In the last two weeks, groups of ordinary people across Europe have declared ‘refugees welcome here’, and called on their governments to do more. But the particular problems faced by women are still going unacknowledged, and where policies do exist, there is a crisis of implementation. Women deserve better, says Jackie Turner.
Over recent months there has been increased media attention to the plight of tens of thousands of people attempting the hazardous crossing of the Mediterranean in unseaworthy or overcrowded boats. Many have no doubt paid a premium to unscrupulous smugglers; others will have fallen victim to people traffickers ready and willing to exploit their desperate need to flee war zones and other hostile and violent conditions at home. The media attention is welcome. It has exposed a serious humanitarian crisis although, regrettably, it has also exposed an EU leadership in disarray. Search and rescue missions are scaled down, and then scaled back up. Governments bicker about who is bearing the brunt of the financial burden and where these thousands of displaced people should go. There is ready conflation of refugees and migrants, people smugglers and human traffickers.
Even so, something is missing from all the coverage. What remains largely unreported and is absent from most policy responses is the particular plight of women and girls.
There is nothing new in this. Women are regularly written out of history or relegated to the footnotes; this despite decades of international, regional and national laws intended to promote the human rights of women. Violence against women, in particular, is acknowledged to be a consequence of inequalities between women and men. Yet amidst the extensive media reports of hardships at sea and the appalling loss of life, representations of women are few and far between, their voices rarely heard and their stories even more rarely told. Nor are they attracting much government attention.
Yet the women fleeing violence at home do not leave that violence behind them. It travels with them right up to and into countries of destination. And very often this is gender-based violence: violence against women because they are women. Such violence is all too prevalent in times of peace: domestic violence, early and forced marriage, female genital mutilation, lives lived in the shadow of ‘honour’. In times of war violence against women, including rape and other sexualised violence, increases exponentially. It is an ever-present reality, in their homes, in refugee camps, during travel, at staging posts and in countries of destination.
Migration is a particularly hazardous undertaking for women, yet even here they are often hidden populations, viewed as a residual category of those ‘left behind’, or those crossing borders as dependent family members. Such notions do little to capture the complexities of women’s lives, the push factors which drive them from their homes, and the extent of the dangers and the dangerous masculinities they face every step of the way.
In 2014 the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) found that almost four of every five people who have fled Syria in the last three years are women and children. According to a report by the International Rescue Committee (2014) many end up in the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, but many more live outside of formal camps. Here, social norms place restrictions on women’s mobility, leaving them less able to access humanitarian aid or engage in economically fruitful activity. If and when they do find paid work, they are vulnerable to sexual exploitation by employers, just as they are vulnerable to sexual predation by landlords who demand more than rent if women are to keep a roof over their heads and the heads of their children. Sexual harassment means that mothers are afraid to send their daughters to school, resulting in girls being deprived of education. Yet women and girls in formal camps scarcely fare better. Sexual harassment and exploitation is again commonplace where women and girls are forced to exchange sex for aid, or where collecting water or visiting latrines is fraught with the dangers of sexual assault and rape.
Conflicts elsewhere in the region or in North and sub-Saharan Africa have forced countless more women from their homes, compelling them to embark on hazardous dessert and sea crossings. Here, the boat trip from Libya to Europe is just one more of the numerous dangers they face as they flee the armed conflicts in which they are held hostage to power struggles among men. Yet during flight they are confronted with other dangerous men and with the dangerous masculinities which dominate the trade in women. However much or little money they have is extorted, they may be sold en route, or forced to sell sex to pay for the next stage of the journey, while also facing gang- and multiple rape by fellow travellers and the men they have paid to secure their passage. There is invariably little food and water and certainly no safe and equal system for distributing what few resources are available. Pregnancy offers no protection against this violence and many women give birth to babies which result from rape.
These atrocities have been well documented by international NGOs and by UN bodies in current and previous wars. The international community is well aware of the disproportionate burdens women bear in armed conflicts and of the escalation of physical and sexual violence against them. It expressly gave voice to this in UN Security Council Resolution 1325, passed in 2000. Since then there have been a number of further related UN Security Council Resolutions and international events such as the 2006 International Symposium on Sexual Violence in Conflict and Beyond in which participating states vowed to ‘strengthen our shared commitment and action to prevent and respond to sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations’. In 2012, the former UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, launched the ‘Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative’ (PSVI) with the Special Envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie. The campaign aims to address the culture of impunity, prosecute more perpetrators and ensure better support services for survivors through greater international cooperation, and by increasing political will and the capacity of states to do more. It was followed in 2013 with the adoption by G8 Foreign Ministers of the Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, subsequently endorsed by 155 countries. The Declaration recognises that violence against women is inextricably linked to inequality between women and men. It commits to offering no safe haven to perpetrators of sexual violence against women in war zones.
But what of safe havens for women? For those who do make it to the shores of Italy, some end up hidden away in detention centres. There, as Lauren Wolfe of the Women’s Media Centre, documents in her blog of 24 July 2015, these ‘missing women’ are illegally detained, often for weeks or even months with access to only the most basic levels of care and medical help. There is no sign of ‘better support services’ for these survivors, who have been traumatised by their experiences of violence and by the violence and deaths they have been forced to witness. Other women, living beyond the walls of detention centres, are often left with little choice but to engage in what the UN calls ‘survival sex’, while others again are forced into prostitution by their traffickers. Family members may be held hostage while women are required to sell sex to pay off debts accumulated during journeys to Europe but which, in fact, are never paid off. Women who had no choice but to face dangerous men and masculinities in countries of origin and in transit, are still having to contend with dangerous men and masculinities in countries of destination.
Women who come to the UK fare no better. Here, they face a tough and complex asylum regime which systematically discriminates against them, as Caroline Criado-Perez details in her new book ‘Do It Like A Woman – And Change the World’. Their stories of trauma, risk and threats are met with a ‘culture of disbelief’ among Home Office decision-makers. Even those who are eventually given asylum face an uncertain future. Leave to remain is frequently granted only for short, fixed terms and can be reviewed at any time. An early morning knock on the door, the sudden removal to a detention centre and brutal deportation are constant threats and realities for many women and their children.
For several decades now we have had international treaties, conventions, platforms for action, resolutions, directives, initiatives and campaigns to combat and prevent violence against women. But still it continues unabated, with no sign of any abatement in the culture of impunity which affords men their safe havens. The international community has long faced a crisis of implementation when it comes to taking effective and decisive action to end violence against women. The three pillars of Security Council Resolution 1325 – protection, participation and prevention – have a particularly hollow ring. But dangerous men and dangerous masculinities are not products of armed conflicts. Violence against women in times of war cannot be addressed without addressing violence against women in times of peace.
The time for rhetoric and lip service has long passed. Women facing and fleeing violence across the world deserve better. They cannot continue to be relegated to the ranks of ‘the missing’ or absent from media and policy debates. Their voices and their stories must be heard and the international community, as well as individual governments, must confront this crisis of implementation. It is time to stop passing paper laws and resolutions and, instead, to act with resolve. The crisis in the Mediterranian is a humanitarian crisis but it is also a gendered crisis. It is time to move from ‘aims’ to concrete actions. It is time to demand greater international cooperation and increased political will and it is time to demand safe havens for women.
Feminists who campaign on the issue of sexual violence against women and children, and those who work with survivors, are well aware that we live in a culture of disbelief, where accounts of rape, assault and child sexual abuse are routinely met with scepticism if not dismissed outright as lies, fantasies, exaggerations or misunderstandings. Believing survivors is an important feminist principle; combatting the culture of disbelief is an important political task. But there are some accounts of violence and abuse that even feminists may struggle to come to terms with.
In the early 1990s, Trouble & Strife was one of the few feminist publications that addressed the issue of ritual abuse. The discussions we had in the editorial collective were instructive, with those not involved in support work finding the issues raised difficult to contemplate. Our conversations were informed by the feminist principle of believing survivors, but much of what was being said seemed unbelievable: even some rape crisis groups struggled with the accounts that were emerging, despite their extensive knowledge about sexual violence. This is still an area of work that stretches our humanity – why would one want to believe that adults can abuse and torture children in such vile ways?
In the last few years, other kinds of accounts have emerged that seem to many people scarcely credible. It is alleged that senior politicians and other members of the British establishment attended sex parties where children were not only abused but in some cases actually killed. Following the posthumous unmasking of Jimmy Savile as, in the words of the police, a ‘serial sexual predator’, and the conviction of several other media figures on multiple counts of rape and sexual assault, there has been a steady stream of fresh reports of so-called ‘historical abuse’ (a term which is contested by survivors, for whom the effects are ongoing, and also because some perpetrators of ‘historical’ abuse may still be abusing in the present). Believing these accounts means accepting that a seemingly extraordinary number of prominent men have committed serious sexual offences. It is one thing to believe that one man, Savile, was able to do this unchallenged for many years, and another to suggest that he was not an isolated case.
We do believe the accounts given by survivors. But we also think it is important to talk about the particular difficulty posed by accounts which are ‘extreme’, either because they report very extreme practices (such as ritual abuse and murder) or because they point to a problem whose sheer scale makes it difficult to take in (as with the current reports of ‘historical’ abuse). That difficulty is easily exploited by those with a vested interest in maintaining the culture of disbelief. But if we look back to the way this was done in the past, there may be lessons we can learn for the present and the future.
The denial of ritual abuse
What is it that makes stories more or less believable? Partly it is the context in which we hear them. When the first accounts of organised abuse, and in particular ritual abuse, emerged, the context in which they were heard was one in which public perceptions were coloured by an earlier controversy about (non-ritual) child abuse in Cleveland, where the professionals who had taken children out of their family homes to protect them from abuse were demonized, portrayed in the media as zealots who saw signs of abuse everywhere. What emerged in this context was a ‘formula story’ about ritual abuse that has been repeated in the media ever since, and appears impervious to any challenge. (Just this year, the BBC gave the journalist David Aaronovitch a slot on Radio 4 to repeat it yet again.) The story is that gullible professionals believed the unbelievable, and created a moral panic about children being abused by groups of adults who believed in some version of Satanism.
Bea Campbell has published several pieces which challenge this account, including a two-part refutation of Aaronovitch’s most recent intervention. She points out that in one case in Nottingham, which is frequently cited as proving the formula story, the adults involved were imprisoned for a total of 150 years; the accounts children gave of ritualised elements were corroborated by three other adults who were not charged. In another case in Orkney, the father of the family involved had already been convicted for what the judge called ‘sadistic and horrific’ abuse.
Purveyors of the formula story are fond of pointing out that no one has ever been convicted of ritual abuse—which is factually accurate since in law there is no such offence—but the adults in the Nottingham and Orkney cases, and others since, have certainly been convicted of child sexual abuse offences in court proceedings where ritual elements were explicitly discussed. Survivors have continued to approach agencies for support, with pretty much every rape crisis centre supporting women whose experiences echo those that began to be discussed in the 1990s. Over two decades, centres have built up an understanding of how best to offer support by working with women who have experienced ritual abuse.
