On resisting

By Charlotte Galpin

CW: sexual harassment

This is a story of resisting as a woman, and as a feminist, in a public space. Of being, to use Sara Ahmed’s words, a feminist killjoy.

I gave a public talk at a university and afterwards I was sexually harassed. What followed my talk was a response to the content of my research, punishment for explicitly naming, challenging, resisting toxic masculinity in public spaces.

My talk drew on initial findings from a small-scale, qualitative study of pro-European activism during Brexit using in-depth interviews. I argued that Brexit, and Euroscepticism more broadly, is deeply gendered. It is, amongst other things, underpinned by a highly confrontational, toxic masculinity in British political culture that has not only marginalised women (and of course also many men and non-binary people who do not conform to cis/heteronormative gender norms) from debates about the country’s future but, through violent online abuse, driven female MPs out of politics altogether.

Pro-European activists, I argued, are not merely opposing the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, they are also resisting this gendered dimension of Brexit. By applying a feminist approach to citizenship, I contended, we can understand the way in which the public sphere, the sphere of politics, of national security and the economy, has traditionally been a masculine space, rooted in colonial notions of the “rational man”, while women are confined to the private sphere of emotions and irrationality, of love, family and sexuality.  Pro-European activists, I maintained, contest Brexit in a number of ways that break down the public/private divide.

One way they do this is in their calls for a kinder and more caring society and economy. I told of the women I have spoken to who have been verbally and even physically abused on the street while campaigning but who show a phenomenal resilience and determination to carry on, to continue their resistance. I spoke of activists who campaign in informal, creative, small and personal ways that allow them to fight back and reclaim public spaces for themselves in the name of Europe.

The first comment. A man at the back, a known trouble maker as I found out later, announced that I had confirmed gender analysis is “complete nonsense”, I should focus on the real problems, immigration and EU bureaucracy. The next questions. This time from the front, from two important, powerful men linked to the institution hosting my talk. Pro-Europeans, actually. Powerful men I had been asked to personally thank in my opening remarks. Their comments wilfully misunderstood my arguments, implied I had intentionally misled the audience, discredited my claims. It is not scientific research, one proclaimed to the audience of 120 people, it lacks statistical analysis, it is not representative. This was a demand for “rationality”, the Enlightenment’s assertion of the natural scientific method. A rejection of the 20th century -male- German sociologists who recognised society cannot be studied using the methods of the natural sciences, that social science should explore subjective experience, values, social norms. The personal, the private, the emotional.

These two important men confirmed and legitimised the response of the first. They did not merely criticise my work, they tried to delegitimise it, to discredit me as a scholar. Declaring my work unscientific, they wanted to exclude me from the academic community, to strip me of my qualifications. A denial of my right to the public space of the university. Their comments were a reaction not just to a woman entering into the public sphere, speaking with authority and a platform. Women may be tolerated in public spaces, after all, if they do not kick up too much of a fuss. If they acquiesce, not shake the boat too much, leave masculine structures intact. They were responding, rather, to a woman who was resisting. One who had openly and explicitly challenged male domination in the public sphere. It was an attempt to discipline, to silence. And it created an environment in which I was subsequently sexually harassed.

A man approached me in the crowd of the wine reception as I split off from another group. How can such a young girl could have the title of Dr already, he asked, was I married, did I have children? No, I answered, but I have a partner, they are here in the room. A shame, he said. When will you be back in the city, hopefully you will not be married by then, he pondered, you really have such a lovely figure. Should we go somewhere together afterwards, just the two of us? I walked away.

In this context, I had been given a platform. I had authority, the power to educate. I had been given a formal introduction. My name and photo appeared on the event posters that guided attendees to the room. Like all forms of sexual assault, this incident was not about my relative attractiveness to this man, but about power, about his need to reduce me to my body, to demean me and objectify me in a context in which I was the one holding the power. But that power had already been challenged. My rightful place there as a scholar had been opposed by powerful, important men. What was left for him was a body to be sexualised, to be transported out of public sight to the private sphere of sexuality. Back to bed, back home, back where I belonged. Silent.

But I will not be silent. And after Britain leaves the EU on Friday, pro-European activists will not be silent either.

Charlotte Galpin is Lecturer in German and European Politics at the University of Birmingham. Her research focuses on the European Public Sphere, European identities, EU citizenship and Euroscepticism. Her monograph, The Euro Crisis and European Identities: Political and Media Discourse in Germany, Poland and Ireland, was published with Palgrave in 2017. Her current research is exploring pro-European mobilisation during Brexit. 

“I thought you were doing feminist stuff?”

Sara Salem

I recently gave a presentation on my PhD work, and found some of the questions afterwards fascinating, especially the one I seem to get every time I mention what I’m doing my PhD on: “Oh but I thought you were doing feminist stuff?” Because my PhD is on the 2011 Egyptian revolution and political economy in general, there is always the assumption that it has nothing to do with gender, and that by extension I am not doing anything on feminism. This seems to surprise people because they know me as someone who “does feminism/gender” or who at least has written on those subjects before (Facebook rants included).

When this question comes at me, I find myself pausing. Should I take the easy route and answer that no, my PhD is not on feminism or gender; or take the difficult route and point out that everything is gendered, that no piece of writing can really exclude gender, even if it technically excludes it by not mentioning it. I could point out that my PhD, while not explicitly on feminism or gender or women as a lone subject of analysis, actually uses quite a bit of theory that comes from feminism and feminists. I could also point out that any analysis of the 2011 Egyptian revolution should and has to look at how gender and gendered bodies were part and parcel of events that we usually assume as only political or economic. In other words, the political and the economic are always gendered.

When I first started out my PhD, I was dying to do something “on gender.” But I also wanted to do something on the revolution itself, and thus found myself at a crossroads. I eventually realized that gender is everywhere, that any good feminist will “do gender” even if her (or his!) topic of research is not a glaringly obvious gender topic. And that is exactly what I hope I end up doing – incorporating feminist tools and theory into areas of analysis that usually pretend they are not gendered (ahem, political economy, ahem).

All of this raises the important point that understanding feminism as a field or discipline has also had the side-effect of isolating it, making it easier for other disciplines to ignore what feminists are saying, as well as to ignore the methodologies and tools being developed by feminists. On the other hand, there are clear benefits of understanding feminism as a discipline – it provides a much-needed “safe space” for feminists as well as the kind of solidarity needed to develop the research that has been so important to the development of social science in general. And yet I wonder if the price has not been very high; that the ease with which feminism-qua-discipline has been isolated has made the process of bringing critical gender analysis to other disciplines much more difficult.

It seems to me one way out of this is to apply the research and tools developed by feminists to other disciplines, to questions that may not appear to be the normal topics of feminist research, to research problems that have usually ignored the question of gender. Certainly not an easy task, but I have found that using feminist IR scholars, for example, has been invaluable to my own research on how global capitalism operates, how women and men are made part of this system on different terms, and how gender has been instrumental in creating an international division of labour. I have also found feminist work using intersectionality (as problematic as the concept remains) to be useful in conceptualizing gender in the Egyptian context as not simply being about men and women, but about multiple social categories that are always intersecting. Finally, I have found Marxist feminist work extremely enlightening in showing the ways in which class and wealth are not only gendered, but that the coercion that is part of the capitalist system also plays out in gendered ways.

So to answer the question about me not doing feminist stuff? Everything a feminist works on is “feminist stuff”!