Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Post-Brexit bedfellows, and a story from Bahrain

A couple of years  ago, I worked on the Amnesty campaign to free Mahdi Abu Dheeb, a trade union activist arrested in Bahrain in 2011 following the Arab Spring uprising for organising a strike.  Under arrest, he was allegedly tortured by the regime and held in solitary confinement which in itself constitutes a form of torture.

As part of the campaign, I interviewed his young daughter Maryam. She remains one of the bravest and strongest women I’ve ever had the privilege to speak to. Just out of her teens when I spoke to her, she told me in detail about the horrors her family had endured since her father’s arrest.  She spoke eloquently about the kindness and generosity of her father. She told me about how she learnt of his arrest through Twitter – that he had been thrown from a second-floor window. For weeks the family didn’t know where Mahdi had gone – it was a month before they learnt he was still alive. It was another month before they saw him again – on trial for inciting hatred against the regime.

Maryam told me how her father looked ill in the courtroom and walked as if in intense pain. He wrote to her and her family to allege beatings, broken ribs and being hit with a hose. Arrested, allegedly tortured, sentenced for years in prison – all for calling a strike. All for standing up for teachers’ rights.

Today I saw on Twitter that Theresa May is in Bahrain attempting to ‘turbo-charge’ the UK’s relationship with Gulf States as we move out of the EU and need to find trading partners elsewhere.

Brexit brings us to strange bedfellows, it seems.

When we trade with the EU, we know that a certain standard of human rights and ethics will be upheld by our neighbour states, right? Okay: so it’s not guaranteed. There are EU states that have some dodgy records and are enacting some unpleasant policies – just look at Hungary. But, as a general rule, when a country applies to join the EU there’s an expectation on upholding human rights. There’s a degree of ambition. A promise of shared values.

Outside of the EU, and we’re going to have to start making trade deals with more controversial powers. On her trip to the Gulf, May be meet with dictators who execute people for sorcery and who flog men for blogposts. She’s in Bahrain where, as we’ve seen above, the post-Arab Spring crackdown was one of the most brutal in the region. She’s meeting leaders of countries where homosexuality is illegal and where thousands of migrant workers have died building footballing vanity projects.

It begs the question – how far are we prepared to go? The answer leaves a foul taste in my mouth. Are we willing as a country to give up our commitment to human rights and increase deals with the regime that beat up and disappeared Maryam’s father? Are we going to flaunt our commitment to freedom of speech and set up agreements with states that brutally suppress the written word? Are we going to congratulate ourselves on our equality legislation while signing contracts with nations where women are legally second-class; where LGBT communities are criminalised?

Is this the face of Brexit? More dinners with despots? Tea with tyrants?

None of this is new, of course, but it feels more pressing with the new world order Brexit is confronting us with.

After Castro died, I ended up breaking my “don’t watch political TV you’ll just get cross” rule and caught a bit of Marr. The debate was raging about the appropriate response to his death was. One of the panellists brought up that when ‘the dictator in Saudi Arabia died last year, the flag was flown at half mast at Buckingham Palace.’

‘You mean the King,’ Marr shot back.

Now, I’m not here to defend Castro’s human rights record. I once half-jokingly chatted about marrying a gay guy from the country after he fled the state-sponsored homophobia.

I’m just here to point out that changing the name of dictators, autocrats and leaders of repressive regimes to ‘King’ doesn’t make a difference to someone like Maryam. It doesn’t make the beatings allegedly afflicted upon her father any less painful.

I’d like May to use her time in Bahrain to meet Maryam, and the women like her who searched desperately for their relatives in the post Arab-Spring crackdown. I’d like her to meet the women who have refused to be silenced on the human rights violations committed in their countries. I’d like May to meet these women, and then try to justify ‘turbo-charged’ trade agreements with the men who call themselves Kings, rather than the names they deserve. 

Thursday, 1 December 2016

For the Heroine Collective: Jean Rhys

Writing this series for The Heroine Collective has been such a joy, I can't believe this is my penultimate piece on the amazing and inspiring women who made their home on the Left Bank during the 1920s.

But, it is. And it is on Jean Rhys, absolutely one of my favourite writers.

Have a read

Saturday, 12 November 2016

On what might have been, being hurt, and taking action in Trump's new world

I can still picture it - the what might have been.

Her beaming smile lit up by the flashing lights. Her arms held aloft, the eyes shining with hope and gratitude. Her pantsuit. A pro choice woman in the Oval Office defending women’s reproductive rights. A pro choice woman in the White House.

