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Thursday, 1 August 2013

Wha's like us? Gye few an' they're aa deid.

So I haven’t blogged here in a while but it’s not because I’ve run out of things to say – a busy life with lots of lovely weddings and holidays has gotten in the way of this somewhat. But I thought I’d break the silence on something slightly off-topic for this blog, because it’s a conversation I’ve increasingly been having these past few months, and I thought I’d get down on paper (rather than inarticulately ranting in the pub, although god knows I love that too) what my thoughts are about it. The other reason I want to get this out there for posterity, as it were, is that it’s a big sociopolitical issue which I’ve basically completely changed my mind about. This doesn’t happen very often to me (entrenched? Moi?) but I like to hope I’m not someone who’s afraid to say she’s changed her mind, so here goes: I want to talk about why I’ve changed my mind about Scottish independence.

If you are a self-exiled Scot, like I am, you might have been having this conversation too, perhaps especially with your English friends. Let me say this right off the bat: I wholeheartedly love England. I have chosen to make my home here for the last fifteen years (albeit in London, which for various reasons often feels more like living on another planet than living in a specific country). Many of my friends are English, and indeed my very best friend is English. So is my mum, and as a consequence that entire side of my family. My nieces and nephews were all born here and are delightful in their embryonic and very London-centric Englishness. I love many things including a huge glut of music and literature which are quintessentially English. That doesn’t mean I love everything about England – the preponderance of Tory-lite views and the EDL are the first two things off the top of my head that I could definitely do without, for example. But for the most part, I love the country I have made my life in. So let’s get this out of the way right from the start: this isn’t personal. A lot of the time my English friends seem to take my ‘rejection’ of England as a personal affront. Please know, this really isn’t about you guys. I really do love you and your wonderful country.

I have also often been embroiled in the tangled argument that it’s not about being joined to England, it’s about being British. Well, not that I have much love for the word with its colonial and royalist overtones, but of course I am British. I mean, it says so in my passport anyway. What I mean by that is that legally, I am British. In the eyes of the world, I am British.

But I don’t feel British.

I don’t even really know what it means. If it means ties to this country’s historical past, well all I want to do with that is say sorry to all the people who were ruthlessly destroyed by our many, many wars, conquests, colonial takeovers and mismanagement, slavery, child labour and religious persecution. I love and am fascinated by how rich and varied Britain’s past is, but it is not something I am proud of having an association with. If it means the current state of affairs in Britain, then I am not too sure about that either. We have a government composed of dangerous and ineffectual opportunists which I and many others loathe, we have a national healthcare system which is falling apart under the unsustainable strain it has been put under by said government, we have an appalling asylum system which targets the poorest and most vulnerable people, a shonky economy, and a woeful ‘peacekeeping’ record in other states.

If it means a shared culture, then in some ways for me that is easier to get behind – British music, British literature (although let’s not forget that when you’re filling in your UCAS form it will be to do an English, not a British, literature degree), British sense of humour – but even then these concepts are shifting and amorphous, and I can’t shake the feeling that when a non-British person is asked what they think of as being particularly British the examples they give will in fact be English examples – roast beef, Wimbledon, strawberries & cream, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, The Smiths, and so on. I doubt many people would mention Tam O’Shanter or whisky or haggis; or leeks or Irish country dancing either for that matter. The simple fact is that while I am documented as a British citizen, it is not what I identify with. You can argue that that’s not a particularly strong political argument, and you might be right, but for me it’s a strong cultural argument – and politics is not the only fruit.

There is also the argument that essentially, the Scots should ‘get over’ the historical injustices of the past and look to a future which is inclusive and forward-moving. But I can’t help finding this a bit rich coming from a country whose English half has been trying to secede from Europe for the best part of a decade. I also don’t see why we can’t be inclusive across a border – surely this is in fact the entire point of systems such as the EU (whatever you might think about how they are actually run)? Again, this is a kind of ‘independence as revenge act’ argument, which I think applies only to the most rabid of Scottish independence supporters (and of course unfortunately there are plenty of them, and they are xenophobic fuckwits whose views I in no way support). I don’t think the vast majority of Scots who support independence want revenge. I think, without meaning this in an inflammatory way, they just want their country back.

