Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Liberation via oppression?

 This blog post also appeared on the Fresh Outlook at:

Back in 2001 the image of a woman shrouded in a burqa was beamed into our living rooms from Afghanistan, the country we were about to declare war on. The burqa became a symbol of women's oppression in this most fundamentalist of states, where women were required by law to cover their faces, refused access to public services and banned from work and education. The war in Afghanistan, we were assured by a man whose first act as president was to restrict international women's access to abortion, would liberate women from the oppression they faced daily under the Taliban.

Feminist rhetoric was evoked to defend military action against a country that had had little to do with the September 11 attacks, whilst many feminists like myself shook our heads and wondered how bombing a woman's home and family would help liberate her. We almost all agreed, however, that women were oppressed under the Taliban, and laws that refused women an education, health access, a vote, a voice, and forced them to dress a certain way needed to be challenged.

Ten years on, and the lives of women in Afghanistan have not changed hugely in a country ravaged by war, partisan politics, corruption and violence. But we find that the burqa is once more making headlines, this time in France, where a ban has been passed so that Muslim women can no longer wear the burqa or niqab in public. The burqa is very rarely worn in France anyway - the ban is chiefly occupied with the niqab - the full veil where only the woman's eyes are visible.

The ban comes in the context of President Sarkozy's troubling policies on minority ethnic communities. He is not a popular politician, and many have considered this move to be a populist law capitalising on a growing mistrust in France of minority ethnic communities. Since he came to power, France has experienced economic problems, strikes and is now involved in conflicts overseas. Riots in the suburbs of Paris shone a spotlight on disenfranchised communities living in urban poverty. Throughout this, Mr Sarkozy has pushed through or advocated policies that focus on minority groups, including his much criticised and troubling plans to evict and deport the Roma population.

Advocates of the 'burqa ban' have attempted to justify the law in many ways; from the idea that France has been a proudly secular tradition, or suggesting that the niqab makes it hard to identify the woman wearing it, to arguments about 'integration' and 'French values'. But one of the most persistent arguments has been the one that falls back onto feminist rhetoric about oppression; the idea that women are forced to wear the veil, that it is somehow 'anti woman', and that by banning the burqa, France are liberating Muslim women.

There are many, many problems with this argument. Whatever your views on the veil, the idea that banning a woman from wearing an item of clothing is anything other than restricting women's choices is a ridiculous one. If the UK banned the mini skirt after suddenly becoming concerned that as an item of clothing it objectifies women and makes us appear as sex objects (I'm not saying the mini skirt does this by the way, although am sure there are some who do argue this) then we would rightly argue back that women should have the freedom to express themselves through dress however way we want to, and that people's response to our bare legs (i.e. the old chestnut that a woman is 'asking for it' by wearing a mini skirt) is not a reason to forbid women from wearing one. Yet, when it comes to the veil, many people from all across the political spectrum have fallen for the line that a ban is justified because the veil itself oppresses women.

Part of this has come from the Afghanistan narrative, where women were forced by law to wear a burqa and suffered violence for refusing to cover their faces. Advocates of the ban have argued that they are saving women from being forced into wearing an item of clothing that they may choose not to wear if they could. But to me, this argument has a major flaw. If a woman is being forced to wear the veil by a husband, father or brother etc, then banning the burqa or niqab could actually result in the restriction of her freedom. For if she is being forced to wear it, then it is unlikely that under a ban she would be allowed out of her home uncovered at all. So whereas before she may have been able to move freely through the community wearing the veil, now she must remain inside. Of course, I absolutely condemn anyone who would force a woman to wear the veil (or anything really) rather than respect her choice not to wear it, however I recognise that a simple ban may cause problems for the woman, rather than a solution.

But perhaps the most troubling thing at all is this assumption that all Muslim women who wear the veil are doing so because they are coerced into it, and it is up to white, Western men to swoop in and save her from this oppression. The possibility that a woman chooses to wear a veil for her own choice, her own spiritual reasons, has been completely ignored. The belief that no woman would wear the veil if she had the choice, and so the 'solution' is to take that choice away from her, is very troubling. And so rather than liberating women, this ban has only served to reduce a woman's choice to wear what she wants and express herself in the way that she wants to.

And policing women's freely made choices is not a pro-woman stance.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Musings on what happened on Stokes Croft

Hannah said she was interested to read what I might have to say about what happened on Stoke's Croft, so seeing as I have just fulfilled one blogging request (coming up this Weds after it's published on Fresh Outlook) I might as well do two.

First, some context about where I live.

I have lived in the general Stokes Croft, Montpelier, St Pauls quarter since November 2006, firstly near the Star and Garter, then near the Cadbury and now a bit further down the road, close to the new Tesco. Before that my friends all lived on Stokes Croft and St Pauls, so I was always socialising here, it has long felt like home. In that time (since I was 17 really so way back in 2002) Stokes Croft has changed a lot for the better. It is less rough than it was, with new bars opening up, local shops selling the best pasta and bread, new homes meaning new faces, and it feels a lot safer. Lots of families live in Montpelier, and there is a community spirit. That said, the local mini-marts are a bit pants. Selling hardcore porn, mouldering food, making up the prices as they go along and generally   never seeming to have encountered bleach or a mop, the idea that SC is a paradise of local shops is a bit of a fairy tale. Licatas and Herberts yes, mini-marts no.

