UEA ‘War Of Words’ Speech

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UEA hosted their first progressive media conference yesterday, entitled ‘War Of Words’. I cautiously/gratefully accepted their invitation to speak alongside Sophie Van Der Ham (Young Greens Co-Chair) and Tori Cann (UEA Lecturer from Norwich Feminist Network) on a panel discussing ‘Women, Politics and the Media’, chaired by Asia Patel. I’d been invited on behalf of Belle Jar, an online magazine I began writing for in 2012.

Although I perform in front of audiences in improvised comedy shows, I find public speaking a bit of a nerve shredder. Fortunately, both the panel and the audience were clued-up and compassionate; so it was an intense but incredible 60 minutes of discussion and debate. Tori, Sophie, and I spoke about female politicians, the lack of respect for female voices in the media, and my personal favourite; female anger. The post-debate adrenaline has flushed my memories away, but I wanted to share the speech I prepared (and nearly screwed up multiple times whilst reading aloud).

I urge you to follow Belle Jar, The Norwich Radical, Tori and Sophie on Twitter too!

*** For those who prefer pictures to words, Antony Carpen kindly recorded the speech. Video is at the end of the blog!***

“I would not be here at this event today without the encouragement, enthusiasm, and efforts of other women. I am speaking on behalf of Belle Jar; an online publication created in 2012 by two university students, Louisa Ackermann and Juliette Cule.

Louisa & Juliette created Belle Jar to provide a safe online platform for feminist discussion and debate. Belle Jar exists to inform and inspire; covering the humorous to the humanitarian. The magazine has 2,716 likes on Facebook, and 1,921 followers on Twitter. The site was also nominated for a Guardian Student Media Award, and was the only publication of its kind to be considered in the student website category. As a team, we have been to The Houses of Parliament to discuss issues surrounding the representation of women in the media, and our website continues to publish news updates and articles which seek to inform and challenge our readers.

But Belle Jar is more than a website; it is a support system; a network of voices that work together to help counteract the misogyny which dominates the national media, and impacts our everyday lives. When I submitted my first article to the site in 2012, I had no idea it would bring me to this stage today. Without the internet, I may not have found Belle Jar. Without Belle Jar, I would not have found Louisa or Juliette who have given me the courage to use my voice here today.

I believe in the power of small stories; they are crucial to the structure of larger narratives. My small story is that I used to fear the potential in my own voice. As a teenage girl, I was forever anxious about its volume and its content to the point where I rarely spoke up in school, the playground; anywhere. When Louisa & Juliette suggested I speak at UEA today, my initial reaction was “I’m not qualified for that, I can’t” – Juliette kindly told me not to listen to my imposter syndrome, to go, use my voice, and spread my story. This is the encouragement many young women are lacking in their teens and early twenties. No-one is saying “Go for it, learn as you go!” – instead, it feels like they’re whispering “You’re a girl, what do you know?”

Like many young women, I hesitated when I initially began identifying with feminism. It was intimidating; a movement with an extensive and difficult history which people often told me had ‘gone too far’. It’s easy to believe these things when there’s an absence of support, or no voices offering you an alternative outlook. Fortunately, through social media I found a corner of the internet where girls and women were having similar kinds of experiences. They were being open about their anxieties by speaking about personal experiences of sexism on the internet. Juliette affectionately dubbed Belle Jar as ‘baby feminism’ – a place where those who are at the start of their interactions with the movement can read, discuss, and write about what it means to them. This kind of interaction is essential for modern girls and women. It keeps us connected, inspired and most importantly; comforted in a world where misogyny overshadows many of our attempts to assert ourselves.

To quote Jude Kelly, (Arrtistic Director at The Southbank Centre & founder of the annual Women Of The World Festival); the media is “amoral at best, or immoral at worst, with regards to women”. Women’s appearances, achievements, and mere existences are often undermined by journalists and editors. Just last week, The Sun Newspaper reported the alleged rape of deceased soldier Cheryl James as a ‘romp’, and insulted her death by branding her a ‘Suicide army girl’. Once my initial disgust had subsided, I shared the post on Belle Jar’s Facebook page, and Juliette posted a link to the The Independent Press Standards Organisation website, so our readers could complain about this insulting attempt at journalism. The speed at which social media allows people to distribute information, and act on issues such as this is incredible, and Belle Jar and other publications like it utilise this tool effectively.

It’s easy to dismiss efforts like this as acts of ‘keyboard warfare’ and reduce them down to ‘trying to look like we’re doing good’ without actively striving to change women’s representation in the media. Even small publications like Belle Jar are not free from critics and trolls. We have been labelled ‘anti-men’ and I have personally been branded both a ‘superficial little girl’ and a ‘dumb chick cunt’. Internet abuse is equally as real and damaging as street harassment, and women on the internet are subject to higher levels of vitriol in comparison to men. Louisa, Juliette & I went to an event about ‘Outspoken Women’ with featured classicist Mary Beard, and journalist Laurie Penny. Mary said she found the internet ‘revelatory’ because it exposed the pre-existing misogyny inherent in society, and Laurie dubbed modern women’s online opinions as ‘the mini-skirt of the internet.’