But public disbelief, shored up by the repetition of the formula story, had consequences. By the end of the 1990s it had resulted in the withdrawal of the definition of ritual abuse in child protection guidelines. More recently a different framing has been accepted, but this relates specifically to the abuse of children in minority and migrant communities, where the media have reported cases of ritual abuse and even murder without displaying the incredulity they showed in cases where the perpetrators belonged to the majority ethnic group. The issue was taken up by the National Working Group on Child Abuse linked to Faith and Belief, which reported in 2012. Many safeguarding policies now reference this work, without being accused of stirring up moral panic.
Disbelief has also been suspended in the case of reports on the brutal forms of violence practised against women by men in groups like IS and Boko Haram. It seems behaviours deemed ‘incredible’ in the civilized West become credible when those accused belong to a group defined as Other and ‘uncivilised’.
This point is also relevant to another ‘extreme’ case in which initial disbelief and denial has now given way to a measure of acceptance: the sexual exploitation of vulnerable young people, who are recruited into a form of organized abuse using emotional manipulation (so-called ‘grooming’), and then controlled using violence, threats, alcohol and drugs. After a series of cases in towns including Rochdale and Oxford, the main story that has emerged about this phenomenon tends to emphasize the ethnicity of those involved, with much of the discussion focusing on the problem of Muslim men exploiting white, non-Muslim girls. Not only is this inaccurate (there have been many child sexual exploitation cases where the perpetrators were not Muslims), it obscures the links between this form of abuse and others which are talked about using a different set of terms.
The accounts which have been circulating for some years now, about prominent men abusing children at sex parties, are in fact stories about what we now call sexual exploitation. Clearly it is not a new phenomenon, nor one confined to certain minority communities. What recently went on in cheap hotels in Oxford was essentially the same thing that is alleged to have gone on decades ago in the upmarket surroundings of the Dolphin Square flat where establishment figures are said to have held their parties. The children who were brought to the parties appear to have been recruited from the same vulnerable population as the Oxford victims (e.g. children in local authority care), and the prominent men involved, like the ‘ordinary’ punters in the Oxford case, were paying other men for access to them.
But these similarities are obscured by the way the stories most often get told. In stories about contemporary sexual exploitation the focus is on the ‘grooming’ process and the ethnicity of the procurers; the media do not typically ask who their paying clients were, and who else facilitated their organized abuse (though in Oxford those arrested included the (white) owner of a bed and breakfast where some of this abuse had taken place). In stories about historical abuse by prominent men, by contrast, what is emphasized is primarily the men’s ‘establishment’ status, and secondarily the possibility that the establishment protected its own by covering up their activities. Questions about who procured their victims and what tactics they used to do it barely feature in the discussion. These appear to be stories about two different things, when really they are stories about the same thing, but located in different times and places and seen from different angles.
The angle from which cases were presented had a similar distorting effect on perceptions of ritual abuse in the 1990s. The stories that circulated were sometimes sensationalised (a tendency amplified in some cases by the involvement of fundamentalist Christians), and there was a preoccupation with questions about the adults’ beliefs and the nature of their rituals (were they really Satanists? Did their networks function as cults?) This made it easier than it might otherwise have been to deny that ritual abuse existed, since it stopped people from noticing the basic resemblance between the ritual abuse which survivors were reporting and other forms of organized abuse whose existence was not in doubt.
The principle of believing survivors means that feminists cannot just set aside those parts of their stories which seem bizarre and ‘incredible’, but our analysis also needs to make clear that these elements, which can easily become the main or only focus of attention, are not the whole story, or even necessarily the most important part of it. ‘Extreme’ cases have basic features in common with accounts of more ‘ordinary’ and familiar forms of abuse. To put it another way, they represent different points on the same continuum.
‘Historical’ abuse: the backlash
The concept of a continuum of sexual violence, first developed by Liz Kelly, was meant to give feminists a way of connecting the most everyday forms of abuse to the most extreme. In a book she wrote about ritual abuse in 2001, Sara Scott argued that feminists should have used this approach more systematically, connecting this new and seemingly alien set of practices to what was already known about other kinds of sexual abuse. The same applies to the current discussion of ‘historical’ abuse by prominent men.
In this case the question is not whether any prominent men have ever engaged in abuse, but whether their involvement is being overstated, or whether the issue has become entangled in dubious conspiracy theories. Clearly the abuse perpetrated by some prominent men cannot be denied. When investigation revealed the full extent of Jimmy Savile’s crimes, committed in numerous different locations over a period spanning decades, it became impossible to maintain that allegations against celebrities and public figures were simply not credible, and to dismiss anyone who made them automatically as a mischief-maker or a fantasist. At the time this seemed like a momentous and irrevocable shift in public attitudes. But a revisionist backlash has already begun.
This backlash trades on the idea that Savile’s case was unique—a case that is not difficult to make, since in some ways his career as an abuser really was exceptional. Not only was he a particularly dedicated and prolific offender who seems rarely to have passed up any opportunity to abuse, he also had—through the combination of his TV stardom and his charity work—an exceptional level of unmonitored access to powerless and vulnerable victims, from young girls participating in TV recordings to psychiatric patients. Savile has also been characterized in retrospect as ‘hiding in plain sight’—a reference to his overtly ‘weird’ and ‘creepy’ persona, which some commentators suggest should have prompted suspicion at a much earlier stage. (In fact there was no shortage of suspicion: the problem was that Savile was a National Treasure, and therefore regarded as untouchable.)
Emphasizing Savile’s uniqueness as the most extreme of the extreme opens up a space for sceptical responses when allegations are made against other celebrities and public figures. ‘Don’t compare X to Jimmy Savile, he’s [insert description of someone ‘normal’: a married man, a father of two, a dedicated public servant]’. ‘They can’t all have been at it: this is a witch-hunt/a conspiracy’. Or maybe ‘Yes, but those were different times: not everyone who had sex with a 15-year old was a serial predator like Savile’. And of course, ‘the Savile case has brought the crazies/the chancers out of the woodwork, making mad accusations so they can sell their stories to the papers’.
We also hear the argument that the police, embarrassed by their failure to act on Savile, have shifted overnight from a stance of blanket disbelief to one of utter credulity. The person who makes this argument often begins by acknowledging that in the past the police used to turn ‘genuine’ victims away, but then suggests it is equally deplorable that they will now believe whatever anyone chooses to tell them. Flimsy and implausible stories about things that allegedly happened 40 years ago are being used to persecute frail elderly men, or to tarnish the reputations of the dead.
Joining the dots
To counter this revisionism, it may be helpful to focus on what Savile did have in common with other men at the centre of historical abuse allegations, as well as what may have been different about him; and also on what links these cases involving the powerful and prominent with other cases which don’t attract the same attention, or the same incredulity.
One factor that is relevant here is the workings of impunity (a mixture of feeling entitled to engage in certain acts and feeling confident that you will never be held to account for them—they will be missed, ignored or condoned). We know that impunity is one of the things that allows sexual violence to flourish in contexts as apparently different as the private space of the family home, the conflict zones where military personnel engage in mass rape of civilians, and the parts of the world where women and girls are trafficked and sold or killed by criminal gangs (or groups like IS and Boko Haram). It is not unreasonable to extend that insight to the exclusive locations in western capital cities where powerful and wealthy men pay to engage in recreational child abuse.
Impunity may explain why some groups of men—those with the most power, whether it is exercised by force and terror or through money and influence in high places—seem to be over-represented among perpetrators of ‘extreme’ sexual violence and abuse. This is a point that gets overlooked in the ‘they can’t all have been at it’ argument, which implies that there is some sort of conspiracy to bring down the rich and famous. A group of men whose position gives them a strong sense of entitlement, and a belief that they need not fear the consequences of their actions, might be expected to have a higher rate of involvement in the most extreme and risky abusive practices.
In Jimmy Savile’s case the belief that he could act with impunity was well-founded: he was never held to account during his lifetime. If other men are to be held accountable for the violence they perpetrated in the past, it will be important to prevent the revisionist view, which portrays ‘historical’ abuse investigations as campaigns of persecution driven by moral panic or political conspiracy, from gaining the same influence as the formula story about ritual abuse. We can acknowledge that such extreme forms of abuse are uncommon, and that some of the details may be difficult to believe. But what we have to resist is the framing of extreme cases as both vanishingly rare and completely different from more ordinary forms of sexual violence. These are not unrelated phenomena, but points on a continuum. In both our analysis and our activism we must continue to join the dots.
In her new book Do It Like A Woman…And Change the World, the journalist and campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez tells the stories of women around the world who are fighting injustice and pushing against the limits their societies impose on them. In this extract from her book she talks to Meltem Avcil, a Kurdish woman she met at a demonstration protesting against the detention of women who claim asylum in the UK.
It all started for Meltem Avcil when she was four years old. She fled with her family from the village they lived in in Turkey. ‘I remember bits and pieces of village life,’ she says. ‘Women doing their chores; girls bringing tea.’ Her family were Kurds, and they faced persecution as a result. Like many refugees, Meltem and her family first fled to Germany – but they were refused asylum. They arrived in the UK when Meltem was about eight years old, finally being settled in Doncaster as the Home Office reviewed their case. Meltem attended school and dreamed of becoming a doctor.
Officials first arrived to take Meltem and her family from her home when she was eleven. ‘I knew what was happening,’ she tells me. ‘Because I was the only English speaker, so I was always on the phone to the solicitor. I knew what was happening. But, I wasn’t really aware… I was in between.’
By the time of their second detention when Meltem was 13, she wasn’t in between any more. She was fully aware and knew enough about the system to want to act as her mother’s translator. ‘The translators are… for some reason, I didn’t trust them. And I could translate properly, because I was sharing my mum’s pain.’ The pain of being blindfolded by Turkish police and being beaten until her ear bled and her eardrum burst, of being taken away from her home by soldiers at six in the morning and driven to a forest, of the ‘unsuitable stuff ’, the ‘ugly things’ that were done to her in this forest. I ask her about taking on this role when she herself was still so young. Meltem hesitates. ‘What else would I do in Yarl’s Wood? Go and play badminton? And pretend like everything’s OK when I’m locked up? I chose to be in it.’ She’s fiery now. ‘I chose to take my psychology and my mum’s psychology on me, so that I could be sure that something good would happen in the end.’
