guest blogger

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:



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