Being an outspoken internet feminist can be both confusing and exhausting; but there is so much to support, and so many supporters who are ready to incite change, that you don’t have to apply yourself to every area of the movement. There is no such thing as a perfect feminist. As women, we are taught from a young age to burden ourselves with the responsibilities of others. Whilst compassion is not to be discouraged, it also leaves us little time to explore our own ideas and develop our own beliefs. Feminist scholars and activists have repeated the phrase ‘the personal is the political’ and it is an essential thing to remember whenever you feel that sexism is undermining or devaluing your opinion.

Belle Jar gave me the support I needed in my early twenties when I was starting to engage with feminism and its goals. It was my spring board in to politics, and introduced me to the issues surrounding abortion, FGM, Sex Education, and street harassment. In the introduction to Laura Bates’ ‘Everyday Sexism’ Sarah Brown writes that “Girls who read, lead.” I began reading Belle Jar articles, which then led me to contribute ideas of my own to the site. I stand before you now as a representative for the magazine, and a friend of its fearless and dedicated creators.

Something as simple as reading an article on the internet can set you on a path of discovery and empowerment. Belle Jar are always looking for new writers, and welcome all kinds of contributions. Please get in touch, and if anyone would like one of our sassy business cards; feel free to come and see me at the end of this discussion.”

Belle Jar at The Guardian Student Media Awards 2014

Before I launch in to an explanation of what happened at The Guardian Student Media Awards (still suppressing the urge to scream with joy whenever I say/type that), I would like to explain just how I came to be standing in The Guardian Offices on the 27th of November, with some of the most brilliant women I have ever met.

In July 2013, my friend John sent me a link to a website called Belle Jar. I spent most of the day browsing through the articles on the site, overjoyed that I had found a corner of the internet that I could relate to. Belle Jar declared that its aim as a website was to ‘smash patriarchal norms, one day at a time’, and I decided to be brave and send in an article for the editor’s consideration. I submitted my article ‘Why I need Feminism’, and held my feminist breath. The editor, Louisa, replied saying she would be happy to publish the piece, and invited me to join the informal writing group on Facebook; my tiny walnut heart cracked with joy. At the time, I was just discovering my own voice through the medium of this blog, and through studying feminist criticism as part of my Literature degree, and Belle Jar’s acceptance made me feel more confident about my writing.

Through writing for Belle Jar and sharing the work of the numerous writers that also contribute to the website, I have managed to form a firm, feminist, friendship with Louisa and co-creator Juliette. Our mutual dislike for misogyny has taken us to see incredible women like Malala Yousafzai, Mary Beard, and we have even been to the House of Commons. It is Louisa & Juliette’s originality, effort, and dedication to Belle Jar, that resulted in their nomination for ‘student website of the year’ at The 2014 Guardian Student Media Awards (and Louisa’s last minute entry in to the competition!)

When she received the news that she had been shortlisted, she invited Juliette & I to attend the ceremony with her (I proceeded to type all further communications in Caps Lock, whilst trying not to explode with gratitude and excitement). On the night of the event, we all met at Kings Cross Station to have a pre-awards catch up. The girls greeted me like old friends, and we were escorted to The Guardian Offices by Juliette’s sister, Erika.

I won’t deny that part of the excitement surrounding the ceremony was the knowledge that there would be free alcohol and food. However, the bigger attraction was being involved in an event hosted by The Guardian newspaper. I live in a county that generally promotes looks over books (decorating your vagina with diamantes is a genuine past-time in Essex, according to TOWIE), so attending The Guardian Student Media awards was an absolute privilege for me. It is difficult to express just how much I admire and enjoy the articles I read in this publication. I still find it hard to believe they let me in the building, let alone drain their white wine resources. Louisa and Juliette quickly greeted a few students who they recognised from their own Universities, before we made our way to the front to watch the ceremony. The evening was introduced by Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian. Alan kindly reassured us that we were ‘all winners’ due to our nominations, before handing over to Rick Edwards (T4 presenter/writer) who was charismatic, sharp and devastatingly attractive.

The winners were announced and unfortunately, we were not amongst them. However, Mr Rusbridger’s previous words of wisdom softened the blow, and we decided to use the rest of the evening to our advantage. I use the term ‘we’ loosely, Juliette and Louisa were fantastic networkers; I spent most of the time nodding and grinning, hoping that would mask just how overwhelmed/drunk I was. We managed to speak to one of the judges in charge of the website nominations, and she was extremely accommodating; praising the website and informing us that we were the only website of our kind to be shortlisted. She also pointed us in the direction of two of the writers who work for The Student section of The Guardian, who were really friendly and insightful. I did manage to speak coherently to two other students who had been nominated in the photography category, and we all walked the short distance to the after party at a nearby pub together, and proceeded to drink and chat the night away.

