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How to navigate talking about feminism like a pro

The very mention of the f-word still turns too many conversations into arguments. Here are six tips for holding your own when the heat is on. #12DaysofResistance

Screenshot 2020-10-30 at 10.06.39.png 20190502_155624.jpg
Sophia Seawell Nandini Archer
25 December 2020, 9.00am
International Women’s Day, 8 March 2020 | Carlos Gil/SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Whether you’re chatting with friends, family or colleagues, the very mention of the f-word (feminism) still turns too many conversations into debates or even full-blown arguments – and not about how to progress rights and equality for all.

These exchanges are instead often based on red-herring arguments and myths about feminist activists and movements: that they’re out to destroy the family, for example, or that all feminists hate men. And even when you know that these stereotypes are inaccurate, it can be difficult to articulate a convincing response in the heat of the moment.

Earlier this year, openDemocracy organised broadcast media training for staff at AWID (Association for Women's Rights in Development). This included working with expert filmmakers and producers to practise mock interviews and develop tools to help people tell their stories on their own terms, and draw in new allies in the process.

Watching the mock interviews back, we thought these six tips and clips offered a useful masterclass on how to hold your own when the talking gets tough. This is our advice on how to navigate false and divisive ‘debates’ about feminism like a pro.

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1. Use analogies and powerful imagery

When asked why feminists are calling for particular attention to gender in the response to COVID-19, Margarita Salas Guzmán (AWID’s communications manager) lays it out in visual and easily digestible terms: “COVID is like the ocean. We’re all in the ocean, but we’re not on the same boat. Some of us are swimming, some of us are on a yacht. So what we’re saying is, we need the government to provide life vests to those of us who are swimming out in the ocean.”

2. Shift the focus from individual choices to systems

“We’re talking about systems here, instead of people’s individual choices. We’re talking about protecting people’s human rights, protecting women’s rights, and the rights of folks who are LGBTIQ. Individual decisions are linked to that, but we’re trying to prevent systems that stop people from being able to make their own decisions, from being given an equal share or having equal rights.” (Naureen Shameem, AWID’s former advancing universal rights and justice manager).

3. Humanise the issue

If someone makes it personal (by referring to “my parents”, for instance), make it personal too – discuss the issue through the lens of an individual. For example, if the conversation is about abortion, talk about a woman trying to access abortion services in a specific country: the challenges she’ll face and the impact that could have on her.

However if you’re asked “as a woman, don’t you agree with X?”, don’t go along with that framing. This is not about you, you don’t represent all women (or all people from another marginalised group) and you don’t have to justify your position as an individual. This also protects you from personal attacks.

4. Talk about how ‘different opinions’ impact human rights

You might have heard this argument before. “Can’t people just have different opinions? What’s wrong with having a traditional family approach for some people, and other people with different ideas?” Acknowledge what you’re hearing, don’t ignore them – “Of course, people come into spaces with a multiplicity of views.”

But then bring it back to your core argument again. For example: “What we’re really talking about is human rights and social justice […] and people who are trying to suppress views, suppress rights, who are trying to challenge and block rights by talking about their families, about their values […] Who is trying to take away folks’ rights? Who is trying to push everyone into a narrow definition of living the way they feel they should be living? – which happens to be people who are different from them.” (Naureen Shameem).

5. Reclaim the concept of family

Establish that feminists aren’t trying to take away or attack the traditional nuclear family model for those who want that; rather, they’re fighting for different forms of families and communities to be included under that same umbrella of rights and protections.

As Naureen Shameem puts it, advocating for “the bonds that hold us together” is actually exactly what feminists are invested in.

“Family is one of the ways in which a topic that’s dear to a lot of our hearts is misused, twisted and warped by anti-rights actors to try to fulfil an anti-women’s rights and anti-LGBTQ agenda. And with all of us [feminists and human rights activists] coming from this perspective – of a focus on the bonds that hold us together and equal access to social justice and rights – it’s really unfortunate to focus on highlighting the way in which people are trying to change the narrative, to use terms that are important to us like ‘family’ to take away our rights.”

Similarly, supporting access to abortion is “pro-life” because, without this, women will die from unsafe, underground procedures. On all these fronts, it is important to challenge the binary framing that would pit feminist movements against concepts such as ‘life’ or ‘family’, and to reclaim rather than surrender these powerful ideals.

6. Draw strength from the fact that you are not alone

Demonstrate that this is not just your personal opinion, as this leaves you open to charges that you only hold a certain opinion because of your own experiences – and ignores the collective nature of social issues. A simple trick to put this into practice is using ‘we’ instead of ‘I’, which also includes and creates common ground with the person you’re speaking to.

“It’s true that AWID is running this campaign, but in reality [this] feminist bailout is something we have been seeing around us since day one, when people have started bailing out each other, when people with very little resources […] have come together to create funds […] so we already see that happening on the grassroots level.” (Inna Michaeli, director of programmes).

We are not complaining as individuals; we are working with others to realise wider demands that already exist. You can draw strength from that fact that you are not alone.

Book: The Sex Lives of African Women

Join Black feminist author Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah to talk about her book ‘The Sex Lives of African Women’ in which she features the stories of more than 30 women giving us rare insights into how they navigate, negotiate and enjoy sex, sexuality and relationships across generations and borders. Among them are monogamous, polyamorous, kinky, queer, transgender and celibate stories.

Nana will be joined by the African feminist writer and editor Rosebell Kagumire – who reviewed the book for openDemocracy. The discussion will be chaired by our 5050 Tracking the Backlash’s East Africa Reporting Fellow, Khatondi Soita Wepukhulu.

Join us on 5 August 2021 at 5pm UK time/12pm EDT for a free, live discussion as we explore this topic with an expert panel

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