I am An African Feminist Cyborg: Activism, Fundraising and Security Online

I’m participating in a webinar hosted by The African Feminist Forum and Association for Progressive Communications: ‘Feminist Cyborgs: Activism, Fundraising and Security Online’

Who is a feminist cyborg?

“The feminist cyborg is at home both online and offline, and her activism is reflected in her online life (whether it is through blogs, tweets and general online presence) as well as in what she does offline (working for a feminist organization, working with women’s rights organizations and social justice movements, or in progressive media).”

I’d go further to add that the African feminist cyborg’s super powers can be online and offline simultaneously, as her world exists beyond the fragmented and finite conceptions of “online vs. offline” to the fluid, whole, and layered landscape of world 2.0.  Interesting in hearing more?

Join this amazing panel for an exploration of cyber activism, fundraising, and online security, featuring yours truly:

Yara Sallam (Egypt) will speak about her experiences of activism in Egypt, and concerns around online activism.

Spectra Asala (US/Nigeria) will share her experiences of fundraising online to raise money to deliver training to LGBTIQ and women’s rights organizations in South Africa.

Jan Moolman (South Africa) will speak on online security and violence against women in online spaces. Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah (Ghana) will facilitate the webinar.

Register for the Webinar in English or French

Monday December 3rd, 2012 at 1:00 pm GMT (English), sign up below: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/5124936193595694592

This webinar will be repeated on 5th December at 1:00 pm GMT with French translation. Francoise Mukuku (DRC) will replace Jan Moolman and speak on online security and violence against women in online spaces. Note: After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

I hope you’re able to join. Do ask questions. I LOVE questions. They make for really vibrant discussions. Much love to you all.

UPDATE: Despite technical difficulties, I thoroughly enjoyed hearing from other African women’s activists about their work using social media for advocacy. A “Live Blog” of the event can be found here. Also, thoughts and ideas from my presentation can be found, in full, here

How to Increase Media Diversity: 3 Lessons from the London Feminist Film Festival

A few months ago, the London Feminist Film Festival approached me for help in reaching out to African feminist filmmakers for their open call. The media activist I am, I admit that I did make them jump through hurdles before I agreed to help them spread the word of the festival on my blog. But it was only fair.

In my relatively short experience as an activist (who is also a person of color), I’ve received so many requests from white-run organizations and campaigns asking me to “help them create more diversity”, often without any proof that they’ve attempted to do any of this outreach on their own. It’s almost as though they view brown people as the people primarily responsible for alleviating the “burden” of creating the diversity they claim to want in their spaces. Oh, who am I kidding? 9/10 times that’s actually the case. But I digress.

After a series of sharp-shooting, poignant questions to the committee (“What have you done to reach out to feminist filmmakers of color?” “Who is missing from your lineup, and why?” “What have you done to make this relevant to African feminists, specifically?”), and receiving thoughtful (and honest) responses, I found myself in a strange place: satisfied, and affirmed enough to see myself as partly responsible (as an afrofeminist) for ensuring their success. I didn’t just write about the festival; I volunteered to be one of their media partners and a judge for one of their jury awards as well.

Why am I telling you this? Well, there are lessons about diversity to be learned (and shared) here. 

It’s only been a few months since the LFFF’s initial email to me, but judging from the film festival’s program, the organizers efforts have really paid off. The lineup of films included in the program look fantastic; the panelists and jurors represent a wide range of perspectives, aaaannd (so far), they’ve avoided appearing to be The London White Feminist Film Festival, which is quite commendable. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed “universality” (i.e. lack of intersectionality), result in the white-washing of so many spaces which would — with some effort — have the potential to truly empower and unify communities within communities.

It’s not every day I get to see I’m impressed with an organization’s outreach efforts (and results). So, I’d like to take this opportunity to highlight A Few Awesome Things the London Feminist Film Festival Did to Support Media Diversity:

1) They Avoided the “We Are One” Trap: In my post calling for support of the London Feminist Film Festival (LFFF), I talked about the importance of diversity in media, especially in the context of solidarity groups; it’s actually quite easy to let diversity slide under kumbaya umbrella politics i.e. “we’re all feminists, women, etc,” ignoring inequalities as we embrace sameness. But the festival organizers, tempting as it may have been to default to what was familiar, made a commitment very early on in their organizing process to keep the inclusion of minority groups in mind, including queer/LGBTI women, African/Black women, etc.

