Refusing to be "the women's question"...
Embodied practices of feminist intervention at the European Social Forum 2003

by the NextGENDERation network
for Feminist Review, Spring 2004

La question des femmes
n'est pas la question des femmes
nous sommes les femmes
qui posent les questions![1]


The European Social Forum (ESF) is a gathering where the alterglobalization movement in Europe discuss and exchange visions and strategies of globalized resistance. The alterglobalization movement[2] is an umbrella term for a broad range of groups and movements dissatisfied with current globalization, driven by corporate and imperial interests, characterized by democratic deficits. The idea of organizing such gatherings on a continental level came out of the second World Social Forum (WSF) that took place in Porto Alegre (Brazil) in January 2002. Rather than being just events the social fora seek to be about a process in which new alliances can be built. This 'movement of movements' has adopted the slogan 'another world is possible'.

At the first ESF in November 2002 in Florence, a number of us within the NextGENDERation network thought it was important to connect our feminist politics with the process of the social fora and the new impulses of global resistance. We recognise how the movement of global resistance is nurtured in crucial ways by feminist, anti-racist, migrant and queer embodied struggles which generated crucial tools such as "the personal is the political", the politics of everyday life and the politics of desire.[3] We are also concerned that in many practices and visions of the alterglobalization movement these critical genealogies of political struggle are unrecognized. It remains difficult to get issues of gender, ethnicity, 'race' and sexuality on the agenda in meaningful ways. In old and familiar ways it seems as if those issues get divorced from anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist agendas, and subsequently get located at the margins of the struggle or considered only in terms of 'effects' of global economic processes.

During the workshop "Missing Links: Feminism and Globalised Resistance" - which we held at the ESF 2002 in Florence[4] - emerged the idea of organizing a feminist day that would be a 'gathering of forces' just before the official start of the next ESF, in Paris 2003. We understood this project as the creation of a feminist 'centre', i.e. a place grounded in feminist desires. This would offer moorings in a location that would avoid being trapped in a positionality that was marginal and constantly reacting to that marginalization. This feminist centre, we believed, should be a space with a double aim: firstly, to engage in re-articulations of feminist visions and strategies in the light of changing geographies of power, and secondly, a space to invest in the building of alliances, knowing that alliances can never be assumed beforehand or taken for granted, but are the result of a careful process of construction.

This dialogue piece was imagined as a round table discussion. However, given our geographical dispersion the discussion could take place only over email and only some women from our working group, some speakers and some active participants[5] managed to contribute.

Selma Bellal: Sisterhood is not something easy to find, not in this world and even less in that 'other world' that is seeking itself, and whose energies manifest themselves at the social fora. From the ESF in Paris it was obvious that sisterhood cannot be constructed outside of locations that are always already invested by relations of power. This was especially apparent in the contrast between two very different spaces - one the self-managed and marginal space of NextGENDERation and the other the Women's Assembly that claimed to represent a unitary voice without leaving any place for contradictions. My search for feminist solidarity, nourished by the exchanges and enrichments that the encounters with other women offer, was frustrated at the Women's Assembly but fulfilled in the alternative space created by NextGENDERation. For me this experience made sure that one lesson will never be purely theoretical again - unity only emerges in the face of contradictions. If a diversity of opinions and the plurality of experiences only become a force when conflict is not denied, then I think I can say that this conflict is desirable.

Sarah Bracke: When I think of how much enthusiasm we had after the Forum in Florence to realise the project of a feminist gathering, and how much of that enthusiasm was subsequently turned into frustration, it makes me sad. But frustration is not a place where we can afford to linger for too long. So, we need to understand what happened at the ESF in Paris and what is to be learned from this experience. The ESF 2003 was preceded by many months of preparation, with the first European Preparation Assembly (EPA) taking place in February 2003 in Brussels. It was at that meeting that we first fully understood that the feminist gathering we imagined and wanted to engender would not materialise. Women from the World Women's March in Paris who were in charge of the organization happily announced that what they named 'The European Assembly of Women's Rights' would be part of the official ESF forum. This immediately made clear that decisions concerning the Women's Assembly and its format were made by a group in Paris, which represented only a small, and particularly white section of the wide range of women's movements. Moreover, this decision tied the preparation of the Women's Assembly to the preparation of the ESF in terms of structure, format and timing. Our experiences during the ESF in Florence had shown us again and again that the issues of gender, ethnicity and 'race', and sexuality were marginalized within the official ESF structure and its panels. Instead of investing energies in getting 'recognition' from the official ESF, while at the same time attempting to subvert its power arrangements, we supported the idea of autonomous feminist spaces especially since it was clear that the ESF structures themselves were part of the problem.[6]

Laurence Hovde: I presume the Women's Assembly was organized as an introductory event to the ESF in order to show what a visible active force women are in changing the world. But since the organizers were so auto-referential, the result of the Assembly unfortunately shows how superficially organized and internally marginalized women can be.