Another argument, and probably the strongest one, is that Scotland would not survive economically without being tied to the rest of Britain. I am no economist, but even I concede that this is the strongest argument (and the one most likely to put the kibosh on Mr Salmond’s longed-for yes vote). Yes, we have offshore oil, but that is hardly likely to last forever and without Westminster revenue it is probably inevitable that public spending would push up taxes. There are some rather hysterical commentators who suggest that the entire economy would collapse; my instinct is that this would be unlikely – we are a canny race, after all – but of course this is a strong and scary argument. But if the last five years has shown nothing else it is that no-one has a crystal ball, and shit happens mainly when corruption and greed are the main driving forces in the global economy. Just as no state is immune to this, it is impossible to say whether or not Scotland would ‘survive’ (what does that even mean, anyway? Bankrupt and debt-ridden states still ‘survive’ as entities – states do not simply implode like a dying star when their credit rating is downgraded – look at Iceland). The world is in a right old financial mess at the moment and it’s perfectly correct to ask the question of whether the people of Scotland be poorer-off? Maybe they would. But maybe they would be anyway. Scotland already has separate healthcare, educational, and legal systems – and it also has (or it seems to me at least) a quite distinct culture and heritage (and, in some regions, language). I’m not entirely convinced that given a chance we couldn’t sort the economy out as well. After all, arguably Britain’s most famous economist was a Scot.

I used to feel very strongly that Scotland should never be independent from the rest of Britain. It’s what my parents believe and indeed I suspect they will be mildly horrified to read this post. But now that I am a bit older and have visited lots of countries which have gained their independence from larger states I just don’t feel that way any more. These states have often seceded via war (Croatia, Serbia), or revolution (Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Latvia), or political machination of a different kind (Peru, Finland). Their success has been varied and often there has been suffering and upheaval. But of the people I have spoken to in all of those countries (mostly young and not a scientific sample, but still), I didn’t hear a single one say they’d like to go back to a non-independent state. Would they like better government, less corruption, lower taxes, better social welfare? Of course. But don’t we all want that, and shouldn’t we all be fighting for that anyway, wherever we live in the world?

Finally, there are those people who might accuse me of suffering from the inevitable nostalgia of an exile. They might be right, although in fact I have been writing love letters to Scotland (in the form of poetry) long before I left and made my way down south. Is it easier to see your original country through rose-tinted glasses when there is six hours of crappily-maintained railway line between you and it? Perhaps. But the fact is I go back often enough, have retained enough (in fact almost all) of my Scottish family and social connections, and keep up with the news enough to know what I feel about my own country. Because this, in the end, is what it boils down to for me. It’s not about where I belong – I belong here in London, after all – but that I belong to Scotland. The land grips where my heart sprang its roots, in that red soft soil. If that sounds sentimental then so be it – what’s wrong with being articulate and sentimental at the same time? (A patriarchal argument if ever I heard one).
The fact is that Scotland will almost certainly vote no in any case – almost every poll ever taken shows this. But I think the argument is worth having, and I ultimately I think there is great power and humility in admitting that you’ve changed your mind.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

