Feminism: what's at stake? #femfest

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

This is my son. He's nine and a half months old and at the moment his favourite things are hugs, clapping his hands, and toys that make noise. One day, however, he will be a man.

For me, one of the most important things that's at stake when we talk about feminism is our future - my son's future, the future of the next generation of men. I hope I'll try my hardest to instill into him the equality and worth of all humanity, the importance of justice for the oppressed and the way women and girls deserve to be treated. Not with a respect that's really benevolent sexism, a respect that puts good women on pedestals and sneers at the rest, but with the respect of someone who truly understands mutuality. If it works, he'll be a good man and I'll be proud.

However, it's not just about him. It's about the men and women he'll know and hang out with and be influenced by and the things he'll read in the press and see going on around him. What's at stake is the idea of a future where people talking about gender equality aren't constantly asked to justify and "prove" why women should be treated as equals. It's the idea of a future where "What about the men?" isn't a Thing and widely believed rape myths aren't a Thing and people laughing off crime statistics as tales made up by "lying sluts" aren't a Thing. Where a week can go by without the news telling us about gang rape and campus rape, and Facebook jokes about rape jokes aren't a Thing.

What's at stake is a future without gaps: pay gaps, education gaps, gaps in access to maternal healthcare, to criminal justice, representation gaps in our governments. Gaps in our churches where women should be free to be the person they were made to be.

When the church pushed back against gender equality, a movement emerged. Today, numerous children of that movement - women my age - are writing about the churches, families, and organisations they have left behind. Often, they've also left their beliefs behind in the process. Yet you don't have to go as far as the Patriarchy movement to find women who have lost their faith because they've had too much experience of a church that won't talk about equality, doesn't believe in it, or dismisses women who don't fit a specific set of characteristics. This is what's at stake - it brings new meaning to the way people say that gender isn't a "salvation issue".

One day, I hope, all this will be a thing of the past. And maybe my son will see it.

Welcome to Day 2 of the Feminisms Fest synchroblog on the topic “Why Feminism Matters.”Link up below on fromtwotoone.com, considering these questions: What is at stake in this discussion? Why is feminism important to you? Are you thinking about your children or your sisters or the people that have come before you? Or, why do you not like the term? What are you concerned we’re not focusing on or we’re losing sight of when we talk about feminism? Why do you feel passionately about this topic?

Ten years of feminism #femfest

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

I've just been writing a post, soon to be published on Threads, about the negative stereotypes and misconceptions people hold about feminism and how they can generally be debunked. I chose to do this as a response to the awkward silences that often happen when feminism is mentioned and outright dismissive attitudes towards gender equality from within the church. Don't get me wrong, I know it's of great concern to a lot of people, but in this respect the church often mirrors society with its fear of the bogeymen (women? Womyn?) of man-haters, female supremacists, and power-hungry women with an agenda.

I'm choosing to focus on the positives of my feelings about feminism today because at times when I was feeling alone in my worries and my concerns, I discovered that feminists were my people. They were my people when I was a student, experiencing misogyny and miserable about my body image and eating habits. They were my people five years later when I was wrestling with whatever the hell "Biblical Womanhood" meant, and how I was supposed to model it. They've been my people this past year as I've given birth, taken time off work, and (as of last week!) returned to the office.

My feminism grew out of anger and hurt at injustice. Feminists are always described as "angry"or "raging", because we know those are terrible insults when aimed at a woman, and people think that treating us as unseemly and unladylike might shut us up. As the anti-feminist propaganda used to say much more often and as you sometimes still hear: "Why can't they just be happy with being women? Why do they want to be like men?" People expect us to have sanitised, uncontroversial opinions about the experiences of our sisters, in case we upset anyone.

If you spoke in a nicer tone of voice...

If you could just sound less emotional...

If these harpies didn't give feminists a bad name...

The very first feminist blogs I read were radical feminist ones, most of them now defunct, some long gone thanks to attacks and continued conflict. In other words, the angry kind. Here were women describing how I felt, feeling anger like my own, talking about things that made me upset because my friends saw them as no big deal and looked faintly embarrassed that I was being like that again.

Ten years after I first encountered feminism, the anger and hurt is still there but so is a sense of community, of positivity, of achievement. Feminism found me when I was in a bad place and helped me to understand why I felt the way I did. It helped me to understand oppression. It helped me to like other women and develop a supportive and compassionate attitude towards them rather than one of suspicion, jealousy, and competition. It helped me to understand the perspectives of others and recognise my privilege as something to learn from rather than something to get defensive about. It introduced me to activism, to marches and conferences and networks, to new friends.

Yes, our anger needs to be righteous, with a point. It needs to make a better way. But the idea that feeling angry, or hurt, or emotional about gender equality is somehow wrong and marks us out as lesser beings is just another way of telling women that their opinions don't count. Through working towards justice and equality for women, it can actually be productive. And it needs to be, because there is still so far to go. It's abundantly clear from recent conversations on Christian blogs that a lot of people still need to look past the stereotypes and listen to those who do.

This is Day 1 of Feminisms Fest. Today we are linking up at J.R. Goudeau’s blog, loveiswhatyoudo.com to write about these questions: What is your experience with feminism? What’s a story or a memory or a person that you associate with that word? Why does it have negative or positive connotations for you? How do you define the term, either academically or personally? What writers have you read whose definitions you want to bring out? Or, if you don’t have a definition, what are some big questions you have? Be sure to use the hashtag #femfest when sharing your posts.

