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A review of “Beyond the Body: a dialogue between bell hooks and Eve Ensler”

November 6, 2013 Leave a comment

On Tuesday evening I attended an event at the New School in NYC called “Beyond the Body? A public dialogue between bell hooks + Eve Ensler”. The event was one of two public events that are part of a one-week residency for bell hooks at the New School. I livetweeted it under the hashtag #BeyondTheBody, but I later found out that several people livetweeted it under #bellhooksTNS. Unfortunately this hashtag was not announced beforehand for the purpose of livetweeting, but I assume it is the general hashtag for hooks’ 1-week residency at the New School. I have storified all livetweets of the event that I could find here. Below is my review of the event, with a few of my own reflections (with some context provided). There was so much substance there is no way I could cover all the points that came up during the event, so I can only apologize for anything I may have missed. I welcome comments on any points I may have missed from others who were there. (CW: rape, assault)

Beyond the Body was a powerful and I daresay surprising event. It was surprising because quite a few people (on my twitter stream, in particular) seemed to think that the event was set up with bell hooks and Eve Ensler in opposition to each other. That could not be further from the truth: bell hooks actually chose Eve Ensler as her conversation partner, specifically due to the different “spaces” from which they originate and the spaces they inhabit as a black woman and a white woman.

This was not a debate; it was a dialogue about the bodies of women. It started out by highlighting Ensler’s project City of Joy, a recovery and leadership program for female survivors of violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country where rape is frequently used as a weapon of war. Ensler set up this project after being invited to the DRC by a Congolese doctor by the name of Dr. Denis Mkwege, who she had previously interviewed. Since its inception City of Joy has graduated 300 women in the city of Bukavu, DRC.

A general discussion of what it means to dedicate yourself to “service” ensued. Ensler remarked on being “a part of the struggle” through her service. bell hooks asked Ensler what spurred her personal process of decolonization, which is a process everyone goes through who has dedicated part of their lives to service. Ensler explained that she felt empathy for abused women because she experienced rape and abuse within her family; not only that, but she grew up witnessing the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s.

Ensler spoke very passionately throughout the evening about her work with Congolese women, which I have to admit caused me some cerebral discomfort. I don’t know what her experience with the DRC was like before she set up Cities of Joy, but I suspect it was probably nil. However I also feel uncomfortable with negating the positive impact she may have had on a community of women simply due to her origins. She seemed surprisingly aware of her privilege, and tended to speak very carefully. At the same time, I have difficulty with the idea that a white woman from the US could be “part of the struggle” for rape survivors in the DRC. That whole idea seems incredibly narcissistic to me. In my view, white women like Ensler (and admittedly, like me!) can facilitate the struggle with resources and a platform, but to say we are part of the struggle seems to smack of co-opting. How about we wait until someone within the struggle tells us we are part of the struggle, instead of declaring it ourselves because we feel we are part of it?

Throughout the dialogue, Ensler seemed slightly intimidated by bell hooks, but who wouldn’t be? bell was clearly in charge of the evening; she showed no reluctance to steer the conversation or interrupt Ensler, especially when she felt there was too much discussion of Ensler’s world-famous Vagina Monologues. I loved it when bell, later in the Q&A, refused to answer a question from a man about her theories on education as decolonization. She said “we’re here to talk about women’s bodies, and a lot of people (especially men) want to change this subject – so maybe I can answer your question later this week” and then swiftly moved on.

bell spoke about how black women’s bodies are still colonized by white supremacy, especially the white supremacist medical establishment. She shared a personal story about how her own sister died of cancer due to neglect by the white supremacist medical hierarchy. Furthermore, she argued that black women are kept silent throughout the media. In films about black people, stories are told through black men not black women. Black women are kept silent throughout this storytelling (e.g. the recent film 12 Years A Slave). She noted that anti-racist campaigners who are white women are usually met with suspicion, whereas anti-racist white men are honoured by having buildings named after them. (There was a LOT of head-nodding after this point was made.)

