Veiled Criticism

I’ve just been getting very hot under the collar in an online debate on the question of whether or not the niqab and burqa should be banned. I found myself pissing in the wind, arguing against the ban in the face of a deluge of heated opposition, with most posters adamant that the niqab and burqa are abhorrent affronts to women’s rights.

I’m not entirely unsympathetic to their concerns. Yes, I loathe the attitude that women have a duty to cover themselves up, that merely by existing, by having breasts and legs and faces, they are a sinful temptation to men and responsible for men’s lust and actions. I cringe and want to punch the wall with anger when I hear some Muslim women justify the wearing of their particular form of “modest” dress on the grounds that “If you left a piece of meat unwrapped on the kitchen table, you wouldn’t blame the dog if he ate it, would you?” I don’t know how women can collude in their own objectification and excuse their own abuse in this way.

But I don’t believe you can ever emancipate women (or any other group) by dictating to them what they can or cannot do.

Nor, in a Western European context, do I buy the argument that a ban on the burqa and niqab is necessary to prevent women being coerced into wearing these garments against their will. Time and time again, I see people on messageboards and online debates blithely claiming that obviously no woman would ever choose to wear the niqab or the burqa and the vast majority must have been forced by their families. Actually, scores of studies have shown that the majority of burqa- and niqab-wearers in Western Europe voluntarily chose that form of dress and in many European countries the vast majority of women opting for the extreme forms of covering are converts, who don’t even have a Muslim extended family. It seems to me that the kneejerk circular argument that so many people resort to when this topic comes up – “I think the burqa is oppressive, therefore I can’t imagine that any woman would freely choose to wear it, therefore any woman who does wear it must have been forced to do so (regardless of what she says or the overwhelming evidence that most European burqa-wearing is voluntary), therefore it must be oppressive” – is insulting to both women and Muslims, patronisingly pigeonholing both groups as easily-brainwashed patsies who are incapable of making an informed, independent choice.

I’ve also met the argument that, while European burqa-wearers may choose the garment to make an extremist point, they are immature poseurs, irresponsibly promoting a garment which is mandatory in many Middle Eastern countries and thus making the oppression of women in those countries more culturally acceptable. But it seems to me that legally prohibiting the full veil on those grounds is equivalent to banning T-shirts with pictures of Che Guevara or other communist iconography or slogans, on the grounds that it is legitimising the oppression and human rights abuses in undemocratic communist countries like Burma. I don’t see that the fact the people in one part of the world are forced to accept a practice against their will ever justifies curtailing the freedom of expression of people in another part of the world – even if they use that freedom of expression to show support for undemocratic or oppressive regimes.

I also refuse to accept that wearing the niqab or the burqa is always about accepting a view of women as the temptress that needs to be hidden for decency’s sake and to protect men from their uncontrollable urges. For some women, it is more a pragmatic choice – they don’t believe that in an ideal world they should have to cover themselves up, but while we live in a culture where many men still believe they have the right to vocally appraise any female stranger on the street and where many people, male or female, judge women on their looks in a way that they do not judge men, covering themselves is a way of preventing that and reframing social encounters in their own terms.

Then, of course, there are Muslim women who now choose to wear the full veil because they are fed up with the way that the Muslim world has been attacked and stigmatised since 9/11. Watching the west bomb the crap out of Muslim countries and seeing even the most moderate of their faith publicly branded as potential terrorists may have made them more willing to visibly assert their faith and stick two fingers up at mainstream British society in a way that they did not do before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I just do not accept that every women who wears a full veil is doing so because she sees herself as a sinful temptress or a piece of meat.

My main reason for opposing a ban on the full veil, though, is that, at gut level, the idea of any woman being forced to reveal a part of her body when she doesn’t want to – whatever her reasons – appals me. I see little difference between a law insisting that a woman must reveal her face and a law insisting that she must reveal her tits. For me, central to the notion of women’s rights is the idea of bodily autonomy. When I read men arguing that they have the “right” to see the faces of women they pass in the street I feel as offended as when I hear women comparing their bodies to a piece of meat that should not be left unwrapped on the kitchen table.

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DISCLAIMER: I would like to make it ABSOLUTELY CRYSTAL CLEAR at this point that whilst I wholeheartedly support breastfeeding (and indeed advocate for it) this does not mean that I do not support the right of all Mothers/Parents to make their own infant feeding decision. This article is not intended to shame any woman who does not breast feed.

