Written by Emily Ingram
Originally from Arklow, Co Wicklow in Ireland, Roweena Russell is an active feminist in the North East, describing herself as a ‘Grassroots activist’. She has previously studied Sociology, was on the board of and chaired IGLYO (International Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Youth and Student Organisation) from 1999-2002, and actively writes poetry in her spare time. I was lucky enough to speak to Roweena last year about her views on young feminists, how they utilise social media and her own personal experiences of using twitter as a platform for activism.
As a feminist, how are you active online?
I’ve been using twitter for a number of years and I’ve grown into twitter feminism. I use it in a variety of ways, to communicate with other feminists up and down the country, as sometimes being in the North East you can feel a bit isolated. It’s also a wonderful way for us to share some of the good work that’s happening in the North East. Last summer is a good example of when twitter activism came to the fall really, with Caroline Criado-Perez and her work on the banknote campaign, so, I saw the banknote campaign take off (on twitter). End victim blaming is another one, set up by a number of women- who just won an award for that good work- they looked at some of the headlines that were happening, at the point where a judge called a 14-year-old girl ‘predatory’. Within 24 hours (of this), some of these very smart, active women had End Victim Blaming set up. That has been an incredibly important tool to debate with journalists, and it ensures that journalists are aware of what their responsibilities are in terms of reporting violence against women. I see twitter activism as a way that we can get things done quickly, and I sometimes hear people say that “Twitter is not real life”, but I think for me, it reflects society very well. I think one of the reasons that social media is very good at engaging feminism is that it’s a platform, and it gives women a voice. Some women who may not be very good at public speaking are very good at writing- and what I’ve seen (on twitter) are quiet cubs that turn into lions, which is always a pleasure to watch.
With that idea in mind, do you feel that perhaps the increasing amount of online activism is an indicator of social change? Or, like some, do you perhaps see it to be a ‘fad’?
I wouldn’t like to think of it as being a fad, I mean we talk about feminism in waves and a number of people including Liz Kelly and Dr Ruth Lewis, who are both feminist academics, have started to talk about ‘the quilt’- the idea of feminism being a tapestry, where different methods have been interwoven. Since feminism began, (for example) the suffragettes used very clever ways of getting their message across: imprinting messages on pennies, blowing up post boxes, doing all sorts of interesting things, and some of them quite radical. So, it (online feminism) may be a fad, but it’s not so much a fad as a tool of the 21st century. Women have been very clever throughout the ages- actually, Mary Beard gave a brilliant lecture about how women have been silenced since Grecian times, from the very beginning, where women were told, “You don’t talk. You Gossip”. So I think that social media is one of the tools along the way that we have used to our benefit. In the 70s, there was brilliant campaigning done through posters and at the North East Feminist Gathering every year we have poster presentations, where we get an insight into artwork, slogans, messaging, very clever stuff has been passed down throughout the generations. Social media is basically the poster campaign of our generation, and aren’t women using it well?
So, what are the physical changes and effects have you seen come from online activism? For example, which campaigns have gained more support as a result from being online?
Sure. The difficulty here will be figuring out which. I’ve seen many campaigns and I’m sure that everyone has named ‘Everyday Sexism’. What a brilliant way to say that “this is every day”. There are lots of everyday campaigns. One of those I’ll mention is ‘Counting Dead Women’. Karen Ingala Smith works with domestic abuse charities in London, and in her free time she counts dead women. It’s her way of saying, look, every week, 2 women are murdered by men in this country. The government don’t count this in a way that enables us to see that this is a major problem, so this woman, in her free time, is doing that work. By collecting this data, not only is she making sure that these women don’t die twice – I.E, once by the perpetrator, and twice by society when the media reports it, “a woman was found dead, this is an isolated incident, people don’t have anything to worry about”. This is a very strange message. In this country, two women a week are murdered. I think women definitely have something to worry about. These are not isolated incidents of male violence, and reporting it that way is a fantastic way to lull us into a sleep, make us imagine that actually, everything is okay. It is really not okay. Karen has the capacity to remember these women and recount their stories, individually, not just as a big statistic out there but on an individual basis. These women are counted and remembered. That is one thing that social media has done. Last year, more women were murdered as a result of male violence than all the soldiers who died in the last three wars over the last three years. Now my question is, where are the public monuments? Where is the dedication from the queen? Where is the equivalent of poppy day? Where is the public memorial, where even is the public notice? It’s forgotten. That’s what I mean when I say that women die twice. So if it does come to it that one individual woman, on her day off from dealing with male violence, has to count dead women, well, that’s another thing that social media can do.
There is a huge amount of anti-feminist backlash online. Have you seen this personally, can you give any examples?
