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In Honour of my two teachers’ passing (seen together here). Rest In Power, bell hooks (d. 15/12/21) and Thich Nhat Hanh (d. 22/01/22).
If we could empathize with all life, we…
… wouldn’t treat all animals as either food or fodder.
… wouldn’t develop nuclear technology into bombs.
…would never show an interest in making so many guns and ways of destroying life.
…would more genuinely aim to achieve mutual understanding between individuals.
…wouldn’t have so much intergenerational trauma within families, communities, nations.
…would be more neighborly in all our affairs.
…wouldn’t treat trade like a sport, a winner-takes-all competition over natural resources.
…would harness the power of the sun for it shines on all life collectively.
…would cultivate care, and be kinder as a general rule.
… would teach kindness in school, a required class on every campus.
…would not build entire ideologies, systems of government, religions, arts, and culture around patriarchy.
… would not be reduced to binaries, not just in gender, but ‘black or white’ in our overall thinking, because that’s where it came from: A false yet powerful and enduring dichotomy.
Binary thinking produced gender binaries, not the other way around. Knowing this is key to its undoing. Please know that capitalism produced racism, and greed crafted classism. A2 + B2 = C2, still. Racism is exponentially untamed greed; and patriarchy an inferiority complex run rampant and amok. Such cultures of greed can’t be conquered by competition; greed can’t be beat! We need a new dimension.
If we could empathize with all life, we would aspire to be far more fair.
If we could empathize with all life, we would love more.
Fill in the blank.
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In America, and most certainly in the land of Dixie and cotillions, at the end of junior high school year we have a tradition of getting our senior class rings. By “getting,” I mean individually buying a ring from the same one or two companies in our city who cash in on this ritual annually. We knew that many of us had to foot the bill with our own after-school jobs, while others’ parents could virtually write a blank check! (Hopefully, at least, or perhaps most assuredly, somebody in the school system gets a kickback from all this cash flow.)
While class rings appeared personalized, the rings – and the ritual – were effectively mass manufactured, complete with standardized shapes and design features: school’s name and mascot – in our case a bear – class year (1993!), and maybe our initials inscribed inside. Oh, and a heteronormative adolescent sexualized ritual to which I shall return shortly.
Rings are generally presented at a school ceremony. Until graduation, class rings are worn facing the wearer as motivation towards the ultimate achievement, after which it is worn outward as a badge of pride and honor. A graduating class could all agree to the same design – usually the school colors – which I believe the majority of my class did. While I prefer the look of silver against my dark skin, our school colors were royal blue and gold, so classes at our school often got blue sapphire set in the lowest Karat gold available that didn’t look cheap. For such a notoriously liberal school (i.e., gender and racially/geographically* integrated by design), this was one of the few explicit acts of conformity.
The next part of the tradition is having 100 different people turn the ring, as sort of an acknowledgement of becoming a senior. The first 99 turn it in one direction, while the final person reverses the order. This clockwise/counter-clockwise turn seals the deal. Yet get this, you’re supposed to kiss the hundredth person who turns the ring. You say the word “kiss” in front of most any group of adolescents and they’ll giggle. We knew what kind of kiss was meant. FRENCH like fries! Somehow becoming a senior in high school had been coopted by this hetero-ritual, a hetero-rite of passage (het-or-no-rites!).
I am troubled that this academic milestone is linked to gender. Worse, the ritual is predictably a performance act that fixes gender to normative sexual roles; yes, heteropatriarchy. Worse still, this binary gender performance is discrete, couched in achieving a basic education.
The ring dealer comes to school and makes a sales pitch to the class, and sets up a booth in the lobby after school. In his pitch, he promises a ‘free’ glossy little form to collect all the signatures. It was a bait and switch. These dealers sold us the rings but gave us the forms, the evidence we needed to prove we’d passed another stage towards adulthood. And what were we supposed to do with the blank glossy forms? Come back to school and boast?
The first 50 or so signatures were just us. Our own schoolmates turning each other’s rings, filling in each other’s forms on the very day the rings arrived. Family filled in a lot, too. I distinctly remember a teacher or two requesting to be excluded from the tradition, or take part in the ring ritual of becoming a senior, else we whittle their fingers away.
