2011 in feminist rage

Friday, 30 December 2011

After enjoying recapping 2010 in humourless feminism at the end of last year, I thought it would be great to make it an annual thing. 2011 has had more than its fair share of outrage, drama, facepalm moments and frustration. Here's a rundown of some of the issues that have made the most headlines - and why they've been causing so much trouble.

1) The Dominique Strauss-Kahn case

In May, when former IMF head Strauss-Kahn was accused of sexually assaulting a maid at a New York hotel, politicians and commentators in his native France rushed to defend him, painting the alleged incident as mere "philandering" by a "great seducer", insulting his accuser and even claiming that the disgraced politician was the victim of a conspiracy. In time, the maid - Nafissatou Diallo, had other aspects of her life picked over by the media (including one accusation of operating as a "hooker") and in August, the charges against Strauss-Kahn were dropped thanks to a "concerns about the victim's credibility", and a supposed lack of conclusive physical evidence - despite earlier reports that proof against him was "substantial".

In the meantime, another woman had come forward to say that he had assaulted her some years ago. And since, Strauss-Kahn has admitted his behaviour with Diallo was "inappropriate" - although he maintains no force was involved. Whether an attempted rape happened or not, the whole affair raised significant concerns about the treatment of domestic workers and women of colour by privileged white men, and the stigmas associated with being the "wrong" race or class, especially when reporting a crime committed by someone more powerful and influential.

2) Conservative assaults on women's health and reproductive choice continue

Earlier this week Amanda Marcotte dubbed 2011 the year of "The War on Contraception". She goes into more detail about each individual attack on a woman's choice to use birth control in this article for RH Reality Check and it's when you say it laid out like this that you realise just how extreme things have become. Earlier in the year we saw Planned Parenthood and thousands of its supporters fighting back against proposed legislation which would have prevented its centres from providing services to women through federal health programs. With the drama level ramped up to 'verge of government shutdown', the Republicans finally gave up on their plans. But as the Department of Health and Human services announced plans to give women birth control without copays, anti-choice activists went on the attack again. 

2011 has also introduced the nightmare of what constitutes 'personhood', with Mississippi trying and failing to define fertilised eggs as 'persons' and Ohio attempting to ban abortions once an embryo's heart has started beating.

3) Misogynist abuse online hits mainstream media

Bloggers and those who frequent the comment sections of websites have been complaining about it for years, but it's only recently that the global media seems to have woken up to the fact that women actually get treated pretty appallingly online, simply for being women, in a way that men will never experience. Several high profile women, from politicians to journalists, "came out" in the press to talk about the abuse they've received, ranging from being patronised and silenced to being threatened with rape and stalked. In the following days, the issue received coverage like never before in a variety of countries. It was interesting to see so many people - male and female - shocked to see what women are put through all for having opinions, and I know it changed the way a lot of people see online interaction.

Some newspapers asked what could be done to combat the problem, and although I'm not sure how much of an effect any efforts will have (especially with increasingly stalkerish behaviour from men's rights groups happening), it feels like many have woken up to the reality of what women put up with from the internet.

4) Sports Personality of the Year forgets about women At the end of November, the BBC unveiled its shortlist of nominations for Sports Personality of the Year - and we were all dismayed to see that it featured no women. A supposedly "expert" panel of sports editors chose the shortlist, but while men who have had less than spectacular records this year made the grade, women who have been crowned European and world champions missed out.

While no-one wants women to be nominated purely for being women, the incident has highlighted the ridiculous lack of coverage, lack of recognition and dismissive attitudes that women in sport have to put up with. The only "exposure" they seem to get is when they pose in lingerie for men's magazines or "saucy" calendars, which I can guarantee is the only reason some of the GB Olympic team's women have been making headlines this week. The plus side of all this? Various sites and newspapers have been running features on the sportswomen they feel deserve more coverage. Will it force a change in the way the media treats women in sport?

5) What next for the women of the 'Arab Spring'?

The wave of revolutionary demonstrations and actions across the Arab world has provided some of 2011's most explosive news stories. The fight for human rights has been a central feature of the protests but in many countries, the women who took part have struggled for recognition and equal treatment - and there's concern that things will get worse as political systems are rebuilt, despite this year being hailed as the "Year of the Arab Woman". Today's women of the revolution want representation in government and a say in decision-making but worry that anti-Western feeling might create a backlash against women's rights and make things worse for them.

