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Angie Zelter - changing the world with music at Ofog's mass action at NEAT, 26th July 2011. Photo: Ofog direktaktion för fred via Flickr.
Angie Zelter - changing the world with music at Ofog's mass action at NEAT, 26th July 2011. Photo: Ofog direktaktion för fred via Flickr.
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Here We Stand - women changing the world

Virginia Moffatt

28th August 2014

Every now and then I am sent a book to review that is an absolute pleasure to read from cover to cover, writes Virginia Moffatt. This marvellous collection of interviews and essays by world-changing women activists is precisely one such book.

These women have literally changed the world they inhabit, often at great cost to themselves. Which is enough to give even the most weary activist the belief that they can do it too.

I have to confess to having a personal investment in Here We Stand - one of the essays is by my friend Zoe Broughton, and I know several of the women featured - but I suspect that might be true of many readers.

For between them, the interviewees have been involved in every major campaign in the UK in the last thirty years: preventing 'honour killings', Greenham, Women's Aid, Mc-Libel, disability rights, Palestine, climate change, anti-austerity.

Chances are if you've been around these movements, you'll have met at least one of the participants and probably more. But it doesn't really matter whether you know all or none of these women, because their stories are so compelling, you are drawn in the moment you pick up this book

Breaking the silence

The opening interview with Jasvinder Sanghera, 'Breaking the silence', sets the tone. It tells the story of Sanghera's rejection of a forced marriage at 15, and her expulsion from the family as a result. And, how, the community's refusal to protect her sister, Robina, from domestic violence, led to Robina committing suicide.

Out of this horror, Sanghera gathers the courage to realise she is not at fault, writes a ground breaking book and founds Karma Nirvana, the influential campaign group that works to end so called 'honour killings'.

And a tale of hope emerges: as her daughter marries an Asian by choice, and Sanghera is able to see that not all Asian communities suffer from the twisted morality that the institution of marriage is more important than the women forced to endure it.

Some stories were very familiar to me. Liz Crow is someone I have recently got to know through social media. Her 'Bedding Out' installation last Spring was a brilliant campaign, using live art and Twitter and Facebook to inform the public of the reality of life as a chronically sick person, and the impact of welfare reforms.

Her interview is a great account of this and art works she has developed. I also appreciated her reflections there are many tools for effective campaigning - direct action, art, lobbying - and campaigners are stronger when they work together to utilise everyone's skills.

How video-reporting shut down the UK's top animal lab

Zoe Broughton has been a friend for years, but it was only when I read her account of her life as a video journalist, that I discovered quite how radical, and brave a filmmaker she is.

Her tales of undercover work exposing animal cruelty at Huntingdon Life Sciences (which led to a Channel 4 documentary and resulted in the company's share value going down) and many other places are a fascinating demonstration of the power of video evidence.

And whilst I was an avid supporter of Helen Steel (McLibel), Angie Zelter (Seeds of Hope/Trident Ploughshares), and Jo Wilding (Iraq war blogs and Boomchukka Circus) at the time of their actions, I enjoyed reading their testimonies here.

There were many activists I'd never heard of, but I was equally moved by the accounts of their work. Skye Chirape describes the horror of growing up a lesbian in a homophobic Nigerian community, her traumatic incarceration in an immigration detention centre, and her determination to campaign for LGBTI rights for asylum seekers.

Although I did not know of Franny Armstrong 's film-making career, I had seen some of her footage from McLibel and heard about her 'Age of Stupid' film on climate change. Reading the background to the making of the film has inspired me to watch it - better late than never.

Mary Sharkey describes the journey from meek housewife to ardent feminist, fighting against domestic violence, as she helped change the attitudes of courts and police to victims.

Ordinary women, doing extraordinary things

Whilst Zita Holbourne is passionate about fighting racism, exposing the reality that black people in Britain are both at the forefront of cuts and police oppression. The co-founder of Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (UK), is an articulate and intelligent campaigner, and I applaud her willingness to cross cultural divides and unite with the mainly middle class white Occupy movement, as allies in a common cause.

There are many more women than the ones I've highlighted, each with an important tale to tale, that will galvanise readers whatever the subject tackled. Because each activist, whether informed by their own struggles, or recognising their privileged background, demonstrates that every campaign victory is won by ordinary people working together to do what they can.

And it is refreshing to see the editors have taken such care to ensure a diverse range of women featured, and issues of race, disability, sexuality, class and culture being addressed.

This is a must have handbook for campaigners. For the days when you are down and believe it's pointless. For the times when the issue you are fighting feels too big and daunting. For the moments you think the campaign will be the death of you.

Because these women have literally changed the world they inhabit, often at great cost to themselves. Which is enough to give even the most weary activist the belief that they can do it too.

 


 

The book: 'Here We Stand - women changing the world' is compiled and edited by Helena Earnshaw and Angharad Penrhyn Jones, and published by Honno. £10.99. ISBN 978 1 909983 02 1. 319pp.

This book review was originally published by Peace News.

 

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