Laurie Penny (who, for the record, I agree with 95% of the time) wrote an article on Friday about the riots on Stokes Croft, that characterised it as all rather romantic. She suggested that the squatters who were the centre of the riot were popular in the local community, and that the squat itself was a community hub. I disagree with this, I feel it is only half the picture of what it means to live here, and a commenter on the  article ( agreed with me, explaining his/her perspective that there are two types of people who live in Stokes Croft. There are the people who live and work here, or nearby, because we like living somewhere fun and with a nice bakery, that has easy access to town, great amenities and shops, or who are the real urban poor that also populate this quarter; addicts and women working as prostitutes. And then there are the squatters and students who are living in Telepathic Heights, as an example, or live here for part the year, and these are the ones represented chiefly in Laurie's article. There is some crossover – for example I think the whole community has benefited from the Canteen and Hamilton House, and the good bits of graffiti. But we aren't all the same and one group does not represent the other. And I think this is where problems over conversations about what happened on Thursday night have sprung up.

Here's that comment by IGRD:

'What you have to understand about Stokes Croft is that there are pretty much two types of people who live and work there and who frequent the area. There are the working people, a group which encompasses the real urban poor: the prostitutes, the addicts, the people whose lives haven't been helped by the gentrification of the area over the last 10 years. There are also plenty of people who live around there and aren't affiliated with the People's Republic types and are not especially politically sympathetic towards squatters and loosely-defined 'artists'.

Then there are the squatters and the alternative types, and the people involved in the people's republic of Stokes Croft - many of whom[...]are students who don't even live in the local area for much of the year.
The squatters may be well liked by the latter part of the community, but for the former part this weekend's riots represented at best annoyance at not being able to sleep through the night/return home when their roads were blocked off, and at worst quite serious intimidation (by both the police and the rioters) and damage to property.
There's so much more to say about the area, the riots, the squats and Tesco. About how many of those protesting the further gentrification of the area are the ones who've enjoyed its benefits so far. About how the local mini-mart whose trade is threatened by Tesco is a horrible place to shop, with hostile members of staff, erratic stock/prices, and the only cash machine in the vicinity that charges extortionately for withdrawals. About the drugs and prostitution that are still rife around the area.'

I've included it because for me it really says a lot about how I feel about living here, and what the diverse life of Stokes Croft is like.

Right – solidering on, here's what happened to me on Thursday.

Having spent the evening out with some friends, me and my boyfriend decided to go home. We bumped into some people outside Start the Bus who said that it was kicking off on Stokes Croft, we thought that they meant the guys hanging around outside Tesco were a bit drunk and had got another banner out. We didn't expect police helicopters, horses, riot police, loads of vans, broken glass everywhere, people shouting and yelling, and generally a load of chaos in the neighbourhood. Luckily, it being about 11.15pm, we were able to walk through (quickly, holding onto each other's arms) and got into our flat. Not long after that, as far as I can tell, was when it became impossible to get through the street, as the police and the protestors became more heavy handed; with batons, bricks being thrown, more glass being smashed and injuries. Back home, we went on Twitter and Facebook and tried to follow what was happening. What was so striking was the utter confusion about what the riot was actually about. One person on Twitter said they were evicting squatters from a proposed Tesco site (I tweeted to say he was about a year late), others were saying it was to do with petrol bombs, others were saying it was a mass eviction of Telepathic Heights – no-one seemed to know exactly what was being fought for. We went to bed as Facebook reported 'smells like the fires have started', and although my boyfriend got some sleep, I was woken by people screaming and shouting 'you fucking twats' outside my window, sirens and the helicopter. I was quite scared, in that disorientated, just woken up feeling where you start believing that danger is close by.

The next day we ventured out to a real mess. Tesco was smashed up, glass was everywhere, road surfacers were fixing the burnt patches of the road, paint splattered all over the place, a grit bin by the traffic lights, police busy around the place. The BBC news reporter explained that the people of Bristol were 'trying to come to terms with what has happened here' but for me it was not so much coming to terms with it, as working out what it was I really felt about it all.

I have always been against Tesco opening on Stokes Croft, and would have preferred the space to be used as a community-centric space, such as a gallery, cafe or local shop. There's already two Tescos close by, a Sainsburys (where were the protests then!) and a Co-op, as well as the local shops. We didn't need a Tesco and I have issues with the way they practise their business. I signed the petition and although wasn't involved in the campaign (lots on with BFN!) I supported it from the sidelines as they went through the legal planning channels to protest its opening. Like our anti-Hooters campaign, they lost. But I think the campaign did a lot of awareness raising and provoked discussion, so that can only be a good thing.

What isn't a good thing is taking that losing as a sign to plan to firebomb a shop, where people work, that is situated in a residential area.

Whilst some commentators have romanticised the riot as the community rising up against big business, I have to come back to IGRD's comment about who exactly this community is, and how one part of it doesn't speak for us all. Everyone I have spoken to since Thursday has been angry about the way the police behaved, as it does seem that there was violent policing that should not have happened. But they have all been equally, if not more, angry with the protesters and the squatters who, if reports are true, were making petrol bombs. Who punched a police horse! Who threw bricks at police officers and tore up street cobbles (if you love this area so much, why destroy it?). Who set fire to things. This is where I live! I don't shop at Tesco (much) but protesters were willing to put my home, my safety in danger to make a political point. This is not ok.

