Blow by blow: inspiration in spades at FiLiA 2022
The magic that happens when women take centre stage
Blow by blow is my weekly writer’s diary and it’s only for paid subscribers. However, as this week is mainly about FiLiA, I’ve made it open to all.
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If you haven’t heard of FiLiA, it’s the largest feminist conference in Europe (possibly the world?!) and last weekend it took place in Cardiff, over 3 days. I was lucky enough to attend and be completely inspired, so although I’ve not got a huge amount of writing done (I returned on Monday night, knackered, and of course this week is half term too!), I wanted to share some of the conference highlights with you.
In all honesty, I attended 4 or 5 sessions a day over 3 days and every single one of them was mind-blowing. The FiLiA organisers are incredible at gathering women from all over the world to present a picture of truly global sisterhood that takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions - one minute your heart is breaking as you hear of the brutal oppression of women in Iran, or through prostitution, or in Brazil, and the next moment you feel yourself being uplifted by the sheer determination of every woman there to end patriarchy for the next generation.
The opening plenary on the Saturday contained a presentation from Iranian-born writer and activist Maryam Namazie. You can watch her speech in full below, and be aware it contains distressing video content of Iranian women being attacked and arrested by the so-called ‘morality police’. As harrowing as it is, it is also inspiring to see how women - in particular young women and schoolgirls - are leading this revolution, and also to see the huge audience at FiLiA join together to show solidarity with them, chanting ‘Woman. Life. Freedom’.
Later that day, I also attended Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in conversation with Samira Ahmed, and heard Nazinin talk more about the regime in Iran, and her imprisonment there. In spite of everything, she reminded us of the value of simple things - family, food, shopping, and said, “Do not underestimate how wonderful it is to be free and live in a free country.”
Also on the topic of freedom and human rights, the session on Hague Mothers needs a mention. This is a FiLiA Legacy Project, which aims to end the injustices created by The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, specifically for mothers and children who are fleeing abusive relationships. There were harrowing stories told of women who ran for their lives from violence, most often to go ‘home’ to their country of origin, only to be served papers and told they must return to their abuser’s country or risk losing their child. You can read more about these Hague Mothers if you click here, and please sign up on their website to follow and support those leading the way in changing this law, which, although created with good intentions, is leading women back into danger and sometimes even deadly situations.
I also attended two sessions with their focus on the power of matriarchy. In the first, friends of the artist Monica Sjöö gave an overview of her life and her vision. At FiLiA several sessions run simultaneously, and it is tremendously difficult to choose between them! But I was drawn to the session about Sjöö after reading about her on the FiLiA blog prior to the conference, and in particular this quote, and her iconic image, God Giving Birth.
It was the natural home birth of her second son that changed her life and the way she painted. She said ‘I found that birth so extraordinary and very much a spiritual/physical almost religious experience. I could find NO split between the mind/body that we are supposed to believe in – and I couldn’t understand that we women can be called ‘weak’ when our beings are capable of such strength as creation through birth’. As a result she painted the now iconic ‘God Giving Birth’ depicting a black woman giving birth to the universe.
God Giving Birth 1968 ©Monica Sjöö Estate
It was really beautiful to hear about Sjöö and see much more of her art. I highly recommend exploring her work further, including her book, The Great Cosmic Mother, which I hope to read. Perhaps we might get Maggie or Annie, who led the session, on the Book Forge podcast - would you like that? Let me know in the comments.
Also on the topic of matriarchy, I attended a session with Dr Heide Goettner-Abendroth and Andrea Fleckinger. Dr Heide is the founder of HAGIA: International Academy for Matriarchal Studies and Matriarchal Spirituality, and Andrea is a postdoctoral researcher who studies under Dr Heide and hopes to continue her work. Together they explained how matriarchal societies are structured and how they work. You can read more at the HAGIA website.
There were so many other highlights, but I must give a mention to the session on Defending Women’s Sport.
Kim Jones takes the mic, interviewed by Fiona McAnena of Fair Play for Women, with Mara Yamauchi, Sharron Davies, Tonia Antoniazzi MP, Dr Kerry McGawley and Victoria Hood.
I'm not very sporty (although in the past year I’ve got into weight training, more on that another time perhaps!), but I think sport is an area where most people can see an injustice happening to women as a result of trans activism. And although I’ll never lose an Olympic place to a male competing in my female category, I will fight for my sisters and daughters hard-won right to fair play. It was excellent to see the legendary Sharron Davies in this session, and also ‘Swim Mom’ - real name Kim Jones - who is so beautifully articulate about the effect of Leah Thomas on her own daughter and team-mates. At the point of the interview below, she was anonymous, but has since become braver, and founded ICONS to defend women’s sport.
Another woman, who spoke via video from the USA in the session, was Riley Gaines. Her account of what it was like to compete against someone who had gone from ranking around 500th in the male category, to becoming the fastest female in the nation, beating women who had recently won Olympic medals. Watch her tell her story here.
There is so much I am missing out of this post - so rich was the event and it is simply not possible to include it all. However, I can’t end without telling you about the panel I was privileged to be a part of, ‘Gender Critical in Publishing: The Silencing of Women’s Voices’, with me, poet Jenny Lindsay, authors Helen Joyce and Gillian Philip, and author and editor Julia Williams. The room was absolutely packed, and filled with anger and passion too as each of us told of how defending women’s rights had impacted on our careers and livelihood. I’m very grateful to have had the honour of standing alongside those amazing women.
Check out what seems to be the only photo in existence. From right to left, Julia, Gillian, Helen, Jenny (smiling); me (checking my notes and panicking)
If you want to find out more about FiLiA, their website is here, their podcast is brilliant, and I am sure they will be uploading many of the sessions very soon. Next year, their conference in Glasgow. Might see you there! In the meantime, see you next week in The Book Forge, when I hope to have a podcast for you about Dianic Wicca. Thank you so much to you all for following and subscribing.
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