But despite Meltem’s translation of their story, they were not believed. They were collected at three in the morning from their cells. ‘That’s when they pushed my mum onto the ground,’ she continues. ‘They hit her face with the handcuff, they forced her up the aeroplane steps. They kicked her, they punched her. They kicked me, they punched me, they pinched me, and all the time, the immigration officer was saying to me and, keep in mind I was thirteen, “If you resist, if you shout, if you scream, we will tie your hands and legs, and no one will know.” He said this to me five times.’ Meltem pauses. ‘They handcuffed my mum and they put a towel over the handcuffs, because it’s not right to handcuff anyone who hasn’t done anything, right? And they kept on blackmailing me all the way [to the airport]. And a female officer said to me, “Oh you have your GCSEs this year, don’t you?” And then she started laughing.’
I ask her how she felt. Her answer sounds like calm panic. ‘I just had one thing on my mind: what can I do about this? I let them speak, I let them speak into my ear, so many mean things on the way, and I didn’t say anything. Because I was busy thinking of what to do, how not to go back to a country I’ve not grown up in and don’t know. I had so many questions going round my head: tomorrow, where am I going to be? What’s going to happen?’
As Meltem screamed for help, saying the guards were twisting her hands, her fellow passengers began to record the incident. The pilot stopped the plane and ordered the guards to remove Meltem and her mother, who were taken to the hospital. They were visited by the Children’s Commissioner and moved to Newcastle. A new home, a new school. More waiting, more whirling questions.
For six years Meltem was moved unceremoniously around the country, taken in and out of detention. She had to register with the police every week and each time was made to wait. ‘For them, it might be that they’re short on staff and they need someone to just bring out the paper and say, “OK, sign.” But for you, it’s a different thing. All the time you’re thinking, what’s going on, are they going to take me, are they going to deport me…’
Eventually, Meltem and her mother were granted indefinite leave to stay, but she is still haunted by her experience. ‘You know, I’m still in fear,’ she says. ‘When someone bangs on the door very hard, I will just shake.’ Meltem has a British passport but, she says, ‘I still think, can they take it away from me? Can they lock me up again?’ She tells me about a morning not long after they received leave to remain. ‘The door knocked really hard, really really hard and I jumped up, and I said, “Mum, is it them.”’ I can’t help noticing it’s not a question.
A culture of disbelief
Disbelief is not only a common theme in these women’s stories – it’s a common theme in the statistics too. Report after report finds a virulent strain of cynicism within the UK Border Agency (UKBA) that manifests as a ‘culture of disbelief ’. Things are so bad that an investigation was carried out by Asylum Aid specifically into the quality of decisions made by the Home Office on women asylum seekers. The report found that, on average, 28% of all initial Home Office decisions that went against asylum seekers were ultimately overturned on appeal; when it came to women asylum seekers, this figure shot up to 50%. Clearly, something isn’t working. Assessments of the credibility of the women whose applications are initially being turned down are repeatedly found to be inaccurate and ill informed. Put baldly, the UKBA officials don’t believe these women – and the ignorance and callousness displayed in the illustrative cases are shocking.
One case worker had never heard of the term ‘female circumcision’. Another decided on the basis of ‘an article from the American gossip website www.gawker.com’ that a lesbian from Uganda did not have any reason to fear the death penalty if she were returned. A woman who was forced into an abusive marriage at the age of fourteen, and who was abused by her father when she tried to return to her family home, was refused on the basis that she had remained in the marriage for thirteen years. This apparently proved that she was not at risk. A victim of sexual assault was asked if she had tried to stop a man from raping her. As if she had asked for it if she couldn’t physically prove that she didn’t want it. An Amnesty report found that photos of scars were not being accepted as evidence of torture. What price evidence in the face of this solid entity, ‘disbelief’?
Some of the decisions seem to move beyond ignorance to outright deceptive manipulation: one woman who feared ‘honour’ killing if she were returned to Iraq was refused asylum on the basis of a report that detailed the support available from local police. The very same report also detailed the danger of sexual assault such women faced from the police themselves if they approached them for help. Somehow, that factor was not considered relevant to the case.
Home Office officials have been told to get rid of 70% of these pesky asylum seekers, and these targets are backed up with the reward of shopping vouchers or the threat of being presented with a ‘grant monkey’, the toy gorilla that is put on the desk of any UKBA official who allows a claim. It is attitudes like these that have led Frances Webber, an immigration barrister, to damningly conclude, ‘UKBA officials sometimes give the impression that their purpose is to catch asylum seekers out – they seem to work from the premise that most asylum seekers are opportunistic liars, an attitude strongly fostered by the media and sometimes by government ministers, although it is very far from the truth.’ As one female asylum seeker explains, ‘They don’t believe you. They ask you five hundred questions and they ask the same question in a slightly different way and if you don’t answer them all exactly the same, they say that you are lying.’
That doesn’t explain why the burden of being disbelieved is falling so disproportionately on the shoulders of women. For the answer to that, we have to look further back, to the wording of another one-size-fits-all solution: the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
The Convention was drawn up in the aftermath of World War II by well-meaning men. The intentions were noble, even beautiful. A person had a right to claim asylum if he or she had a ‘well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’. It’s not enough to be persecuted – it has to be for these specific reasons. And we can already see that there is a glaring omission in this list, because a woman may well be persecuted for reasons of race, religion, or indeed any of the reasons for which men are persecuted. But she is most likely to be persecuted for the simple fact that she is a woman.
It is the fact that she is a woman that means her body is most likely to be used as a weapon of war. It is the fact that she is a woman that means that her sexuality is deemed to be dangerous and sinful, and that therefore her genitals, or those of her daughter, must be cut off and sewn up. It is the fact that she is a woman that means she is likely to be raped, beaten, murdered to preserve the ‘honour’ of her family if she commits the crime of behaving in any way that approximates the behaviour of a free man – and it is the fact that she is a woman that means if she reports this to the police, she is as likely to be attacked again as she is to be protected.
A Women for Refugee Women report found that the number one reason female asylum seekers gave for their persecution was ‘because I am a woman’. But only since 1999 has the UK accepted that women can be considered to belong to ‘a particular social group’, or, sometimes, to hold a ‘political opinion’, if they have chosen to defy the social norms that restrict so many women’s lives. Previously, women did not constitute a social group, and nor did rebelling against limiting female social norms reflect a political opinion. Nevertheless, although we’ve taken our time to get there, the precedent has finally been set. But most women who claim asylum don’t realise that this is the case – and staff at the UKBA seem to be in no hurry to inform them.
It is for the women who are still detained, who are still suffering behind barbed wire and eight metal doors, that Meltem continues to fight. This is why she started the petition that had us all gathered outside the Home Office on a February night. At the time of writing, the petition contains 48,000 signatures. I ask her what she thinks her chances are of succeeding. ‘I have no idea. All I’m doing is just hoping for people to understand more about detention centres and what it is like. I just want them to understand that the detention centre is a prison and no one deserves to be locked up in there’.
Caroline Criado-Perez’s Do It Like A Woman: … And Change the World is published by Portobello Books.
Find more information on the ‘Set her free’ campaign (and the online petition Meltem Avcil started) here.
We are rapidly approaching a time when the women who were active in the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 60s and 70s will no longer be here to describe that history in person. Archives which record that history are therefore becoming increasingly important, while cuts in public spending are putting many of them at risk of closure, and the material they house are at risk of being lost or at best dispersed. The following article, which looks at the politics of archiving the women’s movement and makes the case for taking our history seriously, was published in 1996. Later this summer we will be publishing a new piece by Jalna Hanmer, which will offer an update on the state of the various feminist archives in the UK and a sequel to the stories in this piece. This is particularly timely with the news this week that the British Library have just launched the archive of the long-running feminist magazine, Spare Rib.
To know the future is to know the past. To know the current moment is not enough.
Several years ago I realised I am rapidly becoming the only woman left amongst staff and students at the University of Bradford to know how and when Women’s Liberation Movement newsletters, bulletins and other regular publications of the 1970s and early 1980s developed and, frequently, which of these are British. With such a dismal lack of basic information, a knowledge of when, in a longish run, various publications provided the leading theoretical edge of the Women’s Liberation Movement could not even be formulated as a question. Further, without some basic knowledge, women did not know where to begin a search for material relevant to their interests or how to understand whatever they did find in the archival collection on the Women’s Liberation Movement held at the Bradford branch of the Feminist Archive. Problems experienced by women in using the Archive drove home how the recent past — my living memory — is not shared by increasing numbers of women. This wave of women’s political struggle is becoming as opaque and ill-understood as that of the nineteenth century.
Early on in the MA Women’s Studies (Applied) course on Feminisms and Sexual Divisions the question arises, what knowledge do each of us have of 19th century feminism in Britain? I give my own pre-Women’s Liberation Movement knowledge, “some crazy women chained themselves to the railings outside Parliament”. This brief, but total knowledge statement is echoed by those of other women. Only those with access to more recent education in Women’s Studies or some other disciplinary area with work on women and gendered social relations know more. In Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done To Them (1982), Dale Spender explores what it means to lose our heritage and how losing both herstory and history are major ways of securing the subordination of women. It is not an accident that we do not know our past. People without a past do not have a future. They remain subordinated, the onlookers in the history of the socially dominant and, at best, honorary members of the privileged caste, group, or class.
When we discovered violence against women in Britain, we thought we were the first women to do so. We believed no one previously knew about violence to women from men with whom they lived or had lived or were related to in some other way. It was with some surprise that we discovered a small part of the past. It helped to know that someone had written an influential article with a title we did not think we could get away with today, Wife Torture in England (Cobbe: 1878). It helped to read historical accounts of activism on violence against women as this began a process of connection with the past (for example, May: 1978; Tomes: 1978). It helped to engage in a struggle to save the Fawcett Library collection from being broken up and culled for “important” books which were to be placed — within the Dewey decimal system of library classification — at the London School of Economics. We experienced a moment of living heritage when at the Fawcett Society meeting in 1976 (an organisation that many of us from the Women’s Liberation Movement had rushed to join in order to be able to vote), we were confronted by women in their 80s and even 90s speaking of their and their mothers’ likely reaction to the possibility that the collection might be dismembered. “My mother would be appalled”, said one elderly trustee of some ninety books housed in the Fawcett collection, succinctly summing up the personal position of the most elderly and prestigious members of the Society. Those of us who had recently joined the society began to relax, recognising political allies from the so-called “moderate” suffragist movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To know the past is to connect with the present.
Saving our knowledge and finding ways of passing it on involves more than attacking revisionist history, important as that is. The aim is to create a map, a guide, for future generations of women so that women who did not share a particular moment in time may have access to it. In Britain the early years of the Women’s Liberation Movement, 1969—1979, saw a proliferation of ephemeral publications, so-called “grey material”. Those original ideas, turned out on the duplicator, often indistinct or blurred, and circulated to small numbers through women-only publications, were major source material and remain so for the future. Because political activists in this decade utilised multi-media, there are songs, photographs, posters and film as well as a multiplicity of forms of written work. Organisations and struggles around specific issues had special relationships with particular songs as well as specific visual representations, for example Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, was described at the time as the national anthem of the National Women’s Aid Federation. In some future time, say fifty to 100 years from now, these multi-media source data will be needed for women to be able to assess the development of ideas, actions and times in which we lived and live. They also will enable other women to discover, if it is not possible to maintain conscious continuity, a feminist past, just as we did.