It never happened. Instead, I woke up on Wednesday morning at 5am to see Trump winning. At 5.30am I started to cry - gut-wrenching sobs alone in my bed. Not a pro choice woman in the White House, with her flaws that we are willing to overlook in men. No, a lying megalomaniac who admits to sexually assaulting women instead. Not a woman with 40 years of public service experience - a woman who planned diligently and worked hard and proved herself again and again as the most qualified person for the job. No, a man who took up politics on a whim last year. Not a woman who stood up and boldly proclaimed that women’s rights are human rights. No, a man who sees women as objects for him to take, to grab, to grope, to abuse. 

I cried because it hurts. It hurts to know that a man can boast of sexual assault - the kind of assault all women have experienced - and win. It hurts to know that a man can be accused of sexual assault and rape, and win. It hurts to know that a man can indulge in grotesque, violent misogyny and whip up grotesque, violent misogyny, and win. 

And it hurts to know that in 2016, people looked at Trump’s lies, lack of experience, disdain for democracy and hatred of women and minorities, and choose him over a good, qualified woman. 

It hurts

So forgive me if I rail against the white men who have told me that it’s all going to be ok because nothing will really change, when you haven’t studied the state of abortion rights in the USA and haven’t read up on the Republican anti-abortion ticket. And forgive me if I rage against the white men who tell me that actually this is the best thing, because now everything will really change.

Forgive me if I don’t want to sacrifice reproductive rights on the altar of your revolution. 

It’s easier to say that everything will be okay when you are cushioned in your layers of white male privilege. It’s easier to say it’s the best thing that could happen when you are cushioned in your layers of white male privilege. 

As for me, I too am cushioned by my privilege as a white, middle-class woman. And I’m cushioned by distance too, of course. I cannot imagine the anger and fear felt by black women in America this week - 95% of voting black women voted for Clinton. I cannot imagine the fear and and hurt of the African American community, the American LGBT community, and those living in desperate poverty. Already we are hearing report after report of violent racism, attacks, insults and Muslim women afraid to wear their hijab in public. The fear is real and palpable and it not only hurts, it is deadly. 

So what happens now? 

The calls for unity and bridge-building have been coming in thick and fast. Boris Johnson has demanded we get on with it and stop with our ‘whingerama’ (another one there, shielded by layer after layer of privilege). The demands are clear: understand the hate and anger, reach out to those who voted for misogyny and racism and homophobia. 

But that’s just bullshit, baby. 

Because what does reaching out to hate mean? What does moving on, accepting it, mean?

To me, it means normalising it. If we accept a vote for hate, if we accept these awful and frightening views, then we create a new normal. Of course, these violent hatred has always been around. When I say a new normal, I mean an increased legitimising, excusing and accepting of misogyny and racism and homophobia - a reversal of progress; a regression. The hateful genie coming out of the bottle again. And that new normal openly and brazenly says it’s ok to grab women by the pussy and that it’s ok to promote conversion therapy and it’s ok to shout vile racist language and it’s ok to think that walls between nations are ever a good idea.

We don’t have to concede. We don’t have to reach out with an olive branch to hate. We don’t have to shrug and say ‘I’ll pipe down now that you won.’ Because as soon as you do that, you say it’s okay. And it’s not okay. IT IS NOT OKAY.

We’ve seen it in the last few months in the UK. The Brexiteers telling us to get over ourselves and stop complaining (they complained for 40 years but sure, after 4 months we should keep quiet about it right?). Well, no. I’m not going to stop complaining because I don’t want to see hate and nastiness towards minorities become more and more normal. I don’t want to see the sneering Mail headlines about ‘openly gay’ judges to become more and more normal. I don’t want to build bridges with racists, misogynists and homophobes. I want to challenge them. I want to change the world for the better. 

No one has to build a bridge towards someone who hates them. No one has to concede in the face of hate. Everyone has a responsibility to challenge these awful views. Everyone who gives a damn about fairness and justice and equality and liberation has a responsibility to stop misogyny and racism and homophobia from becoming more normalised, not less. 

We do not have to accept it. We do not have to say it’s okay. We do not have to go backwards. 

So what happens now? 

Well, don’t come to me for answers. I’m just one woman! 

But I read this post about ten things we can do post-Trump - to stop analysing and act - and really liked point number seven which said:

the theatre, literature, internet video channels, and progressive music artists: it’s up to you. Throw open your spaces and turn them into an alternative face-to-face media.’

I mean, I liked the other points as well but as a writer I feel like point seven is something I can actually do.

Because, as I said above, everyone who gives a damn about liberation has a responsibility to stop the increased normalising of hateful rhetoric, behaviour and politics. As a writer, I want to use my work politically. To provoke and push social change in my own small but still meaningful way. I’ve got some exciting projects lined up next year where I hope to do this more and more. 

For nearly a decade, I’ve used my political activism to create platforms for women to speak from. I want to do more of this. To keep speaking, shouting. To keep refusing to give in and refusing to concede. 

