Why I’m a feminist

I’m the little girl who grew up with the Sun’s Page 3.

I’m the 10-year-old who wanted to play football with the boys, to be told “not for you”.

I’m the 17-year-old who was cornered by her religious education teacher in an empty classroom. He picked up the chair I was sitting in, swung it around, made me afraid.

I’m the woman who has been groped. Grabbed by the vagina in a bar, grabbed by the arse.

I’m the woman who’s been catcalled in the street, told to “smile” by strangers.

I’m the woman who’s been followed home,  flashed at by strange men.

I’m the wife who earns more, cleans more, but is judged more.

If I have daughters, sure, I’d like them to be pretty. But, I need them to know they’re worth so much more than that. I want them to know their voices matter, their opinions matter, and that men aren’t entitled to their bodies. These weren’t the messages I heard growing up.

 

 

Taking Down ’15 Reasons Why I’m Not A Feminist’

I encounter number 10 a lot. Oft used by people who talk of women “playing the victim card”, as if structural oppression were akin to a game of Snap.

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So there’s a woman in America (where else) called Anna Senneff who believes that ‘third wave of feminism has gone too far’. She’s sick of Hillary Clinton running her mouth off about unnecessary and trivial things like, umm….’women’s issues’ and all that bollocks. Probably something about periods and vaginas, amirite? So Senneff wrote a list of 15 reasons why she isn’t a feminist. And because I’m a writer aka I’m basically unemployed, I am going to spend my Tuesday afternoon TAKING HER DOWN. Enjoy.

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  1. Because I think that despite men having a more privileged role historically, men’s rights and issues are something we can’t ignore.

Men’s rights aren’t ignored. That is the whole bloody point *claws own face off with rage*. I will literally go to my grave chanting ‘feminism is about EQUALITY’.

  1. Because I don’t want to identify with a cause that has built its foundation on the idea…

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On Lauren Mayberry, and socking 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. Her zero tolerance of these fucktards is a sight to be behold.

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 asking why women in the spotlight attract misogynistic abuse, and why they should be expected to put up with it.

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.

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.

It seems 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. 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.

On judgemental feminists

I’ve recently encountered two problematic instances of feminist writers policing the behaviour of other women. These examples, which I’m about to explore, baffle and annoy me in equal measure. Why are presumably well-intentioned women telling women how to behave? Do they think we don’t get enough of that?

Halloween harlots

Let’s start with my favourite of all the pagan holidays, Halloween. I love dressing up at Halloween, with its implicit freedom to wander the streets dressed as a banshee, a tiger, or Kermit the Frog, without folks passing judgement on my sartorial choices or sanity. That’s not to say I find Halloween costumes unproblematic – why does the Leather Face (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) butcher’s costume have a miniskirt apron? And why is there such a dearth of ‘non-sexy’ costumes for those of us who want to buy them? These thoughts have often gone through my head, and when I hear them articulated by other women, I sympathise.

Where I lose sympathy is the point where feminists tell their adult peers how to dress at Halloween – or equally as annoyingly, how not to. Which brings me to this recent article by Hadley Freeman, who tells us to “dress like a jelly bean, ladies! Yes, it does make your bum look big and, no, no one can see your breasts, and that’s just great”. This is cleverly couched in an article that at first glance is about the lost “innocent joy” (did it ever exist?) of Halloween, yet which goes on to say “I’m not here to slut-shame women who dress like sexy hamburgers for Halloween. But ….. Halloween should be an opportunity for people to show off their creativity, not their side boob”.

As a woman, I really do encounter other people’s expectations on how I should dress (short skirts = rape, remember?) often enough already. I do not need this writer, purportedly on the side of feminism, adding her demands to the mix. It represents yet another voice telling women that our behaviour isn’t good enough (“too much boob! Not enough creativity!”). I’m weary of it: one of the age-old problems women face is being held up to a higher standard of behaviour than men. If we fall short of this, we are punished. And dress is a common, spurious focus of blame: a recent, typical example being the #iammorethanadistraction hashtag, spawned after girls in various American schools were told to cover up or wear “shame suits” based on their clothing choices. People have far too much to say about what women should and should not wear: they need to pipe down. Coming from feminists, this hectoring is especially galling.

There is hope though!  I just came across this tweet from left-wing feminist Laurie Penny. A right-on attitude.

Beng a wife and a complicit misogynist

I found out this weekend that most of my friends are complicit misogynists. By adopting their husbands’ name upon marriage, they have been apportioned some blame for the “centuries of misogyny” that have oppressed other women. Not by me, I hasten to add: this was a comment made by a friend on Facebook, under a BBC article discussing women changing their name upon marriage. Which brings me to my second wearying example of  women judging and policing other women.