No-one has come out of this mess looking good. Not the police, who hit bystanders with batons (according to reports) and not the protesters who fuelled the anger on the streets. No-one can take the moral high-ground here because no-one behaved well. This wasn't a romantic fight against capitalism, or squatters taking a stand to live somewhere where they don't pay rent. This was useless violence that caused a lot of mess, some injury and upset.

I think that those involved in the protest forgot that they don't represent this community, they represent themselves, and that other people live here too. Did they think about whether children would be frightened, or that people trying to get home might get hurt? Did they care that some of us might not want to live near a place that's been making petrol bombs, but that we have as much a right to live here as anyone else? Did they not think that we can choose not to shop at Tesco, just as I choose not to shop at Best because of all the porn they sell? Or that violence and intimidation never wins an argument, but in fact puts you in a weaker position. Please bear in mind that I also think that any violence committed by the police is bad too, and it also means that they lose their argument. However, some people have suggested that the timing was bad on the police's part – raiding the squat on a warm evening when everyone was out drinking. However, if they did have petrol bombs, when would have been a good time? Apparently the neighbours reported it, so should the police have waited? What if they were too late?

The Anti Tesco protesters have rightly been concerned about exploitation of workers. But surely destroying their place of work is not helpful? The people who work in Tesco are not to blame for the company's politics. Just as when we protested against Hooters we didn't criticise or stigmatise the 'girls', anti Tesco protesters should not target the workers themselves. What would fire bombing the shop have achieved, except intimidate those working on the checkouts? How is it fair to frighten people like you and me? Some people need to work to pay their rent or mortgage, and if they can get a job at Tesco, then why not. Not everyone is a squatter.

A few women and I have also often pondered about the silence that surrounds the exploitation of workers in the sex industry that is thriving on Stokes Croft, with three brothels now open on what is really a very small stretch of road. We will be trying to launch a campaign about this soon, but surely when it comes to workers exploitation, Tesco is only one offender on a road where sexual commercial exploitation is happening just down the road. I don't want to play the 'why are you angry about X when Y is happening' but when it comes to making sure everyone in the community is safe from harm and exploitation, we shouldn't be stopping and starting at Tesco. And all too often I have listened to anti-capitalist campaigners try and defend the sex industry as about 'choice' whilst ignoring the fact that putting a price tag on a woman's body is quite possibly the nadir of a patriarchal capitalist society where everything and everyone has a price.  

I think that rather than make the squatters at Telepathic Heights seem like local heroes, Thursday's riot will have lost the campaign many supporters. Many of us who supported the legal and planning campaign against Tesco, even supporters of the group sat outside with the banner, will now feel that we don't want to be part of it.

So, in the end, who wins? Not the police. Not the protesters. Not the public sector workers who had to clean up the mess, or the residents who had to pick their way through broken glass and stick their heads under the pillow to get some sleep. Not the Tesco checkout people who can't go to work. But Tesco? Well, they'll re-open and they'll have way more security and I expect there will be more of a police presence and more tensions than previously, and the people who were already on Tesco's side will characterise all those against it as violent and angry. In the end, what really can you say was achieved?

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Funding cuts, sex trafficking and Ashton Kutcher

This piece originally appeared on the Fresh Outlook:

Three news stories caught my attention last week, all around the horrific crime and tragedy of sex trafficking.

The first was the news that the Poppy Project, a charity that forms part of Eaves Housing, had lost out on a grant for £6 million to help victims of sex trafficking to the Salvation Army. Eaves Housing has accused this decision of being ideologically motivated, and that rather than investing in the specialist service that the Poppy Project has been developing for eight years, the government want “a bare minimum service”.

Of course it is a nightmare scenario having to choose which charity is 'more worthy' of receiving funding, and by condemning this decision, no-one is wanting to say that the Salvation Army do not do incredibly good work in the charitable sector. However, concerns have rightly been raised over this decision, particularly as the Poppy Project is a specialised service with plenty of experience in assisting victims of sex trafficking; as well as raising questions over the Salvation's Army's policies towards a woman's right to choose, although I should point out here that the charity has said that they “provide holistic care for all those who come under the auspices of our care”. The other issue is a question of need. Women's sector charities such as Eaves and Women's Aid experience real problems getting the public to reach into their pockets to fund the vital work they do. They are therefore very dependent on funding from the government, local councils and trusts. The Salvation Army has a much higher profile, meaning that, although they too need funding, they are more visible and more likely to get money from an individual's wallet.

Abigail Stepnitz, national co-ordinator of the Poppy Project has estimated that without the grant, they will have to cut funding by 60% per victim. This means that they will struggle to provide the psychological, as well as basic, support to women when they most need it. Women who have escaped sex trafficking need legal, psychological and practical support, from finding safe housing to medical care, to counselling, to legal advice on their immigration status in the UK if they have been trafficked into the country from abroad. Without the support of the Poppy Project, many of this country's most vulnerable women will find themselves without the support they most urgently need, from women who specialise in giving it.

