A very feminist weekend.

There is surely no better way to spend a weekend than surrounded by strong, compassionate women who have come together to share their vision for a feminist peace on our still troubled island. When I came home from the Hanna’s House summer school yesterday I was suffering from a satisfied exhaustion, full of so much information, inspiration and craic, overwhelmed by the whole experience and simultaneously wanting more of the same! The seminars, workshops and panel discussions were an opportunity to hear from the activists who have been tirelessly building the path to gender equality in this country for years, rolling their sleeves up, breaking new ground, breaking windows, breaking themselves at times to make sure that women are heard and that our human rights are respected. With the exception of reproductive rights (a workshop on the issue would have been a courageous and welcome addition) the diversity of issues covered was fantastic, from domestic violence to women in prison, dealing with the past, women and the media and what feminism means to younger women, to name but a few. The joining of dots between many of these issues was equally as impressive, reminding me that the oppression of women in our wee country occurs across all spheres and so has to be addressed with this in mind – something that keeps one woman in fear or without full realisation of her potential and agency, affects all of us. My continuing sense of being a part of something that requires all of our pieces to be brought to the table for the whole picture to be revealed and imagined, was very much heightened by the Hanna’s House experience. As the leaders of the project attempt to create an island-wide approach as well as knit together the experiences of feminists past, present and future, from the suffragette to the blogger, I find myself humbled and delighted to have a sense of fitting in and being able to contribute.

Amazingly however, Hanna’s House wasn’t the thing that happened this weekend that most inspired my commitment to the cause and my sisters. As incredible as the experience was it was thoroughly trumped by one simple text I received from a friend as I got ready for bed last night. She sent me a picture of a tattoo she had done earlier in the day; in elegant and simple black lettering it said one word: Shine. Her text included the question ‘Do you know the meaning of it?’ and instantly I did. This friend, who is about to begin her second year studying at university in England to pursue her passion of film-making, is someone I met when she was 11 years old the year I began my first job as a community youth worker. She came to my after school club every day for 5 years, to torture me initially, then to enjoy the space, then to use it to study and get support and later to give her time to support the younger children needing her support and mentoring. During my time there I facilitated a young women’s group, time set aside for them to relax, to be in charge, to have fun, to discuss issues, to get away on residentials and clear their heads. It was at one of these residentials that I introduced the girls to an idea which some 5 or 6 years later inspired the aforementioned tattoo.

It was the weekend of mother’s day and I took the group to Enniskillen for the weekend. We stayed in The Clinton centre and used the evening time to talk a little about being a woman, our relationships with each other and with the other women in our lives. In the week running up to the event I had secretly visited each of their mums and asked them to write a short note for their daughter, describing some of the things they love about them and encouraging them to be proud of themselves. This was an incredible experience, not at all easy for me or for the women I’m sure – some were delighted to do it and filled the page with words that came naturally and were obviously a part of their everyday interactions with their daughters. Others confessed they don’t say these things often enough, and some struggled to find the words at all. Despite the complications of some of these relationships, the words were offered in sincerity, the envelopes opened, the gifts enthusiastically read, smiled at, laughed at a little, cried over, shared and hopefully remembered. I also offered my own gift to each of them that night, on a wallet sized card which contained just the word Shine on one side and on the other, the words of Marianne Wilson’s speech that reads:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?

You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

It was this card that my friend had carried with her and eventually decided to permanently write onto her body as a reminder that she is not afraid to be the best she can, and she will celebrate with her sisters in their successes and achievements. The whole group of young women I worked with and got to know through that first youth work job are such an inspiration to me. The way they accepted and trusted me (eventually…they bloody well made me work for it in the first year or two), the fact that I was allowed to support them, challenge them and be equally as challenged by them and the things they taught me, has formed the basis of the way I’ve worked with people ever since. And now I get to call them friends which is the greatest privilege of all. As I was reminded last night of the time I spent with them I realised that what I was doing back then was feminist work, before I even knew what that was. All I knew was that these girls deserved more than the social order of things dictated they should achieve. I knew they were capable of overcoming the barriers facing them and I knew that their futures were dependent on them believing that for themselves. I had 5 years with them to try and reinforce that message every single day, they had each other and many had great supportive women in their families so it’s not hard to see how they’ve grown up into such fantastic young women.

So, just as I was trying to imagine my feminist future I found myself reflecting on the first feminist activities I ever undertook (not counting beating Stephen Crooks in a race round the block aged 11) and I would like to carry the lessons of that time with me. Being a feminist is first and foremost about believing in women and trusting each other enough to help and be helped.

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