Maeve O’Brien: Frontline feminism – Sibéal Annual Conference Review

As is the situation in most workplaces, individuals said to be female are at a distinct disadvantage within academia.

To paraphrase Dr Niamh Reilly in her keynote speech at the recent Sibéal Annual Conference at the University of Limerick, it is overwhelmingly those who identify as female who are assigned part-time roles, temporary contracts and oscillate towards administrative work within academia and the working world more broadly. Speaking to a crowded auditorium including young feminist scholars and early-career researchers less than three weeks after #wakingthefeminists, the feelings of anger and solidarity were palpable.

The adversarial nature of conferences, competitive one-upmanship within departments and overtalking in general are all elements that contribute to the amplification of privileged voices and lauding of white, heteronormative, patriarchal research projects. Individuals with marginalised identities and research projects that deviate from traditional norms are often cast by the wayside. Indeed, looking back through the annals of academia and intellectualism and seeing familiar faces, familiar research interests is a comforting and inspiring luxury few marginalised people experience.

It was with these problems and thoughts in mind that the Sibéal Feminist and Gender Studies Network was formed in 2006 – in response to the great need for an organisation that focused on feminist and gender studies on the island of Ireland, north and south. The network is run on a voluntary basis, by postgraduate and early-career researchers in Northern/Ireland who are committed to encouraging and promoting feminist and gender studies research as well as seeking to provide a feminist alternative to the overwhelmingly patriarchal institution of academia. Amongst other initiatives, Sibéal fund small events such as pizza nights or coffee mornings where students can get together and discuss topics or issues relating to feminism or gender studies, as well as an undergraduate essay competition and a yearly e-journal, to be published in early 2016. Now nine years in operation, the network has grown into a thriving community of over 500 members.

The Sibéal Annual Conference, held this year at the University of Limerick on 20-21st November, is fast becoming one of the most important events in Northern/Ireland for young scholars working in feminist and gender studies – and for members of the public who support meaningful change in these fields. During the two-day event, a variety of papers were presented ranging from panels on literature, art, history, sex work, gender recognition, masculinities, definitions of motherhood, vulnerabilities, sexual violence and online and pop culture. The interdisciplinary aspect of the conference is perhaps what makes it such a successful and empowering event – the conference offers attendees the opportunity to listen to and engage with a broad range of ideas perhaps outside of their own research remit yet intrinsically linked by feminism. From my personal point of view, Kathryn Ryan’s paper on online misogyny was particularly illuminating as she revealed the ‘new platform’ of the internet as still enmeshed in the ‘old paradigms’ of misogyny. And artist Sinead Dinneen’s evocative and thought-provoking talk and workshop on her artistic reaction to her diagnosis of ovarian cancer was a deeply moving experience – one I will not forget. That Sibéal values artistic expression as highly as academic writing is indicative of how the network attempts to create an even playing field for all disciplines across the board,

Responses to the conference were overwhelmingly positive. A quick search of the #sibeal2015 will show the friendships formed and the encouraging environment built over both days, with attendees enjoying the lack of bullish competition, lack of shouting-down and instead, focus on listening, learning and understanding.

As a network objective, Sibéal is committed to blurring the line between ‘academic feminism’ and grassroots activism. Yvonne Murphy from the Limerick Feminist Network had this to say: Sibéal 2015 was a fantastic event. As there was such a variety of papers being presented there as something of interest on offer to everyone. It was also great to meet feminists and other like-minded people from all around Ireland and beyond. I am already looking forward to Sibéal 2016’. It is a chief ambition of Sibéal to welcome members of the public to more events in the future. There is much work to do in breaking down the barriers between the world of the academe and everyday reality, but this work is necessary. Indeed, with the age of the internet and the vital platform provided by Twitter for feminist conversations, it is becoming increasingly clear that more often than not, the most vital and important feminist voices do not stem from the ivory towers, but come from people tweeting from the front lines of their own lived experiences. If ‘academic feminism’ doesn’t reach out, doesn’t listen and seek to learn then it will quickly find itself to be irrelevant.

A prominent focus of many papers at the conference was the emphasis on ‘doing’ feminism, rather than simply ‘being’ a feminist: there can be no rest when there is work to do. And indeed, for all the good intentions of Sibéal, there is still much work to be done – the network is still predominately a white organisation. Natalya Din-Kariuki has written how ‘feminism does not have just one face, one body or one history. For real change to happen, for all women to ascend the staircase of scholarship, then university-based feminist initiatives must confront this truth’. The challenges to be better and to do more continue and must be confronted. Out of all academic organisations in Northern/Ireland, I feel Sibéal is best positioned to shatter racist, heteronormative patriarchal conditioning and strive for equality at all levels of the network. But without representation of people of colour at board-level of academic organisations, organisations fail in their duty to represent all experiences and perspectives.

