What does it mean to be a feminist and a socialist? Part 1 – my personal story

This is the first part of – hopefully – a long series of articles on feminism and socialism. This post tells a part of my story: how did I end up as a socialist and a feminist.

When I grew up, I wasn’t really interested in politics. My parents were progressive but they weren’t members of any political parties or advocating for any causes. Well, we sent a Greenpeace postcard to a politician once 😉 While my understanding of the rotten state of today’s world grew, I became cynical and sarcastic at first.

The first political book I ever read - about the lies of the Flemish Block

The first political book I ever read – about the lies of the Flemish Block

It took a major victory of a “neofascist” racist, extreme right political party (the Flemish Block, or Vlaams Blok  in Dutch) to push me into becoming an activist. They got 30% of the votes in the city where I was born and I thought, I want to do something about that. So I became an activist overnight: I started reading about racism and making posters – that’s when I discovered that there were other people active against racism too. Before that I didn’t even have a notion of the concept of activist groups.

Back then I studied at the University and because the Flemish Block had so many votes they also got a seat on the board of directors of the university. So they sent a man named Roeland Raes, a notorious fascist and revisionist, someone who often wrote that the holocaust was a lie, there had been no concentration camps and so on.

The university management simply accepted this state of affairs but the students did not. We quickly organised in protest. We physically blocked the delegate’s access to the board meetings, we linked in and, arm in arm, kept him outside. After a while, due to societal pressure the law changed and he was removed from his position. I learned something these days: we may lose often, but sometimes, we can win. We can change the world. The cynicism was replaced by hope and energy for more activism.

"WTO protests in Seattle November 30 1999" by Steve Kaiser. Licensed CC BY-SA

WTO protests in Seattle November 30 1999, (c) Steve Kaiser. Creative commons.

I remember sitting in a student restaurant and suddenly, finally, understanding racism as something structural, not just as “some individual bad people”.

We created a student group called Students against racism and kept on organising. Then came the time of the antiglobalist / alterglobalist protests. Now Belgium  was no Seattle, but still we had a lot of really large marches, protests, open universities… It was a very exciting time and I learned a lot.

As an aside, the police in many European countries used to be a lot less intimidating than the robocops depicted here in Seattle. However, there is a definite increase in police violence: shootings, use of weapon sticks, pepper spray, unjustified arrests…

All these protests, meeting and discussing with many other people, lots of reading and thinking… I learned so much in these days. At first I was against socialism/marxism/anarchism,  I had a more “realistic” view of the world, and so on. But then the socialists really were a bit weird, let’s not deny it 😉 Still I kept reading, and slowly drifted more towards socialism. Now there were a lot of socialist parties in Belgium and they were all very small, it was hugely reminiscent of Monty Python’s Judean People’s Front sketches (The Life of Brian).

Since I really hated all the blatant “become a member we are the best” speeches I didn’t really join any of them until much later. I joined in many actions of the refugee action committees too. The main organiser was a woman and that didn’t sit well with many of my fellow students – computer science was not just a geeky fun fest, it was also very sexist and male dominated. Here was a woman in a position of power – she was also leading the student council – and they attacked her on many occasions. I think that implanted the first seeds of feminism in me: that was a time I consciously noticed the unspoken lines.

Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.

—Rosa Luxemburg

I won’t write about my gender struggles and personal transition here – that’s a story I might tell another time. Suffice to say I learned a lot about prescribed gender roles, sexism and violence through my experience.

I joined several socialist umbrella initiatives, meant to make all the small leftish groups join forces. They always failed after a while – the political left in Belgium is not only small but divided – frankly there’s not much good to be said there. I noticed some socialist groups don’t actually seem to want these joint initiatives to succeed – there’s an annoying sectarianism that is an enormous barrier to growing the left.

I also became active in anarchist and queer communities – yes I’ve really been everywhere 😉 Many small but worthwhile experiments with people’s kitchens, cooperative spaces, squats, temporary autonomous zones… There was a people’s kitchen/squat somewhere that organised a discussion about sexism in the anarchist movement. Now that was an eye-opener. There were many women there, talking about their experiences. How they were never accepted in the movement until they had a boyfriend there. How they were treated. How men in the movement treated lesbians and gays.

Then I was sexually assaulted by a man from an anarchist centre. My then-girlfriend convinced me to press charges – thank you F. – and accompanied me to the police station. We told some friends, one of them suggested it might be good for the movement to talk about this. I agreed. Discussion ensued.

The mechanisms protecting the perpetrator sprang up at once and there was a lot of discussion: was it my fault? His? Why was I walking there, that’s not the quickest route to the bus station… Had I been too friendly to him?

Now back then, in that city, there had been a feminist group that was active mostly in the anarchist movement – anarchafeminists – but that group had ended years ago – maybe another reason for the poor level of debate about sexual violence.

After many long, horrible, discussions, somehow things turned for the better. The anarchists decided to refuse the perpetrator access to the anarchist centre. I had seen something like this happen before: a man was refused membership of two socialist organisations because he continually beat his partners. He was allowed as a member of a different socialist party after that – he kept shopping around, as it were. The discussions were once again eye-opening: the party didn’t want to rock the boat too much, after all it was election time.

To be continued!

I’ll be talking about being active as a feminist in socialist spaces, in anarchist spaces, and as a socialist in feminist spaces 🙂 Plenty of fun and frustration await!

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