Yearly Archives: 2013

T&S archive: launch event

T&S first appeared in print in 1983, and by the end of 2013 we plan to have all print issues of the magazine available on this site. To launch our online archive, we’re holding an event in London on December 2.

What did and does radical feminism have to say? Celebrating 30 years of Trouble and Strife

Monday 2 Dec 6 – 8.30pm Room GC1-08: The Graduate Centre, London Metropolitan University, 166-20 Holloway Road, London N7 8DB. (Nearest tube: Holloway Road.)

There will be a panel of speakers (including Purna Sen, Liz Kelly, Cath Jackson, Debbie Cameron), discussion and refreshments. All welcome: register and get tickets here

Feminism with fizz

When the sex industry came up with a new way to get around Iceland’s ban on strip clubs, feminists fought back with their own original contribution to Reykjavik’s nightlife. Guðrún Jónsdóttir explains.  

Buying women’s sexual services has been criminalized in Iceland, and we have also banned strip clubs, which were actually brothels and in some cases involved in trafficking. But of course we knew that they would find other ways to sell women.  We have suddenly got three so-called ‘Champagne Clubs’ in the heart of Reykjavik: one of them is located in the same house where the largest strip club used to be. The women are not naked, but wear ‘sexy underwear’; men can buy a bottle of champagne for 20.000 krona and then get ten minutes of privacy to ‘talk to’ the women who work there.

A journalist visited the clubs and one of the staff members of the feminist organization Stigamot was asked what she thought of the new trend.  She compared it to the strip clubs, and mentioned prostitution and trafficking. The club-owners immediately sued her, and also a member of the City Council who made similar comments. We are supposed to pay two clubs two million krona and withdraw the statement—though because the journalist didn’t quote it correctly, I think we are off the hook.

I wrote a statement about the clubs and it sent to the media, pointing out that in fact we are back to the same situation as before: the clubs have just changed their name from strip clubs to champagne clubs.  In reality it is prostitution and they are selling access to foreign women—many come from Slovenia and don’t speak either English or Icelandic. But as has often happened in the past, the statement didn’t change anything: it was met with total silence. We could have given up at that point; or we could have gone on repeating what we had already said; or we could have organized a demonstration, without any success. Instead, I decided to use a different strategy: ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’.

I sent out invitations to the Mayor of Reykjavik, to all members of Parliament, to all members of the City Council and to the Chief of Police in the Capital area, and of course I sent a copy to the media. Stigamot had found a modern way to raise money for our work and at the same time take part in the cultural life of Reykjavik.

We invited the authorities to a reception at Stigamot last Thursday, August 15th, to mark the opening of our own Glamorous Champagne Club.  Guests were invited to buy interesting women at a charge of 20.000 krona for ten minutes, and during those ten minutes they could drink all the champagne they wanted for free.

The women had all kinds of skills. Our guests could, for instance, buy Dr. Guðrún Jónsdóttir (82), the founder of Stigamot, and hear the story of our work; she was also willing to dance to please the customers if they preferred it.  Thorunn, who sings in a choir, was willing to sing the old rhymes. Anna Bentina would tell a personal and interesting story about rape. Anna Thora, our psychologist, would sing, ABBA-style, about our self-help groups for women exiting prostitution and trafficking. Teddy was ready to teach people to knit a wool shawl, if they weren’t too drunk.  Margret would rock and read the Declaration of Human Rights.  We offered many more interesting and pleasing women.

Last Thursday we ran advertisements: ‘Women for sale at Stigamot’. You can imagine the debate we got. It was all over the media: the national TV News Channel came with their car, and they broadcast directly from the opening of the club.  I never left the role of a serious Champagne Club owner, and my husband took the role of a doorman, dressed up like a gangster.  The Mayor of Reykjavik accepted our invitation and so did some members of both the Parliament and the City Council.  Now every Icelander knows what the Champagne Clubs are all about, and we will continue our work from there.

When you work every day with serious violations of human rights, it is so empowering to have some fun and make the criminals of Iceland look ridiculous. We have got enormous applause and support from everywhere.  The task now is to get the authorities to ban the selling of private time with women for enormous amounts of money. There are many ways this could be done, but it certainly needs to be done.

Just wanted to share this with you, and maybe encourage you to do something similar in your own countries.

50 billion shades of feminism 2

 The brutal gang-rape that took place on a bus in Delhi in December 2012 galvanized feminists both in India and around the world. Among them there were differing views on what this horrific incident meant and what should be done about it; but those differences did not stop women from taking united action. Rahila Gupta argues that if we keep our larger goals in sight, while also acknowledging that different contexts call for different political responses, the many shades of feminism can merge into one strong, vibrant colour*.  

It’s become fashionable, after the meteoric rise of that mediocre book, to refer to 50 shades of everything. When it’s applied to feminism, however, I worry that it underlines our divisions whilst appearing to celebrate our diversity. At the level of discussion, it’s important to tease out our differences; but at the level of action, we’re trying to build bridges and coalitions by keeping the bigger goals in sight.

Shades of opinion are not just about women squabbling among themselves about the best way forward, but about different contexts giving rise to different demands. With that in mind, I want to talk about the brutal gang rape on a bus of a 23 year-old woman who was left for dead in Delhi last December. Different shades of opinion emerged in the solidarity actions that took place in the UK, but they did not prevent a common platform of action.

A call to action

We at Southall Black Sisters decided to take action so that India, with all its aspirations to the status of world power, was shamed into doing something about sexual violence. We planned a demonstration outside the Indian High Commission. By 7 January, the day of the demonstration the story had come to dominate mainstream media coverage. There was widespread anger and a desire to do something from women of all backgrounds, because this rape came to epitomise the struggle against sexual violence everywhere. In our call to action, this is what we said:

Shocking as it is, this is only one of many acts of horrific sexual violence that take place everywhere and every day in India. The world’s largest democracy was named the worst country in the G20 countries for violence against women (after Saudi Arabia) in a recent survey. This is the heart of darkness in ‘India shining’. By drawing worldwide attention to this horror and showing our solidarity for Indian women, we hope to shame the Indian government into acting now to make public spaces safe for women, starting with implementing the laws and bringing the perpetrators to justice. However, we condemn the lynch mob mentality that is calling for capital punishment and castration in India today.