This news came days after a Moldovan woman won substantial damages from the Home Office who deported her back to Moldova after she was arrested in a brothel without official immigration papers. She had been trafficked at the age of 14, and was arrested when she was 21. Despite her being in danger of future violence, she was put into detention, where her trafficker was able to visit her in the guise of her boyfriend with the express purpose to intimidate her, before she was deported. Back in Moldova, her trafficker found her, tortured her and then trafficked her straight back into the sex industry. This is the reality for the trafficking victim. Violence, degradation and then the risk of deportation, leading to more violence. Without groups like the Poppy Project, how many more women will find themselves in this situation?

The woman told the Guardian:

"I think the police should work better to stop this. Why don't you shut down saunas and brothels? Then there would be no prostitutes, no pimps… If the government cared it would not be closing the Poppy Project. They don't care."

The minister responsible for the funding decision said that the Salvation Army had the stronger application, offering services to men escaping traffickers too. It is of course vital that we recognise that men are victims of trafficking too, and that we help and support men and boys to escape trafficking, however, we must also remember that it is overwhelmingly women who are victims, with estimates that 80% of trafficked people are women (Stop the Traffik). Therefore we need services like the Poppy Project to survive, offering as it does specialist, women-only services with a track record of working with survivors of extreme sexual violence, understanding what it is women need to recover and lead the lives they want to lead.

The third news story was the launch of a video campaign from the Demi and Ashton foundation, a charity set up by the movie stars to combat the sex trafficking of children. Again, any charity that seeks to raise awareness and money for this issue should be lauded, but, unfortunately, the video campaign they have launched is confusing, and says nothing about the realities of the horror of sex trafficking. Instead, Ashton and his celeb pals are filmed in “funny” situations, refusing to wash their socks, or shaving with a chainsaw. The tag line – 'Real men love a close shave' or 'Real men wash their own laundry', is followed by the pay off 'Real men don't buy girls'. The message is unclear and the impact is lost. We learn that nice guys don't pay to rape women. We learn that 'real men' don't pay to rape women. But the facts, the stories of the women, the reality of trafficking is lost in a quick laugh and then a muddling slogan.

I think it is fantastic that a charity has been set up to support victims of trafficking. It's great that social media is being used to spread the message. But next time, give us the facts. Because at the moment, it's celebrities doing fun tricks, whilst somewhere, another teenager is losing her freedom.

Monday, 18 April 2011

The Red Tape challenge

The government are consulting as to whether to scrap the Equality Act of 2010. They are arguing that there is too much 'red tape' in this legislation and want to hear your views on whether it should be scrapped or not.

I URGE you to write and tell them not to scrap the Equality Act. Part of me thinks they just want to scrap it because they got caught out not following it with the emergency budget. It is such nonsense to get rid of legislation that, although is not perfect, does a lot to protect us from discrimination and asks public bodies to consider the impact on equality when they make decisions. It is a vital piece of legislation for protecting the rights of all of us.

You can leave your comments here:

Here's mine:

The equalities act offers people across the UK protection from discrimination. It replaced legislation that was confusing and long-winded.

We do not live in a perfect world. Unfortunately, discrimination still exists. Women still get paid less than men in the workplace, for example. Gay people, trans people, BME people, disabled people and women still find themselves subject to hate crimes, verbal abuse and legal discrimination because of who they are. Until this changes, which is a long way away, we need the Equalities Act.

This government is, of course, guilty of not following the letter of the equalities act. For this reason, the emergency budget of July hit women unfairly. 70% of the money 'raised' by the budget came out of women's purses. You may say the equalities act is a difficult piece of bureaucracy. I say, when followed, it protects us from decisions that harm. It asks you to make decisions having looked at and examined its impact on equality.

This can only be a good thing. Why should public bodies ignore the rights and needs of various groups? What is the purpose in not considering the impact on equality?

It makes the UK a fairer place for everyone to live. It protects the individual and groups of people from discrimination and harm. It means that everyone, everyone in the UK is treated with respect.

It is categorically NOT unnecessary red tape.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Is feminism bad for your sex life

This blog post originally appeared on The Fresh Outlook:

Feminism has taken rather a bashing these last few weeks. Hot on the heels of David Willetts blaming feminism for the lack of social mobility for working class men, came an article in Psychology Today, entitled 'Why feminism is the anti-viagra'.

Apparently, studies in lab rats have shown that female rats are, as a general rule, sexually submissive. According to Psychology Today, “most women” have submissive sexual fantasies, and they have linked the two to come up with the extraordinary conclusion that women are “naturally sexually submissive”, and that feminism contradicts this.

The whole article is filled with huge assumptions and generalisations about (straight, cis) women's sexuality, including the idea that all women want a dominant man, such as the ones found in period bodice rippers, whilst men are aroused by being dominant, as portrayed in 'sleep' and 'exploitation porn'.

Psychology Today argue:

“Men are aroused by being dominant and by submissive women; women are aroused by being submissive and by dominant men. In the bedroom, inequality beats equality.”

