Rebellious? Media Conference

The organisers and the performers deserve to be congratulated for putting on this long overdue event because the line up commanded attention depsite nobody taking a fee.  Orginally it was to be named ‘Radical Media Conference’ but due to technicalities the event was renamed ‘rebellious’.  Either way there were few moments of radicalism or rebelliousness, although there were indications and moments towards such adjectives; and this is not me simply wishing for more.  As has proven true in other cases the smaller workshops were always going to be a lot better than the massive plenaries when the opportunity for fringe events was missed to make way for the ‘Almighty Chomsky & Albert Show’.  In the opening plenary there was much mutual masturbation by the duo and little on the media.  Bad organisation also contributed to this becoming comical as the duo couldn’t hear the audience but attempted to an answer along a theme they half imagined.  I was happy to get out of the hall and get into the workshops.

I attended the ‘Mind the Gap’ workshop which was about how to fill the gap left by the corporate media. The workshop made it clear to me that the paramount concern of the conference was to network with like-minded media people. In hindsight this workshop was perhaps a bad choice on my side; I found little room for ideas that I wanted to contribute and a general belief that the way forward was to centralise alternative media and seemingly to mirror the existing mainstream. These are not the ways forward I seek to engage because if the internet has taught me anything it’s that accessing original, different and diverse sources is an irresistible benefit. Despite this the session did reveal a few publications that I want to look into further including the Manchester Mule and the Salford Star. For the final seminar of the day I attended the feminism forum organised by The F-Word. The all-female panel seemed quite a good mix of educated and middle class perspectives from southern England.  I also appreciated the brief discussion on the role of males in feminist thought and action; I felt Laurie Penny almost hit a nail on the head when she said all-female spaces really are a red-herring.  Indeed if all-women spaces can be valuable than so too can all-male spaces, highlighting that it is not such spaces in themselves that are useful but their purpose and meaning.  During this session I had a phone-call from a female friend in Indonesia who once said to me, “I ain’t no fucking feminist, all they do is write and discuss theory.  I am taking action.”  This fits nicely with Laurie Penny’s acknowledgement that those who write about feminism often represent the ‘hive vagina’.  I would’ve liked to have heard some recognition of the return to biological determinism within the corporate media but again there were a number of links worth following up.

On Sunday I went to the forum on alternative voices from ‘the riots’ this was a focused and well organised session; probably worthy of the trip in itself.  A number of young people talked about their experiences of the riots, their interpretations of mainstream media as well as their analysis of the causes.  They expressed themselves in a variety of ways, including using video and poetry.  This was the ‘rebellious media’ I was looking for, not mirroring the current inadequacies but finding common ground with others and allowing their own expression to be the media.  Concerns of those close to events were raised, not mediated through some elite journalist with a decontextualised catchphrase.  This is what a radical media conference should look like as voices from the heart of relevant issues command centre stage while networking and organising follow.  I didn’t need to hear the repeated words of Chomsky and the fantastical theories of Michael Albert, they did say some better things in the final plenary but it wasn’t essential for me.

Some more mutual masturbation occurred in the final plenary, this time with some crowd participation, as people hailed a ‘successful’ and ‘nice’ conference.  When venues for events like this consistently take place in universities and Friends Meeting Houses friendly middle class voices will continue to dominate, whether they come from men or women, white or non-white.  I would love to see these events take place in community centres and to stop panels of academics and professionals dominating affairs.  Mix it up from the status quo and place academics and professionals alongside the youths of the riots and black feminists.  Neither do we need American dominance taking main stage; the UK has a wealth of expertise with greater analytical depth that is directly relevant (as Chomsky acknowledged).  Regardless of my opinion, most obviously there were two things missing from this ‘Rebellious Media Conference’; representatives from Wikileaks and Anonymous. I never even heard these two groups mentioned in passing and wondered if I was missing some aspect of alternative media politricks that served to exclude them.  Anonymous and Wikileaks have had a massive impact in the relatively short time that they have been around, and certainly fill the ‘rebellious’ quality.

Of course if my name was Noam Chomsky or Michael Albert I’m sure my criticism would be consumed much more easily or even swallowed whole.  Thankfully I do not wish this; I prefer the idea of ‘critecon’ (promoting a far more diverse critical economy).


