Let’s talk about feminism

Emma Watson in Conversation with Gloria Steinem for Our Shared Shelf

Emma Watson in Conversation with Gloria Steinem for Our Shared Shelf

By Claudia Bonifay

When a close friend of mine mentioned on a group chat that Emma Watson had just launched a book club, I was immediately thrilled. Ever since her speech at the UN for the launch of ‘He for She’ had moved me to tears, I had been following the campaign. This book club had the promise of bringing together my new found fascination for Watson’s work on feminism, my love for reading, and my inappropriate adult obsession for Harry Potter. What could possibly go wrong? Within minutes I had visited the book club page, called ‘Our Shared Shelf’, and downloaded the first book on my reading tablet. I was ready to be part of the movement.

Since January, Watson has been uploading a new thread announcing the book she will be reading on the first day of every month. Initially, it was explained that members had three weeks to read the book, and it would then be discussed throughout the remaining week of the month. However, that rule was quickly disregarded by the overwhelming ever-growing following of the club, as eager members were creating dozens of different discussion threads every day. With such a wide variety of questions and topics, the forum had to acquire more than a handful of moderators to keep it all in check. Anybody can start a discussion thread, whether about the books, related themes, or really anything that the feminist topic inspires. You can also join in on threads others have already started. From pornography, to the representation of women in the media or the complexity of religious belief as a rape victim, the forums have plenty to offer. There are even discussion threads in different languages, such as Spanish and French.

‘My Life on the Road’ by Gloria Steinem was the first book on the list. Steinem is one of the most prominent feminist activists of the 20th, and even of the 21st century so far. The book is all about her life as a feminist activist, her love for the road and is full of highly satisfying juicy anecdotes. This first pick was a perfect introduction to feminism because it unveils the inner works of her life as an activist, effectively bringing a human touch to historical events and feminist theory. It was incredible to learn from her experience about the different ways the feminist movement had evolved throughout the decades. Most importantly, it taught me that her work had such a large-scale impact because she truly cared about listening, learning and building deep relationships with others.

The book club does not just link people together behind the screen. Dozens of members have quickly taken the initiative to organise meet-ups and reading groups in their respective cities. And last month I saw the club come to life as Gloria Steinem took the stage to be interviewed by Emma Watson at the ‘how to: Academy’ in London as part of her UK tour. At first, I was sceptical about the idea. I was afraid I would be stuck queuing up along with a crowd excited about coming face to face with a celebrity. I am glad I was proven wrong when I realised that everyone was incredibly open-minded and diverse, crossing generations and races. I was also glad to see men sympathetic to the cause disseminated amongst the audience.

Despite the event having been organised in the context of the release of Steinem’s book, other topics were addressed such as the place feminism should take in international conversations on development. Watson expressed her frustration with regards to gender issues being constantly pushed down further on the agenda, rather than being considered a priority and an issue that encompasses all others. Instead, development or conflict concerns should also be examined with a gender lens, as they will always be either caused or aggravated by the exclusion of women and girls and widespread violence against them. In fact, every issue deemed more important than gender equality cannot possibly be solved without gender equality. A perfect example of this is how we currently think of international security. Watson mentioned a figure she came across in the book ‘Sex and World Peace’ that shocked the audience just as much as herself – ‘(…) more lives are lost through violence against women from sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, suicide, egregious maternal mortality, and other sex-linked causes than were lost during all the wars and civil strife of the twentieth century,’ thereby effectively resulting in women no longer constituting half of the world’s population. The devaluation of female life is an international security threat but is often regarded as a separate issue. Steinem followed up by stating that the best indicator of the likelihood of violence occurring in a country or even of that country’s willingness to use military violence against another is not poverty, access to resources, religion or degree of democracy, but the level of violence against females. She explains that this is not because female life is more valuable than any other but rather because it normalises domination.

‘Our Shared Shelf’ really is an incredible way to discover books written by women about feminism, even if not always in obvious ways. It challenges me to think of the presence of those themes where I would not look for them. This is also what the ‘He for She’ campaign aims to achieve: to challenge our notion that feminism is a women-only club. As Watson always says, men need to be part of the conversation for equality to be achieved. I have already started to notice the impact this campaign has had on how comfortable most of my male friends now are with the word feminism and how ready they are to identify with the movement, as feminists.

I was recently asked who my literary female hero was when I was growing up. Whilst I could name a few fictional characters following a few minutes of careful thought – Lyra Belacqua from Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy did not deceive as an adventuress and taught me that loving and caring does not contradict strength and courage, actually quite on the contrary – I realised that I had a very hard time naming other heroines who were not sidekicks to protagonist male characters. The ones I liked won the inspirational prize by default because the list of competitors was unfortunately incredibly limited. There has definitely been developments since my time as a child, and I particularly like Viola Eade from Patrick Ness’ ‘Chaos Walking’ series, but I think there is a lot of progress to be made with the support of a book club that aims to deepen exposure to a variety of female authors and characters, dedicated to women, girls, men and boys alike. Gloria Steinem said at the talk that ‘clicking send is not activism,’ but I have to disagree with her. Online platforms such as ‘Our Shared Shelf’ are the future of activism because they have the potential to create communities where ideas can be shared, events announced, questions raised and opinions debated in a much larger space than was previously possible.

