Hey, Matt Damon: Shut up and listen.

If there’s one thing that #metoo has taught us, it’s that listening to women is important. Essential, even. Like any problem, we need to understand the scope and scale of sexual assault/harassment before we work out how to fix it. But Matt Damon, it seems, is done listening. He’s using his platform and celebrity to tell us that:

 “There’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right?” Damon said. “Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated, without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated, right?”

Wrong, Matt. Firstly, let’s look at the perpetrators of all of the above acts: they’re overwhelmingly male. That doesn’t mean, obviously, that all men are sexual harassers and rapists, but it does mean that the vast majority of people doing the sexual assaulting and raping are male. Surely that warrants a discussion in itself – why do men do this? Shouldn’t we try to find out? It infuriates me that this line of questioning, however tentatively and reasonably you frame it, always falls flat on its face – because of men being defensive. ‘Nice’ guys, like Matt, don’t want  lumped in with the abusers out there. Earlier in the same interview, Matt says that:

  “there are a whole s—load of guys — the preponderance of men I’ve worked with — who don’t do this kind of thing”.

Not all men, in other words. The problem with this kind of response is the iron door it slams in the face of any discussion into the ‘why’ of sexual assault and rape. Why do men behave like this? There are two possibilities – either hurting women is hardwired into the male psyche, or society is conditioning men to treat women like shit. Can’t we have a frank discussion about which it is? And if it’s the latter, maybe think about how we change society for the better? No?

The rapey common denominator

 The other thing Matt is wrong about, is his view that sexual assault/rape/”patting someone on the butt” shouldn’t be conflated. They absolutely should be conflated, because they spring from the same source. Can you guess what it is? I’ll give you a clue  – what do the following three guys have in common?

The random who touches you on a night out

Two weeks ago, I spent Saturday night in a bar in Glasgow city centre. I was standing with friends by a pillar near the bar, and I lost count of the times I had to prize men’s hands off my waist – men who felt entitled to put their hands on me, on their way past. Would they have touched a man in this way? No, they touched me because I was a woman in a public place, there for the touching. They felt entitled to touch me.

The rapist

Tom Stranger is a self-confessed rapist. He raped his 16-year-old girlfriend when she was drunk, on their second date. Asked why he committed rape, he said “ The notion that you’re in a relationship, you go out, there’s drinking involved, you go home, you’re entitled to sex – I took that to a horrible place. The ‘why’ is that I took what I wanted without any regard for her and I thought I was entitled to it”.

Harvey Weinstein

At least 50 women have accused Harvey Weinstein of varying kinds of sexual assault. Matt Damon would hate for me to conflate these acts, but I kind of have to, because they come from the same place: one man’s bulletproof sense of entitlement to women’s bodies. Or, as the writer Margaret Gardiner put it, “Harvey Weinstein is a symptom. The issue is entitlement and power. It’s the branding of women and minorities as ‘less’ that makes it safe for predatory behaviour without consequences.”

Male entitlement is at the root of all of this. Instead of trying to put different kinds of sexual abuse on a spectrum, Matt would do better to think about what the perpetrators – whatever line of work they’re in – have in common.

 

And while he’s at it, he could maybe have a word with his buddy Ben Affleck, whose sense of entitlement was such that he grabbed a woman’s breasts. On fucking camera.

 

 

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The clue’s in the name

This really resonates with me. I kept my name when I married and the censure took me by surprise.

language: a feminist guide

The lawyer Miriam González Durántez was unimpressed this week when she was invited to speak at an International Women’s Day event by someone who addressed her as ‘Mrs Clegg’ (she is married to the MP and former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg).  The Daily Mail deplored her ‘aggressive feminism’,  while below the line its readers, inevitably, complained about bloody foreigners with no respect for British traditions.

Meanwhile, in the House of Commons, Emily Thornberry MP–who is not a foreigner but rather the Shadow Foreign Secretary–protested to the Speaker after Theresa May called her ‘Lady Nugee’ (Thornberry’s husband, it transpires, is Sir Christopher Nugee).  Whereas ‘Mrs Clegg’ seems to have been a careless mistake, ‘Lady Nugee’ was evidently a deliberate taunt. Even as May apologised, she found it necessary to inform the House that she herself had been known by her husband’s name for the last 36 years.

