Friday, 8 April 2011

York Carnival of Feminist Activism

SebastiennePosted by Sebastienne

Last year, Annalytica pointed the Lashers towards an awesome-sounding event coming up at the University of York:
This carnival is part-festival and part-conference. The event brings together people from many nations to learn from each other, celebrate activist creativity, and advance feminist work. Come along for craft workshops, papers, performances and small exhibitions which explore ways in which art in many forms can open up spaces for thinking and for action.

We ask, can feminist art save the world, and if so, how?
Well, this sounded pretty much like our natural habitat. Many of us have academic leanings, and all of us are into activism & celebrations!

The event took place last month, and it was a blast. Underneath the cut are write-ups of some of the fascinating and empowering things that we got up to - think of it as "What I did on my feminist holidays, by Sebastienne, aged 25¼".

Thursday, 2.30-3.15: Political Change in Arab Countries

In a much-needed piece of perspective, two Arab women currently working in the UK talked about their response to the uprisings across the Middle East. The first speaker focussed on discourse analysis, looking at the way that authorities other the protestors (in Egypt, rumours were spread that protestors were being given free KFC meals - invoking both anger at the USian hegemony and jealousy at the high-value free food), and invoke patriarchal family structures to call them into line.

The second speaker, Deena Dajani, looked at the way that these revolutions are minimised and westernised to make them palatable to western audiences: "unrest" rather than "revolution", with constant focus on the secular and democratic nature of the movements. This reassures audiences who have been taught to fear Arab Muslims, and ignores the fact that most of the people involved in these uprisings are, in fact, Arab Muslims. Similarly, framings like "awakening" and "coming-of-age" ignore the decades of hard work that have been put in by Arab activists, infantilising the Arab people by suggesting they have only just noticed that they were being oppressed.

There was much face-palming all round when the first question from the floor immediately dragged us away from the perspective of these women on watching their own cultures shift from afar, losing contact with friends in communications blackouts and not knowing whether they're alive or dead, was: "Well our government is oppressing us with cuts. When are we going to rise up?". It seems that even right-on feminist activist conferences have the equivalent of the trollish commenter.

Thursday, 3.30-4.30: Four Decades of Feminism

Kira Cochrane from the Guardian gave an overview of recent feminist history, while promoting her book of the same title. It was an interesting perspective to start the weekend with - suggesting that current feminism is more mature because we are able to take the best from all the "waves" and other sub-movements within feminism, without feeling that we have to throw everything out and start again. Our trollish friend was out again, however, interrupting a conversation about problems of western hegemony within feminism to say "Yes, Kira, how would you [a white middle-class British woman] define feminism?", and turning a question about the Equality Act into a rant about how trans people, like, shouldn't have rights or something. (I don't even know what she was on about here, actually, but it was particularly offensive because the Equality Act has actually rolled back some elements of trans equality under law.)

Lashings of Ginger Beer Top Tip - if your feminism (or other anti-oppression movement) is only able to accommodate people exactly like you, then you might not in fact be in a position to speak for all women (or other oppressed group).

Thursday evening: Three feminist films

An excellent end to the first day - although I wouldn't have called them all feminist films, rather, films by female directors. For example, the first film - Invisible, by Roz Mortimer - was primarily about the slowly emerging effects of chemical pollutants on an Inuit community in Newfoundland - a vital message, to be sure, with some incredible shots and some amazing throat-singing, but feminist? I'm not sure.

The Bold and The Beautiful
, by Payoshni Mitra, was a short documentary film about female boxers in Kolkata, and was fantastic. Not only did it do a great job of cutting through all the Othering bullshit and straight to these girls' and women's experiences, and men's perceptions of them (perhaps the fact that I was expecting exoticising bullshit says more about me, than about the film?), it was just downright inspiring. Seeing these butch teenagers talking about fearing nobody, protecting other women from violence, and saying "what's marriage good for, anyway?" was fun in that superficial, Tank Girl/Hothead Paisan "smash the patriarchy" sort of way; but on a deeper level, the amount of hope and drive being felt by these girls, and the obvious support they are being given by their parents - even when they don't understand, or might on some level disapprove - is incredibly moving.

Sex on Wheels, by Jennifer Worley, was huge amounts of fun. Following a cycle history tour around San Francisco's sex workers past, it took us from the gold rush to the workers of the Lusty Lady first unionising, then setting up the first workers' co-operative peep-show business! At each location on the tour we met a different actor, bringing to life a particular character from San Francisco's sexual history, and to pick out any one of these performances for special attention would be impossible - they were all outstanding. From the Madam who became Mayor to Valerie Solanis, through drag kings and property magnates, this was fascinating and compelling viewing experience. We've brought a copy of this back to Oxford, and hope to arrange a screening at some point!

Friday 11.15 - 12.45: Generating Feminist Consciousness

This was a bit of a hodge-podge of papers, only one of which obviously addressed the session title. This was the first paper, by Leyli Behbani, which dealt with feminist activism in Iran. Iranian culture, she said, is much more liberal than its legislation and leadership; so most women's rights activism focuses on legal reform, with broad social support, but constant fear of repression (the huge espionage operation that was active during the first Gulf war has been turned in against agitators for change). However, the word 'feminism' is not often used to describe this kind of activism in Iran, because it carries overtones of a subtle colonialism.