We all know everybody only wanted to see who signed the final line – a prompt to incite heteronormalizing speech-acts. Well, a few folks weren’t single and already had that 100th spot reserved and filled by sundown. Needless to say, kisses from granny don’t count! I’m pretty sure this wasn’t written on the dealer’s well-crafted sheet. Our market dominated, heteronormative introduction to adulthood for all to see.
I’d attended the same school since second grade so I’d seen people celebrate this class ring ritual for years, and even attended several graduations. I’d watched the “Senior run” year after year – a day at the end of school, when the graduating class runs through all the halls, cheering, banging on lockers as all the kids in all the classes rush out to line the hallways and egg them on. I loved school, adored our school, adored my classmates, and even looked forward to our turn, though parting so bittersweet.
At 16, I was only starting to be able to fully disidentify with the barrage of heterosexualized norms that engulfed me. I had to disentangle heterosexuality from virtually every facet of life – even finishing high school, a normal step we’re all expected to take. It’s as if to gain access to what bell hooks calls ‘the good life’ one had to signify alignment with compulsory heterosexuality.
I knew that I could not even turn my ring 100 times without kissing a girl. No way I’d risk putting a guy’s name at the end of that glossy list – someone I’d actually dreamt of French-kissing. Not like I knew any guy who’d be game. Damn. This was a lot of pressure. This junior prom was forcing me to make all kinds of adult decisions.
“The more I get of you, the stranger it feels…”
I was 16, and wasn’t out yet. Unlike at twelve when these feelings first bubbled over, by 16 I was on the cusp of self-acceptance, and preparing to face this possibility that I was gay. Perhaps it was pure timing. By the 11thgrade I knew for sure I’d be leaving home months after graduation, which was suddenly within reach. I could chart my own homo path. But still, at that age, I had doubts. I tried seriously dating a young woman as my last-ditch effort to see if I was straight or (at least) bisexual.
Kaye wasn’t a classmate, which wouldn’t have worked anyway because in retrospect all my classmates already knew, and had decided to accept me without question. Kaye attended an all-girls’ school, so we’d met through an extracurricular, Black youth empowerment program. Kaye was clearly college bound. She had her own dreams and ambitions, and pursued them – an ideal mate for me. She was the most attractive woman I knew, both inside and out, both to me and others. Yes, THAT sister who is not invulnerable, but has it all together. If she didn’t do, then dammit I was gay!
Fortunately, my girl was smart. And by smart, I mean that she was intelligent, real smart as in NOT clueless at all. We agreed to a kiss on the cheek, and she’d sign the last line on my glossy form. And by ‘agreed to’, I mean that this is what Kaye put on the table as her firm and final offer. She also had the good sense to let me turn her ring, too, but she reserved the 100th signature for someone special. I respected that. This clarified our plutonic status – no Facebook updates needed: I’m gay.
“Gotta find out what I meant to you…You were sweet as cheery pie/ Wild as Friday night”
Recently we saw the killer of Sarah Everard receive a whole life sentence for her murder and with the sentence came the usual rhetoric from the politicians and media alike. I could tell you how I feel as a former police officer, but I just don’t think that really matters, others have said it but what they say, undoubtedly with conviction, seems rather hollow. What matters is that another life has been taken as a result of male violence, not just violence, male violence. I don’t disagree with those that want to make the streets safe for women, reclaim the streets, I don’t disagree with the ‘me too movement’, but somehow, I feel that the fundamental issue is being missed. Somehow, I think that all the rhetoric and calls for action concentrate too much on women as victims and looking for someone or some organisation to blame. There seems to be a sense created that this is a problem for women and in doing so concentrates on the symptoms rather than the cause. This is a problem for men and our society. Let’s not dress it up, pretend it could be something else, use terms like ‘not all men’, it is a fact nearly all violence, whether that be against women or men is perpetrated by … you guessed it, men.