This case has opened up a much needed space to debate all forms of violence against women which we hope will be the first step towards bringing about a radical change in attitudes and culture. We condemn state condoned rapes by the army in places like Kashmir or the adivasi and dalit women raped by the upper castes or the rapes that are common in communal and religious violence. This case must not deflect attention from the sexual assault faced by women not only on the streets but in our homes as well. Violence against women is by no means an exclusively Indian phenomenon but a feature of women’s lives all over the world as we see in our day to day work.

The demo was hugely successful. In the course of three hours, over a thousand people turned up. The anger and disgust was palpable. In the media coverage and the public debates that took place around that time, several questions emerged which need to be considered so that we can maintain the momentum and influence the direction of the struggle.

Patriarchy, global and local

Why did this particular case attract the whole nation’s attention when we know that violence against women in India is endemic? People have said that it was middle class outrage, that an upwardly mobile lower middle-class woman was raped by men from the slums; others have said that rape in cities attracts more attention than the ongoing rape of dalit women in the countryside by landlords. All of this is true, but my view is that the sense of national shock came from the fact that this young woman could not be blamed for this horrific act in any shape or form (although some lone voices did try – like the religious leader who said that you cannot clap with one hand).  From a conservative point of view, she behaved in an exemplary fashion. She could not be criticised for being dressed provocatively or for being in a dangerous area late at night; in fact, she was accompanied by a male friend, the ultimate protection that we are all advised to undertake. And yet she was not safe.

I believe that this particular rape represents a kind of vigilante action by young men who want to reclaim public spaces. The end of the siege economy in the early 90s and the rapid and uneven economic transition that has taken place in cities like Delhi has created employment for educated, young women to work in call centres and transnational manufacturing zones.  These women are exposed to harassment and violence from men because public spaces have historically been seen as male spaces and men have found it particularly difficult to deal with the fact that an increasing number of women—armed with their own resources—want to share such spaces on equal terms.

Rapid, neo-liberal economic development has realigned the interface between the public and private domains and created starkly different communities with starkly different value systems – the new India shining, technologically advanced, leading the field in the new economies, and the old India driven by superstition, religion and conservatism. Although the two are not mutually exclusive, change has given rise to parallel, niche lives.  Women find themselves trapped in an explosive mix of traditional attitudes and new roles when overlapping economic and social systems – a feudal, agrarian economy and neo-liberal capitalism – come crashing into each other. These different Indias, living side by side, are like gated communities: they rarely interact, but when they do, the consequences can be dire.

It is this kind of analysis of the specific conditions in which violence against women thrives that will help us steer clear of the colonialist and racist media coverage which depicts Indian men as a particular breed, ‘Hyena-like’ and ‘murderous’.  Such racist media coverage of violence in black communities makes black feminists defensive. They point to the fact that rapes take place in police stations and military bases in Britain too. (True. But the scale is completely different, and in Britain there is some accountability with regard to police violence.)  In the media interviews that I did to publicise the demo, I steered a careful path, responding to suggestions that gang-rape might be a particularly nasty Indian phenomenon by pointing out that it takes place all over the world. Patriarchy is global, and sexual violence is one of its tools of control. But we need a more nuanced position.

Taking a position: beyond racism and relativism

It is not racist to acknowledge the scale of violence in India. A girl’s struggle for survival begins in the womb – it is estimated that between 30 to 70million women are missing. If she survives foeticide and infanticide, her life chances are likely to be destroyed by less education, less food, less freedom than her brothers. The honour of her family will rest on her head, religion will defend all this, she will submit to a lifetime of sexual and domestic slavery to a man not of her choosing, her value will be measured in gold and televisions and pots and pans, she may be tortured if she doesn’t bring enough gold with her, and her body will be available 24/7 to be trampled by men both known and unknown.

Many black women will respond to this by saying that we cannot talk about it being better or worse, it is simply different.  I don’t agree. We have to acknowledge the difference in scale and degree. If we don’t have standards of better or worse, then what are we campaigning for? How do we measure the changes that we have brought about, say in the last 30 years, in the struggle for women’s rights in the UK?  We have new legislation covering violence against women, forced marriage, FGM; we have greater sensitivity and awareness in social services, the health and educational sectors, and a better police response to domestic violence, even if there are serious lapses. These are differences of degree – but each difference in degree saves countless lives.

There are different shades of opinion, different ways of framing debates on violence against women, but the differences did not stop us taking joint action.

Reforming rape law in India and Britain: different contexts, different demands

I want to look at the differences in rape legislation in India and Britain, partly because reform of the law has been a major part of the feminist struggle against sexual violence and also because it highlights the issue of different demands and different solutions being appropriate to different contexts.  The laws of each country are very revealing of how patriarchy operates in that particular society.

In India, new categories of rape such as landlord rape, caste rape and custodial rape came into being in the 1980s—a development which explicitly recognised that class oppression and state power, expressed through sexual violence against women, needed to be curbed. Custodial rape deals with men in power, whether in a police station, remand home, hospital or other institution where they may come across vulnerable women and children (though military personnel are immune from criminal action in some states, particularly where rape is used to subjugate militant struggles against the state).  Not only is patriarchy differently situated in India, but this state of affairs can also be related to the fact that the anti-rape campaign was heavily influenced by the women’s wings of the established left parties. When the left first took it up, custodial rape was seen as a relatively ‘safe’ issue, as an instrument of class oppression rather than as an act of violence against women. However, progressive Indian feminists campaigned for and welcomed the category of custodial rape, which also included the ‘radical’ proposal that the burden of proof should fall on the accused, a complete reversal of the cherished ideal of civil liberties that underpins British law where you are innocent until proven guilty.

British law does not have a category of custodial rape, in part because rape in custodial settings is not as endemic. British feminists have also resisted the introduction of different categories of rape: the principle that all rape is serious is an important one to hold on to when some kinds of rape, such as ‘date’ rapes, are not seen as real rapes. However, the absence of a category has not prevented the victims of abuse by Jimmy Savile, for example, from suing institutions like Stoke Mandeville hospital or the BBC.