Take Egypt - thousands of women played a part in the revolution there, yet the country's new cabinet has been criticised for including just one woman. And in recent weeks, the news has been full of shocking reports of violence and sexual assault against women by police attempting to clamp down on protesters. This week, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Bachelet of UN Women have spoken out about such incidents and although the Egyptian military has made an apology, Clinton has also been accused of "interfering" in their business. It looks as if 2012 will be a crucial year for the women continuing to fight for their rights.

Honourable mentions:

- The ongoing coverage surrounding the rape charges against Julian Assange
- The global media interest and engaging of a new generation of feminists (with mixed results) achieved by the Slutwalk movement
- Everyone's least favourite MP, Nadine Dorries, (somewhat poorly) attempting to make "pro-life" and "abstinence" the newest buzzwords in UK politics

This post originally appeared on BitchBuzz. Image via The Opinioness of the World.

"As Many Pairs of Shoes as She Likes" - spot on or way off the mark?

Thursday, 15 December 2011

"So long as she works hard and doesn’t throw bricks or ask awkward questions, she can have as many qualifications and abortions and pairs of shoes as she likes."

Jenny Turner's piece for the London Review of Books, entitled As Many Pairs of Shoes as She Likes, has been splitting opinion and giving people headaches for the past couple of weeks. Supposedly a look into the 'confused' state of feminism today, it's had a very mixed reception. It begins with an account of the behaviour of some of the young women during the London riots. Here, Turner tells us, is 'the problem with feminism'. "Young women ‘of good character’ losing their heads and wishing they hadn’t." Confused yet? It's only just beginning.

Stripped back (a lot), this is an essay about wanting more intersectionality in the movement, frustration at 'consumer feminism' or 'feminism TM'. It's about frustration with the narrow scope of what's now publicised as 'the new feminism' - the books, the groups, the personalities. It has its good points - which should have been condensed and laid out more effectively - but there are bad points too.

It's also pretty scathing at times. Activists from Object and UK Feminista are 'genteel' and 'let-them-eat-cakey', with no place for 'humour or even humility'. Their problem, we are told, is 'narcissistic self-absorption'. The knives are out for Andrea Dworkin (but of course), who was an 'egomaniacal victim-magnet', and Betty Friedan, for only appealing to middle-class women with her writings about frustrated housewives (she has a point). Turner seems particularly 'down' on the 'confusion' of 21st century feminism, but in many ways, she fails to delve more deeply into the reasons the movement is perceived in this way - and this lets the piece down.

I would expect, for example, that the majority of us agree with Turner when she says that the public face of feminism deals little with issues such as race, poverty, international women and economics.

"It’s true that women, as a gender, have been systemically disadvantaged through history, but they aren’t the only ones: economic exploitation is also systemic and coercive, and so is race. And feminists need to engage with all of this, with class and race, land enclosure and industrialisation, colonialism and the slave trade, if only out of solidarity with the less privileged sisters."

You can't fail to disagree that this is important, but it is happening. What Turner doesn't do is give space to the groups and the campaigns that actually focus on these things. And they're not hard to find; they're not hidden, because I read their blogs and follow their updates and get involved with their campaigns. Turner actually quotes the UK-based Black Feminism blog at one point, so I assume she has visited and read it. There are plenty of complaints about the groups and people she takes issue with, but no praise for the countless women working on the issues she thinks we should be paying more attention to. No mention of Women Against The Cuts. Or Climate Rush. Or No Women No Peace. Only criticism that feminists 'don't care'.

"...the 16 per cent pay-gap masks a much harsher divide, between the younger professional women – around 13 per cent of the workforce – who have ‘careers’ and earn just as much as men, and the other 87 per cent who just have ‘jobs’, organised often around the needs of their families, and earn an awful lot less," says Turner.

"Feminism overwhelmingly was and is a movement of that 13 per cent – mostly white, mostly middle-class, speaking from, of, to themselves within a reflecting bubble."

Here we must admit that this is true among the 'big name' groups and campaigns - and of course this isn't helped when political discussions about helping women in the workplace result in a 'solution' of networking events for high profile London businesswomen and talk of getting women into boardrooms, which is so far removed from the working lives of most women that it's laughable.

Turner's feelings about the issues Object et al work on also seem confusing. These groups - and the women who represent them to the press - are predictable targets for those who don't share their views on porn or sex work. It's never long before words such as 'prim' and 'prudish' and 'snobbery' start being used. Comments about the way members speak when interviewed, making assumptions about their backgrounds. Articles about their work are always met with comments asking why these feminists aren't campaiging on issues that actually matter - that classic withering putdown used by men and women alike.