The article then goes on to explain that there are some exceptions to the rule (we surely don't need science to tell us that?) before coming to this startling conclusion:

“Negotiating sexual politics has always been difficult, but paradoxically the laudable and necessary victories of gender equality activism might make it even more challenging. We're all figuring out how to live in the first society in human history where women have such power, independence, and clout. But just as democracy has no effect on our basic taste preferences for sugar and fat, democracy doesn't affect our basic sexual preferences for domination and submission.”

I have a few issues with this article, as you may suspect. Firstly, its conclusion is ahistorical and shows that the whole piece has been written from a Western, patriarchal perspective. Look far enough back in history, and across the globe, and you will find that there have been societies and communities that revere and respect women, matriarchal societies that have been forgotten via revisionist history. Secondly, women don't have that much power and clout, neither in the developed or developing world. If we did, there'd be more than four women in the UK cabinet, and 1 in 3 women across the world wouldn't experience sexual assault in their lifetimes.

A further issue is that women aren't rats. I know it sounds like stating the obvious, and of course it is useful to observe mammals' behaviour and compare them to human patterns. And whilst we could argue that the purpose of both humans and rats is to procreate, the comparison to women's sexuality and rats' sexuality ignores all the differences in the way we raise families, live in communities, communicate and have power structures. Surely the huge, beautiful and fascinating variety of human sexuality, whether you're a man or a woman, gay or straight, cis or trans, asexual or bisexual or polysexual is too complex and exciting to be defined as men like to dominate, and women like to submit?

And what has all this to do with feminism anyway? The article seems to posit the idea that because women now have “equality” with men outside the bedroom, they are not sexually satisfied in the bedroom because they have trouble conforming to their “natural submissive role”. Not only is this silly for all the reasons listed above, and ignores the fact that you can be assertive in the board room/street/home etc and submissive in the bedroom if you want to be, but feminism has for many, many years sought to recognise, celebrate and encourage women's sexuality and women's sexual pleasure.

From The Women's Room to Small Changes, many novels of the second wave detail the frustration women felt about their sex lives; from accusations of being frigid, to having husbands who approved of their lack of orgasm. Feminism railed against this. It fought for women's right to have mutually consensual and pleasurable sex. It fought for women's pleasure to be recognised as real. Books like 'Our bodies our selves' and writers/activists like Betty Dodson celebrated and educated about women's capacity for sexual pleasure, and feminists everywhere encouraged women to embrace their sexual selves. Feminism fought for women to have bodily autonomy, advocating and getting the (sort of) legalisation of abortion in the UK, and feminism has long flied the flag for contraception and sex education. Of course there were issues: For example, some feminists felt that the way some other feminists expressed their sexuality was 'un-feminist' and this led to some of the more serious breakdowns in the second wave movement, particularly in the USA. But for a lot of women, the personal was the political and sex was part of it.

I believe that things have moved on since those rows, and these days, feminism still advocates a woman's and man's right to have mutually pleasurable and consensual sex. It argues against damaging media stereotypes that offer narrow definitions of what it means to be 'sexy' and instead aims to educate and empower young women about their sexuality. It still fights against the medicalisation of women's so-called 'sexual dysfunction' and encourages women to explore their bodies and their sexualities, as they want to.

So, I say to the writers of Psychology Today: are you sure? Are you sure it is feminism that is the problem? Are you sure you want to argue using these big sweeping generalisations? Or instead could it be that body image pressures, the influence of media imagery and the troubling need to be only and always sexual, according to a narrow definition of what it means to be “sexy”, could be part of the problem?

Because, as many a feminist has famously said, feminism is great for your sex life, however you want your sex life to be.

The Psychology Today article can be found at:

Thursday, 7 April 2011

The New Statesman, an online row and some clarifications

[this post has been edited to mention the names after a comment i received. please read the comments for further info]

This week I have found myself embroiled in a row that seems to have stretched across the blogosphere but had its focal point on Twitter and the New Statesman. Anyway, last night I discovered there was a whole dimension to the row that I didn’t even know existed, and I felt quite upset that people thought I may have defended or endorsed or supported things that I didn’t know about and would never have thought to be appropriate. So am going to write my side of the picture as it were, because if you can’t clear things up on your own blog, then where can you?

If you weren’t following the row then this post will bore you to tears so I recommend reading the last para and then skipping to the next post to sign a letter to the government protesting the cuts to domestic violence support services.

Right – are you sitting comfortably? I’ll begin.

On Tuesday, Steve Baxter wrote his weekly blog on the New Statesman about the closure of the Daily Sport. He welcomed the soon-to-be redundant staff to the ‘clean world’ and blogger and tweeter Quiet Riot Girl (QRG) extrapolated from this that he was saying sex was dirty. I posted something at that point about how the Sport was to sex what it was to sport. Anyway, the sex is dirty post wound Steve up and he wrote a sweary, angry tweet which popped up on my feed. I replied:

‘uh-oh! what a nightmare. so ridiculous, but just try and ignore her, easier said than done. i know i always feed trolls!’

I then popped over to the NS blog to see that QRG had made an insinuating and rather unpleasant comment about a blog post I had written. It didn’t name me, but just as she felt that Steve’s angry tweet was about her, I understood this comment to be about something I had written.