On Wednesday morning, I wrote:

Trump has let the sexism genie out the bottle. We cannot let it stay that way. We must join together and fight to protect women's rights in the months and years to come. To do otherwise is to accept that male violence against women is something that we should all be expected to live with.

I refuse to accept that.

I refuse to accept it.

I refuse to concede. 

I refuse, and I’ll act. 

Thursday, 10 November 2016

For the BBC: No, there should not be anonymity for rape defendants

Yesterday I was meant to be on BBC News talking about anonymity for rape defendants.

But then TRUMP happened. And the news cycle changed and they didn't want me on the news anymore. 

However, this is what I was planning on saying. The questions suggested to me were:

  • Should there be anonymity for rape defendants?
  • But isn't there more stigma attached to rape than other crimes?
  • Do you empathise with Farooq Siddique

No, I do not think we should have anonymity for rape defendants. 

Firstly because research from the police, from academics and from anecdotal evidence all points to the fact that naming men accused of rape supports open justice and improves women’s and men’s access to justice. 

I’d like to give two very important examples of this. 

The first was the John Worboys case - surely one of the most devastating and serious serial rape cases of recent times. It took a long time for the Met to take action but when they finally did, it was naming Worboys and releasing some details that meant more and more women came forward and they were able to gather the evidence they needed to charge him. The process of naming him changed this from being seen as a series of random attacks, and led to the conviction and sentencing of a serial rapist. 

The second case I’d like to mention is of Stuart Hall. After he was convicted, the police made a clear statement in support of naming him as an alleged offender. They made the point that if they had not named him, other victims would not have come forward and they would not have been able to convict him. 

Without naming Hall and Worboys, these serial sex offenders would still be free and their victims would not have had justice. Worboys raped dozens of women. How many more women would he have raped if he had not been named, if women had not then been able to come forward, and he been convicted. Hall’s victims would have been in the same situation as Savile’s - their abuser dead, their access to justice cut off. 

It’s not just me saying this. It’s the police, it’s academic research, it’s lawyers like Keir Starmer. 

It’s argued that men accused of rape should have anonymity because there is more stigma attached to rape than other crimes. 

Well, I would argue there should be stigma attached. But I’d also argue that there isn’t that much stigma attached to committing rape - if there were, then it would not be so terrifyingly common. 

It’s estimated that 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales every year, and there are 450,000 sexual offences committed in England and Wales every year. Of those rapes, only around 10-15% are reported, and of that 10-15% only 6.5% are convicted. So out of 85,000 women raped, only around 5,000 men will be found guilty. 

Most men who rape get away with it and most men who rape know they will get away with it. 

We only have to look at how celebrity men who abuse women are treated to understand that rape does not carry a huge stigma. 

After all, this week has proven that you can be accused of rape and sexual assault multiple times and still be elected to be the most powerful man in the world. 

So don't tell me that being accused of sexual offences gets in the way of a man's success. Not today. 

Of course I have empathy for the ordeal Mr Siddique has been through. However I think it’s important to note that he has seen justice done. The police dealt with a complaint, there wasn’t evidence to uphold it, and he is free to go. The due process of the law as been followed as it should be and if he chooses to press charges against his accuser then it will be followed in her case too. 

There are tens of thousands of women and men who will not see justice done - women and men who have been raped this year who will never get justice. They will be living with the emotional, physical and financial impact of being raped - from PTSD to sexual health complications. They will never get justice for what was done to them. 

As a feminist, but also as a human being, I have to fight to protect the laws that encourage access to open justice for all victims of crime. We cannot change laws that will restrict justice to those women and men who are already so unlikely to see their perpetrators in jail. 

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

For politics.co.uk: Trump's win shows how many men hate women

I wrote this article last night for politics.co.uk.

I thought when I woke up this morning, at 5am, that I would edit it to say that even though Trump's sexist rhetoric was frightening, in the end it couldn't win.

That was not the article I ended up writing.

The headline was not meant to be Trump's WIN shows how many men hate women

As my editor said when I filed it, "I'm sorry you had to write this."

Have a read.

And then we fight.

Monday, 31 October 2016

For the Heroine Collective: Josephine Baker

My series on the women of 1920s's Left Bank continues apace with this latest instalment on Josephine Baker.

From the Montmartre stage to the Resistance to Civil Rights marching in Washington, Josephine was one fabulous woman.

Also contains anecdote about my tattoo.

Have a read!

Sunday, 30 October 2016

For OD 50:50 - I Love Dick: What makes a feminist classic?

Subtitled: I have mixed feelings about Dick.

Because I thought that was a hilarious essay title!

I wrote a long read for Open Democracy about Chris Kraus' controversial, stimulating, confrontational and problematic novel, I Love Dick.

Not an easy task! But one I certainly enjoyed!

Have a read.