Why 2016 is the year to leap, not shuffle, towards gender equality

left to right, Katie Berrington, Karen Gould, Emily Berrington

Katie Berrington, Karen Gould & Emily Berrington

By Emily and Katie Berrington

Despite being the year that the United States may be set to welcome its first female president; the first year that Saudi Arabia’s female residents will live under municipal governments that they were able to vote in; and the year that more than 90 countries answered the UN Women’s call to “Step It Up For Gender Equality”; 2016 has not been an easy year to be a woman in many parts of the world. Far from it, in fact. Headlines of progression for women’s rights are scarce and a quick scan of the top news stories over the last two months confirms that we have a long way to go before equality is achieved – approximately 117 years according to the World Economic Forum, based on indicators of health, education, economic participation and political empowerment. Even more worrying, this estimate increased by 38 years between 2014 and 2015, due to a slowdown in the rate of progress.

But it is not just about the figures – so far this year has seen women suffering disproportionately in conflict zones around the world, with groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram using sexual violence as a weapon of war and suppressing women’s rights in areas under their control. Many fleeing war torn homes report assault, exploitation and harassment on their journey to safety (Amnesty International, 2016) with little protection or security being provided to those at risk. The battle against Female Genital Mutilation rages on, with an estimated 3 million girls at risk of undergoing it every year (WHO, 2016). Human trafficking remains an international issue – the most common form being sexual exploitation and victims predominantly being female. And, although women may have been given the vote locally (still not nationally) in Saudi Arabia, they continue to face sanctions, such as the lack of freedom to drive to the polling station, which render a historical development less of a leap and more of a shuffle in the right direction.

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to address the enormous forces working against women’s rights and preventing true gender equality. It is a chance to petition governments, to challenge, to campaign, to take action. It is also a time to celebrate, to reflect on the achievements that have been made and to salute the fantastic work that is being done, as well as to recognise how much further there is to go. The headlines are bleak, but they are not ineradicable.

This International Women’s Day we will be celebrating some of the many women who have inspired us – in the opportunities we have had and the choices we have made. Our mum, who made being a feminist the norm and led by example in encouraging us to expect and strive for parity in both our personal and professional lives. Harriet Harman, who Emily was lucky enough to see being honoured at last year’s Labour Women’s Conference for bringing what had previously been seen as “women’s issues” – childcare, for instance – to parliament. She was often mocked or ignored and we are grateful that she refused to concede. Finally, Malala Yousafzai, whose courage in the face of unspeakable adversity and dedication to advocate girls’ right to education worldwide drives progress forward, and to whom we give the closing words. “I raise up my voice – not so I can shout but so that those without a voice can be heard…we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.”

Let’s all raise up our voices, in whatever ways we can, this year.

Harriet Harman writes to Andrew Mitchell about women’s projects in Afghanistan

Harriet Harman, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, has written to Andrew Mitchell to ask him about funding for women’s projects in Afghanistan.

Here are some extracts from the letter:

“I recently had the opportunity to meet with Hussn Banu Ghazanfar, the Afghan Minister for Women…. One of the issues that was raised with me by the Minister, and was raised by women MPs with my political advisor on a recent visit, was the question of UK funds going to support women’s organisations in Afghanistan.

“I think it is important that when deciding which women’s groups, organisations and projects to fund, the government informs and consults the elected women in Afghanistan.  They, after all, are in a good position to have an informed view about where the funds could best be spent.  At the very least they should know which groups, organisations and projects are being funded.

“I would be grateful if you would

  • confirm to me that in future the elected women representatives will be consulted by DFID as part of the consultation process of deciding how to disburse funds to women’s groups, organisations and projects
  • set out to me the full details of all the projects to support women which we are contributing funds to
  • undertake to convey that information to Minister Ghazanfar and the other 68 women MPs in Afghanistan.

“When the British presence in Afghanistan is reduced, we want to be sure that women are stronger because of our actions not undermined and bypassed and thereby weakened.”

TUC marks International Women’s Day with celebratory dinner

The Trade Union Congress marked the 100th International Women’s Day with a celebration of women through music, poetry, comedy and speech.

Speakers included Frances O’Grady, Maria Eagle, Bonnie Greer and Hariyatu Bangura, an inspirational women’s leader for the Western Region of Sierra Leone Teacher’s Union.

The evening jumped between hip hop, soul, poetry, an ironing board keyboard and the charming comedy of Josie Long in a surprisingly fluid manner. Despite being a celebration it was clear the day was not simply about celebrating women’s progress but also a day to look at what still needs to be achieved in both the developed and developing world.

There seems to be a general consensus in the media and popular opinion that equality now exists and that the women’s movement is a thing of the past. Events like International Women’s Day draw attention to the fact that not only do women still have far to go but that even these basic rights many women take for granted do not extend to many parts of the world.

It is not a coincidence that one in three women across the world will be raped, sexually abused or suffer domestic violence in their lifetime nor is it a coincidence that there is still a 16% gender pay gap. Gender equality leaves much to be desired and whilst I was personally inspired and encouraged by the event at the TUC I was glad there was a serious tone to the evening and a sense that this was a movement that was only just getting going.

by Lucy Inmonger, LCID

International Women’s Day TUC Event

It is almost time for this year’s International Women’s Day (held on the 8th March each year), a day on which a huge many events are held throughout the world: to celebrate the achievements of women, to encourage further action as well as being a day which signals solidarity with other women throughout the globe.

This year the TUC will be holding an exciting celebration involving a variety of entertainment: music, politics, poetry, comedy and some campaigning. It is also an important opportunity for the TUC to showcase some of the work it continues to do globally in order to empower women in their attempts to improve their rights in a number of developing countries.

The event will be opened by Frances O’Grady, TUC Deputy General Secretary, Glenys Kinnock will be in attendance, international trade unionists are able to speak and Lorraine Bowen will act as compére throughout the evening. Zena Edwards will be singing, along with hip-hop duo Poetic Pilgrimage and Josie Long will be providing the comedy.

It promises to be a fantastic evening and it is well worth attending: for more information, including tickets, check out this link to the TUC event page.

By Daniel Sleat