Tuesday, 17 June 2014

'Go die in a fire" is not just an idle threat - as I know only too well

Before we start, let’s have a listen to Electrelane covering Bruce Springsteen’s I’m On Fire. 

Ahh. Isn’t that something? 

OK. Now on to the point. This blog is about two things. First, it’s about my experience of an incident of male violence, the difficulty I had in recognising it as male violence, and what their act of violence meant. Second, it will discuss a recent spate of nasty online behaviour directed at women, and why this behaviour needs to stop. 

So. Twelve years ago, two boys a year younger than me set me on fire. They stuck a lit lighter in my hair, and my dry hair, as dry hair is wont to do when matched with flames, caught alight and burned bright for a moment or two before my friend extinguished it by repeatedly hitting me on the head. The boys smirked, and exited scene left. Like all good teenagers, I tried to laugh it off. It was only later when I got home that I cried. Alone, in the garden.  

I didn’t report it. I didn’t report if for all the reasons women and girls don’t report male violence. I was ashamed. I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to ‘make a big thing of it’. My mum, when I said I wouldn’t report it, told me to go to the deputy head of my school. After the deputy head ‘resolved’ the issue by asking the boys to write me a badly-spelled lie of an apology note (“dear sharn, Im sorry I set your hair on fire, it was an accident and wont happen again” – those words are engraved in my brain with an angry, angry pen) I wished fervently I had gone to the police. I wished I had shown them I wasn’t afraid. I wished I could watch them get what they deserved. I wished they had got to feel ashamed and embarrassed and humiliated – got to feel like I did. But I didn’t report. 

That was the end of that. I turned it into a funny story, like we often do with things that are horrible that happen to us. You smile a little more stiffly at each retelling. And you don’t think about what it meant. You don’t think about what it meant to have someone decide to attack you by setting your hair on fire. 

It took me a long time to realise this was an act of male violence. I know that sounds silly – it’s so obvious isn’t it? Two men attacked me by setting my hair on fire, and I didn’t see that as male violence. I now realise that one of the barriers I faced to naming what happened to me was that I didn’t report. Not reporting meant I never recognised what had happened, or why it ‘counted’ as violence. I’ve written about this in terms of naming experiences of sexual assault and how long it took me to realise that what happened to me was assault

These two boys set my hair on fire as an act of intimidation against my brother. They knew that attacking me was a way of attacking him. They treated my body as a cipher – my body was a proxy – to send him a message. It’s all tied up in the idea of women’s bodies as property of male relatives, and of course it’s all sub-consciously tied up in ideas of the importance of women’s hair. Understanding this, seeing the historical, social and cultural patterns, all of this helped me recognise this was an act of male violence against me, a girl at the time. It helped me name what happened to me. It helped me to understand that what happened to me was deliberately meant as violence, and that it was cruel, and that it was vicious. It helped me understand why I felt scared, and upset, and hurt. It helped me understand why I felt ashamed, embarrassed, and humiliated. And it helped me understand why I felt so angry when nothing happened to show them what they had done to me. 

Twelve years ago, two boys a year younger than me set me on fire. 

Last week, I saw a return of the online ‘trend’ of attacking women who some people don’t like online by saying they hope they ‘burn in a fire’. These people tweet that they want women to ‘burn’. One tweeted that once one woman had ‘her hair set on fire’ she would ‘eat her words’. 

As someone who has survived being set on fire by violent men, I not only find these words repulsive, I find them actively frightening. 

How dare anyone write that they want to silence women by setting them on fire? How dare they use that language and those threats to intimidate and frighten women into silence? How dare anyone go online and threaten a woman with violence? It’s disgusting. And knowing what we know about male violence against women, and how common it is, and how likely it is that the woman being attacked will have experienced at least one incident of male violence, it’s purely wicked. 

Throughout history, millions of women have died by being set on fire. Outspoken women were burned at the stake. Powerful women and women who refused to conform were burnt as witches. Widows were thrown on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands. Victims of domestic abuse are still burnt to death in their homes by violent partners. 

When you pose online with matches and a grin, when you tell women you hope they die in a fire because you think they are ‘scum’, you are aligning yourself with the thousands of men throughout history who have murdered women by pushing them into the flames. You are no better than those men. 

Telling women to die in a fire is no idle threat. It is the reality of millions of women throughout history. It is the reality of women alive today. It is my reality, as a survivor of having men set my hair on fire. It is not ok to despise women’s real life experience of male violence. It is not ok to use women’s experience of male violence in your desperate efforts to make women shut up. 

If you read this, and you are one of those people who has told women to die in a fire, who has threatened to silence women by setting them on fire, then for fuck’s sake, think about what you are saying and who you are saying it to. Because the woman you are threatening might know all too well what it means to be set on fire. I do, after all. 


Karen Ingala Smith has written a blog in response to this, detailing the number of women who have been murdered in the UK since the start of 2012. I urge you to read it and remember the names of these women. Then go and sign the Counting Dead Women petition. 

