Islam, misogyny and the limits of feminism

September 5, 2009 at 5:54 pm | Posted in Feminisms, International | 9 Comments

Should anyone wonder why Heresy Corner is held in such high regard, this response to my recent post on Islam & western feminism should prove instructive. When something is this well written & persuasively argued , you wonder whether it’s even possible to make a critique, even if you do have disagreements.

Expanding on what I thought were misguided generalisations about feminism’s ‘betrayal’ of Muslim women, The Heresiarch accepts that there are plenty of feminist writers & organisations who do take an interest in the misogyny practiced in the name of Islam. Nonetheless, Heresiarch contends, there remains a feminist mainstream; a “largely middle-class, whitish, left-leaning, “progressive”, Guardian-reading type of feminism” which can be accused of barely paying lip service to what happens beyond their borders.

Instead, these ‘mainstream’ feminists obsess over provincial issues – female representation in positions of power, equality in the workplace, pornography, prostitution & sexual harassment – which appear minor when compared to acts like genital mutilation, forced marriage, honour killings & banning women from working or learning. After quoting my (by no means comprehensive) compilation of blogs & organisations who do show vigilance, Heresiarch responds. “It’s not that feminists never talk about these issues. It’s just that I seriously wonder why they ever talk about anything else.”

My first problem is this: if we are to accept that the relatively minor challenges at home bring the injustices abroad into sharp relief, and conclude from this that feminist activism on domestic issues is at best frivolous, and at worst ‘limitless self-regard’, then the same charge could be made of most of us. What on earth are we doing whinging about incandescent light bulbs when there are villages in Africa without electricity or sanitation? Why do we indulge in panics about our social services when around 1 in 4 Zimbabwean children is an orphan? Sure, the expenses scandal might be an affront to our democracy, but why not take a trip to Burma and see if we prefer how they do things over there?

We may be considerably more healthy, better educated, more materially well-off and more free than billions of people across the planet, but that does not stop us from being restless; demanding that we improve further; imagining a better future for our country. Whilst our problems may be minor in a global context, and though we might sometimes overstate their importance, to campaign on domestic issues need not signal apathy for problems elsewhere, regardless of the movement or ideology you subscribe to.

But aside from feeling a sense that Heresiarch’s response expects more of feminists than would be expected of other political movements, I think his snipes at relativism & his expectations of what western feminists could achieve for Muslims are misjudged.

In June 2007, the Carnegie Endowment published a report which noted the growth of some kind of feminist movement in countries like Egypt & Lebanon. Sure enough, the report was ignored by all & sundry – no feminists publicised their cause and no neo-cons clucked about ‘freedom on the march’. Why was this encouraging development not heavily publicised? Because the trend being observed was happening within Islamist organisations, and the women the authors interviewed were members of Hizbollah & the Muslim Brotherhood.

The report found that these groups began appealing to women purely as a means of expanding their political power. However, as time went on they became dissatisfied with being relegated to ‘women’s branches’, and started agitating for greater representation, the right to work and the right to study. Whilst western feminists have always been able to frame these issues in secular rhetoric, for the ‘Islamist feminists’, their arguments have remained rooted in their faith:

Rather they believe that the cause of women’s rights needs to be pursued by reviving Islamic thought and promoting a new interpretation of the Quran and Sunna. They dismiss the idea that by advocating such interpretation they are rejecting an established body of Islamic law and thought, claiming instead that they are building on the contributions of previous generations using the same tools of interpretation.

Indeed, many of the women campaigning for equality do not consider themselves ‘feminist’ at all, and regard western feminism with a great deal of scepticism, charging that it is excessively individualistic, anti-family, and obsessed with the ‘irrelevant’ issue of gay rights:

By contrast, Islamic activists are concerned with the entire community, which they want to be just and egalitarian within an Islamic framework, recognizing not only the intrinsic equality between men and women but also the different roles they play.

Obviously, there is much about Hizbollah & the Muslim Brotherhood which we find repulsive, regardless of whether we identify as secularists, feminists or none of the above. It is also true that this incipient ‘feminism’ is starting from a very low base, and that there are far more appealing groups who advocate secularisation as a means of achieving equality. Some, such as Wafa Sultan, even argue that it is Islam itself, and not just the interpretation of it, which is fundamental to sustaining women’s inequality. But whilst Sultan may be feted in the west, she is widely-rejected by Muslim scholars who view her as implacably opposed to their faith.

But given how badly secular voices are marginalised in this area, what seems apparent is that if there is to be a move towards better rights for Muslim women, it will have to demonstrate how those rights can be compatible with Islam. To that end, the Carnegie report speculates that ‘Islamist feminism’ actually stands a greater chance of achieving its goals than some secular, western-influenced version:

It is premature at this point to conclude that a full-fledged Islamist paradigm for addressing women’s issues and concerns has emerged, but there is certainly an attempt to develop one. And if such a paradigm were to become widely accepted, it could be enormously influential in the Arab world and more broadly in the Muslim world, much more so than the efforts to promote women’s rights by Western and Western supported feminist organizations.