The ten year period, 1969—1979, preceded and provides the basis for the subsequent widespread publication of feminist academic work in books and other publicly available sources. To achieve accessibility to the core ideas of the British Women’s Liberation Movement these ephemeral materials need collecting and ordering in relation to the Women’s Liberation Conferences held between 1970-1978, women’s organisations, demonstrations, campaigns, meetings, and local, regional and national group activities and publications. The first part of the project consists of listing the above activities by date, followed by collecting and cataloguing the relevant newsletters, journals, single publications, conference hand-outs, minutes and other notes on meetings, flyers, posters, and any other materials that relate to each of these. Oral history interviews then run alongside specific occasions or organisations or locally based activities. 
There is a sense of urgency about this project as complete sets sets of some publications are yet to be collected by at least one of the existing archives in the UK. Twenty five years is not that long ago, but it may be too far away to ensure everything is collectable. Further, while the collection of ephemera is being undertaken by women in many locations in Europe, in Britain these poorly funded or unfunded archives are constantly threatened with closure and, as a result, the loss of material. Unfortunately, disagreements amongst women who assume responsibility for collections may also lead to losses. At its best when all else fails, storage in damp garages, sometimes dry attics, provides a slender thread of continuity. This replicates in a material way the retention and loss of conscious knowledge of the past referred to earlier. Because retention and loss of knowledge is about power and whose ideas are to prevail, securing the feminist past in all its diversity is a future oriented radical feminist activity.
So what of the future? If we cannot be sanguine about retaining knowledge of the Women’s Liberation Movement and our radical feminist past then to secure the future, the present must include work to retain consciousness of the past. To keep alive knowledge of women’s struggles with each other and with men; their efforts to understand and organise against their oppression and exploitation, means passing it on from woman to woman from mother to daughter through the generations. There have been bigger waves of protest and activism than that which began at the end of the 1960s and there may be even larger, or perhaps smaller, ones to come. We cannot know this with certainty, but we can point to recurring patterns of high and low mobilisation of women to resist and transform their social situations in countries around the world. If we had full access to this knowledge, our heritage, think how empowered our social and collective identity would be.
Working to retain the past is also a radical feminist activity — in an activist and intellectual sense — in the here and now. Women’s Liberation Movement publications and activities were usually women-only in Britain. To respect the woman-only distribution policy of these publications makes it even more difficult to obtain funding and therefore, secure the future of these sources, but remaining loyal to the intentions and thereby the politics of its authors and editors, is a way to maintain an herstorical organisational tradition. Seeking to secure women-only anything is as subversive now as it was in the 1970s, as a consequence, something of the feelings and meanings attached to women-only activities and publications is conveyed to women today. This simple action, this experience, creates a present connected to the past.
Respecting the diversity of Liberation Movement material is another aspect of radical feminist activity today. This requires coming to terms with emotionally charged beliefs and actions and accepting that sisterhood was, and is, about disagreements as well as agreements. While at the time disagreements could be responded to in intensely personal ways, on another level, disagreements are not unfortunate occurrences linked to personal inadequacies, but central to the development of ideas and understanding. The Women’s Liberation Movement in Britain was diverse with multiple connections from the student movement, to sexual libertarianism, to the anti-imperialist struggles, to the political left via various forms of Anarchism and Marxism, to gay liberation. To seek to deny the relevance of any source or connection is to create revisionist history.
Because radical feminism is about social transformation in the interests of all women, multiple positions are to be respected. This is of course, easier for women who were not activists during the 1970s as all of us involved in those times have views on what was important and what remains crucial. To move forward each of us should vigorously argue our position, but to secure the future it is up to us to leave as complete an account as possible so that women who come later may make their own judgements, building on our work and achievements just as we have built on those of women who came before us. Taking ourselves seriously is to recognise and value a diverse heritage of our own making and to act to preserve it for future generations of women.
Thanks to Spinifex Press for giving us permission to reproduce this article, which was originally published in Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed, edited by Diane Bell and Renate Klein (1996).
 During the 1994—1995 academic year, Elizabeth Arledge-Ross, as part of the mapping project, began to interview women in Leeds and Bradford about their involvement in the Women’s Liberation Movement during the 1970s and, with the help of Karen Boyle, to greatly improve the organisation of the Archive and the cataloguing of its material.
In ‘You Are Killing Me’: On Hate Speech and Feminist Silencing, Jane Clare Jones examines what’s behind the claim that radical feminist critiques of gender are a form of transphobic hate speech.
As the General Election looms, Debbie Cameron wishes people would stop talking nonsense about women doing politics differently.
Last Wednesday on The World at One, the BBC’s Martha Kearney interviewed two politicians about their parties’ newly-launched manifestos. The first interview was a bit of a gladiatorial contest, with the participants competing to set the agenda. Though Kearney cut in frequently in an attempt to stem the flow, she was often defeated by the time-honoured tactics of the experienced politician—raising the pitch and volume of your voice and continuing to say what you came to say, whether or not it’s an answer to the question you were asked. There was a lot of simultaneous speech, and at times it got quite heated. But the interviewee stayed on-message, and ultimately in control.
The second interview was different. It began as a polite, almost stilted exchange, with none of the overlap that is normal in conversation. The interviewee allowed Kearney to direct the proceedings, waiting for her to finish each question before starting to speak, and sticking to the terms of the question. At times the answers were rather halting, but Kearney showed no impatience. A few minutes in, though, she asked a question which elicited some obvious waffle. At that point she did interrupt: her guest tried to keep going, and the exchange turned into something more like the first interview, with both speakers raising their voices and talking over each other. The interviewee became increasingly flustered, and struggled to respond to Kearney’s challenges. If you judged it as a contest, then Kearney won on points.
If I asked a random sample of people to tell me who they imagined these interviewees were, most would probably say that they imagined the first one as a man and the second as a woman. If I asked them to explain their reasoning, they might point out that men are generally more assertive and less intimidated by adversarial situations; they tend to take up more speaking time, and they frequently interrupt and talk over other people, especially when those people are women. Women, by contrast, are less assertive and more supportive, more respectful of others’ speaking rights and more attentive to their contributions. They don’t typically enjoy verbal duelling, and may not perform well in situations that demand it.
These differences between men and women have been a recurring theme in the 2015 election campaign. The campaign has been a multi-party affair: neither of the main parties is expected to win the election outright, so more attention than usual has been given to the smaller parties they may have to rely on for support. Three of those parties are led by women: the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett, the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood. Their profiles have been raised by their appearance in televised debates, and it is widely agreed that they have performed well. Many positive comments have focused on their style of debating. ‘Look’, people say approvingly, ‘these women are showing us that political debates don’t have to be competitive shouting matches. They’re listening to their opponents rather than constantly interrupting them. They’re not just hurling insults or trying to score points, they’re engaging constructively with the arguments. How civilized! What a refreshing change! Let’s have more women in politics!’
For some of us this is déjà vu all over again. In 1997, when the landslide Labour victory brought a record 119 women into Westminster, we were told that their civilizing influence was going to change the culture of politics and make the House of Commons ‘less of a bear-garden’. Gisela Stuart, the Labour MP for Edgbaston, declared that female politicians were a good thing because ‘democracy is about consensus rather than imposing will’. Over in Swindon South, her colleague Julia Drown opined that ‘women are more co-operative: they’re not so into scoring points and more interested in hearing different points of view’.
As a feminist I am broadly in favour of female politicians. But these observations about their more co-operative, more ‘civilized’ style of speaking make me want to bang my head against a wall. Why? First, because they’re factually wrong; second, because they’re patronising; and third, because the thinking behind them is sexist to the core.
Women in the debates: how did they really speak?
I have struggled to reconcile my own observations of the female party leaders with the comments made by other people on their behaviour. The suggestion that these women’s approach is less adversarial than the men’s—that they don’t compete for the floor or talk over other speakers or try to score points off their opponents—is so inaccurate, I can only understand it as a case of what scientists call ‘confirmation bias’, the tendency to pay attention to things that match our expectations while overlooking things that conflict with them. We expect women to be different from men, so we look for differences and pass over similarities. We think certain behaviours are typical of women, so examples of those behaviours—even if there are very few—get noticed and remembered in a way the counter-examples don’t.
Consider, for instance, one of the most memorable moments in the first TV debate that featured seven party leaders. The UKIP leader Nigel Farage made some racist, scaremongering remarks about immigrants with HIV, and Leanne Wood told him—to applause from the studio audience—that he should be ashamed of himself. This was a highly adversarial move. Wood jumped in to deliver, in tones of unmistakable disgust, a highly effective put-down. Her behaviour contrasted starkly with that of the three male politicians, Cameron, Clegg and Miliband, who were conspicuously silent. She deserved the applause for her guts and her presence of mind. But how can anyone who watched this intervention maintain that women ‘aren’t into point-scoring’? What did her comment to Farage have to do with being constructive or preferring consensus to conflict?
Nicola Sturgeon is seriously into point-scoring. The most experienced of the three women, and for many people the most impressive, she is also the one with the most consistently adversarial debating style. In the second, ‘challengers’ debate (involving five opposition party leaders, but not the leaders of the governing coalition parties), she provided one of the night’s main talking points when she confronted Ed Miliband about his unwillingness to work with the Scottish Nationalists. In this section of the debate it was Sturgeon who took the initiative, forcing Miliband onto the defensive. She did it by issuing a series of challenges, putting him on the spot with a direct command or request (‘tell me, Ed…’ ‘so are you saying…?’). Rather than listening politely to his responses, she rarely allowed him to finish his turn uninterrupted. She repeatedly talked over him, and refused to stop speaking when he did the same to her.
Sturgeon wins points not only because her arguments are good, but also because she doesn’t shy away from attacking her opponents, and she doesn’t give ground when they attack her. She is not only a skilful exponent of the adversarial style, she is also a highly competitive one: there’s no doubt she’s in it to win it. In fact, I would say she’s a more competitive debater than either Miliband or Farage (who comes across as combative because the substance of what he says is often inflammatory, but whose discourse style is actually not particularly adversarial).
Some commentators have pointed out that the women have been very supportive to one another—agreeing with each other’s points, not challenging each other, and engaging in a group hug at the end of the second debate. All that is true, but I think it has more to do with party politics than female solidarity. The women have nothing to gain by challenging one another, because their parties are not in competition for the same votes. The two nationalist parties are only contesting seats in Wales and Scotland respectively, and the Greens are not a serious rival in either territory. On the other hand, they do have something to gain by supporting one another, because the main platform on which all of them are fighting this election is opposition to austerity. So, it makes sense for them to amplify that message by maintaining a united front, and it would equally make sense if they didn’t all happen to be women. Would they show the same supportiveness to women who were not their political allies? I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t: if UKIP were led by a British Marine Le Pen, I don’t think she’d have been invited to join in the group hug.
