Report from a Radical Gathering of Women in Spain 21st-24th September 2006
Some time ago friends involved in the Brighton Women’s Health Collective mentioned some kind of gathering they were organising together with mates living in Spain. They were planning a few self-organised days of discussion, analysis, skill-sharing and networking. And, it was going to be women only. The concept sounded really promising and novel – a women’s event that wasn’t specifically a ‘feminist’ thing, but rather a DIY gathering that happened to be women only? The places were unfortunately limited. It was going to be held at Escanda, a farm/convergence space/living project in Asturias in Northern Spain, and it just wouldn’t be able to cope with more than 60 or so people (it ended up being about 80). The invitations were a network in action – friends telling their friends, telling their friends – all across Europe.
From the invite: “This gathering will bring women together who are involved in, or interested in radical politics. By radical we mean self-organised, grassroots politics that work outside traditional political structures, that aim to be non-hierarchical and seek non-reformist ways of resisting oppression. We want to come together to discuss our views and strategies on some of the most important political issues we face. This gathering is an opportunity and space for women to share their politics and practices, to get to know each other, and each other’s different backgrounds and political contexts, to talk, collectively learn, strategise, build lasting relationships and potentially common political projects and networks.”
I registered, and had planned to hitch the 1400 miles or so with my mate Sarah, but thank fuck we got a lift from Paris offered to us over the email list. We got an overnight coach to Paris and were quite excited – not quite knowing what to expect, from the gathering, from our lift, from the weather. Obviously we spent the morning in Paris being total tourists, drinking coffee and seeing Notre Dame and sitting on the stairs at Montmartre. We then had an exciting girlie road trip down to Spain. It was just like Thelma and Louise, without the guns, or Brad Pitt.
Arriving in the middle of the night totally knackered, we crashed in the Horrio, which is a Spanish barn on legs so that rats can’t get in (comforting to know). In the morning I got to take in the location in beautiful sunshine – mountains, big old buildings that included a chapel (used as the food storage), gardens and orchard, and a bunch of women getting down to sorting things for a four day gathering. More and more arrived, including a whole posse from Ireland who I hadn’t expected to see there, and actually, quite a lot of women from Brighton. Rumours of a looming hurricane were at first dismissed but then we looked at the weather reports. Oops. Hurricane ‘Gordon’ had been smashing across the Azores and was headed for Northwest Spain, which was where we were! It did get really windy in the middle of the night and I lay in my tent watching it bend over from side to side. The damage in the morning: both the polytunnel and the geodome had had their tarps blown off, and the structures built to piss in had their walls smashed up making for exhibitionist urinating. And my friend’s tent literally blew away and got tangled in a tree!
The gathering officially started and the polytunnel got rebuilt, but the geodome was a write-off. It had mutated from a mathematically logical structure to something from a different dimension.
A long welcome meeting introduced everyone to the practicalities. Different women in the organising group were responsible for different things, from workshops and films, accommodation and kids (of which there were surprisingly few), to the nice job of ‘welfare women’ who you could go to if you had any problems – they were kept on their toes by the vast amount of period pain going on. I reckon about 1 in 5 women there came on during the gathering – that’s a lot of hot water bottles and raspberry leaf tea. Anyway, other issues included watching out for the strain put on the space, e.g. water use, and the huge work rota that held about 130 slots needing filling, for jobs from checking the loos to general tidy to doing the bar.
There were also the translation issues. This was new to me, not usually being some kind of international gathering hopper – it was all going to be in English and Spanish, with further translation help offered as needed. I felt frustrated at times at the slowness, but then I got used to it and appreciated the pace it set, having more time to think, and the inclusivity.
Over the next few days, I went to a wide range of workshops and discussions. The programme had over 30 scheduled. Every day, one ‘large’ debate was held in the afternoon and the topics covered how to work in our movements as women in mixed spaces (where many expressed the need for occasional women only organising and spaces), what patriarchy and capitalism mean to us in 2006, and strategies for support and uniting struggles around migration. It was interesting to see the latter emphasised – it was an issue many women are active around, and could be a key challenge over the next few years. As the description in the programme said: “People are pushed out by poverty or war, pulled in by the promise of a better life, forced to move to survive on miserable wages to prevent starvation. State and capital rely on the pools of labour, and also want to control our movements in order to make us vulnerable to low wages and illegal contracts. Media racism and immigration scare stories try to create divides in the working class. How can we relate to the migration flows in our own countries? How do we relate to women from different cultures, and women’s oppression within different cultures? How do we find common links and strengths as we move around the globe bringing our stories and experiences with us?” This debate was complemented by further workshops that concluded that we wanted to be working on more levels than ‘just’ the action-led model of ‘No Borders’, or institutional support.