Marital rape is not recognized in Indian law except in cases where the wife is aged under 15. Nor is the rape of prostitutes recognized. This suggests that the notion of consent is weakened by the conservative view that marriage or prostitution is a contractual arrangement for the continuous and non-contestable availability of a woman’s body. In England, marital rape has been recognised since 1991. This suggests a more nuanced approach to the idea of consent, though in practice, the issue remains hugely problematic—muddied by alcohol or drugs or in the process of establishing whether the man had a reasonable belief that consent was given.

What the law on rape in India tells us about patriarchy there is that rape is seen as a ‘societal’ or ‘communal’ horror:  what is emphasized is the threat it poses to the honour of the family, the community or the caste rather than the ‘personal’ horror of violation or the breach of women’s human rights. Recognising marital rape would undermine the honour of the family from within, a breach too far perhaps for conservative Indians. The new anti-rape law, passed in March, has confirmed the status quo: marital rape is still exempt despite demands for its recognition from the Indian women’s movement. The death penalty has been introduced in ‘aggravated rape’ cases. The military’s immunity from prosecution has not been revoked. However, there were other more regressive measures in the Bill which were not passed, partly because of successful campaigning by organisations like the All-India Progressive Women’s Association.

Among the demands of the women’s movement which were met are a broader definition of rape; the recognition that acid attacks, forcibly stripping a woman in public or private, stalking and voyeurism are sexual crimes; the punishment of police officers for not registering complaints of rape; the recognition that in rape cases the accused is ‘gender specific’ (because women do not rape men and the sexual abuse of children by women is covered by other legislation); and a redefinition of rape so that a woman who does not physically resist the act of penetration, will no longer, for that reason alone, be regarded as consenting to sexual activity. The two finger medical test to check if the victim is ‘habituated to sex’ (a second rape) has also been banned.

One strong, vibrant colour

As South Asian women based in Britain, we do not know the facts on the ground. Our job was/is to express solidarity with the struggle of Indian women to live free from violence. We also kept up the momentum by bringing the issues home. So we marched through the snow in Southall, fired up by the enthusiasm of the women who use our centre, who put body and soul into organising the march, leading it, devising slogans, singing songs, playing drums, distributing leaflets to the curious bystanders, heckling local councillors who spoke at the rally and brimming over with stories of harassment in buses and trains – on top of the violence they faced in their homes.

We recognise the continuum of violence; the larger the number of women who stand against it, the greater the likelihood of change. In that unity, the 50 billion shades of feminism merge into one strong, vibrant colour.

* This article is an edited version of a talk given at the ‘Writing on the Wall’ festival in Liverpool in May 2013.   See also talk given by Liz Kelly at the same event:



Celebrity and its discontents

A few weeks ago we were all talking about Angelina Jolie’s prophylactic double mastectomy; more recently we’ve turned our attention to Nigella Lawson’s relationship with Charles Saatchi, after he was photographed with his hands around her neck. Feminists have been active in these discussions, sharing opinions on Facebook and Twitter, airing them in newspaper columns and participating in debates on radio and TV. Some of them have used the opportunity to make good points about women’s health or domestic violence. But even when I agree with what’s being said, I still have mixed feelings about this kind of conversation—the public debate which is prompted by, and revolves around, the personal problems of a female celebrity.

For a start, it feels intrusive, especially when the woman whose experience is at issue hasn’t chosen to make an issue of it herself. In this respect, there’s a difference between Angelina Jolie and Nigella Lawson. Jolie made the choice to go public about her surgery, and she evidently wanted it to prompt debate (though it might be argued that she didn’t have a completely free choice: if she hadn’t released the information herself, it’s a fair bet the media would eventually have got hold of it anyway). Lawson, on the other hand, did not choose to be involved in the incident which was caught on camera, and the fact that she made no public comment on it suggests she’d have preferred it if the story had not become a media sensation.

There’s a dilemma here for feminists. For us it’s axiomatic that ‘the personal is political’, and we’ve always resisted the once-commonplace view (apparently still shared by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg) that domestic violence should be treated as a private matter. At the same time, feminists who work with women affected by domestic violence have been committed to supporting them in making their own decisions. In the case of Nigella Lawson I’m not sure we’re living up to that commitment. Though the media coverage has been generally sympathetic, the fact remains that her life is being picked over by all kinds of people who do not know her and have no idea what she feels. In her place, I think I would regard that as a second public humiliation.

When I’ve made this point, though, I’ve quite often been met with a response along the lines of ‘lie down with dogs, get up with fleas’. If you’ve made yourself famous by courting media attention, you can’t really complain when the attention is unwelcome. For people who make this argument—essentially, that celebrities are fair game—the relationship is one of mutual exploitation; both parties have chosen to play the game, and both must abide by its rules.

But there’s a third party in this relationship: the public whose appetite for celebrity news and gossip keeps the hacks and the paparazzi in business. That’s the other thing that has bothered me about the discussions of the past few weeks. Are feminists critical of the values of celebrity culture, or do we share the popular fascination with it? How far does our own practice reproduce the treatment of celebrities as, on one hand, ‘fair game’, and on the other, exemplary figures whose actions and words deserve a special kind of attention?

I’m sure all the feminists I know would maintain that what happens to Angelina Jolie or Nigella Lawson is neither more nor less important than what happens to any other woman. They would deny that they are interested in celebrities simply because they are famous: the point is rather that because they are famous, stories about them have a high media profile, and that gives feminists a golden opportunity to raise awareness about issues that also affect millions of ‘ordinary’ women. Along those lines, it has been reported that the publicity given to the Lawson/Saatchi incident prompted a massive increase in calls to organizations offering support for women experiencing domestic violence.

But the power of celebrity is a double-edged sword. It’s not just events in the lives of the famous that can set an agenda for political discussion, but also their opinions on the issues of the moment. Last week, for instance, the tennis player Serena Williams was reported to have criticized the severity of the sentence given to the football players involved in the Steubenville rape case: the victim, she said, had been drinking, and so was equally to blame for what had happened. Was this a golden opportunity for feminists to raise public awareness by confronting the rape-myths Williams was recycling? Or would it have been better to not to have dignified her comments with a response? Do we have to go along with the presumption that if someone is famous for anything, then it matters what they think about everything?

