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.


Selected reading

March 12, 2009 at 10:03 pm | Posted in Misc. | 1 Comment

Yeah, two days in a row. Bad, bad form. Anyway…

  • Oxbridge is still doing a poor job at recruiting ethnic minorities.
  • John Crace meets the authors who think they’ve discovered the root of every social problem.
  • Brad Plumer on the secret lives of beekeepers.
  • Brandon Keim insists that whilst Bush’s ban on stem cell funding was wrong, it wasn’t ‘anti-science’.
  • Joe Romm explains ‘polar amplification’.
  • Matt Springer on the science of Star Trek.
  • China Hand has a very thorough, thoughtful post on the situation in Pakistan.
  • Did Dick Cheney have a ‘super secret assassination ring?’
  • And Judah Grunstein warns against cultural determinism in Afghanistan.

Selected reading

March 11, 2009 at 9:53 pm | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment
  • First up, an important announcement. On your travels around the blogosphere, you might notice that when (some) right-wing bloggers write about Harriet Harman, they intentionally misspell her name. Being such a droll, creative bunch, the spellings vary, but the most commonly-used is Harriet ‘Harperson’. Now, I like to think of myself as a pretty smart, well-read guy (I have certificates and everything), but I never had a clue where this bizarre mangling came from… until now:

(and BTW Har’person’ is actually a pun on Har’man’ – the woman is a strident feminist and it probably pains her immensely to have a non-gender neutral surname)”

  • So it’s a bit like changing ‘history’ to ‘personstory’ or ‘manhole cover’ to ‘personhole cover’. Brilliant. So from now on, I’m going to conclude that anyone who uses this alternative, ‘subversive’ surname is a witless prat. If this effects you in any way, my apologies. In other news…
  • Laurie Penny gets a spot in The Guardian to write about anorexia.
  • The Guardian also has a pretty distressing story about the conditions in a women’s prison in Scotland.
  • Glenn Loury has a fascinating piece on the American prison system.
  • NextLeft takes on the Muslim ‘mob’.
  • I’m linking to it a few days late, but Matthew Cain’s piece on Tom Harris’ ‘folly’ is worth a read.
  • The New Pornographers’ Carl Newman (who wrote the title to this here blog) talks to The Boston Herald
  • The A.V. Club interviews the excellent Neko Case.
  • And Jon Stewart’s spat with business network CNBC continues. (Don’t expect too much from my Tumblr account, by the way; it’s mostly just an irregularly-updated dumping ground for various videos & tunes).

Moving on from the miners’ strike

March 10, 2009 at 10:53 pm | Posted in British Politics, Working Class Britain | 2 Comments

It’s about midday on a glum, sunless Saturday. On Cheapside, there’s the usual obstacle course of street traders, buskers and charity fundraisers: a BNP stand stocked with parka-clad pampleteers and studied scowls, a bunch of trade unionists pushing anti-fascist leaflets into the palms of passers-by, and a group of pan pipe players whistling – of all things – the tune to My Heart Will Go On. Turn left onto Mayday Green, and among the pound shops, charity shops and pasty-picking pigeons, there’s a boarded-up store front carrying a proud advertisement from the council: Barnsley is Changing.

In a sense, they’re absolutely right. In search of the regeneration money which breathed new life into Sheffield & Leeds, six years ago, we had visions of being transformed into a Tuscan hill village, complete with a huge ‘halo of light’ which would be seen for miles around. It was designed by the renowned Will Alsop, who promised that “if we could just make this town beautiful, people will come.” He never got his town halo, but he did leave us with one delicious legacy; about two years later, someone opened a sandwich shop called ‘Tuscany’s ‘.

Throughout a week where the media has reminisced about the miners’ strike, I’ve been reminded of a line from The Grapes of Wrath: “How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past? No. Leave it. Burn it.” I’m in no mood to refight the events of 25 years ago; the consequences of the strike and the pit closures which followed will be evident to anyone who’s ever lived here or spent time in communities once known for their mines. But for anyone who isn’t aware of what the closures wrought and doesn’t care to find out, just know this: those social ills which fill our newspapers and make the right’s moralisers fume were exacerbated – if not necessarily created – by decisions made by the party of ‘Broken Britain’ . They’d do well to acknowledge it one day.

The town needs to leave its proud but blighted past behind, but what’s made the act of forgetting much harder is the fact that 25 years later – 12 of which have been under a Labour government – it’s never really enjoyed a second act. Sure, some investment has come our way, and with it new jobs and residents; the same Cortonwood which so many families starved to keep open is now better known for its retail park, and in the Dearne Valley there are call centres where there used to be coalfields. There’s a new bus station, a refurbished civic hall and the council is slowly replacing some of the most decrepit social housing with homes fit for families to live in.