I was watching a tv programme the other day about migraines and as it transpires there are millions of migraine sufferers around the world, most are women. It seems as a man I’m in the minority. One of the interviewees, a professor was asked why so little had been done in terms of research and finding a cure. He was frank, if it had been a male problem then there would have been more done. I’m not sure I totally subscribe to that because there are lots of other factors, after all prostate cancer a major cause of male deaths seems to have received comparatively little coverage until recently. But he made me think, if men, particularly those of influence accepted there was a problem would they be inclined to act? We call for more females in policing, we call for more females in the boardroom, predominately because we want to make things look a little fairer, a bit more even. We still have a massive gender pay gap in so many businesses and the public sector, we still have accusations and proven cases of sexual harassment. We still have archaic attitudes to women in so many walks of life, including religion. Words are great, useless but great. If you own the problem, you find solutions, men don’t own the problem and that is a problem.
So, it seems to me, that we are looking in the wrong place. Removing Cressida Dick as the head of the Metropolitan Police service isn’t going to change things. Blaming the police as an organisation isn’t going to change things. Look around you, look at all the scandals, all the sexual offences against women, against children. Look at where the perpetrators are placed in society, in positions of trust, as members of a variety of organisations, organisations that traditionally we thought we could turn to in our need. And look at the gender of those that commit those crimes, almost always men.
The solution to all of this is beyond me. As a criminologist I know of so many theories about why people commit crime or are victims of crime. Some are a little ridiculous but are a product of their time, others fit quite nicely into different circumstances, but none fully explain why. There are no real certainties and predicting who and where is almost impossible. Somehow, we need our leaders, predominately men, to grasp the mettle, to accept this a problem for men. If we owned the problem, we might start to tackle the causes of male violence, whatever they might be. Maybe then we might start to address the symptoms, society will be a safer place, and nobody will need to reclaim the streets.
There’s a pile of garbage I pass every day on the way to work. It stinks, and often I see folks hurling a bag of crap into the overflowing dumpster. Which usually rolls off and spills onto the walkway. It sucks! It’s one of the reasons we were wearing masks here long before Covit. Yet, I see this scene, and also see, the old women who make their rounds on bicycles throughout the day, going from dumpster to dumpster, separating and gathering the recyclables, re-usables, up-cyclables, and genuinely turning this trash into an income stream. To protect from the sun and elements, they wear coverings from head-to-toe: masks, gloves and those cone-shaped, bamboo/palm-leaf hats traditionally worn on farms.
Tucked in the corner about six meters away, I pass a woman who has a tea stand under a large umbrella, under a giant tree. Hanoi is full of such vibrant trees; at least three people can comfortably sit across the diameter. I am in awe each time I pass. Like the other ladies dotted around our lake, she sells snacks, cigarettes, and small glass cups of ice-cold green ice tea. You can see piles of used tea leaves on her end of the dumpster. I’ve noticed that mostly motorcycle taxi drivers take refuge there, monitoring the App for a nearby ping.
Later that night, I can hear and see a garbage truck come by and hoist the dumpster up and empty it into its bowels. Hanoi has many narrow streets and alleyways – narrower than these trucks – so luckily collection is often done at night. This certainly helps keep the traffic flow during busier times. Worse still, if not for these dumpsters folks would burn even more rubbish along the streets than is already customarily tolerated. In addition to these toxic fumes, consider the ritual imitation money that many local families burn twice monthly as an offering to their ancestors. Toxic fumes are another reason many ‘stay’ wearing a mask in Hanoi. I look at all the plastic dumped in the dumpster, and am relieved that it won’t be burned here. I see all this, too, as I walk by each day.
What’s more, I’ve been out late nights and seen plenty of these trucks totally teamed by women. This overflowing heap of hot, disgusting mess reminds me that I am in a society where women participate in everyday ways I hadn’t even ever dreamed. This heap will be gone soon, and replenished for all these women and their work. This makes me smile as I pass the heap. Using mindfulness, I can no longer smell the stench, it smells like flowers. Today, roses.
Late-night rubbish collection in Hanoi. All female team.
This month marks Women’s History Month. It’s a time where I reflect on how privileged I am to be surrounded by a group of women who have added so much to my life just by being in it.
I am also reminded of writers and poets (both past and present) like Woolf, De Beauvoir, Lorde, Walker, Kaur, Attwood and Evaristo whose words have not only added so much to my outlook on life but they also continue to remind me that as a woman I need to continue to listen, provide support and uplift other women. It is incredibly sad but necessary that we need to be reminded of the need to support one another.