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Anne Brontë – my unsung feminist hero

As a long-time fan of the Brontë sisters (Anne, Emily and Charlotte, in order of preference) I was eager to see To Walk Invisible, the recent BBC drama depicting their early lives.

I was particularly keen to see if the drama would follow the well-trodden path of some literary critics, by lauding Charlotte as a feminist and and ignoring Anne. Although it went some way to quashing the idea of “Anne the lesser sister”, it followed the usual pattern of portraying Charlotte as a feminist before her time. This was reflected in the reviews:  Den of Geek points out that “early in the piece, Charlotte bemoans a woman’s lot in a similar speech to the one she would later give her most famous character, Jane Eyre”.

Although I enjoyed it, the BBC adaptation reignited a sense of injustice I feel whenever the Brontës’ work is discussed: the dismissal of Anne as both a writer to equal her sisters and as a feminist revolutionary. So, this post is about why Anne Brontë is a true feminist hero. And also why we should maybe think twice about plugging the idea of Charlotte the Feminist Trailbazer.

Anne: telling uncomfortable truths

A viewpoint I’ve come across in literary criticism of the Brontës is the need to make a ‘feminist reading’ of Jane Eyre. That seems to mean that if you read it with your feminist hat on, and go mining for feminist goodies, you’ll unearth some. You need make no such effort with Anne’s novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The feminist message sears the page.

Before I get into the text itself, I want to stop to consider another writer I love – Charles Dickens. Dickens used characters like Jo in Bleak House to show the rest of society how poverty and neglect laid waste to the lives of the poor. He pulls no punches – Jo is always “moved on” by those in authority, despite being a homeless orphan, destitute and having nowhere to “move on” to. Jo dies in the street, hapless and penniless, a child with no-one to mourn him. Dickens was revolutionary in that he used his writing to effect social change. He holds up a mirror to society, asking “what kind of culture permits a child to die on the street? How do we remedy this?”

That’s the first step to remedying a societal ill: shining a light on it. It’s not welcome, it often makes people uncomfortable – but we need to see the unvarnished truth.

In the preface to the second edition, Anne wrote ‘My object in writing […] was not simply to amuse the Reader; neither was it to gratify my own taste, nor yet to ingratiate myself with the Press and the Public: I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral’.

Anne Brontë’s truth was an unwelcome one, that her contemporary readers were not ready to hear: why we need feminism.

Helen’s choices (or lack thereof)

Helen Graham, the heroine of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, is young, well-off and beautiful. Beguiled by good looks and charm, she marries Arthur Huntingdon. Arthur turns out to be dissolute, vicious, and a self-destructive alcoholic. They have an infant son together, who Arthur corrupts – by teaching him to swear at his mother and plying him (a toddler) with alcohol. Profligate and unfaithful, Arthur’s initial tenderness for Helen turns to contempt, as he boasts to his friends that “I value her so highly, that any one among you, that can fancy her, can have her and welcome”. Because Wildfell Hall is an epistolary novel, we follow Helen’s disillusionment via her diary entries, watch her brimming hope for her marriage turn to disappointment, regret, then revulsion.

Unsurprisingly, Helen wants to leave Arthur. But though an heiress when she married, all of her money and possessions now belong to Arthur. She exists legally as a chattel of her husband.  Strong-willed and intelligent, Helen is also a talented artist, and plans to escape to a quiet retreat and make a small living selling paintings. Arthur hears of her plans, restricts her access to money, and burns her painting materials. Helen is resourceful though, and escapes with the help of a relative and her servants. She hopes to live quietly at Wildfell Hall, and preserve her son from Arthur’s contaminating influence.

She succeeds. But as a single woman, she is subjected to malicious remarks from the local women and minister, who speculate that she is an unmarried mother and the mistress of her landlord. Those are her choices: stay and watch the ruination of her son, or leave her husband (which is illegal) and become an object of scorn.

