header image by frl.zucker

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

UK Feminista Summer School

I ecstatically posted about this as soon as I found out: UK Feminista, despite only existing since March 2010 and operating wholly through the work of volunteers, organized 'two days of feminist training, explaining and gaining', a FREE event on feminist activism in London. Held at Amnesty UK, it was overbooked and a visible 99% of the 350 registered attendees came. Nadine and I were moving house that weekend, which made it a bit difficult, but I skived off for some time and went as Women Fire's delegate.

Maybe the most amazing feature of the event was that it provided genuinely fun and interesting talks for activism beginners and veterans alike. Despite many cautionary remarks that 'we're preaching to the converted', it was far from redundant to hear statistics, learn skills, and absorb enthusiasm from various speakers. Just from listening I felt so inspired I started taking notes for future endeavours/involvements/articles and frankly, nothing beats that intense feeling of wanting to do something RIGHT NOW, and being given some actual tools as opposed to just walking up and down the room reeling from frustration. It's also refreshing to be able to talk to people who despite very different backgrounds and occupations share your views, and you don't have to defend yourself before you even finish making a point. Also very important is the realization that your power lies in numbers, and there are those other people out there - so if you organize, you can actually achieve something, and you really should try.

UK Feminista was started by Kat Banyard, author of The Equality Illusion: The Truth About Men and Women Today, who gave a particularly inspiring speech during the first panel The Importance of Feminist Organising: that more and more grassroots feminist movements are emerging, despite the general society's claims that equality is achieved and there is nothing else to fight for. Banyard's book dispels those myths, displaying research of amazing scope proving that gender inequality is still a serious issue. She pointed out that after a 'ten year drought' we had 'six feminist books in the last 12 months', and that publishing trend was definitely reinforced by an upsurge in actual activism, from NGOs and local groups, in form of blogging as well as marches, campaigns, demonstrations. In a stark contrast, perhaps the most cited statistic of the weekend had been about women taking about 70% of the consequences of proposed budget cuts in the UK. On the same panel was Gwendolyn Sterk from UK Joint Committee on Women, who reported that of the four sister organisations from across the UK that made up the Committee (Engender, network of women’s organisations in Scotland, the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations (NAWO) in England, Women’s Voice in Wales and Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform) only three were still operational: Women's Voice in Wales was recently denied funding and its future is uncertain. Women's issues are widely seen as a fringe, as something marginal 'real politicians' don't have time for. Actually thinking about it, most people probably don't realize women's issues are everybody's issues. And allegedly there are more men called John in the Parliament than women - sounds like a joke, right?

© Kirsty McCall-Thornley

The enormous strength of the first day of summer school was its focus on practice. The afternoon was split into workshops on different levels of involvement: from how to run a feminist group to how to organize a Ladyfest, on running effective campaigns, organizing demonstrations, creative campaigning and direct action, using gender equality duty and other laws to promote your campaign ends, or what to look forward to in the feminist year ahead. If that wasn't amazing enough, all the materials fromt he workshops will be available at the UK Feminista website in the coming days. Simultaneously to the events, UK Feminista volunteers were tweeting, providing good quote selections and links, and doing it so well I didn't even feel the need to take many notes and instead have that online record of what was being said. I encourage everyone to go through the resources grouped under the #femschool hashtag on twitter (you can view it even if you don't have an account yourself), and to have a look at the materials when they're posted on UK Feminista - where in fact you'll find all kinds of useful info on local groups, campaigns, feminist links, and also discussion boards. A goldmine of news, information, and also people! What struck me about the event, aside from supreme organization, was the enthusiasm of everyone involved, organisers and participants alike, and the general friendliness - people were chatting away and forming new alliances all the time. After the event ended, UK Feminista volunteers announced they were going to dinner somewhere nearby, and everyone was welcome to join - in the end, about 20 of us went to a Vietnamese place on Kingsland Road to spend another 2-3 hours exchanging stories. I was about to go home after that, when on the way to the bus stop we passed a strip club, and someone said we should sticker it with the Sexist Shit and Feminisn't stickers we got earlier in the day. As a result, an ad hoc feminist action happened, and the next day the club's email address was still enhanced with a Sexist Shit note. All this was filmed - I hope to post the videos soon. That relatively small action made us feel so inspired for at least a couple of people who were going home to fall down on a couch instead found a nice pub to sit down in and keep talking to each other. There's no better feedback for an event than when people just don't want it to end.