Sarah Bracke: The Women's Assembly indeed turned out to be a niche; the ESF's very own 'women's question.' But we did not want feminists agendas to be neutralised and de-politicized as 'the women's question' because of a double risk involved. It allows the main forum to go on with business-as-usual since the 'women's questions' are already addressed somewhere else, and it pushes towards a homogenisation - and in particular in relation to 'race', ethnicity and sexuality, of the 'women's day' agenda­which in turn becomes overwhelmingly white and heterosexual.

Selma Bellal: Our concerns are neither particular nor specific, rather they speak of the lack of equality in society and in a movement which defers to tomorrow transformations that are needed today. The ESF really was a space where we had to fight for feminist visibility, instead of being the space to construct new links and solidarities between different struggles.

Sarah Bracke: What interests me most in all the confrontations and conflicts with the organizers of the Women's Assembly, is the labels they used to disqualify our contributions and critiques. At first we were 'too academic' or 'too intellectual'. This was mainly used when we insisted, in various ways and with many elaborations, on questions of who speaks for whom. In other words, when we questioned the legitimacy of how they tried to pass a very particular feminist agenda for 'universal feminism', we were told that we are raising 'abstract' questions typically asked by those who are not 'doing' but merely 'reflecting'. We know that the division of labour between 'doing' and 'thinking' is a heavily charged one in terms of gender, ethnicity and 'race'.[7] But the way in which the organizers were invested in this scheme was truly bewildering. They for example made regular references to the fact that our kinds of questions and reflections would fit better with the 'boys' of the main forum. At a certain moment we were even accused of displaying a 'masculine' approach.

Within these divergent strategies there was a recurring positioning from the organizers' side of 'women from the banlieue' as the voiceless subaltern: 'Women from the banlieue' needed to be 'reached', the issues should not get too complex in order for 'women from the banlieue' to understand, 'women from the banlieue' really suffer oppression..., and so on. The racialized structure of power was also clearly visible in the minutes that followed the EPA meeting in Berlin in April 2003 where a white 'we' was systematically invoked for a decision making subject while migrant women or women from non-western countries were situated as those providing 'moving testimonies'. As we continued to insist on the question of who speaks for whom, we were subsequently deemed as being 'too radical' and as those who stunt the 'unity' of the women's movement. Now for me who speaks for whom goes hand in hand with how can we speak together - the latter insisting both on 'speaking together' and on 'how', i.e. the process of doing this. However, the Women's Assembly was not about how to speak together nor how to build alliances. It was about trying to mobilise as many women as possible 'in unity' behind an already established, and problematic, agenda. There were some flagrant instances of the exclusion of positions that did not fit this agenda, notably with regard to the headscarf[8] and prostitution[9].

Laurence Hovde: My cynicism about the Women's Assembly comes from asking: what was the real motivation for this assembly? It seemed to be predominantly about the organizers looking 'good' and not about a productive cross-border exchange in strategies. I felt there was no serious consideration or commitment on the part of the organizers to facilitate a concrete exchange among different activists. With no clear format that would enable an exchange of strategies, the presentation became a hierarchization of women's suffering, with each guest speaker describing how brutally unjust it is the place from where 'they' come from. And then there was a ridiculous practice of the audience applauding how terrible it is for women 'over there'...

Chiara Lasala: Yes, there really was a strong perspective that privileges victimhood at the Women's Assembly. Some workshops were a line-up of stories of victimhood, with very little space for transformation and radical agency. The type of events that took place and especially decisions over who is allowed to speak and on what issues, reflected how much the women's assembly, but also the ESF itself, are anchored in Eurocentric approaches and perspectives. We noticed a number of limitations in the ESF seminars: there were interventions where speakers were lined up in a parade-style that fulfilled the necessary quotas (for women and minorities). Furthermore, often the material organization was structured in a way that did not facilitate participation of those who were not included as speakers.

Laurence Hovde: I really have to ask: how much were the organizers of the Women's Assembly trying to hear/understand the local practical reality of women activists when they didn't even consider that the 'guest from crisis countries' might not have cash or a credit card to cover the costs of an expensive plane ticket, and to wait until the third day of the conference to reimburse them. This is an ordinary example of an invited guest taking a 22 hour bus trip instead of 2 hour plane trip. I found that a lack of sensitivity from the organizers to 'race', immigration and sexual orientation characterized both the Women's Assembly as a matter of process as well as discourse. The assembly hence became a classical 'show case' conference where the Western organizers made a big deal about 'inviting/paying' women from crisis countries and giving them 15 minutes to speak.

