Sunday, 28 April 2013

I might be glad about the return of Spare Rib – but let’s not pretend online feminism isn’t vital

When I heard the news that Spare Rib was making a comeback I have to admit I was a bit nervous. On the one hand – hurrah for a funded feminist magazine that would provide some relief from the glossy ‘Sex tips for girls – how to give your man the perfect blow job’ headlines that currently dazzle my newsagent's shelf (point 1. Women not girls, point 2. Can we have sex tips that focus on women?). On the other hand, I always am wary of anything that focuses money and energy on reminiscing about something historic instead of supporting and inspiring what’s going on in the present.

I grew up with a framed copy of Spare Rib in our upstairs hallway however (Cagney and Lacey gracing the cover – awesome!) so decided that really, my heart is with the Rib Revival.

However, today in the Observer I read a really nasty, spiteful and vindictive article by Sophie Wilkinson which basically seemed to read that we need Spare Rib to come back to sort out us feminists today. We, apparently, value re-tweeting over activism and as a result feminism is turning in on itself.

Well, I call bullshit on that one. Firstly, because it is not true and, secondly, because it is not true.

Let’s deal with the first element of untruth in her article.

Feminism today categorically does not exist just online. There is a thriving, active, exciting and inspiring feminist movement changing the world for the better out there, offline. What’s more, we’re working with no money, little time and sheer determination to change the world. I should know, after all, I’m part of it.

All over the UK, grassroots feminists are setting up rape crisis centres, campaigning against the cuts, gathering evidence of the Government’s marginalisation of women, lobbying politicians and councillors, marching for our freedom to live free from the fear of rape, challenging anti-abortion rhetoric, speaking out against FGM, domestic abuse, forced marriage, cultural femicide. We are putting on festivals and putting on demonstrations and writing reports and we are doing it without £20,000 raised by prominent feminist writers (money raised to get Spare Rib back on the printing press). We are here and we are doing. We are gathering in rooms and sharing our experiences, we are gathering in conference halls and shouting ‘we are feminist’ from the rooftops, we are going into classrooms and talking to young women and men about feminism and sexuality, we are putting together packs about improved sex education. We are campaigning for (and increasingly within) an intersectional movement.

We are doing all of this with no money, little time and very, very little coverage from the mainstream media. The grassroots feminist movement is, after all, far, far less interesting than feminist catfights. We’re too busy doing actual stuff.

That’s just in the UK. All over the world women activists are taking, well, action. Women in Afghanistan are setting up domestic abuse refuges at huge risk to their own safety and lives, women in the DRC speaking out about the experiences of rape, women in the States turning their back on Romney and voting for bodily autonomy, women in Nicaragua campaigning for abortion rights, women in India marching against rape, women in Bangladesh marching for better working conditions – women marching and acting and speaking and not getting their tits out (the only international activism the mainstream media seem to notice at the moment).

But apparently none of this is as important or newsworthy as spiteful articles about how feminism today is doing it wrong.

As someone who has spent the last six years running one of the biggest feminist networks in the country,  I can’t help but feel incredibly annoyed and frustrated when the work of groups like Bristol Feminist Network,  and there are loads like us, are ignored in favour of this narrative that one way of doing feminism (in this case the Spare Rib model) is better than any other way of doing feminism. There’s room for all the sisters under my feminist umbrella after all. I want Spare Rib back, I want to work with all women, but I don’t want them to ignore the work we women outside the media are doing. I also get frustrated when, once again, mainstream media reporting of feminism focuses just on one or two high profile organisations and ignores the multiplicity of voices in the UK movement, such as Black Feminists UK, Integrate and GAPS.

Anyway, that’s enough about untruth number 1. Let’s look at untruth number 2.

Online feminism is far, far more than ‘re-tweets replacing debate’ and ‘lazy clicks equalling approval’. To say this is to silence, ignore and mock the incredible galvanizing effect the internet has had on feminism in the UK today – and across the world. However, because my experience is of the UK I am going to stick to that.

The online feminist movement has brought together people of all genders to discuss and make feminist activism happen. It levels the playing field. It gives women from all backgrounds the chance to share their experience – it gives us a platform. When BFN plan an action we try to have an online element so that people who can’t attend an event can still take part. The internet has given women a space to speak out about their experiences, it has allowed us to share petitions and letters and research and reports. For younger women, isolated in a world where they think they are the only feminist, the feminist blogosphere gives them endless resources to explore and discover.