Turner says she agrees with Object's views on porn, but goes on to say that this is all 'beside the point' in a free-market economy - it's always going to exist and there's nothing that can be done about that. The same, in her opinion, goes for the commercialisation of childhood and that current area of panic, 'sexualisation'. She accuses anti-porn activists of not looking at the world around them and ignoring other issues. Yet several paragraphs later she's bemoaning the way (as most of us do) that modern, media-friendly feminism has become too compatible with the free market and neoliberalism, with its focus on 'choice', 'economic capacity' and whatever women's magazines have decided that 'empowerment' currently means. So if it's pointless and laughable to fight neoliberalism, yet distasteful to support it, what's a feminist to do?

And at the end of the day, is there really anything wrong with groups of activists choosing to have a particular focus? Many other groups and organisations do it; it's not 'wrong'. I tend to focus on particular issues in my blogging and my activism, but that has no bearing on how I feel about a wider range of problems. Furthermore, I already know of two feminist conferences taking place in the UK in 2012 that will have a particular focus on intersectionality. Both have come out a desire from some quarters to see a focus on wide-ranging issues and activism, increasing the profile of those issues and those women so often marginalised by the public face of the movement.

Let's go back to the idea that the movement has become too unpleasantly bound up with neoliberalism, capitalism and all those other unmentionable things (abandoning any Marxist roots) - glossy magazines, the rich, celebrities, "sleek high-end infotainment', as Turner puts it. Nothing new or challenging, just worship of materialism. Like the supposed invisibility of activists who care about intersectionality, the problem here is more often media coverage, media narratives and the way these influence people. It is a major cause for concern - and one that is discussed frequently - that the press chooses to focus only on aspects of the movement which will titillate, cause drama and look provocative. It's also nothing new, as proved by coverage of feminism in decades gone by.

And so this year we saw plenty of coverage of Slutwalk, articles on the protest against the Playboy Club, lots of discussion on this month's 'Muff March' protesting against the rise of labioplasty. Conferences about porn inspired a couple of pieces in the Guardian. For the tabloids, anything about 'having it all' or gender roles within marriage is a guaranteed story. And in magazines, the concept of feminism as 'on-trend' has arisen in the last couple of years, guaranteed to be focused around Sex and the City, Lady Gaga, makeup and boyfriends - much to the chagrin of almost every feminist I know, with its rhetoric of 'empowerment' and 'choice' linked to buying handbags or owning a sex toy.

I believe this coverage influences activism and helps create a vicious circle of narrowed aims and interests. Much of what the media has focused on in the last five years has been a 'resurgence' of young women. When you combine the issues of most interest to the majority of the young women profiled (white, university-educated) with the focus on buzzwords such as 'objectification' and 'sexualisation' and coverage of  just a handful of issues, I think this inspires other women to start up activism of their own, which is obviously not a bad thing. This can be seen by the growing numbers of groups based in cities and regions all over the UK. But it tends to replicate the activism seen in the news and done by other groups. Same backgrounds, same concerns, same areas of focus - with less space given to issues which might not directly affect peoples' lives or their current situations.

Turner wants to know what has happened to the old feminist concerns about raising children, shared parenting, nurseries. That's something that seems odd to me - yes, in mainstream consciousness it may seem buried under chicklit and pressure to be the perfect mother, but again, look past media coverage of activism related to all things titillating, and the discussion is there, in many forms. She accuses the revitalised movement of relying on the 'books-as-bombs' model, with said books 'missing out the interesting bits' (politics, economics) in a bid to appeal to young readers. She criticises last year's three-part documentary series on feminist activism, Women, for its lack of diversity - and let's face it, who didn't criticise it? It's all too easy and too lazy - and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth because at times it just reads like smirking nastiness.

The piece runs out of steam before the end, and it feels like it took a very long time to request more of a focus on intersectionality, all the time being unreasonably critical of a movement where you don't have to look too far to find women who do care about a wide range of issues and are just as tired of tedious media coverage as Turner is. You can't disagree with her assessment of certain problems, but I can't say I could identify with her stance on others.

Image via natashalcd's Flickr.

Things you should be reading this week

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

"We cannot afford to wait for permission to make change; women themselves must be the change."

