Teen spirit: Meet the fifth-wave feminists
It is still sometimes asserted, quite confidently, that teenagers aren’t interested in feminism – but the idea has never seemed more laughable. Over the last few years, teenagers and twentysomethings across the UK have been organising, setting up hundreds of feminist groups in schools, universities and online, running campaigns against female genital mutilation and the detention of asylum seekers, while also petitioning for better sex education. This generation is determined to change the world, and they’re both intellectually curious, and exceptionally practical.
Their confidence is built on the assumption they were raised with, that they are absolutely equal to male peers. They grew up in an age that was often called “post-feminist”, as if some feminist utopia had been reached long ago, a verdant paradise where men and women lived in perfect balance – equally represented in parliament and public life, paid an equal wage, dividing childcare and career opportunities deftly between them.
At some point, each of today’s young feminists realised this idea was a myth. Like Laura Bates, founder of Everyday Sexism, they were often rudely awakened by a catcall echoing across the street, which made them aware they weren’t anywhere near as welcome in public space as they had assumed. But their upbringing has also given them a belief in their ability to change the culture. They don’t believe they’re innately inferior or weak, and are shocked and galvanised when it’s suggested that they are.
Their feminism has been forged in recessionary times, against a broader landscape of austerity and rising inequality, and many have been inspired by the Arab spring, the Occupy movement and fights against student fees. They’re keen to forge a movement that addresses race, class, ability, gender and other discrimination, too, and seem more passionate and determined than ever – not just to continue the feminist argument, but to win it, hands down, for good.
Meltem Avcil, 20: ‘You have to be brave’
Meltem Avcil and her mother were taken to Yarl’s Wood detention centre in 2007, after a team of immigration officers banged on their front door at dawn, drove them away in a caged van and locked them up. Avcil was 13 at the time, and had lived in the UK since she was eight. Her parents are originally from Turkey, where they were persecuted for being Kurds.
There was a time when Avcil felt tormented by her experiences, but then she realised she had a choice. “I could be traumatised,” she says, “and create an illusion of happiness, by lying to myself. Or I could face what had happened and use my past to affect the future.”
Since the start of this year, Avcil has been leading a campaign, with Women for Refugee Women, to end the detention of female asylum seekers – she hopes it will lead to the closure of Yarl’s Wood.
She is now a mechanical engineering student at Kingston University. She has an impish grin and a friendly manner – although an obvious sadness and strength underlie this. Her description of her time in Yarl’s Wood – three months among traumatised women, who were grieving, desperate, often suicidal – became the basis for Natasha Walter’s 2008 play Motherland, and helped end the detention of child asylum seekers.
In February she led a peaceful protest outside the Home Office, and is keen to keep going. “I did feel insecure when I started the campaign, because I had to expose myself to the public – to negative comments – but in the end, you have to be brave. Why go through all that if not to do something about it?”
Feminist hero “My mum. We’ve been through everything together, and she’s a strong woman, who is still able to smile and enjoy life.”
Lili Evans, 16: ‘I had an epiphany at 2am’
Lili Evans is unstoppable. There’s the feminist society she started at school, the Feminism 101 workshops she delivers, and the online group she founded a few years back, called the Twitter Youth Feminist Army. Last summer, while her friends enjoyed the balmy end of the holidays, she co-founded a campaign for education about sexual consent in schools, and began lobbying parliament.
She became a feminist aged 14, after reading about women’s rights in the countries affected by the Arab spring – and was also influenced by an article on the teen website, Rookie, about body image, and how not to care what people think of you. “I read it at 2am, when I couldn’t sleep, and I had an epiphany,” she says. “I was like, ‘I am a feminist!'”
Twitter is her favourite forum for ideas, including intersectionality. Which is? “It’s about saying, for example, if we want abortion to be legal, we also need it to be cheap enough to be accessible to low-income women, we don’t want people to be discriminated against because of their physical and mental health, we don’t want it to be inaccessible because of discrimination based on race.”