I find myself arguing from an odd viewpoint here: I find the idea of exchanging one name for another a pointless tradition, rooted in the times a daughter was literally ‘given away’ by her father; a flesh-and-blood chattel, if you like. I intend to keep my name when I get married next year because a) it’s my identity and b) it’s a link to my father and also my paternal grandmother, who I was very close to.

That said, I have no judgement to offer on the women who decide to change their name to their husband’s.  It’s their name, after all. Judgement – what on earth gives me the right to judge other people? I can understand and respect women who say ”I wouldn’t change my name” (their name, their choice), but not those who censure and belabour other women who choose to do so. It’s an incredibly arrogant standpoint: to condemn every woman who changes her name, when there is no possibility of knowing their individual circumstances and motivations. A recent Vagenda piece where the writer expressed her “ dare I say it – disappointment” when women “shuffle off into marriage” and take their husbands’ name was met by some interesting responses, including:

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I’m generally a big fan of the Vagenda, but its writers have been accused on various occasions of writing from a position of middle class, white woman privilege. This recent article, while containing a lot of fair points, includes a thread of the pitying condescension that attracts such criticism. I can imagine the self-congratulatory writer, pluming herself on her sagacity as she thinks “I’m so cerebral. If only other women would think about these issues as deeply as I do!” As these comments from various women demonstrate, it’s breathtakingly arrogant of her to assume they haven’t.

Censuring women who change their name is another example of the higher standards of behaviour forced on women, by women. Feminism, at its most simple level, is about the right to equality. Surely that includes an equal right to self-expression? To wear what you like, call yourself what you like – as a man would?

To me, those who seek to belabour women for their choices are simply  derailing  the journey to equality:  women should be free to make decisions without  fearfully looking over their shoulder and wondering who they’re letting down: their school,  PTA, religion, or in this case, self-righteous feminists.

Some sisterly solidarity wouldn’t go amiss. And less judging.

Why I’m done with Facebook: organ harvesting and narcissism

Someone recently asked my mum if I had voluntarily scarpered from Facebook. There was a huffy aspect to this person’s questioning as if she couldn’t fathom why I wouldn’t want to continue seeing boring updates and pictures of raw chickens wearing onions (seriously) at the price of handing over all my personal information on a plate to a monolithic company.

The steady drip-feed of creepily invasive questions is what pushed me over the edge and into the arms of deactivation in May. The tipping point came when I logged in find Facebook blandly asking “When did you meet Daniel?” (my fiancé). It helpfully encouraged me to add the month and the year. I’m bemused on two fronts here: why does Facebook fondly imagine that anyone would care when I met my fiance? And more importantly, when did it decide to become an online interrogator?

I shouldn’t have been surprised to be questioned in this way, as a few weeks previously Facebook had asked me if I’m a registered organ donor. Is it just paranoia from watching Ewan McGregor in the Island recently, or is Facebook’s next move to harvest my organs? When you’re asking yourself this, it’s really time for a re-think.

This massive corporation wants to know every country I’ve visited, the films I’ve seen, the books I’ve read, the cities I’ve lived, what I studied at school, where I used to work. Does no-one else find this really fricking intrusive? And it’s not as if  I’m giving this information to a friend, or a benign Santa-like figure.  It’s a publicly listed company, run in the interests of its shareholders, having unrivalled access to every seemingly insignificant detail about me.

Oh, and I’ve to hand over all this information for free.  And if  I’m really lucky, Facebook will pocket some advertising dollars so I can see some cliched age-and-gender based adverts in my feed.

Turns out I’m not alone here. To date, over 400,000 people have signed a petition asking Facebook to stop forcing users to install its latest messaging app. The app sounds innocuous enough – until you accept the terms and conditions. By accepting them, you let Facebook  access your phone’s  camera and images, call and send messages without your consent, and access information about all of your contacts. Oh, and they can send that info on to third parties.

Needless to say, I have no intention of signing up for any of that.

LOOK AT ME!

Turning from Facebook’s monumental snoopiness, I also think it brings out the worst in people. The looming example of this is oversharing pictures. If, when I met my friends face-to-face, they always showed me holiday pictures and baby pictures, I would be bored witless. It’s behaviour that would be deemed odd and tedious. Why then do it online? Call me crazy, but the act of constantly parading pictures of yourself is not a trait to be valued in another person. Yes, you’re superficially communicating with another human being by sharing photos and having them comment on them. But how is this exchange in any way interesting or meaningful? Why not Skype or god forbid, speak in person?

Einstein defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. If that’s true, I must be certifiably nuts based on the number of times I’ve refreshed my Facebook in the vain hope it will elicit something interesting. No more: I’m done.

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”.

An insightful response

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