Patriarchy, hiding in plain sight

Because of patriarchy, there can be no peace for Helen. She is constantly afraid that her husband will find her place of refuge, remove (and corrupt) their son. Which would be perfectly legal. Arthur already has her money – because she has no right of property, and no money of her own any more.  And although he could divorce her if he chose, she is refused a divorce without his consent.

Anne’s tactic here is similar to Dickens’. Via Helen, she lifts a mirror up to Victorian readers, and shows them just vulnerable women are to the whims of men. And how fucked they are when marriages break down. Eventually, (spoiler alert) Helen finds love with a second husband, Gilbert Markham. But that is not the point of the book. In the preface to the second edition, Anne wrote that “when I feel it my duty to speak an unpalatable truth, with the help of God, I will speak it, though it be to the prejudice of my name and to the detriment of my reader’s immediate pleasure as well as my own”. With icy clarity, Anne shows how women suffer, and how children’s lives are blighted by sexual inequality.

Asking the right questions

Another aspect of Wildfell Hall that makes it so strikingly feminist are the questions Anne poses, via Helen. Early in the novel, Helen learns that another suitor, Mr Boarham, has approached her aunt and uncle (her guardians) to ask for her hand in marriage. Helen answers “I hope my uncle and you told him it was not in your power to give it. What right had he to ask anyone before me?”

What right, indeed. To this day, some men still ask a woman’s father for her hand in marriage. Anne was questioning this back in 1848.

Later, having been introduced to Gilbert Markham and his mother, the three talk about the best way to rear a young boy. Gilbert believes boys shouldn’t be overly sheltered, that “if you were to rear an oak sapling in a hothouse, tending it carefully day and night…you could not expect it to become a hardy tree, like that which has grown up on the mountain-side, exposed to all the action of the elements”. Helen counter this by saying “Granted; – but would you use the same argument with regard to a girl?”

What follows is a debate about the education of girls and boys, in which Anne discusses the sexism at the heart of this paradigm. Why must girls be sheltered, while men are free to experience the world? Are girls innately more prone to moral corruption, that they shouldn’t be exposed to it? It’s a debate that’s still relevant today. Again, Anne was ahead of her time.

What did the public make of Wildfell Hall?

Anne published The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in 1848, the year after Wuthering Heights (Emily’s), Jane Eyre (Charlotte’s) and Agnes Grey (Anne’s first novel) hit the shelves. It was to be her final novel – she died from consumption the following year.

Deemed a “phenomenal success”, the novel sold more copies than Wuthering Heights had the year before. That said, some contemporary critics shied away from the character of Arthur Huntingdon (styled on Anne’s brother, Branwell). They found the subject matter – a wife’s anguish at her husband’s self-destructive alcoholism – too coarse. That said, one critic made what I consider to be a penetrating observation: “[English] society owes thanks, not sneers, to those who dare to shew her the image of her own ugly, hypocritical visage”.

anne

But Victorian society wasn’t ready to contemplate its “hypocritical visage”. The obvious remedy to the powerlessness of women Anne portrayed would be for men to give up some their power: by allowing women equal rights of property within marriage, or by giving them the vote. Or for that matter, simply acknowledging that Anne had a point. Instead, Anne was deemed coarse-minded for giving voice to the truths she has observed. Her revolutionary message was ignored and snuffed out. Disappointingly, her own sister Charlotte was the biggest detractor of Anne’s work, most notably in her ‘Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell’, published after the deaths of Anne and Emily.

Finding the subject matter distasteful, Charlotte seemingly missed the point that Arthur Huntingdon’s depravity was necessary: to show what women were exposed to. She wrote that “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” by Acton Bell, had likewise an unfavourable reception. At this I cannot wonder. The choice of subject was an entire mistake”.