For me, these developments demonstrate that rather than simply peddling cultural relativism, the consensus among feminists that change should come from within Muslim societies actually seems like pragmatic politics. If feminists embraced the ‘Islamist feminism’ that women are trying to spread through groups like Hizbollah & the Muslim Brotherhood, feminism’s critics wouldn’t be asking ‘where are the western feminists?’ but rather ‘why do feminists hate the west?’ Equally, if they stood squarely behind the kind of secular feminism which more closely resembles their own, they would only succeed in further toxifying an ideology which is already looked-upon with great suspicion.

Heresiarch’s contention that feminists could bring great pressure to bear on their governments to demand the end to misogynistic practices also strikes me as a little optimistic. At present, the ability of western (particularly British & American) governments to use their power to influence foreign governments is more restricted than at any time since the end of the Cold War. In nine months alone, the Obama administration has pondered a deal with the murderous regime in Uzbekistan, has broken a promise to officially recognise the Armenian genocide, and made a speech in Cairo with barely a mention of women’s rights. Each of these decisions were morally questionable, yet all could be rationalised as acting in the self-interest of the United States.

These are not good times to be an internationalist. With staggering deficits, two wars & a massively depleted political capital, human rights advocates, secularists & feminists all face quite insurmountable hurdles towards getting our governments to intervene in cases of rank injustice. As dreadful as it might be, I suspect that even if feminists did all band together to demand that their government get tough on the abysmal Karzai government, the Obama administration wouldn’t possess either the will or the means to follow that through.

Ultimately, I suspect the differences between myself and Heresiarch are relatively minor. Whilst we might differ on matters of strategy or whether feminists should be doing more, we can both agree that secular governance is just objectively better than any superstition-fuelled alternative, and that secularism is the surest way of abandoning centuries of misogyny. Lastly, we both know who the real culprits are for allowing this misogyny to continue, and that certainly it isn’t other women.

Vatican asserts control over raped 9-year-old’s uterus

March 16, 2009 at 9:18 pm | Posted in Feminisms | 1 Comment

Well, this makes for some eye-opening reading. Still under fire for lifting the excommunication of a Holocaust denier, the Vatican is now on the defensive for endorsing a Brazillian Archbishop’s decision to excommunicate the mother and doctors of a 9-year-old girl who fell pregnant through rape and then had a ‘lifesaving’ abortion.

Let’s just ponder that for a moment: a Holocaust denier gets his Jeebus pass reinstated despite not really renouncing his views, but the mother and doctors of a raped 9-year old girl will now be refused communion because they conspired to perform an abortion. I normally take pains to make this place a swear-free zone, but seriously… what the fuck?

Now, contrary to certain views, having religious faith doesn’t mean you’re inherently irrational or malicious, and it’s nice to see that a man with whom I disagree with on plenty has argued that the girl should’ve been “treated with sweetness” and mercy rather than compounding her misery. As Jill reminds us, no church is monolothic and no faith can be applied dogmatically, regardless of context or circumstance. Problem is, that seems to be exactly what happened with these excommunications, and fits perfectly into a purification strategy which has seen the Vatican become ever more puritanical. The Church is free to set whatever moral course it likes, of course, but decisions like this just shows the hurt it can cause to those who least deserve it.

Grassroots feminism: a few hopeful thoughts

March 15, 2009 at 7:39 pm | Posted in Feminisms | 4 Comments

Towards the end of the ’08 elections, an old interview emerged of Barack Obama on the legacy of the civil rights movement. Billed by Republicans as proof the Democrat was a socialist (he dared utter the words ‘redistributive change’), what was more interesting was his discussion of whether the movement’s methods were, in hindsight, the best way of achieving its goals.

In Obama’s view, a consequence of seeking political equality through the courts was that it distracted from the need to address the economic inequalities caused by slavery, racism and disenfranchisement. Put another way, the victories secured in the court room were less effective because the courts were being used to force social change on the country, rather than the country demanding that change from judges & politicians. As a result, blacks achieved the political equality they’d marched and died for, but economic equality – and equality in the hearts & minds of American citizens – remained tragically elusive.

This question about what methods a political movement persues to achieve its goals is one that’s endured for centuries and still has no easy answer. Securing a victory in a courtroom or lobbying some likeminded political party is often the quickest and least costly way of achieving your aim, but the downside is that your victories often the come at the expense of a democratic mandate. In short, you by-pass the voters. Alternatively, you could try to build a broad-based, grassroots movement, but whilst that method might be more open & democratic, it also takes much longer to mobilise and is prone to perpetual setbacks and the frustrations of realpolitik. For activists, the only certainties are that for each victory there is a new failure, and for each solution a new problem.