If we rejected that presumption, though, we’d logically have to do so not only when celebrities express opinions we disagree with, but also when they endorse our beliefs and support our political causes. Angelina Jolie was in the news last week too, talking about the plight of refugees from the conflict in Syria. Jolie, a UN ambassador, is widely respected for the seriousness with which she takes her philanthropic commitments, and the sentiments she expresses are generally ‘progressive’. Yet it’s still the case that her views get global attention not because of what she knows or what she’s personally experienced, but because she’s an A-list Hollywood star.

That is not to suggest Jolie has nothing of value to say: her example illustrates that women who are famous as actors, singers, supermodels or athletes may also be knowledgeable about political issues and genuinely committed to certain causes. Many feminist campaigns and women’s charities are supported by celebrities, and I know their involvement can make a difference. But without wanting to criticize the women concerned, my feelings about this remain mixed.

In advertising, where celebrity endorsement is a long-established strategy, the basic idea is that people’s consumer preferences can be influenced by the preferences of individuals they admire: they will want buy the products recommended by their favourite stars. This principle has increasingly been extended to charitable and political causes too. Which is fine if what you’re doing is basically fundraising: to the Syrian refugee who desperately needs a tent, it is a matter of indifference whether the people who donate money are principled humanitarians or just fans of Angelina Jolie. But if your aim is to build a political movement, people’s motives and convictions matter more.

For feminists there’s another problem with the use of celebrities as figureheads or spokespeople. One of the goals of feminism as a radical political movement is to give a voice to ordinary women, and to insist on the importance of their experiences. Celebrities command attention precisely because they’re not seen as ordinary. True, an incident like the one involving Nigella Lawson makes clear that they are not exempt from all the problems faced by other women; but we might still feel uneasy about the idea that it will be easier for people to relate to an issue, or that they’ll care about it more, if it’s personified by someone they think of as ‘special’.

It could be argued that the same celebrity ‘dazzle factor’ which has had a positive effect in Nigella Lawson’s case, promoting increased interest in and empathy with women’s experiences of domestic violence, also played a much more negative part in the celebrity abuse scandals which have recently come to light in Britain. The perceived ‘specialness’ of someone like Jimmy Savile was one reason why some of his victims felt unable to complain, why people who did have their suspicions either suppressed them or were not taken seriously, and why the police and other authorities preferred not to probe too deeply. Yet it could also be argued that without the media’s interest in celebrity, these cases would never have been pursued, the perpetrators would never have been exposed, and the victims would not have received any kind of recognition or compensation.

I am back to where I started—pondering my own mixed feelings about celebrity culture and the way we as feminists engage with it. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t engage at all. If we want feminism to have any impact, we can’t just refuse to get involved in the conversations everyone else is having. Commenting on celebrity news stories may be a good way to get our voices heard on important feminist issues. But isn’t the cultural obsession with celebrities an issue for feminists too?

Creating the world we want to live in now

Speakers at the Writing on the Wall festival’s ‘50 billion shades of feminism’ event in Liverpool last May were asked to reflect on Billion Women Rise. Liz Kelly pondered the tension between purist politics and mass mobilization—and asked whether dancing can be a political act.

First, some ground clearing. My minimal position is that feminism is an understanding that women are oppressed and a commitment to change it: a theory and practice, both of which are in movement.  There are many possibilities and variants, not all of which align with the left or other social movements.  But fifty billion feminisms suggests that we can each craft a personalised version, an idea that sits uneasily with women’s movements, which require collective politics, however fractious.

Billion Women Rise (BWR) marked the 15th anniversary of V-day, the brainchild of playright, poet and survivor of child sexual abuse, Eve Ensler.  For fifteen years across the globe, women have performed her Vagina Monologues on Valentine’s Day to protest violence against women and girls and raise money for women’s organisations. BWR was the audacious idea that in 2013, on February 14th, a billion women would dance to recognise that a billion women and girls have been raped and say, as Ensler does in her enraged poem, that we are ‘over it’.

Ensler is a controversial figure, and I don’t find her easy to like, but that is not the point.  What we need to explore is how she has done feminist politics. Critiques of The Vagina Monologues come from many directions, but the most repeated are that she retains control of the content, and that each performance requires paying a fee to the V-Day Foundation.  I too ranted about this until recently, when I asked myself whether other writers allow anyone and everyone to alter their words. How, once something becomes a global phenomenon, could you create a workable way of vetting and approving new texts? Are they just for single performances or do they become part of an accessible collective library?  And at this festival the question of whether writers should receive royalties when their work is performed must be a live and important one.

So my concern here is whether we hold Eve Ensler – and by analogy other feminists, especially those with a public profile – not just to different, but to unreasonable and unattainable standards.  This then places them in invidious positions, available for ‘trashing’, where any misstep or gap in their politics invalidates what they have done.  This play, flawed as it undoubtedly is, has travelled the globe, been performed in places and spaces where it was a revolutionary and dangerous act for women to say those words: in Afghanistan; by Muslim women in the UK; by survivors of sexual violence.

Ensler was arguably already in this invidious position when she proposed BWR.  Here the most articulated contention has been the mode of action – dancing – with a number of impassioned blogs and a piece in the Huffington Post asking what can dancing have to do with ending VAWG.  I was reminded of that quote from Emma Goldman, ‘if you can’t dance, its not my revolution’ and sought out the original, only to find that she never actually wrote those words.  However, what she did write in her autobiography, Living my Life, is even more relevant.

At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha [Alexander Berkman], a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did  not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway.  It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.

I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own  business, I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not  believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and  freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. Iinsisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world–prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own comrades I would live my beautiful ideal. [Living My Life, New York: Knopf, 1934, p. 56]

For Emma Goldman joy and pleasure are not anathema to politics, they must be part of it; we transform spaces and relationships – to others and to our bodies – as we claim and create freedom and liberty now.  Feminism has perhaps understood and enacted this more than other progressive movements and the moments I remember as ‘beautiful and radiant’ were all joyful rebellions, challenging conventions, and two involved dancing!  

  • Dancing without tops at a Women’s Liberation conference in the 1970s.
  • Embracing the base at Greenham Common – after decorating the fence, thousands of women collectively shook the fence down.
  • Trafalgar Square in November 1997, at one of the first November Women’s Action national marches against violence women.  We were freezing, had listened to many stirring speeches and stood in silence with candles remembering women who been killed at the hands of men in the last 12 months.  A sound system them blasted I Will Survive across the square and thousands of women began to dance – both warming ourselves, shifting our mood and taking over the square.

