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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
Shahrukh Khan (SRK) is arguably the Indian film industry’s biggest global star and commercial brand ambassador. In one early advertisement, he strikes a match from a dark-skinned kid’s face to show just how abhorrent it is as a trait. In another ad, ostensibly more humorous, SRK disses a group of traditional Northern Indian wrestlers for wearing skirts and make-up. The star chides them for using the feminine product instead of (converting to) the newly available male version (i.e. re-packaged in gray rather than pink). The product? The skin bleach Fair and Handsome. In both ads, the transformed, ‘fairer’ skinned consumer is pummeled with young girls virtually appearing from nowhere.
This follows the typical consumerist trope: The product makes users more popular and sexually appealing. Yet, things got worse. Clean and Dry’s ‘intimate’ bleaching shower gel for women (C&D). Yes, you read right: A bleaching shower gel aimed at lightening brown women’s crotches. There’s no male equivalent, save for a well-circulated spoof called Gore Gote: India’s #1 Testicular Fairness Cream (Mukherjee). In the initial shot of the C&D advertisement, a pouty-mouthed (fair-skinned) woman is ignored by her (fair-skinned) husband in their (upper-middle-class) apartment. Naturally, it seems, she bleaches her labia with C&D. After displaying the product’s virtues, the husband literally chases the wife around the fancy flat as she playfully dangles (his) keys. Her secret to happiness: A newly bleached intimate area. Is this a proxy for a white woman’s vagina?
What’s wrong with consumerism? The marketplace will not save you. As a Black person interested in self-love, it is clear that the market is murderous. There, the fetish of blackness is made widely available, as if one could bottle stereotypical ‘coolness’ and sell it to the youth in Asia, one of the largest consumer groups in the world. Fashion shops targeting youth regularly plaster posters of Bob Marley or Hip-Hop thugs to peddle goods to youth. Yet, standing in the rotunda of this mall, one could see shops of every major western cosmetics brand, including Clinique, Mac, Estée Lauder. Here in Asia, the flagship product in each shop is skin bleach! Black is cool, but white is power. Ironically, at the time I was modeling for a campaign in Vogue and Elle Décor in India, yet none of the make-up artists carried my mocha shade (shady, right).
The skin bleach industry is by far the most virulent of all consumer products – even fast food. The bulk of this industry is meted out on the bodies of women…and girls who learn early that fate of darkness (just check out any Indian Matrimonials page). According to an August 2019 article in Vogue: “Per a recent World Health Organization report (WHO), half of the population in Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines uses some kind of skin lightening treatment. And it’s even higher in India (60%) and African countries, such as Nigeria (77%).” After a 7 minutes instrumental intro to his 1976 hit, Yellow Fever, Fela Kuti chants: “Who steal your bleaching?/Your precious bleaching?…/Your face go yellow/Your yansh go show/Your mustache go show/Your skin go scatter/You go die o.”
It’s lethal, often a mercurous poison used to kill the soul. It is a fetishization of whiteness, that reveals the “internalization of the coloniser’s inferiorisation of dark skin as native and Other” (Thapan: 73). It’s euthanasia. Skin bleachers are painlessly killing themselves, willingly participating in their own annihilation. Not only does it quite literally murder the melanin in one’s skin, it symbolically kills one’s ‘dark and native’ self, giving birth to a new and improved modern identity. It requires constant application and reflects a consumerist’s self-regulation. Bleach is expensive, despite the industry’s ‘bottom of the pyramid’ approach to the marketing 4P’s – bleach sold in cheap tiny packages for the poor. Skin bleach is a form of mimesis, to actually embody modernity through crafting the ‘cultivated, developed and perfected’ self (Thapan: 70).
When I began teaching at UoN, I was asked to propose topics for business ethics modules, which were then optional. Hesitantly, I suggested skin bleach and hair weaves. Looking at the composition of the student body, this would be as familiar to them, as the products were locally available (see picture below taken in an ‘ethnic’ hair shop on Northampton’s high street). Several students have subsequently pursed these subjects in their dissertations. I was sad to learn that in colloquial Somali, ‘fair skin’ is a moniker for pretty, just as we western Blacks use ‘light skin and long hair’. Colourism makes dark-skinned people unsafe in our own homes.
I was pleasantly surprised at the support from the module leader, an older, straight white man. He said he knew little about the politics of black and brown skin and hair, yet listened with great interest and did his own research into the matter. What’s more, he stood by me both literally and figuratively. He was there when I was called to account for some negative student feedback such as “I’m a guy, I don’t wear make-up,” when asked to consider the differential impact of beauty standards on the psyches and earnings of women in business. He stood by me when I’d dropped the F-word (feminism) into the curriculum. This was before the Gender Pay Gap became more widely known or theBritish government required audits from large organisations. He is an ally. He stood by me in ways that may have been riskier for individuals outside the circles of normative power of gender, race and class. Talk about a way to use one’s privilege!
Kuti, F. (1976). Yellow Fever. [LP] Decca 8 Track Studios. Available at: https://genius.com/Fela-kuti-and-africa-70-yellow-fever-annotated [Accessed 13 Nov. 2019].
Mukherjee, R., Banet-Weiser, S. and Gray, H. (2019). Racism Postrace. Durham, N.C.
Thapan, M. (2009). Living the Body: Embodiment, Womanhood and Identity in Contemporary India. New Delhi: SAGE.