How to be a cunning linguist

Oh me, oh my, has there been some trouble in the internets lately. It seems some of my fellow feminists are really unhappy with what they see as an unfair and elitist desire from some of my other fellow feminists to be actively using and articulating specific language terms, such as intersectionality, and cis/cisgendered. Some feminists, myself included, would see these terms as part of what we call ‘inclusive language’. This means for example that using ‘cis’ means we acknowledge that not every person was born into the gender s/he was then assigned. Or it might mean that when we talk about oppression by the patriarchy (I personally prefer the term kyriarchy, just so’s you know) we are talking about how different oppressions can intersect with each other – so for example we are aware that if you are a black, gay, poor woman you might have more bullshit to cop off the patriarchy than, say, a white, straight, middle-class woman. For some, this language is beyond the pale. It is decried as being unfairly complicated or overly academic, or, conversely as not compatible with certain tenets of feminism. I just want to say a few words on how much I disagree with this.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I have a degree, and a Master’s, and am studying for another Master’s. My first degrees were in English Language and Literature, and my second MA will be in International Politics and Human Rights. I am – literally – qualified to understand terms such as cis and intersectionality. I acknowledge that. I have read Kimberle Crenshaw’s excellent work, and I am a long-time lurker and very, very occasional commenter on Shakesville, which is where I first saw the term, ‘cisgender’. Now, given my academic background and general nerdish passion for language, it is perhaps understandable that when I saw these terms I got intruiged, then excited, then educated. That’s my reaction and I fully understand that is not everyone’s reaction. Learning new terminology is not fun or even easy for everyone, and I can understand someone saying, basically, ‘I don’t want to have had to gone to University to understand someone’s argument’.

I get that.

But here’s the thing – I promise you you don’t have had to. The way I have explained the two concepts up in that first paragraph there? I am fairly confident that pretty much anyone who doesn’t have a cognitive learning disorder or bad faith would understand what they mean. Some of the more academic articles on intersectionality will indeed be difficult to understand – that is because they are academic articles. That’s fine, they should be complex and challenging. Some of them will be easier to understand because they have been written more in the style of a blog post, or a newspaper column. That’s fine too. The conversation isn’t finite or monolithic, and it shouldn’t have to be. Because basically, what does this all come down to in the end but respect for what people are telling you about their lived lives?

Here’s the first thing I think about all this, and I’ve made much the same argument before in these pages. If you are white, and a person of colour says to you, ‘you know, that thing you said – it’s kinda racist’; or if you are straight, and a gay person says to you, ‘that was a little bit homophobic’, or any other example of this kind, basically you have two available reactions. You can be all, I AM SO VERY OFFENDED I CANNOT BELIEVE YOU’VE CALLED ME [insert insult here]. Or you can say, my god, I am really sorry, I will really have to think about that and try to make sure I don’t say or do anything like that again.

And you know, if you want to use the first reaction, I get that. I’ve done that. You might very well feel a bit hard done by and defensive - no-one likes being called out, it makes you feel shitty. But you know what? The ONLY FUCKING ACCEPTABLE OPTION is the second reaction. Even if you really, genuinely feel like the person is wrong and you have never ever in your whole perfect-ally life done or said anything that might be slightly morally dubious. Because the thing is that every time this has happened to me and instead of automatically replying with an indignant retort I have actually gone away and done a little bit of actual thinking, whaddya know, turns out I have said or done something fucking wrong. Admitting you might be wrong, for most people, myself included, is really hard. Saying sorry is hard. We humans, we are not very good at this kind of deal, most of us, and that’s ok – but it’s not an excuse not to stop trying to be better. Being a good ally doesn’t magically occur overnight, like any decent relationship it is worth some time and effort.

And here’s the second thing I think: I just do not believe that using the terms ‘intersectionality’, ‘cis’, ‘privilege’, ‘WoC’, ‘non-binary’, ‘trans’ and so on excludes me from the feminist discourse. I don’t think this excludes anyone. These are not words that have been invented just so that Twitter users can call other people out (and yes of COURSE there will be some of that, and some of it will be bloody well deserved), they have been invented because language is so fucking exclusionary of anyone not in the ‘normal’ binary that we need these words. And some of the people who label themselves with these words really fucking desperately need us to use them, way more than straight white feminists like me need to cling on to some fixed terminology because otherwise the world will be too complicated for us.

Last time I checked the world was pretty fucking complicated, after all. That’s good for us; it forces us to engage and learn. Is that always a walk in the park? No, of course not. Does that mean we give up and go home, to our familiar comforts, while people who might need us to be fighting this fight alongside them are literally shut out at the front door? Well, I don’t know about you, but I call bullshit on that.

