of the most marginalised – e.g. women of colour, disabled women, sex workers, queer and trans people – and how different forms of oppression reinforce each other. Abolitionism is central to that conversation: the re-imagining of a world where there is no police or prison system, where the focus is on a culture of care. She encourages us to embody change and believe that change is indeed possible … still feeling goose bumps!
Abolitionism - where do we start?
It helps to position abolitionism in the wider context, including in relation to events that have happened recently and pertaining to the safety of women and people of colour at the hands of the police. On 11th March, the Metropolitan police lost its high court case against the founders of Reclaim These Streets for blocking last year’s vigil for Sarah Everard. It is a significant victory, particularly because, lest we forget, Sarah was murdered by a serving Met officer, who had used lockdown rules as a pretext to arrest her. The vigil had been banned, on orders of the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, because ‘mass’ gatherings were prohibited under Covid19 restrictions. When Sisters Uncut and others attended regardless, they were brutalised by the police. All the while, it has now emerged, the PM and his entourage were merrily partying in Downing Street, ignoring the said rules – and the Met did NOTHING! To commemorate the first anniversary of the vigil, Sisters Uncut marched from New Scotland Yard to the infamous Charing Cross Police station – a hotbed of misogyny, racism and homophobia - setting off 1000 rape alarms.
There are countless other cases and examples of police wrongdoings and abuse of power. How can we forget Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman – whose mother Mina Smallman spoke eloquently at WOW about how her daughters were treated; and the more recent case of a 15-year-old Black girl, known as Child Q, who was strip searched by the police at school without an adult in the room while she was on her period. The list is endless – and it’s got to stop!
Feminist London on foot
I joined some feminist walking tours – another first! – and totally recommend them. The ‘Look up London’ Feminist Jack the Ripper tour and the ‘Women of London’ Working Women of the East End both provide really insightful (and complementary) social historical context about women’s lives in Victorian times – the sheer ruthlessness of it. Of course, part of the conversation centred around the brutal murders that took place in that area – but the focus remained firmly on women's stories, the abject poverty, the squalid living conditions that left so many women in totally desperate situations. Not to mention the derogatory police and media narrative that framed women as worthless ‘prostitutes’ and ‘fallen’ women in a society where systemic misogyny blighted women and girls’ lives, failing them every step of the way – often in spite of their best efforts!
If you go in the coming weeks (before 14th June 2022), don’t miss Simone Fattal’s beautiful ceramics and etching at the Whitechapel Gallery … and look up before you go in, the golden leaves that adorn the façade are by Rachel Whiteread, who is also the first woman to have won the Turner Prize. The Whitechapel Gallery was founded by the same people as Toynbee Hall – social reformers, Samuel and Henrietta Barnett.
There is so much to say and share about women in London’s East End – then and now – so expect more on this topic soon. But for now, I'm leaving you with the uplifting story of the Matchstick girls strike of 1888 – the women and girls who fought back against the dire, dangerous working conditions at the Bryant and May factory. Not only were they working for a pittance, but fines were deducted from their meagre wages for extra toilet breaks and untidy workbenches, and their health endangered by the white phosphorous used in the production of matches, and which caused an extremely painful, disfiguring and eventually fatal form of bone cancer, known as ‘phossy jaw’.
The huge profit margins enjoyed by Bryant and May did nothing to encourage them to implement any changes … until they went too far and dismissed a worker, sparking off a rebellion - literally! The story got picked up by activist and journalist Annie Besant who helped organise the strike. She published a damming article comparing the factory to a ‘prison house’ and clearly centring women’s voices and their harrowing experiences. Bryant and May’s initial response was to force the women to deny their daily reality. The women refused, staged a walk out, defiant, and WON! Central to this story is the role and agency of the women workers themselves who were driving the struggle and provided great impetus for other labour activists to organise.
Also check the East End Women’s Museum for more information about the women’s stories and how their descendants continue to work to secure their incredible legacy.
Ending this international women's month reflection with this quote by Audre Lorde: "Revolution is not a one-time event"
... let’s keep the feminist flame burning, feministas!