Thanks to online feminism I have met women from all over the UK and I get the chance to talk to them about gender inequality and rape culture, FGM and VAWG. Online feminism taught me about intersectionality – a concept I had never heard of before encountering it on the F Word. The internet has made me a better feminist.

Of course, it is not perfect. There is bullying and unpleasantness and we have seen a lot of that in recent months. There are also issues around accessibility and who has access to the online world.

But there is so much more to the online feminist world than lazy RT-ing. Not, of course, that RT-ing is lazy by definition!

Without online feminism, for example, I would not have been able to organise the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival. I would not have been able to gather signatures for my letter to MPs about violence against women and girls.I would not have had the solidarity and love of my sisters when I was attacked by men over the Hooters debacle.

And that’s just me – one small activist in a small city with a small blog.

What perhaps summed up the attitude of the article towards the online world was the snarky dismissal by Sophie Wilkinson of the Everyday Sexism  (and that’s what it’s called, not Everyday Feminism!). She writes that it is just a site ‘which simply holds a magnifying mirror to the regular, dull throb of misogyny so it can be identified and extracted like a thick whitehead’ is so ignorant and rude and dismissive of the importance of that site as to be almost laughable. Everyday Sexism is about giving a voice to thousands and thousands of women about the horrors of misogyny when they didn’t have a voice before. It’s about bringing together women’s experiences, giving us a safe space to speak out about the things we thought no one wanted to hear about, no one wanted to listen to. It’s about multiplicity – the voices of many to many not the voices of few to many.

Feminism has always been about, to me, raising our voices. It’s about the power of women’s voices. How dare anyone tell women that a space where our voices are finally heard doesn’t matter? That it’s just a waste? This is our space, for our voices, talking about our experiences. Some of the things I have shared there are things I hardly dared speak before. I am sure this is the case for many who use that site. There’s a real power in cataloguing these experiences. They give us undeniable, irrefutable evidence that this misogyny, this hatred of women is real and happening and happening every single fucking day. It is not to be mocked. It is not to be silenced. In this, Everyday Sexism is symbolic of much of online feminism – a bringing together of women’s voices to speak out and document and fight against misogyny.

I’m glad Spare Rib is coming back. But not if it is going to happen by silencing other women and privileging the voices of women who have a national media platform. There is so much happening in the UK and global feminist movement today that needs to be celebrated and respected in the mainstream media. It’s happening online and offline. Instead of silencing and mocking these movements – as to me this article so callously did – let’s use an incredible force like Spare Rib to raise the movement’s profile and celebrate its many, many wonderful and important achievements.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Clare's Law - will it really help women fleeing violence?

Trigger warning: discussion of domestic abuse and violence against women, including some common scenarios

At the weekend, I read an article in the Guardian about the one-year trial of Clare’s Law.  For those who don’t know, Clare’s Law is designed to give women and men the chance to check with the police to see if their partner has a history of domestic abuse. 

It was really heartening to read in the article that some women in violent relationships have used Clare’s Law and felt able to leave their abusive partner. It seems to have been a positive force in these women’s lives. One of the women interviewed said ‘it probably saved my life.’

However, I remain concerned about Clare’s Law. Although it has undoubtedly helped some women, there are two areas where it feels to me to be another example of the Government making noises about ending violence against women whilst not taking real and effective action. 

I should note here that both men and women can access information about their partner’s history however I will just talk about women in this post. That is not to silence the experience of men survivors.

My first worry is that Clare’s Law puts the responsibility on the victim or potential victim to ‘avoid’ the violence of her partner. It says to women that if they have concerns, it’s up to them to act on those concerns by going to the police. To me, Clare’s Law skirts over the issue that to tackle violence against women we need to be looking at the behaviour and actions of perpetrators. It also raises questions about rehabilitation and sentencing of abusers. 

Clare’s Law tells women who think their partner is violent, or have a partner who has been violent towards them, to take action and find out if he has a history of violence. It is then assumed that, armed with this knowledge, women can (and should) leave. As the article shows, some women have felt able to do this. 

But what if you don’t?