Each was a moment of liberation, embodied not just cerebral.  The charge that BWR was just a moment, that moments do not make movements, neglects the point that those in movement need sustaining moments of joy and collective engagement.How many of you have ‘given up’ a form of politics because it became a trial, a test of your ability to continue despite getting nothing and giving much?  This to me is the lesson of BWR – that in 207 countries countless women, and some men, danced, experienced their bodies strongly, joyfully, collectively – it was a symbolic reversal of the shame and pain which sexual violence imposes.

I was teaching all day on February 14th, on a module about sexual violence.  It was another form of pleasure to be able to show a diverse group of students women dancing in Asia, Africa and Latin America – students from those regions were moved and it gave them an immediate window not just on theory but also the practice of feminism.

This is not the whole story though: one of those students is involved in Million Women Rise – the minority women-led march against violence against women that has happened for six years in London – and now other cities – on the Saturday closest to International Women’s Day.  She had a strong critique of Ensler, and especially her work in the Congo, partly due to working closely with a group of Congolese women living in London. Common Cause UK see the V-day Foundation work  – City of Joy  – as a neo-colonial project, in which Eve Ensler assumes a leadership role and fails to challenge the root of the conflict – control over natural resources, especially the mineral coltan.  At the same time 200 rape survivors in Congo chose to live and work in the City of Joy, and appear to have strong relationships with Ensler.  This is where shades of feminism return to challenge and disquiet us – multiple truths jostle for recognition.

So I am left with a conundrum – how is mass mobilisation possible without some simplification? Is complexity and purity of analysis more important? What use is our rage at injustice if we turn it most viciously on each other? My route through this for the last decade is to work in coalitions, and especially the End Violence Against Women coalition. We come together around the issues we agree on, but do not require more.  We debate issues of contention until we arrive at a consensus – it has taken us four years to develop a position on prostitution, for example, since both the TUC and Amnesty UK are members.

Creating the world we want to live in now has always been part of my feminism, spaces where debate can be impassioned AND respectful, where joy and dancing are not ‘frivolous’ extras, where we can be beautiful, radiant and enraged.  For many Billion Women Rise was such a moment, for others not: the shades of feminism.

See Rahila Gupta’s talk from the same event:

Moving in the Shadows: Violence in the Lives of Minority Women and Children

This book, edited by Yasmin Rehman, Liz Kelly and Hannana Siddiqui, was over a year in the making–a project that sought to extend the groups of minority women and the forms of violence addressed. The authors wrote about not just domestic and sexual violence, but also forced marriage, honour based violence, FGM, ritualised abuse and polygyny. Many chapters raise contentious issues and stretch understandings. For the launch at London Metropolitan University in March we wanted more than a glass of wine (in the end there was none!) – to create a space in which some of the issues and debates were aired. Purna Sen reflects on the event.


How many years has it been that Asian, African and Caribbean women, including British women, have pointed out the shortcomings in the understanding and practices of the state with respect to issues of violence? And, sadly, also in the women’s movement?

How long since the denial of access to state resources for new immigrants was criticized, since stereotypical views of minority women in refuges was pointed out, since assumptions of cultural compliance in any given group was identified as a policy problem? How long since we read books, or policy documents, and didn’t find the voices of black women, theorisations that explored non-white experiences and understandings, or that even acknowledged that white, western experience might not constitute the totality of women’s lives? I don’t know exactly but I can’t remember not hearing or making such points about silencing, blindness, discrimination, myopia or worse.

I also know, from working in many countries, that our experiences in the UK, though far from perfect, stand at some considerable distance from many others, where even to name such concerns, to criticise, is close to impossible. This is especially so the more liberal the environment, as the liberal cannot possibly have got the race or ethnicity thing wrong.

So, our history in the UK is wanting and our context needs much improvement. But this new book, and the wonderful event at which it was launched, shows both that there is space to have strong, vital debates and that the need for many voices, and changes in policy and practice, remains pressing.

I was very fortunate, and delighted, to be asked to chair the launch of this book, and I want first to note the energy, enthusiasm and power that filled the room. Many many young women, men too, babies and older people gathered for this discussion, from all sorts of backgrounds. They glistened with pride, with appetite to learn and with hope. I have been to too many events replete with misery and pessimism – but this was altogether a different affair. This is even though many of the topics, as always with conversations on violence, concerned the appalling abuse faced by women and girls on a daily basis and the paucity, or in appropriateness, of responses and protection.

Speakers addressed the increasing religiousisation of discourse on violence that demands (but will not win) a tightening grip on women’s rights and sexuality and that their noisy presence in international debates runs the risk of defining and losing our hard won gains on women’s human rights. In the UK, not only are the religiously defined debates cause for concern in themselves but so too is the reluctance of anti-racist activism to engage with ‘minority’ religions, or perhaps any religion at all. For some women, religious belonging has salience and our task might include supporting and enabling their choices too, in the pursuit of safety.

I was delighted to find my long lost colleague Comfort Momoh, in the audience. Together we shared some memories of our initial shared work on FGM, in Islington over twenty years ago. I was working with women from the Horn of Africa then and Comfort was a midwife. Women were arriving at the hospital to give birth, stitched up, and wanting to be sewn up again when they returned home. At the launch we talked of female genital mutilation and vaginoplasty and their shared outcomes – redesigning, and having surgery to produce, female genitalia to please men or secure a husband. The reality of pressure to conform to dominant constructions of female physicality and sexual being is not reflected in discourses that call one ‘choice’ and the other ‘violence’.

We heard about the recent concerns given much airing in the media, about Asian men targeting young white women and girls for sexual exploitation and how we might finds ways in which to address the facts of specific ethnic groups targeting others – whether that be Asian, white or black men, on the one hand or white or minority women on the other. We recognised that our conversations on this topic take place against the contemporary backdrop of an increasingly acceptable problematisation of immigration per se.