Writing to her publisher, Charlotte also said that she didn’t think Anne’s book was worth preserving, or reprinting. In fact, she suppressed the reprint when it became due in 1850. And in the now-famous biographical notice, Charlotte laments the poor reception of Emily’s book, opining that “[Anne] wanted the power, the fire, the originality of her sister”. Our contemporary view of Anne is, I believe, tainted by Charlotte’s subjective opinion of her sisters and their writing talents.

If Charlotte had refrained from placing Anne and her work at the bottom of the pecking order, would we have a different opinion of the Brontë novels today? I believe so. Michael Armitage of Sheffield University writes that “Charlotte lived on for another five years [after Anne’s death] during which time her later novels, along with Jane Eyre and Emily’s Wuthering Heights continued to be published, firmly launching these two sisters into literary stardom; while Anne’s masterpiece was completely suppressed”.

As a writer and a sister, it was Charlotte’s prerogative to comment on her sister’s book. I don’t take issue with her right to have an opinion, although I absolutely disagree with her views. What bothers me is the fact that today we celebrate Charlotte as a ‘feminist trailblazer’ – when she suppressed and belittled Anne’s feminist text. Which isn’t very sisterly, in either the familial or the feminist sense. (Her denigrations of Anne as a novelist I’ll leave for a future blog). Anne’s novel – described by Dr Stevie Davis in the preface to the Penguin edition as “a feminist manifesto of revolutionary power and intelligence” wouldn’t be in our hands today if Charlotte had had her way. That’s another reason why I’m uncomfortable when I see Charlotte singled out from among her sisters and lauded as a feminist.

Anne’s legacy to me

I end on a personal note. In my bedroom hangs a print by Joaquin Sorolla that I bought in 2008 from the Prado in Madrid. It’s called María pintando en el Pardo and shows a woman painting in profile. I bought it because it reminded me of Anne’s Helen, painting to earn a living, and bearing up with dignity against a phalanx of patriarchal heartbreak. It’s a totem of calm in a mad world, and it soothes me. But it also pains me sometimes, when I think that Anne created this powerful and subversive book, yet was made to feel ashamed of it. Without denigrating either Charlotte or Emily, it’s time we recognise Anne, my unsung feminist hero.

From Greece with love

Since it’s National Poetry Day, here’s a poem I wrote about Greece, austerity and valuing the wrong stuff.

greece

Learned heads shaking,
Lamenting,
My feckless, spendthrifty ways.
Apologies, my friends, but I just can’t summon the remorse.

 

You like everything to be paid for; neat, balanced
Yet my boundless gifts
Of language, democracy, philosophy
Lie weightless on your scales.

 

Austerity.
One of my words, you know
Appropriated by you
Repatriated to me as neighbourly advice
Sinister and smug.

 

My heroes might be gone now
They melt away without faith
But I’m not yet brought so low
You want my Acropolis?
You’re already in my debt.

 

 

Cheering Lauren Mayberry, who socks it to the trolls

I love the band Chvrches for two reasons. Firstly, because I spent the tail end of 2013 living in London, blithely dodging traffic while listening to ‘The Bones of What You Believe’, and secondly because its lead singer, Lauren Mayberry, is bloody brilliant at calling out casual misogynists. She casually, caustically flicks them back to their swamp.

Back in September 2013, she penned this righteous rant for the Guardian. In fact, it’s doing it a disservice to call it a rant – it’s a perfectly reasoned article. It asks why women in the spotlight attract misogynistic abuse, and why they should be expected to put up with it.

Before reading Lauren’s essay, I already knew the first answer to the first question. To some men, women who have the temerity to hold powerful positions – or indeed, any position that isn’t submissive, quiet or subordinate – are threatening. Such men try to negate women’s achievements and views by taking them down a peg or two, usually by reducing them to their appearance, or focusing on their possession of a vagina. I’m thinking here of the opponents of Julia Gillard, former Australian Prime Minister, who criticised her ‘big red box’ instead of her politics. And German Chancellor Angela Merkel, termed an “unfuckable lard ass” – by the Italian Prime Minister.  Just last week we had the Combover King Donald Trump, commenting that the Fox moderator who asked him tough questions “had blood coming of her….wherever”.

