Sunday, 28 April 2013

I might be glad about the return of Spare Rib – but let’s not pretend online feminism isn’t vital

When I heard the news that Spare Rib was making a comeback I have to admit I was a bit nervous. On the one hand – hurrah for a funded feminist magazine that would provide some relief from the glossy ‘Sex tips for girls – how to give your man the perfect blow job’ headlines that currently dazzle my newsagent's shelf (point 1. Women not girls, point 2. Can we have sex tips that focus on women?). On the other hand, I always am wary of anything that focuses money and energy on reminiscing about something historic instead of supporting and inspiring what’s going on in the present.

I grew up with a framed copy of Spare Rib in our upstairs hallway however (Cagney and Lacey gracing the cover – awesome!) so decided that really, my heart is with the Rib Revival.

However, today in the Observer I read a really nasty, spiteful and vindictive article by Sophie Wilkinson which basically seemed to read that we need Spare Rib to come back to sort out us feminists today. We, apparently, value re-tweeting over activism and as a result feminism is turning in on itself.

Well, I call bullshit on that one. Firstly, because it is not true and, secondly, because it is not true.

Let’s deal with the first element of untruth in her article.

Feminism today categorically does not exist just online. There is a thriving, active, exciting and inspiring feminist movement changing the world for the better out there, offline. What’s more, we’re working with no money, little time and sheer determination to change the world. I should know, after all, I’m part of it.

All over the UK, grassroots feminists are setting up rape crisis centres, campaigning against the cuts, gathering evidence of the Government’s marginalisation of women, lobbying politicians and councillors, marching for our freedom to live free from the fear of rape, challenging anti-abortion rhetoric, speaking out against FGM, domestic abuse, forced marriage, cultural femicide. We are putting on festivals and putting on demonstrations and writing reports and we are doing it without £20,000 raised by prominent feminist writers (money raised to get Spare Rib back on the printing press). We are here and we are doing. We are gathering in rooms and sharing our experiences, we are gathering in conference halls and shouting ‘we are feminist’ from the rooftops, we are going into classrooms and talking to young women and men about feminism and sexuality, we are putting together packs about improved sex education. We are campaigning for (and increasingly within) an intersectional movement.

We are doing all of this with no money, little time and very, very little coverage from the mainstream media. The grassroots feminist movement is, after all, far, far less interesting than feminist catfights. We’re too busy doing actual stuff.

That’s just in the UK. All over the world women activists are taking, well, action. Women in Afghanistan are setting up domestic abuse refuges at huge risk to their own safety and lives, women in the DRC speaking out about the experiences of rape, women in the States turning their back on Romney and voting for bodily autonomy, women in Nicaragua campaigning for abortion rights, women in India marching against rape, women in Bangladesh marching for better working conditions – women marching and acting and speaking and not getting their tits out (the only international activism the mainstream media seem to notice at the moment).

But apparently none of this is as important or newsworthy as spiteful articles about how feminism today is doing it wrong.

As someone who has spent the last six years running one of the biggest feminist networks in the country,  I can’t help but feel incredibly annoyed and frustrated when the work of groups like Bristol Feminist Network,  and there are loads like us, are ignored in favour of this narrative that one way of doing feminism (in this case the Spare Rib model) is better than any other way of doing feminism. There’s room for all the sisters under my feminist umbrella after all. I want Spare Rib back, I want to work with all women, but I don’t want them to ignore the work we women outside the media are doing. I also get frustrated when, once again, mainstream media reporting of feminism focuses just on one or two high profile organisations and ignores the multiplicity of voices in the UK movement, such as Black Feminists UK, Integrate and GAPS.

Anyway, that’s enough about untruth number 1. Let’s look at untruth number 2.

Online feminism is far, far more than ‘re-tweets replacing debate’ and ‘lazy clicks equalling approval’. To say this is to silence, ignore and mock the incredible galvanizing effect the internet has had on feminism in the UK today – and across the world. However, because my experience is of the UK I am going to stick to that.

The online feminist movement has brought together people of all genders to discuss and make feminist activism happen. It levels the playing field. It gives women from all backgrounds the chance to share their experience – it gives us a platform. When BFN plan an action we try to have an online element so that people who can’t attend an event can still take part. The internet has given women a space to speak out about their experiences, it has allowed us to share petitions and letters and research and reports. For younger women, isolated in a world where they think they are the only feminist, the feminist blogosphere gives them endless resources to explore and discover.

Thanks to online feminism I have met women from all over the UK and I get the chance to talk to them about gender inequality and rape culture, FGM and VAWG. Online feminism taught me about intersectionality – a concept I had never heard of before encountering it on the F Word. The internet has made me a better feminist.

Of course, it is not perfect. There is bullying and unpleasantness and we have seen a lot of that in recent months. There are also issues around accessibility and who has access to the online world.

But there is so much more to the online feminist world than lazy RT-ing. Not, of course, that RT-ing is lazy by definition!

Without online feminism, for example, I would not have been able to organise the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival. I would not have been able to gather signatures for my letter to MPs about violence against women and girls.I would not have had the solidarity and love of my sisters when I was attacked by men over the Hooters debacle.

And that’s just me – one small activist in a small city with a small blog.

What perhaps summed up the attitude of the article towards the online world was the snarky dismissal by Sophie Wilkinson of the Everyday Sexism  (and that’s what it’s called, not Everyday Feminism!). She writes that it is just a site ‘which simply holds a magnifying mirror to the regular, dull throb of misogyny so it can be identified and extracted like a thick whitehead’ is so ignorant and rude and dismissive of the importance of that site as to be almost laughable. Everyday Sexism is about giving a voice to thousands and thousands of women about the horrors of misogyny when they didn’t have a voice before. It’s about bringing together women’s experiences, giving us a safe space to speak out about the things we thought no one wanted to hear about, no one wanted to listen to. It’s about multiplicity – the voices of many to many not the voices of few to many.

Feminism has always been about, to me, raising our voices. It’s about the power of women’s voices. How dare anyone tell women that a space where our voices are finally heard doesn’t matter? That it’s just a waste? This is our space, for our voices, talking about our experiences. Some of the things I have shared there are things I hardly dared speak before. I am sure this is the case for many who use that site. There’s a real power in cataloguing these experiences. They give us undeniable, irrefutable evidence that this misogyny, this hatred of women is real and happening and happening every single fucking day. It is not to be mocked. It is not to be silenced. In this, Everyday Sexism is symbolic of much of online feminism – a bringing together of women’s voices to speak out and document and fight against misogyny.

I’m glad Spare Rib is coming back. But not if it is going to happen by silencing other women and privileging the voices of women who have a national media platform. There is so much happening in the UK and global feminist movement today that needs to be celebrated and respected in the mainstream media. It’s happening online and offline. Instead of silencing and mocking these movements – as to me this article so callously did – let’s use an incredible force like Spare Rib to raise the movement’s profile and celebrate its many, many wonderful and important achievements.

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