Friday, 27 November 2015

For Open Democracy 50:50 - review of Ali Smith's Public Library

I reviewed Ali Smith's stunning new short story collection, Public Library, for Open Democracy 50:50.

You can also read this, that I wrote about library closures.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

How do I know rape culture isn't a myth? Because I live in it.

How do I know I live in a rape culture? 

I know, because I am a woman, living in this culture. 

Today is the UN-designated International Day to End Violence Against Women (IDEVAW). So it was a bit galling to see this tweet in my timeline:

Rape culture isn’t a myth.

How do I know this? 

I know it because every year, 85,000 of my sisters will be raped. That’s roughly 11 rapes an hour. In one city, my city, Bristol, there are an estimated 130 rapes every month

I know it because of those 85,000 rapes, only 15% will be reported. And only 6.5% of those reported rapes will lead to a conviction. Not all of those convictions will lead to a jail sentence. 

That’s just the UK. Across the world, 1 in 3 women will experience male violence in our lifetimes. That’s over one billion women.  

I know it because, despite what Ken Clarke says, most rapists serve less than five years. I know it because friends who bravely reported their rapists to the police saw the men who committed this grave violation against them free within two, three years. Those men go back to work. They get on. The women survive with what was done to them. 

I know it because whilst rapists walk within three years, a woman found guilty of sexual assault is locked up for eight years. 

I know it because the severity of being accused of rape is treated as the equivalent of rape. Even though we know most rapists get away with it. I know it because we talk about rape as a one-off thing that happens on one occasion to a woman, and talk about an accusation of rape as ‘ruining men’s lives’.  Even if that accusation is true. Even if that man or those men are found guilty

We don’t talk about the impact of rape on a woman’s life. We don’t talk about her life at all. 

Instead, we show empathy to the rapists. From the judge who gave a suspended sentence to the man who raped his girlfriend ten times, to those phoning into radio shows to back him up. Never mind her PTSD. Never mind her multiple suicide attempts. Never mind that his life isn’t ruined. Never mind that he chose to rape her ten times. 

That’s how I know we live in a rape culture. 

How else do I know? 

I know it because it’s getting dark now and the safety advice posters are going up telling me not to drink too much, not to walk home alone, to restrict myself, to stop myself, to not live my life as freely as a man can live his, in case it makes me ‘vulnerable’. 

I know it because if I don’t follow this advice, and something happens to me, then it is me who will be blamed for the violence. It will be me who will have to justify my behaviour. 

I know it because if I follow the rules, and get a taxi, and the taxi driver commits rape, no one will believe it. In the case in that link, the John Worboys case, it is estimated he raped 100 women as the police refused to believe the women who bravely came forward. 

I know it because men compare me to a wallet, a bike, an open window, or a laptop.  They tell me that if I walk down the street, go for a drink, flirt with a man, talk to a man, if I do any of that then my vagina is unlocked. They tell me that if I have sex with a man once, then I’m already in the ‘sex game’ with him and he therefore has access to my vagina. They tell me not to use the word vagina because it’s offensive. 

How else do I know? 

I know it because violent men watch videos of my sisters being raped and then go on to commit violence against other sisters, and if we mention this we get called ‘prudes’ who hate sex. 

I know it because I’m just supposed to accept the sexualisation of male violence and aggression, and if I object to it then it’s my problem, I’m a prude who hates sex. That I’m attacking ‘free speech’ but then, who cares about women’s free speech? 

I know it because when men threaten to rape me online I’m supposed to ‘get the joke.' I know it because comedians line up on stage to tell jokes at the expense of rape victims. Not at rapists, at rape victims. 

As Stewart Lee says, don’t mock the weak. Mock the strong. 

I know it because I’m a woman living in a world where male violence is at an epidemic level that is killing women every day. I know it because I’m a woman living in a world where male violence is at an epidemic level that is raping my sisters every day.

And I know it because when I talk about this, when women talk about this, we are told rape culture is a myth. We’re told we’re making it up. 

Now. Where have I heard that before? 

Monday, 23 November 2015

Ali Smith, Public Library and what libraries mean to me

I'm lucky enough to be reviewing Ali Smith's new short story collection, Public Library, for Open Democracy 50:50. So watch this space, I'll post the link once it's filed and live.

