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Day One notes: Breaking Cycles at Women’s Worlds 2011

July 5th, 2011     by Julia Horel     Comments

Women’s Worlds 2011 is finally here! Your Shameless team has three attendees at this year’s event in Ottawa, and we’re all attending wonderful plenary sessions, workshops, and cultural events. Each day, we’ll be bringing you notes from and thoughts about some of the sessions we’ve attended, as well as some multimedia content.

Today’s notes are long, but I promise they’ll be shorter from now on, as I’ve been listening too intently in packed rooms to take as many notes.

Photos and media to come - please check back later this week!

Are you at the conference? Want to share your thoughts? Email julia@shamelessmag.com to arrange a guest post on the blog, or feel free to add your comments to any blog post.

Women’s Worlds Day One: Breaking Cycles July 4, 2011

Plenary Session Panelists: Andrea Smith, USA - Cherokee Devaki Jain, India Tanya Tagaq, Canada - Inuit

The three panelists discussed breaking cycles as it relates to their own communities. Some highlights from each speaker include:

Tanya Tagaq: Opened the panel by sharing that she felt very safe in this space, a room full of feminist women. Her community is hurting from the effects of relocation, jailing of community leaders and lawmakers by the Canadian government, residential schools (ended in the North only in 1996), and more. She is inspired by Buffy Sainte-Marie, and believes that healing from within includes accepting the bad parts of ourselves along with the good, and that we deserve the love we receive. She lived in a community where she and all her peers had been sexually abused by the age of 7; her daughter is now 7 and has not had the same experiences. She was the first woman from her community to go to university, and now many others are going.
Andrea Smith: Comes from and wishes to break from an academic and non-profit industrial complex. Using government grants means having to adapt to the colonial system, but she believes the independent movement can fund itself. Trying to build a safe space for Indigenous women and women of colour can turn dangerous because of the way the system has set women of colour against each other. It isn’t productive to yell at existing organizations for their racism, sexism, cissexism, classism, etc.; rather, people should build independent organizations that look the way we need them to look, and be accountable to ourselves.
Devaki Jain: Shares that older women become more invisible the older they get. Women in the “Third World” are challenging the vocabulary and system of Western “aid”; women from the North as helpers, saviours, and higher in an imposed hierarchy. Women are already doing work every day and don’t need to be “integrated” in a Western development model. The measurement of gross domestic product (GDP) creates inequality and erases the actions of women, particularly in the lower class, who fight battles for themselves every day. Globalization has brought about a digital revolution, and she wonders if we can create peace and economic justice within this shift.

The plenary concluded with a performance of throat singing from Tanya Tagaq, which brought some audience members to tears with its power and emotion.

Words to take home: “I didn’t come from anyone’s rib. Everything that comes from the flower between my legs is good.” - Tanya Tagaq “We can change the way we live our lives so that the life itself is the organizing.” - Andrea Smith

Session: Reproductive Justice: a Global Concern

Panelists: Joan C. Chrisler, Connecticut College, USA; Viriginia Braun, University of Auckland, New Zealand; Nancy Felipe Russo, Arizona State University, USA; Florence Denmark, Pace University, USA

This session was led by a panel of four white women, and all but a few of the participants in the room were white. The panel credited the definition of reproductive justice to women of colour in the United States, included Sistersong. Reproductive justice rejects the “choice” rhetoric of the pro-choice movement, not least because it assumes that women have choices at all about any aspects of their bodies. “Choice” suggests an open marketplace of attractive options, while the reality is that systems of oppression, stemming from colonization and including racism, classism, sexism, cissexism, violence against women, and many more, create barriers that render the idea of free choice useless. Reproductive justice is a global social justice movement.

The panelists discussed specific issues related to their personal work and research, such as female genital cutting (both in the so-called “traditional” sense - presenter’s term - and in a cosmetic surgery sense), access to abortion around the world, contraception, and the role of the UN with its Millennium development goals. Participants asked questions mainly related to international laws and movements.

Reproductive justice is an Indigenous concept that has always been practiced by Indigenous communities. The term was defined by communities of colour. While the information presented was interesting, I was extremely disappointed that a panel on reproductive justice was presented solely by white women and from a Western perspective. At the end of the panel, I told the group that all my meaningful learning about reproductive justice has come from Indigenous people, and shared a link to Jessica Yee’s incredible essay on RJ.

And I was conscious of the fact that I was a white woman sharing and recommending this information, and that I would be listened to based on my white privilege. Whose voices were in the room? The same voices as always.

Ultimately, this panel completely failed at the concept of reproductive justice. What we discussed was firmly in the Western, white feminist pro-choice rhetoric, with a self-pat on the back for nodding to the definition of reproductive justice. A classic case of talking the talk without walking the walk.

Session: Women, Weight and Power: Weighing Women’s Presence in the World

Presenters: Lisa Naylor, Norah Richards, Carol Scurfield, Shannon Gander - Women’s Health Clinic, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

Regular readers of the Shameless blog will know that fat acceptance is my pet issue, so it won’t come as a surprise that I was ecstatic to attend this session. The presenters were all from the same clinic in Winnipeg that provides medical and counseling services and treatment, with an emphasis on treatment of eating disorder and body dissatisfaction.

The session covered the history of the “war on obesity” from 1996 to present, including the changing of the connotations of the word “fat,” connections between body size and class, race, and ability, and an emphasis that the war on obesity specifically targets Aboriginal women and women of colour. The presenters also countered many of the medical myths about fat, pointing to strong research that diets don’t work, that long-term yo-yo dieting and weight fluctuation is more harmful to health than maintaining a consistently higher weight, and that healthy behaviours improve health outcomes irrespective of changes in weight. Globalization, imperialism and colonization have added, and continue to enforce, a new class system around the world based on a privileging of thinness.

The panel was at times light-hearted, pointed, challenging and celebratory. It was particularly nice to see a fat doctor (who stated her body mass index as 35) on the panel who rejects the medical model of fatness as disease. However, while the panelists consistently emphasized the racism inherent in fatism and stated that fat hatred specifically seeks to prevent Aboriginal women and women of colour from taking up space, the panelists were all white women. We really needed to see people of colour speaking for themselves for the session to be valuable.

Evening program: Indigenous Feminisms ROCK!

With host Jessica Yee and panelists Quo-Li Driskill, Andrea Smith and Lee Maracle

This talk show-style panel discussed each panelist’s definition of Indigenous feminism, gender violence, patriarchy and colonialism. Indigenous feminism is about dismantling colonialism and, as Andrea Smith says, “saving the world.” Indigenous feminisms are global social justice movements, made necessary by the imposition of patriarchy in a colonial system.

The panel discussed the issue of violence, the concept of feminism and modes of organizing, and took questions from the audience. Andrea Smith reiterated some of her teaching from the earlier plenary session about self-organizing, and suggested that “safe space” can mean a space where people can experiment with creating the kinds of spaces and organizations they want to experience, where it is safe to make mistakes. Lateral violence exists in community organizing, and we need to examine the ways we relate within our communities as well as outside them.

The evening ended with an incredible performance from Alida Kinnie Starr (known professionally as Kinnie Starr), a mixed-race Mohawk hip-hop artist with amazing stage presence and a huge heart!

Words to take home: “There is no politics in a man being elected to lobby Ottawa. That’s not politics, that’s puppetry.” - Lee Maracle “We have to organize not only around our own oppression, but also around our complicity.” - Andrea Smith

Tags: activist report, features

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