I was pretty angry. Very angry. And there were a couple of things I could have done. I could have ignored it (prob the best course, but I am me). I could have challenged it on the comments thread, but felt this would derail a post that was already veering off the rails. So I did the silly thing and went and whinged on Twitter, tweeting Ropes to Infinity who had written a similar blog post to the one being bad-mouthed in her comment.

@stebax her second comment seems to either be alluding to me or @RopesToInfinity what do you think RTI? You or me? Or both? either way, it

... @stebax @RopesToInfinity COMPLETELY misrepresents my post and makes either you or me sound pretty unpleasant. Ugh. what a pain.

@stebax @RopesToInfinity i am not going to comment, i am not going to comment, i am not going to comment...but really! so bloody rude.

In the meantime, Steve and RTI made some amusing tweet jokes about what-about-ery and soup, which I thought rather amusing. Something about how if you liked cream of chicken then you were oppressing minestrone. Or something. Remember this – I come back to it later.

So, got it off my chest and that was the end of that.

Or so I thought…

I then got an @ message saying I’d be outraged if the tweets going round had been written about anyone else. Deciding that I should really stop talking about another person on Twitter behind their back, I sent a DM in reply saying that I felt QRG had written untrue things about me and that I was putting this in a DM because:

‘i have been guilty of talking about her online before and i recognise that was a bit mean and immature of me’

Bored yet? I wouldn’t blame you if you were. But I am putting the record straight.

In the meantime I noticed on the NS thread that the commenter was writing a complaint to the New Statesman about Steve’s tweet. Now, I like Steve and I respect him. I commented that I didn’t think you could complain about something said in a personal capacity on Twitter to a publication. I said that because I think it’s true. I might be wrong. My boss wrote a rude tweet about a Giles Coren article once. In response, Giles Coren tweeted ‘@*** suck my dick fat boy’. I don’t think my boss could have complained to the Times about it. It doesn’t mean I was defending either tweet. 

And that was the end of that.

Or so I thought…

A while later I got an @ message saying:

a well made point from *that* NS article: "@Sianushka you're a FEMINIST defending MEN who've dragged a woman through the mud as a troll...

This comment really upset me.  And it made me think. Actually, venting on Twitter is immature. It is something we all do, but perhaps me bitching about that comment online with other people did come across as me ganging up on QRG. I felt bad, and I was sorry that I had behaved in an undignified and petty manner.

So I did what all right-thinking people would do. I apologised. I went on the NS comments thread, virtually stood up and said sorry for being immature and talking about someone behind their back online, and making jokes at their expense. I really hope that my apology was accepted because it was and still is sincerely meant. I was behaving a like a numpty and an apology was called for.

And that kind of was the end of that. But because I am nosy and can never leave well enough alone, I popped over to QRG’s blog which was linked to on the NS comments thread to see what she had to say about the whole debacle. And then I saw these nasty, horrible tweets that made unnecessary, personal and offensive comments about her sexuality in lieu of arguing with her, for example, political or theoretical views.

That’s why I am writing this post. Because I do not want anyone to think that I was defending or supporting or endorsing those tweets. I’m sure people don’t, but because people were upset by some things I said, I was concerned I had been grouped with the people who were slagging off someone’s sexual preferences.

It is never ok to use someone’s sexuality against them as a way to undermine and criticise them. I say this because it should just be a basic truth, and also because I have been on the receiving end and know how stupid it is. I have been called a lesbian online, (I’m not), have had people ‘joke’ online that because I have an anti porn and sex industry stance that I must think that you should only have ‘vanilla’ sex with someone you love, and have been asked publicly online what I use to ‘get myself off’ seeing as I don’t watch porn. All pretty stupid, all pretty unpleasant. And just three of the reasons why I feel very strongly that a woman’s or man’s sexuality should not be used as a tool to mock or criticise them, or even be speculated on by complete strangers, or friends, or anyone, online or offline.

So I hope that clears that up. I never saw those tweets before last night and I utterly, utterly condemn them.

Also on her blog she quoted a tweet Cath Elliott sent to me and Steve saying:

@stebax @sianushka Haha, just caught up. *salutes @stebax* for tweet of the year ;)

Now, I thought that this tweet was about the soup jokery. QRG thought it was about the sweary tweet. We could both be wrong, one of us could be right. But it does show how easily things can be misinterpreted on Twitter to cause upset  (I told you the soup tweets would return!).

That’s that anyway.

Now part 2: derailing, banning and nonsense

It has come to my attention that someone has been tweeting and posting on blogs that they have been banned from my blog, and that I only want to be surrounded by ‘yes men’. Seeing as this is a post about clearing things up, I would like to clarify that this is not true. I didn’t publish two comments on my blogpost regarding the Daily Mail’s reporting of gang rape as I felt they were derailing and possibly triggering. The comments ended up on another blog and an interesting debate happened there. I have a moderation policy that I use as a guide, because I went through a period where I got a lot of abuse and wanted to make it clear that on my blog, I write about what I want to write about. However, I regularly post comments that break my mod policy, and don’t have anything on my mod policy that says ‘you will not be allowed to post if you disagree with me’. So unless you’re the person who physically threatened me, or informed I would burn in hell for having a gay mum, no-one is banned. And seeing as I can’t remember their names, those people aren’t really banned either.

Right, that is all. Lets draw a line under this whole silly out of hand debate.