However, the process of reading and reviewing the book made me think about my own relationship with libraries. And so I thought I would post here something I wrote earlier in the year for Bristol 24/7 because as far as I can tell, they deleted all the articles I wrote for them...

So, here you go:

The Power of Libraries

Growing up, I loved libraries. My brother and I were always a cheap date - if ever my mum was struggling to find something to occupy us she would take us to the library. There, with its towering shelves of books, books and more books, the pair of us would be happy for hours. 

I remember going to our small, local village library. We had a cardboard library ticket each – colour-coded for children’s books. It was our ticket to a world created by Roald Dahls, Enid Blytons and Dick King-Smiths. As we outgrew the small centre down the road, it became time to move on to the big central library in town - a huge-to-us Edwardian building whose children’s section was the same size as the whole village library. Here I discovered books that are still favourites today – the Carbonel series by Barbara Sleigh, Quest for a Maid by Frances Mary-Hendry, some odd book about a girl who looked after lots of cats. There were the Sadler’s Wells books (the YA of our time!) and the soppy, sad books about young teens dying and falling in love. 

Soon even the expanded children’s and teen section wasn’t enough for me. I wanted grown-up books, and my upgraded library ticket gave me access to them. Like all teenagers, my brother and I could be moody and uninterested. But we still looked forward to trips to the library. In those days (much like now really) I would read anything - classics and historical romances; biographies of long-dead film stars (Mae West and Tallulah Bankhead – even though I had never seen their films); and, as I got a little older, second wave feminist texts that raised more questions than answers, but that set me on the road of political activism. I read books that were too old for me that I would return to in later years, a little wiser, a little more experienced. I discovered the world through books, through the library. 

I was 16 years old when I found the library book that would change my life. It was a copy of Paris was a Woman by Andrea Weiss in the ‘women and gender studies’ section of the library.

For the previous two years I had been obsessed with Colette. I scoured second hand bookshops for the cream and orange penguin editions of her novels and short stories. I received Judith Thurman’s definitive biography for Christmas 1999, and devoured it – fascinated by both her life and her literature. So to discover a book about my hero in the library – it was a win! 

I sat down next to the shelf and opened up. Inside, I discovered a world of women writers. Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, H.D, Colette of course, Janet Flanner – in the book’s beautifully designed pages I discovered a community of women who were writing, publishing and creating in the heart of the most exciting city in the most exciting decade, Paris of the 1920s. Here was a group of women who had left their conventional lives and headed out to Europe to become the women they wanted to be. Djuna Barnes and her red lips and nails, and her densely poetic prose that no one else has come close to. Janet Flanner with her all-seeing eyes and great observational wit. Gertrude Stein with her male genius and literary cubism, Colette with her Claudine, H.D imagiste - these were the women I wanted to be “when I grew up”. 

I was hooked. Every trip to the library I would check out this book, alongside Ali Smith’s first collection of short stories with its vignettes on watching Louise Brooks and Greta Garbo on the silver screen. 

Fast forward a decade, and I’m now writing my second book inspired by the women of the 1920s Left Bank. And now I’ve arrived, rather circuitously, at the point this article wants to make. 

It’s because of libraries that I wanted to be a writer. It’s because of libraries that I am writing the book I am writing today. It’s because of the books I discovered in the library that I learned how to tell stories, how to use language, and it’s because of libraries that I found the books that would continue to inspire me throughout my life. Libraries gave me knowledge. The Bristol Central Library provided me with tools and understanding that have shaped my present. If my mum had not taken us to the library, if I had not found on those shelves the worlds within books, then my life would be very different. 

It’s also because of libraries that when I was broke, I could still read new books and go on the internet to look for jobs. 

Since the Coalition came into power in 2010 and started to implement their austerity cuts, libraries have become increasingly under threat. They are seen as a ‘nice to have’ rather than a necessary part of any community. 

This has to be challenged. Libraries are vital. They help create and shape the next generation of readers and writers. They give young people and adults access to a world of learning and knowledge which they may not otherwise have. They bring communities together with their reading groups and children’s events. Libraries are not a luxury. They are a right. Knowledge, arts, science, learning - none of these are luxuries. We all deserve access to these things. We all deserve access to books. 

