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The Centre for Peace was abuzz with discussion about gender justice on Saturday, March 31st, as dozens of local feminists, activists, journalists, artists, and others gathered for UPRISING!, WAM! Vancouver's second annual community conference. The local chapter of Women, Action, & the Media (WAM!) hosted the day workshops and discussions as part of a ten-day 'WAM! It Yourself' decentralized conference that took place in six cities and multiple online venues.
Founded in 2004 as "part of a growing advocacy movement for gender justice in media," WAM! "connects and supports media makers, activists, academics and funders working to advance women's media access, representation, participation and ownership." As examples of the power and privilege the organization is challenging on several fronts, WAM! points to a wide array of studies and reports about gender inequity in the media.
Journalism.com's 2008 State of the Media report revealed that race and gender issues combined only accounted for one per cent of overall news coverage. According to the Global Media Monitoring Project, only 24 per cent of the people interviewed, seen, heard, or read about in mainstream print and broadcast news in 2010 were women. Similar trends regarding staff gender imbalances in newsrooms, particularly at the director and management levels, are prevalent across print, radio, television, and film media, an issue that came up in discussion at the Vancouver conference.
"The conference, Uprising, proved to be a powerful day for people interested in WAM! Vancouver's values and vision to meet and partake in panels and workshops," WAM! Vancouver core organizer Meenakshi Mannoe told the Vancouver Media Co-op via email. She added that the panels and discussions were curated to "reflect the broad and varied interests of WAM! communities."
After WAM! Vancouver core organizers welcomed participants to the conference and went over the organization's history, values, and safer space policies, the day began with a facilitated discussion about media representations of recent movements: From Tahrir to Occupy.
"The problem is bigger than the Arab Spring; it's actually Western media reporting on the Middle East in general," said Egyptian-Bahraini UBC Master of Journalism student and UBC Perspectives Magazine Editor-in-Chief Mohamed Algarf, adding that the recent increase in Western media coverage of the region simply brought to light existing problems. "The issue with reporting on women and the Middle East is so intertwined with Islam and Islamophobia."
"Women in the Middle East are portrayed as either passive or oppressed: with the veil or the burqa, or in the background, or praying... So it's either that or the historical sexual bellydancer kind of harem image," continued Algarf. When covering street protests, "the reporting was so shocked" at the participation of women that it illustrated the problems with the portrayal of women in the Western media in the first place, he said.
Miranda Nelson, assistant editor of the online version of The Georgia Straight, was closely monitoring coverage of the Occupy movement in mainstream, alternative, and social media. She noticed that mainstream media coverage tended to fall into the pattern of representing women as victims - if they were arrested and beaten, for example: "They're not asked for their opinions. If they get hurt, then that's a story."
The second panel and discussion of the day focused on the representation of SlutWalk and its critiques. Participants engaged in a passionate debate about the name of the phenomenom, the organizing and media tactics, and media representation of SlutWalk.
The first SlutWalk rally took place in Toronto in April 2011, sparked by a comment made by Toronto police officer Constable Michael Sanguinetti to those attending an Osgoode Law School event, remarking that in order to remain safe, "women should avoid dressing like sluts." The event inspired SlutWalk rallies throughout North America and around the world, with thousands of people speaking out against sexual violence, victim-blaming, and rape culture.
"To me, language is everything and nothing. Words can be heavy and loaded, or empty," said local queer rights advocate Jen Sung, adding that criticisms are crucial because they create dialogue. "We must work towards examining language, decolonizing language, and understanding that language is in process."
Angela Marie MacDougall of Battered Women Support Services explained she that was conflicted about participating in the event, and that she does not consider SlutWalk to be feminist, or a movement: "It was a moment... For me, it was about gender violence and sexual violence."
MacDougall added that most alternative media coverage failed to address the implications of the controversial name and diverse critiques, particularly those coming from women of colour. She found more coverage of critical perspectives in Philadelphia, New York City, and other cities in the United States where there are more African-American, Black, and African descent communities. Social media also played an important role, with critiques of SlutWalk widely circulating on Facebook.
"The mainstream media did default to the regular ways in which women are represented," in terms of SlutWalk coverage, said MacDougall. However, she added, "the message got out overall - that sort of base message around victim-blaming, around sexual violence."
Later in the afternoon, Uprising conference participants had the choice of participating in a workshop about 7 habits of highly effective feminists, or in a roundtable discussion about revolutionary art. As the conference wrapped up, WAM! Vancouver core organizers thanked everyone for participating.
"We are looking forward to continuing to engage with folks who attended the conference and produce future events," Mannoe explained to the Vancouver Media Co-op, encouraging people interested in becoming involved to contact firstname.lastname@example.org