Nadia Fadil: In declaring that 'another world possible', the alterglobalization movement seeks a relationship between the West and the 'Rest' that is characterised by more justice. Given the contextualisation of the roots of global injustice in terms of liberalism and capitalism, this globally 'different world' is subsequently only possible when the resistance is also globalized. I find that this is the merit of the movement of globalized resistance. Considered on a global level, it transcends an older 'centre/periphery' model and tries to organize - through the World Social fora and the different continental fora - a global mobilisation. But it strikes me that in practice the mobilisation of the ESF continues to take place along the lines of the 'centre.' We can clearly say that a Western perspective has a crushing dominance in terms of which problems and issues are put on the agenda, and how these are analysed and discussed.

Many Europeans still think that the slogan 'a different world is possible' is about the 'far-away other'. But it is time to realise that it is mainly about the self. I was perplexed to see that none of the plenary sessions of the ESF were dedicated to reflections on the Forum itself. These reflections should have started with the question: who is here? and in particular who is NOT here? Globalized resistance only has a chance when one is reflective about one's own limits in terms of mobilisation. The notion of global intellectual resistance might be compelling and can lead to interesting discussions, but on a political level it remains ineffective as long as its force does not come from what is often, and problematically, called 'the grassroots' - the subjects that are continuously the topic of discussion, i.e. the eternal absent 'other' (the unemployed, the subaltern, the migrant, the woman, the 'woman from the banlieue'...).

Sarah Bracke: I would like to add something about the demonstration at the end of the forum. The movement of the Sans papiers offered to lead the demonstration and thus opened up a possibility for the ESF to make a strong common statement against 'Fortress Europe'. But the organizers did not allow this lead to occur. This raises many questions. Could it be that the organizers found the struggle of the Sans papiers 'too particular' for the forum's common focus? Or perhaps they could not conceive of the Sans papiers taking 'the lead'? Or is it that a strong visible statement against 'Fortress Europe' was deemed too 'risky' for those tendencies dominant among the organization of the Paris ESF that would like to refashion the movement towards more 'established' and 'respectable' modes of politics, modelled on the existing structures of political parties and trade unions? Whatever the answer might be, the fact that the Sans papiers movement could not take the lead of the demonstration points to the persistent inability to take issues of migration, ethnicity and 'race' seriously in relation to the workings of capital and globalization. Moreover, it also indicates that in comparison to past Iraq anti-war demonstrations which allowed the 'the movement of the movements' to unite against US hegemony, a strong struggle against 'Fortress Europe' can count on less consensus exactly because it implies dealing with the realities and responsibilities of the social movements within Europe itself.

Nadia Fadil: I really missed the 'how' of this globalized resistance that is promised to us again and again. The ESF could be a prime moment to think together about how we can coordinate our different agendas. Such a process will always be marked by dilemmas and tensions about how to effectively organize, without undermining the claimed network of the ESF and without imposing a top-down structure. This top-down structure was clearly in place and the cause of much frustration. It's clear that this yearly meeting of the ESF does not seem to create the much needed moment of rest and reflection, new inspiration and new encounters.

Rutvica Andrijasevic: One of the dimensions of our project of a 'feminist centre' was to explore a number of themes from an intersectional perspective. We were not interested in celebrating (superficially) women's diversity as the organizers of women's day were. Nor were we interested in de-politicizing the event in order to avoid conflicts between women and with the main ESF organizers. For us, this was not about showing that women exist and that they are present at ESF (we all know and see that). But instead it was about thinking transversally about a number of issues which we consider pivotal for a re-articulation of feminist politics by starting from the intersection of race and gender.

For example, over the last few years certain groups from the 'movement of the movements' have adopted the issue of migration as central to their politics. Some of these groups struggle for the rights of residency for migrants within the EU and for the closure of detention camps. These struggles are all absolutely indispensable, extremely valid and important but they also left us with a number of questions. Since many of these groups are comprised predominantly by white male leftist activists/intellectuals, could it be that the issue of migration has become for these groups a new arena from where to advance their political struggle against the State especially at the moment when many other spheres of intervention have been closing down? And if this is so, where does this leave migrants themselves and also on what basis is it then possible to build alliances which would see migrants as protagonists and not as having mere testimonial presence? This is similar to the Zero Tolerance discourse which often draws upon the language of protecting women but actually results in the criminalization of migrant and especially Muslim communities.