Friday, 8 March 2013

International Women’s Day

Just coming out of study-imposed blog hibernation to post some musings on International Women’s Day. Now, this post could be a link list of stories which explain why we so desperately need this, by highlighting the abuse and violence women and girls undergo every day solely on the basis of their gender.  It could be a refutation of the oft-heard complaint that there is no International Men’s Day (wrong on two counts: one, every day is International Men’s Day, and two: there is in fact an actual International Men’s Day, it’s the 19th November). It could be an opportunity to muse and reflect upon my own feminism – how I define it (progressive, liberal, intersectional, since you ask), and how I can strive to improve it.

Today I don’t want to do any of those things.

Today I want to shout loudly from the internet rooftops how much I LOVE the women in my life – IRL, here on the interwebz, known to me and famous, alive and dead, feminist or otherwise. You all rock my fucking world, and even when the world is a dark and depressing place you make me really, truly believe that we can change it – because how can the world not be improved without all of you in it?

This post is for all the bloggers that I follow who have helped me grow and enrich and improve my feminism. This post is for all the fabulous ladies of Twitter who have so deftly harnessed a social platform to call for social justice. It’s for all of the incredible critics and writers and poets who I turn to again and again to remind myself both how rich the cultural world is with women in it and how varied. It’s for all the campaigners who risk a spectrum of patriarchal aggression running from public ridicule to summary execution for daring to speak up and speak out against the daily indignities meted out on their fellow women. It’s for my sisters, and my cousins, my aunties and my nieces. It’s for my amazing, wonderful, kick-ass friends who have kept me strong in dark places, made me laugh, made me think, and made me love. It’s for my mum, who burned her bra and marched for CND, and taught me to never, ever, ever give up on the idea that I have as much right to a better future as any man.

It’s for you.

I love you.

The women mentioned in this post - they're not perfect, none of them. Neither am I. But I don't want a perfect world - I want a just world. And I do believe that one day, we will have one.


Thursday, 24 January 2013

War...huh...good grief

Just when I was starting to think that 2013 had begun relatively quietly for feminist bloggers looking for something to get riled about, this op-ed by Ryan Smith landed in my Twitter feed, on the back of the recent decision by the Pentagon to allow the USA’s women soldiers to serve in combat. Now, I am all for critical commentary, and I acknowledge that the writer of the piece has served in recent combat, which it’s fair to say that I have not (leaving aside my agonised kneejerk liberal reaction to warfare, the closest I get to violence is on a badminton court), but as other commentators have pointed out, the actual argument of the piece is perplexing at best and thoroughly ludicrous at worst.

What the author seems to be implying is that women do not, or cannot, understand what ‘real’ war is about, that it is ugly, revolting, and brutal, with unsanitary and debilitating conditions for the troops. There is much mention in his piece of the horrors of diarrhea and urination (I wonder whether he has ever changed a nappy?), not to mention filth and dried blood. Yes dear reader, it does somewhat segue into precious bodily fluids territory. I also find it really curious that his main argument about combat centres not on the psychological difficulties which might arise from, you know, violently killing other humans, but essentially from the harshness of camp conditions. Miss the point much? But I digress. Basically, I just found the whole piece extraordinary and ludicrous, for several reasons.

Firstly, the idea that women simply by dint of the fact that they are women would baulk at severe physical debilitation isn’t just common or garden sexism but also so divorced from reality as to be worthy of ridicule. There are many, many different women in the world and many different ways to be a woman; I am sure it is fair to say that there are some of us who are delicate flowers much given to swooning at the merest whiff of gore; that is undoubtedly true because spectrum of humanity yadda yadda. But for every Tinkerbell there is a Boudicca – how many female doctors and nurses faint away at a compound fracture on a trauma ward, for example? How many women and girls walk for days in 45 degree heat to bring back a pail of water for their village? Or for 20 hour days in a sweatshop? How many are broken by abuse and disease in the sex trafficking trade? The idea that women cannot cope with or are not used to physical trauma, either the experience of it or the observation of it is, were it not so fucking tragic, laughable.