What if you confront your partner with what you’ve learnt, and he promises to change? What if he blames his ex, and says that you are different to her and he will never do that again? 

Or, what if you don’t confront him because you believe he loves you and he won’t do it again? 

My worry with Clare’s Law is that it will be used – both maliciously and ignorantly – to blame the victim. If we tell a woman that her partner has a history of violence and she stays with him and then he is violent towards her, will people find it even easier to say ‘why didn’t she just leave?’ And, considering we already live in a victim blaming culture, what will this mean for trying to convict? How would this impact on getting justice for survivors? 

As I say, it is clear that Clare’s Law has been positive for some women who have left their partners after finding out about their past violence. But I can’t help but feel very concerned that it will be used to blame women who don’t leave. It puts the responsibility on women to find out about their partner’s past and act on that knowledge in an ‘approved’ way. It doesn’t seek to prevent violence; it puts no emphasis on men’s action. To me, the law doesn’t seem to understand or even consider why women might not feel able to leave a violent partner. 

However, my concern about Clare’s Law isn’t just about women who don’t leave. It’s also about the women who do 

Clare’s Law has been enacted at a time when the domestic violence support service sector is being destroyed by Government cuts. Women’s Aid estimates 230 women are turned away from refuges every day.  At one point, the National Domestic Abuse helpline was reportedly advising women fleeing violence to sleep on buses, in occupy camps – anywhere but home, because they had no refuge spaces to offer them. 

It’s one thing to tell women that their partner has a violent history. But what is a woman supposed to do with this knowledge if she has no-where safe to go?

Leaving a violent partner is incredibly dangerous. Women need to know they have somewhere safe to go to – alone or with children if she has them. Somewhere he cannot follow her and hurt her. It probably isn’t safe to go back to her family (if she has a relationship with them) or to a friend’s house. The safest place is a refuge, staffed by experienced women who can offer support, advice and care. 

Imagine a woman with a young child whose partner is violent. She goes to the police and discover through Clare’s Law that he has a history of domestic abuse. She decides to leave. Telling him this provokes more rage and violence. She knows she can’t go to her parents because he knows where they live. It’s simply too dangerous. She feels isolated from her friends because his behaviour has been controlling. She calls to find a refuge place for her and her child and there are none. 

Where does she go? 

At this point in time, where refuges are closing and the support for victims and survivors is losing funding, Clare’s Law seems almost cruel. What’s the point of telling a woman that her partner is dangerous and she should leave, if you have taken away all the safe places she could go to? 

It makes me so, so angry. Because I want Clare’s Law to work. In a world where every woman –  and there are 1.2 million women experiencing domestic abuse each year – got the support she needed to leave a violent partner, Clare’s Law would be a help. 

But in a world where Clare’s Law tells a woman her partner is violent whilst taking away her options to safely leave him? That’s a taunt. 

It’s great that women have used Clare’s Law to help them leave violent relationships. I worry though that, with the cuts continuing, many women will find they have the facts, but no-where to go. 

It seems to me that once again, the Government has found a way to say it is taking action on violence against women whilst ignoring how their policies across the board are actually causing far more significant harm to women trying to flee violence. 

Domestic violence helpline: 0808 2000 247

Monday, 15 April 2013

My Top 5 feisty female heroes in children's books

With the publication of my first novel, Greta and Boris: a daring rescue, I’ve been having a think about the books I enjoyed reading as a girl. Just like my book, most of the novels I devoured as a child featured interesting, strong and brave girl characters – girls set for adventure or overcoming real trials. With Greta I wanted to create a lead character who gets to do lots of “stuff”, who has a story of her own. And that’s not surprising when you consider who my favourite fictional characters were during my childhood. They were all girls who got to do stuff too – and do it well. 

So, without further ado, here are my Top 5 Feisty Female Heroes in children’s books. Not including Greta of course! 

Maria Merryweather, The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge

This book was absolutely my favourite when I was growing up. It tells the story of Maria, an orphan who leaves London to live with her cousin in his grand castle, Moonacre. Maria is headstrong, a bit cheeky, prone to vanity but ultimately is ‘pure of heart’. She soon discovers that despite its beauty, all is not well in Moonacre and it is up to her to save her beloved home and its residents from a curse that has led to discord and upset for centuries. You see, she is not just Maria Merryweather – she is the Moon Princess. 