Jessica Valenti wrote this piece in The Daily recently. I totally agree with her sentiment that mothers shouldn’t be made to feel guilty. Breastfeeding is awesome and leads to much improved health outcomes both long and short term for Mothers and Babies. However, it’s also incredibly hard work and not everyone will be able to access support to breastfeed. Some women,  will have issues that mean they are physically unable to breastfeed. For some women, particularly those with premature babies in NICU’s the act of pumping breast milk can be incredibly stressful, particularly with no baby physically demanding milk to stimulate production. I get that. For these and a whole host of other reasons, which include not being mean, arsey people, we shouldn’t be making any woman feel guilty about how she chooses to feed her baby.

I don’t have a problem with any of that. In fact I salute Valenti for talking honestly and frankly about the fact that breastfeeding is difficult, and requires support which is often lacking, and without that support many women stop breastfeeding which is a why a shockingly low number of women continue to breastfeed following initiation at birth – at 6 months of age in the UK less than 1% o women are still breastfeeding exclusively as per recommendations (Infant Feeding Survey, 2005) and across the world less than 40% of infants are breastfed (WHO Global Strategy).

Yes folks thats right- us evil breastfeeding mamas, the ones who go round, apparently harassing non breastfeeding mamas, make up such a majority that LESS THAN ONE PERCENT OF UK MOTHERS BREASTFEED TO 6 MONTHS.  We aren’t some scary, self righteous majority, we are in fact an underfunded, under represented and socially harassed minority.

Anyway I’m digressing. My issue with Valenti’s piece is this statement :

“Thousands of studies have shown that breastfed babies are healthier on average than formula-fed babies — but no research has shown that it’s the breastfeeding that’s causing the better health. Moms who have the time and support to exclusively breastfeed, for example, may be more likely to support their children’s health in other ways. There simply is no proof that breast milk is the magical elixir so many of us believe it is.

“I never doubted that breastfeeding had myriad health benefits, so I was actually very surprised at what I found in the medical literature,” Wolf told me.

And it’s not just the science around breastfeeding that’s iffy — the social expectations and the dismissal of how hard nursing can be are also affecting women. “


I’m sorry, what? You know what, you can formula feed if you want to. You can claim that there are forces out there that shame you as a formula feeding mother. I’d like to argue that actually those same forces are busy shaming ALL mothers for all and any of their choices. But don’t you DARE to tell women and well, anyone reading for that matter, that the science around breastfeeding is iffy. Because really, it isn’t.

There isn’t some conspiracy where formula is secretly equal to breast milk, and nasty mean breastfeeding mamas (who make up less than 40% of the global mama populace) are lying so that poor formula feeding mamas feel bad. Breast milk is, scientifically speaking,  better for babies health by dint of it being custom made to meet the specific needs of the baby it feeds. The reason breastfed babies are generally speaking healthier is because breast milk contains immunological factors specific to each baby which protect it from disease. Breast milk doesn’t require making up with water which may be unsanitary thus exposing babies to gastreointestinal issues. Breast milk doesn’t require careful making up to ensure it is the correct strength, meaning that many babies every year become ill due to simple human error. And breast milk, unlike formula milk is sterile.

That doesn’t mean that people should always HAVE to breastfeed. People should breastfeed if they are in the privileged position of being supported and able to do so, if they want to and that’s that. I don’t care HOW you feed your baby, I care if you’re supported in doing so. I care if you have full access to ACCURATE and valid information which enable you to make your choice. No one should be shamed for parenting decisions- we do the best we can, with what we have at the time, and perhaps with different circumstances we’d make different decisions.

But, for fucks sake, don’t you dare lie about breast milk (or formula milk for that matter) when you are a publicly visible and respected figure. Don’t you dare. Because you’re contributing directly to a culture which shames women and uses shit science to justify shit social attitudes.

*Please see the WHO Report “Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding” for more details.

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The recent ruling of the employment tribunal in the case of former Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly is a double cause for celebration: not only does it send out a welcome message that the law will support older women who feel they have been thrown on the scrap heap for no good reason, but, at first sight, it also seems to have been a landmark case in terms of wider social attitudes. It has been interesting and gratifying to note that many socially conservative media outlets which usually dismiss campaigns for women’s rights as “political correctness gone mad” have backed O’Reilly to the hilt on this.

O’Reilly is, of course, not the first older female presenter to gain public sympathy and support after being ditched or passed over for promotion by the BBC: the dropping of Arlene Phillips as a judge on Strictly Come Dancing, the end of Moira Stewart’s career as a television newsreader and the decision to hire Toby Buckland as the main presenter of Gardener’s World rather than promote Carol Klein after Monty Don’s decision to take time out after

 a stroke all caused widespread public disquiet. In the case of Gardener’s World, viewing figures dropped alarmingly after the BBC’s decision to “refresh” the show by marginalising its older female presenter, so if the BBC really does believe that the public wants its factual programming to be anchored exclusively by young, sexy presenters, then it seems to be mistaken. Nonetheless, the media kerfuffle over the Countryfile case seems to have taken the public indignation at the treatment of older women on screen to a new level.