2) The Organizers Did Their Own Outreach Before Contacting Minority Stakeholders: As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there’s a different between being asked to solve an organization’s (lack of) diversity issues for them (i.e. being tokenized) and being asked to lend your efforts and guidance to work with them towards a more inclusive space. As my communications with LFFF revealed a progressive approach to diversity, I was happy to become more deeply involved in ensuring the festival’s success. When I asked the organizers what they’d done to reach out to other minority groups, I was pleased to hear about their efforts, as well as their honest observations about audiences they were having trouble reaching, making it easy for me to see my role as offering support vs. being saddled with the entire responsibility of creating a diverse program for their festival. Still, I’m obviously not the only partner LFFF has been working with obviously; the LFFF committee has done a phenomenal job building a team of partners, community stakeholders, vendors, and feminist advocates with unique perspectives and talents to both both shape and amplify the 3-day event this weekend. So, this is a PSA to festivals, organizations, campaigns everywhere: outreach isn’t a buzz word, it’s work that needs to be done. So please do it vs. asking marginalized people to do it for you.

3) The Film Festival Resisted the Urge to “Caucus”

Instead of creating a ‘special’ track for Black films, LGBT films etc, the festival opted instead to create special tracks for their “outreach”, in order to improve representation in the larger pool. The result is an impressive festival program that reflects a range of perspectives and experiences, rather than the separation of “main” from “other.” Now, can everyone just adopt this policy? I’m tired of having to choose between discussions, sessions, films etc that represent fragments of who I am, and I’m pretty I’m not the only person with multiple identities that feels this way. Check out some of the films that I’m most excited about (and the range of countries represented), which will be screening next weekend:

  • Lesbiana – A Parallel Revolution is a documentary about the lesbian writers, philosophers, and activists who were key players in creating a revolutionary sisterhood in the 1980s (USA)
  • As a Warrior (Como una Guerrera) is a drama about a victim of domestic violence who finds the strength to be her own knight in shining armor (Argentina)
  • Sari Stories is a short about women in rural India documenting their everyday lives and talking about the problems of growing up as women in a patriarchy as they’re trained to become video journalists (India)
  • In Beautiful Sentence, women prisoners experience the therapeutic effect of creative writing (UK)
  • The Witches of Gambaga is an award-winning documentary about a community of women condemned to live in a camp for ‘witches’ (Ghana)
  • Audre Lorde – The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992 highlights the contributions of award-winning, African-American, lesbian, feminist poet, Audre Lorde, to the Afro-German movement (Germany/USA)
  • And last, but not least, Kung Fu Grandma is about elderly women in Kenya undertaking a self-defense course to help protect themselves from rape by young men in their community (Kenya)

Note: Some of these films are available for free viewing online, so I encourage you to check them out. The LFFF has also granted me access to a few of the features as well, so I’ll be publishing my reviews (and reflections) of several of these films leading up to the festival. I’ve already published a few. But stay tuned for more!

4 Powerful Documentaries about African Women Everyone Should Watch

The London Feminist Film Festival opened with a bang last night — a sold out viewing of the UK premiere of Lesbiana, about the lesbians, philosophers, and activists that were key players in creating a revolutionary sisterhood. This weekend, audiences interested in more (Black feminist) lesbian history can look forward to the documentary, Audre Lorde — The Berlin Years 1984 – 1992. Note: This show is sold out — seems it’ll be a packed house!

But lesbians (and everyone else who loves them) aren’t the only group that’ll get to enjoy the London Feminist Film Festival. The organizers have made sure that the interests of African Feminists have been woven into the program as well. Four powerful documentaries highlighting the lives of African women in Kenya, Ghana, and Senegal will be making their debut with feminists this weekend.

I’ve gotten a chance to watch a number of these films, and I can assure you, they are not to be missed. So, if you’re based in London, and are on the fence about attending the inaugural festival, I encourage you to check out the synopses (and mini reviews) below.

