“Women could do awesome shit”

July 27, 2013 § 1 Comment

Three photos of riot grrls in the 90s in NYC.

Last night I had a wonderful opportunity to speak at one of Colectivo Mujer’s Through Our Eyes film screenings. They showed ‘Grrrl Love and the Revolution’, a film by Abby Moser about riot grrrl culture in New York in the 90s. Here is the trailer:

Here’s a rough version of what I had to say about the film and about how riot grrrl relates to my experience of ‘do it yourself’ (DIY) feminism:

First I want to acknowledge that I’m sitting on Aboriginal land, pay my respects to the elders, and extend that respect to any Aboriginal people here tonight.

Thanks to Rosarela and Colectivo Mujer for inviting me, it’s good to be amongst feminists and friends.

I’m going to talk about the film a little bit and relate it to some of my experiences in Sydney and some things I’m often thinking about: feminism and creativity.

Would any one here ID as an artist/ creative of some sort? Me too.

In many ways the culture represented in the film is unfamiliar to me. I’m not a punk rocker and some of you who know me might find the idea of me as a riot grrrl fairly ironic (I’m pretty mild-mannered). So let’s establish some familiar territory:

Many of us are feminists because of sexism in our communities, at work, because of sexual assault (often at home), narrow gender roles, slut shaming – these things might make us feminists, and these things made riot grrrls feminists.

Some more familiar territory is that these women thought – and felt – that they could change things.

Has anyone here ever been part of a feminist movement where you felt you could change some stuff? I have too.

I come from a tradition of organising, mostly student and trade union organising, that really focuses on capital C change – legislation, government – in my state, country, occasionally someone else’s country, then there’s political parties, school or church or organisation’s policy etc. And there’s definitely value in that and I want that activism to keep happening – at the moment for example I’m working on a campaign about cuts to the single parent pension. But I’ve also certainly felt over the years that this was sometimes a really OVERWHELMING task, and if there wasn’t an obvious target, then this sort of activism would stall.

On the street, for folks who care but aren’t necessarily activists, I reckon people often also feel like its really hard to make change.

Last year when I was feeling a bit overwhelmed with capital C change, I was lucky enough to go overseas for a while. I was in Spain and Germany to be precise, and I saw all this street art culture everywhere. This really made me want to do activism through street art, even though I felt I lacked the skills. So when I got home, my feminist buddy Corina and I started a practice of feminist street art, and the thing was that we had inspiration to draw on because feminists had done this riot grrl DIY stuff before us.

Our art was definitely part of campaigning – some of it was about Bankstown being targeted in changes to Centrelink, for example – but some of it was also about making beautiful things that made us feel good and feel like feminist bad asses and so on. Hopefully it also made other people feel good when they saw it. In some ways this is the super accessible feminism of my dreams.

Like the girl in the film said, riot grrrl is about doing stuff, direct action, and that was what I wanted for my feminism at that time.

A question I’ve seen asked a bit is whether riot grrrl tactics, zines and so on, are defunct due to the internet. After all a lot of their ideas, such as actual snail-mailing lists, came about without the Internet. DIY is not taken out of action by social media, though. Zines are still happening, and music, and art. But the internet changes it, and changes the distribution patterns. It’s a lot of work, too. Not only do I have to make my art but I also feel obliged to document it online, to put it on my blog, etc etc. What this says to me is that we need more people than ever involved and doing stuff, sharing the work and the action.

On the flip side, DIY can make production easy again too. I can’t make a glossy graphic poster for example, at least not yet. I can make a pretty great poster with scissors and glue though, and I can draw, so there’s always a way if I am willing to consider these options when I am organising.

As one Colombian riot grrrl said, “I learned that we have the strength needed to make our dreams come true.” I would add, and the resources.

I think this is for me the insight and power of Riot Grrl – the sense that change and possibility can happen right here, right now. I think that what riot grrl does is present a whole bunch of possible new realities. You could learn guitar and start a punk band, you could write your own mag, you could take this fat texta in my bag and write about how awesome you and your best feminist friends are on that wall over near Erko train station, you could make art and hang it on the canvas that is the street.

I guess the question of what sort of change music and art and zines can make is a big one that I think we should ‘post it’ for discussion later tonight.

Which kind of brings me to what I see as some of the values of riot grrl, because there is political analysis there, even if it’s pretty disparate – there’s commentary on class and access to education in terms of sharing what we know, for example.