Women’s History Month has coincided with the murder of Sarah Everard, another of the many women who have been murdered by men whilst walking home alone. The policing and arresting of women at Sarah’s vigil, the justifications for such arrests and the events themselves are now being reported as false. Followed by the government’s predictable draconian response to silence and restrict protesting rights is maddening. And more importantly, the solidarity illustrated with women gathering to pay their respects to Sarah has now been spoilt due to these damaging enforcement responses.
I find it so sad that commentary by some women surrounding the murder of Sarah had taken the stance of defending men. There are so many very good men in this world, and it is true that not all men are bad, but the reality is that men tend to be the perpetrators when other men, women and children are murdered.
We live in a society which reinforces gender inequality, oppression and stereotypes about women to the point that women internalise misogyny. As a result, some women are quick to defend men to the point that, in some cases, men who are the perpetrators are presented as the victims. And the women who are actual victims are blamed for their own victimisation.
This attitude towards women comes at the detriment of not allowing the space for people to begin to consider that femicide and gendered violence are the damaging consequences of living in an unequal society. The pain caused to the victims also becomes either diluted or made invisible. This is especially the case with Asian or Black women’s victim experiences, as these are rarely found within the news, and if shown, are rarely believed.
There are many obstacles faced by women who attempt to flee routine gendered violence. Attempts to seek support can result in many women losing their homes, jobs and contact with their friends and families. As well as this, women who intend to report being victims of gender-based violence may battle to overcome the stigma that is attached to being a victim. For women with visas that state that there is ‘no recourse to public funds’ escaping violence becomes even more difficult, post Brexit, this now also applies to women from the EU.
Whilst online debates occur surrounding Sarah Everard’s case, the reality is that many women are scared to walk alone. Many are also scared to live within their own homes due to the fear of violence. If we are quick to defend men in light of such tragic events how will we ever be able to support these women? How will they ever feel empowered to report being victims of crime? Yes, not all men are bad, but when a case like Sarah’s is publicised perhaps our first response should be empathising with other women.
On International Women’s Day I wanted to write a blog to celebrate the incredible women who have inspired me, supported me, fought for the rights of women all over the world both past and present. Perhaps that post will come but I felt sadness and anger, rage that made me want to shout and swear from the rooftops that feminism is not done. Gender equality has not been completed. We may have advanced a few levels, but patriarchy is still alive and free right here in England as well as throughout the world. The reality is that gender equality is a myth. Ordinarily I’m more hopeful and positive and maybe the pandemic combined with finishing my PhD is pushing me over the edge. But as well as celebrating International Women’s Day I wanted to identify some of the areas in which there is work to do, both in the UK and worldwide.
On the week of International Women’s Day, the media has been filled with women, but not for the right reasons. Let us start with the interview broadcasted on International Women’s Day with Megan Markle and Prince Harry which highlighted not only her position as a woman but also the intersectionality of being a woman of colour in the royal family and the implications of this. The interview was responded in an appalling manner by Piers Morgan who questioned her experience of feeling suicidal which was then reflected on social media (never read the comments!!!). A woman’s experiences with mental health were questioned and ridiculed. Not long after the tragic death of Caroline Flack, people – including many other women – have forgotten to #bekind. The investigation over the disappearance of Sarah Everard was responded to by the Met police advising women in the local area not to go out at night, perpetuating a culture of victim blaming. A woman’s actions were being questioned. So here we are in 2021 with our internal thoughts and emotions and our external actions being judged by others. When women have spoken out about our right to feel safe walking home at night, about how we walk the long way home and hold a key between our fingers for protection, #notallmen resurfaces on Twitter, in a similar tone to #alllivesmatter last year. When one group renews a call for equality, the patriarchs and supremacists oppress harder. These are just a couple of examples in the media, the public domain, this week but there is also clear inequality in domestic life.