To show how this continues to affect real people, let’s make a brief stopover in Africa. In 2001, the Kenyan government made it illegal to subject girls to genital mutilation, but, as this magnificent piece by Johann Hari demonstrates, this nauseating practice is still widespread and goes largely unpunished:

First, Margaret puts her finger under the hood of the clitoris, “and then I cut it completely off.” Then “I cut out all the meat. I know when to stop when I feel the bone and there’s nothing left to cut away.” Then “we take her to bed and cover her with a cloth. In the evening, the women come back to check I have done a good job. If I have left anything by mistake, because the girl kicked and screamed too much, we cut her again.”

In South Africa, equality is deeply embedded within the country’s constitution, but despite this – and despite strict laws against hate crimes – rape is frequently used to ‘cure’ women of their homosexuality:

One lesbian woman said: “We get insults every day, beatings if we walk alone, you are constantly reminded that…you deserve to be raped, they yell, if I rape you then you will go straight, that you will buy skirts and start to cook because you will have learnt how to be a real woman.

And back in Britain, we’ve had a decade of litigation & legislation intended to strengthen the rights of women, yet public attitudes to rape and violence remain troubling :

One in seven people believe it is acceptable in some circumstances for a man to hit his wife or girlfriend if she is dressed in “sexy or revealing clothes in public”, according to the findings of a survey released today.

A similar number believed that it was all right for a man to slap his wife or girlfriend if she is “nagging or constantly moaning at him”.

The findings of the poll, conducted for the Home Office, also disclosed about a quarter of people believe that wearing sexy or revealing clothing should lead to a woman being held partly responsible for being raped or sexually assaulted.

In each of these cases, we can see that a state’s actions towards strengthening women’s rights have secured only a half-measure of equality. The other half can only be won by challenging old traditions, prejudices and misconceptions in the public sphere, and that is something no state – no matter how powerful – can achieve.

And so it falls to grassroots feminists to put in the countless hours of hard work needed to change attitudes, protect vulnerable women and generally try to nudge society towards greater equality. Groups like the Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative in Kenya, which provides refuge for girls fleeing the threat of mutilation; the Gay & Lesbian Equality Project in Johannesburg, who campaign for greater social equality; or Rape Crisis, whose excellent online campaign challenges some damaging attitudes to rape. Whilst their means may be meagre and their influence limited, every prejudice they challenge, every supporter they gain and every person they protect is a true victory for their cause.

Sometimes you have to change a law; other times you have to change a mind. Either way, the possibility of change is constant. Whenever we pour over the depressing news from near & far, it helps to keep that one hopeful thought in our heads.

Reducing domestic violence

December 22, 2008 at 11:46 pm | Posted in British Politics, Feminisms | 3 Comments

All we know are the facts. We know that domestic violence accounts for 16% of all violent crime and that a quarter of women & 15% of men will suffer abuse in their lifetimes. We know that women are overwhelmingly more likely to suffer repeated abuse, that two women a week are killed by a current or former partner and that one incident of abuse is reported to the police every minute of the day. Sadly, we also know that these reports only account for a fraction of the true number of attacks, many of which go unreported.

We know, too, that no government, no matter how active or intrusive, could stop partners from being violent to each other, and as the goal of eradicating domestic violence will always be unreachable, the question we must ask is whether we – as a state, as a society, and as individuals – are doing the most we can to condemn, prosecute and punish its perpatrators, and protect, counsel and care for its victims.

That question has been raised again this week as Labour and the Conservatives lock horns over who has the better policies to reduce domestic violence and improve care for those who’ve suffered from it. On Radio 4′s Woman’s Hour, David Cameron promised an integrated, cross-departmental strategy which would include 15 new rape crisis centres and better training for police officers to spot and prosecute all kinds of abuse, whether it be sexual assault, spousal beatings, genital mutilation or forced marriages. Meanwhile, Jacqui Smith has promised to begin another consultation exercise to see how the domestic violence aspects of the recent violent crime action plan (PDF) could be improved.

For all its faults, this government has certainly been proactive in trying to get a handle on the problem. They haven’t always had the right priorities, and their fondness for legislative action has occasionally been self-defeating, but with the introduction of specialised domestic violence courts, the increase in prosecutions, the introduction of multi-agency task forces to identify at-risk individuals and the increased vigilance against forced marriage, they have certainly made some positive, if incremental, progress. But, as an overwhelming majority of experts will attest, there is still much that needs to be done.

First, victims need to know that they have been victims of a crime rather than the inevitable by-product of some lovers’ tiff. The British Crime Survey found that the reporting rate, whilst eye-wateringly low, was significantly higher amongst men and women who knew their partners’ abuse was against the law. Here, advertising and awareness campaigns should play an important role, but recent research has found them not to be having much of an effect. We need to figure out of a way of encouraging greater numbers of victims to come forward.

Secondly, more attention needs to be paid to rehabilitating the aggressors. Whilst I realise that rehabilitating a spouse-beater is about as popular as hugging a hoodie, it remains true that prosecution alone won’t make a serial abuser mend his (or her) ways. As figures from America have apparently shown that people who take domestic violence programmes are less likely to reoffend, we should make this a priority of any anti-violence crusade.