I’m not sure, though, that the widespread public goodwill to O’Reilly necessarily indicates a new dawn of woman-friendly attitudes in society. Many of the normally reactionary, normally anti-feminist voices who have spoken out in O’Reilly’s favour are doing so because they perceive this primarily as an issue of ageism, not one of sexism (a view apparently shared by the employment tribunal itself, which, while upholding her claim for age discrimination, rejected her accusations of sex discrimination – rather puzzlingly, since they themselves acknowledged that women are more vulnerable to this kind of age discrimination than men). I suspect that, in many cases, the powerful tugs of middle-class and middle-age tribalism have merely temporarily overcome a deeper distrust of the feminist agenda.

Moreover, in many of these cases of age discrimination which have captured the public imagination, it is younger women in the media industry who have been cast as the villain. In the Strictly Come Dancing row, for instance, Alesha Dixon bore the brunt of the public backlash, not the TV executives who chose to hire her or her male co-presenters. It seemed that both her supporters and Phillips’s accepted unquestioningly that there was room for only one token woman on a panel of four judges – they merely disgreed on what type of woman it should be. That perhaps there was a place for both Phillips and Dixon on the judging panel didn’t seem to cross anybody’s mind.

It seems that, increasingly, any woman in factual programming or TV journalism who happens to be under 45 and passably attractive is dismissed as an “autocutie” who can’t possibly have a brain or any relevant experience for the job she is doing. Fiona Bruce, Emily Maitlis and Katie Derham all have Oxbridge degrees, but you wouldn’t know it, from the constant sniping about “sexing up and dumbing down” that female newsreaders face.

The Madonna/Whore dichotomy appears to be alive and well in broadcasting, with audiences apparently believing that a woman can be a young hottie or an authoritative expert, but not both. While the BBC management seems to think that women exist only as eye candy and should be banished from the screen as soon as they fail to set heterosexual men’s pulses racing (and even then they fail to recognise that older women can be “hot”, too), that a woman who is not young and sexy has no right to be on TV, large sections of the audience and media who oppose the BBC’s attitude seem to fall into the opposite error, of believing that a woman who is young and sexy has no right to be on TV.

Why can’t women be treated as people, as subjects, whose sexiness or lack of is purely an incidental factor, as it is for men, rather than a defining feature of their worth?

Nonetheless, I still feel that, as a society, we are making progress, slow though it may be. I remember when Angela Rippon and Anna Ford began their careers as newsreaders in the 70s there was much comment in the press to the effect that no woman could ever have enough “gravitas” to be an appropriate person to present the national news. I don’t think many people would seriously argue that today. And voices like those of Nick Ross (who has commented that O’Reilly’s sacking was justified, because it is “natural” for people to be attracted to older men but younger women) and Cristina Odone (who has brought up that old chestnut about this legal ruling harming women’s employment chances, as it will make media employers more wary of hiring female presenters in the first place if they know they won’t be able to sack them on a whim) seem to be being treated with the ridicule that they deserve.

I know that it is true that the media is a rarefied world and that O’Reilly’s victory does not necessarily improve the lot of ordinary women outside that charmed circle, but O’Reilly winning this verdict is still, in my view, a lot better than O’Reilly not winning that verdict.

I live in the Bristol area, where the local media has been abuzz lately with the brutal murder of Joanna Yeates. Before that, the murder in South Africa of Anni Dewani, whose husband is a Bristol businessman, also garnered several column inches in the local press. Several things about the coverage of these two women’s deaths in both the national and the local media have disturbed me.

Firstly, the salacious reporting of both cases seems to have been tailored to cater for the armchair Poirots amongst us. It is easy to forget, when surrounded by news reports which focus in lingering detail on clues and suspects and gossipy details of the dramatis personae’s lives, that the women who died and their family members and/or acquaintances who are now falling under both police and public suspicion are real people, not characters in a novel or a TV series. These women’s violent deaths seem to be being heartlessly plundered to provide the nation with a series of dramatic watercooler moments. I must admit, as a whodunnit junkie myself, I have found myself getting caught up in the lurid speculation, too, and am instantly repelled by my own crassness. It’s hard, though, when every news report seems to frame these women’s deaths in terms more suited to the Reverend Green in the Library with the Lead Piping.

Is it just my imagination or is it particularly the violent murder of young women that gets this voyeuristic treatment? I don’t recall the deaths of young men or older people being reported in this way. It seems part of a general public perception that the abduction, torture and/or murder of young women is somehow exciting, glamorous and sexy, a perception which is fuelled by crime fiction which seems to increasingly focus on the “sexy” female torture victim or dead body with unnecessarily titillating detail.