Throughout the pandemic there have been numerous reports suggesting that women have disproportionately undertaken childcare which has had a devastating impact, particularly for single mothers. While data from the Office for National Statistics shows that home schooling is distributed equally in mixed sex couples, women have undertaken substantially more of non-developmental childcare – the bathing, bedtime routine, feeding etc. I recall the days of being a working single parent with a small child. With no after school club and no family available to chip in, I relied on childcare swaps, a childminder (who I couldn’t afford to pay more than a couple of days per week). It was a case of beg, borrow or steal whatever childcare I could get to get to work and would often miss lectures because I didn’t have any childcare (note to students – if you have childcare responsibilities and are struggling please do not hesitate to drop me an email. I have almost a decade of experience juggling kids with studies and I am always happy to share tips or just have a mutual rant about how hard it is!). I cannot imagine how I would have managed with the pandemic if my children were younger. I am lucky enough to work in a team where my colleagues don’t bat an eyelid when my teenager pops her head in asking for food or help with schoolwork but I do have friends telling me how their male counterparts have given them advice on how to juggle virtual meetings with parenting small children. Men (not all men – some men are excellent allies) having no clue how hard women have to fight as women to do it all – the career, the childcare, the housework, all while earning less than our male counterparts (currently 15.5% less). Of course the data on equal pay is complex but the bottom line is we get paid less, it’s harder to advance our careers because as we live in the bodies that produce babies and we have career breaks when we take maternity leave or go part time while the children are young – the only way that can change is if we choose not to have kids and we are criticised for that too!
I have so far established that the UK is hostile in the media and not equal in the home and employment but where do we sit globally? It was placed 21st on the Global Gender Gap Index 2020. Do you think you could guess which countries are higher than the UK? Go on, spend a minute and write down who you would expect to be in the top 20. Of course, there are the countries one might expect – Iceland is top of the list, Norway, Finland and New Zealand too. But let’s throw a curveball in there. Albania. Having worked with and interviewed many female Albanian asylum seekers and refugees who have usually fled Albania due to at least one but often many forms of gendered violence this comes as quite a surprise to me. Of course, I have a biased experience and have only come into contact with those who have had devastating experiences of patriarchy in the country. Rwanda is up there too within the top 10. Not long after the devastating genocide in Rwanda where women were brutally raped as a weapon of war (see here for a cheeky plug and an analysis of sexual violence in conflict in a different geographical context). Today, women make up half of the politicians in the country. Women have risen up and have taken power. In the UK I look at the female politicians in power today and in recent years and I recoil in horror. Priti Patel is probably (barring the Queen) the most powerful female politician in England. I witness first hand in my work with asylum seekers the harm she causes every day. Intentional harm, following in Theresa May’s footsteps to create a hostile environment for migrants. These women are not the people I want to look up to, or want my children to look up to. In fact, one of the few shared interests my daughter and I have is our disdain for these women.
The women I do look up to are those asylum seekers Patel and her band of merry men at the Home Office are trying to repel. Those who have fled situations that I, as a middle class white woman cannot even begin to comprehend. All the women who I have interviewed in my doctoral research had either fled gendered violence including forced and child marriage, domestic abuse, sex trafficking and honour violence; or their gender had intersected with other forms of persecution making their living situation untenable because they were women. They fled life or death situations to the point of leaving their homes, families and countries because their governments could not, or would not, protect them. They arrive in the UK and are faced with the hostile environment conjured by May and continued by Patel and both the Home Secretaries in between. They face structural violence in the forms of forced poverty, illegal detention, substandard and sometimes dangerous accommodation perpetrated under the mandate of women. All the while being vilified by the tabloids and swathes of the public. Some of my participants arrived here as children and were bullied in school because they were asylum seekers, being told that they were taking jobs and money. The bullies could not comprehend that they were prohibited by law from working and were given £5 per day to live on. They then hid their identities, never telling anyone that they were an asylum seeker, lying to their friends about why they couldn’t go on college trips abroad, why they couldn’t have a bank account, why they couldn’t get a job or go to university.