There was some passionate discussion between bell and Ensler about how the bodies of teenage girls are used as “sacrifices to imperialist white supremacist patriarchy” within the media and elsewhere.  My discomfort with such statements stemmed from the fact that I wasn’t sure whether this discussion pertained to coercive sexualization of bodies or sexuality as an expression originating within the girls and women themselves.

However, a brilliant audience member brought up an important point about this during the Q&A: what is the balance between women of colour having a vibrant sexuality for themselves vs coercive sexualization for/by the patriarchy? This is an ACE question, from my point of view. A number of prominent feminists decry the coercive sexualization of teens by others and within the media. However those same feminists often seem incapable of discerning coercive sexualization and chosen expressions of sexuality. Of course, it can sometimes be difficult to discern between the two, particularly in media spaces, but it’s important to recognize that encouraging elective sexuality is just as important as protesting coercive sexualization. I feel that difference was at least somewhat highlighted within the Q&A.

Finally, I was struck by how bell hooks doesn’t personally use the word “ally” when it comes to movement-building. Instead she emphasizes building solidarity between different groups and types of people – to ensure we are all on the same page, essentially. This harkened back somewhat to the discussion on struggle, and who can be considered to be a part of a struggle and who can’t. I was left with the idea that perhaps we can all be part of a struggle, but we have different roles to play. As white women we need to learn how to shut up and be quiet, and when and how to amplify the voices of the more marginalized. And to her credit, this was a point that Ensler made very early on in the event.

Desirée is a feminist social critic, aspiring writer and activist currently based in New York City. She tweets as @libertinegrrl.

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Feminist news round-up: Oct 31st 2013

October 31, 2013 Leave a comment
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Women get things done: a comparative piece on Tanzania & the UK (Part 3, British Feminism series)

If you live in a country such as the UK, chances are someone has asked
you whether you’re a feminist. When you vote or use birth control, you
are fortunate in ways women 100 years ago weren’t. If you take that
for granted, or if you hesitate to use the “F” word, please give it a
little thought. Across the western world, women have made great
strides in the last century. We might be tempted to think that women
in developing countries haven’t noticed feminism. Economic and
cultural pressures for women to remain at home can make us assume that
it simply can’t be happening. If they can’t dress freely or pursue
ambitions outside running a home, does that mean women are downtrodden
and powerless?

I spent 6 months living in Tanzania, at first in a house full of North
Americans, and for the second three months I lived with a local
friend, Teddy, in her family home. The reality of being a woman in
this East African country struck me in several ways. As Teddy told me,
“It’s always the women that get things done”. While the dynamic of her
relationship means she usually defers to her husband on financial
matters, she is also proud of the fact that “he understands my work
and always supports it”. For several years she has been running a
women’s network and a nursery school which offers free basic education
to village children. The building of a classroom, the teacher’s salary
and the rent for office space is usually funded by her and her
husband, along with donations. “It’s like there are four children in
our family,” she explained. “My son, his sister, his cousin and the
centre”.

In her office space Teddy keeps her records, a small supply of
medicines and rehydration sachets, vitamins for children and donations
of pencils and exercise books. It is used as a drop in centre for
women who come to discuss their businesses – commonly selling
vegetables, eggs or charcoal – and what they can do to improve them.
One organisation that partnered with Teddy made development grants
available to women who pitched plans that would provide ongoing
benefit – for example, a chicken coop means that fewer eggs are lost,
or a rain cover for a charcoal stall provides the means to trade even
in the rain, and therefore earn more money each month. Most of these
women are single mothers, the sole wage earners and caring for
extended family and even “orphans” who have had one parent die, or
simply been abandoned. Part of running a home in the villages means
tending crops, fetching water and earning enough money by whatever
means to buy what you can’t grow.

The office is rented from Mariam, who lives a five minute walk from
the school house. Mariam is regarded as a bit of a local authority on
family planning, another subject that may come up when people drop by
the office. She gives advice and presentations about using different
methods of birth control, allowing women to regulate the size of their
families. She is married, but her husband has another wife in town and
spends alternate weeks at her house. The weeks he is away, Mariam
might make longer trips to neighbouring villages and discuss the
importance of contraception with local leaders.