Back to today – when in typically fearless style, Lauren Mayberry posted a link to the misogynistic comments posted under the band’s new video. Leaving aside the most graphic and gross ones, the least sinister gist seems to be “you’re not allowed to call people sexists and then look nice in your video. Take yourself off and hide in a sack if you don’t want our abuse!” You see, if there’s one thing a misogynist hates more than an uppity woman who doesn’t know her place, it’s one who speaks about it publicly. The appearance of an articulate women – who happens to beautiful – having an opinion sends these misogynists into a rage.

Writing in 2013, Lauren wrote about the grotesque rape threats she had received – simply for being a woman, fronting a band. And, depressingly, she’s not the first – on an earlier blog, I compiled a not-so-nice list of women subjected to violence and rape threats for daring to have an opinion on stuff. These included Laura Bates, Lindy West, Lucy-Ann Holmes, and the Suffragettes.

Increasingly, rape threats and sexual violence have become the standard silencing techniques used to frighten women into submission. That’s why the “don’t feed the trolls” argument is invalid here – more women need to speak out, not less. It’s important to draw a distinction between men who don’t agree with a woman and can lucidly explain why (debate), and men who threaten to hurt and silence women for having an opinion (misogynists). I don’t think I’m exaggerating here when I call these silencing tactics an attack on free speech.

And that why it’s important to applaud the women like Lauren who do speak out. So these misogynists get the message – we are not going anywhere. To quote Lauren – bring it on, motherfuckers.

Silencing tactics: the sexist shitcake

I wrote previously about the silencing tactics often used on women who challenge damaging sexist norms. It’s something I find galling – the frequency with which a woman draws attention to a piece of sexist/unfair behaviour, to be told it isn’t a problem and to stop complaining.

It’s a double whammy: you have the oppressive silencing tactic handed to you as a cherry on the cake of whatever was sexist in the first place.

I came across a classic example of this today. Retailer M&S is running a ‘Leading Ladies’ campaign that includes models chosen for their achievements. Enter Roma Agrawal, an Indian-born structural engineer who worked on the Shard in London. She got involved to encourage women and girls to become engineers, and to challenge the UK’s perception of girls’ and boys’ subjects in the UK. In her words:

“There’s less of a divide between girls’ and boys’ subjects in India than here. It’s normal there for girls to study science. I didn’t realise that a gender divide existed until I came to university at Oxford. I looked around the lecture theatre and there were about 10 girls in a class of 150. That’s when I thought this was kind of weird. We are designing things for society and if the people designing them only represent a small proportion of society we probably can’t deliver well.”

So far, so good. Kudos to M&S for choosing role models on the basis of their academic/professional achievements, and to Agrawal for trying to show women that science and engineering are valid career choices. Where it turns to shit is the following crap reporting from the Evening Standard:

“This softly spoken 30-year-old in a yellow dress is the woman who made sure the biggest erection in Western Europe didn’t fall down”.

Obviously, what an article reporting on celebrating women for their achievements really needs is an allusion to the women’s sexual appeal. She might have helped construct the Shard but let’s not forget her ability to sexually excite men!

Agrawal’s spot-on response was to challenge the paper, on the basis that “this one sentence contradicts the core message of the article: that women can excel in engineering and other male dominated industries on their merit. I believe women should be judged on their skills and contribution in the workplace and shouldn’t have to fear being sexualised”. The Standard refused to edit or remove the comment, on the basis that it was, in their own words, “light humour”.

So there we have the sexist shitcake. Now for the cherry silencer, which came in the form of a comment from the charming ‘Whigwham”.

 

capture

 

Note the helpful copy-and-paste explanation of the word ‘erection’. Silly engineer lady doesn’t know the meaning of the word, and clearly needs to be told!

I was tempted to respond with a correspondingly helpful explanation of the word ‘pun’, but sadly the comments thread had closed. To illustrate that the “light humour” (the Standard’s own phrase, remember) of the comment hinges on the dual meanings of ‘erection’: she helped erect the Shard and she can erect penises too! See what the writer has done there? Clever, eh Whigwham?

