UK feminists: fighting for rights not privilege

The utter disregard for women that austerity represents has galvanised and united women at a time where we are attacked from so many angles. But we are not only visible in response to austerity. There are explicitly feminist acts and discussions everywhere. There is no denying that we are making a sound, says Aisha Mirza

Aisha Mirza
14 September 2012

Being a woman is hard. You have to protect your vagina from the men with power who are choosing to regulate it, instead of, say, global warming or the banks. You have to protect your vagina from delusional definitions of rape. Your vagina is too baggy. You have to watch, as invaluable public resources that also happen to document and present women’s fight so far, are demolished without a second glance. You have to explain why pens designed for women are not necessary. Oh, and you have to be skinnier than all your friends. Obviously. This harms us in public, in private and in our heads.

Being an activist, whatever form that takes, is hard. You work long hours and think hard for no money. I don’t have a hyperlink for that one but I do have quite bad skin. You also get arrested once you deviate from the comfortable model of polite, pre-agreed A to B marches and rallies and do something that actually threatens the Government and their friends in big business. I have a hyperlink and a criminal record for that one. I don’t have a criminal record for vandalism, or swearing, or kicking a police officer, or throwing things. I have a criminal record for sitting on the floor of tax dodger, Fortnum and Mason’s and making origami swans as part of a peaceful mass sit-in organised by UK Uncut. The blatant political policing of this event has made it easy for desperate politicians and lazy media to brand more recent UK Uncut protests as something sinister. But it’s too late. People are beginning to realise who the real demons are.

Since October 2010, UK Uncut have been theatrically occupying tax dodging high street shops and banks that were bailed out, to make a simple and popular point. When the government says there are no alternatives to austerity, they are lying. Stripping away the humanity of this country by privatising the NHS is a choice. Pushing the women’s rights movement back decades by removing the already threadbare childcare, rape and domestic abuse services available in this country - rather than asking Vodafone to pay the £6 billion tax bill HMRC allowed them to dodge is a choice. This isn’t about what is legal and illegal. This is about right and wrong, fair and unfair, and it has resonated and radicalised across the country and the world.

A bank becomes a crèche – a UKUncut feminist ‘bail-in’

A bank becomes a crèche – a UKUncut feminist ‘bail-in’

The utter disregard for women that austerity represents has galvanised and united women at a time where we are attacked from so many angles, including our own heads, that it’s hard to know where to start. The anti-cuts movement has seen parents turn their local banks into creches in protest against the vast closures of sure start centres that have seen their only chance of affordable childcare disappear, and women return to the home to fill the gap. An all-woman group blocked George Osborne’s car as he tried to deliver the budget that has since seen domestic abuse refuges struggle to the point of suggesting ‘safe’ places for women escaping abuse to sleep on the street. A few weeks ago a woman’s bloc joined a UK Uncut street party outside Nick Clegg’s house. Regular pot-banging marches were organised throughout the summer to save the amazing Lambeth Women’s Project. Women are visible in this movement, tirelessly organising, and standing their ground live on Newsnight.

But we are not only visible in response to austerity, and that is what blows me away. Over the last year, I started to see explicitly feminist acts and discussions everywhere. I assumed that my time entrenched in feminist activism and my well-adjusted internet settings were behind it, but at this point there is no denying that we are making a sound. From collective action and campaigns to save local services, to forums and internet campaigns, to art and evening entertainment, to making headlines for having hairy armpits, women have options as to how they want to go about it, how they want to make their personal political.

A UKUncut occupation against closures of SureStart centres.

A UKUncut occupation against closures of SureStart centres.

I was an activist first. I realised I was a feminist at university when my enjoyment of a new music video would depend on the conclusions of an analytical debate I would host, often in my room, often on my own. I made a promise to dance instead of diet. I sought alternatives to the mainstream pornography that had always made me feel weird (not in a good way). Once you let feminism in, it changes things. It manifests in action, from promises made to ourselves, to linking arms with women in front of police lines. I believe both are as powerful as each other, and the feminist of today understands that. She understands that one woman’s activism involves picking up a spray can, while another woman’s activism means leaving her hair curly.

Increasingly, the internet is being used to collect these instances of every day feminism, empowering women, uniting disparate experiences, and sometimes even offering practical solutions or light relief, like this collected bank of responses to street harassers.

Being a feminist activist is hard, as illustrated in this article in The Nation magazine about online feminism;

Many feminists innovated remarkably early on in the Internet’s existence, founding blogs and online communities, but we’ve largely stalled in progress over the last few years because we are under-resourced and overwhelmedyou do your activist work, then you have a job to make money and then you blog on top of that. It’s completely unsupported. With support, feminist blogs and online advocacy organizations can develop the next generation of feminist leaders, rapidly mobilize readers to hold corporations accountable, put pressure on lawmakers and spur local coalition-building—at an unprecedented scale. But without a supported feminist web, we will continue to be primarily reactive, increasingly myopic, and elite.”

Rahila Gupta’s account of the founding of the inspiring Southall Black Sisters in 1979, bears a devastating resemblance;

"We who set up anti-racist, feminist and other community groups in the 80s complained that we were providing services which should have been part of the remit of the state – and that we were doing it for half the cost at the expense of our pensions (none), maternity rights (shockingly for a feminist group, none), working all the hours in the day with no employment protection – all this self-exploitation justified by our commitment to the cause.

It is clear that no-one is going to do this for us. That is why when we are asked; “what about the men! Who is fighting for our rights!?” We must take the piss. When we are told we are an inconvenience, we must reply, “yep!” When we are patted on the head, our naivety cooed at as a justification for our outlandish ideas, we must remember we are fighting for rights not privilege. And once we have dealt with those voices, we deal with the ones in our heads.

If you are me: you are excited by the energy, the optimism, the progress and the possibilities. You meet great people. You do some good stuff. You get carried away and use the word cunt to disparage something in a moment of deluded post-feminism. You remember we do not live in a post-feminist society. You feel guilty for saying cunt. You feel guilty for the organic burger mix in your kitchen. You try not to smash something when you’re asked if your complete inability to cook is a feminist statement. You wonder if it is. You get annoyed at yourself for looking inwards. You go to protests, organise protests and train at feminist summer schools. You wonder if you are preaching to the converted. You think, talk, read and act. You wonder if anything will ever change. You explode. You start again.

Aisha Mirza, Rahila Gupta, and Jennifer Allsopp will be writing for openDemocracy 50.50 from the UKFEMINISTA Summer School taking place in Bristol, September 15th-16th.

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