Women in Leadership, Bremen, March 2015
INTERVIEW WITH SIANA BANGURA FOR INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY
1. WHY DO YOU THINK IS IT IMPORTANT TO HOLD CONFERENCES LIKE WOMEN’S INTERNATIONAL LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE AT PLACES LIKE JACOBS UNIVERSITY?
It is so important for women to gather together, collaborate, discuss, and celebrate with each other. It is especially important to do so when you’re a student, as that is a really unique time in one’s life: you are dedicating three or four years entirely to the pursuit of knowledge and growth, not in the same way as your time in education prior to this (primary school, secondary school, college), which is quite extraordinary when you think about it. Universities are where some of the greatest minds of our time come into their own. Jacob University’s special focus on engineering and the sciences is important to note too, as these are fields that globally, women are least represented in. Women often lack confidence in these subjects from as early as primary and secondary school. The UK notoriously has the lowest number of female engineers in the whole of Europe. Only nine per cent of UK engineering professionals are women compared to 18 per cent in Spain, 26 per cent in Sweden and 20 per cent in Italy, according to Engineering UK. As more of an artist myself, and someone who works in the media, I can confirm that in these fields, even at top positions, there is a gender pay gap. And approximately 70% of people in national minimum wage jobs are women. With stats like these it can be easy to feel disheartened. Getting together successful women from the UK, Germany, and other places for a weekend of discussion reminds us that all is not lost. We need to create as many opportunities as possible for women to network with one another and lift each other up. We can learn from every woman who will be at the conference and take something valuable home with us.
2.) IF YOU COULD GIVE ONE PIECE OF ADVICE TO THE PARTICIPANTS AT WOMEN’S INTERNATIONAL LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
Come with an open mind, lots of enthusiasm, and a willingness to (un)learn
3.) WAS THERE A KEY MOMENT IN YOUR LIFE THAT MADE YOU BECOME A FEMINIST?
I am the first one to admit I was a reluctant feminist. I never wanted the label because it is so politically charged and loaded with negative stereotypes. Also, women like me have for too long been erased from the narrative. I am not a white, middle class woman. I am a black working class woman. Until now, before Intersectional Feminism became a more widely understood and accepted as a ‘brand’ of Feminism, people saw Feminism as a movement to represent white, middle-class, privileged women only but I and lots of other women are working tirelessly to diversify the conversation, diversify the voices, and diversify the faces of the movement. I would say I have always been someone who strongly believes in the right of every person – regardless of their gender, race, colour, creed, sexuality, and other intersections – to be equal: de facto and de jure. I would say the moment I felt I had to start wearing the label as such was just after I finished university in 2013 and set up No Fly on the WALL. Through writing for and curating the blog, I found my Black Feminist voice and I continue to learn and unlearn everyday.
4.) BASED ON YOUR EXPERIENCE AS A BLOGGER, WRITER, AND JOURNALIST WHAT DO YOU FEEL HAS BEEN THE MOST EFFECTIVE MEANS OF PROMOTING GENDER EQUALITY?
There are countless ways to promote gender equality. It’s funny that we have to promote something like that when equality for all people should just be common sense. I think social media has democratised society. Platforms like Twitter especially give a voice and visibility to pretty much anyone. This can be a good thing and a bad thing, but either way it is powerful. You can set up a blog and carve your own space and have your own corner of the Internet. There is room for everyone. And social media has connected us in such a revolutionary and extraordinary way. I can tweet someone in Australia, America, France, Mexico, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and we can exchange lived experiences without ever meeting. You can be part of communities like never before and I have personally seen how the online world can come offline. I am connected to friends of friends of friends on Twitter and eventually we end up meeting in real life because the degrees of separation are getting smaller. At times it can be claustrophobic but more often than not it is empowering.
The Everyday Sexism Project started online and now it is a global movement, documenting the everyday experiences of women. Laura Bates put a spotlight on misogyny in our everyday lives, the type of stuff we had become numb to. The #BlackLivesMatter movement and the on going struggles in Ferguson, Missouri put a spotlight on the role black women were playing in the battle against police brutality. Black women were leading the grassroots movements out there and being shot and beaten because they love their brothers, their children, their friends, the black men around them who have been hunted by the police like animals. Social media has uncensored the stuff mainstream media censors. My favourite place to get real-time news is Twitter in fact. Journalists often use it to get stories and everyone else catches up later.
There are lots of groups out there promoting gender equality and working for and with women at grassroots level especially. I have found comfort in groups like the London Black Feminists for instance and the Fly Girls of Cambridge Network at my Alma mater. I would say to all women and all marginalised groups: write yourselves back into the history books. Chronicle your time here. Write your own HERstory so women after you can learn about our societies and the women who helped to build them.
The Creative Crowd, February 2015
2014 was a beautiful yet challenging year for me, but one of the highlights apart from marrying my best friend was helping Radio Plus Coventry pioneer a brand new course delivering media & employability skills to help people looking to move into the Radio industry. This is where I met Siana. She is such a talented, creative and outspoken woman who has achieved so much in her twenties. She is a joy to be around and when you are in her presence the conversation is thought provoking, fruitful and eye opening. I hope you enjoy reading through her interview and don’t miss out on her latest poem which we have linked at the bottom! If you live in London, check out her facebook for up and coming poetry nights she may be attending. You wouldn’t want to miss it! – Lisa
1. How long have you been writing poetry for and what inspired you to start?
I’ve been writing creatively for a long as I can remember (just like everybody says!). Running away with my imagination and seeking comfort in books, poetry, the writing of others was always my favourite pastime. So that’s how I started I guess. When I was younger I used to write quite dark stuff and some of my poetry got published in school anthologies, things like that. I remember I wrote a poem called ‘The Eye of the Sea’ when I was in primary school. I came across it a few years ago and laughed so hard. It was rubbish but for me, at the time, it was my Magnum opus.
