Spending the day talking about Bangladeshi garment worker’s working conditions and sex-trafficking may not be everybody’s idea of celebrating Valentine’s Day. But there I was, rather than getting loved-up by candlelight with Whitney Houston bursting her lungs in the background, I was brushing shoulders with left-wing trade unionists, sex workers’ rights activists, and a rainbow coalition of fellow feminists at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
The Anti-Capitalist Feminist Event: Gender, Race, and Class, appeared to be a successful meeting of hearts and minds. The deluge of attendees were broken up into different workshops of their choice. And what great workshops they were. Suffice to say, I was often torn between a couple of them that coincided with each other. The first workshop that I decided (with some difficulty) to go to was about reproductive freedoms, and it was very good. Rather than debating whether or not abortion was a moral choice, the facilitators – a few of them hailing from Feminist Fightback, one member of Maternity Action, and one who is a founding member of New York City’s Haven Coalition discussed rights to abortion and other maternal care rights from dimensions that I don’t hear about very often – this is largely because the very issue of abortion is too often clouded by the impractical (and very dangerous) moral debates surrounding it.
I was glad that abortion gets mentioned as a race issue because it often gets swept under the carpet. The disproportionately high number of abortion among ethnic minority women in the UK and US can be construed as a kind of unwanted population control and that some babies (read: white and middle-class) are “more valuable than others”, argued Gwyneth Lonergan of Feminist Fightback. Now, being headlined as a feminist event with a special perspective on race and class, hers was an important statement and is a reminder that we still live in a hierarchy that places ethnic minority women (particularly if they happen to be immigrants) firmly at the bottom of the social pile. Equally distressing is the inaccessibility to free (NHS-funded) maternal care faced by foreign women who:
- have just arrived in the UK, with no proof of settling in the country long-term
- possess spousal/dependent UK visas
- are on a work visa that hasn’t been renewed via a points-based system
- are trafficked into the country
These measures were apparently implemented to weed out the so-called ‘health tourists’ whose intention in entering the country is to mooch off the NHS. However, taking away some basic and humane privileges from expecting mothers mean that they face the greater risk of physical trauma and even foetal death, that they do not get HIV tests or care for vaginal scars as a result of FGM, and that some women gain no protection from domestic violence during a pregnancy.
While munching away on my rather delicious steak sandwich, I sat with other carrot sticks and hummus-munching feminists at the Education Not For Sale lunchtime workshop which was essentially about how to re-establish on-campus women’s groups that are slowly decaying in British universities right now. Again, being a feminist event about gender, race, and class, someone had pointed out that THE feminist narrative that informs campus women’s groups often neglects non-white and non-EU international students like myself. To some extent, this is very true. Speaking from personal experience, I enjoy partaking in campus cultural events that use the arts and literature as subjects for feminist discourse. However, the feminist film nights and book clubs run by the Oxford University’s Student Union women’s rep have way too often excluded films and books that touched on the experiences of non-white women. This angered me a great deal, because Oxford has been guilty of racism before, but no one wants to confront it and talk about it.
The two other workshops I attended on trafficking and the fate of Bangladeshi garment workers in Dhaka and London, helped me confront my own privileges, while even as a foreigner and female, that almost certainly lift me from ever selling my body or making socks for Primark for next to nothing. For some time I felt unsure about proposals to criminalise men who seek out prostitutes, because deep down I felt that a moralistic justification to stamp out prostitution may also mean a disregard for recourse for the victimised individuals involved. Making prostitution illegal pushes the industry underground, making it more expensive to run and more difficult to trace . Bearing in mind that sex work in the UK is as much a migrant and racial struggle as the sweatshop industry, and that all the worst jobs are oversubscribed by foreign nationals, I can’t help but wonder about where the slogan “British Jobs for British Workers” fits in the scheme of things.
Now, I went to the conference with a one-track mind – and that was to find out whether everything that was going to be said in the name of feminism was inclusive of the less-than-privileged individuals like myself. Having not been here for many years and perhaps staying on a few more, I wanted to know from a feminist perspective what’s in store for individuals like myself in this country groaning under the weight of new arrivals despite its alarmingly limited resources especially during these difficult times. I don’t want everything from the system but I would like knowing that one day I can travel easily across European borders without being treated like a potential criminal, that the country can easily grant me permission to stay and be a productive member of its education system without being treated like a sponger, and that I can be guaranteed at least the barest minimal amount of financial and health security to live like a normal human being here. Is that too much to ask?