Third, we urgently need a national rape hotline and, as the Tories propose, an increase in the number of rape crisis centres. There are far fewer rape crisis centres than there were 20 years ago, and since the women who use them frequently find their comfort, sanctuary and support invaluable, we should ensure there are enough to cater for the whole country.

This far from an exhaustive list, and it’s possible that I’ve missed some ideas that others might see as imperative. But if the two parties are going to start using domestic abuse as one of many political footballs to kick around between now and the election, there is an opportunity for charities, feminist organisations and lobbying groups to enter the debate and plainly state what needs to be done. Maybe that way we’ll start to see some better policy, and with it a few less frightened, blighted lives.

Lap dancing and the benefits of blogging

October 19, 2008 at 9:06 pm | Posted in Feminisms | Leave a comment

There are too many know-it-alls in blogland and not enough know-nothings. Whilst it’s probably self-defeating to position myself in the latter character, I was genuinely delighted by the responses to the question “why can’t we unionise lap dancers?” when it found its way over to Liberal Conspiracy. Since it has the benefit of speaking from personal experience, this comment by a dancer who’s involved in trying to organise this industry is the best of a really good bunch and deserves reprinting in full:

Speaking for the dancers – yes, in many venues we could do with better working conditions and rights. It would be great if venues had to give a concrete reason for sacking us, or if they couldn’t suddenly double the number of dancers or the house fee without some kind of justification or warning, or if they had to provide adequate changing facilities, security, a clean stage to dance on… However, dancers are difficult to unionise, for many reasons; and without the management agreeing to recognise union contracts or demands it’s all academic anyway.

Within London the majority of dancers are not originally from Britain and most do not plan to stay here long-term.  They’re here for a few years to send as much money as possible home, then leave. UK nationals may be stripping part-time to fund university, or to tide them over between jobs. In all those scenarios they just want to keep their heads down, make money and leave; they’re probably not registered self-employed, are not paying tax, and don’t want to appear on the radar. Joining a union is therefore risky. Also they don’t really care what happens to the industry and working conditions etc. long term.

Those of us who do see the job as a career, are registered self-employed etc would in many ways love to see it all better regulated (thought it’s working conditions within the clubs which needs to be looked at, not the bigger licensing picture; current licensing regulations are fine). But when 80 per cent of the dancers around you aren’t interested, it’s hard to get anything going.

Getting dancers to join the IUSW is a challenge as most dancers do not identify themselves as sex workers therefore the name of the union is an instant turn-off. More of us are Equity members, and get good benefits from them. The membership fees are also an issue as we already pay out so much of our hard-earned cash: we pay striptease agency fees, high house fees to the venues, all our travel/costumes/make-up/cab costs, those of us registered pay tax and national insurance, accident insurance in case we fall off the pole… It adds up to hundreds of pounds a week. we need to see concrete proof that union membership will benefit us before we’re prepared to pay out even more.

If I were to say, “I’m not going to work at any venue where i have to pay fees to go work there, that does not provide me with a locker for my property and valuables, that does not increase fees and dancer numbers at random, that always provides clean facilities” – then there would be virtually NO-WHERE in London I could work (ironically the best place I do is underground and unlicensed). We’re forced to carry on putting up with bad conditions as the other option is to find a new career.

I imagine it may be easier to unionise dancers outside of London, this is something the GMB is currently looking at.

In a way, what is required is a big threat (the current proposed licensing changes could be that) to draw everyone – dancers, management, agencies – together against a common enemy. At the moment, despite the bad conditions, there are enough good points (and some truly fabulous points – I love my job) that most of us don’t want to rock the boat and potentially put ourselves out of work.

Why can’t we unionise lap dancers?

October 14, 2008 at 7:57 pm | Posted in British Politics, Feminisms | 3 Comments

Personally, I’ve no use for strip joints, lap dancing emporiums, ‘gentleman’s clubs’ or any other euphemism you want to use for young ladies dancing around without much clothing. If I’m going for a drink I want a steady supply of cider, enjoyable conversation and a jukebox that’s as obscure as my music taste. What I don’t want to endure is the awkward, toe-curling, avert-your-eyes embarrassment of having women I’ve never met wriggle around for me (and yes, I realise it’s probably far more awkward for the women themselves than it would be for me).

But it’s obvious that a significant section of the male population doen’t share my squeamishness, and the industry has thrived in recent years. As others have explained better than I could, the government’s 2003 Licensing Act created a pretty huge loophole which left lap dancing barely regulated (excuse the pun), and the number of clubs has consequently doubled.

Now, I’m not going to get into the pros, cons, whys or wherefores of lapdancing; ‘the Google’ will lead you to plenty of well-intentioned, well-argued debate by people on all sides of the issue, and this is exactly the kind of area where I risk coming across as a complete dilettante. But there is one thing that I just don’t understand and have never found a decent answer for: why can’t we unionise lap dancers?