But we don’t have to speculate here. I’ve already described an extremely adversarial encounter between one of the three female leaders and another woman. Contrary to what you may have assumed, the first of Martha Kearney’s two interviewees, the one who dominated their exchange and resisted Kearney’s attempts to take control, was not a male politician. It was, in fact, Nicola Sturgeon.
You’re all individuals
The second interviewee, the one who initially deferred to Kearney’s authority but then got flustered and defensive when she challenged his waffling answers, was a male politician: he was UKIP’s Patrick O’Flynn. And if your reaction to that is ‘Who?’, you’ve anticipated my next point. It’s always a mistake to treat individual men and women as generic representatives of their gender, and to assume that any difference between them must be a gender difference. In the case of O’Flynn and Sturgeon I think it’s pretty clear that gender is a red herring. The key difference here is experience: Sturgeon has done far more political interviews than O’Flynn, and is therefore a much more confident and skilful performer.
The point that individuals are not generic men and women isn’t just something to bear in mind when making cross-sex comparisons. One reason why it is problematic to talk about a female style of speaking is that female speakers aren’t all the same. Some differences among women are produced by the intersection of gender with other social divisions like ethnicity and class; others reflect variation at the level of individual personality or life experience. It’s true that ‘female politicians’ is a much smaller and less internally diverse category than ‘women’. Even so, it cannot be assumed that they have a single style of speaking. In fact, it’s obvious they don’t: even among the three female party leaders I’ve been discussing there are clear individual differences.
There is a particularly striking contrast between the most experienced of the three, Nicola Sturgeon, and the least experienced, Natalie Bennett. Bennett is more reticent, more formal and less spontaneous; she’s much less inclined to challenge others directly or to take the initiative in the way Sturgeon did with Miliband (or Wood did with Farage). Apart from the difference in experience, the two women have different personalities and are differently positioned in terms of political influence (it’s a big advantage to Sturgeon that everyone expects her party to be a serious force in Westminster after the election; Bennett has no such leverage). The cumulative effect of these differences is large: you would no more confuse their debating styles than you would confuse their hairstyles, or their accents.
But the problem isn’t just that commentators make sweeping generalizations about women. The specific ways in which women are said to differ from men (more supportive and less aggressive, more into consensus and less into point-scoring, etc.) could come straight from the pages of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. These are hoary old gender stereotypes, which in other contexts feminists would decry as crude and sexist. Yet in the context of the election campaign they are being dusted off and trotted out as if they constituted a feminist argument. ‘Look, women are different from men, that’s why we need more of them in politics’. There is an excellent feminist case for equal political representation. So why use an argument whose basic assumption is that women deserve a place because they’re from Venus rather than Mars?
The burdens of civilization
Telling women they’re different, and that in some ways their difference makes them superior to men, has always been one way of consoling them for their inequality and powerlessness. It has also served as a convenient excuse for perpetuating that inequality: women demanding entry to some male-dominated institution can be told that they’re unsuited to it, or too good for it. The latter was a popular argument with Victorian anti-suffragists, who were fond of asking why the angel of the house would want to dabble her pristine wings in the sewer of politics.
At a certain point, when the angel’s demands can no longer be denied entirely, the argument changes tack: women can be allowed in after all, but not simply because they, like men, are people. Rather, because women’s distinctive qualities and ways of doing things are needed to civilize the institution. Like wives putting up curtains in their husbands’ sheds, women in politics, or business, or the Church, will use their feminine touch to smooth off the male rough edges, and everyone—men as well as women—will benefit.
This is exactly what was said about the women MPs who went to Westminster in 1997. Evidently their civilizing mission was not successful: eighteen years later, here we are again. Which, when you think about it, is no surprise: you can’t be expected to change an institution’s culture if your position within the institution is one of structural powerlessness. And the women MPs (or ‘Blair’s Babes’, as the Labour ones were different-but-equally called) were in exactly that position.
It wasn’t just that they were heavily outnumbered, though they were. The linguist Sylvia Shaw, who did research in the House of Commons a few years after the 1997 election, found that the men did not treat their female colleagues as equals, they treated them as interlopers. The women were subjected to sexist barracking when they rose to speak, and sanctioned for breaking the arcane rules of Parliamentary debate while men were allowed to break the same rules with impunity. As a result the women got less speaking time and had less influence in debates. They didn’t struggle with the adversarial debating style of the House of Commons; what they struggled with was the sexism of the men in the House of Commons.
This is another reason why I get angry when people say that women don’t shine as public speakers because the adversarial style doesn’t suit them: they aren’t into point-scoring, they’re not interested in power, they’re natural consensus-seekers who shy away from conflict. This implies that women are unequal in public life because they’re different, when really it’s the other way round. If women aren’t allowed to participate on equal terms, any differences we see are more likely to be effects of sexism than of sex. We can’t know what difference their sex makes until we see how they behave in conditions of sex equality.
That’s what makes the election debates so interesting. They’ve offered a rare opportunity to watch politicians performing in conditions of near equality (in one debate there were four men and three women, in the other three women and two men; all participants had the same status as party leaders; they were all bound by the same rules and had an equal number of pre-allocated turns). And under those conditions what I think we saw was not a male-female stylistic divide. There were differences between individuals, but no clear division by sex.
You might be thinking: but surely there are good feminist arguments for a less adversarial style of political discourse? I’m not sure I agree. I do agree that some of the conventions and rituals of Westminster have little to contribute to modern democratic debate (the cheer-and-jeerfest that is Prime Minister’s Questions comes to mind). But I have never bought the argument that adversarial discourse itself is a ‘male’ thing, and serves only as a vehicle for macho posturing.
Since conflict is an integral part of politics, I think adversarial discourse will always have a place in it. It’s not the only game in town—deliberation and negotiation are also important—but I can’t imagine a political movement or a democratic assembly that wouldn’t require its members to engage in debate. Saying that women are too civilized to get involved in the adversarial stuff is like saying that angels shouldn’t dabble in sewers. It’s saying that women can’t do politics at all. And if that’s a feminist argument, I’m a banana.
Debbie Cameron reviews Finn Mackay’s book Radical Feminism, which tells the story of Reclaim the Night and reflects on its place in feminist politics.
Finn Mackay’s new book is several things at once. It’s a brief history of British feminisms from the beginning of the ‘second wave’ to the present day (with contextualizing excursions to the US and mainland Europe); it’s an explanation of what radical feminism was and is (and wasn’t and isn’t); it’s a detailed look at the origins and development of Reclaim The Night (RTN) as a form of feminist protest; and it explores the attitudes and motivations of activists involved in RTN today. Though the book is published by an academic press, it is evidently written (in plain English rather than theory-speak) to be accessible to a wider feminist audience. As well as the standard bibliography of references, it includes a list of resources for readers who want to get involved in campaigning, and a section on how to organize a RTN march.
The centre of the book is the author’s research on RTN, which draws not only on her own extensive experience as an organizer, but also on detailed interviews with 25 activists past and present, plus an online survey with 100 respondents. This material shows that RTN is not only a high-profile public protest against male violence and the way it constrains women’s lives: it is also a lightning rod for the larger political arguments going on within feminism at any given time. In the past RTN marches were the scene of arguments between radical feminists and leftist groups like Wages For Housework; they also prompted debate on racism in the women’s movement. Today they have become one arena in which ongoing conflicts about the sex industry, trans politics and the place of men in feminism are played out.
The first RTN march (though it was not yet actually called ‘Reclaim the Night’) took place in Brussels in 1976, following an international conference on crimes against women. It did not take long for similar events to be organized in Italy and Germany; and in November 1977 RTN came to Britain, with marches taking place in a dozen cities around the country. One of them was held in Leeds: the event had a special resonance there, because it was happening at a time when the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, an as yet-unidentified sadistic sexual killer, was targeting women in several northern English cities. (He was, in fact, Peter Sutcliffe, a lorry driver living in Bradford.) The feminists who organized the Leeds march were tapping into a widely-felt anger, as well as fear, among women who were constantly told to protect themselves from the Ripper by staying off the streets at night, or making sure they were accompanied by men.
The route of the march went through Chapeltown, a part of Leeds where Sutcliffe had already killed. But Chapeltown was also an area with a significant Black and minority ethnic population, and this led to a long-running controversy about RTN and racism. The organizers were criticised for apparently suggesting that Black men were more likely than white men to engage in violence against women, and for demanding more aggressive policing of a community already subject to racist police harassment.
The idea that RTN was racist has been repeated in print sources many times since, as has the more general idea that radical feminists are uncritical supporters of the police and other agencies of state power. However, Finn Mackay’s research suggests that in this case it is based on a misrepresentation. The Leeds RTN organizer Al Garthwaite told her there had been no demand for more policing, of Chapeltown or anywhere else. The point was for women to reclaim public space themselves, not to get male authorities to do it for them. As well as being significant in the specific context of the Yorkshire Ripper murders, Chapeltown was an area where many feminists themselves lived, and those factors had determined its inclusion on the route of the march. As Al Garthwaite also pointed out, local feminists at the time had no trust in the police, whose response to the Ripper killings had been consistently sexist and victim-blaming, as well as ineffectual in practical terms.
In fact, Finn Mackay found that none of the 1970s RTN organizers she interviewed had much of a relationship with their local police force. Sandra McNeill, who organized the first London RTN, went so far as to say that even getting police permission to march, let alone enlisting their support, would have been ‘anathema’. Like most radicals in the 1970s, feminists (of all tendencies) were apt to regard the police as reactionary, more likely to arrest them than to offer them useful assistance.
Today RTN organizers have a closer and more positive relationship with the police, though Finn Mackay found there were differing views on this among activists. Some had similar opinions to Sandra McNeill, while others felt that policing is a public service, and women are entitled to demand that their safety should be taken seriously. However, the issues which are most difficult and divisive in current RTN organizing have less to do with feminism’s relationship to agents of state power, and more to do with conflicting views about the politics of ‘inclusiveness’ and women-only space.
RTN (like feminist activism generally) has become more receptive than it was in the 1970s to the active participation of men: whereas the early marches were women’s events, most current ones are mixed (though some limit men to a supporting role or ask them to stay at the back.) Again, this is something activists do not all agree about. The march organizers Finn Mackay interviewed were pragmatic: to maximise the impact of RTN you need large numbers of people marching, so it makes sense to include male supporters (especially if excluding them will also make some women reluctant to participate). However, most of the interviewees were in favour of marches being woman-led, and some expressed reservations about men’s involvement, saying it confused the issue or defeated the object of the exercise (if the point is about women reclaiming public space, it does not make much sense for them to be accompanied—or as onlookers might see it, chaperoned—by men). Some interviewees distrusted men’s motives even where they were placed in supporting roles: one referred to them as ‘glory stewards’, drawing attention to their own status as ‘good guys’.