© Kirsty McCall-Thornley

The second day was a lot more opinion- and discussion-based, but great training was still being given: from how to use the media to how to influence politicials (theyworkforyou.com to check who your MP is and what they're doing), how to fundraise, include disabled people in campaigning, promote diversity within feminist groups, and why is climate change a feminist issue (I'm especially looking forward to the materials from this to come up online as I missed it, attending using media instead). At lunchtime there was a stand up show from Lynne Parker of Funny Women (which I shamefully missed getting actual lunch - I hope there will be videos). Two arguably biggest events of the day, however, were the opening and closing panels with Big Names. Women in the Media was led by Jess McCabe of The F-Word and had Hannah Pool (ex-Guardian/freelance journalist) and Kira Cochrane (Guardian women's editor). All three talked about their experiences with the media (including a funny, but actually quite depressing story of how Hannah Pool set up a white male comments account as Harry Pond and didn't get any of the abuse she did get as herself). Only 18 of 100 people on media's most influential list are women, and out of 18 national papers one has a female editor, reported the panel, and the recounted experiences were more or less along the lines of challenge and hardship (but also some hope). Pool's story exposed sexism and misogyny on the Guardian's website (cause just because you read a lefty paper doesn't mean you can't be sexist..), but also instantly motivated people to get their opinions out there, whether working in the media or not, just by presence and comments. Granted, under the excellent post-summer school write-up from Bidisha there is already a sea of disgusting, disgusting comments. Just asking people whether they were feminists is a very revealing question, and an important one to ask. Someone from the audience tackled the enormously important but very unpublicized issue that most instances of ageism in the media are in fact straight cases of sexism. All panelists agreed that to be a female journalist takes more effort and more talent, but through their examples showed it was possible, and important. Exposure is crucial for a greater awareness and understanding of feminism, so every publication counts - in all types of media, not just ones targeted at liberal audiences. Also platforms brought forward by web 2.0, like commenting facilities on all media sites, as well as blogging, facebook, twitter - it all counts and helps to change people's minds.

© Kirsty McCall-Thornley
That first discussion was heated, but mostly in unison - the closing panel, Feminist Question Time with Bidisha, Dr Aisha Gill (Roehampton University), Sunder Katwala (Fabian Society), Karon Monaghan QC (UK Feminista) and Julie Bindel, provoked a lot more controversy. Julie Bindel said there was a lot of terrible anthropological research, particularly concerning women in the sex industry, and that they should not be treated as an anthropological field research group, but that there should be good quality social research instead. She went as far as saying that if she had one bullet in the gun, it would not go for the pimp, but for the academic who's all into the sex industry. Dr Aisha Gill was talking a lot about how the media essentialize women and in cases of trafficking for example, create stories of 'good victims'. Both raised a lot of comments and if it wasn't for time limits, this could have gone on forever. Interestingly, one of the questions on an earlier panel concerned dealing with disagreements within the feminist community. There isn't really an answer for that, just as there isn't one for tackling antifeminism, especially when it's displayed by women. There had been attempts to give advice on this (watch a video of this question on femblr), but all, in my opinion, failed: 'just being on the girls team' is a really not that simple, it's a slogan that doesn't help much when you face women who are misogynist themselves, nor does it when faced with super offensive comments (like those under Bidisha's article). Julie Bindel said 'we make a lot of excuses for men to the point where we praise them for not being fuckheads', which made everyone laugh, but about five minutes later someone angrily said from the audience that the men (there were a couple in attendance) must feel very excluded in the current talk, to which both Bindel and Bidisha reacted heatedly. As @inspirewithhope on twitter remarked, it was sad to see gender binaries reinforced in most of the conferences - people kept talking about *both* genders, *both* sexes, as opposed to all of them. The sex industry came up a number of times, but without a clear and visible designate - prostitution, trafficking, porn, strip clubs were all mentioned, but those issues are so broad, and the sex industry comprises of many more branches, each deserving an analysis. Not saying that sex industry doesn't hurt women and isn't a product of inequality, but these matters have traditionally been massively controversial within the feminist movement and that variation of opinion was not addressed at all (like the mixed stance on pornography, and the emergence of what could by some be called 'feminist porn', or pornography for women - see a previous post). However, overall I am inclined to say it was the best summer school I ever attended - really inspiring, a great opportunity to learn as well as meet people, and acquire skills and information to proceed with conviction and fury. 'We've had wave after wave of feminism; we need a tsunami of feminism. Mass civil disobedience is the only way they'll listen.' 'There's not a central office for activism, you have to do it yourself.' 'Feminism is about social justice and basic human rights... Of course we still need feminism, that shouldn't even be a question.'

© Kirsty McCall-Thornley

More feminist summer school coverage:
UK Feminista official summer school resources (including some of the presentations)
Kira Cochrane's article 'Feminism is not finished'
Bidisha's commentary Women's mass awakening
Radio 4's 'Exciting time' for British feminism with Kat Banyard and Gaby Hinsliff
Discussion post with summer school reflections, links to blog posts, etc
review on Daily Feminist Action
We Mixed Our Drinks review 
At Home blog
Notes on a Campaign by Delilah
femblr video with advice on countering antifeminism

More links:
Equality Now
Women's Aid
Fawcett Society
Southall Black Sisters
Women Against Violence
Justice for Women
European Women's Lobby: Centre on violence against women
Pink Stinks
Strom In A Teacup 
The Girls Are
Lash campaign

NEXT CONFERENCE: Feminism in London 

I'm going. Register here!

1 comment:

deborah said...

Excellent stuff with wonderful information! I'm new here and loving the post! Thanks for sharing this great info!

teachers network