Today I bring you links to a fabulous trio of posts from my North American sisters. Because they got there before me (I've just started a new job), because they're important and thought-provoking, and because they really spoke to me.

Dianna Anderson has written a post in response to, and to add to the thoughts of Preston Yancey, who has blogged here and here about a new page gaining thousands of 'likes' on Facebook, which is entitled "I'd rather have a Proverbs 31 woman than a Victoria's Secret model". Preston has written a response to this "Live 31 movement" based on women of the Bible (which is very good and essential reading), then followed it up with a more detailed explanation of his thoughts.

Be The Change - Pretty In Pink

"But what makes the campaign connect with people is also that which gives it the most problems. Regardless of which category you fall into – let’s lift the veil and call it what it is: The Virgin or the Whore – it is still something inspired by how one is perceived by the other gender. This is something I see reflected in the Christian singles culture over and over. The focus of the campaign especially is on Proverbs 31:30: “Charm is deceitful and beauty soon fades but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” 

Praised by whom? Why, men, of course! And this is the fundamental problem: Regardless of whether or not you’re living as the virgin or the whore, if you’re doing it because you think it will be more attractive to the opposite sex, then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons."

For me the whole thing has a lot of weird parallels with all those "Men love real women who have curves!"/"I'd rather have a real woman than a bag of bones!" statements and Facebook pages, which similarly seem to gain tens of thousands of 'likes'. Replacing one ideal with another and framing it around desirability as judged by men. But Dianna is spot on and addresses a part of the discussion that had up until now been missed.

Both Sarah Styles Bessey and Rachel Held Evans have blogged their thoughts on a "big question" that seems to have arisen this month, with discussion centering on a certain post by Tim Challies, in which he explains why he does not condone women reading aloud from the Bible in church. A lot of posts have been floating around but I chose to highlight these two because they say everything that needs to be said so well.

Emerging Mummy - In which I am done fighting for a seat at the table

"This is one more gift that the emerging church gave me more than a decade ago: when you don't find it, you simply create it. You emerge from what currently is into what will be, as pioneers, rule-breakers. Stop waiting for permission and get on with the work that God has called you to, stop waiting for permission and be brave, be courageous, be boldly full of Love and gentleness but step out into the space to create. 

So I am no longer standing beside your table, asking for a seat, working and serving and hoping to be noticed and then offered a seat or arguing for my right to a seat. I don't care to sit here any more. I have no desire to be indoors, in your neat boxes."

Rachel Held Evans - "...your daughters will prophesy"

"Meanwhile, churches are spending years debating whether a female missionary should be allowed to speak on a Sunday morning, whether students older than ten should have female Sunday school teachers, whether women should be allowed to read from Scripture in a church service, whether girls should be encouraged to attend seminary, whether women should be permitted to collect the offering or write the church newsletter or make an announcement. 

Those of us who are perhaps most equipped to speak and act prophetically in response to the violence, poverty, and inequality that plagues our sisters around the world are being silenced ourselves. 

Folks who see the leadership of women like Huldah and Junia as special exceptions for times of great need are oblivious to the world in which we live. Those who think the urgency of Pentecost has passed are deluding themsleves. They “have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear.” "

Where are all the women? In Life & Style, apparently.

Monday, 5 December 2011

"In a typical month,78% of newspaper articles are written by men, 72% of Question Time contributors are men and 84% of reporters and guests on Radio 4's Today show are men. Where are all the women?"

Kira Cochrane's article on the under-representation of women in public life, published online yesterday and in G2 today, gives us the statistics that prove what women have been discussing for some time. Indeed, I remember the topic generating much discussion and strong feeling when she mentioned it as part of a panel discussion at UK Feminista's 2010 Summer School.

In June, Cochrane tells us, she began counting bylines, analysing presenters and guests on news programmes, on current affairs shows such as Question Time and news-based comedy shows like Have I Got News For You. She details the results in her article - and as you'd expect, they're depressing and predictable. She also mentions the number of women MPs - 22% - and notes that when the results of her analysis of women's representation in television and newspapers are averaged, at 22.6% the figure is almost the same.

It's really great that someone has finally laid out the facts and challenged people to improve the situation in the national press. But there's just one problem - a problem that perhaps sums up the entire issue. Cochrane's article appears not in the main news section of the Guardian, not in Media or Politics as would also be appropriate, but in Life & Style.