I know I wouldn’t be the person I am today without those after school and weekend visits to the library. I am forever grateful to my mum for taking us there. We cannot allow future generations to be robbed of the sanctuary of libraries. We cannot risk losing the next generation of writers and thinkers, as we carelessly lose our libraries. 

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Sometimes it's hard to be a woman

What’s the hardest thing about being a woman? According to Caitlyn Jenner in today’s Buzzfeed, it’s deciding what to wear in the morning. 

Maybe it was a joke? Maybe she was joking? Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and say she was joking. But I’m not sure who the joke is on. And right now, it feels like the joke is on all women. Because how trivialising it is, to say that the hardest thing we have to deal with is deciding what to wear. How pointless our battles for self-determination, bodily autonomy and liberation all sound, if our biggest worry is what to wear. It feels like if it is a joke, then I’m the butt of it. 

But it got me thinking. What is the hardest thing about being a woman? Where to start! I’ve chosen my ‘Top Ten!’ below. Some of them are true for ALL women ALL of the time. (Edit: by referring to ALL women, I'm including trans women. I want to make it very clear that much of this list is true for all women including trans women.) Some are true for most women, most of the time. And none of them involve me deciding whether the T-shirt I put on this morning was the right length to cover my tummy. 

Here goes…

1. Male violence, part one

There’s going to be a lot of male violence on this list. And I’m starting with low-grade violence. I’m starting with the fact that since I was 14 years old, men have harassed me. I’ve had men yelling obscenities at me. I’ve had men yelling ‘compliments’ at me – ‘compliments’ that turn to insults when I’ve refused to respond. I’ve had men follow me down streets. I’ve had men chase me across station platforms. I’ve had men follow me around clubs. I’ve had men follow me into toilets and then attempt to assault me. I’ve had men assault me on public transport. 

One of the hardest things about being a woman is learning at the age of 14 that my body is seen as fair game. That I am seen as a target for male violence simply because I have a woman’s body. One of the hardest things about being a woman is learning at the age of 14 that I don’t have the same right to public space as men. 

2. Male violence, part two

Sexual violence, in this case. One of the hardest things about being a woman is being told, again from about the age of 14, that I must live with fear. I must learn strategies to ‘keep myself safe’ from rape. I must never walk home alone. I must not drink too much. I must be careful what I wear (ha! It’s hard to decide what to wear!). If I do any of these things, and anything happens to me, then I will be at fault. I will be blamed for provoking the violence. For causing the violence. If I report, then my actions will be used to mitigate the actions of the rapist. 

Never mind that the only cause of rape is a rapist. 

Women learn to live with fear. We restrict our freedoms in order to keep ourselves safe. We drink in the messages that blame us for the violence committed against us – messages spouted by the media and by police safety campaigns. It doesn’t change anything though. 85,000 women are still raped every year in the UK – and most of them will be raped by men that they already know. Out of those 85,000, only 15% will be reported and only 6.5% of those reported will be convicted. Many of the convicted men will be out of jail in fewer than five years. 

Meanwhile, after March 2016, there is no government funding in place for rape crisis centres. 

3. Male violence part 3

Domestic violence, now. Every year, 1.2 million women will experience domestic abuse in the UK. A woman will, on average, endure 35 incidents before calling the police. On average, two women a week will be killed by a partner or ex partner. 

At the same time as this epidemic of male violence, we are seeing legal aid cuts that make it harder for victims of domestic abuse to access the courts. Councils have no statutory requirement to provide domestic abuse or sexual violence support services, so the government cuts have meant vital frontline services are being lost – including our network of refuges. Specialist, feminist, women-led services have been cut in favour of ‘gender neutral’ services. 

Men are beating, raping and killing women, and the services that protect women’s wellbeing and save women’s lives are being destroyed by a male-dominated government. So yes, that’s pretty hard. That’s one of the hard things about being a woman. 

