Participatory strategies 1 – EL-Fem gathering in Vienna, Austria

by Cunt Incognita (Fotze in Vienna, 1400 km from Helsinki)

The left without feminism is not left at all.

A left without feminism is not left at all.

For more information about the gathering, click here:

The feminist section of the European Left had a separatist, women only, networking event in Vienna-Austria, March 20-22. 2009. The criticism that came up in the feedback round on the morning of the third and last day was in short:


. .  Academic language

. .  Non-participatory

. .  Hierarchic


The feedback round started with some encouraging self-reflection from one of the organizers – talking of how she, a white native Austrian woman, had spent a lot of time and energy on finding an immigrant woman to speak of the problems regarding immigration and women at the congress. And how she now realized that this is the same type of tokenism that men do, when they invite a woman to speak of women-related issues, but at the same time do nothing in order to create real co-operation and connection with feminists and integrate women in their networks on women’s own terms.

Important criticism had come up already on the second day when a young 18-year-old woman of color was pointing out that the conference was most likely made for women who are white, middle-aged, and middle-class. She was expressing hopes of becoming a politician some day – “maybe 10 or 15 years from now” – but at the present time, she felt prevented to participate since it was difficult to understand what was being discussed at the congress.

Most of the conference had been structured in a hierarchic, non-participatory way, with a few women giving long keynote speeches, mostly using an exclusionary academic language, followed by a few minutes where a handful of “experts” from the “audience” were having an argumentative dialogue with the panel.

In one workshop taking place in the afternoon of the second day, we were a small group of four (white, fairly young, thirty-something?) women from Austria, Finland and Greece – two from the party, and two autonomous – who started talking of the possibility of using alternative, more inclusive structures.

One suggestion mentioned was to scrap the podium and sit in a circle (which we actually did at the congress, so that was nicely done by the organizers).

Another thing stressed, important for groups in general, was rotation of roles and responsibilities, so as not to end up with static hierarchies.



Other concrete Suggestions on Participatory Structure:

Starting a congress: Do a game or exercise together. This creates a common, shared experience and makes the feeling more inclusive.

Examples of games – 1.Everybody walks around in the space, first slowly, and then faster, and then more slowly again. The “group-feel” is tried out. Without giving instructions the group increases and decreases speed by itself. The different tempos being – Slow – Fast – Slow – Stop. After coming to a stop or “freezing” the group slowly starts moving again.

2. A game that increases trust. Half of the people have their eyes closed hands reached out. The other half, with their eyes open, lead the others around the space. (Either palm to palm, as if standing in front of a mirror, with a gentle indication guiding the other; or holding the other by the wrists. Whatever people feel comfortable with.) After leading a short while a signal can be given, to switch partners. The ones with their eyes closed are left standing with their hands reached out, until somebody else comes and guides them in moving around. You can dance or run or crawl or just walk around slowly. Change partners sometimes. And then you switch so the ones who were being guided, lead and vice versa.

Short games can also be done in the breaks. To increase energy. Also massage and relaxing exercises are possible. (Well anything you want basically.)

WHY ARE WE HERE (this way we can all get our wishes and needs included in the agenda):

Get into smaller groups of 5-7 where you can say what you want from the congress. (Try to split into groups where you don’t already know each other) The groups make a short sum-up presented in the big group.

PANEL (Suggestion 1)

  • Short Input (for instance 15 minutes. The Facilitator either passing on an object – like a flower – or standing up when 3 minutes are left. And a second flower when time is up, or standing up and remaining standing, until the speaker finishes).

  • Collect questions from the audience. Let the speaker answer. Then next speaker gets 15 minutes.

  • After all the speakers have had their turn to give input. The people listening get into smaller groups of maybe 3 or 4 persons, where they collect questions again. Then the questions are presented, and the audience is first asked to give replies. If the persons in the panel have something to add afterwards, they can also say something.

PANEL (Suggestion 2)

  • Keynotes are kept short, after which the participants get into smaller working groups (topic suggested and facilitated by the keynote speakers. Also open space to create own topic by all participants). Short summaries of the conversations are shared with the larger group.


  • The person facilitating the workshop presents the topic, and structure of the workshop (if there is any). Then a short round, where everybody says 2-3 sentences on what they want from the workshop. After which it’s possible to either split into smaller affinity groups (temporarily or during the whole workshop). Try to get the needs and wishes of all participants included.

  • After the workshop. Have a short feedback round. (What was good, not good, possible improvements etc?)

NOTE: The word “audience” is not good to use, better to say “participants”…

For more info on facilitation check:

About the workshop. 21.3.2009: The initiative to the workshop was taken by a woman who had had good experiences with organizing the Solidarity Economy conference in Vienna this February.

