Tuesday, March 23, 2010

I'm still not a feminist but..

Article written for class on an event I attended.


It is a word that many women are said to shy away from due to its connotations, but on March 8, a coalition of women’s and human rights groups came together, with over 400 people in attendance, for an event to celebrate that word and the 99th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

“I’m still not a feminist but...” followed last year’s successful, “I’m not a feminist but ...” Held at the National Archives , it was an event organized by a coalition of local, national and international groups including Amnesty International, Oxfam Canada, Women Against Slavery and the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women (OCTEVAW). Representatives from the groups saw this not only as a night to celebrate women, but also an opportunity for groups to network.

“It was a success,” said Lindsay Mossman, from Amnesty International. She added the event achieved its goals, which were “to raise awareness on feminist issues that allowed for dialogue that was also fun, funny and engaging.”

Just after 6 p.m., visitors trickled into the foyer, where tables from the various organizations displayed posters, buttons, pamphlets and fact sheets. It was a diverse crowd of men, women and children, some who claimed to be lifelong feminists, while others said they were new to the movement. While people mingled, servers zigzagged through the crowds with plates of hors d’oeuvres from sushi to mini fajitas.

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff made an appearance. He said he was there to celebrate women and show support for International Women’s Day because, “human rights are indivisible; if you don’t have rights, I don’t have rights.”

Erin Williams, executive director for OCTEVAW said the purpose of the event was to be fun and relevant for people.

She said she wanted to, “engage women who might not be using that word.”

The word to which Williams is referring is “feminist,” a dirty word for many because of its negative connotations according to Reuban Folkema, an attendee.

“Feminism is not about hating men,” he said. “To reach equality you have to work with men and women.”

Stephanie McBride, an attendee and member of Amnesty International, said those who avoid using the word are afraid of what she calls “feminist backlash.”

“People assume you’re a fat, hairy, lesbian--not that there’s anything wrong with that,” said McBride. “Women are afraid to claim the title.”

At 7 p.m., the crowd gathered in the theatre. MC’s Joanne St. Lewis, law professor at the University of Ottawa and Maxime Turcotte, theatre teacher at L’ecole sécondaire publique De La Salle, kicked off the event, getting the audience to cheer in celebration for the 99th year of International Women’s Day. Every seat was filled, with many standing against the wall.

It began with a traditional song from Isabelle Meawasige, an Ojibway Grandmother, traditional helper and healer.

St. Lewis and Turcotte also recognized the winners, Rayna Farr-Dutchin and Sarah Lavoie, of the event’s youth essay contest, for their pieces in English and French respectively on feminism.

Being accessible for all was important for the organizers, said Mossman. The event was presented in English and French. While last year the main event was a debate about feminism, this year, the organizing committee took a humourous and satirical approach, hoping to bring more hesitant feminists to the event.

Mossman said she wanted to “get comedy to raise issues and get people to think about them and engage.”

The evening followed with a short film which toyed with the idea of a world where men faced oppression in the form of a newscast presented by a “Petra Womansbridge.” Following this, two all-women improv troupes presented a series of skits, a satirical take on women’s issues. The Ladies, a group from Toronto, presented in English, while the Ligue d’improvisation étudiante universitaire (LIEU), from the University of Ottawa, presented in French.

Stéphanie Desrosiers, from LIEU, said she believed improv was a good way to discuss issues since it is an effective communication tool which is accessible to all. She added that when they do satire, the audience laughs, but is also forced to think.

Although attendees and organizers had different views on what feminism meant to them, most agreed that the term could be divisive.

One attendee Ed Petch said that he is neither a feminist nor a “manuist” (a term he used for pro-men advocates), but rather a “cooperative.”

While some attendees were hesitant to describe themselves as feminists, the organizers understood the irony in the title, “I’m not still not a feminist but...”

“This was a phrase we had heard in our lives,” said Mossman. She said women will begin with, “I’m not a feminist but...” and then will fill in the blanks with phrases such as “but I believe that women should have rights.” She said this event is about breaking down stereotypes, recognizing that historically, the feminist movement has made mistakes and not being afraid of the word

Attendee Ali Yasin, 11, suggested that men also needed a day for themselves.

“Men need a day to sit back, relax and enjoy steak and motor oil,” said Ali.

Ali added that although he respected the choice for a day celebrating women, he said he would like to see a “human’s day.”

The Ottawa poet Oni the Haitian Sensation brought the event to a close with a presentation of the Femmy Awards, recognizing outstanding feminist achievements in Ottawa. The winners were Andrée Coté, Erin Lux, Jane Stinson, Anna Besch and Awatef Rasheed, for their roles in women’s rights organizations, to educators, to organizers of self-defence workshops for women.

Elizabeth Van DenHanenberg, an attendee and member of one of the organizing groups, Peacebuild, said she is still learning what it means to be a feminist, but is learning that times are changing: “feminism is in the title but it seems like common values.”

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