Thank you and good night.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

An open letter to Cameron, Clegg, May and Featherstone


Actions, not words.
So formed part of Theresa May's speech to the Women's Aid conference after being appointed Home Secretary and Equalities minister, little less than a year ago. 

Actions, not words.

And, in some ways, she was right. Actions have been made, and very few words about them have been spoken. Actions that will result in the deaths, and the physical and mental harm of women all over the country, who are facing the reality of having their life-saving and life-creating services cut, thanks to this coalition government's financial and economic decisions.

It was revealed by Women's Aid this March that, across the country, 60% of refuge services will have no council funding in the new financial year, and neither will 72% of floating support services, which provide support within people's homes. 

Actions, not words. 

These cuts will also lead to 40% job losses in the refuge sector. 

Actions, not words. 

These cuts mean that next year, an extra 70,000 women and children will be left without the support they need to escape lives of violence. The cuts will reduce refuge projects from 400 across the UK, to 160. Every day, 200 women are already unable to access a refuge place. These cuts mean that many more women will literally have no-where to go to start new lives away from a world of physical, emotional and sexual violence. Their children will have no-where to go. Men in violent relationships will also lose the support that many of these services offer.

Actions, not words.

Statistics tell us that two women a week will die as a result of domestic violence, and 2,000 women a week are raped. The number of women annually killed by their partner has risen in the past few years, from 78 in 2008 to 97 in 2010. The basic facts are that as a result of these service cuts, more women will be beaten, physically and emotionally. More women will be raped. More women will die.

Women like Tania Moore, whose story was told on BBC Panorama. When Tania Moore left her abusive partner, he continued to stalk her and send her threatening messages, before murdering her in 2004. Her mother has since campaigned to raise awareness of the horrors of domestic violence and stalking.

Or women like Hannah Fisher, whose mother is currently raising money for Refuge to ensure that services which could have saved her daughter exist for future women. Hannah was killed by her former partner when she was 21.

The moment when a woman decides to leave her violent partner is the moment she is most in danger. Without support services in place to ensure a safe space for her to escape to, women are at huge risk of stalking, violence and death. Refuge places save lives, like the life of an anonymous woman who got in touch with me to say how her and her baby fled a violent relationship to find a place in a refuge, and were supported in finding secure accommodation. She says the refuge saved her life.

Actions, not words.

It was also revealed last week that the post created by the government to fight against female genital mutilation in the UK has been cut. This comes weeks after the government pledged to fight this crime, that often leaves women with health problems, pain during intercourse and periods, and increased complications during childbirth. It can cause severe pain and shock, psychological damage, urine retention, immediate fatal haemorrhaging and complications in pregnancy and childbirth. It is an act designed to control women. It is a crime committed against children. This cut suggests that the government has chosen to risk the physical and emotional health of young girls in order to save money. One charity worker says that of all the young women she works in from the FGM-practising community, nearly all have been cut. It is estimated that 24,000 girls in the UK are at risk of being cut. No-one has ever been prosecuted for practising FGM since it was made illegal in the UK in 1985.

Actions, not words. 

I have briefly laid out the facts of the effects of the cuts to services that provide support to women and men escaping violent relationships. I have told the stories of a few women who have been affected. Now, I ask you to take action. 

You can ensure that services which save women's lives are safe themselves. You can pledge to invest money and secure funding to protect services that save lives.

Supporting the domestic violence sector makes financial sense. Domestic violence costs London alone £2.5 million a day. The average annual income of a Rape Crisis centre is £81,598 – only marginally more the cost to the state of one rape. And it makes moral and social sense. I do not want to live in a society that sacrifices the lives of vulnerable women to make savings. Risking the lives of women to save money is not an option. 

You can take action. After you have read this letter, please visit the websites of our leading domestic violence support service charities and donate. If the actions of this government have determined to cut funding from the this vital sector, then take action yourselves, and donate now.

And please, think of the sons and daughters who had no card to send to their mothers on the 3rd April. The siblings who will never reminisce with their sister. The mothers and fathers who will never see their daughters grow older. The best friend who loses the woman she loves. The women who will not live the lives they were supposed to live. And think of the women who have survived, thanks to the services that are dedicated to ending what  the UN Secretary-General has called the greatest human rights violation of our time. Who are dedicated to ending violence against women and girls, with actions, not words. 

Yours sincerely,

Sian Norris

342 women and men have signed this letter in support. There names are:

