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Reflecting on International Women’s Day
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
How should we honour “Our sheroes and heroes”?*
The British, so it seems, love a statue. Over the last few months we’ve seen Edward Colston’s toppled, Winston Churchill’s protected and Robert Baden-Powell’s moved to a place of safety. Much of the narrative around these particular statues (and others) has recently been contextualised in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement, as though nobody had ever criticised the subjects before. Colston, one time resident of Bristol and slave-trader was deemed worthy of commemoration some 174 years after his death and 62 years after the abolition of slavery. Likewise, one-time military man, accused of war crimes, homophobe and support for Nazism, Baden-Powell suddenly needed to be memorialised in 2008, almost 70 years after the second world world (and his death) and over 40 years since the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967. For both of these men profound problems were clear before the statues went up. Churchill, seen as a “hero” by many for his leadership in World War II has a very unsavoury history which is not difficult to locate in his own writings. His rehabilitation also ignores that his status for many of his contemporaries was as a warmonger. His passion for eugenics and his role in decisions to bomb Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki can be wilfully swept under the carpet. Hero-worship is a dangerous game, it is also anti-intellectual. Churchill, like all of us, was a complex human, thus his legacy needs to be explored deeply and contextualised and only then can we decide what his place in his history should be. His statues and soundbites from speeches on repeat, do not allow for this.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this debate is to witness the inflamed defence of individuals who have a clearly documented history as slave owners, or as enthusiastic proclaimers of eugenic ideology, racism, homophobia and so on. As long as they have been ascribed “hero” status, we can ignore the rest of the seedy detail. We are told we need these statues, these heroic men, to remind us of our history….strangely Germany is able to reflect on its history, without statues of Hitler.
It seems as a nation we far prefer these individuals, responsible for so much misery, harm and violence in their lifetimes, than to present Black Britons and British Asians on a plinth. When we are reliant on South African President, Nelson Mandela to take up two of those London plinths, it is evident we have a serious racial imbalance in those “we” choose to commemorate.
Furthermore, the British appear to love an argument about statues, for instance, the criticism levelled at the artist Maggi Hambling’s statue to “Mother of Feminism” Mary Wollstencraft and Martin Jenning’s artistic tribute to Nurse Mary Seacole. For Wollstencroft, much of the furore has been directed at the artist, rather than the subject. There appears to be no irony in women attacking other women, in this case, Hambling, all in the name of supposed defence of The feminism. In the case of Mary Seacole, racially infused arguments from The Nightingale Society have suggested that this statue should not be in sight of that of Florence Nightingale. It seems that even when all important parties are long dead, it is deemed appropriate to use barely disguised racism to protect the stone image of your heroine. Important to remember that patriarchy has no gender. It is evident that criticism revolves around women’s representation in statuary, as well as women’s involvement in sculpture. When statues of men are said to outnumber those of women by around 16 to 1 (and that’s only when Queen Victoria is counted) it is evident we have a serious gender imbalance in those “we” choose to commemorate.
If there’s one thing the British love more than statues, it’s war commemorations. Think of the Cenotaph, standing proud in Whitehall, a memorial to ‘The Glorious Dead’ of firstly, World War I and latterly, British and Commonwealth military personnel have died in all conflicts.
Close by in Park Lane, we even have the imagination to create a memorial to Animals in War. We love to worship at these altars to untold misery and suffering, as if we could learn something important from them. Unfortunately, the most important message of “Never Again” is lost as we continue to thrust our military personnel and their deadly arsenal all over the world.
There is a strong argument for commemorating the war dead of all nations in the two World Wars. All sides, both central powers/axis and allies were comprised in the main of conscripted personnel. These were men and women that did not join the armed forces voluntarily, but were compelled by legislation to take up arms. With little time to consider or prepare, these people, all over the world, were thrust into life-threatening situations, with little or no choice. The Cenotaph and other war memorials mark this sacrifice and to some degree, acknowledge the experiences of those who served in a uniform that they did not consent to, without the compulsion of legislation. Unfortunately, civilians don’t feature so heavily in memorialisation, yet we know they experienced life-changing events which have repercussions even today. From children who were evacuated, to families who experienced fathers and husbands with short fuses, to those whose fear of hunger has never really left them, those experiences leave a mark.
To me, as a nation it appears that we don’t want to engage seriously with our history, preferring instead a white-washed, heteronormative, male-dominated, war-infused, saccharine sweet, version of events. But British people, both historically and contemporaneously, are a diverse and disparate group, good, bad and indifferent, so surely our statues should reflect this?
I recognise the violence which runs throughout British history, I learnt it, not through statues, but through books and oral testimony, through documentary and discussion. I also recognise that I have only begun to explore a history that silences so very many, making any historical narrative, partial, poignant and heavy with the missing voices. I recognise the heavy burden left by slavery, discrimination, war and other myriad violences, understanding the desire to commemorate and celebrate and tear down and replace.
What we need is a statue that recognises all of us, in all shapes and sizes, warts and all? We are living in a global pandemic, the death toll is currently standing at over 2.5 million. In the UK alone, the death toll stands at close to 100,000. Why not have a memorial with all those names; men, women, children, Black, white, Asian, mixed heritage, Muslim, Catholic, Buddhist, Christian, atheists, gay, straight, trans, lesbian, young, old and all those in between. People that have been coerced, through financial impetus, caring responsibility, career or vocation into dangerous spaces, who have not chosen to sacrifice their lives on the altar of bad decisions taken by governments and institutions (reminiscent of the world wars). Such a commemoration would be a way to recognise the profound impact on all of our lives, as drastic as any world war. It will recognise that you don’t have to wear a uniform or conform to a particular ideal to be of value to Britain and every person counts.
* Title borrowed from ‘Our sheroes and heroes’ (Maya Angelou ; interviewed by Susan Anderson in 1976)