Feminist ambition For pupils to be educated at school about oppressive social structures. “There are people who don’t even believe that patriarchy or white domination exists, so you need to start educating people young.”
Sana Sodki, 16, and Savannah Ali, 16: ‘You don’t have to take a naked picture of yourself’
Three years ago, a group of girls at a youth centre in London started talking regularly about the issues they faced. One problem that always came up, says Sana Sodki, was the way boys spoke to them – which was often intimidating, or disrespectful. “You’d be walking home from school, and boys would come up to you, and say, ‘Oh, can I have your number?’ They wouldn’t ask your name, or say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ And if you said no, they’d say, ‘Oh, you’re ugly anyway.’ ”
The girls decided to set up a website, backed by Big Lottery funding and the Peabody organisation, to improve interactions between boys and girls. It’s called Oii My Size, a phrase boys often shout at girls they fancy. They have since presented talks about the site to 4,500 young people.
One feature, Rate My Churpz!, has video of boys trying chat-up lines on girls. Visitors to the site can then rate the chat-up line. “We didn’t want to make it seem like we were shouting at boys, or telling them off,” Sodki says. “We wanted them to be able to see that if they actually want to get somewhere with a girl, they need to reconsider what they’re saying.”
They also address sexting on the site, says Savannah Ali, another of the project’s leaders. “People didn’t know it was illegal to send pictures of a minor, or to receive them and send them on.”
The group is currently working with the NSPCC, to develop an app on sexting, and they’re also addressing domestic violence in teenage relationships on the site. This can sometimes look quite different from domestic violence in adult relationships, Sodki says, “because you probably won’t be living together, and won’t have kids or a joint bank account”. They have used storyboards to show the kind of coercion, threats and controlling behaviour young people should be wary of. Their aim, Sodki says, is to give girls “the knowledge that they don’t have to be spoken to like that. They don’t have to take a naked picture for their boyfriend to be happy with them.”
Feminist hero, Sodki “Beyoncé: she’s a really strong woman; everything she stands for is positive.”
Feminist ambition, Ali “To empower women, so they can make informed decisions.”
Jamie Sweeney, 22, and Nick Batley, 23: ‘Patriarchy dictates how you should be, from birth’
It was when he started university, at King’s College London (KCL), that Jamie Sweeney first encountered feminism, and “had a conversion from lad culture”, he says. His girlfriend attended a talk by Laura Bates and “she was very emotional afterwards. Some of the facts she was delivering were really hard-hitting.” It made him question aspects of his own behaviour, and think about the fact that he had never heard feminism mentioned at school. Growing up among teenage boys, there had always been a lot of sexist jokes, and “I still find, within groups of blokes, that they bond over sexism and objectifying women.”
He set up the KCL London Feminist Club. “We now have a team of people who go into schools, deliver talks on the basics of feminism, try to dispel some of the myths surrounding the movement, and encourage pupils to set up their own feminist organisations.” At the beginning of a session, they ask who identifies as a feminist, then give a talk about women’s rights, and ask the same question at the end. Their first talk was to a group of 180 12- and 13-year-olds, almost all of whom changed their view during the session.
Nick Batley has also been taking feminist ideas into the classroom. He’s strongly committed to sexual health education, volunteering for the organisations Brook and Education For Choice, and working part-time at the Terrence Higgins Trust. In his first weeks at university, three years ago, he began volunteering with a group called Sexpression, which has almost 30 branches in universities across the country, and goes into schools, colleges and youth clubs. They talk about “everything from STIs and puberty to consent, sex in the media and pornography,” Batley says.
There are other men involved in Sweeney’s project, but “as a general rule”, he says, “I find men are very reluctant to define themselves as feminists”. Both he and Batley agree that patriarchy is harmful to men as well as women. Not to the same extent, Batley says, “but it does dictate how you should be, from birth. As a teenager, I used to be really macho, played rugby and football, drank beer, did ‘manly’ things. Patriarchy encourages rigid gender roles.”
