Thursday, 18 August 2011

Bristol Feminist Network and what we mean by activism

this is a conference paper annifrangipani and I wrote together and presented together at the UWE Trans Disciplinary conference "Reporting from the gender frontline'.

It's a useful and interesting paper because it talks about our history, what BFN do, but also what activism can be and what activism can mean, as well as the intersections between academic and activist feminism. It's something that's come up a bit lately on online and offline conversations (what is activism? what counts as activism?) so thought I would take this opportunity to share this piece of writing which helped us define what activism means for BFN.

The conference took place on the 9th June

Who we are?

Sian Norris and Anna Brown, we are the co-ordinators of Bristol Feminist Network which was set up in 2007 after Ladyfest Bristol.

What do we stand for?

A community group of women and men from the Bristol and area who are interested in discussing feminist ideas, who believe in the importance of women's liberation, and who actively campaign on issues of gender inequality and oppression. 

We believe that challenging gender stereotypes, resisting sexist oppression and fighting for the rights of women can positively change the world  for ALL who inhabit it.

For BFN, activism means many things. It can mean attending a Reclaim the Night march or picketing an anti-choice rally. It can mean signing a petition or writing to your MP. Attending a discussion group, reading and sharing a feminist book, writing an article or blog post or paper – all of these are feminist acts.

For us, attending a discussion group is activism. What is so important about discussion groups is that the agenda is set by our members. They decide what they want to talk about, and the process of listening, sharing our stories and learning from one another.

Our activism is very tied up in social media. Twitter, Facebook and blogs allow us to connect with women and men across the world, discover more about wider campaigns and share our own campaigns with a wide audience. Social media is a fundamental tool for feminist activists today. This is not unique to Bristol. All feminist groups now use Twitter and Facebook, and many young feminists when searching for women who share their views turn to the blogosphere. Research conducted by Cath Redfern and Kristin Aune support this, showing that many of the women they surveyed cited the internet as their introduction to feminism.

What have we done?

We want to get people talking about feminism and working together to overthrow the patriarchy in world of equality for all.
We organise monthly discussion groups about all areas of feminism, from feminism and men, violence against women, women and the internet, feminism and relationships, FGM, forced marriage and much more.
We have a book group where people read feminist books – fiction and non fiction, academic and populist.
We work with other community groups such as Bristol Indymedia, the PCT and local charities to put on talks, fim nights and panel discussions.
Every year we have a Reclaim the Night march to raise awareness of violence against women and girls and to tackle rape culture, and over the past few years we have worked closely with the Bristol Fawcett Society on a project called ‘Representations of women in the media’.

Our experience of activism

Because BFN has a very diverse membership we have been lucky to get a very wide view of what issues matter to feminists in the city today. A lot of these issues reflect the aims of the second wave. Women are still fighting for bodily autonomy, their reproductive rights, their rights to:

•    live without the fear of violence
•    equal pay
•    be seen as fully human rather than as merely sex objects.

Despite the many wonderful changes for women in the UK since the start of the second wave, including better access to abortion, the legal right to equal pay and the criminalisation of rape within marriage as examples, women in the UK today still face gross inequalities and prejudices that prevent them from taking their place as full citizens of the world stage. Globally, women bear the brunt of poverty, are victims and survivors of rape as a weapon of war, oppression and global sex trafficking. The recent book by Nicholas D Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn told us that due to violence against women and gender inequality, there are 100 million missing women in the world. Feminism is still as vital a movement and as necessary a social revolution as it has ever been.

Although we have made many exciting leaps and bounds towards equality since the start of the second wave, this past year has seen what many consider to be steps backwards. The coalition government only has 4 women in its cabinet. The emergency budget last year disproportionately affected women and vulnerable people, and when the government admitted not conducting a gender equality assessment, no action was taken by the judicial system. 100,000 women are raped every year in the UK and recent comments from MPs Ken Clarke and Roger Helmer show that victim blaming and rape culture is still very real. Rape culture means that the conviction rates for rape stay low at 6.5%, whilst false accusation stories, which make up only 3-5% of rape cases dominate the media narrative. The government recently removed the ministerial post to tackle female genital mutilation and budget cuts have hit domestic violence services so severely that Women’s Aid predict that 60% of refuge services will receive no council funding by next year. Meanwhile, the proliferation of violent porn, the normalisation of women as sex objects performing for the male gaze, the normalisation of the sex industry and the opening of retro-sexist establishments such as Hooters and the Playboy Club are perpetuating the view that women’s worth lies in their ability to conform to a narrow view of beauty and sexuality. If women do not fit this narrow mould, then they are expected to re-shape their body, face and style to do so. Procedures from breast enlargement to labiaplasty, Brazilian waxes to vajazzling are part of this pattern that expects women to conform to a commodified view of women’s bodies.

