By Jacqueline Grima
Manchester Metropolitan University’s (Manchester Met) Sylvia Pankhurst Gender Research Centre and the 2016 Humanities in Public Festival welcomed guests last week to an event entitled ‘Global Girls’. The aim reflected on concepts of gender and girlhood in a global context.
The event was opened by Manchester Met Senior Lecturer in Law Dr Kate Cook. Dr Cook, whose work has included study of rape appeal cases and research into female genital mutilation, spoke to Humanity Hallows about her involvement in the event. She said,
“I’m here to represent the Sylvia Pankhurst Gender Research Centre which is based in the Manchester Met Faculty of Business and Law but which draws its members from across the university. We are open to both staff and students and have four themes of research which are work, violence against women and girls, representation and sexuality.”
She added, “I’m thrilled to be here today because I think this event brings all of those themes together.”
Next, Manchester Met Senior Lecturer in Sociology Dr Shoba Arun welcomed guests before talking about her childhood in a small town in India, saying, “Education and social mobility were not for girls.” She went on to talk about how her own daughter’s upbringing is crossing culture boundaries: “I’m raising a girl who is truly global. Her identity is so fluid depending on the context.”
Shoba then introduced the first guest speaker, social researcher Dr Ofra Koffman, whose presentation was entitled ‘Girl Power: A Global Revolution’. Dr Koffman began by talking about how the concept of so-called girl power is a key theme in the area of Gender Studies and how the empowerment of girls, particularly girls in underdeveloped countries, has become a key agenda in the western world. In 2005, for example, the Nike Foundation launched an initiative called ‘The Girl Effect’ which promotes the power girls and women have in bringing about social change.
Dr Koffman also talked about how, in the west, campaigns have been launched across social media platforms to encourage girls to be more aware of the lack of opportunities available to their peers in other parts of the world. The United Nations ‘Girl Up’ campaign, supported by Ivanka Trump, launched a jewellery range with the slogan ‘One bracelet, six lives changed forever’. According to Dr Koffman, however, the campaign was somewhat patronising towards third world girls. She said, “There are more effective ways to reinforce solidarity.”
The second speaker was Dr Navtej Purewal, Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Indian Studies and Deputy Director of the South Asia Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Dr Purewal’s presentation focused on the ways in which neoliberal patrimony is being extended through social and economic policies in India in order to promote the so-called ‘save the daughter’ campaign.
Dr Purewal talked about the prejudices faced by female children in India, with girls being discriminated against when it comes to inheritance, land ownership and social positioning. She said, “Male centred inheritance is shaping the way girls are being positioned.” She added, “Daughters are viewed as temporary residents of their own household.”
Speaking about the festival of Raksha Bandhan, in which a girl ties a ceremonial thread around her brother’s wrist to show her devotion to him, Dr Purewal also said, “It’s actually a celebration, in my view, of the dispossession of women.”
The third speaker was Dr Victoria Cann, Lecturer in Humanities in the Interdisciplinary Institute for the Humanities, University of East Anglia. Dr Cann talked about her study of the attitude of both girls and boys to so-called ‘femininities’ such as romantic comedies, celebrity culture and boy bands, noticing that many girls seemed to distance themselves from things that they were traditionally expected to like. She said, “I found girls were not aligning themselves with femininity in the same ways boys align themselves with masculinity.” In contrast, boys were happy to claim ownership of traditional masculine trends such as martial arts films.
Dr Cann is also a founding member of the International Girls’ Studies Association (IGSA) and co-founder of the community group ‘Day of the Girl Norwich’ which celebrates femininity and girl culture. She said, “We invite both girls and boys to think about what it means to be a girl today.”
Next, Kate Cook took questions from the audience. Topics discussed included the appropriateness of the term ‘girl’ as opposed to ‘young women’ and the seeming decline in the number of girls who identify themselves as lesbians. One audience member commented, “It’s almost as if there is shame attached to it.”
Guests were then invited to look at a poster display created by girls from the Loretto Grammar School in Altrincham, which explored the concept of being a girl in 2016. Two girls from the school, Tarah and Roisin, also talked to the audience about the challenges faced by girls today, such as catcalling and other forms of sexual harassment. Tarah said, “You fear for your own safety walking down the street.”
Speaking about the importance of education for both girls and boys, she added, “Educating boys about feminism, and what women want from it, is really important.”
The event concluded with the screening of two films, Light Moves and Graphic Moves. The films were made by young people and community members in the ex-mining town of Merthyr Tydfil in Wales and focus on the health, well-being and sense of place amongst the town’s young inhabitants.
The Sylvia Pankhurst Gender Research Centre aims to provide an intellectual space where scholars with an interest in gender can meet on a regular basis to discuss their work. For more information, see the group’s webpage.
The next event in the Humanities in Public festival’s ‘WORLD’ strand is Dolly Birds and Swinging Cities on Thursday 19th May. For information and tickets visit the Festival webpage.