A few groups worth checking;


Partnering Ayo Indonesia in Ruteng

Twisting from Bajawa to Ruteng, along, around and over the mountain range, in some places the road in so good its as if when the landscape was formed it came complete with tarmac. In other places nature is belittling human effort to control the land by tossing boulders as if they are pebbles; around one hairpin we have to dodge a fresh rock that is bigger than the 4×4 we are in. We will spend the next four days partnering Ayo Indonesia who has a packed schedule in store. Since they begun their work they have listened to communities and together negotiated strategies forward; from agriculture and roads to advocacy and education.

At the Ayo Indnesia office they have recalled field staff and invited people from local organisations, including Indonesia’s national family planning organisation; there are over twentyfive community activists. One of the women immediately asks Inna why she does this work focusing on abortion. Sometimes this could be a principled ‘why’ as in ‘how dare you’, at other times it is a ‘why’ of passing curiosity. It is always a question that deserves a succinct answer because since 2009 women having abortions and those avocating on abortion face a fifteen year jail sentence. Conversation then goes from sex and gender to contraception rights and informed choices. Inna is explaining that women not only have a right to contraception but a right to know the related side effects and an option to refuse. In the past Indonesia’s national family planning organisation has provided contraception without telling people of the side effects, not only breaking some medical principles but endangering women’s bodies and relationships. The representative today reacts to by talking about the culture of Flores and Manggari, how if women were informed many would refuse to use contraception. Inna responds by suggesting that its not simply about chucking information at people but how they are informed and also explaining coping strategies. I had a conversation with one women whose mother suffered from heavy bleeding for over twentyfive years, nobody knew that she had a intrauterine device and not even she believed that it was the cause of the heavy bleeding until last year when it was ‘discovered’ and removed. At the end, as always, people are asking for more information and copies of presentations.

Over one hundred nuns look after a sparkling building, six nuns look after almost two hundred orphans, the logic isn’t in the distance…

Later that day we are taken to an orphanage where some one hundred and fifty children, many with visual, hearing and speaking disabilities, are awaiting us. There isn’t time to work in smaller groups and we must sieze the opportunity. ‘Salamat sore’ [good afternoon] I say, ‘salamat sore’ they roar back. The concert has begun. So that those with physical disabilities are included from the beginning I suggested doing a few brief Shakti exercises and when it comes to describing the the female reproductive system I had the idea for everyone to touch their own eyes (ovaries), follow the eyebrows (fallopian tubes), down the nose (cervix) to the nostrils (vagina). Perhaps I am not the first to have this idea but I am happy to see so many children doing the actions; the idea for the male reproductive system was certainly less original! We do workshops with four or five big groups of children at schools, orphanages and nunneries. The children are invariably split into groups, asked to think of changes during puberty, and then to feedback in front of everyone. At times these moments are like concerts with someone coyly saying ‘menstruation’ followed by houls of laughter and Inna cheekily asking ‘what did they say’ getting more and more to shout ‘menstruation’; it is and excellent to watch as permission is granted to say taboo words and discuss subjects, for some, for the first time. At other times these moments are like politcal rallies with everybody listening with great intensity and taking notes as Inna writes a keyword.

Ayo Indonesia also take us to do a workshop with one of the villages that they have worked with. Over twenty villagers greet us; the older they are the darker they are, from all those years under the sun in the fields I guess. We are treated to an organic lunch fresh from their labour. There are also eight students from a nearby college doing a two month field study in the village. Its hot under the tin roof and I go out for a break. Quickly the students have followed me and I feel guilty because I assume they want to practice English. They introduce themselves and we chat and then I ask them why they left the workshop, was it not interesting. They embarrasingly reply that ‘too many taboo words are being used’. I ask what words but none want to say. Having met so many children over the past few days that have really embraced the opportunity to discuss these topics it is suprising to hear this from people in thier early twenties. I say lets go back in and they gradually follow as Inna is explaining about cervix exminations and breast examinations. I can tell they are uncomfortable throughout. At the end of the four days in Ruteng Inna tells me we have met over fourhundred people!