I guess what I see as the other main ethic of riot grrl is that it saw/ sees women as artists with total, full potential as human beings. Women could do awesome shit and lead crazy amazing lives and make art and music. These were and are people who deeply value self-expression/ creation. Riot grrls are saying that they/ you/ we can be artists and conversely that their/ your/ our self-expression is valid. My question here is who is and isn’t represented in this “they/ you/ we”? What special codes & language do you have to know to be read as a person of value in riot grrl culture? In a culture so informally organised, where doing stuff really depends on friendship, who is in or out? [Mimi Thi Nyugen has an awesome article on riot grrrl and race that I’ll embed here – it’s academic but worth wading through. Link is to PDF]

I want to finish up with two examples of DIY culture that aren’t necessarily riot grrrl but are part of the DIY feminism tradition. They’ve both inspired me recently:

Femme Shark Manifesto (last night I mistakenly said Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarsinha was of Latina heritage, whereas she is actually of Sri-Lankan & Ukranian & Irish background, apologies! Again link is to PDF).

Poor Lass Zine.

With thanks to Rosarela, Corina and Rosa, whose thoughts and deeds inspire and sustain me.


On Femen, action, Mia Freedman, and seeing racism

May 17, 2013 § 7 Comments


Bombshell, 2013, by Cigdem Aydemir

I am deeply interested in feminist action. Not just theory, but action, doing, creating, responding. Of course, theory is a form of doing too, but people’s theories don’t impact the world on their own – we have to enact them, step by painful or joyous or just-do-it step, if we’re to make a dent in the things we want to change.

The enviro movement is good at this. Just look at these guys. Feminism, in my experience, not so much. There are riot grrrls, past and present, and other feminist activists making change in a variety of movements, but overall, I often feel like I lack inspiration on the action front.

Which is what led me, I think, to make this uninspired FB status update about Femen, a Ukrainian feminist group:

I like their tactics but think their views of Muslim women (as represented in this article) are ignorant… naked, veiled, it’s all about women having the power/ environment to be able to do what they want with their bodies, right? What do others think? http://stream.aljazeera.com/story/future-feminism-0022381

If you’ve clicked on the link, you’ll see, perhaps quicker than I did, the Femen are not only ‘feminist’ in the sense of wanting gender equality, they are colonialist and Islamophobic. They want to tell a whole heap of Muslim women what to do and how to be free.

After thinking about it for more than ten minutes, I decided it wasn’t a good plan to separate praise of Femen’s tactics from their politics, and I updated my page accordingly. I’ve wondered since why I didn’t see that earlier, and I’ve concluded that the reason I saw their tactics in the first place, before I saw their racism, is that I’m just not impacted by their racism in the way a Muslim person would be. So, I think in future I’ll try to remember to prioritize the question of oppression of others (not just myself or my identity groups) first.

I don’t say this as an exercise in privilege guilt but to record something that seems useful to me, and I’ll quote here one of the things I read while I was thinking about it:

The thing is, many Muslim women are indeed oppressed, just like many non-Muslim women around the world. Patriarchy is a global problem, and I will not deny the misogyny in my culture. However, please, do not insult me, my intelligence, my color, my heritage and my body, and please don’t do it because you think you’re ‘saving’ me. There are many Muslim feminists in all Muslim countries, a feminist’s job should be solidarity, amplifying voices of local feminists, not imagining they don’t exist. Femen is simply very euro-centric, racist and colonialist. I haven’t yet seen a black Femen protester, they are racist because they amplify European ideals of beauty; white, skinny, and young. I can’t believe this isn’t more obvious to people. Personally, Femen, shut the fuck up, and don’t claim that you speak for me, or anybody else. Stop dictating women that they need to be nude to be free, that’s just as bad as men dictating them to be covered.

That was from a woman called Momina Amjad, who made the top comment on this article

A Muslim feminist artist and activist I’ve worked with in the past made several important points too: that in the imagery in all the articles the women’s breasts are blanked out, a reminder that the global North is not exactly ‘free’; that Femen are specifically perpetuating colonialism and speaking at Muslim women like they were stupid.

In the last few days, a bunch of white boys going to a party got dressed up as the judges from TV show The Voice, including African-American singer Seal. They posted a photo to twitter and it got a lot of attention in some likely unexpected ways. Mia Freedman, an Australian media personality and prominent feminist has responded to this incident of blackface by asking everyone (from her popular feminist-lite website) to just calm down.

Sunili Govinnage has articulated the problems with Freedman’s position that a little picture of blackface is all too annoying to deal with, by noting that Freedman has used her power to end, rather than start, a conversation about racism. In doing so, she has challenged Freedman’s power rather than just letting it stand. All I can add is that I think perhaps, as with my FB status moment, Freedman is suffering from vision problems: she didn’t ‘see’ the racism because her position of privilege meant she had other concerns. She was able to deprioritise what for others is absolutely crucial, i.e. an assault on their status as fully-recognised human beings.

I’ll get back to what caught my attention about Femen in the first place: action. I think that when it comes to action, to doing something in a public way that calls for a (political, cultural) response, it’s equally if not more important than when writing, to think first about your impact and whether you’re being – to put it delicately – a racist, sexist, or otherwise oppressive shithead. The point of direct action by activists, is to impact, hard. If we do action well, and we do make that impact, it’s important to make damned sure we aren’t smashing people whose struggles we just didn’t SEE.

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