Friday, October 18, 2013

NEFG 2013

This time last week I was in Newcastle. In fact I was in the flat of a lovely woman, who before then I'd only known through twitter, with two other women I'd only know through twitter. I say "only" known through twitter, but the truth is, these women are some of my closest friends. There's a group of them who have been amazingly kind and supportive, who have made me laugh, have allowed me space to be myself and have taught me a lot about myself. And, perhaps more importantly they have taught me about feminism. 

So, a few months ago these twitter friends of mine began tweeting about this thing called NEFG. It turned out to be a "Feminist Gathering" in Newcastle. I had no idea what a "feminist gathering" was, but the fact that the majority of my amazing women twitter-friends were going was enough to convince me to get a ticket. I figured, no matter what happened that weekend, I would finally be able to meet these women and give them actual real life hugs. 

In the run up to the conference I realised that I was going to need somewhere to stay, and that I couldn't afford a hotel. In stepped the lovely F with an offer of a place to stay. I was very touched by this and as the weekend approached I got very excited. When I realised that B and P were gonna be staying too, I was beyond giddy. I knew I was going to get to meet C and J and L; it was going to be like some "reunion". That's really how it felt. Not that I would be meeting them for the first time, but that I was meeting them again. I have got to know these women very well over the last year on twitter. They have supported me, been there with a kind word and their ass-kicking boots when I needed them. So, meeting them felt kinda like coming home. (Yes, I know how corny that sounds, but it's true - so there!) 

I've never been to a feminist conference, in fact my entire contact with any sort of feminist community has been through social media (mainly twitter). So I had no idea what to expect. I knew that NEFG was going to be a woman only space. But I was not prepared for the affect this had on me.

I'm not entirely sure I can put into words the experience for me of the opening of NEFG 2013. There were around 100 women in a small hall. As people where getting settled the women of Midnight blue began drumming. The drumming was amazing, but for me what happened next was so powerful that even now I'm on the verge of tears thinking about it. The women in the room began to join in, first just clapping, then instruments were passed around and then voices joined. There was drumming and clapping and whooping and cheering. This immense and joyful noise. It was LOUD. It was in your face. It was connected. And every single person making that noise was a woman. This was what was powerful for me. A room full of women, being loud, making noise, raising their voices, demanding to be heard. No more sitting quietly, no more "decorum". No more "seen and not heard". These women were declaring their presence in the world. Declaring their right to make noise. And for me it was powerful. Hah! Powerful doesn't being to cover it! There was joy in that noise, but there was defiance too. And that "coming home" feeling multiplied ten fold. It set the tone for the whole conference. And it's left a lasting impression on me. I don't think I'll ever forget that experience. 

So, as the rest of the conference went on I attended key notes and workshops, all of which were very interesting (though to maintain anonymity for the women involved I am not going to give any details). But for me, something seemed off. See, I'm normally the chatty one. The one who asks questions, makes a comment, opens discussion. And for some reason on the first day at NEFG I was quiet. I tried to analyse why that evening, but I couldn't place it. It wasn't until I was driving home that I realised that it was because it was more important for me to LISTEN. I was surrounded by amazing women, some of whom were/are second wave feminists. The women who fought so that I can access free birth control, fought for the right to a safe abortion (should I need/want it), fought for my right to attend university. I don't need to talk to these women, I need to listen to them, to learn from them. And I did. (I was especially lucky as B is a second wave woman, and I got to spend two evenings with her as well as the two days of the conference. :) )

But I also realised that there was more to my silence. You see, I'm used to being the defiant female voice. I'm the woman that speaks first, that interrupts the men, that makes the noise, so that other women feel they can too. I am the loud, obnoxious woman, that defies the stereotype. At NEFG I didn't need to. I didn't need to be the first to speak, to break the deadlock, to interrupt the men. At NEFG there were only women talking. And it was actually quite nice to be able to sit back, relax and let others do the talking. 

Coming back to the "real world" this week has been hard. NEFG provided a safe space. A space with likeminded women, where I didn't need to explain why something is sexist or misogynistic. Where I didn't need to go into the debates about the need for feminism, or what we should focus on. Where I could talk about and share personal stories of abuse and pain caused by the world in which we live; without the need to justify or explain anything. It was AMAZING. It was freeing. But coming back to "normality" was like a slap in the face. It's been hard this week. To go back to that, to arguing with men who want to tell me how to do feminism. To be faced with victim blaming and male violence. To hear stories of sexism and to see objectification everywhere. This week it has been exhausting and made me heartsick for the sisterhood I felt at NEFG. 

So, I want to give my most heartfelt and sincere thanks to the wonderful and amazing women who made NEFG happen (despite their heartbreaking loss). And I want to say thank-you to the special women who shared that weekend with me. It was beyond exceptional to meet the lovely and awe inspiring women that I know on twitter "in real life" and I count myself truly blessed to know that I have them as friends. And I want to thank my on-line feminist community, because when I was loosing hope this week, you reminded me that I'm not alone. That we can make a difference and that when women come together we are LOUD, DEFIANT, and IMMENSELY POWERFUL.