DIY feminism and Hidden Perspectives

// 9 May 2013

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Hannah Boast of LaDIYfest Sheffield describes what happened when a DIY feminist group took the risk of going ‘official’ to work with the University of Sheffield’s Biblical Studies department on a new project, Hidden Perspectives. The Hidden Perspectives festival takes place on June 1st.

LaDIYfest Sheffield 2013.jpgLaDIYfest Sheffield is a feminist collective run by a group of self-identified women from a range of backgrounds. In our two years of existence we’ve turned our hands to more projects than I could list, including gigs, comedy shows, and workshops.

While our events are very different, what they all have in common is that we try hard – usually meaning much soul-searching and debate on our infamous email list – to make sure that they’re run according to a DIY ethic which is non-hierarchical and as far as we can ensure, anti-capitalist. In short: all organisers are volunteers, performers get travel expenses and a place to sleep, and excepting venue costs, the only people making money are the local charities we support, which last year included the Young Women’s Housing Project and Survivors of Depression in Transition.

When Dr Katie Edwards of the University of Sheffield’s Biblical Studies department spoke to us last summer about becoming a ‘community partner’ on a new project called Hidden Perspectives, we were excited about the aims of the project and the themes it hoped to cover but hadn’t yet considered what this association with an institution might mean for us as a grassroots feminist group.

Hidden Perspectives describes itself as ‘bringing the Bible out of the closet’. Its aim is to explore alternative ways of reading the Bible, ones which queer or disrupt the sexism and heteronormativity that are often assumed to be the only interpretations of biblical narratives. At a time when the Bible is claimed as the basis of calls to ban abortion or restrict equal access to marriage, we liked the idea of revisiting the Bible to see if it might be read differently. One thing we’ve been pleased to find is that many progressive religious people had been doing this all along, like Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain.

Feminism often has an antagonistic relationship with religion. While there are a lot of good reasons for this, the hostility can leave religious feminists feeling isolated. As a group that tries to be inclusive, we don’t want to leave religious feminists out. In fact, as LaDIYfest’s Cara pointed out, religion might be the next step to consider in the move towards more intersectional feminisms.

One of our major roles in the project has been to find and book performers for the Hidden Perspectives festival on June 1st. With the help of the University’s reputation (and cash) we’ve created a line-up that we’d never have dreamt of attracting for a LaDIYfest show. And through working with us, the University is able to host people who might otherwise be wary of Biblical Studies, given its rather traditional image (which, I should add, is totally misplaced in the case of Sheffield’s department). We’re especially pleased about how many trans and genderqueer performers will be involved, including Sheffield poet Carol Robson and the musician CN Lester.

Still, we’ve been much more than just events organisers for Hidden Perspectives: we’ve also been central to the development of its ethos and direction. We think that this is why our community partnership has been such a success, while other projects where the community involvement is more tokenistic sometimes fail.

Working with the University has given us a chance to test out a new kind of activism, to bring the name of LaDIYfest into the minds of people who’d never heard of us before, and to show what we can do. It’s also given us an unexpected source of income, since we’ve been paid for our work.

This has freed us from worries about fundraising to cover this year’s festival costs and allowed us to support groups like Hollaback! Sheffield. However, it’s also led to self-questioning – suddenly we’re paying performers a fee, so how can we do this equally when the fee is based on an artist’s demands? Is this too close for comfort to a major reason behind the gender pay gap; women not feeling able to negotiate higher salaries? Does it conflict with our principles in other ways? We don’t want to be the bosses, but that’s not the right analogy when we’re working for free. We’ve tried to be upfront with performers about finances, but we’re acutely conscious that it’s a difficult issue.

Working with Sheffield University has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for LaDIYfest, even if it’s also raised unanticipated questions. Universities are now expected to do more and more public engagement, which means increased opportunities for activists to join projects like Hidden Perspectives. If a chance comes your way we’d suggest you think seriously about it, but make sure you consider the surprises that might be involved.

The image is LaDIYfest Sheffield’s logo for 2013. It is a black, hand-drawn illustration of two smiling people holding up a placard that says LaDIYfest Sheffield 2013. One is wearing a leopard-print headscarf, the other has glasses and tied-back hair with a fringe.

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