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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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“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: , ,