Secondly, and this is such a big rhetorical miss that the words banjo and barn door come to mind, does the writer really think that women do not already experience war? What would he say to the hundreds of thousands of women raped in combat? To those displaced and made destitute? To those massacred because they belong to the ‘wrong’ side? This is a very simple point that I would not have thought needed making, but it is not just enlisted soldiers who experience war. Smith's point, that war would be all too much for the lil’ ladies, utterly betrays the enforced experience of hugely traumatic conflict for thousands upon thousands of women (and children, and men, since the dawn of fucking time. Well done, humanity).

Lastly, he says that relieving yourself in front of your fellow troops is “humiliating enough”, and that we can “really only imagine the humiliation of being forced to relieve yourself in front of the opposite sex”. Er, I don’t know about you, gentle reader, but for those of us who have ever been in a long term relationship, had children, met children, grown up with siblings, gone to school, played with other kids, or just gotten really, really into watersports, this is beyond parody. Like, really? That’s what would traumatise you? He goes on to say that it would be “distracting and potentially traumatizing to be forced to be naked in front of the opposite sex”. As Lauren Wolfe has pointed out with far less sarcasm than I am able to, surely it is the fucking WAR which is traumatic – the idea that weeing in front of your colleagues when you haven’t washed in a month is the problem is FUCKING RIDICULOUS. I’ve been to festivals more traumatic.

This entire piece just plays into the tired (holy fuck am I tired of it) and ignorant stereotype of the innocent, unblemished woman, who must be protected from the real muck of the world at all costs. How risible. If only we fucking were. As for the idea that women might be traumatised by combat, I would argue that this has nothing to do with being a woman, and everything to do with being human – with as much capability  and resilience as the next soldier.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Rape culture is everyone’s problem

(Trigger warning for rape and sexual violence all over the whole damn page)

Well, I was hoping to resume blogging in 2013 with a nice fluffy (by my standards) piece to ease us gently into bleakest January, on the perils of dating while feminist (be patient my loves, this may still come, I’m thinking about it). But then over the holidays, as more and more gruesome details emerged about the horrific gang rape and murder of an Indian woman in Delhi on the 16th of December my festive cheer dissipated somewhat and so here I am banging on about rape again, in only the second week of the year. And I do find myself wondering, how many more times will I write about rape and rape culture before this year is out? Before my life is out? How many times will other feminists and commentators write about it, worry at it, will it to be destroyed once and for all? Will it ever go away, this culture of enabling rape and rapists while simultaneously erasing, belittling, and reinterpreting the experience of victims? When will it end? Will it end? Do we actually have the will and conviction in human to society to make it end? By the way, that last question is the scariest one, for reals.

I’ve asked before in these pages what it will take to change culture, albeit that on that occasion I was talking about access to abortion. And it’s a difficult question, because it assumes there must be some point where the stakes can go no higher. That’s what an optimist would think. I am not so sure about optimisim at the moment, though. The woman who was raped in India was also mutilated to the point where she suffered severe, and in her case irreperable, internal injuries. I am going to be more explicit in explaining exactly what happened to her because I think it’s important not to use euphemisms when discussing things like this, but I’m trigger-warning this next paragraph again because what happened is completely horrific.

She was apparently travelling on a bus with a friend, when she was attacked by five men and one minor, one of whom is reported to have been the driver of the bus. Then they beat her with an iron bar, raped her with that and pulled out her intestines in the process. They also beat her friend with the same iron bar, as he was trying to protect her. She and him were then stripped naked and dumped by the side of the road. According to her friend, who has now given a television interview, they were left unattented by passers-by for nearly half an hour. The hospital where she eventually died is a leading institute in treating catastrophic multiple organ injuries. Rather like a field hospital in a warzone, you might think.