At the moment, Object is running a campaign to have the government classify these clubs as the ‘Sex Encounter Establishments’ they are, thereby giving local councils the power to decide whether they want them popping up all over the place, and also allowing for greater regulation. Sure enough, this is a very necessary goal, but whilst it would certainly curtail their expansion and shut down clubs that’re egregiously exploitative, would it lead to any significant improvement in the working conditions of the average dancer?

It seems to me that some of the biggest workplace concerns for dancers would be job insecurity, pay disputes, sexual harrassment, lousy working conditions (shift length etc) and the threat of violence. Surely having dancers represented by a trade union could, in time, lead to more widely agreed-upon wage settlements, better working conditions and protection against exploitation, harassment & unlawful termination? It certainly works in most other professions, but to my knowledge there’s only one organisation which even tries to representment them, they’ve only been in operation since 2000 and, whilst I don’t know their numbers, I think it’s fair to assume that they’re small in size.

Much as I hate to end a post with a question, this leads us to ask why dancers aren’t as widely-unionised as they should be. Is it because of the stigma attached to working in this industry? Because women’s groups differ in their opinion of the sex industry? Because of the potential hostility of club bosses? Or is it just impractical to begin a large, nationwide drive to encourage them to join or (if one is needed) form a union?

I don’t know. But I do think it’s an oversight that’s well worth remedying.

Image by Flickr user inkyhack (Creative Commons)

Want to oust Gordon? Must be that time of the month!

September 14, 2008 at 8:28 pm | Posted in British Politics, Feminisms, Gordon Brown | Leave a comment
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Via Jess McCabe at The F-Word, those intrepid terriers at The Telegraph delve into the real reasons for rebellion against Gordon Brown and discover that it’s just a cabal led by a bunch of women who are emotional, irrational, and probably having their periods. Here’s their expert analysis of Siobhain McDonagh:

She sounded like a woman facing an emotional crisis, not a government minister in the midst of knifing the Prime Minister.

Classy. Just in case you hadn’t noticed, conservatives are the new progressives….

The face of female imprisonment

July 30, 2008 at 12:20 pm | Posted in Feminisms, Prison Reform | 1 Comment

After Sarah Campbell, aged 18, died from taking an overdose of sleeping pills in Styal prison – one of six women to die in that jail in 12 months – her mother vowed to fight against the harm done to vulnerable young women by the penal system. In the years that followed, Pauline Campbell tried to raise the profile of this issue by travelling the country and protesting outside an prison where a woman had died in custody. Tragically, just over two months ago she was found dead near her daughter’s grave, robbing the reform movement of one its most tireless, effective and high-profile voices. Of course, the fact you’ve probably never heard of her shows just pitifully low a profile this cause has.

The plight of women in our prisons makes grimacing reading. According to campaign group Women in Prison, of the 4,400+ currently in prison:

  • 70% have mental health problems.
  • 37% have attempted suicide.
  • 20% have been in the care system as children compared to 2% of the general population.
  • At least 50% report being victims of childhood abuse or domestic violence.

It’s a wretched state of affairs, made worse by the fact that so many don’t really need to be there. In 2004, the Prison Reform Trust reported that six out of ten women imprisoned while awaiting trial are subsequently acquitted or given a non-custodial sentence. Furthermore, the number of women being remanded into custody has more than trebled in a decade despite the fact that more than three quarters are charged with non-violent or minor offences. Few among the number of women prisoners pose a serious risk to society. As for the tired old question of whether any good comes out of their time in prison, Women in Prison also report that 65% go on to reoffend.

But statistics rarely reveal the full misery of life in prison, and so when this email appeared in my inbox promoting a book on the subject, I felt obliged to give it a plug:

Maggots in My Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time is the product of a 10-year quest by Susan Madden Lankford to reveal the personal despair, desperation, alienation, and fragile hopes of women behind bars. Lankford’s dramatic photos and vivid stories of life behind the concrete and steel facilities reveal an overcrowded, strained incarceration system increasingly unable to deal with the mental, emotional, and addiction problems women bring with them behind bars.

[...]

Her flesh- and-blood images of life behind the concrete and steel facilities that house these women present us with a cogent portrait of diffused lives, and a reflective glimpse of emotional and physical institutionalization. We hear not only the frank and graphic voices of both the jailed and the jailers, but also from rehabilitation counselors, attorneys, judges, medical professionals and psychiatrists. Their experiences and insights into the fastest growing segment of the U.S. prison population give new meaning to the slogan “No Child Left Behind.”