Fashion was important to Haika, the manager of the hostel that housed
the volunteers where I first lived. One evening we were looking
through photographs at her house, and she pointed out some of her
favourite outfits. We compared tastes and styles, tried each other’s
dresses on, giggled and gossiped, and it barely crossed my mind that
these were all very “Tanzanian” clothes. A country where more than a
third of the population is Muslim and between 30-62% Christian [1] is
going to be noticeably influenced by religious teachings about
modesty. I know native New Yorkers who dress modestly in accordance
with their Jewish faith, so this idea isn’t new or unique to Africa. A
hemline that is a little longer than you’d wear in London doesn’t have
to mean your style is any less of a reflection of your personality, it
just ensures that you don’t stand out for all the wrong reasons.

Haika got engaged just before I left Tanzania. She had been dating her
Ugandan boyfriend for 5 years, since they met at University across the
border. He remained in Uganda while she went back to work in Arusha to
save up enough money to complete her Social Work degree. Now they’re
looking at moving in together, and she’s still on track to finish her
studies. I can’t help but be optimistic that she’s found a good match,
another man who will support her as Teddy’s husband does – not simply
financially, but in her ambitions to make a difference.

All these women are trying to change their country and improve lives.
They try to raise awareness of issues that are important to them as
women, they try to motivate others to vote and challenge their
political leaders. They want their daughters educated, and educate
their neighbour’s daughters. At first glance, their feminism might
look different, but my experiences left me in no doubt that even if
our lifestyles aren’t identical, hope for the next generation is
something we all share.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Tanzania

Clara is a British feminist who spent several months working in Tanzania, and still has close ties there, despite now living back in the UK full-time. She can be found tweeting as @clarabelle12345

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On labels, identities and values (British feminism series, part 2)

Even as a child I was questioning of stereotypes, and held a dislike for the expected behaviour based on one’s gender, though granted I probably didn’t internalise it in such a way. When I was about 7 years old I asked my grandmother to teach me to knit. This is something I continue to this day (admittedly less often than before) but both then and now, it’s not something that I considered to be “girly”; to me, it’s just something I enjoy doing.

At university, though I was comfortable with my gender, I decided to omit the “gender” box on the registration form. This is not because I had any doubts of my gender, but was twofold: firstly, that it wasn’t (indeed, still isn’t) a big part of my identity, and secondly in support of a coursemate who omitted her own gender when registering due to not wanting to the University to give her concessions when making administrative decisions.

It was around that time that I also gained an interest in sexuality and gender politics. I’ve seen plenty change during that time – the introduction of the Gender Recognition Act (2004) which gave legal rights to trans people, The Equality Act (2010) which introduced legally supported rights for people on grounds such as race, religion andsexuality. Prior to these dates are events, amongst others, such as the introduction of the Equal Pay Act (1970) and the shockingly late repeal of the right of marital rape in 1991.

Despite all this, there is still lots that needs to change to redress the imbalance. Feminists and other people interested in achieving gender equality sometimes talk about the Glass Ceiling. In broad terms, this metaphorical expression refers to the invisible yet impenetrable barrier that women face in the workplace in situations such as equal pay, or being denied opportunities for senior roles. To introduce some figures to highlight the point, last year the CMI reported that, in the UK, women in managerial roles receive in the order of £10,500 p.a. (25%) less than their male counterparts. Furthermore, women make up less than 25% of senior management roles in the UK.

A woman attempting to break the glass ceiling - from CBC Radio, Canada

Humans love labels. They love to label themselves, and they particularly love to label each other. Though this blog is themed around feminism, and this article discusses some feminist topics, the word “feminist” is not one I use to describe myself. To me, the word “feminist” is inherently gendered. I believe that women should be afforded the same rights as men – not because they are women, but because they are human beings. Furthermore, there are people who don’t fit neatly into the gender binary, and they too deserve equal rights. To use the same word for such people, even if the desire of equality is shared, is erasing of those people’s identities.
So whilst I solidly believe in equal rights and opportunities for all people, regardless of gender, I haven’t yet found a label that I feel describes me well in terms of these values. I’ve seen the word humanist used in this context, but to me that seems unsuitable due to having faith based overtones.