This fetishisation of female victims of violence is not only objectifying and insulting to women, it can also have negative effects on male victims of crime, whose suffering is often ignored by the media and the public – they’re apparently just not sexy enough. For example, thousands of children go missing every year, but it’s usually only photogenic white girls whose absence triggers a media frenzy, with not only the seedy, quasi-paedophiliac voyeurism that brings, but also the publicity that could potentially be helpful in finding them.

Also, I’ve noticed that, in both media descriptions of Dewani and Yeates and tributes from friends and families, the women’s beauty has been stressed above all else. Why is it that people persist in thinking that the most valuable asset a woman has, the most important thing to stress about her, the most tragic waste if her life is violently cut short, is her beauty? When a young man is tragically killed, it is rarely said about him “It’s such a waste – he was so handsome!” “He had his whole life ahead of him” – yes. “He was so talented, doing so well in his studies or career” – yes. “He planned to marry and have children” – yes, sometimes. All these things are said about female murder victims, too, and yet the kneejerk response when a woman under the age of 35 meets an untimely end is to stress the loss of her good looks first, as if it’s somehow disrespectful to the dead woman to think that any of her talents or achievements are more important than that.

Finally, I find the Avon and Somerset Police’s suggestion that local women should avoid going out alone at night until Yeates’s killer is caught staggering. Statistically, young men are far more likely to die as a result of violent crime than women, and yet I have never heard the police issue a statement suggesting that men submit themselves to a voluntary curfew. It seems unthinkable to subject men to any curtailment of their freedom to travel and socialise as much as they want, no matter how much danger they may be in. And yet if a woman is killed, especially a young, attractive woman, even if there is no evidence whatsoever that she was killed because she was a woman, the motive is immediately assumed to be sexual and all women in the area are held to be at risk and expected to make themselves prisoners in their own homes, or it will somehow be considered to be their fault if they are subsequently attacked.

So the new buzz after flexible working is Slivers of Time the concept as covered by The Guardian reports that sections of society are unable to work because of time constraints.The argument is that  some work is better than no work, claimants are allowed to make a certain sum before it affects their benefits.  Tesco has announced ‘slivers of time’ as an alternative to eight hour shifts and a way to enable employees to book certain hours of overtime. Okay, so far so good. With previous columns I have called for the recognition of informal work performed by women to be recognised as economic activity and, according to the slivers of time model, it can be.

A look to the website of slivers of time ltd reveals that is a social enterprise company set up explore the notion of ‘markets for all’, in that socially disadvantaged people should be able to access markets and sell their labour at their discretion. In a paper (to download) from the website Whigham Rowan explains and illustrates the example of how the system works.Basically  you put yourself on the website, cite hours in which you are able to work and the rate per job.  The potential employer then looks over the website and picks out a candidate.The more jobs you do the higher rating you get (think the star rating on seller websites such as Amazon and e-bay).

The idea of slivers of time in a non corporate sense is an idea directly taken from the examination of informal micro-economics performed in low income areas such as council estates (I know I’m from one). I remember a down on his luck painter , painting my portrait for £30 , the girl over the road being paid a fiver for babysitting me, two pairs of tracksuit bottoms being traded for 3 hours of gardening etc…

This informal market is problematic, mainly because people who aren’t on benefits (if the Daily Fail be believed) and are comfortably well off believe that informal earning is lucrative, however,  for the babysitter it is not, for the person who does someone’s ironing it is not.  The informal market is only lucrative for individuals such as drug dealers and money lenders.The informal market also has the same problem as the legitimate labour market-  the markets flood and saturation of labour occurs, thus lack of employment , formal or informal.

Ok then, informal work is only lucrative for individuals who indulge in dealing narcotics and money lending, so this idea  for people on benefits to do legitimate jobs without the fear of prosecution for being being a benefit cheat and to improve their later employability chances when the market settles down  is no bad thing in theory. However, as I looked to affiliated partners to slivers of time I see that the TUC is cited. I went to the TUC website to search for a paper on their finding (usually very good) but find nothing but a press release, puzzling. More questions come to mind:-

1)If you transfer informal to formal work, where is the safety net such as the one provided for in the formal market sector? Sick pay, Maternity leave etc. As a person offering your labour on this kind of site are you, in the case of being ‘picked’ by a local business for say, three days work, entitled to the rights in place for contracted workers? Join a union you may say, but if you were on a base level of income (such as ‘benefits’) and have a fluctuating income based on your labour being picked by a user on this website, would you really have the money spare to pay subs to a union?

2) The demographic this scheme has been touted to help suffer from lack of self confidence. If someone who is fresh out of university can’t get a job and then advertise themselves on this site , what chance does a long term unemployed or incapacity benefit have? Is there going to be a certain criteria that has to be met by candidates selling labour?If so, is this another example of the ghetto-risation of the poor much like out of town council estates?