But many of the jobs which vanished in the ’80s and ’90s haven’t been replaced, unemployment has become generational, schools still struggle to equip their kids for an uncertain future and this new recession is hitting the town particularly hard . What’s more, these facts are certainly not unique to Barnsley.

I always worry when writing one of these posts that I’m casting my hometown as some barren hinterland where life is grim and intolerable. The reality is anything but. We still have farm shops and frappuccinos; art galleries; museums; some decent restaurants. You could live a long and contented life in this place – I have, for the most part. But what I am saying is that it’s been 25 years, the social and economic consequences of the miners’ defeat are still being felt, and it’s hard to move on until they’re addressed.

Lastly, y’know that vaunted, long-delayed regeneration scheme I wrote about at the top of this piece? It’s been credit crunched . Some places never get a break.


March 9, 2009 at 8:57 pm | Posted in Blogging about blogging | 1 Comment

So… you know one of the slightly negative side effects of this Orwell Prize thing? It’s made me really quite careful that everything I write is, y’know, readable. Granted, this probably has more to do with me being neurotic than it does the prize itself, but there you go.

Long story short: there’ll be some more writing on this site by either tomorrow or Wednesday; just as soon as I rediscover the ability to actually write.

Selected reading

March 5, 2009 at 9:48 pm | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment

It’s the old man’s birthday today, so we went to the pub and bought him pie. Upon returning, I discovered that Old Rosie isn’t particularly conducive to Good Bloggin’. So here’s some stuff:

  • Don Paskini didn’t like the Tom Harris thing much, either.
  • Max Bergmann points out that it’s Britain – not the United States – which is making the ‘special relationship’ a little less special.
  • It turns out that you can run opinion polls anywhere these days. Spencer Ackerman interprets the results from the tribal areas of Pakistan.
  • How do you beat the Taliban? Give ’em all iPhones. They can’t get enough of ’em.
  • It’s a few days old now, but Monbiot’s piece on prisons is very good.
  • Over at Tikkun, Jerome Slater has penned one of the strongest, most thorough critiques of Israel’s attack on Gaza that I’ve read.
  • Menzies Campbell argues for 5 liberal freedoms.
  • Could ecstacy be a treatment for PTSD?
  • John S. Wilkins continues demolishing the Darwin myths.
  • Red Pepper talks to the fabulous novelist David Peace.
  • Miley Cyrus is going to destroy Radiohead…

…And, because you’re all crazy for chanteuses who sing in French and fill their songs with whistling and trumpets and stuff, here’s a chanteuse who sings in French and fills her songs with whistling and trumpets and stuff.

Against ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ on teen pregnancy

March 4, 2009 at 10:01 pm | Posted in British Politics, Working Class Britain | 6 Comments

We’ll begin, as is the vogue when writing about this topic, with some of those tiresome anedotes which somehow prove the observations which follow.

Back when I was still lugging crates of cheap pop around a newsagents in Meadowhall, I worked with a girl named Claire*. Claire was sexually active well before the age of consent, was pregnant by the age of sixteen and had only a handful of GCSEs to her name. So far, so ‘Shameless ‘. Except, as soon as her maternity leave was up, Claire returned to work whatever hours she could manage whilst still looking after her newborn. Some two years after giving birth, she enrolled on a part-time hairdressing course, which she squeezed-in between her paid work and all the hours where she simply had to be a mum. She finally qualified last year and, last I heard, was working in a hair salon with dreams of one day opening her own.

There’s another girl I know called Lucy*. Like Claire, Lucy was a teenager when she had her first child, and at first all the work she could manage were a few afternoons in a nearby off license. She held various other menial jobs in the child’s infancy, but when it reached school age, she eventually found some full-time work with the local council . Now she’s taking extra courses to make up for the work she missed at school, and she’ll probably be a line manager before she hits 40.

So what profound insights can be gleaned from these brief summations of two single mothers’ lives? Only that no matter what your age when you give birth, no matter what your qualifications, your economic background, or even how high your aspirations, the lives of these women rarely end at conception . Many of the young girls whose unintended pregnancies cause despair to tabloids and politicians alike will go on to produce better lives for themselves and their kids than anyone will ever notice, much less give credit for.

Now, Tom Harris has a completely different set of anecdotes and uses them to draw a different (and much bleaker) conclusion about single mothers. We’re both partially right, of course, but it’s the enormity of what we exclude which, in the end, makes us both fundamentally wrong.

Human life is messy and complicated; it can be constrained by factors beyond our control and hamstrung by both our own mistakes and the mistakes of others. There are some single mothers whose lives will mirror my anecdotes, and there are some whose lives are blighted by the low ambition and poor self-esteem described by the member for Glasgow South. There are many, many more whose lives resemble neither of our simplistic charicatures, and of those there are more quiet triumphs than there are glaring, headline-grabbing tragedies.