Nadia Fadil: The absence of migrants as protagonists of the forum was in fact really impressive. And the whole commotion around whether or not TARIQ RAMADAN, a protagonist that represents an important voice for many thousands of Muslims in Western-Europe, should be allowed to speak at the forum was indicative of the ESF. For me it amounted to a profound loss of faith in the forum and the good will of the organizers to effectively include as many actors as possible in the process, actors who effectively mean something and can count on the support of a great deal of the population. I really regret the dominance of a certain left-wing centralist discourse, and the absence of alternative ideologies and visions that also exist. Latter, such as for example the Islamic mobilisations in the Arab World can count on support but hardly ever get real attention within these leftist circles.

Rutvica Andrijasevic: In fact, when deciding to structure our seminars around the issues of leadership, security and migration we wanted to challenge the current way of doing and thinking politics within the 'movement of the movements' and the woman's movement in order to open up possibilities for a different form of political struggle.[10] In the seminar Embodied Leadership: Politics of Representation in Social Movements co-organized with FEMINIST REVIEW COLLECTIVE, we raised the issue of symbolic authority in social and political movements. We looked at the ways in which this authority is granted to those who occupy positions of leadership and discussed how this links to the gender and race of individuals in those positions. We wanted to look at the representation of the migrant, the refugee or the trafficked victim in the women's/feminist movement as well as the alterglobalization movement. What concerned us was the ways in which the positioning of migrants in terms of the 'particular' and the 'authentic' provides 'Europeans' with a (discursive) position of power which in turn consolidates the gendered and racialized frameworks of domination already in place.

The second seminar called Questioning Securitarian Europe: Feminist Interventions was concerned with the rise of securitarian discourses all over Europe and the presentation of repressive measures (more police, tighter control over borders, the emergence and reinforcement of notions of social hygiene in many respects) as solutions instead of being recognised as a crucial part of the problem. As feminists, we wanted to problematise the fact that this securitarian tendency often draws upon the language of protecting women, and that a part of the women's movements might actually fall for this racist macho zero tolerance discourse and by doing so contribute to the criminalization of migrant and queer communities as well as of radical social movements. We need to be asking questions such as: which women might be protected with such measures, what is the cost of this protection and how these measures in turn make the majority of women's lives insecure.

The issue of migration was at the centre of our third seminar, Migrant Labour as a Feminist Issue. Migrant Women Workers' Mobilisations Across Europe. The leading idea was that different as they may be in many ways, domestic work, caring labour and sex work have in common the fact that they are predominantly female occupations solicited by western Europeans willing to pay for them. This positions migrant women in a very particular place within the gendered European landscape. Thus, we wanted to scrutinize the link between the increased solicitation of these occupations with a transformation of gender roles and the meaning of certain models of women's emancipation in western European societies for both migrant and non-migrant women. By looking at the current global redistribution of domestic, care and sex work among differently located women we aimed at calling into question persisting gendered and racialized divisions of labour and care.

Chiara Lasala: Our point of departure in all of this really was a deep desire for interjecting contention within simplified feminist debates in order not to remain immobilized when facing the complexity of the real world and to search for new subversive forms of feminist protagonism. In contrast to the women's assembly, NextGENDERation tried to create a space that allowed for real moments of confrontation between women of divergent political positions and heterogeneous experiences that might make possible a debate and articulation of different reflections. The discussion highlighted again and again the necessity to problematize the topics addressed in order to avoid the danger of superficiality, typical of those debates that sacrifice the complexity of issues in the name of simple consensus.

Rutvica Andrijasevic: Working from the intersectionality of race and gender and focusing on the transversality of topics is crucial if we are to build alliances which can empower our local politics and practices of resistance. For example, when it came to the seminars, this meant that we invited the discussants who usually would not sit at the same table. For me, the biggest achievement of the security workshop was the fact that it made an exchange of ideas among divergent groups possible. This discussion showed us that a number of racialized and sexualized communities, including the migrant, Muslim, unemployed and queer are all being criminalized through the securitarian discourse and by extension their access to citizenship increasingly limited.

