By Tammy Love
When Education Not For Sale Women was coming together in August 2005, we discussed whether describing ourselves as “socialist feminists” was too radical and might alienate the feminist left. Seven months later, both candidates in the NUS women’s officer elections were describing themselves as “socialist feminists”, proof that in a relatively short amount of time we have been able to influence the direction of the student women’s movement.
Our main objective at conference was to use ENS to repoliticise the Women’s Campaign. This year’s conference was the smallest liberation conference NUS has ever held, with only 50-60 delegates. The failure of the Blairite leadership over the last two years to carry out even the most basic tasks has led not only to small conferences and many local women’s officers being left without support, but also a massive depoliticisation of the campaign as a whole.
The Labour Students majority attempted to present those who wished to debate and discuss motions as “troublemakers” who wished to distract delegates from the real business of conference, which was voting through as many bland and non-mandating motions as possible. This only encouraged first-time delegates, unsure of the issues and nervous of appearing to step out of line, to look around each time it came to a vote to check they were voting on the same thing as the leadership.
However, ENS did succeed in sparking some heated and interesting debates, some of which we were able to win.
One of the main debates in NUS over the last few years, and particularly in the liberation campaigns, has been the issue of secularism, religious fundamentalism and women’s/gay rights in the Middle East. An unholy alliance between the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, Socialist Worker Students and Student Broad Left (run by Socialist Action) has formed to oppose secularism on the grounds that it is Islamophobic. While this argument may be based on a fundamental misunderstanding that secularism means freedom for and from all religions, more worrying is the willingness of the self-styled student left to oppose the very men and women living in Muslim majority countries who are fighting for their own rights, often at risk of their lives.
For these reasons, ENS knew that we would face a fight when we submitted motions supporting women’s rights activists in Iran and Iraq and calling for a donation of £200 to the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. However, in the face of opposition from Student Broad Left, who argued that sharia law should not be condemned outright, this motion passed and we even succeeded in shaming Labour Students to speak in favour of the separation of church and state – a radical move compared to previous Blairite inaction on this issue!
The ENS fringe meeting also got many delegates thinking, this time about prostitution and the rights of sex workers. A sex worker and member of the International Union of Sex Workers came to speak about her job, challenging not only ideas about sex workers as passive victims, but also some of our assumptions about sex work as inherently violent. The unconditional support which ENS offers to workers in any field who are organising for their rights, was not shared by other contributors to the debate, who argued that sex work was a special case and should remain. So, implying that sex-workers needed charity rather than rights.
ENS Women is a network of activists who campaign all year round for socialist feminism and supporting women’s rights. We will be organising a feminist agenda for the ENS conference at Sussex university on May 27, as well as a mass direct action in protest at the way immigration laws attack women. Our hard work at conference significantly built up our support base, which will allow us to campaign more actively and effectively over the next year.