Emily Kniess' paper on hip-hop in Denmark was certainly a contrast to this! She focused on a group of of Danish people that she problematically designated "non-ethnic Danes". She acknowledged that people frequently called her on her choice of terms, but brushed off an audience member's concerns with "this was a challenge for me...I've thought it through". Her tone of voice carried real overtones of "mean anti-racists, wanting the WASPy American to stop labelling people who experience racist discrimination "non-ethnic!", and made me deeply uncomfortable. The main thrust of her paper seemed to be "hip-hop is the universal language of the racially marginalised".

Christie Thompson's paper on the underlying philosophy of chicklit was so, so close to brilliant. It cut through to the neo-liberal misogyny of these texts with insights like "The 'have-it-all' postfeminist discourse operates within the confines of a modern conservative capitalist ideology where 'choice' is seen as something to which all subjects have equal access to improve their living and economic situations", pointing out that the only difference between the 'empowered woman' (eg Sex & the City) and the 'slut' in the chicklit worldview is social class. However, when talking about the archetypes of women who appear in these texts, she chose to label one of them "the chick with a dick", a phrase that I am unable to disentangle from its context as a term of transphobic abuse.

Friday 1.45-3.15: Activist Methods from the '2nd Wave'.

I missed the beginning of this, and seemed to be missing the context for some of what I did see, but a few interesting tidbits stand out:
  • Polyanna Ruiz talking about a 70s-80s activist publication called 'The Greenham Factor' - this rejected the primacy that print gives to the 'Rational Argument Leading to Consensus' style of knowledge-building, which tends to further marginalise non-dominant groups. To do this, it rejected page-numbering, contents pages, the use of professional titles to sign off on opinion pieces; these approaches add up to refusing to lead readers to a conclusion, refusing to allow them to cherry-pick the things that are congruent with their own perceptions of their interests - refuses to enforce a hierarchy on their contributors' submissions. I found this fascinating because of the parallels it has with the way we move about the social web.
  • Debbie Withers pointing out that the use of 'second wave', 'third wave', etc, are an imposition of white, middle-class, academic, western feminism. They invisibilise so much that women around the world have been doing.
Friday 3.40 - 4.40: Queering Politics

Here we come to the only one of Friday's that I really felt at home in. The first speaker, Elizabeth Groeneveld, spoke about a "Take back the Dyke" march organised in Toronto in contrast to the increasingly commercialised and WASPy-gay-male-centric nature of Toronto Pride. This was queer and radical and inclusive and wonderful.

The second speaker, Alexa Athelstan, I have already mentioned on this blog - she's the one doing that research into queer femninity. Her paper discussed the types of femininity that she's interested in, and totally blew me away. Her discussion of the 'scapegoating of femininity' in queer spaces (gay men seeking 'straight-acting' partners, femme women getting called 'fag hags' or excluded from queer spaces altogether) reminded me of Julia Serano, and as she explained the full subversiveness of queered femininity I began to understand things about myself, and about Lashings, that I had never previously been able to articulate. Get this: as a fat femme, as a queer femme, I am part of the resistance. I am creating semantic disorder in normative femininity - diversifying the wider world's idea of what it is to be feminine (yes, I can wear DMs and be fat and have no make-up and still be high femme!), and diversifying their idea of what it is to be a queer woman (yes, I can wear a corset and pink and glitter and still like fucking women). I'm messing with the concepts that people use to box me in, and in doing that I free more than just myself.

Saturday 10.45-12.15: Feminist Theatre

My note-taking starts to break down a bit here, as I was simply too enchanted by Vikki Chalkin to write much down. Everything that Alexa Athelstan had just given to me in academic form, she gave to me in the form of performance. Forget semantic disorder - she ripped normative femininity to the ground and built up a new femme in her own image. She threw glitter and gave us cupcakes and ended up almost naked with "FAT QUEER FEMME FEMINIST" written across her body in lipstick. If Lashings were more conceptual, this is what we'd be. We all loved Vikki, and want to steal her quite a lot.

Evelyn Wan's physical theatre on the theme of menstruation was technically accomplished and impressively put together.

Saturday 12.30-1.30: 'Tallulah', LGBT sexuality in performance

This was half-conversation, half-workshop, as a handful of us discussed the emergence of a Bristol amateur theatre group for gay women. We were speaking with Louise Barrett, a dance and theatre teacher who had created the group, and been amazed at the successful art which had come from the shared experiences of the performers that she had brought together, many of whom were previously very isolated in rural or otherwise non-'scene' lives. Louise's conviction about the power of amateur theatre to change its participants lives certainly resonated with me as a member of Lashings of Ginger Beer!

Saturday afternoon: The climax!

First thing after lunch, we performed for an hour. What an amazing audience! When we sang 'Everyone's a Little Bit Privileged", about the complex overlapping oppressions of kyriarchy, and the importance of paying attention to intersectionality, the room let out a collective sigh of release - there had been a lot of intersectionality-fail over the previous few days, but that room was full of intelligent women and men who knew we could all do better.

Full of post-show adrenaline, we rushed over to the main hall for Charlotte Cooper's plenary on her semi-fictional fat queer girl gang, 'The Chubsters'. She's written it up over here, including a hat-tip to Lilka's excellent BMI-defiling skills, but I'll just say this - we've signed up, now. We've learnt how to glare and spit. Do you really want to fuck with us?

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