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Chances are you won’t be welcome in the world of online feminism? It depends on which part of the world you’re visiting – and what kind of attitude you bring with you.


The world of internet feminism is, according to yesterday’s NS blog by Sadie Smith, patrolled and policed by the "Online Wimmin Mob". A sneering, intimidating (one might be tempted to say "bitchy") group of self-appointed experts, "The Committee" can be counted upon to insult, threaten and drive away any well-meaning newcomer, and likes nothing better than to attack other women over Twitter in an attempt to "win" at being the most oppressed feminists ever. Most likely in the small hours of the morning.

As a longtime feminist and LGBTI activist and blogger, who makes use of online feminist networks on a daily basis for their work, I was somewhat amused by Smith’s diatribe – but mostly tired at hearing, yet again, a hyperbolic generalisation of what constitutes online feminist activism, ignoring the vital, diverse efforts of national and international feminist and womanist movements to concentrate on the bad behaviour of a few unpleasant know-it-alls.

Internet feminism certainly has its share of unsavoury characters. The righteous gatekeepers – as they see themselves - throwing their metaphorical weight around, pedants who care more about appearing right than being right. People who thrive on infighting, using concepts such as understanding different forms of oppression and privilege as a way of humiliating and denigrating those they dislike. I’ve been on the wrong end of it and it’s horrible. But how, in this respect, is feminism different from any other identity, cause or interest? Online and offline, we see the same behaviour in academia, in the arts, in fandom, sport, in the most innocuous of hobbies – and some of the very worst of it in newspaper op-ed pieces and the comments they attract. And yet Sadie Smith wrote an op-ed piece – and here I am, writing a comment – the inevitable actions of a small minority don’t negate the importance of a form, of a movement, of a way of communicating. And their use of certain words and phrases as a cover for their meanness doesn’t erase the value and necessity of those words and phrases.

This is hardly new ground for internal debate within online feminism. Offbeat Empire covered it last year, in a widely disseminated article "Liberal Bullying: Privilege-checking and semantics-scolding as internet sport". I’ve blogged about it, as have many of the writers I know – this area of debate is alive and well. And most people have no trouble understanding the difference between bullies using "politically correct" language to hound others, and the astonishingly simple concept of intersectional oppressions and privileges. The world we live in is riddled with bigotry and discrimination, of many and varied kinds. Some people are discriminated against in more than one way. Some people experience discrimination and yet discriminate against others in turn. Some people are ignorant of the sufferings of others precisely because society has given them a leg up in an area where it gave other people a kicking. And to try to change society, to dismantle oppression, we have to turn around and examine these different forms of discrimination, to understand how they affect the world we live in and our own conception of self – to know our enemy, and to try to learn better ways of being in community with each other. Forgive me if that sound patronising, but that’s all that "understanding/dismantling/checking privilege" means – hardly a difficult concept, and radical only if you find the idea of universal equality radical. Having access to a Twitter account doesn’t protect a person from myriad forms of abuse and oppression – it can’t prevent rape, shield someone from racism, ensure the continuance of DLA payments – to claim that everyone online who talks about the ways in which they’re suffering in an unequal world is “…the sort of annoying princess who screams that it’s just not fair and she hates you because she only got an iPhone and a pony for Christmas…” is facetious at best.

As to Smith’s problems with the word "cis", and her claim that "through its misuse, it is laden with pejorative connotations" – I must admit to being somewhat confused. A neutral term simply meaning "not-trans", "cis" is to "trans" as "straight" is to "gay" – a blunt instrument, not perfect, but a way of acknowledging divergent experiences of the world without implying that some people are normal (the "women women", or the "real men") and some people are…not (the trans contingent, of many and varied sexes and genders). It’s a word I’ve used on a regular basis for about five years in my work as a trans activist – educational outreach, public speaking, consultation services, conferences, intercommunity events – and have yet to have a cis person tell me that it upsets them. To describe the use of the word "cis" as offensive because it was supposedly given to cis people without their consent – does Smith imagine the situation is any different for trans people? That we chose the words that have been used to mark us out as abnormal? I, like many of my colleagues, would like a world so equal, so open, that we no longer have to use the words "cis" and "trans" (certainly not in the way we use them now) – but we’re not there yet. Have some trans people on the internet used the word "cis" in anger? Of course. Dealing with constant harassment, abuse and hatred from cis people, a not uncommon experience for out trans people, would make even the saintliest of us lose their tempers and rant. Reacting with condemnation, rather than empathy, just compounds the problem. Finally, Smith’s assertion that the word "cis" is "an insult to the very essence" of who she is? To quote another feminist, Cel West: "saying that the term cis is an insult to 'the very essence' of cis women directly implies that trans women aren’t real women." Now that I find offensive.

To make a broader point – this, to me, is the wonder of online feminism – that the women (and men, and everyone else) who have traditionally been misrepresented, spoken for, spoken over, ignored, vilified by the (usually) white, (usually) cis feminist mainstream have a chance to make their voices heard, on their own terms. Sex workers and trans women, who frequently found themselves demonized and threatened by some prominent second wavers, are now carving out their own feminist spaces, creating discourse that includes and respects their experiences and ideas. It’s not about creating an homogenous space where debate is stifled – but about learning about the limits of our own knowledge, and combining our resources, our strengths, to create a feminism that finds our common purpose through our diversity, instead of by denying it. Turn to the broadsheet coverage of feminist issues and what do you usually find? A rehash of the "can she really have it all?" article, or a variant on the "is it feminist to shave my pubic hair whilst reading Fifty Shades?" puff piece. I checked my social media feeds this morning and read about feminists connecting their queerness with their faith to create the perfect Seder, writing new collections of fairy tales to deconstruct patriarchal myths, organising protests to fight the cuts, plotting ethical porn experiments that would celebrate trans bodies – it’s a wonder that I get any work done, when there are so many fascinating things happening. And there are online feminists making specific use of different social networking functions to get their point across. I can’t be the only person who started following Laurie Penny’s Twitter feed because of her on-the-ground, real-time coverage of protests throughout the world. The enormous success of the Everyday Sexism project is due partly to the ease of connecting with it via Twitter, of sharing story after story of harassment and prejudice via a short tweet. Even something as irreverent as The Hawkeye Initiative has a serious point to make about the misogynistic depiction of women in mass-market entertainment – and connected with its audience via Tumblr’s picture-heavy format. It’s the old concepts of consciousness-raising groups, telephone trees, independent zines and presses – on an enormous scale.