This is such a magical novel with a colourful cast of wonderfully-named characters. Loveday Minette, Miss Heliotrope, Marmaduke Scarlet and Digweed to name just a few! With the help of her best friend Robin and the Moonacre animals, Wrolf, Serena and Zachariah, Maria goes on a stunningly imagined adventure to bring peace and harmony to Moonacre. And they all live happily ever after…

Meg, Quest for a Maid by Frances Mary Hendry

I have never met anyone who has read this book. It’s such a shame how unknown it is because it’s truly amazing. It follows the adventures of Meg, the youngest daughter of a 13th century ship builder and the youngest sister of Inge, known in her community as a witch. Meg is spirited, friendly, often clumsy and always full of fun and adventure. 

The novel is set in a period of unrest in Scottish history. King Alexander is dead and his heir is the young Maid of Norway. However, the Scots Lords are not prepared to accept this wee lassie as Queen and are determined to make their own grab for power. As Meg joins the party sent to collect the young Princess from Norway, she finds herself caught in the middle of history as she battles to keep the child safe. 

Witchcraft, boats, adventure, long journeys and wicked Lords and Ladies – Meg’s determination and indomitable spirit takes them all on in a wonderful novel.   

Sara Crewe, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

She’s probably more famous for The Secret Garden, but this was always my preferred novel. It tells the story of Sara Crewe, a rich and petted girl raised in India who comes to London to go to school. Her father is disgustingly rich and she has everything she could ever want – however her good fortune hasn’t made her spoilt or mean. She’s always kind and polite and loves nothing more than making up stories to share with her friends, Becky the maid, Ermengarde and Lottie.

But then, tragedy strikes. Sara’s father dies and his fortune vanishes. The school headmistress, Miss Minchin – surely one of the most wicked women in children’s literature – moves Sara from her luxurious rooms to the rat-infested, freezing attic. 

Sara faces many challenges in her new life. She’s bullied, starved and friendless. But she never stops hoping that one-day things will be different. Even when life seems at its most hopeless, she never stops remembering to be a good and wise person. And, of course, she gets her happy ending in the end. 

Mildred, The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy

Hapless, a bit hopeless but always lovely, I adored Mildred. I loved how she had a tabby instead of a black cat, I loved how she wasn’t great at being a witch but always tried really hard and I loved how she always came good in the end. I bought this for my friend’s seven year-old this year and she loves her too. The TV adaptations always tried to make Mildred better than she was, a bit prim and prissy. The books had a lot more honesty and heart. 

Rose or Roe, A Little Love Song by Michelle Magorian

More a YA novel than a children’s book, it has to be included in my list because it’s one that has inspired me throughout my life. The title is a bit soppy, but it’s a fantastic read about sex, writing and women. 

Rose and her sister Diana have gone to live in Salmouth as their mother travels east to entertain the troops during WW2. Unchaperoned, the two girls revel in their freedom. However, when Roe finds the secret diaries of the cottage’s former resident, ‘Mad Hilda’, she discovers a terrible story set in the previous war, when Hilda fell in love with a soldier and ended up incarcerated in an asylum for having his child. 

I loved this book because, like me, Roe wants to be a writer. As well as discovering what kind of life she wants to live, she’s also encountering sex and love for the first time. Plus Alec, who runs the local bookshop, is surely my first literary crush. 

A Little Love Song was the first book I read that talked frankly about sex and the treatment of unmarried women who had children – a subject that still interests me today. This novel is a wonderful coming-of-age story that should be read by all teenagers wanting to grow up and be a writer.   

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Greta and Boris: a daring rescue - have a read of the start

On 29 March, my first novel 'Greta and Boris: a daring rescue' was published by Our Street Books

Here's the blurb:

"Greta’s best friend is her cat Boris. However, little does she realise her bewhiskered buddy is actually the Prince of the Kingdom of Cats. So when he is kidnapped by the Rat King, a young warrior cat named Kyrie Mi-ke is sent to find Greta, and together they face a mystical and magical adventure to bring Boris home again.
Greta must face the challenge of the staircase of the autumn leaves; cross Cloud Top Land and the Milky Sea; end the war between the two tribes of mice and face the truth of the Millpond; before facing the Rat King himself."