Conservative nuns, good nuns, nice nuns, polite nuns. Don’t think none, don’t talk none, don’t see none…

I, like Inna and Ayo Indonesia, appreciate the satellite workshops as an opportunity not just to present information to others but to learn from communities about sexuality and reproduction. We know that we cannot rely on governments to meet our daily needs or to save us in times of crisis. Only by listening to each other and being willing to take on projects together, with or without government assistance, can we find solutions to the problems we face. These people are too busy for protesting; they are living their lives, not demanding to be told how to live.


Satellite Workshops and Biological Bullshit

On returning to Kupang we adjust our flights to incorporate a workshop that was previously cancelled. With the church group that didn’t’t want to discuss abortion but discovered a friend had attempted a ‘cassava abortion’. An opportunity to meet and discuss issues surrounding sexuality and reproduction at such a traumatic time was surely worth amending flights for. We arrived early to a small hut behind a grand Catholic church. We are met by two people who immediately informed us that the schedule had been put revised. But when thirty minutes, becomes an hour that turns into two our enthusiasm drops. We go and eat and agree that if nobody shows by midday we will leave and try to do an impromptu workshop in a village we have been asked to visit. Just as we are saying goodbye seven women turn up and we agree to a short workshop but the atmosphere is strained throughout.

That was the last workshop for me. The next day Inna flew to Bali for the final two and I flew to Java in an attempt to reach Jakarta during the Ramadan rush. It ended on a frustrating note that was perhaps multiplied because we were exhausted from workshops and travel, but then again maybe I’m being kind. The situation serves to remind us that even in the face of horrific realities Samsara can only do so much as it meets people on their terms and conditions. Aside from that it has been thoroughly refreshing and enlightening; briefly coming into the lives of so many and making some new friends along the way, watching as people realize that Inna’s personality is much more flamboyant than her clothing choices (:P), and being able to participate, in a small way, on such significant issues. Inevitably many groups asked me about a comparison with issues of sexuality and reproduction in the UK and this got me thinking about a part of the workshops that I have a problem with.

In the UK the biological determinism of hormones and physiology reigns supreme, or rather the bad science of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and such crap rules roost. Basically they proclaim that men are genetically and hormonally determined to be aggressive rulers and women are best suited to the home. This biological bullshit almost died but has been resurrected by a belief in ‘free choice’ and the porn industry. You can easily read that since women have gained equality (!) but haven’t taken up anything near a fifty-fifty split in politics, employment, housework, etc it is because they choose not to, because they are not programmed to; it’s an unfair expectation.

Good scientists would say that the affects of biology and hormones are undetermined, for every biological study that fits the stereotype there are others that show no difference or difference in the opposite direction. A better scientist would state that the affects of culture, environment and politics will far outweigh the affects of bodily functions. For example in much of western Europe it was customary to dress babies of both sexes in white before the 20th century, for a time afterwards it was boys who were expected to don pink and girls blue; realities far removed from today’s pathetic pink princesses and boisterous blue badboys. Similarly anthropologists and archaeologists are reassessing data on extinct societies and discovering that there wasn’t such a strict sex imbalance, often roles of child-rearing and gathering food were exchangeable and shared. These are issues that I would certainly like to see introduced into the workshops because although it is important that people grasp the effects of biology and hormones, especially from medical interventions, it is more important that we open up thought and don’t reinforce negative stereotypes.

On both my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees I wrote dissertations on sexuality, intimacy, reproduction and HIV. It was my aim to go into a related sphere of work but I quickly felt the doors didn’t’t exist or were shut if you didn’t’t fit a certain criteria. Thanks to Inna and Samsara for allowing me to join them and reigniting this dream. In the Pali text Vinaya of the Mulasarvastivadins, the Buddha is quoted as saying, “destroyed is rebirth for me; consumed is my striving; done is what had to be done; I will not be born into another existence”. Fitting then that Samsara, an organization focusing on abortion and empowerment, means ‘rebirth’.