The result has been a real resurgence in young people taking an interest in feminism, claiming themselves as feminists and demanding an end to gender inequality. Last year alone saw at least 18 new feminist networks spring up across the UK, the publication of four non academic feminist books, as well as far more press attention to feminist causes – some good and some not so good.

In our experience as activists, we have found that young women and men coming fresh to feminism are mainly focused on fighting the sexual objectification of culture, and violence against women. We believe this may be because all women, regardless of class, ethnicity, age etc, experience the effects of the normalisation of the sex industry in our every day lives. We all walk into supermarkets to be confronted with wave after wave of lad’s mags. We have all seen Page 3 – now considered to be a British institution. We all experience the invisibility of women who do not fit into the accepted mould, and we all live through the effects of a society that normalises the treatment of women as commodities. We now know that there is compelling evidence that links violence against women and girls, and an increased tolerance of sexism, with the increased sexual objectification of women. The view of women as only and always objects for consumption underpins a lot of the inequalities we now face. We believe that this begins to explain why these issues are so key to attracting young women to feminism in the first place.

A general surge of activism has taken place in the last year, from the student marches to the anti-cuts protests. Although not always explicitly feminist, the cuts to student funding and the public sector will disproportionately impact on women, and so have brought issues such as gender-based poverty, the pay gap and wider inequalities in the workplace to the forefront of many people’s minds. Wider activism around the peace movement and global poverty, international sex trafficking and conflict have also started to bring many newly politically aware young women and men to feminism, as we learn that without gender equality, aims for a fairer world can never be achieved. For example, economists have shown over and over again that educating women in the developing world will lift whole families out of poverty – bringing economic benefits to all. Equality cannot exist for all when it does not exist for women.

BFN and academia

As mentioned before, two of our main activist activities have been focused on Reclaim the Night, tackling rape culture and violence against women; and looking at how women are represented in the media. The latter has taken many forms, from exploring the sexual objectification of women, to seeing how women are absent in our cultural landscape, to asking questions about the absence of news stories that tell us about the extent of local and global violence against women.

In all these campaigns, we have been lucky to work with academic feminists, whose depth of knowledge and research has enabled us to build exciting and informed campaigns.

For example, research conducted by the Bristol University Centre for Gender Based Violence on violence in teen relationships, and the American Psychological Association’s work on the links between intimate partner violence and sexual objectification of women has allowed us to build convincing and intelligent arguments for our activist campaigns. We believe that academic work is activist work and we are lucky to be able to bring the two tenets of feminist activity together to build a more equal society.

Obviously, like all social movements for change, feminism is not always popular. It is often attacked by those afraid of losing their privilege. Therefore, for all our feminist campaigns, we have found it vital to work closely with academics and their research when making sure that our campaigns are evidenced and informed.

As we have seen with the opening of Hooters, the Playboy Club and arguments around lad’s mags and the wider sex industry, the media is often keen to publicise and discuss stories that have a perceived “sexy” angle. Although it is fantastic to have media coverage, we also need to ensure that the media portrays feminist campaigns on other issues, such as global feminism, violence against women and girls, and poverty. These issues may seem less exciting to the newspapers, they can’t be illustrated with pictures of scantily clad women, but just like the sexual objectification of women, these issues underpin the inequality between the genders and need to be tackled. We believe that by working with academic research and researchers, we can bring these issues to the forefront of the public’s consciousness with robust evidence for why gender inequality impacts on everyone’s lives, and bringing about equality for all benefits everyone.

So, that is our experience. Now we want to hear from you.
•    As academics, do you think our own activist campaigns and issues reflect the work that you are doing?
•    Do you consider academia to be activist in itself? 
•    Is the research in feminist academia reflecting the work of non academic activists?
•    Are there any disconnects between the issues we see, and the issues that form the bulk of today’s academic research?
•    What issues are dominating the academic sphere when it comes to feminism?

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