With Louisa & Juliette’s guidance and friendship, I have patched together my disconnected thoughts about feminism, which has ultimately transformed my approach to writing. Thanks to the success of this evening, I will always look to Belle Jar and The Guardian for inspiration and reassurance, (and the GIF below).

Here we are with our Bob cuts and business cards:

BELLE BOBS

(Here is a list of all the winners from the evening too)

NAWO – ‘Young Women, Media representation and Europe’ event at The House of Commons 29/04/14 – Full Details

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Ikamara Larasi, member of Imkaan, addressing attendees (including myself) at NAWO House of Commons event 29/04/14.

On the 29th of April, I travelled up to London to meet the creators of Belle Jar, Louisa and Juliette. We had been invited via email by the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations (NAWO), to an event at The House of Commons to discuss ‘Young Women, Media Representation and Europe’. We made our way to Committee Room 10 where we were greeted by Project officer Rosie, and ‘No More Page 3’ campaigner Lucy Holmes.

What followed was an evening of insightful, informative discussion. Two panels addressed the attendees; the first of which included Lucy Holmes. You may be familiar with the ‘No More Page Three’ campaign and Lucy’s reasons for starting it (if not, read here). She spoke about the dehumanising qualities of Page 3, and the knock-on effect this has in other areas of media representation; the strongest example being women’s sport which receives just 5% media coverage, the same coverage as Men’s darts.

The second speaker was Isabel Chapman, journalist and project leader of the award-winning ‘Oii My Size’ campaign. This campaign is dedicated to teaching young boys about how detrimental sexting, street-harassment and sexist chat-up lines can be to young women. It was refreshing to see that this initiative included male involvement as well, making the issue seem more approachable and the goal more achievable. The campaign has had its largest success in London boroughs and is looking to expand.

The final speakers for the first panel were Ikamara Larasi and Lia Latchford, members of the Black Feminist Organisation Imkaan. This organisation is dedicated to eradicating violence against girls and women, and through their work with Imkaan, Ikamara and Lia started the Rewind&Reframe Campaign, which challenges the racist and sexist stereotypes in music videos. Ikamara, in particular, provided a compelling discussion about the representation of women from ethnic backgrounds in the media. She argued that when violence against a woman from an ethnic background is reported, it is usually seen as more violent and more ‘barbaric’ compared to if had happened to a white woman. When Ikamara highlighted this, I realised I’d unintentionally been guilty of this myself. A while ago, I wrote an article about Plan UK’s advertising campaign to stop African girls being forced in to marriage. I wrote the article from a point of female empathy, as a reminder to everyone to help any girl or woman in a state of crisis. However, with hindsight, I realise that I may have subconsciously sensationalised the violence because of the girl’s ethnic background. Ikamara is right; violence against women is horrific regardless of the woman’s ethnicity; it is a universal problem that requires everyone’s input to solve it.

A brief Q&A session followed the first panel, before the second panel was introduced. Caroline Criado-Perez was the first to speak. Journalist, and co-founder of The Women’s room, Caroline also started the campaign to get Jane Austen’s face on to English banknotes. For this initiative, she received a torrent of online abuse. Caroline showed the attendees the tweets that were too graphic and violent for the media to actually report. This censorship meant her representation in the national media was limited to a woman who was ‘a bit upset by some online insults’. These ‘insults’ were actually death and rape threats that Caroline freely admitted had destroyed her life. The reassuring aspect of her speech was that she would never ‘shut her whore mouth’ like the twitter trolls wanted, and her bravery was praised by panellists and attendees alike.

Next to speak was Paolo Buonadonna, journalist, broadcaster, and Media Director at British Influence. Paola was the most politically motivated of all the speakers, urging everyone in the room to engage in politics if they wish to see the changes they had spent the evening describing. She discussed her role at British Influence, an independent organisation that believes it is in everyone’s interest to keep Britain in a reformed EU, and explained why as young women, we should not vote for UKIP, something we were all in favour of, especially after Ex-MEP, Godfrey Bloom ‘joked’ that women are ‘sluts’ earlier in the year.

Professor Rosalind Gill followed Paolo, and dicussed women’s current representation in the media. Her work includes over a decade’s worth of contribution to debates about the ‘sexualisation of culture’. She recommended reading the study ‘The symbolic annihilation of Women by the mass media’ and urged all attendees to persevere with their feminist campaigns; as collectively they were making a real difference.

Due to time restrictions, there were rushed speeches from members of ’50:50 Parliament’ and the #EmilyMatters campaign, urging attendees to be active in politics and push for better representation of women in Parliament. To close the evening, NAWO chairwoman, Annette Lawson, thanked all the panellists for their time and all the women and girls in the room who had given up their evening to attend.

Overall, the event was a resounding success. I left the building feeling empowered, excited and grateful for these women who refuse to stand down even in the face of intimidating adversity. I voted in the EU parliamentary elections on the 22nd of May (NOT for UKIP, obviously), and intend to have a much louder political voice from now on.

You can read NAWO’s official spring bulletin about the event here.