I used to write short stories and was working on a novel when I was about twelve I think. It was a detective type thing and the main character was based on Hercule Poirot. I think the same things that inspire me to write now are the same things that inspired me to write back then too. I needed my voice to be heard and sometimes it’s easier to do so through performance or by using characters. Escapism can be very healing. Injustice makes me write. Anger leads me to my pen. Joy and love cause me to write. I stopped writing poetry for a long time though simply because life got in the way and I got ‘too old’ for it. I started to think it was a bit cheesy and felt a bit embarrassed about being so deep within my emotions. I decided I was ‘too busy’ for poetry. I turned my attention to music journalism and album reviews, fashion blogging, and politics.
However, in October 2013 I had a life-changing encounter with someone from my past. It was very quick but made a huge impact on me and because I wasn’t able to coherently talk about how I felt about that encounter and how much it hurt, so I went back to being the little girl who hid under the dining room table and found comfort in her writing. I found a quiet space and I wrote ‘The Stranger’. After I wrote this poem, I performed it in November at a monthly spoken word event in London called Poetry Luv. I had forgotten how exhilarating it is to be on stage and perform. It was also a very cathartic experience too – in the audience were my best friends as well as people I did not know. They all said my poem touched them deeply. One of my friends cried a lot and this told me that I had to pick up from where I left things. I started writing more and more, fitting it in every day (which wasn’t actually that hard after all – it never is when it’s something you love doing), and I started immersing myself in London’s spoken word scene, going to the numerous events, introducing myself to other poets, and understanding the culture. It was all really eye-opening for me.
2. Besides poetry – you have some other creative outlets, what are they?
I am really into photography (again, just like everyone else, right?) and I was taking it very seriously during university. I even had my own small business going but again, I ended up turning my attentions to other things. I really enjoy portraiture and capturing people, especially faces in black and white.There is so much history in someone’s face and so many stories. There is so much power in that stillness. I am also a big fan of fashion and I sew a bit. I would love to have my own blazer line – bold colours, power shoulders, gold buttons, and asymmetry. I used to make bags for friends at school from old jeans. They were quite good, even if I do say so myself!
I enjoy theatre too and one day I’d love to be back on stage performing in a role of some sort. In October 2014 I co-produced a one- woman comedy called Fierce, by Kathryn Griffiths. I’d never done anything like that before. I really loved seeing it all come to life on stage. Kathryn is a phenomenal performer. In a past life I also used to sing a bit and play the violin. I do wish I had stuck at those things and tried harder with the guitar but heck, some of us are better positioned to appreciate the music of others rather than make our own and there is no shame in that. I keep telling myself I’m going to learn the saxophone… we shall see.
It would be really cool to make a spoken word EP and fill it with musical interludes as well as poetry. So much of what I write could be turned into music – that’s the beauty of poetry. In fact, I often sing my lines when it comes to committing my poems to memory. It helps. I’d need to have singing lessons though if I was going to take it more seriously as I don’t know how to breathe and sing simultaneously! No formal technique. I had a dream a while back, in which I did a remake of Saint Etienne’s ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ and it went straight to number one worldwide. It was a one-hit wonder though. I am really keen to learn more about the technical aspects of production like mixing your voice and using studio equipment, producing, things like that. I know how to do some of these things as I was a radio DJ for three years and produced my own shows in Cambridge but I’m rusty now.
3. Where do you spend most of your time?
I spend most of my time in London. I work in Central London as a journalist and then most weekends or after work I’ll have an event to attend. I go to a lot of poetry events these days. I used to go to concerts more than I do now but I’m seeing FKA Twigs this month (February) and I’m super psyched about that.
When I’m at home I try to make sure I spend time with my mum and my younger sister. I am really loving Orange is the New Black on Netflix – I’m behind everyone else because I don’t watch TV much but whenever I can steal a couple of hours I will get stuck into an episode or two. As well as being hilarious, I think the way the creators have played with stereotypes of intersections like race, gender, and sexuality is really clever.
In terms of specific places, I love visiting the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton. I love Brixton in general. I love Peckham too as I lived there last year and found a lot of wonderful gems, Peckham’s best kept secrets that many people are only discovering now. I love South London as that is where I am from. It’s taken me ten years to finally love that place.
4. What is your biggest dream?
To touch and positively affect as many people with my creative work and my political activism as Maya Angelou did. How I’ll do that is anybody’s guess.
5. For someone looking to start a blog – what advice could you give them?
It’s important for women, ethnic minorities, young people, and other marginalised groups especially to have their voices heard. We have to carve our own spaces in which we can be visible. I started blogging regularly when I was fifteen I think and have not stopped since.