For more info on this conference, click here:

She wanted to talk about new collective forms of organizing and coming together, with less hierarchical, less violent interaction. Trying to not only look at what doesn’t work, but at the things that actually function. How to create what we want, in Small groups, Larger groups, Society.

She mentioned: Lottocracy, Demarchy, Participatory budget. Participatory budgeting started in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989, in order to even out social inequalities regarding living standards. It was said that about 400 cities around the world have adopted the same method.

Practical examples of solidarity economics from Greece were fair-trade collectives importing coffee beans from the Zapatistas, coming through Germany, and Italy. There’s a store in Exarchia, Athens, starting with a group of people being tired of how the system works, wanting a trade that is fair for the producers, going beyond making profit. The sales go to paying the rent, the rest is returned to the Zapatista communities. Within the group it’s been easy to sort out who was going to be in the store in the morning and evening. As the group got bigger, they formed smaller groups. Import is taken care of in different parts of Greece. In the store there’s a bazaar or freeshop also taken care of by a smaller group. By working in groups they managed to organize it better. The sales have been spreading to bookshops, bio-stores, and feminist and anti-racist festivals.

[during the talk it was mentioned that the women in Chiapas have banned the use of alcohol in the Zapatista communities.

From the Revolutionary Laws of Zapatista Women, 1996: Number 8 … “The sale and consumption of alcoholic drinks in our towns and communities is strictly prohibited because we are those who suffer most the bruises, poverty and misery as a consequence of this vice.”

The full text can be found at the end of this article:

And another text about the struggle of Zapatista women:]

In Greece, the women in the countryside have in the last five years started to take advantage of the European union, forming collectives in the villages, selling marmelade, pasta, sweets. Their economy is based on tourism from abroad and Athens (nearly a third of the Greek population live in the capital city).

Another collective non-hierarchic form of organizing mentioned was feminist self-defense.

More about this, here:

After talking some about sharing cleaning and childcare more equally by cutting the paid work hours (but not the pay! It was said that “part time” is not a catchy phrase, since it indicates lower salary – it’s better to talk about less hours), for everybody.

At some point we moved on to talking about how the conference and the left parties are organized. It was said that parties are a mirror of society, and that you need to struggle for the radical options.

It was said that the last 35-40 years had seen a change from an activist type of feminism into a more theoretic form. It’s good to have a theoretical background to act. And at the same time academics & feminism could be compared with the problem of sorting out messy hair.

If somebody has a huge messy hair. You don’t take a complicated brush to sort it out. You take a simple large-spaced comb.

If starting solving problems that come with tradition – such as patriarchy – and the lack of public space for women. It shouldn’t have to be so that somebody who speaks about feminism needs to have years of knowledge. In solidarity economics, the knowledge and the power is passed on to the non-specialists.

It was said that the same stance as within the European social forum – where politics is not kept as a matter of specialists – would be desirable for the El-fem forums. Politics is not for the experts to deal with (like the 18-year old saying that she hopefully would be a politician in 10 years). It should be made more inclusive. Now.

The form creates the idea of that you need to be an expert. Form should follow function – as in modern architecture. At the conference the form ended up covering the whole function.

It was said that we started off with the accustoms that we are used to in the parties. That we are used to these forms of assemblies. Plenaries where only 5-10 people are talking. We need new, more inclusive forms of working in our assemblies and our parties. [and: the same goes for autonomous groups and gatherings…]

Other things mentioned: Feminism shouldn’t be a theme of women only. And at the same time separatism was talked of as an important tool for people facing the same type of discrimination and oppression. This way it makes it easier to identify what’s wrong and find common strategies. Two women in the group regretted that a man who had shown interest in coming in to listen to the Frigga Haug lecture on the first evening of the congress, had been turned away. They were saying that if someone is showing interest, then why should they not be welcome. But seemed to change their mind in this particular case, when I shared the information I had gotten on that Haug is fairly popular in Austria, and that there are plenty of opportunities to get to hear her speak, in fact, she had been speaking at another open event the same week. I had also heard that the man was known for trying to get into separatist events because of thinking that feminism is cool. I was comparing this type of behavior to trying to get into some other oppressed groups meetings, when there has been a clear statement on who could attend. I wouldn’t dream of going to a meeting dealing with racism, or disability as a person facing white, able-bodied privilege in this society if I were told that the space wasn’t for me.

I also mentioned the existence of separatist groups for men wanting and dedicated to dealing with male privilege. It shouldn’t be the work of women to educate men.

[one example of a separatist men’s group is Stop Male Violence in Hungary. A lot of good publications can be found on their website:

Check this text out, to get a clue of common male domination techniques:]

Another thing that came up was the need for dealing with old hurtings and wounds within the groups-gatherings-and-meetings. At the plenary there seemed to be some emotional exchanges that could be related to previous conflicts. It would be nice to find ways of dealing with that. How to resolve conflicts?


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