In theory, as with headline stories it sounds too good to be true , for me its no coincidence that the Con-Dems announced that they would be including the happiness index into configuring the nations GDP the same day as the slivers of time is approved by big business.What we can see clearly now is what the government plan to do about the shortfall in jobs in the public sector, some can volunteer to run services and the lucky ones , depending on their rating , may actually get paid for short contracts but without the long term benefits.

I’ve just come away from a Guardian website discussion about Julian Assange feeling disgusted and baffled by the general assumption that seems to prevail on the left that liberal men who are seen to be doing a good job for the cause of free speech, civil rights, socialism, political correctness, whatever, somehow deserve a Get Out Of Jail Free card on charges of rape and sexual assault.

I don’t deny that Wikileaks has made public a lot of information that was in the public interest and Assange deserves commendation for that. I don’t deny that I’m appalled by the US’s sledgehammer-to-crush-a-nut tactics in attempting to shut down Wikileaks and arraign Assange on espionage charges. I would oppose any attempt to extradite him to the States on those, quite frankly, preposterous charges. And I must admit that the timing of Sweden’s issuing of an arrest warrant for him on rape and sexual molestation charges is suspicious, as is the fact that they are acting now after previously ruling he had no case to answer, and it may be that they are, as his supporters claim, plotting an extradition deal with the US once they’ve got him off British soil, which would be quite wrong.

But the idea that the charges on which he is wanted in Sweden are “trivial” and “trumped up” is a misogynist fallacy that I cannot believe is going unchallenged time and time again on left-wing messageboards.

I can’t believe that comments like “This shows the danger of going down the Swedish route of making it easier to convict in rape cases” and “This is another example of why women who make rape accusations shouldn’t have a right to anonymity” are getting more than 700 recommendations in the Guardian’s comment section on the Assange case.

I have no idea whether he really committed the crimes of which he is accused. It may be, as some media outlets allege, that the story of the complainants does not add up. But the way to find out is by having him face those charges in court. No woman who accuses a powerful, charismatic or brilliant man of sexual assault should be denied justice simply because he is so “important” or “doing such a great job”. No accusation of rape is a “small matter” that doesn’t really need to be pursued.

And nor do I buy the arguments that what he is accused of in Sweden “wouldn’t be considered rape in any civilised country”. I think Sweden’s feminist rape laws are a cause for celebration, not denigration.

It’s not that I believe that any man accused of rape must automatically be guilty. Nor do I believe that, even if he is guilty, that necessarily obliterates every good deed he has ever done in his life or that proper legal processes don’t need to be followed or that extenuating circumstances that would be considered in any other crime should be ignored when it comes to rape. When Polanski found himself under house arrest last year, while I agreed he should be extradited to face charges, I found myself almost as irritated by those who, seemingly slipping straight into Daily Mail-reader hanging and flogging mode, didn’t think whether the correct procedures were followed or not in his original trial mattered and by those who felt his real-life actions automatically made his films “misogynist” works that any “real” feminist would boycott as I was by those who argued that he shouldn’t face trial because “He’s such a great artist!”

Let’s separate the alleged rapist from the man’s professional role. If a “great man” is accused of a sexual crime, I don’t believe that means we should ignore or dismiss any great work he has achieved in other areas of his life. But nor, obviously, does it mean that the crimes of which he is accused aren’t serious and shouldn’t be investigated.

And if it’s true, as Assange’s supporters claim, that the Swedish authorities would never have bothered applying for extradition on something as “trivial” as sex crime charges if he hadn’t upset the US government, then in my opinion that’s a sad indictment of how trivially the international justice system treats rape.

In the spirit of sisterhood and women friendly spaces, some friends and I recently had a women and children only weekend and piled into one house for a night of cooking, chatting, recharging and connecting. Between us we had 4 school age children, one baby, three dogs and a lot of catching up to do. It was brilliant- the power of strong female friendship is something I’m starting to really appreciate as I head towards my thirties. The only dent in the weekend arose on the Sunday morning. The children were watching TV as we sat round drinking tea and trying to come too, and then an advert break came on. There were about 8 adverts in this break which occurred on a national TV channel, during a Sunday morning kids program. The adverts were highly gendered- 4 aimed at girls and 4 at boys. There wasn’t a single advertisement which wasn’t obviously gendered. The adverts didn’t even feature a single child of the opposite gender, if you catch my drift.

So, that was infuriating point number one. Infuriating point number two can be found in the types of products aimed at girls and boys. Aimed at girls were kits to make soap, fridge magnets, a doll and a toy kitchen. Aimed at boys were two types of skateboard/scooter, a gun and a set of armed forces action figures and vehicles. The clearly gendered division of those adverts can be broken down to indicate that girls make things- useful things no less, and care for others; boys do physical activities and engage in strategic and destructive games which train them to engage in ‘manly’ pursuits.