I decided that I would put a flag in my little corner of the Internet and make it clear that it is my space. I have been through a lot of blogs but I think my current one, dontgotheresiana.com , is right for me right now. I finally got the tone and feel I wanted. I really wanted someone to hire me as a journalist when I left university and nobody did and so I thought to myself, ‘you know what? I am going to make myself an editor’. And I did. I was also really fed up of not really having somewhere for Black British women to speak about their lived experiences so those two things led me to create No Fly on the WALL.
6. Who inspires you as a creative individual?
It’s not so much who inspires me to create as it is what inspires me to create. I would say for now, the Zeitgeist is pushing me to write and create. The current mood of my generation is one of unrest and desire for change. I strongly believe the revolution is ours. So I write poetry that explores things like abandonment and absent fathers, racism and white supremacy, shadeism, Islamophobia, Jihad, corrupt political systems, betrayal, but also sisterhood, Feminism, and love.
My latest poem is called ‘Elephant’. On the surface, you could say it’s about racism. The ‘elephant’ is a very bitter, lost, sad, frightened white man who now hates all people of colour. You get small insights into the potential reasons why he is like this. He has also suffered and he is a victim of capitalism and failed democracy. He has been failed too. This man embodies all the things I’ve read, conversations I’ve had, tweets I’ve seen, and Facebook posts I’ve scoffed at. There really are people who will argue that ‘Africans have nothing to be proud of’ and that ‘White people built the modern world and this is a white man’s world’ and the rest of us are just living in it, despite the fact that non-white folk are the world’s global majority. The global South if you will.
The poem is also about hypocrisy and contradictions – something we are all guilty of. But the effects of all these negative things live forever within us and we do remember, just like elephants. The memory of an elephant is imperative to its survival so it can’t afford to forget about those who have killed its mother or its children. I find my environment inspires me. I also have some very talented people in my circles who I really respect so keeping a close eye on them encourages me to always bring my A game and make sure my shit is tight. I want to be respected by my peers for the work I put in and the stuff I put out there. I’m not afraid to admit that.
7. Do you read any blogs and if so what are you favourites?
I read and write for VS Notebook, which is an upcoming and exciting platform for writers and other creatives. There is always a lot of diverse content on the site and the editors are cool too. I often read For Harriet, which is a blog focused on Black women (mainly African-American women).
Afro Punk is awesome for fashion and music and on Facebook they often share stuff from other platforms too. Asylum 33 is cool, a real visual feast. Those are my regulars right now but I spend so much time online I am always coming across new blogs, new people, new writers and that is exciting.
8. How do you keep yourself inspired?
I think being inspired and motivated can be conflated. I often do it. In general, I am a really motivated person. I tend to plough through tiredness and generally manage to keep high spirits because there is so much culture to witness and participate in everywhere.
I get tired sometimes when it comes to my more political work though – some of us call it ‘the burden of being “conscious”’. Sometimes you get writers’ block or you feel like your work isn’t as good as that person’s or that person’s, especially if you’ve been to a show or read something amazing. But it works the other way also – seeing how great others are reminds you of how good you already are and how great you could be. At least that is the case for me.
I keep reading, watching, writing, discussing and then everything just flows. I tell myself our generation needs another Maya Angelou or bell hooks, or Alice Walker. I tell myself we need a ‘For Coloured Girls’ choreopoem for the women of today. And I tell myself that there is no reason why one day I can’t be the one to write it and I tell myself that there is no reason to put limits on what I can achieve because others will do that for me. That’s the nature of our present society. It can be hard to be original. It’s a special currency. Everybody is out here in the wild trying to ‘make it’ as a creative and often it seems like we all want to do the same things and all want to go for the same limited opportunities, start the same platforms. The creative world sometimes feels congested and claustrophobic and even the word ‘creative’ is overused I guess. It can all be so loud. That’s why you have to remember to take some time to sit with yourself quietly and recharge your batteries. After a long day at work you might not feel like going to your laptop and finishing off your novel or polishing off your track and that’s okay but most of the time you will want to do those things because that is what you love.
Love, self-love, is so powerful. We are in our element when we are doing what we love and being all that we can be. What we have in common is that we all want to be happy. My quest for happiness and feeling satisfied with my life is a strong fuel of inspiration – it is one of my many motivations. I want to be able to say I made the most of my time here, while I had it. I want to be sure to leave a positive and meaningful legacy like the people I admire.
9. What do you like to do in your spare time?
I don’t have much spare time! But I like going to the movies. I like going to art galleries. I love reading and all of those things inevitably make me want to write something.
10. Where can our readers find you online?
I have quite a big online presence I hear so I’m not hard to find!
You can keep up with me by visiting my personal blog: dontgotheresiana.com
You can also check out my work within the Feminist movement by visiting: noflyonthewall.comand attending one of our No Fly on the WALL Academy events and workshops.
I am a fan of micro-blogging too. The power of social media fascinates me. Catch me on Twitter here: @sianaarrgh I share some of my spoken word poetry on Sound Cloud: soundcloud.com/sianaarrgh
Check out my latest poem, ‘Elephant’, here:
Vs Notebook, January 2015
VSNOTEBOOK INVESTIGATES IDENTITY: INTERVIEW VII
We speak with the lovely Siana who definitely opens the floor for a new discussion on identityWhat is your identity?This is a very big question. One’s identity is like an onion – multi-layered. It develops with time, it can be fluid, ever changing; it often solidifies as you become more comfortable in your skin. It can be elusive, or lucid. Finding it is a process: a painful, powerful, wonderful, beautiful, lengthy, confusing process. My identity is born from my cultural heritage, physical place, beliefs, what I know and what I do not know, and what I have learnt about my place in my society and on a larger scale, global society. Once fully realised, I think your essential core identity is then a constant presence, assisting your navigation through life. I feel things like music have helped me to explore my identity and through my poetry and creative writing as well as my opinion pieces, I have been able to explore that identity – perceived or otherwise.