I know I've mentioned this in my posts a number of times and that many other women have too - the consistent sidelining of news involving anything deemed to be a "woman's issue" to the section of the newspaper with the features about clothes, about food, about children. That's not to say that there is anything wrong with writing about these particular subjects; it's more the insinuation that certain topics are a woman's domain - and that even if these news stories have something to do with politics, or international development, or law, they're to be filed under "women's interest".

Take a look at the headings in the Life & Style section (all other newspapers are just as guilty; I'm only picking on the Guardian because of Cochrane's article). You'll see that Life & Style encompasses the Christmas gift guide, fashion, food, health, homes, gardens, craft, family, relationships, women and dating. As someone said to me this morning: "One of these things is not like the others". You'll see this even more clearly if you click on "Women" and discover the subheadings within - feminism, gender issues, equality and women in politics. Today, under "Women", you can find stories on maternal health, women in the Congo and Afghanistan, the controversy over women in sport and the Sportsperson of the Year award, "honour" crimes, and birth control in sub-Saharan Africa.

Something is going badly wrong when it comes to the representation of women in the media and in politics. You want a television show with more than a token woman on a panel? You're limited to Loose Women and the fact that it represents everything truly awful about stereotypes of women. On the radio? You've got Women's Hour, which I have no problem with, but it is only an hour. You write about peacemaking in Afghanistan or maternal health for a national newspaper? It gets filed under "Life & Style" with the Christmas gift guide.

Newspapers like the Guardian should be doing better than this and according more visibility to issues that affect over half the world's population. Maybe it's time for the women on their staff to demand change not just for the women they don't see on television or in parliament, but also to put more pressure on those in charge in the media to practice what they preach about equality. In fact, I know this already happens, so maybe it's time for those in charge to listen.

Sweeping it under the carpet

Saturday, 3 December 2011

I haven't written a post on here for the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence because last month, Anna at Goannatree asked me if I would write a guest post for her 16 Days series.

My experience of talking about violence against women and the activism aiming to tackle it is that there are a lot of uncomfortable silences. People give you odd looks; they try to change the subject. They turn it into a big joke – “When’s International Men’s Day, then?” – or they regale you with a “statistic” they’ve heard somewhere (or possibly made up on the spot) – “Did you know that most violence is now committed by women against men?” (yes, this was actually a colleague’s response when I told him what a Reclaim the Night march was).

When you say the words “rape”, or “domestic violence” people look even more uncomfortable. They’re not nice things to think about, for a start. Yes, of course it’s awful, but we don’t need to discuss it, do we? Injustices happening a long way from home are easy to talk about. They’re also easy to accept, to sit back and do nothing about, because people feel they can’t help. No matter how bad the situation is, it’s down to a matter of different cultures, different religions, different worldviews. And so violence against women used as a weapon in conflict – that’s awful. Women killed as a result of so-called “honour” crime – that’s awful. Trafficking? Also awful.

Read on and comment here...

This week in online harassment...

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Speaking out about online harassment constitutes "over-reacting" for some. So how far does it have to go before it becomes worth bothering about? 

In recent weeks the long-running debate about the way women are treated online has finally hit the news, with bloggers, journalists and public figures from numerous countries weighing in on how much of a problem it is.

Plenty of discussion has also focused on how it can be stopped - although many of the women involved in the debate have been subject to further blog posts and comments telling them they're "over-reacting" and that misogynist abuse online just isn't that much of a big deal.

While almost everyone I know has welcomed this mainstreaming of the issue, it has of course meant that we've all become very familiar with the term "gaslighting" - the way people undermine what women are saying by telling them that they're being "emotional" or "hysterical" or "over-sensitive".

And so considering that pointing out online abuse seems to be such an "over-reaction" in the eyes of many, something we ladies simply need to "man up" about, I was interested to learn this week of a particularly unpleasant case of online misogyny not being that much of a big deal at all.

Misogynist-baiting blog Manboobz tells us that one of the more high-profile men's rights websites is offering "bounty money" to anyone able to track down the personal details of a group of Swedish women who have made a video they don't like.

The women posted an admittedly ridiculous video on YouTube over a year ago, advertising a theatre production based on Valerie Solanas's SCUM Manifesto and showing the shooting of a man, followed by a victory dance by the women.

So it's publicity for a play, which isn't, you know, real. Like countless other plays and films produced every year that involve scenes of murder. But the guys at A Voice For Men see it more as a call for women to enact killing sprees directed at the opposite sex and have acted as they see fit, calling for those who are involved in the video to be publicly shamed. This includes:

"...asking for the full legal names, home addresses, places of employment, email addresses and contact phone numbers of the women and man who produced and starred in the video described above."