4. Not being seen as fully human

Covers a lot of things, this one. But I’m going to stick with the medical industry for now. From medical gatekeeping that means that women are ignored, disbelieved or fobbed off with the cheapest contraceptive pill, to the fact that medical research treats men’s bodies as default. So, for example, all the warnings about heart attacks tell us to watch out for shooting pains down our left arm. This is a symptom most commonly found in men, not women. You can read more about this in Caroline Criado-Perez’s excellent book

Even the much-flaunted ‘female viagra’ was tested on men. Not seeing women as fully human, and seeing male bodies as default, is seriously bad for our health. 

5. Periods! 

Okay, so maybe periods aren’t so bad in themselves. They’re something that most of us have to learn to put up with and some of us even learn to celebrate. No, it’s not periods themselves that are the problem so much as the fact that tampons and towels are considered a ‘luxury’ item by the taxman. 

Then there’s the fact that periods are still considered an ‘unspeakable’ subject. Starting with the parliamentarians refusing to say ‘tampons’, there’s a line of thinking throughout society that shouts that periods and anything related to women’s bodies should be silenced, not talked about, suppressed. But there is nothing shameful or gross or icky about women’s bodies, or about periods, or vaginas, or clitorises, or wombs, or ovaries, or mooncups, or any of those shushed words that silence our realities. 

Across the global south, girls are unable to go to school when they have their periods because there are no facilities, or because they are deemed ‘unclean’.  This has a huge and frightening impact on women’s safety and opportunities.  

So yes, our bodies being unspeakable and having to pay tax on items women need to get on with shit in the world. That’s a hard thing about being a woman. 

6. Abortion

Contrary to what a lot of people (usually men) believe, abortion is not available on demand in Britain. It certainly isn’t available on demand in the UK – abortion remains illegal in Northern Ireland. If a woman wants an abortion in England, Scotland or Wales, she must have two doctors sign to say continuing the pregnancy is detrimental to her health. 

Access to abortion is a fundamental demand of the Women’s Liberation Movement. It is fundamental because it respects a woman’s absolute right to bodily autonomy. Forcing a woman to continue a pregnancy against her will is a gross violation and yet it continues to happen to millions of women across the world – women who have been raped, children, women whose lives are in danger and women who just don’t want to be pregnant. 

The refusal to respect a woman’s right to decide what happens to her body. That’s another hard thing about being a woman. 

7. Reproduction and childcare

Deciding whether to have a baby. Deciding not to have a baby. Your body becoming public property when you are pregnant. Birth trauma. Infertility and the pressures put on women who cannot have children. Childcare and the continuing inequality around parental leave. To breastfeed or not to breastfeed. The shaming of mothers. The idealising of mothers. The mocking of mothers. Stitches. Medicalisation. Denial of choice. Denial of bodily autonomy. 

There are so many reasons why child rearing and reproduction are hard for women. Not least that reproduction is a dangerous business too. Across the world, 800 women die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. 

8. It’s the day after Equal Pay Day! Now, where’s my money?

Yesterday was Equal Pay Day, which is the day when – on average – the pay gap means women stop getting paid. Being penalised by the pay gap, bearing the brunt of the government cuts – all of it means that women are, on average, poorer. 

Then of course there’s sexual harassment in the workplace, the ‘motherhood’ penalty that all women post-25 face even if they choose not to have children, and the continued ‘default male’ setting that persists in so many workplace.

Oh, and after all that, if you don’t negotiate that pay rise because all the research says people will see you as a ‘bitch’, then you’ll be blamed for the pay gap. Thanks guys! 

9. Being a girl

Across the world, girls experience violence, discrimination and reduced opportunity because they are born a girl. They experience oppression based solely on their sex. From male violence to the denial of an education, being born a girl is dangerous in our world. Across the globe, up to 140 million girls in the world have undergone FGM. Here in the UK, it’s estimated 60,000 girls have been cut. Every year, 15 million girls are forced into ‘marriage’ – often with men much older than themselves. Don’t make any mistake – forced marriage is rape. 

A report by ActionAid found that girls routinely endure male violence both en route to, and within school settings. Girls are less likely to be enrolled in school than boys. This might be because they are needed at home, or because they have been forced into marriage, or because it simply isn’t safe. And yet, girls still fight to go to school, despite knowing how dangerous it can be.