Has a label ever affected you negatively?
I used to be that person who was all about ‘not being labelled’. However, in the summer of 2011, I went to America to live with the Amish for two and a half months and during that journey I was bombarded with labels. It was everyone’s attempt to understand me because I was so ‘different’ from them and our values were seemingly astronomically opposing. When I returned I decided to own certain labels as you can’t control the fact that people will label you. I always say I was a reluctant feminist and tried to avoid using the word at all costs because it was so loaded. Now I am using it and trying my best to positively reinforce it and let people know that you don’t have to be a white middle class cisgendered heterosexual woman to use it but you do have to be about it.
At school I was labelled an ‘oreo’, ‘coconut’, ‘milky way bar’, things that were ‘black on the outside and white on the inside’. That irritated me throughout school and is directly to blame for the period of my life in which I outright rejected my black identity and the black community because I believed I was not ‘black enough’, and thus, felt that the community rejected me. However, you live, you learn, and you heal and I have long since come to understand that the people who gave me those labels were the problem, not me.
Where would you say you are originally from? What does the term ‘Black British’ mean to you?
I was born in Freetown Sierra Leone on the 16th of September 1991. So I always make a distinction between being ‘from’ somewhere and originating from somewhere. I originate from Sierra Leone in West Africa but I am from Britain, I am from London. In my final year of university, I started to feel more African after trying to be English my whole life. Now, I would never say I am English because I have learnt that Englishness has a colour (or rather lack of colour) attached to it, whereas to be British is something else. The British identity is accepted – perhaps begrudgingly so – as an amalgamation of identities including those of the colonial Diasporas, a ‘melting pot’, and nowhere in Britain is as much of a melting pot as London. It almost feels like ‘London’ is its own country within a country. I can be fully African and fully from London simultaneously, but I do not feel that I can be fully African and fully ‘English’ simultaneously. I find the term‘Black British’ very interesting – it says so much and says nothing at all at the same time. We don’t call white Brits ‘White British’ unless we are filling in forms. Whiteness is the default. Whiteness is blankness. A clean blank page. Whiteness is the norm. There is a political definition of blackness, which includes all non-white people, people who are actually the global majority, but it’s not a widely used or widely understood definition. People still understand blackness as a skin colour alone.
How do you think your cultural upbringing has affected who you are, if at all?
My cultural upbringing has ensured my identity is a rich tapestry of history and lessons. I’m only twenty-three and still working life out so I am sure I don’t fully appreciate how my culture has affected me yet but no doubt I will find out in due course.
Do you think labels such as someone’s sexuality, gender, race, or class can or should define them?
I don’t think any label should define you, especially things as fluid as sexuality and gender, and as subjective as class and race. And yes these things are subjective – they are labels and groupings created by people, not universal truths. If anything, I think your values should define you and the aforementioned might help to shape your worldview, which will in turn play a part in nurturing and developing your values, but ultimately I think your worth is in what you stand for. As the saying goes, ‘those who stand for nothing fall for anything’. Stand for something. Be about it.
When do you think you’ve learnt your most important lessons?
I have learnt my most important lessons outside of the classroom and beyond the school gates. I studied at one of the world’s best universities and have been taught by the greatest minds of our time, but I’d always say the University of life trumps all. You don’t receive the degree from this particular university until the day you die.
Siana. London. January 2015.
Sparkles and Crumbs, September 2013
Well, hey there, Ms Siana! So, if you could choose anywhere in the world, where are we meeting for our champagne tea?
I’d love us to meet at the Museum for African Art on Fifth Avenue, Queens, New York. I have yet to visit The Big Apple and what better way to storm in than with Champagne?! We’d find a spot on the floor, in front of a huge display and spread out a blanket and set out two champagne flutes. Then again, if that’s too much effort we could always go to the Tate Modern on Southbank! I love that place.
I haven’t been to New York yet, either, so this is the perfect excuse – let’s go for The City That Never Sleeps! What are we eating and drinking for our impromptu picnic?
Chocolate cake, Champagne (on you!), and a variety of herbal teas, including rose petal, hibiscus, and peppermint. Truly delightful!
Ah, it’s always good to find a fellow cake lover! So, I’m really excited to chat about your latest project, ‘No Fly on the WALL.’ Can you tell us some more about it?
No Fly on the WALL is my new baby. My offspring. In short, it’s a fresh new platform to discuss gender issues. We want to re-define the word ‘feminism’, which is a big task. Right now it’s a loaded term that has a shit-load of negative connotations. It has a lot of derogatory stereotypes attached to it. I want to help make the word a positive ‘label’ for women and men alike. It makes me sad to hear young women say ‘I’m not a feminist’ and do their best to distance themselves from it all. I don’t blame them, and I can understand, but I don’t believe there is one woman in the world that doesn’t, deep down, want freedom from sexist roles, patterns, and domination. The gender binary troubles me. The idea that men and women should behave in certain ways troubles me. The notion that having a vagina makes you a woman by definition troubles me. Things are not as black and white as that, not anymore. There are a lot of grey areas.