Not having a label to describe this aspect of me doesn’t unsettle me. Instead, when people ask I prefer to respond in a sentence, perhaps a paragraph. This conveys more meaning than just a single word. One person’s idea of a word, and the values or behaviours which that word implies, may differ from another person’s, and so by giving a fuller explanation this leads to clearer communication and greater understanding.

Gender equality symbol from recessionwire.com

Leaving aside my indecision of which label to pick, import questions remain. How do we keep the pressure on the drive to gender equality. And why does it require pressure in the first place? (And is it just my inner idealist who sees the rhetoric in that second question?)

I don’t know that I have a simple answer to these issues. Introduction of additional legislation has only had a limited effect – e.g. despite the aforementioned Equal Pay Act being introduced over 40 years ago, there is still a 25% pay difference in some fields.

Rather than being legislative in nature, perhaps a stronger approach would be a social one. Part of such a solution would be for men (not just women) to speak up when women’s rights are ignored, or worse trodden on. It’s up to us all to care for equality.

No more should we tolerate casual sexism in the workplace. No more making “banter” such as “Did you get lost looking for reception?” to a woman sat in the IT department. No more laughing at these comments – which sadly aren’t so antiquated as one might think. Though I’ve not directly heard such comments myself, I have women friends and colleagues in technical roles who have had this type of comment directed at them, and recently so. To my feminist associates, had I heard these comments directly, I would have spoken up, and I will continue to do so in the future.

The fight is not over. We can get there. But we must keep trying.

-Matt Peperell, British, gender equality advocate (he can be found under @mattpep on twitter)

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“I’m probably not what you were expecting”: on being a female electronic engineer (British feminism series)

March 31, 2012 1 comment
I was very fortunate growing up;  I was able to make my own decision about what career I wanted. I was also fortunate that I went to a school where being a girl keen on studying science and maths wasn’t considered weird. Looking back now I realize how sheltered and unusual this was.

So aged 18 I moved 100 miles (give or take) from home and started my degree in electronic engineering at a Russell Group university. During freshers week I met my course mates and discovered how few other women there were.

For the record, most of the time my gender was never an issue and a lot of the things that happened that were negative passed over the heads of my colleagues until pointed out to them. A few examples:

* A lecturer welcoming the class with the statement “good afternoon gentlemen” then a pause and a begrudging “and ladies” ended with a sigh: totally unnecessary and hurtful.

* The lack of female toilets in most engineering departments means you have to walk a much longer distance (most buildings I’ve worked in were built in the 1950s and 1960s when this was never given any thought).

* Another female student had the regular experience that some male members of staff would never shut the door during meetings alone with her (apparently because of the way she dressed). Not okay for ensuring adequate pastoral care.

If you think any of these things are wrong, the truth is that you are a feminist.

The thing that cut me deeply was the teasing I was subjected to during my first year of study. The undermining comments of “you’re only here because you’re a girl and they need you to make the numbers up” or “you got an easier offer because you’re a girl” came phrased in a joking way and when I tried to stand up for myself I was told “it’s only a laugh; grow a sense of humour”. The worst thing was that part of me thought they could be right. It dented my confidence and I began to dress in a more masculine way – baggy jeans, loose t-shirts and hoodies were my uniform. I wanted to fit in by suppressing as much of my gender as I could so it couldn’t be used against me.

I made it though year 1 with decent grades and gained a lot of respect from my peers. For the first time I felt that I was there on merit and not some charity case. The anonymity of the exam paper and being known by only an ID number does have its advantages. My confidence grew and I slowly become more comfortable with my gender. I graduated with a first class degree (and went across the stage wearing a skirt!) and true friends.

