Occupy the World is fantastic. It is wonderful and inspiring and in 2,000 cities around the world. It is the first truly global popular protest movement, it's made up of dedicated and self-sacrificing people with the noblest and best intentions. It is not vague, it is not spoiled, it is not destructive. It's ace, OK?
But Occupy the World is, well, part of the world. And that means that it contains, in microcosm, a lot of what is bad about the world as it is. To whit: patriarchy.
Some people think that it's OK to use the occupations as a pick-up opportunity; or so at least they claim - personally I take Amanda Marcotte's view that they are threatened by politically active women and are trying to belittle them through objectification. Other people think - and have thought from Day One on Tahrir Square - that the bodies of women are theirs for the taking, that sexual violence is exempt from the demands for a better future. These people are often bolstered in their belief by organisers and sympathisers who pressure women to forgo the small aims of justice and safety for the greater aims of the movement.
More prosaically, I know of women who have been heckled, called gendered names, dismissed, silenced and intimidated at several of the camps. I'm sure this is endemic in most if not all camps, not because the people occupying are bad people, but because it is widespread and endemic in the world. Not entirely surprisingly, all of this has added up to a somewhat subdued female participation rate in the Occupy movement.
This is not quite OK, as far as I'm concerned. What the heck point is it in changing the world for half the people, by half the people? If you're going to be like that, then it should be "we are the 48%", not "we are the 99%".
So, last Sunday, my friend Jess organised a Feminist Picnic at Occupy Bristol. We came, we ate, we sat in a friendly circle, we interacted with the occupiers and the public (it was an "open family day"), and coincidentally we had an impromptu discussion about pole dancing. The sun shone and all was well with the world.
For a while. Here is what is absolutely fascinating to me about how the day went: whenever the number of women around our particular little enclave of blankets and chairs dipped below about 6, shit started going down. I'm not saying it was some kind of continuous campaign of harassment, far far from it; a couple of people who were maybe not quite with it and had had a bit much to drink or in general might have issues that we should not judge them for behaved inappropriately and in an intimidating manner. But as soon as ranks closed, women joined, a circle was formed - nothing. Nada. Zilch.
In fact the very same person who was talking over 4 of us, telling us how "things are done here" and being aggressive and belligerent, when surrounded by 10 of us, was raising his hand patiently to seek consensus right to speak and making cogent and helpful suggestions.
The circle grew and shrank once or twice, and the dynamic repeated itself each time: more women, nice atmosphere; fewer women, aggro. Really basic, obvious dynamics that nobody can dismiss as paranoid feminists making stuff us and "choosing to be offended".
We had a fascinating discussion about how to continue interacting with the movement - because we all support the movement wholeheartedly, and frankly most of us could probably teach some of the organisers a thing or two about hegemony, delegitmisation of protest and privilege - while not exposing individual women or small groups to situations in which they feel intimidated or dismissed. It's easy to say "toughen up", but given that not every one can do that, what's the solution? Forgo the support of all the non-Boudiccas, or create a safe space within the movement where all women can come and contribute their creativity and passion?
Exactly. So, we decided to conduct an experiment in "Carrying Our Safe Space With Us". Given that a critical mass of female presence seems to be, in and of itself, a deterrent to misogynist bullshit, we propose to ensure this critical mass by arranging group presence at the Occupy Bristol camp. The plan, in outline, is:
- Convene at the camp on College Green between 6.30pm and 7pm on Thursday the 27th of October
- Participate as observers and guests (with a right to speak of course, but no agenda) in the camp's General Meeting
- Stay, as a group, until 9pm exactly, displaying a sign that says "Ask Us About Women in the Movement"
- Leave as a group, with only those who feel comfortable at the camp remaining behind, if any
Then we'll see. It is by way of testing the waters: are we right that being in camp in the dark but as a group can feel safe? Can we actually all commit to a solid 2 hour attendance? Will our presence be seen as a provocation or as disrespectful engagement with the movement? Can we find a way of getting stuck in and helping out without "breaking the circle" of safe space we have imported with us? And most importantly of course, shall we continue doing this as a way of enabling women's participation in the Occupy the World movement?
I hope it works, I really do - because if it does, it offers such a simple and effective way of helping women penetrate all kinds of spaces that they have traditionally been excluded from. And not just women - any group that feels marginalised or intimidated out of a given milieu can try this "portable safe space" approach to increasing visibility without making undue demands on brave and self-sacrificing individuals to be the token representative, the first penguin in the water so to speak.
I read recently, can't remember where, that the selective sex abortion epidemic in places like China and India is a huge problem, because historically, whenever the percentage of women in the population falls significantly below that of men, they suffer increased oppression and violence. At first this seemed counter intuitive to me, but I realised that this is because it flies in the face of a major patriarchal lie and underpinning of a lot of our sexual politics: that women are a resource for which men compete, not agents in their own right participating in society.
Under the patriarchal view (much loved by MRAs and evo psych proponents), the fewer women there are in a population, the more "precious" they are, and the better they will be treated by supplicants eager for their favour. And this is really deeply embedded in our psyches, or we'd all realise straight away that all this male attention is, even in the best and most PC of circumstances, little more than sexual harassment: to take an example I'm familiar with, one gets catcalled, groped and propositioned way more in places like SciFi/geek/atheist/comics conventions and fan clubs than at events with a more even gender distribution like pop concerts or weddings.
There does seem to be a basic principle of strength in numbers here, and while I'll need to think about it a bit more before I can write a pithy concluding paragraph for this post, I'm going to try and see if I can make it work for me in the meanwhile!
Remember: 27/10, 6.30, College Green Bristol. Be there or be a rectangular thing!
 And some other things, too. In the UK at least, it seems to be very white, and disabled representation is low more or less everywhere as far as I can see. These are important and serious issues, but I am not qualified to comment on them, hence the focus on stuff I do know something about.
 To those people I say: please, find a new tune. Women have been making the sandwiches for men's revolutions since forever - if you really want to change the world, why you be making it stay the same, man?
 And a bunch of other stuff, too: concerns for personal safety from the public (one woman at Occupy Bristol has had drunk revellers climb into her tent at night), responsibility for children (running water and sanitary facilities are a problem at many occupations), a sheer inability to not work, and so on - including good old fashioned social conditioning. All of the usual stuff that hinders women's political participation, in fact.
 They can, and they will - but that's because they're assholes, not because they have a leg to stand on.