The New Face of European Feminism

The first-ever gathering of women within the context of the World Social Forum movement was the most exciting event of the European Social Forum held in and around Paris last week.

About 2500 women gathered on November 12, the day before the official opening of the ESF in a day long European Assembly of Women's Rights. There appears to be a resurgence of feminism across Europe in the face of the neo-liberal assault on social programs. The slogan of the forum was With Women for Another Europe.

A major issue debated at the forum was that the proposed European Constitution has no provision for the legal equality between men and women; re-introduces the Christian heritage which threatens gains women have made in freedom of choice, the right to divorce and the right to work; and carves in stone neo-liberal policies that will lead to the disappearance of the welfare state. The discussion reminded this Canadian feminist of the constitutional battles of ten and 20 years ago in Canada.

The status of women is quite different across Europe. Women in Portugal, for example, have no right to abortion. Women in Eastern Europe are going backward instead of forward. One speaker explained that where women under Communism had equality in work, today 55 per cent of women couldn't find work after school compared to 24 per cent of men. She also talked about a new form of slavery in the form of trafficking of women for prostitution.

Immigrant women face greater barriers everywhere. The women's assembly, like most of the European Social Forum, was very white compared to the streets of Paris. There seemed to be little discussion of the racial homogeneity of the movement. One of the big debates in France has been over the right of Muslim women to wear the chador (veil). Most French feminists take the position that this is a symbol of oppression that must be struggled against. There are huge debates in France about whether the veil should be banned in schools. This was a major debate at the women's forum with British women arguing that Muslim women must have the right to wear whatever they want to wear and that it is wrong for the feminist movement to impose a monocultural standard.

The other major debate came from a group of young women who come from a mixed feminist group called Genderation. When the workshop on violence reported to the plenary they protested the report by opening pink umbrellas and shouting at the speaker. In an interview they said that they had been silenced in the workshop, which the organizers denied. The group opposes the discourse of Zero Tolerance of violence as a right-wing idea. They criticized the Assembly organizers for talking about prostitution only in terms of violence and not in terms of work and immigration. And finally they were concerned that the only talk about sexuality was about violence against women and not about women's pleasure.

It seems that since 1995 in France and other countries of Europe young feminists have organized mixed feminist groups that include men. In an interview, Cecilia Baeza explained, "One stage of feminism was for women to struggle alone but now we should work together. All the issues that remain require men to change. For example, how can we talk about prostitution without dealing with male sexuality?" Baeza told me that one-fifth of her group are male and that all the members are between 20 and 26 years old.

Her group also thinks that women and men have to reflect on how we use power. "When women get power it is disastrous. They use it like men. We have to enlarge power through direct and participatory democracy rather than accepting to participate in patriarchal power," she told me. "We must insist on parity in our movements." She added that she was very critical of the male domination of the Social Forum.

There were numerous plenaries and workshops on women's rights as well during the official European Social Forum. One of the most interesting talks was by Antonella Picchion, an Italian economist, who explained that much of the conflict caused by neo-liberal attacks is "discharged into the family," with women having the responsibility to deal with the results.

She explained, "It is not only because men don't look after the children, because they are doing that more, or that men don't do the housework because they are doing that more, but the deeper problem is that men don't take care of themselves. They separate the struggle at work and at home. Women are oppressed by men's weakness -- not their strength," she added.

The European Assembly on Women's Rights seemed to further the European-wide solidarity of women begun through the World March of Women in 2001 at the same time as pushing further on the importance of women's role in the World Social Forum movement.

Judy Rebick is the publisher of rabble.ca.

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