I don’t know about you, dear readers, but at first it seemed to me that this was extraordinarily violent. But then I remembered that in fact there is nothing extra-ordinary about it. Violent rapes where the victim is mutilated to the point of maiming or death are a hallmark of, for example, rape as a war crime – here is a sobering article on the subject of rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo which will confirm this – but they also happen in ‘isolated’ (excuse me while I choke on my own laughter) incidents such as the one in India – here is a similarly awful incident from Ukraine, where the victim also died of her injuries. So the Indian rape hasn’t really raised any stakes at all – it is just repeating a template which has long been in existence. And really, what stakes are higher than maiming or death? Perhaps only torture would fit that bill – and we know that rape is also used as a form of torture too.

But you know, for some people no rape will ever be brutal, or revolting, or lethal enough for the message to stop being, ‘don’t get raped’, and start being, ‘don’t rape’. After the Indian rape victim had died, some delightful commenters had plenty of victim-blaming bullshit things to say about what had happened. Their comments, or a version of them, will be entirely familiar to anyone who has ever spent any time at all on the internet or IRL talking about rape, because they are tired but persistent ideas which crop up all the time in our discussions of rape. Ideas like don’t wear a skirt. Ideas like don’t use public transport. Ideas like for your own safety. Ideas like rape-rape. In fact the list is so endless, so tirelessly inventive in adding more and ever more restrictions to (mostly) women’s lives in the false name of protecting their safety that it is easily satirised. But the thing about satire is that it’s a bit like irony, i.e. it’s not really satire if, you know, it’s actually happening. In our refusal to confront the real reason that people get raped the reason itself gets lost in the mire, but it is this - people get raped because rapists rape them, and all too often get away with it.

We could talk for hours, weeks, years even over what exactly constitutes rape culture – for me this from Shakesville  is a pretty comprehensive definition and one to which I’ve linked before – but really what it boils down to is the difference between the two messages, don’t get raped, and don’t rape. What do we teach our children? Don’t get raped. Why are we not teaching them the other message?

Her name was Jyoti Singh Pandey. She is one of millions, and she is no different to you or I, except for the fact that she is dead. She deserved life, and dignity, and safety, just as we do. Oh, and she did live in a warzone. India is not at war but rape culture is a global war, with just as much violence, propaganda and entrenchment as any other. But the difference is that we cannot fight this war with any old weapons-grade plutonium. The way we fight this war is by believing victims, by calling out rape jokes, by, if we have the strength for it, reporting sexual violence, by supporting those who do and those who are unable to, by demanding more from our police and our judiciary, by speaking out, and speaking up. Unless you come armed with smallpox and religion, you cannot change a culture from outside of it. You can only change it by ditching your complicity and lending your voice to the chorus.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

"Pro Life" - UR DOIN IT RONG

Here I am, banging on about abortion again. It’s almost like I’m a progressive feminist or something, innit? Anyway, Ireland, not exactly known as a safe haven of open-minded attitudes to reproductive rights, was in the news last week (I know, I am behind, bad blogger) in the darkest way possible. Normally things trend on Twitter for the fluffiest and harebrained of reasons, but if you haven’t read the story already I advise you to spend some time on the #Savita hashtag to get yourselves up to speed.

In simple terms, from what we know from the press coverage of the case, a 31 year old (married) woman (intentionally) pregnant for the first time went to A&E at University Hospital, Galway presenting with back pain. She was found to be miscarrying but her requests for a medical termination were alledgedly denied by staff at the hospital as a foetal heartbeat could still be detected. At one point it is alledged that she was told, “this is a Catholic country”, by way of explanation for the non-intervention. The dead foetus was removed once a heartbeat could no longer be found but on the 28th October 2012, Savita Halappanavar died of septicaemia.

For a thorough and accesible historical overview of the legal situation in Ireland I recommend this as further reading. For a historical overview of what happens when you make abortion illegal, read this, but be warned it comes with a great big content warning as it contains very distressing and disturbing imagery and content.

Now, there are small-scale arguments as to why Savita was not given a termination on arrival at the hospital, principally driven by the argument, which from an intellectual point of view I can understand, that doctors might be fearful of losing their livelihood, of being struck off and so on, given the current legal position on abortion in the country (see above). And you know what? I hear that. Losing your job is pretty terrible, especially given the global north’s current state of fiscal meltdown. But more terrible than knowing that your intervention would likely have prevented a woman’s death? I’m not so sure about that. But my contention with all of this isn’t just at this level, but on a macro scale.