As mentioned above, girls routinely miss school or are denied education because of their periods. 

Some girls aren’t born at all, or don’t make it past infancy. Because of female foeticide, male violence, and other causes such as neglect or trafficking, today there are 100 million missing women in the world. 

10. Being oppressed because you are a member of the class ‘woman’.

It’s a cheat this (and believe me, I could have come up with another ten reasons). It’s a cheat because all the above nine reasons fall under this one. 

But being oppressed because we are women – that’s the hardest thing about being a woman. As women, we have a 1 in 3 chance of experiencing male violence. We experience patriarchal oppression because we are women in an unequal world. That’s why, as a feminist, I fight for the liberation of all women from capitalist patriarchy. 

Because all these things that make being a woman so fucking hard? None of it is inevitable. They are deliberate structures put in place by an unequal society that places men above women. Male violence brutally enforces those structures; brutally keeps women in a subordinate place.

But none of this is natural. It’s not normal that women are unequal. Gender-based oppression is not innate. 

And because of that, it can and will be changed.   

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

For The Cosby case shows how hard it is for rape victims to be heard

The lovely team at asked me to write for them on celebrity, powerful men and male violence against women and girls.

So I did!

The piece is called:

The Cosby case shows how hard it is for rape victims to be heard

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Petition: Oy! UK Passport Office! Where are the women?

I've never done this before!

But I started a petition on to try and raise awareness of cultural femicide and how it plays a part in the recent decision to include seven men and only two women in the design for the new UK passports.

Cultural femicide is the process from which women are erased from our cultural landscape. The impact of it is to make women's achievements, creativity, and historical importance invisible. And when women are invisible, that means women role models are lost, women's revolutions and causes are lost, and the fact that women have shaped our society, our past, our present and our future is ignored. 

Cultural femicide therefore has a huge impact on gender equality. 

The UK Passport Office has announced its new design for our new passports. The pages of the passport are dedicated to celebrating great cultural figures and landmarks throughout history. And yet, only two of those figures are women: Elizabeth Scott and Ada Lovelace. Meanwhile, there are seven men. 

What message does this send? That women's achievements are secondary. That history belongs to great men, that we can't celebrate an equal number of women and men on something as simple and yet as fundamental as a passport design. 

Think of all the women who could have featured on the pages of your passport – women who have made significant contributions and who have changed the cultural, medical and political landscape of the UK. Suffragettes such as the Pankhursts, Emily Davidson and Sophia Duleep Singh. The women who changed and shaped history, such as Mary Seacole, Caroline Norton, Mary Wollstonecraft. The women who have had such an impact on culture and politics, Barbara Castle, Nancy Astor, Claudia Jones, Doreen Lawrence, Shami Chakrabati, Beatrice Webb, Millicent Fawcett. Scientific pioneers like Rosalind Franklin and Elizabeth Garret Anderson. 

Then there are the writers and publishers: the Bronte sisters, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, Malorie Blackman, Mary Prince, George Eliot. The artists: Barbara Hepworth, Angelica Kauffmann, Leonora Carrington, Pauline Boty.

The list goes on and on and on. Perhaps you can add your own when you sign the petition.

In response to criticism that there were only two women in the design, Mark Thomson said that people were always going to want their favourite icon or rock star in the design.

But that’s not what we’re asking. We're not asking for a specific, for a special favourite. We’re just asking to be present. We’re just asking for the cultural and historical achievements of women to be recognised. We’re not niche; we’re half the population. Our contributions to history and politics and science and the arts should not be side-lined but celebrated.

The continued erasure of women from our cultural spotlight has a huge impact on gender equality. It sends a message that the achievements of women and the influence we have had don’t matter. Are secondary. Are not as good, not as significant, not as important, as the achievements of men.

This erasure of women’s history has to stop. This is a chance to stop it.

Mark Thomson – please reconsider. Please re-consult on this design. This is your chance to make a stand for women’s representation. Please include more women in the design for the new passport. Let’s celebrate the contributions of women at the same time as we celebrate the contributions of men.

As the founder and director of the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival, this issue has special significance to me. But it is an issue for all women – an issue to say enough to cultural femicide, and to celebrate women’s lives.