If this is what we’re teaching children with the toys we buy them then really we’ve not come that far in terms of gender equality. Boys can care and make things as nicely as girls, girls can be as physical as girls. To suggest otherwise is to further participate in a mysogynistic culture which harms children of both genders.

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So the headlines blazing across the Sunday Papers was the story of how the Coalition intend to ‘make’ benefit claimants do unpaid work for a specific period or risk losing their benefits. At first glance it seems a good idea, being out work takes it toll on your mental state, so why not do some unpaid work whilst looking ? Firstly, job hunting takes time, the internet searches, the rehashing of the C.V and even the time to travel to employment agencies (as my favourite champagne socialist Polly Toynbee found out and expressed in Hard Work). Secondly,  most people already do unpaid work, its called voluntary work which, if you’re lucky enough not to had to trudge to the dole before, you have to declare as part of your job hunting plan, but you’re not allowed to do ‘too much’ voluntary work nor state that you have made  a fixed time commitment less it stop you from landing a ‘proper’ paid job. So , if the government makes you do unpaid work because you are guilty of  the crime to be out of work in the middle of  double dip recession what gap are you filling? Why! the gap made by public spending cuts, think tank genius! The third sector is awash with recent graduates, the long and short term unemployed already,  so I can only presume that the newly unemployed  (fresh from the spending cuts, low level civil servants , librarians etc) are going to fill the gaping gaps left by the shrinking state. However, there is another kind of unpaid work done by nearly half of the planets population that the Coalition government never mention, a gap that is always filled due to social construction and that is the unpaid domestic labour provided by Women.

According to to a paper commissioned by the UN, the unaccounted economic activities performed by women include:-

  • Cleaning, decoration and maintenance of the dwelling unit
  • Preparation and serving of meals
  • Care, training and instruction of children
  • Care of sick,infirm or old
  • Transportation of the household’.

Sound familiar? All that day to day stuff you do is worth nothing to the government and my argument is that it should be for several reasons. Firstly, these unaccounted activities are presumably unpaid because financial sustenance comes from a partner or the state, which as everyone knows is complete rubbish. Only the elite and upper middle classes can survive on one wage per household.  Single mothers live on a pittance and even when in work often end up hovering just above the poverty line . Secondly we also have to factor in the concept that women’s work is a relic of the industrial revolution,-  the Woman offers emotional and maternal support to the man who ‘is’ the wage slave ( the Women being a non economical unit). This concept is problematic now as Woman in this country have long been visible in the public sphere and now Woman  finds she is a wage slave Herself but but still endures the double burden. This is  nothing compared to our Sisters in developing countries but non-the-less, equal,sexist free Britain? Thirdly even if you don’t have children, Women are socially immersed into ideals of being this caring, nourishing being, via the media (domestic goddess that can whip up a four course meal in 10 minutes,drop everything for your friends, look out for your neighbours). Women have always been the volunteers that filled the gaps left by the state’s policies, the PTA’s that raise money for schools (mostly women), the coffee mornings for charity, Women activists that march and lobby at grassroots level , keeping your eye on that neighbour who you know is taking abuse from their  ’other half’, saying hello and engaging in conversion with an elderly person who you know, probably hasn’t spoken to anyone all day. If I where to categorize our ‘unaccounted economic activities’ as paid work then the list would be this;Nanny,Counselor,Lobbyist,Community worker,Fund-raiser,Chauffeur, PR,Carer, Nutritionist, Personal shopper. All validated, trusted positions,  economically viable but not so if the work is unpaid.If as the DaveCam puts it we are ‘all in this together’ then why is unpaid ‘domestic labour’  economically irrelevant in these days of the Big Society? We fill the gaps!

Did you notice that last week the fire service threatened to strike on bonfire night? The New Statesman posed the question is it an abuse of power? No actually its not, it strikes at the heart of the public’s fear of unsafety. So why is it that Womens strike day this year was largely ignored by the media? Well you know why,Women in the west are still seen as unpaid labour, economically irrelevant, whining when we have so called political rights.If we were were to strike, can you imagine the gap?  This is what I say, mind the gap left by Women, the void is too vast to cross safely, society would as we see it would crumble. Women fill the void left by the shrinking state , unpaid work for women claimants creates a triple burden. Marx once wrote’ We stand on the shoulders of giants’ but that’s rubbish we all stand  on the shoulders of women and society is taught that those strong shoulders are irrelevant because of a chromosome. MIND THE GAP!

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I’ve been interested recently to read some media reports by a local branch of the Fawcett Society on the representation of women in the media. They can be found here and here.