The pro-life argument on a larger scale (i.e. devoid of domestic legislation and divorced from individual experience) is usually that human life, however we define that, begins at conception. Now, I am not going to make a secret of the fact that I think that this is total garbage (and here is a solid scientific explanation of why), but that is a strongly-held belief and while I think it is moronic, I do understand it, as in I understand what its supporters mean by it. So, fine. But here is the thing that I really, truly do not understand. If you believe that a zygote, embryo or foetus is a human life, and you also believe that an adult human is a human life, then the thing that I need explained to me is why the first life trumps the rights of the second. Why? I am not asking this to be facetious, I really just do not understand. Because the argument that the foetus has equal rights with the carrier doesn’t square with the argument that it also has greater rights. I’m no mathematician, but even I can see that that equation just doesn’t work.

And it makes me so, so angry that women – actual human women who are definitely alive and participating in their human lives – are still, STILL dying over this issue – not just in some far-flung corner of the globe where we all ‘know’ (or tell ourselves) that women’s rights and human rights are backwards or non-existent, but here, HERE in the global north on the doorstep of my country, the UK. It should make you angry, too. Because we seem to be wholly prepared to get very fired up about the failed deportation of a radical Muslim preacher who may very well be repellent but, y’know, has never actually been convicted of a crime here, but we are strangely mute about the fact that a different religion has a stranglehold not just over the reproductive rights but the actual right to life of half of its citizens. It is twenty fucking twelve, people. How many more Savitas have to die to uphold the ‘sanctity’ of life?

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Professional Overreacting

Well folks, I’m back from the Balkans (holiday) and ready to smash the gender binary and dismantle the kyriarchy in my lil ol’ corner of the interwebs! Bet you’re pleased? Let’s get started.

So of course while I was away gasping in awe at Russian Orthodox churches, stunning lakes, and ludicrously low beer prices, the world continued to grind away. I heard there was a devastating storm, and then an American election? More of that later though, because I’m keen to focus on an issue both global and domestic today – I’m sure the USA can live without my commentary for another week or so.

Everyday Sexism (and if you are not already following them on Twitter then by gum you bally well should be), have an op-ed piece in the Independent today which touches on the idea that sexism is still a socially-acceptable prejudice. Now, I don’t think that it's the only socially-acceptable prejudice which we need to tackle, given how many times a week I hear the word ‘gay’ or ‘retard’ being used as a pejorative (that list is by no means exhaustive), but I want to expand on the point the piece was making about sexism towards women, partly because it’s Twitter-topical but chiefly because it touches on one of the aspects of sexism which absolutely INFURIATES me – that women* are generally and habitually overreacting to sexism.

Firstly, I would like to know what the definition of overreacting is? If someone insults you or otherwise does something damaging to you and you ignore them, I would think of that as non-reactive (NB by non-reactive I don’t mean neutral, as neutral implies not being bothered at all whereas non-reactiveness can be read as a decision to ensure one’s personal safety). Anything beyond that is a reaction. So where is the mythical cut-off point? I would imagine if someone groped my arse and I murdered them then that would be a clear overreaction (jokes aside), but below the level of physical retaliation, what counts as an overreaction? Because it seems to me that the very act of saying anything negative at all about sexism is deemed an overreaction. Read the comments (or don’t, EVER, if you value your sanity) under any piece expressing even the most mild feminist view and I will pay you ten pounds** if no-one tells the writer (or other commenters) that they are overreacting. David Cameron’s infamous, “calm down, dear” is a prime (and very public) example of this fuckery. Why are we so uptight all the time about sexism? Why can’t we see that sometimes it’s all a bit of fun, a bit of a laugh with the lads? What’s wrong with us?