While this may read as a list of awfulness and doom, the launch was not a place of misery. In fact, after all these years of difficulty in talking about the relationship of race and gender, of intersectionality, the launch was for me a massively positive engagement across race and ethnicity. It was not a space where attacks were made, nor blame thrown; though there remain places where these happen – this was not one. What I was proud and honoured to be part of on 25 March was a joining of minds and hearts that together say we will talk about these issues, we know who our friends are, we will hear what is said by women who have been ill-served, and there will be neither defensiveness nor accusation.

This is a different politics to what I mentioned in the first two paragraphs. Is it a real sisterhood of what Marai Larasi called ‘difficult women’? If so, I am optimistic indeed!

Moving in the Shadows can be ordered here

Margaret Thatcher, Then and Now

Margaret Thatcher was as divisive in death as she had been in life: when she died earlier this month there were outpourings of adulation from her admirers, while some of her detractors held protests and parties. Her status as Britain’s first woman prime minister was constantly emphasized, whether in positive terms or negative ones. Here, four contributors reflect on their experiences of the Thatcher years, their feelings about Thatcher and what her career might mean for women and feminists today.


Emma Wallace remembers her involvement in Women Against Pit Closures during the miners’ strike

I was born in 1965 and lived until I was eighteen in a village to the east of Rotherham. There were five collieries within a five-mile radius, and a high proportion of men who lived in the village were employed within the coal industry.

For me the most important event of the 1980s was the 1984-5 miners’ strike. When it broke, I was eighteen years old and had been living in Sheffield for several months. Unemployment was already high in south Yorkshire owing to lay-offs in the steel industry, and being unemployed myself I felt that we all had to fight together to prevent the situation getting any worse. My mother was of the same opinion, so we both went to join the Sheffield Women Against Pit Closures group.

I had never been involved with any political organisation or pressure group before I joined WAPC and I was very impressed with the organisation, as it was highly democratic; we all joined in the decisions, and we all took part in activities to support the strike. There were women in the group from all walks of life with differing viewpoints, perspectives and experiences, and it was wonderful how we all managed to get along with only minor disagreements.

The major function of SWAPC was to fund-raise. We also used to go on demonstrations and arrange pickets, and it was these events more than anything else which affected me, as they opened my eyes to many things which I didn’t realise happened in this country.

Before the strike I had always been of the opinion that we had a fair, just and neutral police force. However, as the dispute progressed I began to realise that this simply wasn’t the case. The police were just as violent towards us as women as they were to the men, but in addition they used to treat us with a mixture of contempt and sexual intimidation. The comment was always made that no woman worked down the pit, so we shouldn’t be on the picket line but at home doing the dishes, or in bed with our husbands. They were often obscene, and frequently talked to us like dirt. In the end I grew to accept this, viewing it as part of the job. The only thing that really worried me was the thought of being arrested whilst I was having a period. I’d heard the police tactic with women was to arrest them and not let them go to the loo, and I felt that being degraded in that way would be more than I could take.

The police tactics at the big pickets were really frightening. One night two of us went to Treeton. There were no police when we got there, but they soon arrived in great numbers. They came in from both sides of the village so, being in effect surrounded, we fled in the only direction we couldn’t see blue flashing lights. I somehow ended up in the middle of a field, alone, not knowing where I was. Then the police searchlights began panning out from behind me and I was on the verge of panic. Over to my left was a small ridge, so I made my way to the bottom and then climbed up. As we looked down we saw blue flashing lights and riot shields everywhere. Because of the searchlights we had to lie flat for the best part of three hours before we dared attempt to leave the village. We got out via railway lines, back gardens, and with a lot of dodging police cars in between. It was an incredible night which could have come straight out of a war film, but it happened less than ten miles from the centre of Sheffield.

Trying to explain what it was like to people who weren’t active in the strike was very difficult because most of the time I wasn’t believed. The TV and press were pouring out endless streams of rubbish, yet apparently they had more credibility than I did. Looking back on it now, I can’t help thinking that if I had been a man in, say, his mid-thirties, rather than an eighteen-year-old woman, people might not have been so dismissive.

After witnessing events such as Orgreave, where thousands of police in full riot gear with horses, dogs and armoured vans, fought with unarmed miners who were trying to picket the coke-works, I began to question our society and the assertion that Britain is a free country. In SWAPC there were women from Greenham Common, and women who had contacts in the Black community and Northern Ireland. After I listened to what they had to say, it began to appear to me that only people who supported the status quo were free; anyone who challenged the status quo, or even questioned it, had the powers of the state brought to bear on them. This idea made me feel uncomfortable, but there can never be a return to my pre-strike viewpoint. I know many women who were involved in the strike share that feeling, because for most of us it was the first time we had ever challenged the state.

The strike ended in March 1985. I went on the march back at Silverwood colliery, on a cold damp morning that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Despite the fact that the strike was lost, I wouldn’t have missed that year for the world, and I’d do it all again tomorrow. I learned so much – about politics, about the country I thought I knew but found I had to come to terms with all over again, about people, about myself and about comradeship. The women at SWAPC had been like an extended family. We’d laughed together, cried together, been tired together and in danger together. We’d all experienced so many different things, but for me that was the spirit of the strike – comradeship.

This is an edited extract from a piece that originally appeared in Surviving the Blues, ed. Joan Scanlon (Virago).


As she joins the protestors gathered in Trafalgar Square, Atiha Sen Gupta ponders Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, and concludes that she is more alive than ever

I had been toying with the idea of going to Trafalgar Square. The idea of gathering in the Square on the Saturday after Margaret Thatcher’s death was conjured up by the Anarchist Collective 24 years ago. I had seen tatty stickers bearing this message pegged to adverts along tube escalators years before her passing. But then again, she was a human being, some counselled: was it wrong to go?


Liberal sensitivities aside, I went to the Trafalgar Square gathering to mark the death of Margaret Thatcher. It was cold. It was raining. I looked up at the sky and thought ‘Et tu, Brute?’ I started to feel that even the clouds were conspiring against us. Was it not enough that £8 million of public funds was going to finance this woman’s ‘ceremonial’ funeral? Was it not enough that the police were threatening to pre-emptively arrest people who wanted to protest her stately departure? However, according to estimates by the press, 3,000 protestors were in attendance. There were 1,700 police officers present. My maths isn’t great but that’s roughly one police officer to every two protestors. I’m flattered.