I wish I’d had more courage to stand up for myself and point out these behaviours at the time. What I can do now though is try and make things better by trying to be a positive role model and challenging gender stereotypes when I encounter them. I’m in a good position to do this since Dr. is blissfully gender neutral and is a helpful tool to challenge preconceptions.

When I walk into a lecture theatre to teach a class for the first time the reaction I get is usually something akin to confusion; students might not know who they were expecting, but it most certainly wasn’t me! I start the lecture by introducing myself and tackling this head on so it’s over and sorted: “Hi, I’m Dr Ridgway and I’m probably not quite what you were expecting but once you’re over that we’re going to have a good semester.”

I am actively involved in school outreach activities. I think it’s important to both boys and girls to see that ‘an engineer’ is not necessarily a man, not a car mechanic and doesn’t have to drive a white van. I hope that by challenging these preconceptions at an early stage it broadens their world view and career aspirations.

What else can I do to help female engineers and academics be taken seriously? It’s simple; I do my job well and take pride in my work. This can encompass small things like replying to emails from students promptly and taking deadlines seriously, through to giving lectures that students want to turn up to (if students are only turning up to get your lecture notes you’re doing it wrong) and being enthusiastic about what I’m teaching.

I’m not afraid of my gender any more; I wear dresses and occasionally even lipstick! By dressing in a way I like, yes I’m feminine, but it’s a side consideration to my brain and what I say and do. That’s the way it should be.

Dr. Leah Ridgway (MEng) (PhD) Electronic Engineering, 27 years-old, British, female engineer and feminist. Leah can be found on twitter @verdantstar.

Getting it right for Every Body: Feminism & Freedom of Gender

My friend’s wedding reception was particularly glamorous. After a Thames boat trip and an evening meal, her husband stood up and joked that he hadn’t written a speech.  As a professional speechwriter, he’d prepared too many, he said.  “For goodness sake, I’ve even written something for the woman’s rights officer about what it takes to succeed in a man’s world.”  About half of the room – probably just his side of the family, actually – laughed.
You won’t be surprised that he left me with plenty to rant about.  Nevertheless, he illustrated one thing, which is that many men find it hard to talk about gender equality.  This is strange, because most people who care about equality agree that it should benefit everybody, including men as well as women.  Only a few people doggedly believe that men are solely benefactors from the way things are at the moment (though “male privilege” is mentioned often on my Twitter feed, and admittedly the amount of it on display during the wedding left me feeling more ill than the boat ride did).

The trouble is that most of the arguments in favour of gender equality benefiting men are somewhat indirect, or abstract.  The former Equal Opportunities Commission lobbied hard and successfully for women’s rights in the workplace.  To explain how they were tackling the other half of their statutory brief – gender equality for men – they developed a strap-line: “if we get it right for women, we’ll get it right for everyone.”  What they meant is that, if policy can cater for the amazing diversity of women’s life courses, then by definition it will cater for men’s too.  My dad, in his more optimistic moods, argued that men would benefit from gender equality through happier (he always assumed, women) partners, and from more productive women in the workplace.  You can see why I think these arguments have value, but are indirect.

There are lots of ways that men are discriminated against, or constrained in their behaviour.  Examples of parents supporting the right of their boys to dress in pink,i or school children deciding to wear dresses,ii are exciting to me.  It surprises me that, after 29 years of personal development and moving to a liberal city, it still feels radical to behave in ways which are feminine.  Some of the restrictions on my behaviour are small, but important.  My vivid pink socks always attract attention at work.  Being the person who gets cuddled, and nestling myself in the underarms of someone I love, feels radical to me, even in private.  Sitting on a bus, with my head on a partner’s shoulder, having my hair stroked, would feel dangerous in some parts of London.  If I’m in a bar, I might fancy a beer, but if I then switch to a cola, somebody will make a comment. I’m a lightweight when it comes to alcohol, and if I say this, people think I’m eccentric.  If these things bother me, it’s no wonder why I don’t wear the dress that I like down Oxford Street.  Some of my friends are brave enough to do this, but surely something is wrong with our society if so much bravery is required for something that doesn’t hurt anyone.