The book specifically looks at the lives of women in U.S. prisons, but when you read some of the material and look at the statistics, on this issue – as with many others – we share much more than just the same language. Let’s see if any of this sounds familiar:

  • In the past 10 years, the number of female prisoners has increased 138 percent. This is speculated to be from harsher mandatory sentencing laws, and increased arrest rates due to the “war on crime” and “war on drugs.”
  • Women prisoners spend on average 17 hours a day in their cells, with one hour outside for exercise. Compare to men prisoners, who spend, on average, 15 hours a day in their cells, with 1.5 hours outside.
  • Nationally, more than 200,000 children have mothers in prison, and 64 percent of incarcerated women have minor children.
  • Every single women’s facility in the U.S. is at least 160 percent above capacity, and on average 57 percent of women in State prisons claim physical or sexual abuse prior to incarceration.

Eerily, depressingly similar. You’ll find a fairly comprehensive overview of the injustices in the US prison system in this PDF by Amnesty, but if you want a set of vivid snapshots of life inside the system, this isn’t a a bad place to start.

More info here and here.

Some of my other posts on penal reform (or lack of it) can be found here.

Today in domestic violence…

July 15, 2008 at 9:12 pm | Posted in Feminisms, Idiot Hall of Fame | 1 Comment
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…is really just like any other day:

A TERRIFIED woman fled from her violent boyfriend by climbing between the balconies of a Huddersfield block of flats, a court heard yesterday.

Steven Davies, 34, was seen on CCTV equipment hitting Fiona Murphy in a lift as they made their way back to the fifth-floor flat they shared at Holme Park Court, Berry Brow, last August.

[...]

“Shortly after that the woman saw the complainant drop down on to her balcony from the flat above,” said Mr Newman. “When she was first seen, the complainant had blood on her clothing and her hands and was visibly distressed.”

In a later statement the complainant described how Davies had attacked her with a piece of wood in the flat and had threatened her with a knife. Mr Newman said: “In fear she had run on to the balcony and had attempted to climb down to escape from him.

“She said as she was just climbing down the defendant struck her left hand with a hammer.”

The court heard that the hammer had struck the complainant on the little finger, but as a result of the attack she had also suffered fractures to her left wrist and a small bone in her left hand. She also had a cut to her head, black eyes and other cuts, abrasions and swellings.

That’s not an easy climb at the best of times, and I don’t suppose being beaten, threatened with a knife and hit with a hammer would really qualify as ‘the best of times’. Get that descent wrong and you’ll fall & break something. If you’re lucky.

Cambridge University & Sexist Fight Club

June 22, 2008 at 6:48 pm | Posted in Feminisms, Idiot Hall of Fame | Leave a comment
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I know it doesn’t reflect well on me, but every once in a while I come across a story and think “oh, just pass me a musket and let me put ‘em out of their misery’.* Of what injustice do I speak? Follow the link. I’ll still be here when you get back.

Now, there could be any number of reasons why Ms Witkowski went on a violent rampage punched a fellow student in the face, but it’s not unreasonable to interpret that she might’ve been pissed at seeing her more slender, more conventionally attractive opponent being crowned the winner despite having been – to use the appropriate jargon – roundly whooped. At this stage we could easily reach into our directory of feminisms and condemn this boorish, male-heavy crowd for judging women on their attractiveness rather than their prowess at jelly-based wrestling.

Sure, we could say that, and we’d probably be right. But a little context is always handy:

Last Sunday’s jelly wrestling was part of a garden party organised by the Wyverns, an all-male Magdalene College drinking society, and part of a bigger tradition known as Suicide Sunday.

This year there was a blazers and bikini theme (that’s men in blazers, women in bikinis) and a jelly-filled paddling pool.

So if you’re going to attend an event organised by an all-boys club where the dress code is designed solely for these well-fed, leacherous little creeps to leer at bikini-clad undergrads, you’re not really in any position to feign outrage when the all-girl wrestling contest is judged on the basis of which competitor most successfully stirs their loins.

Sure, this might not have been the reason for Ms Witkowski’s punch-fest, but that’s beside the point. The point is that a ‘blazers and bikinis’ party which culminates in an all-girl wrestling competition epitomises the kind of cringeworthy sexism that’s still widespread at one of the ‘best universities in the world’ and that everyone who organised it, everyone who attended it and everyone who wanted to attend is a retrograde imbecile who should be barred from ever holding a position of power.

Of course, in 30 years time one of these tossers will probably become a Cabinet Minister, and give us many more reasons to want to reach for the musket.

*Disclaimer: The Bleeding Heart Show is a strictly non-violent blog and condemns the use of violence, particularly when using an inefficient rifle that became obselete in the late 19th century.

Sorry, you mean some bloggers aren’t white men?!

June 11, 2008 at 10:17 pm | Posted in Feminisms, Misc. | Leave a comment
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Sunny Hundal’s post about writing for the bearpit that is Comment is Free – and the attendant issues about the abuse slung at women and minorities – raises a lot of interesting points, most of which this white, Cambridge-educated Yorkshireman isn’t all that qualified to answer without sounding like a complete dilletante. Still, I’d like to think that there are one or two non-moronic observations I can make.