Bénédicte Martin: What was interesting to me in NextGENDERation's way of working and get me involved, was the desire to rethink and renew feminist thought and practice. I was particularly interested in exploring the possibilities for direct action during the forum, including the Women's Assembly, in order to disrupt some of the celebration of unity that was in fact based on exclusion. When one of us was prevented from talking about the mobilisations of sex workers in Madrid and Barcelona at the Women and Violence workshop of the women's assembly, we decided is was necessary to interrupt the plenary session where the results of this workshop were presented in consensual terms. Women from La Eskalera Karakola had brought the pink umbrellas they used as part of a pink action (operación rosa) during the anti-war mobilisations in the winter and spring of 2003, and we opened these umbrellas as a silent but visible disagreement with the false consensus. During the demonstration at the end of the women's day we distributed little flyers with phrases like 'How do you recognise a woman?', 'Who is here?', ''Indigenous' Europeans... who is taking care of your children?' in order to prompt questions and impel reflections.

When we were preparing for the ESF, for practical and financial reasons, we planned that our seminars and events would take place at Saint Denis University. But once we were there, we immediately realized that this format of speakers presenting and audience listening was inappropriate for what we wanted to do, and that it got us caught in an institutional form of asymmetrical knowledge transmission which we wanted to question. In that sense, we did not manage to realize what we desired.

At the same time, an important and really satisfying dimension of our project of creating a 'feminist centre' was the house in which thirty of us lived together during the forum. It made us realize, once more, that in order to develop common visions, we needed both the physical space and time together. Those four days of living together provided us with tools to consolidate our feminist projects. Often we only knew each other through email exchanges, and living together enabled us to get to know each other better, to share experiences, to invent new projects, to weave connections... but also to simply each other's company. Social transformation is nourished by daily life experiences and human relations. The form of social criticism is as important as its content and they continuously feed each other. In order to invent a new world we have to experiment and we have to date.


NextGENDERation network (http://www.nextgenderation.net) is a European transnational network of students, researchers and activists with an interest in feminist theory and politics, and their intersections with anti-racist, migrant, lesbian, queer and anti-capitalist perspectives. The interventions as the ESF were prepared by the working group NG@ESF2003, in connection with the Feminist Review Collective, La Eskalera Karakola (http://www.sindominio.net/karakola), Precarias a la Deriva (http://www.sindominio.net/karakola/precarias), Scovegno (http://www.sconvegno.org/), Mujeres Sin Rostro, Forum of the Left (Slovenia), Act-Up Paris, Women in Black Brussels, AK Wi(e)derSprache, Association Solidarité Mauriciennes d'Europe and Teatro Cittadini del Mondo. Mama Cash (http://www.mamacash.nl) financially supported the project, which included travel grants for about 30 women who joined us in Paris.

[1] One of the slogans we adopted during the demonstration closing the women's assembly, roughly translated as: The women's question is not the question of women, we are the women asking questions!
[2] 'Alterglobalisation' envisions alternative worlds possible, a resistance and hope that is transnational and therefore shakes off the misleading 'anti-globalisation' label.
[3] See Cristina Vega (2002) "Firenze, Feminism, Global Resistance. Some (personal and shared tips) to go to Firenze", http://www.nextgenderation.net/projects/esf2002/index.html
[4] See http://www.nextgenderation.net/projects/esf2002/index.html
[5] As Laurence Hovde from Women at Work (Zene na delu), Belgrade,
[6] In the end, the women's assembly didn't really manage to achieve get the recognition it aimed for: the event was announced on the last pages of the ESF programme among other 'cultural events'.
[7] For a reflection on gendered and racialized aspects of the distinction between theory and practice, see Andrijasevic, R. and Bracke, S. (2003), "Venir à la connaissance, venir à la politique: réflexions sur des pratiques féministes du réseau NextGENDERation", Multitudes. Féminismes, queer, multitudes, No. 12, pp. 81-88.
[8] There was much debate on banning the headscarf in France at the time of the forum, yet except for some slogans against the headscarf, the issue was largely silenced during the women's assembly. Women politically mobilising against the ban, and more largely around questions of citizenship for Muslim women in France, were not welcome at the Women's Assembly; they took their debates and concerns to a seminar within the main ESF. Saïda Kada, one of the speakers in this seminar, is the co-author (with Dounia Bouzar) of L'une voilée, l'autre pas. Le témoignage de deux musulmanes françaises, published by Albin Michel, 2003.
[9] The dominant position on the issue of prostitution was the one commonly know as abolitionist feminist position which sees prostitution as violence against women and women as objects of male domination. In order to publicly pass this position as the universal one, other readings of prostitution and/or trafficking from the perspective of migration and labour were silenced. In this way, the complicity of certain feminists in supporting measures that criminalize prostitution and by extension foster vulnerability of both migrant and non-migrant women in sex work was left not addressed.
[10] For more elaborate descriptions of questions central to the seminars, see http://www.nextgenderation.net/projects/esf2003/index.html