I want to celebrate Amira* who defied the odds. She came here when she was in her early teens, knowing just a few words of English. She worked hard to learn the language and passed her GCSEs and A-levels, gaining a competitive Sanctuary scholarship which funded her university education. I want to celebrate Drita, an Eastern European woman who was physically abused by her father as a child, forced to marry an abusive man who eventually left her destitute with three children. She then left her children with her parents while she sought work, got a boyfriend who sold her into sex slavery, set her room on fire to kill herself but managed to escape, picked up her children and fled a lifetime of gendered violence from every man she had ever met. She spent 2 days in a lorry with her children to get to the UK. Not really the UK, she would have gone anywhere, just out of her country to safety. These women are survivors. These women fought to stay alive. They fought to escape. They didn’t escape. They arrived here to face May’s legacy of a hostile environment. These women are terrified every time they have to report to the Home Office, every letter they get threatens them with detention and deportation and reminds them that they or on bail, literally equating them with a process usually found in the criminal justice system. These women are heroes and should be celebrated for surviving. On International Women’s Day yes, let us celebrate all that all we have achieved so far but it cannot end here. Each year we need a renewed call for action for women.
*All names are pseudonyms to protect the anonymity of participants
In the second grade, I started in a new school that was designed as a progressive environment where students, teachers and administrators were all on a first-name basis. Radical, even in ’82, our school was forward about gender, race and class diversity. Despite this, I only had one Black teacher in my elementary school years – the amazing music teacher. As kids, we could see few other Black adults: the assistant librarian, a handful of the lunchroom ladies, as well as the Black middle- and high-school teachers we saw in the same building. This meant that the Black adult we most consistently interacted with was Miss Saundra, the janitor.
Miss Saundra appeared around corners, could surprise you out of a closet you hadn’t even noticed was there. She was always on hand should there be any major mess or spill. Best of all, our school gleamed from top to bottom, every classroom, every hallway, every bookshelf, every restroom – every desk! It felt lovely to go to school every day, the floors shined, the windows sparkled, and even the banisters were pristine. I am certain this level of hygiene must have taken a team, but I remember Miss Saundra, probably because she was friendly to me. I can still see her, unbending her back to look at us, and speak face to face.
If I ever had to come to school early to play in the gym or have breakfast, or stay late for an after-school activity, Miss Saundra would likely be there, tidying up. She always took time to greet us. She was even there for school dances, and asked nothing in return, and we knew nothing of her outside the labor she devoted to us in the background. She was our school’s magic negro.
Other than the school guard who was not armed with anything but charm, Miss Saundra, might have been the first at school, followed by the ladies making breakfast. These were our essential workers – like the air we breathed in the heart of our city. I like to think because of their personalities we felt at home in our environment and therefore enjoyed school more fully.
Kids carry on.
When I was in the third grade, our teacher – a tall, grey-haired white man of grand stature who taught me I could master math even though it wasn’t easy for me – sent all the girls ahead to music class. He held the boys back for a chat. Apparently, someone had urinated in the second-floor boys’ bathroom, and they’d worked out that only our class had taken a break between cleanings. Since teachers had separate restrooms, I thought it must have been Miss Saundra who’d discovered the mess, and so I wondered what that conversation was like with our teacher, who was now accusing us! Though he didn’t demand we rat out the culprit, he called it “nasty,” and said we could get electrocuted, because “electricity travels through water,” wagging his index finger like it was on fire. With that, he sent us off to music!
This was probably the first time that I’d been explicitly asked to identify as a gender, and it was over THIS! I knew that whoever had done it would have needed an audience. So not only did some fool piss on the wall, some other fool(s) stood around and watched! I thought, what bastard did this! Didn’t they know Miss Saundra would have to clean it? Didn’t she greet them, and ask them how they’re doing like she does me? Did they ‘see’ Miss Saundra everyday like she saw us? Why would they piss on her parade? Why give Miss Saundra the blues for your pissing contest!
I stopped by the bathroom on the way back from music class. Sure enough, Miss Saundra had been done had it squeaky, bleachy clean! I could never have imagined girls’ doing something like that.
I knew that like me, Miss Saundra was an outsider in a space where I belonged. I knew people like Miss Saundra, so she was not a stranger to me. I had no ambitions of becoming a janitor, but I certainly knew women, in my family and in my community, who did this sort of work. And those women I knew who did that sort of work encouraged people like me to do well in school, so I could take advantage of the kinds of choices they didn’t have. I had no reason to think Ms. Saundra less of me. What’s more, even though I felt strange in my own body, she treated me as human, especially. The gratitude I feel for her sounds like a tambourine in my own theme song.