The first is this post by a stand-in on Megan McArdle’s blog:

Bloggers write about their lives, their interests, their cities, their friends. On many blogs, the author’s life becomes part of the story — you read these bloggers as much for who they are as for what they have to say. This is what accounts for the sense one sometimes gets that one “knows” the blogger. Blogs serve as running commentary on the world at large (or some part of it), yes, but also as extensions of the lives of their authors. To become a regular reader is to share and take part in that life, and that’s a large part of the blogosphere’s appeal. It’s also a function of both the frantic pace and pressure of the professional blogosphere: The easiest content to produce is that which is inspired by what’s nearest to you

For me, this reveals a large part of what is wrong with Comment Is Free – too many wannabe Op-Eds, not enough bloggers. Regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexuality or ideology, CiF garners a large number of spiteful comments, and I wonder whether this might be, in part, due to the fact that readers are subjected to an endless stream of opinions without ever getting to know the opinion-makers. There are too many hit-and-run posts, and even those posters who stop to contribute in the comments are defined entirely by argument and counter-argument. If you take a look at the Atlantic stable McArdle belongs to, you’ll find a host of authors (Sullivan, Yglesias, Ambinder, Douthat, McArdle herself) who post several times a day and about a variety of topics – some personal, some political. In the process you begin to get a sense of the personal and political life of the authors, and for regular readers this makes them far less inclined to subject the author to a stream of personal attacks, and more likely to engage in constructive dialogue.

Of course, none of this answers the question of how to counteract the abuse faced by women & minorities who try to blog. In light of some of the ghastly anecdotes made during this discussion, in which I learnt that one of my Favourite Writers and 2nd Favourite Feminist Blogger (here’s Number One, in case you’re interested) is frequently subjected to abhorrent, gender-based attacks, it’s clear that having safe places for women and minority groups to congregate is absolutely necessary. However, for them to engage in more mainstream sites like CiF, there is an obligation on those of us who object to racist, sexist & homophobic comments not just to wait before a moderator bans some bigot who speaks the worst impulses of humankind. Whether or not we agree with someone’s argument, those of us who believe in decency and equality have a duty to help shut down those who would tear down marginalised voices.

24 weeks: a victory and a warning

May 21, 2008 at 12:20 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, Feminisms | Leave a comment
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As pro-choicers rightly bask in the knowledge that a woman’s right to choose won’t be eroded for at least the duration of this government, now is probably the best possible moment to warn against complacency. At Comment is Free, Mary Kenny argues that this debate has become far more complicated than those had during the ’60s and ’70s, with advanced photography of the reproductive process making the emotive case for restricting abortion seem stronger, even amongst those who’re sympathetic to a woman’s right to chose.

Then there’s the question of whether this issue will return to Parliament with a vengence if/when the Conservatives win the next election. There’s a strong likelihood that if it did re-emerge (and god knows Nadine Dorries hasn’t got much else to do with her time), the restrictionists would finally prevail:

The abortion time limit could be cut if the Conservatives win the next general election, according to an analysis of yesterday’s votes.

According to Philip Cowley of the University of Nottingham, a large influx of Tory MPs into parliament could lead to a reduction in the upper time limit of 24 weeks.

[...]

Cowley told guardian.co.uk: “I can’t see 24 weeks surviving a large Conservative intake at the next election. It’s one of the underlying truths that so-called free votes are not as non-party as people think.

“The majority of Conservative MPs voted for a reduction in the abortion time limit and the majority of Labour MPs voted against. The maths are pretty straightforward when there’s a large Conservative intake.”

He added: “One of the problems for the Tories’ position is that once you state the argument for viability of the child and science, the abortion time limit will only go down. It’s never going to go up again.”

Violent femmes

May 20, 2008 at 10:17 pm | Posted in British Politics, Feminisms | Leave a comment
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Here’s a dilemma that’s got ‘Bleeding Heart’ written all over it: how do we understand the not-so-shocking fact that rather than just being simpering, sugar & spice sweethearts, women are just as capable (though far less likely) of committing crime as men?

Whilst he doesn’t make any earth-shattering insights (this is Comment is Free, after all), Ally Fogg at least makes an honourable attempt at it. Fogg’s main argument is that whilst there are some easily-identifyable facts about gender & crime – (a) we live in a patriarchal society, (b) men commit the most crime & the most violence and (c) women are more likely to be victims of male agression than vice versa – female criminality shouldn’t be reduced to just a symptom of these problems.

In this sense he’s absolutely right; crime can’t be understood by focusing exclusively on gender any more than it can understood by focusing exclusively on age, race, family background, economic circumstances, mental health, physical health or whether they like to drive around virtual cities running over pedestrians. To understand crime you need to look at a plurality of causes, and whilst you can prioritise some over others, it’s foolish to dismiss them for not fitting your preconceptions.

That said, I really can’t sign up to this:

To draw a distinction between male and female violence is often, I believe, simply bad science.