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Government's hypocrisy on violence against women, and asylum

Last night, Afusat Saliu and her daughters were deported back to Nigeria, after Saliu was refused asylum. She needed asylum because her daughters are are at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM) in Nigeria. Saliu fled to the UK in 2011 after her stepmother threatened to cut her daughters. A survivor of FGM herself, she believed the UK government would protect her children from violence. She believed wrong. 

Thanks to concerted campaigning by the inspiring and incredibly brave women of organisations like Daughters of Eve and Integrate Bristol, the UK government has made a number of significant promises to end FGM. This is really important, and a testament to the dedication of feminist campaigners who have refused to be silenced.The government has, for example, commissioned a report on the lack of convictions for the crime, invested in a helpline with the NSPCC and sent out educational materials to raise awareness across the education and health sectors. This is all important and fantastic work that has been made possible by the brave women who have campaigned tirelessly on this issue. 

But whilst the left hand of government works to end FGM, last night showed how the right hand of government is deporting girls to be cut. This reveals a grave and troubling hypocrisy in the heart of our government and their attitudes towards violence against women and girls. 

How can the government claim to be committed to ending FGM, when they refuse to give asylum to those who are at risk of the crime? When they refuse to see it as a form of gender-based persecution from which women and girls need protecting? How can they make promises to girls in the UK, and break those promises to girls not born in the UK? 

It isn’t just FGM. It’s all part of a troubling hypocrisy between the government’s professed commitment to ending violence against women and girls, and a culture of disbelief at the UKBA when it comes to processing survivors of male violence. 

William Hague has become a real champion in the fight against rape as a weapon of war. Anyone who has heard him speak on this issue cannot doubt his dedication to eradicating this awful crime. I believe Hague truly cares about this and is doing his best to put policies and actions in place to tackle violence against women and girls in conflict. 


But once more, we see one side of government making all the right noises about ending violence against women and girls in conflict, whilst the other side deports survivors back to the places where they were raped. Worse, before they deport the women, they lock them up in Yarls Wood, a detention centre riddled with allegations of sexual assault

The organisation, Women for Refugee Women, recently published a report on on the plight facing women asylum seekers in the UK. The report interviews 46 women – 43 of which disclosed the reason why they were seeking asylum. 80% of the 43 women had either been raped or tortured, and 52% said they were persecuted because they were women. One of the women said she had been sexually assaulted by a Yarls Wood guard. 

The government cannot have it both ways. They cannot end rape as a weapon of war when they deport survivors back into the hands of their rapists. They cannot end violence against women and girls when they lock women up and leave them at risk of sexual assault. They need to have a joined up policy where survivors of these horrific crimes are listened to, heard and respected, and where their safety is taken seriously. They need to have a policy that recognises women are persecuted because they are women, and therefore are entitled to asylum if threatened with gender-based violence. 

I once went to a talk by a group of women asylum seekers. One of the women speakers told us about how she had been raped by soldiers. On arrival in the UK, the male border guards asked her why she was seeking asylum. Frightened and unsure, she didn’t know she had the right to speak to a woman in a private room. She didn’t want to talk to men about the violence committed against her by men, in front of a room full of other asylum seekers, again many of which were men. Her reticence meant the guards refused to believe her, and she was detained in Yarls Wood. 

She was later released. But her story is not uncommon. Many, many more women face this culture of disbelief within the asylum system, and are subsequently locked up by the people they came to for help. Once at Yarls Wood, the Women for Refugee Women report reveals, the women often suffer depression and suicidal thoughts. 

And it gets worse. The government plans to remove legal aid for detainees at Yarls Wood and foreign nationals. This will make it almost impossible for women to legally fight the guards who have allegedly committed sexual assault in the centre. It’s a policy that effectively gives the green light for the abuse to continue, and again undermines our government’s commitment to ending violence against women and girls.  

These women are not criminals. They are victims and survivors of an abhorrent crime that our government professes to be dedicated to tackling. And yet we lock them up in a centre where they are allegedly verbally, physically and sexually assaulted. About her time in Yarls Wood, one woman said:

When the big door closed it brought back everything that had happened to me back home when I was in prison. I thought that I was going to be raped. The fear overtook me. I felt that I was not strong enough to go through anything like that again.

Another woman detained in Yarls Wood, who sought asylum after being raped by soldiers in the DRC, said:

I came here because of the war back home. I can’t understand why they put me in prison.

If our government is truly sincere about tackling global violence against women and girls, from FGM to rape as a weapon of war, they need to start believing women who claim asylum because they are at risk of gender-based violence. They need to stop locking women up who have survived or are at risk of gender-based violence. They need to start joining the policy dots – and they need to start understanding that they cannot commit to ending rape as a weapon of war when they continue to treat survivors of that crime as criminals themselves. 

You can donate to Women for Refugee Women here, and to Integrate Bristol and Daughters of Eve here. I urge you to do so!