Hundreds have turned out for LUU FemSoc’s first Feminist Jamboree, held at Leeds University Union. As well as a strong northern contingent of feminists in attendance – including those from Liverpool, Hull and Manchester – many have woken up in the early hours of the morning to travel from as far as London, Brighton and Surrey.
The event has an upbeat atmosphere despite the heavy topics being discussed, thanks in part to a foot-tall, LGBT inspired rainbow cake. However, given the strong campaigning edge of FemSoc, surely this event must have an overall agenda?
I catch Roz Ryan-Mills directing conference goers around the Union. She tells me that the idea is to improve the dialogue with feminist societies at universities around the country:
“I think the more dialogue we get going the more we can actually start a proper feminist movement and make some real change”.
“Funimism!” exclaims Cassie Sivapalan, one of the organisers of today’s event, “I really wanted it to be feminism that was fun!”
“I think you can do both: network and meet people and have that fun side”.
For feminists, this conference is a chance to strengthen the movement – but how will the event be received by those who do not identify themselves as feminists?
“Someone said to me, ‘are you trying to indoctrinate people?’” says Rosie Collington, “it’s not like that at all”.
Joel Hellewell (left); and Rosie Collington: “I think a lot of people coming don’t know a lot about feminism but are interested in it”.
“I think a big two-day feminist conference is quite a big thing to come to if you’re not a feminist” admits Freya, “I think it’s a little bit alienating for people who are not quite sure”.
Although FemJam has not attracted those who don’t identify as feminists, the variety of discussions taking place have encouraged an inclusive atmosphere among those who are. Roz informs me that many of the discussions are intersectional, bringing together women’s struggles with those of other oppressed identities.
“It’s quite a forward thinking way of feminism that this conference is trying to put forward”, she asserts.
“I think it’s really good range of people that are here”, says Hannah Taylor, a student from Sussex University, “It shows people that feminism isn’t a tiny little box you’ve got to fit into”.
Indeed, there are many members of the LGBT community present at FemJam – but what does feminism have to offer them?
“A lot of people who are feminists also identify as LGBT”, Roz explains, “you can fall into both categories and they each inform each other as ideas of being liberal and inclusive”.
Roz Ryan-Mills: “The structural oppression of different groups in society is all linked”.
This event coincides with the opening of the Winter Olympics held in Sochi. The Russian government has come under fire for its legislation banning positive and even neutral representation of homosexuality. In a recent British television interview, one author of the legislation failed to deny that he had made a link between homosexuality and paedophilia.
Despite the gravity of the situation, the extent of criticism towards Russia seems disproportionate given that the death penalty awaits homosexuals in countries such as Uganda and Nigeria. I put this suggestion to Freya.
“I think if you’re going to have a worldwide event in your country, then you’re going to be scrutinised for your human rights abuses”, she responds.
Cassie believes that there is a “racial element” to the situation. “We expect better of white people”, she argues. “People are surprised when you have countries that are predominantly people of colour that have more progressive attitudes towards gay people”.
Cassie Sivapalan: “When [the Olympics] were in China, people started talking more about human rights abuses in China more than they had been before.”
I find Jonathan Dean, a Politics lecturer at the University of Leeds immersing himself in the FemJam programme. I ask whether he thinks the heightened criticism against Russia is part of a wider agenda by the West to discredit Russia.
“America is in no position to call out other countries on poor records in relation to LGBT equality”, he responds.
Our conversation moves towards the relationship between men and feminism. There are a large number of men attending FemJam and I am curious to hear what drives Jonathan’s interest.
“Feminism is extremely important to me”, he says, “I always felt that there was something just a little bit problematic about the ways in which my male friends would speak about women”.
I float the suggestion that men become feminists as a result of having a stronger relationship with their mother. He laughs, “I’d be a bit reticent about emphasising that too much because there’s a danger it just becomes personalised, as in ‘oh male feminists are just a bunch of mummy’s boys’”.
Jonathan Dean: “In my teaching, I will try and talk about feminism as if it’s accepted as an authentic and legitimate perspective, of course sadly it isn’t.”
For everyone I spoke to, Feminism is more than just an ideology: it is a norm and a way of life. Vijay Nair has been subjected to something similar to the “mummy’s boy” line of abuse when he has challenged sexism, but remains firm in his opinion: “Feminism is part of what I value as being socially engaged and being a good person…It’s a way of being in touch with the world and not being closed off and sealed from other people’s problems and struggles”.
In challenging stereotypes, male feminists are in the advantageous position of having the same gender as those who commit the most misogyny. Through their common gender, they can argue that feminism is a male issue too.
Vijay Nair (left); and Dan Williams: “A lot of people are hesitant to call themselves feminists”.
So how do they go about moving men away from sexist mindsets?
“You can challenge or make a feminist point without making a big deal of the fact it’s coming from a feminist perspective”, explains Jonathan.
Joel admits: “It’s difficult…You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”.
“At the end of the day the individual has to say, ‘yes, I’m willing to get on board with this and accept the baggage that comes with calling yourself a feminist’”.
He complains that a lot of men have a “negative, stereotypical view” of what feminism entails: “You might say you’re a feminist and they say ‘don’t they hate men?’”.
Whether it concerns attitudes or practises, Feminism is about change. Central to achieving this is the use of campaigns. Last autumn, LUU FemSoc coordinated with Leeds University Union and the City Council to close down the Tequila club night on the grounds that it promoted a culture of rape and intimidation towards women. The campaign attracted the attention of BBC Radio 4, the Guardian and even the Daily Mail – among many other media outlets.
Megan Beech, a performance poet due to recite later, informs me of how it would be harder to achieve a success like this in London, “there isn’t the same kind of student culture”.
Giving the example of King’s University, she tells me there are between 100 and 150 signed up to their FemSoc, but complains that the geography of the University makes it harder to organise.
Megan Beech: “Kings is notoriously attractive to conservative, less radical students”.
Susuana Antubam, an Officer at University of London Union, concurs, “It’s hard to get people organised”, but adds, “it is possible, mostly through social media and mass organisation”.
Susuana Antubam: “I thought it would be great to reach out for once and get a bigger perspective on how feminism works up here.”
There is a strong sense of pride among Leeds feminists having ran such a successful campaign. Certainly, they have earned respect from feminist societies around the country and the attendance of today’s event demonstrates this very well.
As shown by their engagement with issues such as those in Russia, today’s student feminism is progressive and inclusive of issues beyond women’s rights. If societies across the UK coordinate more closely on specific, national campaigns, there could be many more achievements in future. This will be made more attainable by increased numbers of active male feminists such as those I met today.
If the movement evolves at this rate, the problems that it faces in larger cities such as London could well be overcome.