Smith rounds up her arguments with the statement: “Feminism is not bullying and beating up other women. It’s not denouncing diversity instead of celebrating it. It is not stigmatising women instead of listening to them. It is not telling them that their opinions and experiences don’t count.” I couldn’t agree more – which is why I find online feminist spaces so valuable – and why her depiction of those spaces is not one that I recognise. There are just too many of them, too many voices, ideas, philosophies, to be contained in the image of the sour-faced "Wimmin Mob".

Maybe that’s why, in the end, I prefer to talk about online feminisms – the connectivity forged between different groups, different communities, different experts – a shifting, evolving set of alliances, not a closed party with a limited guestlist. We’re no monolith – but that doesn’t mean that we’re not changing the world.

Look around you - who else is in the room?

CN Lester is a classical musician, singer-songwriter, writer and LGBT and feminist activist. They're the author of the popular trans blog "a gentleman and a scholar".

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Why the world depends on our attitude towards ten-year-old girls

A new report by the United Nation Population Fund finds that our collective future rests on how we support the world’s 60 million ten-year-old girls as they start their journey from adolescence to adulthood.

Take a moment to imagine a ten-year-old girl right now. What do you see? Is she in school? Is she laughing with friends? Do you imagine her riding a bike or playing ball? On roller skates or en pointe in ballet class?  With her nose in a book or her eyes on a chess board?

Or perhaps you imagined a different scene, one that still plays out daily in many parts of the world: a girl who wakes up in the morning and finds out that she’ll be married that afternoon and taken out of school forever, a girl who will be forced to start bearing children as soon as her body allows it, and will stop being a child and start being a labourer in the home.

This is the tragic reality for millions of ten-year-old girls as they approach puberty.

While in some places, age ten can be a time of exploration, expanding horizons and new possibilities, in others it can be a time where barriers emerge, limiting options, choices and opportunities.

Many girls are transformed from children with rights and aspirations, into brides, free labour or objects of exploitation – forever excluded from decisions about their lives and blocked from realising their full potential.

This is a grave and unforgivable injustice and a violation of girls’ fundamental rights. And whenever a girl’s future is derailed in this way, her household, community and nation also suffer.

With no freedom to make choices, get an education and find a good job, she will never have the power to participate in the affairs of her community and contribute to her country’s development.

But when a girl is protected from child marriage, is able to stay in school and make her own decisions about whether or when to become pregnant, the potential gains to her – and her society – are huge.

Each extra year a girl stays in high school, for example, delivers an 11.6 per cent increase in her average annual wage for the rest of her life. In India alone, there are over 12 million ten-year-old girls of whom nearly 900,000 will not move from primary to secondary school this year. If half of those 900,000 girls finished secondary school and later got a job, they could together earn almost $2m over the next 15 years.

In fact, if all the ten-year-old girls living in developing countries today were able to finish high school and make their own decisions about marriage and parenthood, they would together earn an estimated $21bn by the time they reach 25.

In most developing and middle-income countries, a girl who stays in school, gets a job and delays pregnancy will earn up to three times as much in her lifetime as her counterpart who does not finish high school and becomes pregnant as an adolescent.

And research has shown that a girl who makes a safe and healthy transition through adolescence to adulthood has higher status in her household and community and invests earnings back into her household, setting in motion a virtuous cycle of social and economic empowerment that can last for generations.

The benefits of keeping a ten-year-old girl’s life on track are indisputably large.

According to The State of World Population 2016, published today by UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, keeping every ten-year-old girl’s life on track is possible, but it requires support from, and investments by, everyone around her – her family, community and government. Men and boys also have a critical role in tearing down the barriers that prevent girls from realising their full potential.

So what can be done?

First, end all practices that harm girls. This means, for example, enacting and enforcing laws that prohibit child marriage.

Second, enable girls to stay in school, at least through high school. Study after study has shown the longer a girl stays in school, the less likely she is to become pregnant as an adolescent and the more likely to grow up healthy and join the paid labour force.

Third, provide extra support to marginalised and impoverished girls who have traditionally been left behind.

Make sure girls, before they reach puberty, have access to information about their bodies. Later in adolescence, they need information and services to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

And above all, take steps to protect girls’ – and everyone’s – rights.

We have every reason to prioritise the development of every girl’s capabilities. Our collective future depends on it.

Today’s 60 million ten-year-old girls will be 24 when progress towards the United Nations’ new development agenda is tallied in 2030.

That agenda aims for inclusive, equitable and sustainable development that leaves no one behind. The real test of its success will be whether every ten-year-old girl today will be healthy, educated and productive in 2030.

The world cannot afford to squander the potential of even one more girl. Instead, we must do everything in our power to ignite that potential – for her sake and for the sake of us all.

Dr Babatunde Osotimehin is the United Nation Population Fund’s (UNFPA) Executive Director.