4 Power Films about African Women at the London Feminist Film Festival

Taxi Sister (UK Premiere)

Mini ReviewTake a drive with Boury, a taxi driver in Dakar, Senegal, as she forges her way through a male-dominated profession. “There are no such things as Taxi Sisters!” a man growls. He towers over Boury, his voice loud and thunderous as he attempts to get her to submit to the idea that she is an impostor in the popular Dakar taxi stand. Boury vacillates between shaking her head and pacing back and forth in frustration while also keeping her eyes open for customers; she’s not driving a Taxi to make a point, she’s trying to make a living to support her family. When she’s on break, she and another Taxi Sister talk about being single working women, dating and relationships, and American tourists: “Watch out for people with big backpacks. They just walk.” Charting its own course, Taxi Sister takes viewers on a tour through Dakar’s streets, segregated by gender, class, and tourist visas, offering poignant, insightful, and humorous insights along the way.

Theresa Traore Dahlberg / Senegal / 2011 / 30 mins / Wolof and French with English subtitles

 

 The Witches of Gambaga

Synopsis: This award-winning documentary is about a community of women condemned to live in a camp for ‘witches’ in Northern Ghana. More than 1000 women accused of witchcraft in northern Ghana live in refuges, where they pay for protection from the chief who runs them. The Witches of Gambaga follows the extraordinary story of one of these communities of women. Made over the course of five years, this exposé is the product of a collaboration between members of the 100-strong ‘witches’ community, local women’s rights activists, and feminist researchers, united by their interest in ending abusive practices and improving women’s lives in Africa. Told largely by the women themselves, this is a uniquely intimate record of the lives of women ostracized from their communities.

Yaba Badoe / UK & Ghana / 2010 / 55 mins / English and local languages with English subtitles

 

KungFu Grandma

Synopsis: Elderly women in Kenya undertake a self-defense course to help protect themselves from rape by young men in their community. The rape of elderly women by young men is a big problem in the slums of Korogocho, Kenya. This documentary follows a group of elderly women who are taking a self-defense course to enable them to better protect themselves. The daily realities of the slums and the myths that may contribute to these violent attacks are explored. A powerful portrayal of women who have come together in solidarity to teach each other self-defense skills and to fight back. The film was shortlisted for an award at the One World Media Awards 2012.

Jeong-One Park / UK / 2012 / 27 mins / Swahili and Kikuyu with English subtitles

 

Ladies Turn

Synopsis: In Senegal, as in most of the world, football is largely considered a sport for men not women. Ladies’ Turn is a non-profit organisation working to give Senegalese women and girls their turn to play football and to develop important leadership and teamwork skills. Ladies’ Turn recognizes women’s football as a powerful tool for promoting gender equality, both by empowering the women who play and presenting new role models to other women and girls. This film shows the determination of the players and of the Ladies’ Turn organisation, despite the challenges and prejudices they face. With the help of Ladies’ Turn, Senegalese women fight to follow their passion for playing football all the way from small neighborhood fields to the tournament finals in Dakar’s newest stadium. An inspiring story of women pushing boundaries.

Hélène Harder / France & Senegal / 2012 / 65 mins / French and Wolof with English subtitles

 

About The London Feminist Film Festival

LFFF was set up as a response to the under-representation of women in the film industry, as well as to the lack of films addressing feminist issues and the fact that the representation of women on screen is often narrow and stereotypical. The festival will be a celebration of feminist films past and present, and aims are to inspire discussion about feminism and film, to support women directors, and to get feminist films seen by a wider audience.

Catch the London Feminist Film Festival this weekend at the Hackney Picturehouse. Check out the full program at the festival’s website: www.londonfeministfilmfestival.com

Afrofeminist Film Review of “Beautiful Sentence”: Women in Prison Write Poetry for Healing and Salvation

A Beautiful Sentence, A Short Film about Women in Prison

When I read the title and synopsis of Suzanne Cohen’s short documentary about “women in prison as they experience the liberating effect of creative writing,” in the UK, I assumed that I would be watching a feel-good film about the wrongly accused; that I’d get to play jury over a group of alleged femme fatales gathered in a sister circle, discovering together the power of words as they wrote down “what really happened”.

But, thankfully, what I got instead was a poetic exploration of the meaning of “freedom”, and a refreshing re-framing of a familiar narrative, from the political and theoretical to the personal and heart warming, from the black and white of “issues” to vivid, colorful stories; from the sensationalism of harsh sentences to the mundane of living through them.

