Sanjana Pegu brings you eight insights (and one bonus) from a festival of feminist ideas.
Last weekend, Sydney Opera House hosted the sixth edition of All About Women, a talks and ideas festival dedicated to women… because why not? IWD was round the corner, after all.
There were talks, podcasts, book-signings, music, even wine time! Topics ranged from #MeToo, disability, Aboriginal women, women in war, Saudi Arabian women, and of course, Donald Trump.
I attended two panel discussions – Women in the Age of Trump and Smashing the Patriarchy. The former didn’t sound terribly exciting but Tarana Burke was going to be there and that was good enough for me. However, owing to my spectacular ability to attract bad luck, she bailed out a few days before the event as #OscarsSoWhite was trying hard to be #OscarsSoWoke (my hashtag) and decided to invite her.
Without going into the details of what was actually discussed in these panels, because much of it we already know, here are my main thoughts and takeaways from these sessions.
1. Dodge the Times
Avoid any talk that features a New York Times editor: Yes, the Times is still relevant but if you are already well-versed in the slightly left of centre, liberal discourse that forms a major part of mainstream media, a Times insider (in this case, Francesca Donner) is unlikely to enlighten you with radical insights and brand new information.
It will be akin to reading HuffPost after browsing through Vox, why would you do that? After all, you don’t get to climb the upper echelons of a newspaper like the Times by taking actual left-wing positions like wealth redistribution, pro-Palestinian rights, or a feminism that actively seeks to dismantle capitalism.
You do that by smartly articulating the already well-articulated liberal positions. The media establishment loves diversity when it comes from white, sane, moderate conservatives, not people from marginalised groups who espouse left values.
2. More Fords
But Clementine Ford is probably a good idea: You may not agree with her style and approach (for the record, I do) but every panel needs a Ford. In Smashing the Patriarchy, Manal al-Sharif advocated love and acceptance as the way to gently kiss patriarchy goodbye; this isn’t a metaphor, she actually wanted to replace the image of two hands in boxing gloves fist-bumping each other to two lipstick marks as the stage background.
This is exactly why you need someone like Ford who doesn’t mince her words or her opinions. She called out Sharif on her bizarre comment that she always asks her girlfriends to use their charm when dealing with sexist men (in my experience, using my admittedly limited charm has only led to men thinking I am “up for it” or treating me like an airhead who deserves to be mocked).
Now, womanly charm didn’t get us the vote or reproductive rights and it is unlikely to persuade men to stop treating us like objects with holes. Characterising womanhood as inherently nurturing and filled with emotions, as Sharif did, is highly problematic too – it shames women who don’t possess or want to possess such attributes and reinforces gender stereotypes.
3. Trump trumps Feminism
Perhaps it was inevitable that occasional US President and full-time tweeter, Donald Trump, would take over the eponymous discussion titled Grabbing Back: Women in the Age of Trump.
It was quite ironic that even after Donner pointed out how the media loves to talk about Trump because of the ratings bonanza, she and the rest of the panel proceeded to do exactly that, spending half of the scheduled discussion time on him.
This inevitably led to very little substantial exchange on what can and should be done to exterminate such misogynists for good. In a discussion that was meant to be about women “grabbing back” their power and agency, it was Trump who grabbed most of the attention.
The election is over; unpacking it over and over again and regurgitating the same trite analysis does little to help those affected by his amoral and terrible policies.
4. And so does Hillary Clinton
A foolproof way of endearing yourself to a crowd filled with mostly white, privileged women is to go pro-Clinton and anti-Sanders, which is what Fran Lebowitz did and dutifully got the loudest cheer.
But maybe it is time to move beyond Clinton, too, when discussing sexism in politics and elsewhere.
Yes, she’s a prime example of a smart, qualified, and highly flawed woman being usurped by a cartoonish villain with an IQ lower than a 10-year-old. But obsessively focusing on her makes it impossible to bring to light the many banal but equally toxic instances of misogyny and the millions of women who suffered as a result.
Clinton is a bit like Trump in this way- the power of her history and personality eclipses the main issue till you forget what that issue was.