‘In addition, currently, I do not think mainstream feminism is diverse. Right now I think there is just one type of voice claiming to speak for all women. I don’t think women of colour, such as myself, have a big enough voice in the discussion, if we even really have a voice at all. I don’t think our opinions and experiences are respected. This needs to change. One unique thing about NFotW is the active engagement of people who have, until now not engaged in the conversation, especially women from ethnic minority backgrounds and young men. We’ve added male voices to the discussion because you really can’t go far and reach the ultimate goal of equality without half of the workforce on board. Men need to understand feminism as much as women do and understand why so many women are demanding change. We need them to be our allies in the struggle, just as we need all women to work together as a sisterhood. We’re not fighting because we hate all men, or at least that should not be the case. We who have chosen to fight hate oppression, injustice, and all the other negative things that come with the enforement of gender roles. Patriarchy harms everyone in the long-run and is a destructive force. Although crucially, the main focus of Feminist efforts is to make the lives of all women better, we need everyone to be engaged in the discussion and the march towards change.
I don’t want women to be ‘victims’ anymore. We have agency. We are taking control of our history and creating our ‘HERstory’.
NFotW is a call for the genders to take action. We need to educate ourselves and re-examine what we tolerate and what we think is acceptable. I’ve had people writing articles who have never written before and they are excited to finally have a chance to say what’s on their mind without fear of being told that they ‘don’t know enough’. We also cover a vast range of subjects – things that at first, might make some ask ‘why is this relevant to me as a feminist?’ or ‘why is this a feminist issue?’ but scratch the surface and you’ll find the answers to those questions. I have been overwhelmed by the positive response we have received so far. I have been surprised by the number of people and the different types of people engaging with us, actively or quietly. I’m learning so much as I go along. More often than not we get stuck waiting for the ‘right’ time to do things and it ends up never being the ‘right’ time. I’ve dived straight in at the deep end and I’m learning on the job but I think we’re reaching a critical moment in terms of the distribution of power in society. I believe change is coming. I know I won’t be able to please everyone with this project and that’s not really my aim. I would like to diversify the discussion. I would like more people to feel like they can call themselves Feminists. We need to add new and diverse voices to the discussion of gender issues. The vast majority of people who are not white, university educated, middle class women have been silenced for too long. Grouping all women into one box is part of the problem. We at NFotW are going from strength to strength and long may it continue. I’m so grateful and overwhelmed by the support and interest we have received so far.
There’s been quite a furore on Twitter recently surrounding #solidarityisforwhitewomen – do you think the issues of race and white privilege are seriously overlooked or dismissed by the modern feminist movement?
One of the main reasons I started NFotW is because I do not feel that I am being represented in mainstream feminism. I don’t want one voice claiming to speak for my experiences when that voice has not taken into account the differences in my experiences because of the colour of my skin. There is an elitism within the feminist movement, a type of academic feminism that ignores the real experiences of women from the grassroots. If you want to even call it a ‘movement’ – I’d argue we don’t have one yet. There is a lot of white privilege and until white women acknowledge this, working together with their sisters of colour to reach equality will be difficult. If equality is reached, it will be an equality for them alone, within the system that already exists and disadvantages so many. I have found personal frustration in some white women assuming that I or other women of colour do not possess the ‘correct’ understanding of feminism to participate in the discussion or even lead the movement. There is definitely a divide and women who are not white definitely feel alienated or disconnected from the movement. They often feel patronised, talked down to, excluded, silenced, and in extreme cases, bullied. White privilege is a BIG problem in general and it’s something people shy away from talking about. We all need to talk about it or we can never move forward. Denial is dangerous and it gets people’s backs up. I had a recent and very nasty exchange with a white male who vehemently denied his privilege. It was a rather extraordinary exchange actually. The arrogance was astounding. As for #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, I can relate with the sentiment being expressed. There is not one homogeneous ‘Women’s experience’. I myself do not claim to speak for everyone, which is why I have a variety of writers writing for NFotW. I want different voices from which we can all learn. Before I left Cambridge, a few friends of mine set up a group for black and ethnic minority women in Cambridge called ‘Fly’. We have white women in the group too but these are women who have accepted their privilege and see us as equals. We are all part of one sisterhood. I found my strength in those women and those meetings. For that I am eternally grateful.
At No Fly on the WALL, you talk about the stereotype of the bra-burning, man-hating feminist, and how you’re trying to encourage a more inclusive vision of what being a feminist means. Do you think there’s a place at all today for a more extreme, angry feminism, or has it just overwhelmingly put a lot of people off engaging with feminist ideas?