Anna Brown Bristol Feminist Network
Helen Gregory, The F Word
Rob Buckley
Marina Strinkovsky
Kate Grant Bristol Feminist Network
Rachel Simmons
Emma Bedford
Dr Sue Tate Bristol Fawcett and Bristol Feminist Network, Senior lecturer at UWE
Constance Fleuriot
Jane Mornemont, Bristol Fawcett
Dr Nikki Hayfield
Harriet Williams, Bristol Feminist Network
Hannah Mudge
Louise Almond-Norris
Kate Bewick
Joanna Papageorgiou
Natalie Dzerins
Jean-Paul Storrow
Maddie Shapland
Jen Hall
Paul Wood
Guy Taylor
Jonathan Headington
Tiffany Daniels
Melissa Harry
Jessica Haigh, Leeds Feminist Network
Jan Martin, Bristol Feminist Network
James Tanner
Matt Moran
Katherine Williams
Tomas Rawlings
Sandra Dillon
Lee-Tze Leong
Cath Elliott, blogger and journalist
Selina Postgate
Sophie Warnes
Alison Wheeler
Alexx Eastwood-Williams
Vicky Ayech
Aatish Ramchurn
Claire Butler
Bob Irving
Dahlian Kirby
Anna Robertson
Elaine Hutton, Bristol Fawcett
Amirah Garba
Cat Jone
sChitra Nagarajan, London Feminist Network
Esther Owen, Bristol Fawcet
Finn McKay, founder of London Feminist Network
James Sherlock
Linda Durrant
Pam Smith
Dr Charlotte Paterson, Bristol Fawcett
Laura Norton
Mark Clapham
Ben Singer
Mary Ni Cheallaigh
John O'Dwyer
Fatma Kayhan
Sue Newte
Davina Williams, Bristol Fawcett
Jackie Barron
Karen Connelly
Carrie Supple
Carolyn Forsyth
Jan Goodyear
Orna Ross
Charmaine Elliott
Amani Zarroug
Dr Pamela Trevithick, Bristol Fawcett
Kayleigh Reed
Sian Cox
Kirsty Gallery
Eve Zienau
Mark Randall
Jac Higgs and the Northants Green Party
Tanya Jones
Juliet Blake
Thomas Pickard
Gill Harry
Deborah Metters
Simon Hewitt
Mel Brown
Cathryn Fraser
Simon Hayward
Selina Nwulu
Vicky Nigussie
Kate Smurthwaite, comedian and vice chair of abortion rights
Deborah de Lloyd
Amber Burrows
Robert Frazier
Jennifer Drew
Martin Wilson
Adrienne Madden
Margaret Vesey
Verity Halliday
Miles Curtis Watson
Jessica Finn
James Baker
Katie Sims
Will Mead
Ben Whale
Isaac Marsden-Loftus
Daniel Parkes
Lukasz Tyszczuk
Bidisha, writer and broadcaster
Natalie Vivian
Sophia McCrea
Polly Toney
Pete Toney
Nadia Yafai
Andy Platt
Alessandra Berti, Bristol University Feminist Society
Stephanie Theobald
Millie Kidson
Rosa Morris
Wendy Constantinoff
Damian Harte
Diane Law
Cerys Hammer
Lindsay Dickinson
Amy Wright
Lauren Evans
Ben Martin
Martin Paul Eve
Giordana Bunting
Jenny Williamson
Liz Britton
Steve Dickinson
Michael Bimmler
Beatrix Campbell, writer and journalist
AVA Project
Laura Woodhouse, The F Word and Sheffield  Feminist Network
Dr. Helen Mott, Bristol Fawcett
Ruth Schamrof
Maria Ng
Karen Barlow
Sharon Gewirtz
Stephanie Poyntz, Bristol Fawcett
Emily Brewer
Jeremy Green
Ruth Owens
Katharine Jenkins
Charlotte Gage
Sally Clifford
Sarah Fogg
Toni Haastrup
Lisa Saunders
Andrew Brown
Nina Blakesley
Jodie Gardiner
Paula Manners Rape crisis
Marilyn Shipley
Olivia Bailey
Claire Chetwynd
Emma Dowden
Kirsty Doole
Frances Walker
Sam Ahmed
Diane Shipley
Mary Tracy
Hari Byles
Nicola Kerry
Imogen Facey
Jacqueline Christodoulou
Catherine Elms
Pam MacLeod
Deborah Kelley
Minna Salonen
Kate Williams
Lynsey Rose
Josh Hadley
Kev Croaker
Claire Barker
Katherine Wootton
Harri C Weeks
Carrie Stewart
Eleanor Saunders
Sue Westwood
Jane Evans
Sue Jeffries
Lindsay J Haynes
Hannah Seidel
Sophie Bennett President, Bristol University Feminist Society
Rob Griggs
Rukshana Afia
Sian de Freyssinet, London Feminist Network
Esther Polden  Bristol Fawcett
Sally Outen
Linda Haskins
Sophie Parker Manuel
Jessica Laughton
Amy O'Leary
Rhiannon Holder MBE
Cat Payne
Georgie Power
Katy Ladbrook, Bristol Feminist Network
Natalie Bennett Bristol Feminist Network
Anna Lowenstein
Alice Field
Michelle Wright
Susan Field
Armin Elsaesser, Bristol Feminist Network
Ruth Martin
Lara Gunnarsson
Jennifer Chadburn
Zara Grout
Sinead Walsh
Polly Smith
Clare Hollowell
Caitlin Gwyn
Eleanor T Higgs
Sarah Evans
Anna Travers
Claire Murray
Amy Wilkes
Bev Khan
Juliet Sprake
Lily-Rose Beardshaw
Sarah Kiddle
Amelia Bayes
Eleanor Johnson
Marion Payne
Charlie Dacke, Solent Feminist Network
101 members of Solent Feminist Network 
Francine Hoenderkamp, Turn your back on page 3
Hannah Pickford
Barnaby Lynch
Kate Sang
Susan Pares South London Fawcett Society
David Hopkinson
Dave Taylor
Melanie Jeffs