With this is mind, perhaps the most important moment of the Sibéal Annual Conference was a comment made by Kingston University’s Zahra Eftekhari Rad when she asked a room filled with predominately white Irish women how they felt they could best be allies to Muslim women here in Europe and in the Middle East. To have the opportunity to listen to and collaborate with different feminisms is a gift that white feminism does not deserve and it was truly generous of Rad to raise this question. Her comments, alongside the profiling of African feminist thinkers helped to create a diverse and thought-provoking environment at the Sibéal conference. Questions of multiculturalism, the false belief that the West is intrinsically ‘more civilised’ and feminism’s role in breaking down such suppositions cannot be resolved in one sitting, but in my opinion, for privileged feminists, ‘doing’ listening and ‘doing’ silence are integral parts of being an ally and are the founding principles of solidarity.

Statistics are bleak. As The Guardian reports, ‘in the UK 45% of academics are women, but 78% of professors are men […] Only 17% of vice-chancellors are women’. These figures are worse again for women of colour where only 7.7% of University professors are from BME backgrounds, and only 10 out of 14,000 University professors in Britain are women from black Caribbean or black African backgrounds. People with disabilities are also grossly under-represented within Higher Education and for the LGBTI community, the academe is often rife with discrimination. It can be of no great surprise then, that the world of academia can be defined as a myopic realm that is rigidly governed by patriarchy and regimented by whiteness, heteronormativity and economic privilege. These characteristics not only restrict the entrance of marginalised individuals to the academe, they also restrict the types of thoughts and ideas that are carried out within the ivory tower.

Multidisciplinary artist and researcher Marcia X’s important work that focuses on the intersecting oppressions of gender and race in art, art history – and within academia more broadly – captures the strangulating restrictions placed upon creativity and thought by white supremacist patriarchy.  In this stirring quote, Marcia X explains how value is placed on white art and theory, with work produced by people of colour overwhelmingly being discarded, ignored and considered without value:

a society where whiteness & white supremacist Eurocentric thought has been the dominant framework for all disciplines, where the work of people of colour are taught as anthropological, ancient practice and European art presented as the only practice for the last several hundred years to be of real value.

As Marcia X posits, the key challenge for contemporary feminist scholars and thinkers is attempting to transcend the set of institutions and structures where ‘real value’ is placed on white experiences and where writers and thinkers who are proponents of patriarchy and white supremacy have platform. Complimenting Marcia X’s work, Jenny Zhang’s recent Buzzfeed article on how white voices appropriate and drown out work by people of colour in the field of creative writing illustrates clearly why marginalised voices must be brought to the front: ‘What I want is to not have to be made aware that because most publications only ever make room for one or two writers of colour when those publications publish me it means another excellent writer of colour does not get to have that spot’.

How can we, as feminists, begin to break down the walls that have for so long bricked up ideas, thoughts and thinkers? Dr Sara Ahmed proposes that one way to begin the tearing down of these restrictions is by recognising that the words and thoughts of feminist researchers are political acts. As such, Ahmed believes that in our dissertations and theses, we can start revolution by actively ceasing to cite the work of white men, or by using white men’s words as tools to bring down their house:

I thus have a strict and explicit citation policy. I will not and do not cite white men. And you know what: it has been really easy! You should try it! We can rebuild our houses with feminist tools; with de-colonial precision we can bring the house of whiteness down. Their body is not the world. A world can be opened up when it is not organised around their bodies.

Much like the necessary drive behind gender and race quotas, choosing not to cite white men means that marginalised voices will be given platform and amplified. Indeed, even though gender studies courses are gaining popularity at University level, the recent news that feminism may be removed from the UK A-Level Politics syllabus indicates the precarious position of these subjects. However, if feminists actively cease to cite white men in their work, they open the floor to marginalised voices and force change from the bottom up. From undergraduate essays to crucial books – a revolution could begin.

In the two years I served on the Sibéal board, my feminist thinking has been transformed and enriched. The realisation that feminist words and actions are political acts and have immense gravity has changed my daily life and my academic life. I would encourage all those interested in feminist and gender studies in Northern/Ireland to become a Sibéal member www.sibeal.ie or like our Facebook and Twitter to keep informed with upcoming events and conferences. All are welcome to attend and all postgraduates – especially individuals who are marginalised or are working on projects that eschew tradition – are wanted and needed. It is my hope that the network will continue to thrive and continue its ethos of listening, learning and collaboration. In the Irish language, Sibéal roughly translates as ‘prophetess’. It seems apt then, that the Sibéal Feminist and Gender Studies Network should aim to herald equal representation and amplification of marginalised voices, creating a safe space for generations of young feminists to come.

Maeve O’Brien is completing a doctoral thesis at the University of Ulster, reading silence in the work of Sylvia Plath. She has also published academic work in Plath Profiles and The Ted Hughes Society Journal, amongst others. Until recently, Maeve served as board member and social media coordinator for the Sibéal Feminist and Gender Studies Network.​ She blogs at The Plath Diaries and tweets at @ThePlathDiaries.

(pic via)

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