Sexuality and Reproduction Workshops: Lombok

The call to prayer has just begun in mosques all over the city, and so have we. It is the fourth workshop in four days on the island of Lombok in Indonesia. In places this small island looks more Islamic than some distant Middle East stereotype. We are here to provoke discussion on sexuality, sex and the reproductive system. This builds up to talk about abortion, which in Indonesia is illegal. The workshops in East Lombok were made up of people in their late twenties and early thirties and the workshops in Mataram, the island’s capital, are people in their late teens, early twenties. Both groups consist of about eight men and four women and present the possibility to disseminate information to a much wider audience, from villages to students.

As the man selling spicy fruit salad cycles past I am thinking about a discussion from the previous workshop. Half the group was in agreement that using words such as ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ were and are too explicit for wider audiences. My thinking is not how to describe the menstruation cycle or sex organs without using such terms but what this might be saying more subtly between the lines; ‘we are not ready for gender or sexual equality’. Because if we cannot name parts of the human anatomy using medical terms then how can we implement lessons within intimate relationships and society? Regardless of this fact both groups are enthusiastic, inquisitive and open to discussion on diverse issues.

In a traditional Sasak wedding small horses with small carriages carry the bride and groom, their family, and their friends. A procession of about twenty such horses and carriages have just ridden past the workshop, on the last carriage was a loud system. The locals wanted to take us to see the wedding and we wanted to go but all resisted the temptation and carried on. A range of questions come up, from the innocent to the weird. One biology/medical student wants to know how long the penis must be docked, no movement, for fertilization. Many participants are unaware that the reproductive system is not purely for making babies but can also be used for pleasure, both on their own and with others. A particularly inquisitive fifty year old virgin wants to know the answer to the following; if a woman is gang-raped by five men and becomes pregnant, whose is the baby, the first or the last? Luckily I didn’t understand what he was saying or I might have tried to answer. More worryingly this man has some responsibility to provide contraception in Lombok and was surprised when he saw that condoms come in multiple colors when I was demonstrating how to use one. I don’t think he picked up on the fact that I was using a ribbed variation. This highlights a wider problem with Indonesia’s national family planning organization who didn’t want to provide condoms for demonstration purposes in Yogyakarta, often hailed as one of Indonesia’s most liberal cities; they were afraid it would promote promiscuous sex to young people. When they eventually gave in they sent out of date condoms to ensure they wouldn’t be used in practice.

Signs and adverts are slowly going up to celebrate Ramadan. That is why we are starting the workshops in Lombok and returning to Bali and heading east where there populations are not so predominantly Islamic. On Friday, something of a half day for many Muslims around the world we took a break from the workshop for the midday prayer. The men took me to the mosque in Pancar and I watched the hundreds of men pray, not all could fit into the mosque some were praying on the pavement, in the shade. In Mataram one of the young men wants to discuss evolutionary and creationism with me after the workshop. Both groups want to make it clear to me subtly and explicitly that there does not have to be a conflict between Islam and ideas of gender and sexual equality. This is already a certainty for me but this isn’t just a show for the foreigner, men across Indonesia have set up new initiatives in attempt to engage more men in issues surrounding gender and sexual inequality. The problem is how the information is delivered because everybody knows the story of the ‘angry villager’. Angry because despite following the instructions of the family planning advisor still got pregnant; the condom went on the thumb during intercourse as shown.

These are not simple, innocent people without a clue when it comes to these topics. When a projector is not working and we are forced to draw the female reproductive system from memory a young woman confidently and calmly gets up, takes the pen off of us and corrects the drawing. More theoretically, everyone quickly grasps the difference between sex and gender and begins to appreciate how gender is socially constructed. I don’t know if there is enough time to explore what these things mean in practical terms but the workshops must introduce a number of issues and adapt to what participants want and need. For example they appreciate that I am not a women despite having long hair and that hair style is socially constructed and not biological but what does this mean when implementing projects or doing workshops in the future, how can we work in ways that break and open up gender stereotypes. That is what we could tackle if there was time.

So it has been an interesting four days that immediately challenge what I think sexuality and reproduction means in the world. Indeed a place where a fifty year old has many misconceptions about sex and sexuality while every teenager isn’t using sexually explicit language and engaging in ‘sexting’ seems like another planet, far from what the mainstream UK media would have us believe is possible in today’s global village. I haven’t got space to introduce some of the issues surrounding abortion or even the woman leading the workshops, and the organization she started. Next time.