Seeing so many people out on such a hostile night was comforting. The right-wing media reports of the disgusting antics of left-wingers in rejoicing at her death state the facts but draw no conclusions from it. What does it say that so many people come out to ‘celebrate’ the death of an old woman? Does it say that the British public is fundamentally nasty? No. If John Major died tomorrow, I am willing to bet money that nobody would be out dancing in the streets. There’d be articles in the press condemning or elevating him but the public reaction would be wholly different and altogether more ‘respectful’. The gloating reaction to her death says more about Thatcher and her style of politics than it does about sections of the British public.

When I arrived, the police had encircled the Square in the hope that the revelry wouldn’t spill out of it. But there wasn’t much revelry. There were women, there were men, there were punks, there were drunks, there were teachers, there were students. There were the miners from 1984 bearing a banner from the North-East who appeared like celebrities. People were shaking their hands and having their photos taken with them. I marvelled at the creativity of the left when across the square I caught sight of a wonderful effigy of Margaret Thatcher made out of plumbing pipes, polystyrene and papier maché. She drifted regally across the crowd with square handbag in hand. Cleverly, her makers had her clutch a pint of semi-skimmed milk. Her hair was made up of bright orange Sainsbury’s bags which filled with wind like the sails on a ship and lit up the grey, drab square.

photo by Atiha Sen Gupta

photo by Atiha Sen Gupta

The much-repeated and tedious idea that Thatcher was a woman and was therefore a fantastic role model for women is a nonsense – often propagated by men, who have no time for feminism or, by women, who have no time for feminism – do you see a pattern emerging? These anti-feminists (for generosity’s sake, let’s call them ‘non-feminists’) emphatically inform you that Thatcher was in fact a woman and that you should at least respect her for that. This ‘you’ refers to me. I have been involved in two virtual Facebook fights stemming from her death last Monday. The first was particularly nasty. A (female) friend on Facebook had written a eulogising tribute to the great ‘Mrs T’. I waded into the stream of comments and put my opinion down on the screen. One young woman had written that Thatcher dying was nothing to mourn. The reaction was hysterical. I then stepped in to support her and the elitist firing squad turned on me. The internet can be a lonely place. I was called a ‘knob’ for supporting the first anti-Thatcher woman (who was labelled ‘knob 1’). As I took over the anti-Thatcher position, I was labelled ‘knob 2’ which made me despair a little a bit. If you’re going to insult me, at least let me come first in something.

It has shocked me to note how many of my virtual friends (many of whom are women and/or from ethnic minorities) have seen Thatcher’s death as something to mourn – posting non-ironic tributes to her or liking others who have done so. This to me reflects the post-modern universe ushered into existence (to some extent by Thatcher) where nothing is fixed, identity is what you make of it and you can be what you want to be. So what if you’re black and you support Thatcher? That’s your free choice and nobody should pick you up on it. It is hard to speak hypothetically, but I doubt that these university-educated individuals (often with degrees in political science) would have mourned the likes of Thatcher 30 years ago. It wouldn’t have been fashionable. Students are supposed to be radical. If you’re 19 and a Tory where do you have left to go?

People who emphasise the uniqueness of her position as the first and, to date, only woman Prime Minister point out what she did do as a woman (i.e. managing to reach such a high level of office) rather than what she did not do (i.e. bringing women’s issues to the fore to enact societal change). Perhaps she cannot be blamed for this, in that her inaction on women’s struggles was consistent with her overall logic. There was, after all, no such thing as society. There were only individuals who were responsible for their own triumphs or tribulations. In her framework, she was a woman, she had made it and now it was up to other women to make it for themselves (or not). This overbearing individualism marked her time in power, but imagine how much she could have done had she understood feminism, social dynamics and oppression. She could have introduced more women to the Cabinet, she could have funded childcare for women who work, she could have criminalised rape in marriage. Should I go on?

photo by Atiha Sen Gupta

photo by Atiha Sen Gupta

Margaret Thatcher was a capitalist first, and a woman second. She was the Jesus Christ of market capitalism. She pulled her socks up and got on with it so that everyone else could. She scraped and saved and succeeded to give us eternal life (on the stock market). Her legacy is everywhere – in the truisms we repeat to ourselves and to others in daily conversation, in the slogans we chant, and in the types of television programmes we watch. If Thatcher commissioned TV drama, she would have programmed The Apprentice (I have to admit – I loved the first two series). Everything about it embodies the spirit of Thatcher’s hopes for Britain: the suave, easy freedom of the boss to fire employees, the mad dash for profit at any cost, the backstabbing and the competitive individualism.

At Trafalgar Square on Saturday, apart from the odd punk shouting ‘Maggie/Maggie /Maggie’ and then answering his own call with ‘Dead/Dead/Dead’, there was a strange unease and dampness to the day that had nothing to do with the rain. If the ambience could be condensed into a question it would read ‘What now?’ I came away with the sense that the biggest tragedy of yesterday is that Thatcher is more alive than ever.


A female role model who shattered the glass ceiling, or a ruthless elitist who treated other women as subordinates? Bea Campbell knows which side she’s on

Let’s begin with the tribute paid to Britain’s first woman Prime Minister by the United States’ first black President Barack Obama: Thatcher, he said, ‘stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered.’

But by then the prospects of a woman leading the Conservative Party in the House of Commons were as remote as before her election as leader in 1975. (Scottish Tories, however not only elected a woman leader in 2005 (Annabel Goldie) but a gay woman in 2011 (Ruth Davidson).

Obama’s comment was misleading.

Whereas Obama’s election mantra ‘Yes We Can’ was an affirmation of the electorate’s collective will, and a vindication of black Americans, Thatcher’s mantra might have been ‘Yes I Can’. She was an elitist, not an egalitarian: equality evaporated from her lexicon once she was elected leader in 1975 – ironically UN International Women’s Year.

She always addressed women as something she was not: as subordinate, as homemakers and private people. Women may have enjoyed her performance of power, but even her supporters regretted that she did not empower women or expand their room for manoeuvre in the party or politics generally. At the time of her death, the Conservative Party’s once awesome Women’s Organisation had shrivelled. It did not influence party policy. If individual women were inspired to become MPs, Thatcher had not encouraged her party to select them. Women comprised a pathetic 16 per cent of Tory MPs – below the 22 per cent average among European conservative parties, and well below Labour’s 30 per cent – the outcome of intrepid reform initiated during Thatcher’s tenure of Downing Street.