Favourite feminist event, Sweeney “The UK Feminista summer school. It was in Birmingham last summer, and it was just great to be around so many people who identified as feminists, and are doing so much.”
Favourite feminist protest, Batley “A few years ago I went on SlutWalk, dressed in stockings and heels. It was primarily a protest against rape culture.”
Yas Necati, 17, and Rose Lyddon, 18: ‘Girls learn they can’t get into the paper unless they take their clothes off’
“Feminism rescued me,” says Yas Necati. Rose Lyddon nods, and adds, “It saved my life.”
The pair are students at Woodhouse College in London, where last autumn they started a thriving feminist society. Necati is small, shy and a campaigner to the bone. She’s a member of the Twitter Youth Feminist Army, helped set up the Campaign4Consent with Lili Evans, and led a campaign, in conjunction with the Telegraph newspaper, for better sex education in schools. Her Change.org petition attracted more than 52,000 signatures, and led to a Department for Education announcement earlier this year that new sex education advice would be written up by experts, taking into account the influence of the internet on modern relationships. This isn’t perfect, Necati says,but it is progress.
She was spurred into action after being assaulted in the classroom when she was 12. “The assault really knocked my confidence,” she says, “and I thought it was really important to educate a future generation about this, especially with the explosion of internet pornography, which is so rape-enthusiastic.”
She is a member of the No More Page 3 campaigning team, and has sent a stream of letters to the Sun editor, David Dinsmore. What bothers her about the paper, she says, is that “you see page after page of all these men in suits, running the country, and the sports section is dominated by men, and then you have just one massive picture – the biggest picture of a woman – in her knickers. It’s teaching young girls that they can’t get into the paper unless they take their clothes off.” Her parents are Sun readers, but support her campaigning. “With most teenagers, it’s ‘Can I go to a house party?’ Whereas with me it’s ‘Can I go and throw stuff at the Sun headquarters?'”
Necati and Lyddon are both moderators for the Everyday Sexism project, scrolling through the thousands of stories that are sent into the site – and deleting abusive and threatening comments. Lyddon started defining as a feminist a year and a half ago, after experiencing sexual bullying while at school in south Wales. After she started a relationship with a boy, rumours were spread about her, and male pupils “thought it was OK to touch me, or harass me in the corridors. They’d taunt me, and I became very self-conscious and very aware of my body.” She developed an eating disorder, and worked through it by reading blogs about body acceptance.
Lyddon is planning to be an ambassador for the project Shape Your Culture, which helps young people develop a critical perspective on body-image issues; she has made a film about the subject, which was shown at the recent Women Of The World festival on London’s Southbank. She likes the fact that feminism is part of a wider social justice movement. It’s changed the way she thinks about herself, she says, because “instead of just seeing yourself as an individual, you realise you’re part of a collective.”
Feminist hero, Necati Lucy-Anne Holmes, founder of the No More Page 3 campaign. “She’s one of the most positive people I’ve ever known.”
Favourite feminist book, Lyddon “I’m really enjoying Caliban And The Witch: Women, The Body And Primitive Accumulation, by Silvia Federici. It covers witch-hunts, and the part they played in the development of capitalism.”
Fahma Mohamed, 17: ‘I’m not going to say “fanny” to Ban Ki-Moon’
Before she started her campaign to end female genital mutilation (FGM), Fahma Mohamed was nervous. She felt shy, worried about public speaking, but passionate about the issue. Her petition, backed by the Guardian and the charity Integrate Bristol, attracted 100,000 signatures within 24 hours of going up in February, one of the quickest-growing campaigns hosted by Change.org. “It was so fast!”
Mohamed says, “I was ecstatic.”
She was even happier when education secretary Michael Gove agreed to write to headteachers about the issue, before the summer holidays, when girls are most at risk. Many anti-FGM arguments revolve around the need for prosecutions, but for Mohamed and Integrate Bristol the focus was always on eradicating the practice. “Prosecution is all well and good,” she says, “but we need to focus on protecting the girls. It’s too late for the girl by that time, so we need to prevent it from happening in the first place, and the only way we believe that is going to happen is through education.”