Debating the existence of a "British Religious Right"

Saturday, 2 February 2013

A report published on Friday by Christian think-tank Theos discusses whether or not what can accurately be described as a "Religious Right" is emerging in Britain. Focusing on the publicity given to various conservative Christian groups and individuals, and their concern about issues such as equal marriage and abortion, it compares them with the well-established and powerful US Religious Right and comes to the conclusion that while there certainly are right-wing Christian organisations and politicians in Britain, the country cannot be described as having a politically influential Religious Right.

The report details a number of reasons why this is the case, including the tendency of British Christians to support progressive economic policies and favour welfare, redistribution of wealth, and social justice; the lack of overlap with the concerns of the US Religious Right (namely gun control, taxation, Israel, evolution, the military); the number of Christians in Britain; and the apolitical stances of Christian groups and leading evangelical figureheads. It calls for a more reasonable approach from both secularists and Christians towards the issue.

"[The report's conclusion] counsels those who have made such accusations [of an emerging British Religious Right] to pay closer attention to the evidence, if they seek to prevent the kind of culture war they claim to wish to avoid; while at the same time counselling those Christians inclined towards a narrowly socially-conservative agenda and defensive narrative of ‘persecution’ to expand both their theological focus and their perspective on what persecution entails."

Since the last election, numerous journalists and bloggers have written about what they see as the growing influence of right-wing Christian individuals and organisations in British politics and society. While many of these articles have been justified and written in response to concerning developments (such as the increase in anti-choice campaigning), what we've also seen is a tone that can tend towards scaremongering and exaggeration of the extent to which these groups represent British Christians, and a lack of understanding of certain Christian beliefs (hence my repeated reminders that "evangelical" is not synonymous with "fundamentalist"). I've written about right-wing Christian organisations on occasion but am hesitant to ascribe too much influence to them, although I do have some concerns.

I think, therefore, that Theos have done a good job of laying out the agendas of some Christian groups that frequently receive publicity - Christian Concern, the Christian Institute, the Christian Legal Centre - and proving that while they may make the news and incur the wrath of left-wing and secular activists, they're not as powerful as people may think - due to lack of support from the established church and lack of significant political influence.

While the report details some really useful information and makes important reading, it would be unwise to completely dismiss the influence and agendas of right-wing groups (the report did point out that the emergence of a British Christian Right would not be impossible, only that it would look very different to its US counterpart). The established church is, on the whole, fairly moderate, but I worry that the influence of right-wing organisations could grow if they are repeatedly seen to be driving debate on issues such as persecution and "family values".

One issue uniting conservative and progressive activists at present is the concern regarding porn, lad's mags, and what has become known as the "sexualisation of childhood". There are subtle differences in the approaches taken by conservative and more feminist campaigns (morals/decency/protecting children vs patriarchy/objectification/inequality). It's concerning when the loudest voices campaigning on an issue often appear to be coming from a paternalistic viewpoint that doesn't analyse all the factors involved.

The Religious Right in Britain may have less power, support, and money than similar groups in the US, but it is still receiving plenty of publicity and positioning itself as the "true Biblical response" to issues, which should be a worry for the rest of us. As the report points out I think it is highly unlikely that too much will be imported from the US (I still find it slightly mystifying that Wayne Grudem promoted his book aligning the Bible with Republican positions on the military, guns, and the environment over here) but that doesn't mean we won't see hardline voices making themselves heard on other issues.

While some organisations are more moderate than the media would have us believe, certain others are more aggressive, and much more belligerent about the groups of people they are "against" or see as a threat to so-called Christian values. It is these groups that claim to represent the faith and can easily influence public perception of what it means to be a Christian.

I believe this presents us with some challenges for the future.

1. A challenge to journalists: right-wing groups must not dominate media narrative on Christian issues

Recent focus on issues such as equal marriage, euthanasia, and "persecution" of Christians in the workplace have meant that newspapers such as the Daily Express, Daily Mail, and Telegraph invariably go to right-wing organisations for comment. These papers would be the first to point out what they might see as the negative influence of supposedly "wacky" churches or individuals (see most coverage of the Alpha Course over the years) but when it comes to "moral" issues, they've been known to give disproportionate column inches to Stephen Green of the fundamentalist Christian Voice group, which holds views so far outside the mainstream and so extreme that it has a minimal number of supporters. I would challenge the media to recognise and value the contributions and more measured approach of moderate and progressive Christian voices. Obviously this makes for less sensational headlines, but in light of the report it would be helpful, as well as more representative of British Christianity.

2. A challenge to Christians: moderate and progressive believers need to make themselves heard

We know that they exist! Thanks to their possession of more "reasonable" viewpoints, they're less likely to cause heated debate, Twitterstorms, and controversy. But they have a great deal to offer. The report showed that British Christians tend towards a progressive stance on social justice and that there is concern for issues that the US Religious Right doesn't touch on, such as poverty alleviation, the environment, and trafficking. Christianity is all too often defined by what - and who - it is against. By growing in confidence and conviction, politically progressive Christians can change this (as long as the media plays ball as per my first point). 

3. A second challenge to Christians: be discerning about the organisations we support

When right-wing groups spearhead seemingly innocuous campaigns (see Not Ashamed) it's important that as Christians, we examine their true agenda in the light of a tendency towards extremism on certain issues and the reality of persecution for Christians worldwide. It's vital that we don't get sucked in to a persecution complex where we view various groups of people and organisations as being "out to get us", when that's just exaggeration. It's vital that we call for Christian organisations to work with integrity (see the controversy surrounding crisis pregnancy centres) and that we don't promote one political party over others as the "correct" choice for a Christian to choose on polling day. When groups and their supporters display bigoted attitudes, we again need to think about what we put out names to.

Discussion elsewhere:


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