Like war and the rebuilding of the European left, the question of the role of women in the fight for a different world ran through the European Social Forum. At least half the delegates were women, mainly younger women.
At the first of the massive conferences on the war a majority of the speakers were women. The impact of war on women and their role in the anti-war movement were addressed by several speakers. Lindsey German's support for young Muslim women in the anti-war movement wearing headscarves as a symbol of resistance drew huge applause. Although for me, coming from Northern Ireland, where the 'godmothers of violence' have proved every bit as capable of violence as the 'godfathers', the emphasis from Lidia Menapace from Italian Women Against War on women's alleged peaceful and nurturing nature was hard to take.
The conference that focused on women's rights was called 'Men and women: an inescapable conflict for a shared future'. It quickly became a debate about the direction which those who want women's liberation should take. Most of the platform speakers advocated continuing on the road of getting more women into the boardrooms, parliaments, and institutions like the UN and EU. Most of the speakers from the floor pointed out that these were the very institutions that were implementing the corporate agenda that is devastating the lives of women across Europe and the world.
One dreadlocked young woman from Barcelona asked whether the platform speakers could explain how it would advance women's rights for her to get one of these fancy jobs when, to do so, she would have to employ a migrant woman to look after her children. She pointed out that this migrant woman would likely have to leave her own children and work for low wages.
Marnie Holborow from the SWP in Ireland had the meeting of several thousand, mainly young, women (and some men!) cheering when she argued that the experience in the Celtic Tiger showed that women can lead the struggle for a better world.
Speakers from the floor argued in French, Spanish, German, English and Italian that the 'inescapable conflict' facing women was not with men but with the system that was pushing down the living standards of all in the 'race to the bottom'. Equality with men under global capitalism will be an equality of misery for the majority of women, with women of the elite being the only ones to benefit from equality in the boardroom or institutions of power, they asserted. What we need instead, they declared to huge applause, is a world where people would come before profits and where the issues that affect women most would be priorities for public spending.
However, there were other conferences and seminars where there were no women on the platform at all, not even as chair--a situation one would rarely see at a meeting of the left in Britain or Ireland. The separatism and pessimism from the platform speakers at the women's rights meeting about the possibility of real change reflects, but also feeds, the position of women in left wing movements in some countries of Europe, particularly Italy, which are largely male-dominated.
These debates have practical as well as theoretical implications. One of the decisions taken at the Assembly of the Social Movements the day after the forum ended was to organise the first Women's Social Forum, 'as a day of debate and struggle, the weekend before the second ESF'. There is a danger that the Women's Forum will be used as an excuse to say that attacks on women's rights do not need to be addressed by the second ESF. The old slogan 'No women's liberation without socialism--no socialism without women's liberation' has never been more apt.