ReConference 2019: Thoughts from Day 1

I’m at ReConference in Kathmandu. #recon2019 is organised by CREA and has pulled in over 500 people from 50 odd countries, and I’m here on behalf of the organisation I work with. #recon2019 aims to rethink, reimagine and reshape conversations around feminism, sexuality, disability, abortion and other related topics.

Day 1 was super stimulating, balancing a nice mix of the serious, the thought provoking and the fun! Here’s a bit of what stayed with me after day 1.

The serious:

1. The rise of anti gender movements globally, including the North: Sonia Correa have examples of how anti gender movements cleverly bring together the religious and the secular, are transnational (taking the movements across to other countries) and are willing to be open enough to accommodate anything that they feel is “threatening”, ranging from same sex marriage (“it disrupts family”) to sexuality education to anti abortion laws to insisting on the binary of sex or gender. While the ideas the movements were about weren’t new to me, it was chilling to see the blurring of national boundaries and the banding together of communities that would normally not see eye to eye (the religious fundamentals and the secularists, for example). As people working on sexuality or activism, the environment only gets tougher and tougher. The internet, a godsend for us, is also used so effectively by those on the “other side”.

2. Feminism, law and criminalization: so much of feminist movements over the decades of 20th century were about adding crimes against women into the law and appeals to ensure that perpetrators are put behind bars. But this panel, consisting of people from Mexico, the USA, South Africa and India, got me thinking about laws and women. Estefania Vela from Mexico was wonderful to listen to, so articulate and engaging! Vela talked about how the number of “crimes” getting added into law was ever increasing, with new categories coming up, like “obstetric violence” or “reproductive trafficking”, with the idea that no protection is possible for women without criminalization. But the issue – and this was echoed by other panelists – is that legal systems are seldom effective in following through. So we’re not really “changing” the society through these laws, and in fact women face the brunt of these, either because men are thrown in jail and their families suffer because of the lack of effective social safety nets, or because the legal system is biased against people of certain recess and communities, and most shockingly, women themselves get convicted – an example from another panelist was of drug using women who get pregnant being thrown in jail.

Panelists talked about alternatives to carceral justice and how feminists are now reevaluating their work to get these laws in place, and that was a very thought provoking moment: it’s important for us to be able to look back at our work, recognise its failings, but also get the right to be able to say “we didn’t know better then!” without being fired upon for that. I also wonder: laws are “easy” language, to some extent. Even with complicated topics like consent, laws give as framework off which we start conversations. It’s an effective tool to rule by fear, for honestly, while I know fear based messaging isn’t going to take us anywhere, what language can make people sit up and listen? All the while, the way these laws have turned against the women they were supposed to protect also confuses me. Vela repeated how the idea that laws are the “in the meantime” solution while we work on structural change in society, but that approach conveniently leaves aside the work on reducing poverty, bringing in public education and public healthcare, etc., which will go farther in “protecting” women. I have no clear ideas about this, but this session really got me thinking!

The fun things:

1. Coffee stains tell my future: I hate coffee but willingly gulped half a cup of bitter coffee in a session on reading coffee cups to start discussions around sexuality. The facilitator was from Armenia, and told us how she adapted the local tradition to get women talking about issues they could never broach openly. Sitting in groups, I was surprised how all of us – complete strangers – shared personal issues, family discussions, self doubts and violence. What a lovely way to turn around a ritual!

2. “Video me?” There’s a sticker for that! Kawira Mwiricha from Kenya has developed a support fun sticker pack which can be used for sexting. The faces used are gender and race ambiguous, and go “explicit”. Kawira hopes these stickers can help the partners start conversations on consent, discuss what they like, what they’re worried about, etc. This was fascinating! Oftentimes we struggle with language to express sexual desires, especially those that are seem as shameful or “extreme”. I was floored by how much the focus was on pleasure, and even more when the last sticker she showed was “let’s cuddle” 🙂 🙂 it’s called Backsies, in case you want to check it out.

3. New media to counter misogynist news: Brenda Wambui, also from Kenya, talked about the importance of new media in providing alternatives to mainstream news which in Kenya (and in SO many parts of the world) is misogynistic. Brenda runs a podcast called “Otherwise?” where 80+% of the guests are women. Later during tea, I asked Brenda what it was like to run a podcast as a woman in a society she described as not friendly to women in media (so women with opinions?) Brenda said she gets trolled every so often. While I haven’t (luckily) been trolled, as the editor of a nearly 10 year old online literary magazine, I face scathing comments on and off from angry contributors. They often resort to our (the two member editorial team) gender, calling us bored housewives, referring to us as young or immature women, etc. – funnily enough, these are often older people who write about the wisdom life has given them. What is it about women taking stances – much more open in Brenda’s case, and about editorial decisions and requesting people to revise their contributions, in my case – that ticks people off? I can vouch for the professionalism in my email exchanges with the writers, even as they descend into angry, rude and personal remarks.

The day ended with the fabulous Four Queens from Mexico with an outrageously funny and bold, cackling, high energy performance of “cabaret”, based on a Mexican popular music format. They performed songs on family’s loving gifts of household appliances to a researcher every time she scaled greater heights in academia; on cunnilingus; and even an adaptation of Despacito that had nearly all audience members up and dancing! All the time, the background had kitschy videos setting the context of the songs and with subtitles, since the songs were in Spanish.

What does day 2 promise? It hasn’t been easy writing this entire post on phone, but I hope to be able to write again while I’m in #recon2019

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