The truth is that even the most progressive of us accentuate gender divides, often without realising it.  Over the past month or two, my friends have organised women’s only hen nights, women’s only trips, and women’s only shibari workshops.  People should have the right to shape environments that suit them but, over the longer term, we need to start to remove the qualifiers from some of these events.  Implicit in them is the assumption that women cannot have certain experiences – and possibly even a feeling of safety– with men around.  To my mind this assumption is insulting to women, and particularly those around me who I know are strong and independent people and able to determine, communicate and police their own boundaries.  It unnerves me that people might assume that I do not know how to respect these boundaries, because of my body.  I believe that the more we are able to open up shared environments, the better we will get at learning to negotiate potentially intimate situations.

However, it’s not enough to widen our aims for gender quality to include “men’s rights”.  Feminism needs to evolve not only beyond freedom from discrimination on the grounds of sex, but also towards freedom of gender.  It’s ironic that the feminism is so often interpreted to mean “women’s rights”, when the word that has been chosen refers to feminine, which is a label that can be chosen and not limited to female-bodied people.  As male-bodied boy who increasingly feels more female-gendered, I wonder how I fit into thismovement.  Put another way, if dialogue is phrased only in terms of “men” and “women”, then I can’t locate myself within the arguments without making some compromise about how I identify.  Feminism has concentrated on some of the most obvious examples of sex equality – and the gender pay gap in the UK, especially in part-time work, and differences in pension income for today’s generations of older people, are startling.  This focuses the dialogue on issues which are mainly economic, or otherwise fits into a legal framework about discrimination.  Feminist debate which allows for the possibilities of self-determination and freedom of expression about gender, for everybody, is thin on the ground, especially when it comes to male-bodied people.

Written by The Boy Wonders, who sometimes blogs at Subsphere.
Categories: feminism, gender Tags: , ,

A blogger’s intentions

December 29, 2010 4 comments

This is a blog on global perspectives of feminism, for lack of a better word. Uhuru means freedom in the Swahili language. Lady Uhuru seemed like a perfectly apt name for a blog focused on such a topic. This blog will be an exploration and reflection on how the notion of feminism is perceived and how it manifests throughout the world, particularly in developing and underdeveloped countries. How can I, as an American woman living in the UK, possibly do such a topic justice? I don’t claim I will be able to, but my intention is to write about issues relevant throughout the world in the most informed fashion possible, backed up with research, contact with other bloggers, and with guest blogger posts.

I’ve been inspired to start this blog, in part due to the many friends I have in the US and the UK who identify as feminists and also in part due to my experiences with how ‘feminism’ and ‘gender’ are perceived in places I’ve worked, particularly Malawi and Kenya. There is often still a rejection of the words feminism and gender by rural women in places such as Malawi. Both gender and feminism are considered foreign imported notions (this is clearly demonstrated by a phrase I heard frequently when I was working in Malawi: “before gender came to Malawi…”) – a notion reserved for the elites in the cities at the Ministries of Gender throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. Although westerners view many Sub-Saharan African countries as rife with intense gender differentiation, ‘gender’ is still considered imported by many – the concept of gender as a discrete concept did not exist in the worldview (or indeed, the language) of many societies prior to contact with westerners. In the small town where I worked in Malawi, many rural women view the notion of feminism as an intention to enhance the status of women whilst actually lowering the status of men.  As a self-identified feminist from ‘the West,’ I was astonished by this attitude and it soon became clear that my own views on the meaning of feminism were just that – they were my OWN – and that the empowerment of women throughout the world would take a different form. Perhaps a form I wouldn’t like, agree with, or understand.

Hence, it is my intention to explore different issues throughout the world related to ‘feminism’ and ‘gender,’ down to the different interpretations and prioritisations of the notions themselves. And indeed, all of the grey areas in between.

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