Explaining her own support for women-only actions, Finn Mackay makes the point that arguments based on the idea of ‘inclusiveness’ are never quite as simple as they look. As one of her interviewees pointed out,
if it’s mixed then you’re not including everyone. You’re always excluding someone, and you’re choosing to exclude women who are survivors and who don’t want to march next to men, and you are making a decision to exclude them. So it’s not like you can include everyone, you’re always making a choice to exclude someone (159).
Similarly, organizers cannot guarantee that an inclusive policy statement about who can march will generate an inclusive or positive experience for everyone who does march. There are, for instance, ongoing tensions around the participation of pro-sex industry organizations like the English Collective of Prostitutes (an offshoot of Wages for Housework), and there are always questions about how welcoming RTN is to trans women. Both groups have considerable experience of street harassment and male violence, and as a matter of policy they are not excluded from marching at RTN events. But that does not prevent arguments ‘on the ground’ with other marchers who oppose the policy of including them. Trans and the sex industry are significant faultlines within contemporary feminism, and these have always shown up on RTN marches just as they have in other, less public feminist forums.
As someone who participated in a few RTN actions in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was interested in the comments some activists made to Finn Mackay about the ‘institutionalization’ of the marches—the well-organized rallies, the introduction of sponsorship, the greater involvement of the police, and conversely the loss of certain ‘unruly’ features of the old protests, which sometimes deviated from the planned route and often involved a certain amount of direct action (like graffiti-writing or gluing the locks of sex-shops). Part of the reason for this is size: in the old days a lot of marches were relatively small, sometimes organized at short notice as a protest against something that had happened locally, and there was no need to close the streets to accommodate them. Also, as some veteran activists pointed out, since the early 1980s there has been a tightening of the legal restrictions on public protest (you do need permission now, and you can’t just go where you like), along with a huge growth in the use of CCTV (which means that if you do take direct action there is a high risk you will be caught). Even the traditional flaming torches carried by marchers in the 1970s are no longer permitted because of the cost of cleaning spilled wax off the pavement.
RTN was always an example of the ‘politics of spectacle’, i.e. the point was public visibility, but what’s most spectacular about it has changed: especially in London and other large cities, what’s impressive is the sheer number of people marching (also their colourful appearance and the noise they make). At the much smaller events I remember from the past, the spectacle had more to do with a group of women appearing and behaving in a noisy, confrontational way in areas where their presence was not expected or welcomed, or—in normal circumstances—considered ‘safe’. Maybe this is ironic, since the point of RTN was (and still is) to affirm women’s right to be safe in public space, but for me what was most positive about the (old) experience of marching was the feeling of actually confronting danger (and the men who embodied it) without the usual fears and inhibitions. I don’t think you get that from marching through closed-off city-centre streets under the watchful eyes of stewards and the police. I don’t think you get it in the same way in a mixed march, either.
But Finn Mackay has a good answer to those of us who may occasionally feel that RTN has lost its edge and become just another annual fixture on the feminist calendar. As she points out, it serves as a gateway through which many women find their way into feminist activism. As one of her interviewees put it, ‘RTN is a pretty easy banner to unite under. …When a RTN is organised in your city, it acts as a platform for collaborating, networking, awareness raising, relationship building’. Another woman who had become very active in local anti-VAW organizations since first taking part in a march, said:
I reckon that I wouldn’t be the person I am if it wasn’t for RTN, and I wouldn’t be doing the things I am. Because you get the solidarity, but you get aware of all the organisations as well, like Rape Crisis, and it’s great, motivating and inspiring (p.261).
Motivating and inspiring is an important task for any radical political movement, and it’s something Finn Mackay is good at. She is well-known among feminists for her energy and positivity as a campaigner, her practical approach to political organizing and her ability to speak in a straightforward, engaging way to both feminist and general audiences. All those qualities are also visible in her book. She is clear about her own views on issues like the sex industry and women-only space, but other views expressed by the women she interviewed are presented fairly and not unsympathetically. In general she is more inclined to emphasize the positive (what feminists of different persuasions share, and can therefore build on in campaigning) than the negative and divisive. You might say it’s an activist’s preference rather than a theorist’s—we’re never going to agree with everyone about everything, but what matters in the real world is building bridges where we can, so that something can actually be achieved.
Another kind of bridge-building Finn Mackay is clearly committed to is between the present and the past, or to put it another way, between different generations of feminists. For those who weren’t around in the 1970s, the early chapters contain a lot of informative stuff about British second wave feminism, and particularly the radical variety, which (as we have remarked in T&S many times) is appallingly badly served by most existing histories. This book doesn’t totally fill the gap: it’s more a sketch than a detailed portrait, because it’s trying to do other things as well. But it does cover some important basics.
It also makes an explicit break with the assumption that what should be emphasized in any historical narrative about feminism is change rather than continuity, and that ‘change’ essentially means ‘progress’. Often this leads to the feminism of the recent past being represented merely as a catalogue of errors and failures, making it impossible for those who weren’t involved to relate to their predecessors in a positive way. By contrast, Finn Mackay thinks today’s activists can learn something important from the women who came before. She recommends that readers should seek out both the classic writings of the second wave and the archives in which past feminist ideas and actions are recorded (the T&S archive, available on this site, is one of those she lists).
She also makes an argument about continuity which I was not expecting. Even if the new generation of feminists uses a different language, a lot of what they believe (as demonstrated in her interviews, where she asked women what they wanted to see feminism actually accomplish) is in practice quite close to the ‘seven demands’ of the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement* . One of her interviewees even said this:
I’m kind of fascinated by whether we do actually need a card-carrying feminist, you know, back to the Seven Demands. So, this is what it means to be a feminist, and if you don’t agree with these, you’re not a fucking feminist (p.286).
Now, there’s a radical thought.
* The seven demands were: (1) equal pay; (2) equal opportunities in education and employment; (3) free contraception and abortion on demand; (4) free 24-hour nurseries; (5) legal and financial independence; (6) the right of women to define their own sexuality and an end to discrimination against lesbians; (7) freedom from intimidation by the threat or the use of violence and sexual coercion.
Finn Mackay, Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement is published by Palgrave in February 2015–details here.
Ever since it began publishing in 1983, T&S has included an occasional ‘classic review’ feature in which a contemporary feminist re-reads an important text from the past. The latest addition to the series features Liz Kelly’s groundbreaking 1988 book Surviving Sexual Violence. Revisiting it in 2015, Alison Boydell finds it as relevant as ever.
I first read Surviving Sexual Violence (SSV) in the 1990s for a postgraduate Women’s Studies dissertation about abusive men who murder their current/ex-partners. Today my understanding is informed by both reading and experience of working with survivors: I am involved in providing front line services to survivors of sexual violence, and will be shortly working in the domestic violence sector. I’m also studying for a Postgraduate Certificate in Advocacy for Victims of Sexual Violence: SSV is on my reading list. Since it’s now more than a quarter of a century since it was first published, this is surely a testament to Liz Kelly’s work.
In the 1970s, feminists had analysed rape as an act of male power, raised awareness about its prevalence and deconstructed the myths that surrounded it. However, it was only later that literature about other forms of male sexual violence began to emerge. SSV focused on a wide range of manifestations: it was one of two ground-breaking books published in 1988 which forced childhood sexual abuse onto the public agenda (the other was an American self-help book, Ellen Bass and Laura Davis’s The Courage to Heal).
The word ‘surviving’ in Kelly’s title was significant. As she observed, ‘the term victim…makes invisible the other side of women’s victimization: the active and positive ways in which women resist, cope and survive’ (p.163). This resistance figures among the book’s main themes, which are summarized at the beginning (p.1):
• most women have experienced sexual violence in their lives;
• there is a range of male behaviour that women experience as abusive;
• sexual violence occurs in the context of men’s power and women’s resistance.
Acknowledging sexual violence: something ‘most women have experienced’
Liz Kelly writes in her preface to SSV that
most men and many women do not want to acknowledge the extent of sexual violence in, and its impact on women’s lives. It is still illegitimate for us to refer to it as being of “epidemic” proportions, threatening women’s “basic human rights” (p ix).
The research reported in the book is instructive about the true extent of the problem. As well as asking her 60 research participants about their own experiences of sexual violence, Liz Kelly asked them about their female friends’ experiences. A total number of 435 women known to the participants had experienced rape, incest or domestic violence; only 6 [10%] did not know any women who had experienced these forms of sexual violence (p. 95). There was a considerable range of experience of sexual violence within the group, which was also diverse in ‘age, class of origin, marital status, work experience and sexual identity’ (p. 11).
Yet the statement that most people do not want to acknowledge this is as true today as it was 25 years ago. We still frequently hear and read that acts of male violence (including fatal ones) are ‘isolated incidents’; recently, Julie Bindel wrote about the perils of single case campaigns and petitions which obscure structural and endemic male violence.
Researching sexual violence: feminist research practice
The research SSV is based on was innovative, reflecting Kelly’s view that ‘we should shift our attention from discussions of “feminist methods” to what I now call “feminist research practice”’ (p. 7). She argued that the originality of feminist research did not lie in the methods it used so much as ‘the questions we have asked, [and] the way we locate ourselves within those questions’.
Sixty women drawn from a wide range of women’s groups took part in Kelly’s research. Her design rejected previous methodologies predicated on ‘analytic definitions into which women’s experiences are slotted’: rather, ‘an important principle of this project’s methodology that women define their own experience’ (p. 140). The questions were carefully worded to avoid presuming a shared understanding of sexual violence, and to respect women’s own understandings. In the book women are quoted directly rather than paraphrased. This allows the reader to communicate directly with them and has a powerful impact. As someone who works directly with survivors, I feel it is important not to put women’s experiences into a third person narrative which is itself disempowering.
Creating an alternative to the dominant patriarchal discourse is critical to feminist analysis. To reflect the range of women’s experiences, Kelly created new terms to describe women’s own perceptions and definitions. She deliberately created a ‘continuum of non-consensual sex’ (p. 109): the term ‘pressurized sex’ was used for what previous studies called ‘altruistic’ or ‘compliant’ sex, and ‘coercive sex’ was introduced to cover experiences women described as being ‘like rape’. This ‘continuum within a continuum’ may seem contentious in a climate where there are apologists wishing to minimize rape by renaming it ‘non-consensual sex’. However, the dominant narrative of rape as an act perpetrated by a stranger wielding a weapon, leaping out of the dark in a public place, exerted and continues to exert enormous influence on the public’s understanding of sexual violence. Given that reality, Kelly’s approach was the most effective way of capturing the range of women’s actual experiences, most of which do not match the dominant narrative. Some sexual experiences were defined by some women as neither rape nor consensual. It is worth noting here that language is also very important in the Rape Crisis counselling context: counsellors are guided by the clients’/survivors’ choice of language and would never use terms such as ‘rape’ or ‘abuse’ without the client/survivor being able to deal with that language.
