Women's Worlds 2011 interview: Samhita Mukhopadhyay

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Samhita Mukhopadhyay, editor of Feministing. Photo: jmiles/flickr

Women's Worlds 2011 is a major international conference taking place in Ottawa-Gatineau from July 3 to 7, 2011. It is 'a global convergence to advance women's equality through research, exchange, leadership, and action' with speakers and performers from a diversity of backgrounds and countries. In the weeks before WW2011, interviews of some of the main participants will be published in rabble.ca. We are proud to be the exclusive online media sponsor.

Samhita Mukhopadhyay, executive editor of Feministing.com; she began a personal 'feministing' early, developing her own language of feminism from punk rock and riot girl. She began to embrace "the radicalness of feminism" as a 15 year old and rebelled against dominant representations of femininity by shaving her head and really starting to notice, and feel anger, at the way in which women and girls were treated differently, the way in which the expectations placed on girls differed from those placed on boys.

Her parents immigrated from India to the United States and had been living there for a decade before so Mukhopadhyay was born. She grew up in Westchester, New York, and though she spoke Bengali with her family and her family's friends and came from a very religious Hindu family, she says she felt she grew up "pretty American."

After several failed attempts at engaging with "more traditional South-Asian disciplines" like economics and pre-med courses at university, Mukhopadhyay fell more comfortably into Women's Studies. This, Mukhopadhyay feels strongly, is extremely important in terms of "scaffolding and supporting young women's self-esteem," with the combination of personal support from professors with exposure to feminist literature making for a very powerful experience.

Before Mukhopadhyay started blogging, she was a public school teacher, though as Feministing and her blogging started picking up momentum in 2005, she decided to leave teaching to go back to school, getting a Master's degree in Women's and Gender Studies. She was able to focus more time on blogging which led her to where she is today, managing Feministing, doing freelance writing and recently publishing a book.

Though Mukhopadhyay believes women's lives are better today than they have been in the past, thanks to "our feminist foremothers," this isn't necessarily impacting all women "across the board." Feminism is certainly more diverse than it has been in the past and we are dealing with a "much more complicated set of circumstances" than we were, perhaps, 30 years ago. These difficulties, in part, come from a pervasive "assumption that we don't need feminism anymore" which means that much of our time and energy, as feminists, involves countering that discourse. It is, as Mukhopadhyay notes, an uphill battle: "When the culture believes you don't need feminism any more" it means that we are working to change a cultural mindset, as well as make actual progress and change the lives of women for the better. We still see, for example, sexual assault on campus as 'normal' in many ways and women continue to not have access to reproductive technologies and rights in many parts of the world, something that many women in the West take for granted. Even in parts of the U.S. reproductive rights are being attacked, Mukhopadhyay points to Louisiana, where recently there was an attempt to ban abortion. Clearly, we have much work to do and yet our culture tells us the work is done, that we have gone as far as we need to go. Challenging that kind of discourse is something that is very much a part of the feminist movement today.

Our current work, as feminists, needs to happen on a number of levels, Samhita says, whether it be through blogging, lobbying, door-knocking, getting signatures, as well as in the classroom and in Women's Studies departments in colleges and universities. There are a myriad ways in which we need to be applying our feminist ideals to these various forms of work we are doing.

Mukhopadhyay talked to me about the importance of transnational feminism, explaining that this perspective is very much about that shift in thinking; feminism is no longer the unified movement that it was during the First and Second Waves. Today, women's "moments of feminism" may look very different, depending on where individual women are, and unfortunately there has been, within Western feminism, a focus on 'personal choice,' meaning the assumption that any individual choice a woman makes, somehow, is feminist. We run into trouble with this kind of thinking, for example, when conservative women like Sarah Palin are framed as 'feminist,' simply because she is able to make choices that impact her personal life. Transnational feminism counters this by looking at structural inequality and the way in which they impact women's lives and choices in varying ways and how these choices are produced and under what kinds of circumstances. Choices are not made outside of cultural and political contexts, Mukhopadhyay says, we can ask ourselves how 'free' women's choices really are. A transnational lens can help frame thinking in this way and situate things within a geographical context as well.

Mukhopadhyay feels hat a primary focus and starting point in the movement, in terms of changing the public's minds about the state of feminism and gender equality today, is the way in which these issues are represented in the media, ensuring that there is "fair and balanced coverage" of legislation and hearings around issues which impact women's rights. Shifting these mindsets is hard work, but Mukhopadhyay believes strongly in media justice and believes that those who control the media impact the decisions we make, as well as the choices and options we believe we have. For her, Feministing was, in large part, about doing just that -- ensuring that women's issues are represented accurately in the media. She sees Feministing as "an intervention" into mainstream media and the way in which media was representing women.

Feministing, and other feminist blogs and websites online have really changed the conversation. Mukhopadhyay points out that a decade ago many believed there was no interest from young women in feminism; this has clearly changed and we can see the ways in which young women have galvanized to challenge stereotypes and ensure that they are included in the conversation: "The opportunity to talk back has never been this strong." Blogs like Feministing, she believes, have taken feminism out of academia and allowed it to become mainstream again.

Feministing won the 2011 Hillman Award for Blog Journalism which Mukhopadhyay called a tremendous honour. She says it represents a "pivotal moment for Feministing" in that it points to the need and demand for this kind of work, adding it is about time feminist work is noticed and prioritized. This can be viewed as a starting point as feminist work breaks into mainstream media and shows that feminism has clearly increased its presence in the progressive world.

Mukhopadhyay recently published a book entitled Outdated: Why Dating is Ruining Your Love Life. The book is a feminist intervention into mainstream dating narratives, in it she looks at the ways in which many popular dating books today position themselves as feminist but actually work to reconsolidate many very sexist ideas about romance. She will be speaking at this week's Women's Worlds 2011 conference, which takes place from July 3-7 in Ottawa. The theme of the conference this year is: 'Inclusions, exclusions, and seclusions: living in a globalized world'; Mukhopadhyay will be discussing 'breaking ground' and new types of activism in feminism.

For more information on Women's Worlds 2011, click here for the website, and here for the Facebook page

Meghan Murphy is an intern with the rabble podcast network and is a regular contributor to rabble's F Word podcasts and The F Word Media Collective blog.

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