You have to be angry to want to change things. It’s as simple as that. Apathy is dangerous. Sure, extremism has sometimes harmed the movement but we have come some way because of the women who fought tooth and nail and risked everything for the cause. They were called extreme because they went against the grain, because they dared to challenge the status quo. Sometimes people don’t see themselves as an extremist. I’ve been called an extremist or a ‘rebel’. I wouldn’t agree with those labels. One must be full of fire and passion and will if they want to be part of a revolution because changing the status quo is laborious. You will be deflated, you will come across criticism, you will clash with people, you will lose friends and find new allies, you will upset people. You have to be emotionally, mentally, and physically ready for all of that. You will come across resistance. The negative stereotype of feminism makes things harder for us but we must not give up. I and so many others are tired of this being a world run by white, cisgendered, straight, middle-class (and upper class) men, with the rest of us just simply living in it, peering in from the sidelines and wondering ‘what if?’ It’s really important that diversity is at the forefront of the vision. It’s no good women demanding equality within a patriarchal structure. That limits progress because black and ethnic minority men who already don’t have much power stay where they are and black and ethnic minority women will have almost zero chance of rising up with their white sisters. As bell hooks says in Passionate Politics, we must start again. We must criticise capitalism, we must deconstruct patriarchy, and we must re-educate ourselves. We need to question everything we’ve accepted. That will inevitably make us uncomfortable. There is actually a relatively new term in use now in sociological circles that I think describes the complexities of the power structures of Patriarchy much better than the word itself and that word is ‘Kyriarchy’. It accounts for the fact that men who do not fit the hegemonic masculine model are also without power. It sums up the bigger picture quite well.
One thing I would vehemently lament is the way that some militant feminists shut people down. I’ve seen women yell and scream at other women, and men, which means nobody can learn anything. I’ve posted articles on forums and have been told that the ideas are bullshit and stupid. That’s a real shame. I get angry. I lose it sometimes, especially when it comes to race but I keep learning and I always try to ask myself ‘could I have dealt with that better?’ or ‘Was that reaction justified, Siana?’ I have conversations with myself a lot. I never want to alienate people but that’s not to say I am afraid to fall out with people over my views. Just find a balance in your approach. Be firm when you need to be and be understanding and compassionate when it is the better method.
Martin Luther King once said that if you’ve got nothing you are willing to die for then you’ve never lived. In fact I think he even went as far as to say ‘you are not fit to live’. I love the passion in that. That’s extremism right there!
I couldn’t agree more with you about a balanced approach – standing your ground without alienating others. So, here’s a question I’m sure is just as relevant to a lot of Sparkles & Crumbs readers as it is for me: I feel like there’s a very widespread perception that you can’t be serious or have a strong opinion on important issues if you look or dress a certain way – that if you’re interested in style, you won’t have substance. As a fellow quaintrelle with kickass style and an enthusiastic temperament, is that something you’ve ever experienced too?
I enjoy fashion a lot. I like make-up, I like clothes, I like shoes, I love having fantastic nails. These are some of the ways I express myself and my creativity. I’m no stranger to being criticised for dressing a certain way. I remember I once got called an ‘air head’ by a guy who shall remain nameless. He said I can’t be a socialist or a feminist or even political because I spend ‘too much time’ reading Vogue, or iD, or LOVE Magazine. I found that criticism interesting. I’m anything but dim first of all, and I resent the very idea of assuming someone is stupid because they read magazines like that. Just as I read fashion magazines and keep up with popular culture blogs, I am an avid reader of New Scientist, The New Yorker, New Statesman, The Gaurdian, and so on. In fact, I’m a massive geek and I always have been. Human beings are multi-dimensional and that should be acknowledged more. I think some feminists who wrongly believe there is only one ‘right’ way to be a feminist will think I have little substance and that I am part of a ‘fad’. To them I say more fool you. I’d like to think that feminists would welcome diversity but in my experience so far I’ve been very disappointed.
‘NFotW is a response to that disappointment actually. I decided to take things into my own hands and I went about building a team and recruiting talented writers. I am a feminist who does shave my legs and my underarms, I do pluck my eyebrows, I do spend money on getting my nails done. I do worry about my body and how I look sometimes because I am only human. But none of that means my feminism is watered down. None of that is to please some man. Some people will find that hard to believe of course, which is a shame and shows that we do have a long way to go. Just as we advocate that it’s okay to not do these things, I think the opposite should also be true. The thinking behind our actions should be just as important as the actions themselves and that is something feminists and other activists alike should keep in mind at all times. Some stereotypes are true – there are feminist who are Lesbians; there are feminists who don’t shave their underarms and who don’t want to wear bras. These are facts. The media and anti-Feminists have created a caricature of what a Feminist is simply to fit an agenda and put people off finding out for themselves. I think it is important that we ask ourselves ‘What does a Feminist look like’ AFTER we ask ourselves ‘what does a Feminist believe‘!
Although I advocate ‘feminisms’, I do not think we should accommodate inherently patriarchal ideas and I don’t think all women are allies to the movement just because they are women. Many of us don’t even realise that some of the ideas we subscribe to are inherently sexist like the revering of female ‘virginity’. People need to point these things out to you and explain why such ideas are born from Patriarchy. I do not think all men are threats to progress just because they are men. Men can be feminists and many are working with us, side by side as allies. It is important to note that we as women do have some internalised sexist ideas just as men do because of the society we have been raised in but we must do our best to free ourselves from our chains. I’m very much in favour of accepting that every woman has her own priorities – the things that are most important to her, which will reflect in the changes she wants to see and in what order she needs to see them. In saying that, I reckon there are things that are important to all of us, and these are the things that will tie womankind together and encourage a global sisterhood. It might sound contradictory, but accepting different methods to reach the same goal can work. We can find unity in diversity.