Women’s definitions of sexual violence altered a number of times following an assault. At different stages of the research, they went through a process of ‘redefinition’, remembering more incidents of sexual violence between the first and second interviews. This is an indication of how carefully constructed research can be a consciousness raising process.
Defining sexual violence: ‘a range of male behaviour’
Sexual violence does not happen in a vacuum; it is both cause and effect of sexual inequality and manifests structurally and institutionally. As Kelly states, ‘feminist analysis sees all forms of sexual violence as involving the exercise of power, functioning as a form of social control by denying women freedom and autonomy’ (p. 41). The definition of sexual violence she uses in SSV
. . . includes any physical, visual, verbal or sexual act that is experienced by the woman or girl, at the time or later, as a threat, invasion or assault, that has the effect of hurting her or degrading her and/or takes away her ability to control intimate contact (p 41).
This was the first time that a comprehensive woman-centred definition of sexual violence focused on its impact rather than the behaviours and acts involved. What is also especially prescient here is the qualifier ‘or later’. Today we are witnessing unprecedented reporting of ‘historic’ abuse.
Kelly says her definition is ‘rather lengthy’; yet it is comprehensive and enduring. A quarter of a century on it continues to be used in academia as well as in the training of front line service providers supporting women survivors. I continue to engage with it in both arenas, having completed the Rape Crisis National Training Programme a year ago and now embarking on the new academic journey I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. A number of us on my course have discussed the continuum in our presentations. Three separate training programmes I have in been involved with in the past year, two in sexual violence and one in domestic abuse, have quoted Kelly’s definition.
The continuum she identifies encapsulates the myriad different forms of sexual violence as follows: threat of violence; sexual harassment (includes street harassment, workplace harassment and harassment in other public spaces); pressure to have sex; sexual assault (ranging from any unwanted physical contact to attempted rape); obscene phone calls; coercive sex; domestic violence; sexual abuse; flashing; rape and incest. Threat of violence and harassment were the most common forms of sexual violence; a glance at the Everyday Sexism project’s website shows that this is still the case today.
The placement of each behaviour on the continuum does not indicate its seriousness, but its incidence, i.e. the most prevalent forms that women are most likely to experience on multiple occasions. Kelly stresses that ‘with the exception of sexual violence which results in death, the degree of impact cannot be simply inferred from the form of sexual violence women experience or its place within the continuum. What is fundamental is that these behaviours are not discrete; they blend into one another. Men use a variety of coercive and abusive methods to control women.
Kelly’s careful avoidance of a hierarchy of abusive behaviours has been criticised. Writing in 1990, Lynne Segal suggested that SSV renders all men guilty, and fails to acknowledge that there are ‘different types of violent men’ or to discuss how violent men differ from their non-violent counterparts. Another kind of criticism was made in Sheila Jeffreys’s book The Idea of Prostitution, which noted that while Kelly ‘includes a particularly wide range of abusive male practices within her continuum of sexual violence, [she] does not mention the violence of prostitution’ (p. 247). Reviewing Jeffreys’s book, Liz Kelly responded: ‘Sheila makes the point powerfully that prostitution should be included in the continuum of violence against women, and rightly takes me to task for not doing so’. I would argue that although it is not explicitly included within the continuum, it is implicit in Kelly’s definition of ‘sexual violence’. Jeffreys herself states that ‘there is nothing… about Kelly’s definition that that would exclude the abuse of prostitutes, and much that would seem to relate to it’.
Criticisms have been made regarding so called ‘honour based violence’. Kelly addresses this herself in the preface of The Handbook of Sexual Violence (2012) which revisits the continuum in a series of multi-disciplinary essays written by researchers and practitioners. One of the concerns that many feminist activists have tried to address is that certain forms of sexual violence should not be ‘othered’: this is something that Southall Black Sisters, for example, have campaigned about for years.
Resisting sexual violence: ‘men’s power and women’s resistance’
Feminists who work to expose the widespread nature of male sexual violence against women are often criticised for making all women into victims. Kelly argues that this is a lack of understanding of the avoidance strategies that women employ. She questions the theory of ‘learned helplessness’ that was popular at the time, since her research indicated that women’s resistance increased before leaving. (p. 181)
Drawing on Black feminist critique, Kelly stresses that coping with sexual violence is an active process (p. 185) and that women had varied forms of resistance and survival strategies (pp. 183-184). Minimising was found to be a common coping strategy: women expressed it in forms like ‘it could have been worse’ and ‘it wasn’t that bad’. This can control the impact by mitigating the pressure to take action and/or respond in a certain way. Furthermore, women were reluctant to be ascribed ‘victim status’ given the pervasiveness of the image of a pathetic and downtrodden woman. They indicated that they had not accessed specialist women’s services as they felt that others were in greater need. In my experience of working on a specialist helpline for women, this is not an atypical response.
Kelly sees links between women’s experiences, feminism, collective action and resistance. She ends with the powerful message ‘No matter how effective our services and support networks, no matter how much change in policy and practice is achieved, without a mass movement of women committed to resisting sexual violence in all its forms there will continue to be casualties in the “shadow war” and women’s and girl’s lives will continue to be circumscribed by the reality of sexual violence’ (p. 238). This, I totally agree with: we must go beyond being service providers.
New times and new challenges
Some things have changed the book’s publication. Our language has evolved: for example, terms such as ‘battered women’ are no longer used as this is a barrier to abused women recognising the coercive control that can occur in the absence of physical abuse.
Sadly, societal attitudes have changed little. Myths, stereotypes and dominant media narratives are still barriers to survivors identifying and naming their experiences of sexual violence. One of Kelly’s conclusions was to call for further research to inform social policy. Today we also need to use this research to bring about cultural change.
Kelly noted ‘how many women had experienced more than one form of sexual violence, yet these forms were separated from one another in service provision’ (p. 2). That continues to be the case. At the same time, specialist women’s services have had their funding slashed and some have disappeared altogether due to the Coalition’s austerity measures. Many organizations have also been forced into providing a unisex service. This weakens the feminist model of empowerment used by women’s services to support survivors. It is also unnecessary, since sexual violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men (and boys) against women and girls, as reflected in Kelly’s definition.
It is critical that we keep up the momentum. As Kelly writes about Savile and Assange in 50 Shades of Feminism, published a quarter of a century after SSV:
Yet again sexual violence sits at the heart of a crisis that rocks institutions. I am left wondering whether we have made more change that we recognize. Have there ever been more feminist and survivor voices – in the mainstream media and social media – refusing to be belittled or silenced? (p. 137)
We witnessed this very recently with the Ched Evans case, where a veritable chorus of feminist and survivor voices rang out in mainstream and social media.
A few months ago I gave a presentation for my course, where I argued that Kelly’s continuum should inform our practice as Independent Sexual Violence Advisers (ISVAs); we should never assume the impact of any form of sexual violence or treat them separately. This is the very antithesis of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, sentencing guidelines (2014) and the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme (2012).
If Surviving Sexual Violence were to be updated, it would need to include the forms of abuse made possible by new media, mobile phones and the Internet. We also, as Kelly says, need to explore how incidences of sexual violence correlate with individual and collective attempts at resistance via feminist activism. We are currently experiencing a misogynistic backlash against the gains feminists have made in the last few decades. We must continue to challenge sexual violence both individually and collectively. For me, revisiting Surviving Sexual Violence has been a consciousness raising exercise in itself.
Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach (eds) Fifty Shades of Feminism (Virago 2013)
Jennifer M Brown and Sandra L Walklate (eds) Handbook of Sexual Violence (Routledge 2012)
Sheila Jeffreys The Idea of Prostitution (Spinifex 1997)
Lynne Segal Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities Changing Men (Virago 1990)
Liz Kelly’s Surviving Sexual Violence was published by Polity Press in 1988, and is still available in paperback and Kindle editions.
Alison Boydell works with survivors of sexual violence and is one of the organizers of JURIES, a campaign for jurors to receive mandatory briefings on the myths and realities of sexual violence. Find the campaign here, and follow it on Twitter @UnderstandingSV.
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, Delilah Campbell has more questions than answers.
Imagine that three women, wearing face-masks and armed with automatic weapons, went into the office of a leading pornographic magazine and shot several pornographers dead. Imagine that as they left they were heard to shout ‘men are scum’ and ‘we have avenged the women’. Imagine, in other words, a version of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris where the perpetrators were feminists, and the offence to which they were responding was not the circulation of cartoons depicting the Prophet, but the circulation of images depicting the violent sexual degradation of women.
I do not believe I know a single feminist who would defend such an action. Even committed feminist anti-porn campaigners would deny that violence and killing are legitimate responses to the harm they believe pornography does. ‘Not in my name’, they would say. ‘Feminism is a non-violent political movement, and we condemn these brutal killings’.
But in other ways the feminist response would be different from the response to the Charlie Hebdo shootings. I don’t think we’d be carrying placards saying ‘I am Hustler’, or tweeting messages of support adorned with that hashtag. I don’t think we’d be exalting the freedom of men to make and use pornography as one of the defining features of a civilized society. I don’t think we’d be sharing pornographic images as a tribute to the victims.
I also don’t think we’d be saying, as some people have said about the cartoons that provoked the attack in Paris, ‘they’re only pictures, FFS’. I don’t think we’d be saying that even if the attack had targeted men whose products were not photographs of actual women, but—for instance—the pornographic drawings of girls which are a subgenre of Japanese manga (and are explicit enough to be illegal under the UK’s child pornography laws). Most feminists who oppose pornography do not think its harm is limited to the women actually depicted in it. We think it harms all women, because it influences the way they are looked at, thought about and treated by those who use it.
I am using this imaginary scenario to explain why I have found it difficult to frame a response to the events in Paris. My view on the killings themselves is unambiguous: there is no possible justification for what the killers did. I am also absolutely clear about my opposition to Islamism and other forms of modern religious fundamentalism. These are right-wing political movements and the submission of women to patriarchal authority is a central tenet of all of them. On these points I’m not conflicted, nor at odds with the prevailing view. But my difficulty begins when the conversation turns to the more general issue of freedom of expression.
Before this week I’d never looked at what Charlie Hebdo published, but when I saw the cartoons that were reproduced in the wake of the killings, I found them even more offensive than I’d imagined they would be. I know they belong to a French tradition of overtly and deliberately crude caricature, but even so I was struck, looking at recent covers depicting Muslims, by how much they reminded me of some of the iconography of the Nazis. Take away the turbans, and these malevolent hook-nosed figures could have come from the pages of an anti-semitic pamphlet in 1930s Germany.