“What’s the problem?”, he asks.  (I am assuming it’s a he. If he/she is reading this and wants to correct me, feel free). The problem, dear sir, is that this woman has raised a legitimate objection to a sexist remark, made doubly worse in the context of an article about valuing women on their achievements, not their sexual attraction. But of course, you, being a man, know better. There is no problem, no sexual objectification, and if anything this woman is prejudiced and needs to take a look at herself! Why is she complaining?

Astoundingly, five other fuckwits read that comment and decided that the appropriate response was to recommend it.

You do have to wonder about people who dismiss someone’s rational, well-reasoned point of view so casually. Their thought process seems to be that because they haven’t experienced sexism themselves, it doesn’t exist. It seemingly doesn’t occur to them to listen to their fellow human beings – if they’re women, at any rate.

My month volunteering in Rajasthan

This time last year, I decided to take some time off work to go to India. I think if you spend years working in Corporateland (especially finance) there’s a chance that you lose touch with reality. Your life becomes a round of meetings, expensive coffee, and commuting, and you forget that there is actually a whole world out there where none of that matters.

I did some research online and found Sankalp (Hindi for ‘helping hand’), an NGO with volunteer placements in various locations across India. And in November 2013, I set off to spend a month working in an orphanage in Jaipur.

It’s taken me a few months to gather my thoughts and write about my time in Jaipur. It’s hard to make sense of the good (helping people, making friends, experiencing a new culture) and the bad (poverty, inequality and how they blight people’s lives).

My working day started at 8.00am, when I was picked up from the volunteer house and driven to the orphanage, home to 30-odd children aged 0-6 years. The kids would be drowsy but reasonably cheerful, and our first job was to get them undressed, washed, and dressed again. Peeling clothes off wriggling kids is a challenge but also a good opportunity to interact and make them laugh. The wee ones were generally a bit reluctant to go the washroom. Not that I blamed them, I wouldn’t be up for early icy wash either.

Next up was drying time. There were two towels between the 30 kids, which meant that the kids at the end of the queue were invariably dried with a damp-to-sopping-wet towel. This is an example of a small thing that could have managed better for the sake of the kids.  The poor buggers at the end of the line  would reluctantly shuffle forward to be enveloped in a dripping wet towel. The towels were washed daily in a huge washer, there were plenty of them, so I couldn’t see any need for this stinginess.

This situation frequently led to fractious conversations between us volunteers and the staff – me asking for a towel, and them refusing. I get the impression the staff saw us as decadent, wasteful Westerners, and while there’s a fair bit of truth to that,  these are orphans who have no family, schooling or toys.  Would it have been so hard to give them a comfortable wash in the morning?

Once or twice, the younger kids would be handed to me to dry having not been washed properly by the staff. This was particularly true of the toddlers and disabled children. I found one of the carers holding a disabled 2-year old at arm’s length with a sneer of disgust on her face, before handing him to to dry. He had soiled his nappy and she hadn’t bothered to clean him properly. I wanted, to use some charming Scottish parlance, to skelp her. I had to remind myself that the workers themselves received very low wages, with a standard of living far below my own, so it was a bit rich of me to judge them.

This was a common occurrence for me – tied up in Western guilt over conduct I felt showed a complete lack of compassion or humanity, while trying to remind myself that I was there to help, not to judge. As an example, one of the women would threaten and  hit the children with a wooden stick as a means of chastisement. They weren’t physically bruised or damaged afterwards, but they were cowed and scared, and it broke my heart.

Orphan drop box - how some of the kids arrived.
Orphan drop box – how some of the kids arrived.

Orphanage life

Returning to he daily routine: after washing, it was playtime, my favourite part of the day. There were limited toys in the orphanage, but we would play games with the older kids, and sit with the younger ones on our knees. I should have said – as far as  Sankalp was concerned, that was the volunteers’ main role – to give affection to the kids. Around six of the kids were sponsored, and therefore went to school. The rest didn’t attend school, despite India’s universal right to education act. You need a birth certificate to gain admittance to many schools, which in practical terms excludes many orphans.