All just a bit of fun, right? Actually, no. Not when men's rights activists are involved. Stumbling across their websites is a discomforting experience. Many of these sites try to maintain a veneer of "reason", but you never have to read very far to realize that they're beloved hangouts of individuals who really do despise women, or at least all women who don't fit their ideal of feminine behaviour and let them treat them as they wish. Even when the contributors to these sites attempt to discourage completely vitriolic comments and attacks, you're going to get readers who can't help themselves.

It's also telling that they want to publish the personal details of the women on a site called "Register-Her", which purports to reveal the identities of women who have "falsely accused" men of rape. If that's not an encouragement to disturbed individuals looking to go on the rampage, I don't know what it is.

And that's why stuff like this - demanding that people track down the personal information of women so it can be publicized online - isn't just a bit of fun. It's encouraging the unpleasant people who frequent men's rights sites to intimidate and harass women, intruding into their personal lives, all because they've produced a satirical play.

In recent weeks some bloggers have spoken out about how worried they have been by threatening emails from people who have found out their addresses or information about their families. It does happen – and we all know that on the internet, you really don't have to look far to find people who will do genuinely disturbing things.

A writer at A Voice for Men has already been contacted by a Swedish journalist who seems concerned about what's going on. The writer himself seems more concerned about Sweden supposedly being one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to oppressing men, so I can only guess he missed the memo regarding that whole "countries with the highest quality of life" thing.

Another day, another example of women being targeted for harassment.

This post originally appeared on BitchBuzz. Image via screaming_monkey's Flickr.

Sunday linkpost/final thoughts - Christianity/gender edition

Sunday, 20 November 2011

A lot of discussion has come out of the issues surrounding gender equality and Christianity raised by various posts published in the past week - from different perspectives (which is good) and bringing up different points. I have collated the ones I have read here  for future reference and for anyone who hasn't seen them yet.

Vicky Beeching - Christian feminism is not an oxymoron

Krish Kandiah - Women, men, church and Twitter

Goannatree - The F word; or, I don't have to be a feminist to object to sexism

Elizabeth Esther - A necessary anger

Lay Anglicana - Aristophanes was the original complementarian

James Prescott - The masculine/feminine balance

Girltaristhan - Can I be a Christian and be a feminist?

Jo Royal - The one where I 'come out' - Part One and Part Two

and from me - Gracious debate, tone arguments and silencing, followed by Gracious debate part two - the silencing around gender issues

If you have a post to add to the debate, please comment and tell me!

The posts and discussion I have read and been a part of this week have raised two issues that warrant further exploration:

1) Masculinity and femininity in relation to the Bible. Can we interpret scripture to understand that a "Godly" man or woman should have particular traits, interests and personalities as well as "roles". To what extent is 21st century teaching on this informed by cultural gender stereotypes and expectations? And should we be looking to the men and women of the Bible for pointers on the right sort of "masculine" and "feminine" behaviour?

A lot of what I read online and in books about "Biblical" masculinity and femininity is heavily based on cultural expectations and stereotypes. I don't believe this is correct or helpful and actually think that we shouldn't be defining desirable and "Godly" personality traits, interests and lifestyles according to gender when they don't really have anything to do with whether one is male or female. Many other people take a different view. But what is very apparent to me is that a lot of people want to know what "Biblical/Godly" masculinity and femininity actually look like - and apply this to their lives. Personally, I'm not that fussed any more. Godly behaviour and personality? Yes - this is something we should all be striving for. Godly gender stereotypes? Not something I'm looking to implement in my life. But for some, it may be helpful to their situation or issues they are dealing with. So do we need a new conversation, a new approach to this? One that is less narrow-minded and more accepting of differences? One that doesn't attempt to tell us that Genesis 2 gives us a picture of man's "inherent strength" and woman's "inherent softness" (because let's be honest here, it really, really doesn't)? It's something I would hope to explore and discuss more in the future.