Notice there’s enough equivocation in that sentence to allow him to wriggle out of it if challenged. There is absolutely a need to distinguish between male and female violence, if only to account for the fact that it isn’t women who’re responsible for the vast majority of the rapings, the ‘honour’ killings and the genital mutilations on the planet. These are overwhelmingly male crimes and should be distinguished as such; failure to do so leads to the rather icky implication that capability & responsibility are somehow shared between the sexes.

Perhaps this didn’t fit with the argument he was trying to make, but I also think Fogg’s post would’ve had greater relevance if he’d talked about trends in female crime rather than just focusing on a few headline-making examples. Last week, the Youth Justice Board reported that crimes committed by girls aged 10 to 17 rose a whopping 25% between 2003/4 & 2006/07; the most commonly-committed were theft, violent attack, criminal damage and public order offences.

So yes, girls are committing more crimes and becoming more violent; they’re stealing and happy-slapping, vandalising and getting hammered. But when you look at the types of crimes being committed, you’ll notice how depressingly familiar they are to people from socially & economically deprived backgrounds. In areas with drugs and crime and antisocial behaviour kids have to be tough to survive, and this can certainly – though not inevitably – lead towards criminal, violent or otherwise ‘deviant’ behaviour whether they happen to be male or female. For me, it’s not that the problem of female violence is getting out of control, but that it’s rising to reflect the circumstances around them.

This perhaps supports Fogg’s general point that by viewing female crime solely through the blinkers of gender relations, you’ll get only a small slice of the myriad motivations and mitigations that drive women (and, indeed, men) to commit violent crime. But either way, we need to be a lot less freaked out by such incidents and a lot more focused on how they can be prevented.

Defend 24 weeks

May 7, 2008 at 12:12 pm | Posted in Feminisms | 1 Comment
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Whilst there’s still not an awful lot of evidence to prove that a foetus can exist outside the womb after 20 weeks, Nadine Dorries and her merry band of restrictionists are happy to take a few astonishing cases and construct a law around them. Dorries is proposing an amendment to the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Bill (yeah, I thought that’d finally disappeared, too) which would slash the legal time limit on abortions from 24 to 20 weeks.

Now, I can’t make an argument about abortion law without sounding like an utter dilettante. I can, however, provide links to people who do know what they’re talking about – like Unity, Laurie Penny and the cast of The F-Word – and I can link to this new-fangled Coalition for Choice website, which gives more information and instructions on how to take action.

Men & feminism: take three

May 3, 2008 at 10:41 am | Posted in Feminisms | Leave a comment

Well, it seems I’ve grasped a nettle on this topic. Following my earlier contention that men can’t be feminists and the subsequent rebuttal from a passing commenter, David Semple, whose blog is never anything less than a cradle of eloquence, adds his own criticisms. It’s an excellent post that I’d encourage you to read in its entirety, and it reminded me of an argument I’d forgotten to include in either of my two posts.

I think the main difference between us is summed-up by this paragraph towards the end:

My conclusion is that definitions of feminism cannot be based simply on the subjectivity of direct experience. This is not to deny how important that can be in shaping the political and feminist consciousnesses of women, it is simply to say that there is a greater, more universally available, objective reality. It is to say that this objective reality serves just as well to condition men in such a way as to render them feminists. When engaged in real struggle, feminism finds itself subsumed into other issues and we all become feminists.

But definitions of feminism are inevitably formed on the subjectivity of direct experience, not least by women who call themselves feminists. Sure, there are many easily-available objective truths about women’s oppression (forced marriages, genital mutilation, the idiocy of ‘abstinence only’, unequal pay etc) and those truths can inspire a rallying cry for change voiced by people of both genders that becomes larger than the movement from whence it came. At the same time, objective reality is still received, understood and interpreted subjectively and with an infinite number outcomes.

As I’ve said previously, there are many different feminisms. Feminism is far from a monolithic movement, and when we move beyond the rather basic no-brainer issues cited earlier, we find debates in which there are many competing arguments: the question of whether a feminist should abide by pornography, legal prostitution or strip clubs, how far they should oppose clothing like the hijab, whether state-endorsed mysogeny was a strong enough reason to support the war in Afghanistan, whether women should campaign for a ban on Page 3 or mysogenistic video games. On all of these issues you’ll find women who hold different points of view as part of a feminism which is often deeply personal, subjective and drawn from experiences men can’t claim equally. On these issues, at least, interjecting into debates by ‘speaking as a male feminist’ isn’t particularly helpful.

What I think this boils down to, and what my posts didn’t clearly articulate, is probably a squabble over semantics. In the sense of political activism – a movement with a clearly-defined and universally agreed-upon set of objective goals and principles – men can be feminists in the same sense as white people can be anti-racist. But as a means of understanding the world that inevitably leads to an infinite number of subjective interpretations, I think we’re much better off as pro-feminists; deferent supporters of women whose experiences play a role in forming their feminism, and from whom we can learn a great deal.

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