By counting the numbers of pictures/mentions of men and women in various media genres and analysing whether they are included because of what they look like or because of their achievements, they provide a snapshot of the very different ways in which the two genders are represented in books, magazines, newspapers and on TV.

Their findings on children’s TV and literature make particularly stark reading, because the culture children are exposed to will help shape their attitudes to themselves and to others as they grow up. The researchers found that, on the sample day, on the CBeebies channel, 100% of story narrators were male, as were a whopping 70% of characters shown. What message does that send out to girls about their importance in society and their right to have their voices heard?

The ratio of female to male characters in both adults’ and children’s TV and literature is something I tend to get very hot under the collar about, particularly the ratio between male and female central or authoritative characters.

I very often get into debates with people about this and am accused of “playing a futile numbers game”. The usual arguments I hear (and I’m sure many of you will be used to hearing these same cracked records, too) are:

(a) Shouldn’t we be focusing on serious problems, like genital mutilation, forced marriage, domestic violence, female infanticide? Isn’t how many female characters there are in a children’s book too trivial to worry about?

To which I would respond, well, no, actually. Men who feel they have the right to subject women to violence and coercion do so because they believe that merely having a Y chromosome makes them intrinsically more valuable and powerful than people without one. They weren’t born with this world view. I’m not suggesting that reading children’s books with a male: female character ration of 3:1 is, on its own, going to make someone abusive to women. But it’s one of the many things that cumulatively teach children to believe that men are “naturally” more important than women.

(b) Surely having one powerful or strong female character in a book is enough? It gives girls a role model and shows that women can achieve?

If it were the 1950s, when real-life female leaders were thin on the ground and school careers advisers counseled girls not to aim for any job more authoritative than a secretary, I might be able to buy that argument. But we are no longer in a position where girls are starved of any role models and anything is better than nothing.

Indeed, literature and TV often lags woefully behind real life in its portrayal of authority figures. For example, one of the clichés of detective stories, in novels and on TV, that most does my head in is the male-female authority sandwich. The female second-in-command, the female sergeant seems to be everywhere in detective series these days, from DS Reid in Taggart, through DS Havers in Inspector Lynley, to DS Clarke in Rebus (and, although they’re not police officers and none of them has a formal rank, arguably Harry-Hermione-Ron in Harry Potter is the ultimate example of the male-female authority sandwich). And what a depressing example of faux feminism that is! I always feel that the female sergeant is being held up as an example of how right-on the author is and how far on society has moved, that we are supposed to be grateful that’s she’s made it to the dizzy heights of the rank of sergeant and isn’t still languishing as a lowly Constable. Shock! Horror! She even has male constables working under her!

But, of course, none of this mitigates the fact that the woman is always stuck in second-in-command, that the inspector whose name is the title of the series is male, that he is the one whose maverick but flawed genius is central to the franchise and that, while she might be allowed to be bright and resourceful and sometimes even hand him the crucial clue without which the case wouldn’t be cracked, his is the central consciousness with which we are invited to identify, to the extent that even his failings and weaknesses are fetishised.

Where fictional female police officers are allowed to reach the rank of inspector or higher (e.g. in the Prime Suspect and The Commander series), the focus is usually on how hard it is being a woman in a man’s world, with her gender being presented as a rarity and a problem.

The fact is, though, that in real life it is nowadays far from unusual to see a woman in the higher echelons of the police service. There are female superintendents, commanders, commissioners and chief constables. Why can’t we see more police inspectors in fiction, as in real life, who just happen to be women?

So, no, I don’t think having one female character in a position of authority or a position of importance in the plot is enough: while it might demonstrate that women can be important, the fact that they are in a minority still reinforces the sense that it is far more likely and normal for men to be leaders, often suggesting that this is less likely and normal than is actually the case in real life.

However, I don’t think it’s always wise to get too hung up on rank and positions of authority. It is not, in my opinion, a good idea to start criticising female characters for “only” being a stay-at-home housewife or for “not being strong enough”. That would reinforce patriarchal notions about paid work outside the home being the only work of importance and set standards of “feistiness” and “strength” that female characters are expected to meet that are higher than those expected of males. Male heroes aren’t always expected to be “strong” – indeed, when they show vulnerability, we often love them even more.

For me, the most important thing is to have more female characters in central roles, more female characters who are presented as the subjects of the stories. I’d love the female sergeant if it were her name in the show title, if the stories were about her problems and concerns and her role in the investigation. She doesn’t have to have a promotion – she just needs to be shown to be important.

(c) But the author didn’t intend the text to say anything about gender or to imply that one sex is superior to the other! That’s just how the characters happened to appear in their head. It would be unjustifiably interfering with their creative control of their work and lead to political correctness gone mad if we insisted that all books/TV shows had to have exactly 50% male and exactly 50% female characters.