2) Working together despite difference to address issues of injustice. Something I've seen agreement on this week, from both sides of the debate, is that global gender inequality IS a justice issue and IS important. In my own contribution to the debate I wrote about wishing that comment threads on gender equality would stop boiling down to the holding open of doors and portrayals of men in television adverts for cleaning products as if that's all this issue is about. I don't think you have to believe that women can be pastors, or want an end to "traditional" roles within the family, to have a heart for global women's issues. Thankfully, the discussion has been steered away from trivial things. Some of the things I have seen people discussing in that respect are sex trafficking, rape and access to education. It would be great to see more of a "cross-party initiative" on these issues taking place, in the interests of both combating injustice and also working together to understand each other more.

Gracious debate part two - the silencing around gender issues

Monday, 14 November 2011

On Saturday night, when I was mulling over all this and deciding how I would tackle it, I realised I was going to have to split my thoughts into two posts. Tone arguments are one thing, but that day Vicky Beeching had just posted something brilliant and I saw that I needed to discuss the obsession with "being gracious", silencing and shaming as it relates to discussing gender issues, particularly as I had been in London at FEM 11 that day and the subject of women receiving abuse online has been a hot topic recently.

As I mentioned in my previous post, all Christian bloggers fall victim to readers' preoccupation with tone, but none more so than women when they discuss gender issues and/or feminism, which is such a loaded word for Christians that many don't even use it, even if it's a label they claim for themselves privately. In the post linked above, Vicky mentions that she was excited by all the tweets about FEM 11 appearing in her timeline on Saturday but decided not to retweet any of them because of the reactions it would probably set off among some of her followers.

What I said in my comment on Vicky's post and what I feel is something really important to consider here, is that as Christians we need to look past stereotypes and media hype and analyse the real issues at hand without resorting to uninformed attacks. When people judge us and our faith based on negative or untrue stereotypes, it makes us annoyed. When they take the actions of a few Christians (the antics of Westboro Baptist Church members - or any other hardline right-wing Christians - spring to mind here) and act as if the rest of us are all the same, it's frustrating. The same applies to feminists and those who believe in gender equality. It's disheartening when people dismiss our concerns or silence us, using clichés and misinformation to do so.

Firstly, it's important for Christians to understand that the feminist movement is wide-ranging. I cannot begin to describe how frustrating it is when someone mentions the word and readers immediately start qualifying it only in terms of a woman's role within the church and the family, or otherwise in terms of sexist television adverts, holding open doors and giving up seats. Don't begin to dismiss our work as unimportant and "outdated" until you know the many issues we work on and how they might affect women worldwide. Secondly, read a decent definition of radical feminism and make sure you use it correctly. Thirdly, consider what you're really doing when you say you don't believe Christians can sign up to the concept of gender equality because of the actions of a few "extreme" feminists. You're still following Jesus despite the actions of Fred Phelps, aren't you?

In my comment on Vicky's post, I highlighted a few of the issues related to gender equality:

"Equal pay. Racism. Poverty. Violence against women and girls. Trafficking. Under-representation in public life, politics and senior positions in business and decision-making jobs. The sort of future available to today's girls and their aspirations. Issues surrounding motherhood, income and the workplace. All this cannot be ignored while the discussion is reduced to simplistic statements about 'anger' and 'feminism going too far'."

When you reduce the concerns of the women's movement to holding open doors and adverts for cleaning products, believe me it grates - as if these are somehow examples of gender equality having gone beyond all acceptable limits, ruined the lives of women and emasculated the world's men. Similarly, it grates when people talk about gender equality as a concept promoting the establishment of female superiority over men and even doing away with them altogether. Look past your own front door and remember that people who aren't western, middle-class churchgoers have problems too. You see some people say that all these problems aren't what we should be concentrating on, as Christians. That they're not issues discussed in the Bible, so concerns about them are purely "cultural" and "of the world". Maybe that's true, for them - but some people happen to feel convicted about gender issues.

When they do, and especially when women do, it's important not to dismiss this, shut down the debate and label their conviction as "hysterical", "emotional" or "ranting". Nine times out of ten when I see a woman told she's "ranting" in a blog post she's simply expressing a strong opinion, or saying that she thinks something is wrong. When the popular male bloggers do this, it's unusual for someone to pull the "emotional" card, let alone the "hysterical" one (are people still holding on to the old definition of "hysteria" as health problems caused by the womb?). Treating a woman as your equal online doesn't involve using this sort of language, even as a "last resort" when you are frustrated or don't know where to take the debate. As a fellow blogger said on Twitter at the weekend:

"We are unfairly criticized when we are simply calling crap crap."