The first frame usurps the audience’s freedom as passive witness and replaces our eyes with that of a prisoner’s, through which we are forced to view the gray nothingness of the story’s landscape for three whole seconds: a barren prison ground from behind bars.

We soon meet poet Leah Thorn, a writer-in-residence at the high security women’s prison; she is standing outside an iron door as she offers instruction on “line breaks” into the window of a solitary confinement unit through which we see only a middle-aged woman’s head bobbing up and down, her eyes squinted as she smiles from ear to ear awaiting feedback on her latest poem; the contrast between the joy radiating from her face and the dark, rusted, metal door that separates her from the source of her temporary happiness takes a beat to digest.

In Beautiful Sentence, director Suzanne Cohen, holds no punches; this is a film about women in prison, in varying phases of searching and knowing, denial and confession, using poetry as a vessel to transport them to meaning, perhaps some form of self-determined salvation. Each scene in itself, feels like a poem that intentionally feeds the audience’s minds with enough personal truths to shatter single-minded perceptions, to know the prisoners as people, perhaps even, people like us.

I’m reminded of a line in a recent piece that called for transgender women to embrace writing as creative healing: “Poetry is the way I reveal the vital force that creates my being. It is the vehicle by which I can tell the world who I am,” writes Morgan, a transgender woman of color from Texas.

Incidentally, I first learned about the hardships faced by women behind bars when I became interested in better informing myself about issues facing transgender women, including the compounded hardships faced by transgender women of color.  In the US, trans women of color are particularly at risk, as they are more frequently arrested due to a racist criminal system, and experience the highest rate of hate crimes against any subset of the transgender community. And on top of that, they experience harsh sentences for their crimes, such as CeCe McDonald, a transgender woman of color who was jailed for defending herself against a violent assault.

Hence, as an LGBTI activist, I  learned to question prisons as an intrinsically flawed, racist, and sexist system. Thus, even though I hold the names and faces of the trans women of color I know in my heart as I unleash my critique of this system, my almost exclusive focus on the crimes, the sentences, the statistics, has held my perspective captive; admittedly, I’ve only been able to understand the impact of the prison system on a small segment of women, and in theory, until now.

For many of the women in Beautiful Sentence, poetry is freeing, but freedom from the confines of their quarters, and even from the memories of their crimes, and the circumstances that led up to them, remains an ever-elusive concept.

In the middle of a lively group workshop, Leah, the workshop facilitator, fans herself before she suggests, “It’s hot in this corner. Maybe we should go outside.” A woman shackled in prison garb eagerly replies, “Think we’d be allowed to?” to which Leah replies, “God, I forgot where we were.” They all laugh.

Perhaps some of the women are guilty of committing crimes, and some are not; Suzanne Cohen clearly isn’t interested in passing judgment, again. Her film doesn’t cast its subject into a shade of guilty or innocent, but rather, pleas “human”. From the margins of faceless prison statistics, she reveals her subjects as so much more: hopeful, anguished, flawed, good-humored, regretful, silly, an ambitious undertaking for 20 minutes, but, a beautiful sentence, indeed.

“This is more of a prayer than a poem,” a woman living with mental illness writes.

Narrated through vivid poetry, the experiences of these women living behind bars evoke a wide range of emotions: guilt, sadness, anger, hope, even pride. Though these women are behind bars, their lives and their feelings are familiar to those of us on the other side. Beautiful Sentence offers a poignant reminder to extend our hands (and our love) to our sisters behind bars, to celebrate their stories as our own, so that we too are never forgotten.

How to Support Women in Prison

I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to watch documentaries without experiencing emotions that demand I take some kind of action. So, if you’re interested in supporting women in prison, or learning more about how the prison system impacts women in general (including the LGBTI community), here are a few resources:

1) Documentary Films about (Trans) Women in Prison: Check out Beautiful Sentence at the first annual London Feminist Film Festival being held at the Hackney Picturehouse from Thursday November 29th – Sunday December 2nd. Also, check out Cruel and Unusual, a 2006 documentary about the experiences of male-to-female transexual women in the United States prison system. You can order it from Outcast Films to support conscious filmmaking for social justice, or you can watch it via this upload I just found on YouTube.