I will concede that, in practical terms, it would be impossible to insist, for example, legally, that books and series had to have an even gender split of characters and might make plots and characters seem formulaic and sterile.

The trouble is that it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation: while male characters being in the majority is the predominant practice, most authors will subconsciously follow this practice when characters “just happen to appear in their head”, because they are heavily influenced by prior literature. Until we start seeing more books and TV series with as many or more female characters than male in the centre of the action, authors and screenwriters are far more likely to see a male face in their head when they think of the words “hero” and “villain” and a female face when they think of “assistant” or “love interest”. In my opinion, it would be good if writers voluntarily started operating positive discrimination and didn’t just go with the clichéd idea that first pops into their head. And if publishers and commissioning editors didn’t lean on them to follow the status quo.

Last Friday the Oxford Reclaim the Night march took place….(told from my perspective)

After various incidents I manage to get to the March start point at the Sheldonian theatre (slap bang in the middle of Oxford academic institutions) with my two young daughters, ex-boyfriends mother and her ten year old daughter.  I see a few banners and secretly hope it’s going to be bigger than last year (about 40 women).  It turns out there is over a hundred women there.  I sift through the crowd and find some of the organising committee, namely the awesome Clare Cochrane (who campaigns on many issues) and the irrepressible (femacadem) Suzi stewarding, with baby in sling at the front. Suzi and I engage in banter which goes

Me: Look at me out and about of a Friday night, I’m a single mother what would the Daily Mail say?

Suzi (in big booming middle class voice): Yes , you should be at home , you may steal someone’s husband!

Some of the newbies stare not getting the joke.

Meanwhile , ex-boyfriends Mum starts to get bored but reiterates that she should be here because she was in a Women’s Refuge, my kids tire of standing up, someone passes a comment about me smoking a cigarette in front of the children ( I ain’t gonna hide it) and I get the disapproving vibe about bringing the children from others which makes me even more belligerent.  Then the mood changes…

The always excellent Louise Livesey starts up the chants and gets the march under way and we march towards the High Street.  The kids are on either side of me , the chanting starts whose streets?, our streets!.  Women come to talk to me; a woman named Kate who organises the new Oxford branch of Fawcett; Hannah, a co-ordinator at OSARCC introducing me to other volunteers. I spy a little boy in front of me wearing a ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt and blowing bubbles and I recognise his mum from  the main Fawcett publicity.  I notice people on the street; the cheers, the jeers and the people who look look at us as if we belong to another era.  But mostly I see the people ahead of me, the chanting and chatting, the smiling  and the banners flapping in the wind.  We block the footpath as we walk down St Aldates, a council rubbish van beeps us again (for the third time), we stop taxis making their way down the small cobbled backlanes (we pull to the footpath to let them pass). We pass the lapdancing club chanting womens bodies should not be sold. We march down New Hall Inn Street chanting  Whatever we wear, wherever we go , yes means yes, no means no.

My youngest gets knackered by this point so I have to perch her on my shoulders as we get to the busy junction, someone presses the crossing button (we have no police escort) half the contingent gets across whilst the other stays on the other side of the road. We wait and chant some more .  We then make our way to the rally point at Ruskin college, a group of young men shout at us ‘we’re gonna chop you into pieces ‘ (apparently this happened on the march too but the stewards took care of it) I ignore them but ex-boyfriends mum chases them down (she knows their Mums).

I get into the familiar settings of Ruskin, sort the kids out with a drink and realise the actual scale of  the march, I hardly know anyone here, but it makes me glad, new people on the march is always a good thing.I have a quick chat with random people, ex-boyfriends Mum takes the kids home and I slip out front for a cigarette.

I’m chatting with the Warden and the awesome Debbie when the two police show up, they address the warden first (of course, he is a bloke) then they talk to me.

Bloke plod:Good evening Miss, what’s going on here then? Do you have a licence?

Me: We don’t need one – you were informed and we have insurance.

Bloke plod: So, any more marching tonight?

Me: No, but thanks so much for your help

Warden: Its a rally and the college is insured

Bloke plod: So whats this all about?

Me: Its called Reclaim the Night , where Women march to be seen and heard at a time when society tells us we should be indoors because of all the nasty things that may happen to us …

Bloke plod:  ohh…

Me: Which we wouldn’t have to do if your institution took women seriously.

Bloke plod: Well goodnight miss *jogs on*

I go in and relate the tale to the organisers and have a good laugh, chat to Suzi and then go home, sadly missing the rally speeches. Its only the second march I’ve been on, but this year was bigger and better all thanks to the women who organized and attended, love and thanks to the Oxford Collective.

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