The notion of a glass ceiling presupposes that like Humpty Dumpty, once broken it could not be put together again. But if the ceiling is a structure, it works like a membrane that can expel or absorb an alien and spontaneously heal over. And so it was with Margaret Thatcher. The concept implies that individuals’ success or failure requires not social change, but merely an ability to withstand the institutions’ metabolic resistance to hitherto foreign bodies. The concept is as problematic as its partner in political crime: the role model.

Thatcherism’s patriarchal priorities are often excused as a problem of critical mass – there just weren’t enough women for her to promote; she would not have been allowed to get away with promoting women’s issues.

This is not sustainable.

Feminist political scientists have queried the notion of critical mass by showing that impact depends not only on numbers, but acts – exemplified by Thatcher herself: she triumphed, she was robust and ruthless.

The difficulty also derives from Thatcherism itself: its triumph was to enforce the lore of the market as the language of life. But that also marked the beginning of the end of the gender gap in favour of the Conservatives.

In the wake of almost obsessive national media attention after her death, Labour was 12 percentage points ahead of the Conservatives but 26 percentage points ahead among women voters. Research showed the complexity of women voters as a category, and the primary importance to them of social support, for relationships, for dependents, health and welfare – the very themes that were imperiled by the free market legacy of Thatcherism.

This is an extract from the introduction to a new e-book edition of Beatrix Campbell’s Iron Ladies, to be published by Virago in May 2013, reproduced by permission of the author and publisher.


Feminists opposing Thatcher were always faced with a dilemma, argues Debbie Cameron.
If not ‘Iron Ladies’, what do we want powerful women to be?

In 1979, the year the British first put Margaret Thatcher into 10 Downing Street, I was a student in Newcastle, and just beginning to get involved in non-student feminist politics. In the north east at the time that meant socialist feminism; many of the women I knew were union activists and members of the Labour Party. It went without saying that we opposed Thatcher’s politics, but we struggled inconclusively with the question of how to do it without endorsing slogans like ‘ditch the bitch’, or pandering to the sexism which said a woman could not be Prime Minister.

This last week has been déjà vu all over again, as ‘Ding dong, the witch is dead’ ascended the charts and street parties were held to celebrate Thatcher’s demise. Despite my history as an anti-Thatcher activist, I found these responses disturbing. Not because of their disrespect for the dead or their insensitivity to other people’s grief, but because of their casual misogyny. Bitch, witch, Iron Lady — now as in the 1970s, the epithets are gendered. So is the visceral loathing behind the words: I can’t recall a male politician whose death has inspired proposals to go and dance on his grave.

It’s the Tories who’ve been emphasizing Thatcher’s gender, speaking openly about the prejudice she confronted when she started out, to make the point that she was a trail-blazer, someone who advanced the cause of women. (The BBC commentator on the funeral echoed the point, describing the Queen as ‘a woman who inherited her position honouring one who fought her way to the top’). What feminist commentators have mostly emphasized, meanwhile, is Thatcher’s difference from other women and the way her policies harmed women as a class. She was not, they insisted, ‘one of us’.

It’s possible that Thatcher herself would have preferred the feminist assessment. She was, after all, a rampant individualist, famous for her dictum that ‘there is no such thing as society’. But she was wrong about that, and the feminists who have suggested that her gender was an irrelevance are also wrong. Whether she liked it or not, she was judged as a woman; the hatred felt towards her was not gender-neutral. Rather it exemplified the general principle that when men act in ways we consider morally reprehensible they are condemned, but when women do the same things they are demonized.

Margaret Thatcher attracted the particular kind of loathing reserved for powerful women who exercise their power without apology or subterfuge, and are therefore seen as usurping men’s prerogatives. ‘Not a man to match her’, ‘the best man in the Cabinet’ — such assessments might have been offered as praise, but they still depended on the tacit assumption that legitimate authority is male by definition. For her detractors, the same assumption could be used to portray her as unnatural and monstrous. In the satirical TV programme Spitting Image, for instance, she was literally a woman in men’s clothing, her puppet dressed in a suit and tie; in many sketches the joke revolved around the way she emasculated the men in her Cabinet.

The undercurrent of misogyny that swirled around Thatcher throughout her career has been airbrushed out of the eulogies, presented only as one of the many obstacles she had triumphed over in the early part of her career (despite the fact that she was eventually removed from office not by the will of the British people, but by the men of her own party). But feminists should not forget it. Nor, however deeply her political legacy offends us, should we forget that Margaret Thatcher actually did do something that no woman before or since has done: she won power in her own right, and used it unashamedly to pursue her own agenda. She served no master, and feared no opponent. If feminists give her no credit for that, I think that isn’t only because we despised her brand of politics, it’s also because of our own ambivalence about powerful women.

What do we want, as feminists, from our female politicians? If not Iron Ladies, what kinds of women should they be? When I think about the available role models, it drives me almost to despair: loyal female lieutenants with no vision or personality (Margaret Beckett or Theresa May), self-promoting nonentities (Nadine Dorries), women who owe their political influence to their dynastic relationship with a man (Marine Le Pen, Alessandra Mussolini and — in case you think this is just a fascist phenomenon — the saintly Aung San Suu Kyi)—and don’t even get me started on the unelected ‘First Ladies’ who get so much attention in the media.

One female politician who seems to have acquired something of a feminist following is a fictional character: the Moderate Party leader who becomes Prime Minister in the Danish TV drama Borgen. To me, though, she is a depressingly reactionary figure: politically she embodies the ‘feminine’ desire for consensus, and in the course of two series her personal life goes to hell — her husband divorces her and her daughter has a nervous breakdown.

How did we get from Margaret Thatcher to this? Since she died I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard someone piously intoning that she ‘did so much for women in politics’, but when you look at women in politics what’s most striking is how little they resemble her. And I don’t mean that in a positive way: I mean that old habits have reasserted themselves, so that male dominance and misogyny are as entrenched in today’s political culture as they were before 1979. In office Thatcher was no token woman, but history might yet turn her into one. If so, it will show how little difference she really made to the underlying structures of patriarchal power.