5. Go full radical’
Euphemisms, platitudes, and the fear of pissing off the audience by veering away from mainstream, centrist ideologies were the common features of these discussions.
You could see Barbara Kingsolver and Sophia A. Nelson (a moderate Republican) skirting around their obvious political leanings. The former, especially, made the right noises about class struggles and labour unions being key to destroying patriarchy but she seemed uncomfortable going full socialist (is that still such a dirty word?).
The tendency is to wrap their non-liberal worldview in some soft liberalspeak. But diversity of opinions is exactly what such panels need. To broach ideas that mainstream media ignores, to debate and openly dissent, to call out bullshit for what it is.
Kingsolver, for instance, could have reproached identity politics for failing to engage with class aspects and Nelson could have been a proud Republican and called out the omnipresent liberal hypocrisy. But it almost seems like there’s a tacit understanding to cater to the lowest common denominator; in this case, a mostly liberal, pro-Clinton, anti-Trump audience.
6. Feminism in a privileged bubble
My main discomfort was the sheer homogeneity of the audience. All of us looked like we came from fairly well-off or, at worst, middle class backgrounds, the majority was white, and most, if not all, probably already identified as feminists (or at least, with its principles).
The entire event felt like a classic case of preaching to the choir. One wished the organisers had made some effort to bring in a more diverse audience. This could have been done by inviting women who are doing grass-roots and social media activism in Australia and abroad to attend as speakers and guests even though they may not be as famous as, say, a Lebowitz, organising free talks (tickets per session cost $29 plus booking fee), live-streaming over the internet etc.
And while there were specific sessions on women from marginalised groups with relevant speakers, the panelists for the more generic topics were primarily white.
These days, in a nod to diversity and inclusion, a person of colour is introduced everywhere – be it talks like these, movies, TV, art, even ads – and we are supposed to celebrate it as a real step forward. A sprinkling of brown or black is supposed to diminish the overall whiteness of such endeavours but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still mostly white. It may not always be tokenism but it sure feels like that.
7. Whither next steps
And then the inevitable question: what exactly is the point of this festival? So we consume some interesting feminist tidbits, feel empowered by the sea of feministing women, and listen to some smart women giving us their valuable time. But then what?
How do we channelise this energy, this mood, this day-long solidarity into something more long-term and concrete? Perhaps there could have been an open forum where regular women shared their experiences and discussed pressing gender issues, a networking session that invited women from all backgrounds, class, and colour, a free counselling service for women who wanted to pursue their sexual harassment/assault cases, a primer on our basic rights and laws related to crimes against women (it’s quite shocking how little we know of our own legal options), or just an informal session giving useful tips and advice on how to deal with everyday sexism.
These might not be the best suggestions but at any rate, they would have been no worse than yoga or gin workshops that were on offer. If so many women actually took the time and money out to attend this event, why not make it worth their while?
The Opera House’s follow up email to attendees asked if we were feeling inspired. That may have been the possible outcome of an event where the “experimentation with a raft of new initiatives” wasn’t limited to “hands-on pickling and gin workshops, live podcast recordings and a new range of festival merchandise”. But as the survey results showed, I am clearly in a minority. Sometimes, it is futile to expect more.
8. Final Thought
There was a brief exchange between Sharif and Kingsolver about whether the opposite of patriarchy is love or empathy. To me, it’s neither – the opposite of patriarchy is feminism.
9. Bonus gems from the panel discussions
When men tell women (mostly, in rich countries) to be happy with what they have because women in the Middle East have it much worse, the subtext is “Stop demanding more because if we want we can treat you like those guys treat their women.” – Ford
Merit, this quality, over-represented in white men. – Van Badham
Someone who is godless, doesn’t go to church, who called it “Two Corinthians” instead of “Second Corinthians”, received Christian Evangelical support. – Nelson
Guns don’t help, the best way to protect yourself is by having a doorman.– Lebowitz (notable because of it’s brazen elitism and tone-deafness)
People keep saying that they are afraid to raise girls because the world is just so unsafe for them. Well, why don’t they say the same for boys? With so much toxic masculinity around, boys aren’t safe either. – Ford (May not be verbatim but you get the drift)
Get mad. – Kingsolver
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