Funny and charismatic, Mohamed has been part of Integrate Bristol for four years now, a charity that supports young people arriving in the UK. Some of the girls in the group refer to themselves as the female or the fanny defence league. Mohamed says the version she opts for depends on whom she is speaking to. During her campaign, when she met UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, she weighed it up. “I thought, ‘Do you know what? I’m not going to say fanny.'”
She’s determined to keep speaking out – not just on FGM, but also on child marriage and all aspects of violence against women. During the course of the campaign, “I surprised myself,” she says. “I never thought I’d do something like that, ever. It’s made me the person I always wanted to be.”
Feminist hero Malala Yousafzai, the teenage activist shot by the Taliban after campaigning for women’s education in Pakistan. “She’s so courageous.”
Ikamara Larasi, 24: ‘It’s not just about gender’
Over the last year, Ikamara Larasi says she’s learned how hungry people are for discussion about racism, sexism, homophobia and cultural appropriation. During that time, she’s been working on the campaign Rewind & Reframe, conducting focus groups with women in their teens and 20s, talking about music videos and unpicking their imagery, good and bad. The project is run by black feminist organisation Imkaan, where Larasi works, in partnership with the groups Object and End Violence Against Women, and began after conversations with young black women about their lack of representation, and misrepresentation, in the media.
The campaign hit a nerve. When it was launched publicly last autumn, there was a lot of conversation about Miley Cyrus’s performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, and the depiction of black women in Lily Allen’s video Hard Out Here. The protest about Blurred Lines, Larasi says, was based on the fact that “there isn’t a clear understanding in society of consent, and how to treat women”. Rewind & Reframe has therefore been calling for better sex education, classes in media literacy, and for age ratings on music videos.
At Imkaan, Larasi ensures young women’s voices are represented in all conversations about violence against women and girls; on the weekend of this year’s International Women’s Day, she spoke at both the Million Women Rise march and the Women Of The World festival, and she is a member of the Black Feminists. It was just over a year ago that she began identifying specifically as a black feminist. Before, she says, “I thought if I called myself a feminist, it meant I needed to reject certain things that I don’t feel comfortable rejecting, and that I’d have to say my gender is the most important part of my identity, when I don’t feel that way. When I discovered intersectionality, I was like, ‘That’s cool.’ The word recognises there’s a multiplicity of identities. It’s not just about gender.”
Feminist ambition “For everyone to have their basic needs met, and to be equal. I don’t think you can dream if your belly is empty.”
Jinan Younis, 18: ‘We don’t hear about so many women’s experiences’
“I’m really excited for the future of feminism,” says Jinan Younis. “More young women are getting frustrated at the way they’re being treated. They’re just not taking it any more.”
Younis’s views sharpened a few years ago as a result of street harassment. She was on a trip to Cambridge with friends when some men shouted at them from a car. When Younis shouted back, they doused her with cold coffee, which left her feeling humiliated and infuriated.
She took action by setting up a feminist society at school, and when some boys in her peer group abused members, she wrote a Guardian article that went viral. Last October, she started at Jesus College, Cambridge, studying theology, and promptly joined the student union women’s campaign and set up her own feminist group at college. Since then, she has written for the Guardian about rape culture at university, which led to a sexual consent workshop being held at Cambridge.
She attended a Reclaim The Night march in February this year. “I can’t describe how amazing it was,” Younis says. “After the event, people were writing about how they had been sexually assaulted when they were younger, and hadn’t told anyone, because they never felt they had this space of security, love and solidarity before.”
She is hoping for a career working with refugee women, survivors of rape and domestic violence, and women in poverty. “Those are the day-to-day experiences of so many women in this country, yet we don’t even hear about them,” she says.
Favourite feminist book “bell hooks’s Feminism Is For Everybody.”
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