Other discussions included a popular talkshop on alternative relationships – like one big gossip session, but cooler, how to deal with power issues amongst ourselves, personal experiences of feminist organising, experiences in social movements, international women’s solidarity, staying power (i.e. what can help us stay active), ideas and tactics for direct action, queering up feminism, and more. The discussion around women’s solidarity and power issues was so popular a second session was held on the last day. It was also referred to in the programme: “The fact that there won’t be any penises around is no guarantee of absence of inequality and power structures…. Women do play power games and we have to be conscious of this, challenging our own behaviours making sure we are trying to create truly ‘radical’ and inclusive spaces.”
Then there were a whole host of talks, presentations, and practical workshops, about feminist history, women’s health, herbal medicine, bike maintenance, permaculture, participatory video, self defence, trauma and recovery, popular education, basic building skills, radical midwifery, consent and personal boundaries, sexwork and trafficking, female ejaculation (yes! it really exists) and more. There was also a ‘caressing’ workshop a Spanish woman held, which was intended to challenge our preconceptions about touch etc. I was far too scared to go, but from what I heard from equally repressed and/or sceptical friends it was an interesting experience.
The programme scheduling was very Spanish. It started early-ish, but there was a big siesta break after lunch in which films were shown – I watched the very good German film called ‘Unveiled’ about a woman persecuted in Iran for loving another woman and fleeing to Germany, where she ends up assuming the identity of a man to gain asylum.
The evenings were so much fun too. My team won the pub quiz and we gloated suitably (although some of the Spanish women mentioned the quiz as one of the parts of the gathering they felt a bit alienated from – it’s just far too British). The Open Mic night was great – I would’ve gone to bed but got woken up by singing, party tricks, and Jewish New Year customs. One performer was punk as fuck – she admitted to not being able to play guitar so she just randomly hit it, and growled some stuff in Spanish, I haven’t got a clue what it was about – but she rocked! The Open Mic turned into a booty dancing party and we would have gone on for ages, if some more sensible women hadn’t rightly said that if we didn’t stop soon, we wouldn’t be fit for workshops the next day – I think it shows that we did all want to get the most out of the event because we mostly went to bed then!
I walked up a mountain with some of the Irish women and got scared by cows, did a talk on climate change and peak oil, and I also taught my first bilingual self defence class. A Spanish woman was translating and I was a bit worried that the momentum would get lost but it worked fine – I just had to be more animated – a lot of Spanish women attended and it felt great. It also got filmed, so I’d like to see the footage! I learnt about ‘advanced capitalism and global class struggle’, sustainable building, DIY gynaecology and so much more. I also met some amazing women. I’ve been to a lot of ‘gatherings’ whether based around anarchist, animal rights or ecological movements, or even other women’s gatherings, and I’ve never felt so strongly that every single person there was motivated, sorted and interesting. No hippies, consumers, random partygoers or wallflowers but 80+ very different but strong and active women from across Europe.
I felt very privileged to be there and probably repeatedly drunkenly told others there that it was such a unique event. The whole of Sunday afternoon was devoted to feedback, conclusions and plans (with a random break to do some stretches in the middle!) The outcomes of different workshops and plans made were shared. Along with criticisms about the difficulties of getting vegan food in Spain, an English bias, and still some difficulties with translations, there was also a lot of excitement and inspiration. I can imagine quite a few of us coming home feeling more of a responsibility to work on gender issues in our groups and collectives, and feeling that there’s a stronger female network in our movements to support us. A ‘Homework’ workshop specifically discussed ways in which to address gender in mixed groups.
Of course there was a party Sunday night! Half of it consisted of the dressing up upstairs with everyone helping everyone else to get into drag, look silly, glamorous, or just a bit odd and different, and this seemed to go on for a really long time. Then we danced and chatted and all felt really pleased with ourselves – and sad to go.
Another girlie road trip and Sarah and me hitched from Paris so we still got our hitching adventure in. But that’s another story…
As a quick plug – if you were inspired by the above, you may want to check out the Feminist Health Gathering in Leeds on the 19th-21st January 2007. (www.feministhealth.org.uk)
And for the women’s gathering website, which is slowly building up an interesting resources list – www.escanda.org/RWG