One little boy had TB, so he was kept apart from the others (somewhat inconsistently, some, but not all of the time). One of the girls I volunteered with – a tiny, big-hearted Aussie girl – was desperate to hug him, but she hadn’t been immunised against TB. She hated to see him excluded, and unable to understand why. If I was to make a criticism of Sankalp, it would be not telling the volunteers in advance that could be exposed to kids with diseases such as TB (and Hepatitis).

Having re-read the above, I feel I’ve painted a bleak picture of the orphanage, and it’s not my intention here to criticise it. It gives these kids a roof over their heads, relative stability and plenty of food. It’s trying to give them a chance in life, or at the very least, to preserve them from immediate poverty. That said, the lack of education opportunities for these kids makes me so frustrated and depressed. I played a counting game with a little boy who was innately so quick, yet he’ll grow up illiterate. For girls, the outlook is even more bleak. There was a courtyard under the orphanage where some older orphans, (young women really) lived. Without a dowry, they’re looking at marriage to someone coming to the orphanage looking for a wife. And without education, they’re wholly reliant on their looks and domestic skills. As someone a bit obsessed with gender equality, all of this was hard for me to take.

Weekend roaming - the camel fair at Pushkar
Weekend roaming – the camel fair at Pushkar

After hours: roaming

My working day in the orphanage would end at lunchtime, meaning afternoons and weekends were entirely free to explore. I do find myself equally charmed and frustrated by India. On the one hand, it’s breathtakingly beautiful. Jaipur, the  ’pink city’ is aptly named – the buildings glow pink in the sun, and there’s a constant hum and red dust as people go about their business. Even the everyday, the mundane looks beautiful to a stranger, like catching a glimpse of a bright sari through the heat and haze.

I love Indians’ laid-back attitude to time-keeping. It really appeals to me. It proves what I always suspected: the world doesn’t end if you do something a little later, or differently, to how you originally planned.

Exploring and chatting
Exploring and chatting

Before visiting Jaipur, I hadn’t seen an elephant in the flesh before. The first time I saw one in the street I was pointing and shouting like an idiot, much to the amusement of the locals.  Later in the month, we spent the afternoon at Elefantastic, an elephant sanctuary. Seeing elephants up close for the first time was genuinely amazing, and even more importantly, I came away with the impression the owner of the sanctuary really cared about the welfare of his elephants.

The frustration came out when I went out with other Western girls. I get that people will try to overcharge us – by their standards we’re rich, so I don’t really blame them for trying to get money out of us, in rickshaws, at stalls, whatever. I’d probably do the same. What made me uncomfortable was the staring, and following, generally by younger guys. We were all wearing clothes we bought for our placements, a kurta and trousers, so we were always respectably dressed. Despite this, we were approached by men quite frequently, and all groped on at least one occasion.

To compound things on a personal level,  I had spent the three months prior to Jaipur living in London, where I had unlimited freedom of movement. In the volunteer house, we adhered to a curfew of 9pm, and the female volunteers were discouraged from going out at all after dark. Having my freedom limited by my gender was a new and sobering experience for me.
Another aspect to volunteering is that you meet loads of different people. I was really lucky to volunteer alongside some great socially-minded people who really wanted to make a difference. That said, I did find myself getting frustrated with one of my roomates who didn’t have a negative thing to say about India. We had nearly enough common ground – concern for the orphans – but not quite enough to be friends. I would balk at the wasted opportunities for the young, and feel my heckles rising on a personal level at the attitudes towards women. She would talk about how she felt ‘so at home’ in India, that it was such a spiritual and relaxing place,  but her eyes seemed shut to the glaring social inequalities in India. India offers hospitality, beauty, the opportunity to explore on a huge scale. I can see that, and love it. But the poverty and the gender inequality are still there. My conclusion – embrace it warts and all, but don’t pretend the warts aren’t here.

Jaipur - an incense-smoking pig
Jaipur – an incense-smoking pig

Feminism, music, India, gin

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