Here's what the critics are saying:

"Greta and Boris is touching, exciting, cheeky and vivid, with wonderful characters, a strong narrative and sudden delightful details...Given the many below-par books I've been sent by publishers over the years, Greta and Boris easily exceeds the general standard of publishability. Greta and Boris is billed as a children's novel but it is more of a tale or fable - a fast and picaresque vision quest in which a young hero finds her destiny and with it, of course, her inner strength, which she had all along. It is an adventure that is both heartstopping and heartmeling, at once sentimental and comfortingly predictable (in the best way: we trust in sleek Kyrie's guidance and know that Greta will triumph in the end) and pacy and unexpected. The story's sprinkled with sparkling details, with each location fully realised and a joy to traverse. However this is not some twee animal book about plucky talking cats and four-legged anthropomorphs. Greta is the central character and she receives from Kyrie a wondrous education about feline life. The animal world is a dangerous, equal, varied and interesting place. Quest narratives are a much-loved genre which she tackles with great lightness and ease - brevity (length being the big tedious dragging millstone of countless duff quest books). Hung with featherweight delicacy around the central adventure are lessons of great human import to Greta. There are allusions (never leaden, worthy or obstructive) to climate change, bigotry, the balance of ecosystems, humans' disruption of nature and predatory animal peace pacts. Norris's world is one in which trouble and discord can always be overcome by mutual respect, friendship and peace. the central relationships have a sweet warmth, depicted with an innocent optimism that is ultimately extremely touching and life-affirming."

And here's a delightful extract from the start of the book for you to enjoy:

Swish, swish, was the sound that broke into the stillness of the night. Swish, swish, accompanied with scampering and scratching of claws and paws, rushing forward through grass and fallen leaves towards the palace. And if anyone had been awake to hear it, they would have heard that each scurrying paw-step was landing in time, in the rhythm of a march. A soft thud, thud, swish, swish, echoed through the sleepy kingdom, as only the moon looked down on the onward journey of an army that didn’t want to be seen.
The cats slept on, oblivious to the menace that was slowly surrounding them.
The pack of marching creatures started to head up the hill where the palace stood, imposing and magnificent. In the moonlight, the towering building looked even more beautiful and impressive. The rainbow-colored tiles glistened like tiny fairy lights, a blinding spectacle that illuminated the hills and villages below it. The army continued to advance. As the moonlight reflected off their furry backs, it became increasingly obvious which creatures of the animal kingdom were threatening the peaceful palace of the cats. And there could be no doubt at all, when one of the marching many kicked a stone and let loose a wild and pained ‘SQUEAK!’ before hastily being seen to and told off by the leader of the procession.
The moon could see the horrible truth below her now, yet from her lofty place in the sky was powerless to stop it. It was an army of rats. The rats had invaded the Kingdom of Cats. Under the cover of darkness, safe in the knowledge that every kitten, tom and queen would be sleeping soundly, they had made their cowardly advance, confident that no-one would be able to stop them.

I'll be launching Greta and Boris: a daring rescue at Bristol Foyles on April 20th at 1pm
You can buy the book at Foyles, Amazon, Waterstones, Guardian Bookshop and many other great places. 

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Ssh. I'm having a break.

You may have noticed (or you may not) that my blog has been a bit quiet of late.

This has had a lot to do with the fact that my day job has been very busy leaving less time to go home from work, turn on the laptop and spend another few hours typing. I also, in case you missed it, put on a massive great big Women's Literature Festival which took up some of my time.

But perhaps the biggest interruption has been that, for the first time in years, I've hit upon a fiction idea that I really want to tell and develop and bring to life. And so, rather than getting up early on Saturday and writing a blogpost, I've been getting up early and immersing myself in a story. It's great, I love it.

I've been blogging for seven years now, before that I wrote my zine, and so I think I have earned a little rest to have a go at writing something else.

However, I am still an angry feminist writer and so this blog is not closing, just going on standby for a bit. And knowing me, I'll probably write posts sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, my first published foray into fiction is now available. Here's what it looks like:

Greta and Boris: a daring rescue is available to buy on Amazon, on Kindle, at Guardian Books, at Foyles and in the physical shop of Foyles, Bristol. And other places too I'm sure. That's just as far as I looked. 

So. I will be back. But in the meantime, I'll be writing.