But what disturbs me about Mr Harris’ post is the ease with which this breadth of human experience can somehow be boiled-down into the biblical absolutes of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Now, as a member of Parliament, it is sometimes Mr Harris’ job to make these judgements (is it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to invade a foreign country? is it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to lock someone up for six weeks without charge?), but this is one of those issues where such thinking achieves precisely nothing.

No, the choice isn’t between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, but between ‘what is’ and ‘what could be’? How do we stop boys from impregnating? What are the right ways of encouraging young boys & girls to stop wasting their potential? How do we ensure that those women who don’t believe their lives should end at conception will have the educational and employment opportunities to achieve their delayed ambitions? And are we intervening early enough, often enough and rigorously enough in a child’s life to ensure they don’t fall into the same traps as generations past?

Identifying what is and then pondering what could be gets you far closer to untangling the many threads of teenage pregnancy, welfare dependency, unemployment and social mobility, and brings you nearer to finding those policies which might achieve your goals. By contrast, the most you’ll achieve by simplistically declaring things either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is a spot on a radio phone-in, a column in a tabloid newspaper, or at best, a seat on the backbenches. Nobody should have to settle for that.

*Names altered, for obvious reasons.

Which Taliban?

March 3, 2009 at 9:54 pm | Posted in International | 2 Comments

Once we’ve set aside the horror and revulsion one inevitably feels in the wake of these latest attacks in Pakistan, I’m more inclined than ever to think there’s some truth to the Terrorists-Are-Dumb theory of international politics. I mean, if your idea of jihad is striking a possibly fatal blow to your country’s favourite sport, I think it’s safe to say that you’re going to suffer a major recruitment problem.

Beyond that, I think it’s important to avoid either jumping to rash conclusions, or merging Pakistan’s many militant factions into one slimy gloop called ‘Taliban’, as a guest contributor to Harry’s Place seems to do here. Shiraz Maher links the tragedy in Lahore with the recently-brokered ceasefire between the national government and the thugs who control the North-Western Province (or Swat Valley).

I think this is a mistake. According to the BBC, Indian and Pakistani security forces currently believe the perpetrators were Lashkar-e-Taiba, the same group responsible for the attacks in Mumbai, and a bunch of cranks who seem to possess an almost limitless ambition for blood. In Swat, however, the dominant group is the pompously-named Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law, and there isn’t – at the time of writing – any suggestion that this group has played a role in these attacks. If it turns out they didn’t have a role, then their ceasefire with the Pakistani government has held (so far), and Maher’s conclusion that “engaging on a concessionary basis with fascist groups is almost always an exercise in futility” doesn’t really work in this context.

This is important because, as both Fareed Zakaria and Eric Martin note, we need to become much more specific in how we talk about and try to combat Jihadists. If you’re simply going to use ‘Taliban’ as a catch-all term for every form of Islamism, then there’s very little chance that either western or regional powers will be able to claim something resembling a victory. If, on the otherhand, you view ‘Taliban’ as a multi-faceted phenomenon consisting of many different groups who sometimes have little in common and often work at cross purposes, some of them will inevitably have to be killed, some can be neutralised, and some can be politically co-opted. This would inevitably involve deals with the devil and lead to accommodating many odious, misogynistic and anti-democratic voices, and it’s also not certain that the process of ‘disaggregation’ Martin talks about would necessarily lead to stability.

What is certain is that there’s currently no viable military solution to the problems in either Pakistan or neighbouring Afghanistan, and if we don’t want to waste billions proving it, we need to try something else.

So Lashkar-e-Taiba and Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi are different, we need to treat them as such, and if nothing else, we need to ensure that the crimes committed in Lahore and beyond get blamed on the right people.

Selected Reading

March 2, 2009 at 9:42 pm | Posted in Misc. | 3 Comments

I’m ridiculously sleepy this evening, so here’s a list of stuff I read when I could’ve been blogging:

  • Jackie Schneider wants Ed Balls to stop siding with pushy parents
  • Tom Ricks on President Obama’s strategy in Iraq
  • Marc Lynch wonders whether Hillary Clinton is blowing her first big foreign policy trip.
  • Carole Cadwalladr has a fantastic post about the much-maligned ‘suicide town’ of Bridgend
  • Joe Romm begins ‘unstaining’ Al Gore’s good name.
  • John S. Wilkins continues dispelling Darwin myths.
  • Europe’s carbon market is in a real mess.
  • David Frum despairs over Rush Limbaugh’s power over the Republican Party…
  • …And Gawker catches John McCain making one of the most hilariously inappropriate Twitter comments I’ve read in ages.

There will be more words tomorrow, promise.

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