What’s wrong with us? I’ll tell you what’s wrong with me. I am sick and fucking tired of being made to treat sexism as if it were a joke. Would you tell a black person to calm down about a shop selling golliwog dolls? Why not? After all, they’re a bit of harmless fun, aren’t they?! A children’s toy! STOP OVERREACTING. Do you see what I’m getting at here? We all (or most of us, hopefully), innately understand that while golliwog dolls are unlikely in themselves to bring about a new era of apartheid, they symbolise one race’s casual and brutal disdain for another’s. Their intentions might be harmless fun, but their reality is sinister. We can see this, so why can’t we see it for sexism, and why are we unwilling to even engage with the idea that sexist behaviour is fucking damaging? For women, a lot of the time, I think it’s because we are afraid not of actually overreacting, but of being labelled in that way. No-one wants to ruin the fun, do they?*** Apart from humourless feminists that is! Ho ho.

Now I want to tell you a lovely little story which illustrates this conundrum. Once upon a time (longer ago than I care to remember in fact), I was walking along a residential street in an undodgy area of London towards the tube, to go out in town. It was about 7pm, but because it was November it was already dark. I had a skirt on, stripey knee socks, and boots – the skirt was short, and the boots were chunky, because back then I was a bit of a goth (in fact I was heading to the legendary Intrepid Fox for a night of drinking cider and listening to the Cult). I had headphones in, so I didn’t hear the group of men (boys?) come up behind me. Maybe if I had I would have avoided what happened next, but probably not, because I suspect they were pretty determined to do what they did anyway, to whichever woman happened to be walking along the street that night. Anyway, one of them grabbed me from behind and slid his fingers up between my legs. Right the way up – I don’t mean he was just checking the close shave of my bikini line. I jumped, and he and his mates laughed and ran away.

And do you know what I did? Absolutely nothing. I carried on walking to the tube station, where I didn’t tell the station agent. In fact I can’t even remember if I told my friends, including my boyfriend at the time, when I got to the pub. I certainly didn’t tell the police. I hadn’t seen the faces of any of the group who had assaulted me, so I wouldn’t have been able to identify them anyway. Besides, by that point (I was nineteen), I had already started to buy into the bullshit of this kind of thing happens all the time, and don’t make a fuss, and at least they didn’t rape me. As in, you’re overreacting. And although this was probably the “worst” thing of this kind that has happened to me (yet) given that had I not had knickers on there would have been genital contact; I completely sympathise with the Everyday Sexism tweeter who tweeted that this kind of thing just begins after a while to register as “not really serious”, because I could tell you of literally dozens of similar incidents which have happened to me, and I am one individual who is lucky enough to live in a fairly safe, fairly liberal first world society.

My point is, what would you call my reaction? Because I wouldn’t call it an overreaction – I did what I explained in the paragraph above, non-reaction – partly as a self-preservation method and partly because at nineteen I had already learned the mantra of not overreacting.

Well, you know what? FUCK THAT FUCKING SHIT. Fuck that dangerous bullshit right back where it belongs, and what is more THREE HEARTY CHEERS  for overreacting, because if overreacting means publicly objecting to the continual, relentless, publicy ignored and sometimes actively encouraged damage and debasement of women then I am all bloody for it. To everyone who’s reacted with a pithy epithet to a cat-call, to everyone who’s told a guy to fuck off in a nightclub when he’s ground his semi against your backs, to everyone who’s called out the sexist joke in the work meeting, I SALUTE YOU ALL, and to all the rest of us who have our days when we can’t do that, when we are too upset or afraid or already damaged to react, we’ve got your fucking back too, because no-one on earth deserves this daily fuckery and I really hope that one day society will finally, finally understand that it is not ok for it to be like this.
The only way that is going to happen is if we keep calling it out, if instead of avoiding “overreacting” we make sure that it is in fact one of our main priorities. Think I should calm down, dear? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

*By this I don't exclude the differently-gendered, but I want to talk about the kind of sexism which is directed towards those who have been identified (erroneously or not) as women by the person or people perpetrating the sexism.
**Not really.

***For anyone who would like an absolutely kick-ass and vital illustration of this problem, I urge everyone reading this to go and read this blog post.