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At the UK Feminista Summer School 2011

UK Feminista logoAfter lot of ifs and buts, I decided to go to this year’s UK Feminista summer school in Birmingham, which took place in mid August. At the beginning I had thought that writing this blog would have been easy and that I would take the chance to answer the obvious questions: no, feminism is not dead. Yes, there were men there. Yes, the people were from all ages and races. Yes, there was networking and meeting people. Yes, there was a friendly atmosphere. Well now I’m back in London, there are too many more things I want to write about: the inspiring workshops, the strength shown by women all around the world, the fight for equality, the victories and the losses. Well I don’t know where to start, the weekend was so intense!

“If someone asks why you are a feminist, the answer is ‘why aren’t you?’”

It was difficult to choose from the range of workshops and discussions the school offered. From using the media to campaign, to a discussion about the sex industry, to women and race, the workshops where led by a group of experts and open to everyone to discuss -and everyone really discussed, so that there was not time to answer all the questions that were raised. There is a thirst for feminism.

The conference started with author Rosalind Miles’ provocative speech: “If someone asks why you are a feminist, the answer is ‘why aren’t you?’” And I participated in workshops where I had to pretend to be a police officer defending Tesco from activists, or where we discussed how to be active against the public spending cuts which especially effect women. But I cannot talk about everything, so blogwise I’ll just talk about feminism, race and development.

Race and the beauty industry

If you think that during lunch break we just sat on the grass of Birmingham University campus, you are wrong. A large group of people went to a workshop on race and gender in the beauty industry eating lunch in their laps. Magazines were spread, and we were asked to look for any picture of a black or ethnic minority person. White, white, white and white, after twenty pages of size zero to one white models, one mixed race and then after another ten pages one black person. Obviously the beauty industry ignores them, but there is more: often black models have to pose as if they were “wild” and “active” while white ones can just stay there without any context, and black and mixed race models appear more often in advertising than in main articles. The woman next to me told me she was horrified, as I also was.

Women in the Arab Spring uprisings

The evening closed with Nesrine Malik from the Guardian introducing the role of the women in the Arab Spring uprisings. She tackled the view that Arab women are passive and waiting for our help (as media often portray them). She showed the example of Saudi women starting to drive in their own country despite the ban. She talked about Somali women tackling genital mutilation. She said not to impose our values to them: often foreign point of view is seen as Western propaganda. But she said yes to acting on behalf of the women, by working with local partners who can speak the same cultural language and they are not seen as outsiders imposing outside values. Of course my mind turned to Womankind’s partners that I have met, for instance Boge Gebre of KMG, drastically reducing genital mutilation in Ethiopia.  I was full of hope – every time I hear about women fighting for their rights and winning, I think “they can do it, I can do it.” And like me other women everywhere.

Women activists in Liberia

Just to start the morning of the second day in a cheerful way, we watched a film about the situation for women in Liberia. Pray the Devil Back to Hell showed the impact of the war in Liberia, small kids with guns shooting as if they were playing football, shocking images of dead bodies,  andstories of women who had been raped. Then one woman – Leymah Gbowee – had the brilliant idea to unite women fed up with all this and start to demonstrate wearing white dresses. I won’t spoil the ending, but these women really made history! In a  few words an AMAZING INSPIRING HEARTBREAKING film.

No women, no peace

The second day ended with examples of women fighting for peace in different parts of the world and Chitra Nagarajan from the Gender Action on Peace and Security network (GAPS) saying that “you cannot build peace by leaving half of the population out.” Examples from all over the world, more than often ignored by decision-makers in Europe and the US, show that women must have a central position in peace building and even though they are in the frontline, often men forget that and relegate them to the kitchen again once the conflict has ended.

So much more happened but I think I cannot reduce each workshop I went to a few words because they were too intense and they would deserve more space. Overall it was great, and I’m looking forward for the FEM11 conference in November and hoping for a similarly thought-provoking and inspiring day.

Post by Womankind volunteer Giuliana Barbaro.

If you’d like to know more about the weekend you can also read this Guardian article about the summer school and this post about the GAPS workshop on women and peace.

Post by Sarah Jackson