Hear hear! Siana, you’re obviously quite an adventurous soul – you starred on ‘Living with the Amish,’ which must have been quite an experience!! What were the biggest lessons you learned from it? Did it change any of your opinions about the role of women in Amish society – and, actually, our own society! – at all?
I’d definitely say I have an adventurous spirit. It can get me into trouble sometimes actually!
LWTA was a crazy experience. Two years on I sort of look back on it as though I were a stranger peering through the looking glass. I found it an extremely frustrating experience actually. I think I was misunderstood by much of the UK population and the Amish simply found me too much of a shock to digest: I’m black, I’m a feminist, a vegetarian, an Atheist… and although I do dislike labels sometimes you just can’t avoid them. They thought I was ‘lost’ and rebellious. At times I found them extremely disrespectful. It was a real personal challenge.
As for the role of women in the Amish community, I found that quite distressing much of the time. I learnt to respect the value of domestic work because I think as a society we do not value much of the unpaid work that (mostly) women do. But it saddened me that for almost every Amish woman I met, washing dishes, cleaning the house, and looking after numerous amounts of children would be the most she’d do with her life. I respect any woman who chooses to be a housewife but the key thing is choice. Amish women don’t have choices. I’m not a snob, I’m not arrogant and I’m not a ‘know it all’ as some suggested when the show was aired. I just have very strong opinions, and I ask a lot of questions. Also, when I can see injustice being played out right in front of me it affects me deeply. I’m not afraid to stand up for myself and my views. Interestingly, a lot of the hate that came my way when the programme aired was from men. Much of the support I got was from young women. But many men would find me on Twitter and search me up and leave comments on my personal blogs. Some felt it was justified to tell me how much they wanted to beat me up so I’d ‘learn my lesson’, or how I ‘needed to be taken down a peg or two’ and ‘go back to the kitchen’. I got called a c**t, a bitch, ‘gobby,’ ugly, fat… to name just a few of the variety of insults and I would say that ninety-five per cent of the vitriol came from men. I had black men messaging me and say I am why they ‘don’t date black women’. I had one guy tell me my (African) mum didn’t ‘raise me well’, that I was an embarrassment to African parents and a bad example. He said that I ‘needed a father to straighten me out’. It was all quite surreal actually. [Surreal and pretty gob-smackingly horrifying! -Caroline] I learnt a lot from all of that.
I definitely think the learning process overall was quite one-sided. The Amish were not that interested in learning from us as such, with the exception of the first family, Jon and Marietta. Most already believed we came from a ‘broken’ and misguided society and their mission was to ‘save us’. I didn’t take kindly to that. In saying that, one big thing I got from the Amish experience, which has ironically fed into my feminism, is a more holistic view of men, especially fathers. For the first time in my life I saw first-hand men being good fathers and giving their all to their children. That’s not to say that doesn’t happen in the UK of course but I think the sense of family and community the Amish have is something we could really learn from. An Amish father abandoning his wife and kids is absolutely unheard of. There are no single parent families in Amish communities and for someone who comes from a single parent family, headed by my mother, it was powerful to see that. Family always comes first and that’s one of the very few views I shared with the Amish. We’re a very selfish nation, as is the USA and I find it extraordinary that the Amish could exist in the bastion of capitalism and still live the way they do. Everybody is looked after by the community.
You have so much on your plate – starting businesses, blogging, and working full-time! What’s your advice for other creative quaintrelles trying to keep so many balls in the air?
I have dubbed myself a ‘professional multi-tasker’! I love being busy. I get a big kick from being here, there, and everywhere. I don’t like being in one place for too long and when I get the itch, I have to be on the go again. Right now I am painfully slowly trying to make progress with opening a publishing house. It’s taking a lot longer than I thought it would and I have to learn about business as I go along but I won’t let that stop me. I want to dabble in fashion, too but I have to learn that I need to be patient and allow myself time to do everything. If I achieve all my dreams by thirty, what will I do with the next thirty years! I have to learn to pace myself and accept that things take time. I see everything as part of one big project in the end.
For all the quaintrelles who want to do it all, I say you absolutely can. But be prepared to be tired, be prepared to feel like you’re always trying to ‘schedule’ everyone in and make sure you always have at least one voice of truth close to home. My voice of truth is my amazing mother. She keeps me humbled, she keeps me anchored, and she always tells me the ugly truth whether I like it or not. It’s never good to surround yourself with ‘yes’ men and women and sycophants. You’ll find that you become quite removed from reality.
I’d also say be fearless. There is so much to be scared of in life but rise above that. Be thick-skinned and tenacious too. I’m by far my harshest critic. I never give myself a break and my mum always tells me off for that. I’m a perfectionist but of course, perfection can never be attained and I know this but I always bring my A Game to a task. It’s important to keep trying and keep returning to your master-plan and tweak it as necessary because even the best laid plans of mice and men… you know how it goes. Surround yourself with people who inspire you and keep you focused and energised. I am fortunate enough to know some amazing and dedicated people. They make me want to always bring my A Game and succeed. I don’t want to just be the person that knows great people. I want to be one of the great people that people know and talk about.
What were you like as a little girl? How similar are you now to yourself at age six?