2) Women in Prison (WIP), a UK-based organization (founded by a former woman prisoner) provides specialist services to women affected by the criminal justice system. On their website, WIP offers a number of ways for people who are interested in supporting prison reform, including writing a letter to government officials, making a donation, or joining their SWAP network which organizes campaigns to educate the general public about the impact of prisons on incarcerated women’s lives. Visit www.womeninprison.org.uk for more info.

3) Black and Pink, a US-based prison abolitionist organization, is an open family of LGBTQ prisoners and “free world” (i.e. not in prison) allies who support each other through education, direct service volunteering, and letter writing. Their pen-pal letter-writing program has reached hundreds of LGBTQ prisoners, especially the most marginalized, transgender women of color, throughout the US.  As the short film, Beautiful Sentence, highlights, writing comes with immense healing power. We may not be able to right the wrongs the prison system perpetuates against women, but through our words and our love, we may be able to make their sentences a little less gray, a little less hopeless, for them, and for us.

On Anti-Bullying Campaigns, LGBT Youth of Color Suicide, and Why I Never Supported Spirit Day

I didn’t sign into Facebook that morning. I knew what I’d see; a timeline of status updates and cropped purple photos for Spirit Day; a timely performance of empathy. I knew, too, that my Facebook feed, practically segmented into Lists, including one for “Nigerian”, “College” and “Queer” would vary in hue, with barely any purple love coming from the Nigerian feed, and my white, queer, progressive community in Boston leading the way. I wanted to have nothing to do with it. And I needed to clear my head. So, I got dressed, grabbed my gym bag and headed out.

The train ride on the way to the gym was the worst. I remember being sandwiched between two white women, both wearing varying shades of purple; one, a neck scarf, the other a hat. As I sat squished between them, one fiddled away with her smartphone while the other scanned the Metro paper, her nose slightly tilted upwards as she peered at the headlines through her glasses. I wondered how I could sit so uncomfortably between symbols of awareness and still feel so invisible. I wondered if they could tell from my baggy jeans, hoodie, and messy frohawk that I used to be one of the kids they were supposed to be supporting that day; that I still remembered the night I tried to take my own life like it was yesterday; that, even as an adult, it was still hard to talk about bullying, both aggressive and the silent kind from my family, without crying.

My eyes glided along the line of people sitting in front of me: purple, no purple, no purple, purple, purple. Which of the purples would look up and notice me? I lowered my head, and turned up the volume of my ipod. I remember the song: “Wavin’ Flag” by K’Naan. “When I get older, I will be stronger, they’ll call me freedom, just like a wavin’ flag.” I shut my eyes and counted the number of times the train doors opened as I anticipated my stop.

When I stepped in the gym, I sighed a breath of relief. No signs of purple. Just the same older white lady walking steeply up a treadmill, swinging ponytails on the elliptical machines, and a muscular black guy getting in his warm-up run before hitting the weights. I headed downstairs to the basement–the unspoken “men’s area” of the gym– where grunting and clanking bar weights replaced the soundtrack of the morning TV upstairs. I preferred this part of the gym; the men didn’t stare at me for quite as long as the white women did upstairs; muscular black girl, or something. Maybe she’s an athlete. Why aren’t her legs shaved?

During my workout, I’d tried to drown out thoughts about my time at school with angst-filled music (Linkin Park, Eminem, Kelis), but my mind had kept going back to the sensationalism of Spirit Day, how futile it was that everyone would be wearing purple. How would any of this support young people? What would any of this have meant for me when I felt judged and ostracized in school.

I’d been the only girl in my computer science class; no one had reached out to me when they picked group members to tackle problem sets with; the black women’s student group hosted more discussions about “Black Men Dating White Women” and “How to Date Like a Good Christian” than they did anything else; and when I sought support, my racist academic adviser told me she felt I was using my “status as a minority student” and “gay issues” to avoid admitting that I wasn’t smart enough to be at MIT; meanwhile the GSA was filled with queer white students from the theater department, who didn’t understand I had to work on weekends. What good would a campus of purple outfits have done for me then? It was I who had felt invisible, then, and today.