Again, the problem is which example I give. Social media does reflect society- it’s amplified. While some people will say that some feminists are not true feminists because they’re just ‘keyboard warriors’ are we saying that people who make rape and death threats aren’t real misogynists? I think they are. There was a backlash when Caroline Criado-Perez wanted to get a woman on a banknote; now, this is one woman on a banknote, and while men were coming along and saying, “it doesn’t matter”, we were saying, “It’s 3 AM online. I think it matters”. I think the backlash is that women have found a voice, on a new platform, and want to be heard, so of course they’re going to be silenced. Now, when men are abused online, it’s very rarely sexualised. But for women, rape threats are usually the first form of abuse. I had that myself when I and a big group of women were working to support Caroline on her campaign. My home address was posted online; I received a large number of rape threats, death threats and all sorts of things. I remember at the time asking myself, why am I doing this? Sitting for hours and hours at a keyboard with men who are clearly violent, clearly abusive, who obviously want to silence us. But I reached a point where I thought, if we don’t do this now, this will be another place where women are silenced. There was no way I was going to walk away from a platform I had been using in a number of areas in my life, and leave it to the misogynists. So, I and a few other women fought the fight, and three people are in prison because of that behaviour.
How do you think this negativity affects women? Do you think that it discourages them from labelling themselves as Feminist?
I get asked this question a lot, about the negativity around feminism. I’m very proud to be a feminist, and it has helped me to become the woman that I am today; I need feminism, both in my life personally and in society around me, for who I am today and how I want tomorrow to be for me and for other women. Society, of course, will do a job of putting feminism down, because if you look at the structures that feminism highlights – violence, the objectification of women, inequality in our society from an economic and a family perspective – it really challenges all structures of society. (Feminism is) looking at why men think it’s okay to buy women’s bodies, or why it’s okay that women are spat on in porn movies. That’s not okay. It (feminism) really reflects back on society, and it challenges men, that they do not have the right to simply access women’s bodies. Be it through paid prostitution, be it through porn, or be it through sexual violence on our streets- which is happening all the time, and underreported. So, when feminism challenges this male privilege, of course you’re going to get men and unfortunately some women fighting back against it, because if 52% of the population – which are the women- started to own the power which they deserve, and are due, the lives of men would change very radically. There is a resistance towards that. But I think that the feminist movement is working incredibly well to encourage young people to get engaged, and encourage young women to be proud of being feminist. If we take something from the gay pride movement, I’m a proud lesbian and one of the important things for me coming out was to own that pride. Now, no-one could insult me as a lesbian woman, because it’s impossible to use that as a slur against me. I feel exactly the same about feminism. It is impossible to use something that is core and important to my life against me.
It can be argued that the strong presence of the feminist movement on the internet has made feminism accessible to everyone, particularly young women. How do you feel about this- does it make you optimistic?
Yes, it makes me optimistic. It also makes me worried- when you’ve got a situation where Nick Clegg wears a ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ T-shirt, head in hands, I’m just glad David decided that it would be a bad idea. I imagine that young women seeing feminism for the first time online could be a difficult place- I learned my feminism through other people I was active with in real space. I guess what young women (who access feminism online) would see is a lot of anger, because of what’s happening and sometimes in response to what is happening. Now, we must keep in mind the cause and consequences of patriarchy, let’s not forget that. I’ve got a good friend who said, “Turn your anger into action, preferably with other people”. Social media is a fantastic way for you to look out there and see what’s available. However, my advice would be, remember that in life, as in feminism, some people will love you and some will hate you, and that changes all the time. Figure out what your politics are, don’t let people tell you what your politics are, figure them out for yourself, develop and trust that good instinct. What’s helped me to work through my politics over the last 20 years or so, what I learned from feminism is that you’ve got to put women first. We do have a trend now in feminism where men’s access to women’s space- women only space- takes up a huge amount of time, as does men’s access to women’s bodies. So we have women fighting to say that prostitution is ‘just a job’. I’d never happily sit and say that prostitution is just a job, or that the porn industry gives women the opportunity to work. The porn industry gives women the opportunity to work for three months. That’s how long the average woman’s body survives that ‘job’. Now, I’m not using my feminism to fight for a woman to work for three months in a job where her body will never recover. I don’t see that as feminism. So this is where it gets tricky, we see feminism in different ways, and I think that everyone can find their own brand of feminism- but for me, my acid test is, “am I putting women first? Is it real for me? Does it sit right?”. It’s an incredibly powerful and sometimes painful process to understand what feminism is, where it’s come from and what it can do. I’ve seen movements come together and fall apart and I’ve learned- I’m still learning- that it’s incredibly important to keep it peaceful, because you will have political differences with people, even with people that you love. That can be very testing. But you’ve got to keep it peaceful, because you realise that it (feminism) can be very radical and very edgy, but if you keep it peaceful, it can be amazing. That’s what feminism means.
To find out more about the projects Roweena discussed, or even just Roweena herself, visit the links below:
Counting Dead Women: http://kareningalasmith.com/counting-dead-women/
Everyday Sexism: http://everydaysexism.com/
End Victim Blaming: http://everydayvictimblaming.com/
North East Feminist Gathering: http://www.nefeministgathering.com/
Caroline Criado-Perez: http://carolinecriadoperez.com/
Roweena’s Website: http://roweenarussell.com/