Apparently I have always been thick-skinned, stubborn, and full of ‘spirit’. I asked my mum this question as of course she would know better than I would and she told me two stories. One was about how I interacted with the children at my first school when I came to England (I was born in Sierra Leone). I could only speak Creole but that didn’t stop me from holding my own in the crowd and being the centre of attention! I was determined to be seen and heard. Another story, and this is one of my favourites, is when I played the Angel Gabriel in the school Nativity in reception. I went to take my bow and I fell face first off the stage, wings flapping everywhere and parents, teachers, and kids gasping. But I got up, dusted myself off, and climbed back onto stage and took my bow without shedding a tear. I tried to hold my own. I am a person who always endeavours to get back up after a fall. Who wants to always fall face first? Not me.
Who, living or dead, do you wish could have joined us for our champagne tea? What would we chat about?
The very wonderful bell hooks and the hugely talented Beyoncé Knowles.
‘bell hooks (lower case is deliberate) is a widely respected social commentator, writer, academic, and feminist. She is one of my heroes. I could listen to her all day. She is fierce but in a quiet, confident way. She is not brash but she is full of fire. I aspire to be more like that. I’d love to discuss the idea of ‘FeminismS’ with her because I have learnt from her writings that she and I would disagree on a couple of things. I have learnt a lot from her.
As for Beyoncé… well she is Beyoncé: a force of nature and an outstanding and dedicated entertainer. I saw her at one of her London shows during her most recent tour and she blew my mind. She gets a lot of criticism, and at times I’ve wanted to sit down and ask her a few questions quite sternly but I think I get her now. I’d love to discuss ways in which we could encourage womankind to unite more. I’d love to discuss strength, wisdom, education, femininity and masculinity. Beyoncé is one of the patrons of ‘Chime For Change’. I’d love to learn more about the organisation and find out why she wanted to be part of the project (in her own words).
That would be one helluva a champagne tea, Caroline!
I’ll say it would!! Finally: what does Sparkles and Crumbs mean to you?
Sparkles and Crumbs is the home of the quaintrelle – “a woman who emphasizes a life of passion, expressed through personal style, leisurely pastimes, charm, and cultivation of life’s pleasures.” She is full of gumption, pizzazz, and daydreams.
I can identify with such a woman. I am passionate, I express myself through my personal style, I daydream a whole lot and I’m gutsy to say the least! I take a lot of pleasure from great conversation, fantastic company, and all things creative. I’m always thinking about my next move and my next project. I get called a diva sometimes, or a socialite, stuff like that. I’m not a diva but I know what I want from life and I’m willing to work for it. I also enjoy people so although I dislike the term ‘socialite’ as it reminds me of people like the Kardashians I guess it fits. I like being part of the hustle and bustle and I get very inspired by people, and by creative energy. I’d love to think I have a sprinkle of pizzazz and charm too, but that is up for debate!
Check out the No Fly on the WALL blog and keep an eye out for us. The future is bright, and once again I’d like to thank everyone for their continued support and constructive criticism.
The Cambridge Tab, December 2011
ELISE MORTON talks to Siana Bangura about her surprising experience on Channel 4’s ‘Living with the Amish’.
“I thought that Amish people were hairy, a bit dry and loved to do chores. I stand corrected.”
Siana Bangura, a second year historian at Peterhouse, was surprised by what she found when over the summer she took part in Channel 4’s Living with the Amish.
The 6-part series follows 6 British teenagers living with different families in the Amish community. They must come to terms with the quirks of the Amish lifestyle, which is based around hard work and simple living. I caught up with Siana to find out what she made of it all.
“The boys had to get up at 4.30am, which is frickin’ crazy,” said Siana. And the hours were made worse by the gruelling work schedule. But Siana tells me that the hardest thing to come to terms with was the dress code: “The bonnet got to me… women aren’t even allowed buttons on their clothes, we had to use pins. Getting dressed took an age!” Siana, known to be a ‘confident dresser’, said the clothes made her feel like her “individuality was being sucked away.”
Siana, far right, in traditional Amish dress
But there was one way in which Siana was always going to be individual: she was the only black person entering a totally white community. As a result, she had to face Amish ignorance about race. She tells me she was shocked when a young boy“used the ‘n word’.”
“I’ve never had a problem before,” she says, “but if they have never been taught about race how can they know how to react?”
The Amish were equally clueless about other cultures. “One woman in particular assumed that all we British girls were loose chicks and so went off on a crazy Christian rant. They all seemed surprised that I was vegetarian, wore trousers and that we weren’t considering getting married any time soon.”
The first show, which was aired last Thursday, saw the teenagers trying their hand at fishing. Siana, a strict vegetarian, tells me she’s incensed by the editing: “They made out that I was the only one to catch a fish, when I was the only one not to catch one. I didn’t even put a worm on the hook!”
But while there may have been some challenging moments while filming the show, Siana sees it as a positive experience. She describes the Amish as “welcoming, warm and genuine” and the experience as “incredible.”
“I learnt that it’s important and not too hard to simplify life a bit, and spend more time with family… I can now also make areally good pecan pie.”
The first episode has had a good reception, but according to Siana it was just a gentle start. The “deep shit” is coming later.
Although she “could never be Amish,” Siana hopes to see her Amish friends again: “If I got married I’d fly them all over for my wedding… they’d be there with all my Cambridge friends, can you imagine pennying the Amish?”
The second episode airs on Channel 4 at 9pm on Thursday 1st December.