Many commentators have made the point that Charlie Hebdo was even-handed in its offence-giving: there was, in fact, one cover in the montage I saw featuring a Jewish subject, and there were also some grotesque depictions of non-Semites, from the Pope to the leaders of the fascist National Front. But the problem with this argument—‘it’s OK because they treated everyone with equal contempt’—should be obvious: the context in which these images circulate is one in which everyone is not, in fact, equal. In France, where Muslims are the main targets of racism and religious bigotry, racist representations of Muslims are not ‘the same thing’ as stereotypical representations of white politicians or Catholic priests. They reinforce a view of the group that contributes to the real social injustice suffered by members of that group. You might as well say that pornography is even-handed because it depicts men as well as women in gross and objectionable ways, or because some of the men who work in the industry have suffered abuse or been coerced. The point remains that in the world at large, pornography does not affect men in the same way it affects women.
Although I think pornography is harmful, I have never supported campaigns for outright censorship, because I think the dangers are on balance greater than any benefits more restriction would bring (I say ‘more’ because it is nonsense to suggest that there is no censorship in western democracies at all). There are particular reasons for feminists to be wary of restrictions on ‘offensive’ speech. This is a time when any statement deemed offensive by a vocal minority can cause the feminist who made it to be ‘no platformed’, or deluged with rape and death threats: we know these are effective ways of silencing dissent.
But none of this means I feel impelled to join in with the chorus of ‘we must defend freedom of expression at all costs!’ Of course I don’t want to live in an authoritarian state where I could be arrested and imprisoned for saying anything the government disapproved of. But still, the rhetorical celebration of free speech in capitalist democracies can feel a bit naive and self-satisfied. Catharine MacKinnon once remarked that what free speech often comes down to in practice is the freedom of the wealthy and powerful, who have privileged access to public platforms, to drown out all other voices. Rupert Murdoch, proprietor of the Times, the Sun, Fox News, etc., has the freedom to broadcast his views to millions of people every day; in theory I have exactly the same freedom to broadcast mine, but since I don’t have my own global media empire, that does not make me an equal player in what liberals refer to as the ‘marketplace of ideas’.
For feminism that marketplace is a particularly unequal one. The idea that women are commodities for men’s use is one of the oldest and most entrenched ideas there is; it is also one of the most profitable. It will inevitably dominate the most powerful forums in which the right to free speech (or in many cases, ‘paid for speech’) is exercised.
Charlie Hebdo is not a global media empire, but in the pictures that were published of the contributors who died, it looked a lot like the (white, male) French establishment it lampooned. It may be irreverent, but it’s closer to the centre than the margins of French society, and that has given it a license to provoke the powerful which might not be extended to more radically dissenting voices. If disgruntled Muslims had made what liberals consider the ‘proper’ response to offensive speech—set up their own magazine with liberal secularism as their target—they would probably not have had to wait very long for a visit from the security services, who would have taxed them with aiding and abetting terrorism, and banned their publication as an incitement.
Of course that doesn’t mean that my imaginary Islamist cartoonists, or feminist anti-porn crusaders, are entitled to take up arms and kill people. But it might help to explain where the rage comes from. Nothing is more conducive to rage than being constantly told that you live in an equal, tolerant society, a society in which you suffer no structural oppression, no systematic social disadvantage, no unreasonable constraints on your freedom or irrational prejudice from others, when your entire life experience screams otherwise. And when you know that however reasonably you present your grievances, you will not be listened to by anyone who counts.
Being told we’re not oppressed as women, and being ignored or pilloried when we try to draw attention to injustice, is a common experience for feminists too. It is fortunate for the world that we do generally reject violence as a political strategy, and that we do not belong to the sex which is socialized to see it as a solution to both political and personal problems.
So, although I condemn the actions (and the motives) of the men who killed the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, I refuse to glorify the symbolic violence that may be committed in the name of free expression, or under the illusion that it actually exists.
It’s been a full-on year here at T&S: we’ve covered obesity, domestic violence, feminism in universities, female serial killers, science, language and more. But there’s one debate we’ve hesitated to tackle: are dogs the new feminist cats?
Media commentary on this issue has been dominated by the liberal argument that companion-animal preferences are a matter of individual choice. For radical feminists, though, the personal is always political. So, as we head towards a new year, we have invited two radical feminists with sharply differing views to explain where they stand on one of the most important–and most divisive–questions facing our movement today. Planet Cath explains why she believes a dog is woman’s best friend, while Finn Mackay makes the case for staying true to our foremothers’ feline traditions. Their feminism will be about pets, or it will be bullshit.
Planet Cath: ‘Dogs are the number one companion for feminists’
Traditionally, feminists have been drawn to our feline friends. We believe that cats have all the qualities a feminist needs. They present as independent, aloof yet affectionate when needed. They aren’t needy, or demanding of your time, or wanting more than you can give. I say we’re kidding ourselves. Cats are not a feminist pet. They have no sense of community or sisterhood. They will destroy anything and everything to sharpen their claws, not caring that it’s a much loved piece of furniture. Cats don’t care. They don’t care about other cats, and they don’t care about you.
Feminists need to face the truth. We kid ourselves that our cats love us, wait for us, are happy when we return home from work. Not so. Cats are only interested in food and heat stealing.
In fact, the best pet for a feminist is a dog.
I stand before you a long time cat owner, but recent dog convert.
I have to nail my animal colours to the mast now; it’s all about the dog.
Not that I don’t love my cats. They are each, in their own special way, amusing and entertaining. They have their own personalities and characteristics, and a couple of them aren’t averse to a cuddle. But my Basil? Basil literally jumps into your arms. Just coming back into a room you left ten minutes ago is a joy to him. “Where have you BEEN?” he cries. “I thought you had gone FOREVER!!!”
He runs around in circles, leaping with joy, and then brings you a present. I admit, the presents are not necessarily the best ones I’ve ever had. A well-chewed ball or soft toy, often covered in spit or dirt. However, I will take that over my cats’ last offering, which was a dead rat, insides ripped out and deliberately positioned on the kitchen floor en route to the kettle for the optimum, barefoot-6am-half-asleep effect.
Cats are affectionate, don’t get me wrong. But they are not willing companions. They are independent, often aloof and walk their own path. They are stubborn, difficult to engage and refuse to do anything that might make your life easier.
Whereas dogs love nothing more than pleasing you. They will watch TV with you (literally sit and watch TV), accompany you on walks, listen to your problems with an interested expression, and treat every word you utter as a meaningful statement to be considered and obeyed.
But you know, it’s more than that. For the single lesbian, dog-walking opens up a whole new potential dating world. You can’t walk your cat, but take your dog out to the park, armed with a variety of toys, and watch women flock to you. In just a few weeks, we’ve made friends with Lisa and Rosie, Emma and Alfred, Karen and Jack. We are all on the local park at 7am, staggering around half asleep, clutching flasks of tea and watching our dogs run and play like proud mothers.
There’s no doubt in my mind that dogs are the number one companion for feminists. If you don’t believe me, take a good look at your cat right now. Chances are, they are washing themselves, seemingly ignoring you but actually waiting for you to leave the room so they can help themselves (aka steal) to the milk jug you’ve left out. Basil, on the other hand, is gazing at me with adoring eyes and waiting for the signal that he can come and snuggle up and lick my ear.
Women. You know I’m right.
Finn Mackay: ‘Cats are enlightened spiritual beings’
Let’s face it, we all know the real problem with dogs. Do you have a property without a garden? Don’t live near a park? Do you work a normal job rather than running your own self-employed equalities training and consultancy business from home? Are you required to be out of the house or away for any length of time ever? Do you live in a flat and have a fancy for Huskies and Alsatians? If so, then all well and good; fascinating. A person of your standing will be well aware, then, that the main problem with dogs is their support for the capitalist patriarchal military and state industrial complex.
That’s right. If only Battersea could address this, their kennels would empty in a flash. If you for any second doubt this fundamental flaw, just ask yourself – have you ever seen a police cat? A bomb disposal cat? A drugs sniffer cat? No. Unlike their equine and canine fellows, cats have never sold out. Amongst the liberals, the sell-outs and the ‘just following orders’ types, they stand tall, sometimes even nine to ten inches high from paw to ear.
A cat is the perfect Feminist companion, and will fit right in to any commune, caucus or conference. We are uniquely placed to live with cats and, in turn, they mirror our own behaviours and proclivities, meaning that we can be comfortable around their all-too-familiar habits. Just like Feminists, cats are triggered by almost everything. Bin bags, for example. Hoovers. Car journeys. Vets. Which of us can honestly say she has not felt the same at some point over our life course? Luckily we are familiar with the proactive use of quiet rooms, mindfulness and healing circles, and we share this with cats, who are impressively skilled at being quiet and mindful; we could all learn a thing or two from them. My cat is in fact running a workshop on this over International Women’s Day next year; watch this space for entry requirements and inclusivity statement.
If you are still doubtful as to the merits of cats, it is worth pointing out that it is precisely at this time of year that cats really come into their own. Like us, cats display their distaste for the seasonal consumerist atrocity that is Christmas. If ever you should slip, and be seduced by the globalised nothings on offer in the stores, which can happen when suffering from postmodern anomie, a cat will tear down your Christmas tree for you and shred your presents, thus helpfully reminding you of your principles.
Like Feminists, cats are enlightened spiritual beings. They walk their own path, the path of the heart. This means they don’t need to be taken out for walks on a lead, like the less advanced canine. While they are walking their own walk and delicately tipper-tappering their own path, they will not roll in fox poo or rabbit entrails. This is a major plus.
Cats are certainly clean of habit, and clean of coat. They do not smell of dog. This is very important. Glade plug-ins were invented by dog owners. Cats on the other hand, like the Buddha, are odourless. This means they are ideally placed to fit in with your home rituals, such as Shamanic smudge stick cleansings, and they may even be qualified to lead minor domestic shadow work for example–unless they find shadows triggering or over-stimulating, which some do.
Unlike dogs, but like vaginas, cats are self-cleansing. Very occasionally however, cats may shed some fur. This can be gathered up and used for jumpers, merkins or art installations. In addition, while dogs must always toilet outside, despite most Western homes having the imperialist legacy of indoor plumbing, if need be cats can take care of their own bodily waste via the provision of a small recycled plastic box and some environmentally friendly and tree conscious woodchip. Like a gift, cats offer up to us the experience of managing this waste as a symbolic reminder of own bodily liminality, and challenge us to face Kristeva’s feminist theory of the abject.
Like Feminists, cats are independent, unlike simpering dogs. This means we can respect cats, and that is so important in a companion animal. As we must always eschew all those creatures who continue centuries of oppression by demanding a maternal reaction, it is vital that we turn to a pet we can look up to rather than look after. This is why cats have infamously been the totem of choice for self-respecting lesbian feminists the world over. Sisters, some traditions are worth maintaining, feeding, worming and flea treating. Get a cat, you’re worth it.
You can follow @PlanetCath and @Finn_Mackay on Twitter. Their non-human companions have so far elected not to maintain a social media presence.