I felt the strain of the weights and my memories weighing me down as I finished my last set, and decided to call it quits for the morning. I grabbed a towel and headed for the locker room, not the men’s one this time. I could never get away with that, not yet. By the lockers, I braced myself for the eyes that would question my presence until they noticed my breasts. Then decided to change in the furthest corner of the room, away from the possibility of interacting with anyone.

As I untied my shoelaces, two white women chatted about an upcoming second date after work. “We probably won’t spend too long at dinner, I told him we had to meet up with the party at 9 for the surprise.” Life for others always seemed so easy, so straight-forward. Even though I’d been living with my girlfriend of two years, she still hadn’t met all of my friends, especially the black girls who claimed to be “cool with it” but never asked about our relationship, or pried too deeply into any part of my personal life for fear of having to feign acceptance via nodding vigorously to everything I said, never uttering a word until I changed the subject. My parents were really good at this. I dreaded pleasant phone calls, intimate conversations filled with sharp silences that pierced my resolve.

The locker room had gone quiet, save for another black girl with shoulder-length pressed hair getting dressed across the room. As I jammed sweaty clothes into my gym bag, my chest tightened with anxiety at heading back out into the world, purple reminders of the silences that had left me feeling ashamed, invisible, and one night, without any hope that I thought it would be easier if I swallowed some pills and left my journals behind for solace, that it wasn’t anyone’s fault, but mine; that it had become too hard to persist through the world surrounded by so much silence.

I’d been drowning in my thoughts, fighting with the tension I felt between wanting to have a normal day and not focusing so much on the emotions triggered by what the day meant. But then, something special happened. As I began to make my way towards the entrance, I noticed the black girl was now fully dressed, in black pants, a gray jacket, and underneath, a bright purple sweater. She’d caught my gaze, but before I could awkwardly take my eyes away – an instinctive reaction I’d developed after hearing one too many black women profess being uncomfortable around “women like me” (especially in locker rooms), she did something completely unexpected, she smiled at me.

She smiled at me. Me with my awkward, scruffy masculinity in the locker room. Me who’d never imagined that the weight I carried in silences from the diaspora communities I’d once called “home” could be lifted in a simple gesture; a smile that meant I’d been seen.

I smiled back, shyly. Perhaps a tad too widely, as her warmth had caught me off guard, before leaving the locker room. When I stepped outside, I saw purple everywhere, and realized that I was still smiling. All of a sudden, it made sense. What I’d needed during all those times I’d felt bullied and ostracized, wasn’t just a campaign against bullying, but a group of people saying out loud that it was okay to be me; what I needed to believe the night I tried to take my own life, was that it was possible for the communities I loved to see me, and still extend love.

Now, standing under the sun, searching for purple in strangers, the tension I’d been carrying all day melted away. And, in its place, came hope. I thought about the thousands of young people walking through hallways, their heads down out of habit, only to look up and see someone smiling at them. I thought about the assumptions I’d made about the men at the gym, grunting and puffing as they curled 50 pound dumbbells; perhaps they felt invisible as well. I hoped they’d be comforted by the smiles around them. I thought about how much just one smile had meant to me that morning, and how much more it would mean to youth of color all across the country, if they saw so many other older people of color proudly wearing purple as a stand against anti-LGBT bullying, as a stand for Love. I thought of myself, as a masculine of center woman of color, and what my wearing purple could mean to the younger, awkward, lonely version of me.

When GLAAD announced their campaign for Spirit Day that first year, I admit it; I was a cynic. I was part of the group of people that dismissed it as a bandwagon campaign run by white people that didn’t get the complexities faced by LGBT people of color shouldering multiple burdens—as a person of color facing racism from the gay community, and homophobia from our own families and communities. But after my experience at the gym that day; I see both the importance of being seen and being visible.

If you’re anything like me, a campaign to stand against anti-LGBT bullying may not resonate as deeply with you, but I’m hoping that a day dedicated to making sure LGBT youth from all cultural backgrounds know that they have allies in their own community will.

As an attempted suicide survivor, I don’t need a campaign to remind me to fight every day for queer youth. LGBTI Africa, Queer Diaspora, I shine so that you can. Even when you are most doubtful, when you cannot see the light ahead, remember this: You are never alone. Never. I made it. You will too. Stay believing. I love you. Happy Spirit Day. ~Spectra

 


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