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Reflecting on International Women’s Day

Disclaimer: In my experience this repels the boys from the yard

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.

Twitter trending hashtags, 11th March 2021

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

Behind Closed Doors

1 in 4 women will be affected by intimate partner violence (1).

I remember when I first heard that statistic in my teenage years, I thought to myself ‘that’s a lot of women! That’s a scary statistic!’ Having never been in a relationship till my mid-twenties, it was something I had never personally experienced, but saw it happen to some of my friends, and I know many people, and have met so may women, (and some men)  who have been in violent and abusive relationships…

At the age of 17, whilst doing my A-levels, I saw some of my close female friends suddenly not show up to class. 6 months later, she came back and opened up about being in a violent relationship, and how her partner made her sick, and used to physically beat her.

When I was a university student, another friend of mine was in a violent relationship and struggled to cope with the ordeal whilst doing her degree.  To this day, I still do not know how she pulled through being a university student whilst going through what she experienced.

At my local food bank, I have met many women who escaped violent relationships, and were living in supported accommodation.  One lady I helped had even escaped honor based violence! She was no longer allowed to go back to her home country otherwise she would be killed for divorcing a violent man.

Following an event with the Himaya Haven (2) with a guest speaker talking about her experience of domestic violence, I was inspired and felt compelled to do more to help women affected by domestic abuse. After weeks of planning, praying, preparations and getting everything arranged, the event took place.  October 25th 2018, with the help of a dear friend, we hosted and ran a domestic violence workshop, followed by a beauty therapy session to help women who had been affected by domestic violence. This was blogged about here: Incredible Women!

The types of domestic abuse I encountered was not just physical or psychological… I met women who were affected by financial domestic abuse, sexual violence and rape, honor based violence, coercion,  possessiveness, controlling behavior, stalking, manipulation and gas-lighting, and some had even been banned from seeing family members and friends, and were not allowed to leave their homes unless their partners/husbands went with them….

Whilst I aim to raise awareness of this for International Women’s Day, let’s also highlight that women are extraordinary! All of my friends, family members and colleagues who have been affected by the scourge that is intimate partner violence, are still exceptional and exemplary human beings who are unique and amazing in their own special way.

Women are powerful – whatever is thrown at us, we will power through it and overcome it! Every single one of my friends and family members who have been affected by domestic abuse are powerful women who overcame all odds; regardless of the situation.

More statistics from Living Without Abuse and Office for National Statistics

  • Domestic abuse will affect 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men in their lifetime
  • 2 women are murdered each week and 30 men per year from domestic abuse
  • Has more repeat victims than any other crime (on average there will have been 35 assaults before a victim calls the police) (3)
  • The year ending March 2019, 2.4 million adults had experienced domestic abuse (1.6 million women and 786,000 men) (4)

References

(1) Living Without Abuse (LWA) Statistics Available online at: https://www.lwa.org.uk/understanding-abuse/statistics.htm   Accessed on 08/03/2020

(2) Himaya Haven About Us Available online at: http://himayahaven.co.uk             Accessed on 08/03/2020

(3) Living Without Abuse (LWA) Statistics Available online at: https://www.lwa.org.uk/understanding-abuse/statistics.htm   Accessed on 08/03/2020

(4) Office for National Statistics ‘Analysis of Domestic Abuse Data’ Available online at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/bulletins/domesticabuseinenglandandwalesoverview/november2019   Accessed on 08/03/2020

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t: it’s a funny old world.

sweat shop

“Did you just look at me?” says Queen Anne to the footman and, as he shakes his head staring into oblivion clearly hoping this was not happening, she shouts “Look at me”. He reluctantly turns his head, looking at her in obvious discomfort when she screams “how dare you; close your eyes?”  A short vignette from the television commercial advertising the award-winning film ‘The Favourite’ and very much a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t for the poor hapless footman.

A few weeks ago, I accompanied my wife to a bear fair in London; she makes vintage bears as a hobby and occasionally takes to setting up a stall at some fair to sell them.  As I sat behind the stall navel gazing and wandering what the football scores were, when I was going to get something to eat and when would be an appropriate time to go for a wander without giving off the vibe that enthusiasm was now waning, my wife said, ‘did you see that’?  ‘What’ I asked peering over a number of furry Ursidae heads (I’m told they don’t bite)? ‘That woman in the orange top’ exclaimed my wife. Scouring the room for a woman that had been Tango’d, I listened to her explaining that a 30ish year old woman had just come out of the toilets wearing a bright orange top and emblazoned across her generous chest were the words ‘eye contact’.  ‘I suppose it’s a good message’ said my wife as I settled back down to my navel gazing.

I thought about the incident, if you can call it that, on the way home and that was when the film trailer came to mind as a rather good analogy.  I get the message, but it seems a rather odd way to go about conveying it.  From a distance we are drawn to looking but then castigated for doing so.  A case of look at me, why are you looking at me?  And so, it seems to me that the idea behind the message is somehow diluted and even trivialised.  The top is no more than a fashion item in the sense of it being a top but also in a sense of the message.  The message is commercialised; I wonder whether the top was purchased because of the seriousness of the message it conveyed or because it would look good and attract attention?

I discussed this with a colleague and she brought another dimension to the discussion.  Simply this, where was the top made?  Quite possibly, even likely, in a sweat shop in Asia by impoverished female workers.  And so, a seemingly innocent garment symbolises all the wrong things; entrapment, commercialism and inequality.  I can’t help thinking on this International Women’s Day that it’s a funny old world that we live in.

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