Unfairly criticized because according to gender stereotype, as women it's our job to put up, shut up and keep sweet lest we be told we're "out of line" or labelled "harpies". And it really is as simple as that. No matter how much some people believe they treat women well and respect them, the stereotype creates an underlying, uncomfortable feeling about how we should be regarded for speaking out about something.

Some time ago, a man responding to a blog post of mine said that he felt the issue of gender equality was not a crucial one (and therefore not one worth spending much time discussing) because it was "not a salvation issue". But know this: I have read the accounts of women who have lost their faith because of issues of gender and the church. I know women who have turned away from God because they cannot see how they can reconcile Christianity with calling themselves a feminist. I have heard the accounts of women who have been incredibly burned by the church and its attitude towards their gifting and their opinions. For these women, gender equality was - is - a salvation issue.

And when women talk about their own experiences with gender inequality - in or outside of the church, they might have painful memories to share. I know that I certainly have painful memories about gender inequality to share. According to those who enjoy silencing, tactics, we should be sharing these stories without emotion or a sense of injustice (and we all know that God hates injustice), because that would be ungracious and make us seem bitter and negative.

If those readers with their tone arguments were in fact correct, just asking for an end to injustice nicely, without being critical, would have done the job years ago and no-one would still have to question rape conviction rates or women bearing the brunt of poverty. Telling us that "things would be different if today's women were just happy to be women" (meaning content to live according to traditional gender roles) doesn't help. It's incredibly patronizing for a start - and yet again it's a "solution" that applies to a narrow range of issues - women's role in the church and family, yes, but not even a thought for the others I mentioned above.

As I said in my previous post, no-one should be resorting to bullying or un-Christlike behaviour. Caring deeply about an issue - and expressing a sense of injustice about it - is not the same thing.

Gracious debate, tone arguments and silencing

Sunday, 13 November 2011

It started with a couple of tweets from me, aimed at my Christian friends and fellow bloggers.

"To what extent do you think talk of "being gracious" is used to silence and shut down debate, particularly when it comes to issues involving women and the church?"

I asked this because, to put it bluntly, I am sick to the back teeth of seeing comment threads on blogs overtaken not by discussion of the issues at hand, but by discussion of whether or not the post and the tone used by the blogger was "gracious" enough, or "negative", or "bitter", or "Christlike". I believe we are called to Christlike debate. But I also feel that this obsession with tone is a classic derailing and silencing tactic, which at best comes across as patronizing - and at worst, incredibly unpleasant and shaming.

For those of you active in the feminist blogosphere, the term "tone argument" will probably be a familiar one. It's the argument a reader will make when telling the writer that "If you just expressed your feelings in a nice, polite way, others might listen to what you're saying". It's also the line that a reader will use when telling a blogger "Thank you for expressing your feelings in such a measured and rational way - so different to all those angry, aggressive bloggers". We Christians have our own equivalent of this. But the Christian tone argument favours a particular word - one which is fast becoming one of my least favourite words ever.

That word is "gracious". What I'm seeing, on an increasingly regular basis, is an obsession that blog posts on "difficult" or "controversial" issues must be "gracious". If they are not considered "gracious" enough by those reading, everything the blogger has expressed becomes invalid. This seems to mean different things for different people. As someone on Twitter said to me, sometimes people use the word when they mean "being kind". Sometimes they use it when they mean "agreeing with me". Sometimes they use it when they mean "taking others' opinions into account". Much of the time, the extent to which someone is believed to be "gracious" is dependent on how little they seek to "rock the boat".

There was a controversial post about the role of men and women in relationships on a very popular blog a few weeks ago. The post, written by a man, generated hundreds of comments, blog posts in response - and it's fair to say, plenty of drama. What really stood out among the hundreds of comments on the post, for me, was the number of comments by fans of the blog directed towards those who had disagreed with the post, telling them how bitter, emotional and ungracious they were. Bitter, emotional and ungracious - why? Because they'd dared to disagree with a prominent name in the blogosphere? Because they'd told their own stories of how the opinions expressed in the post had caused a great deal of hurt to them over the years?

I'm pulling no punches about this: it has to stop.

I see the tone argument pulled on men, too, when they express dissent. But when it comes to being shamed for expressing disagreement, anger or conviction, women are always first in line. It's an effective way of shutting us up, you see. Tell us we're "ungracious" or "un-Christlike". No-one wants to be seen as the person Jesus would disapprove of in an argument. It's also an effective way of rewarding us, giving us a cookie for playing the good girl and not rocking the boat. When I posted those tweets a few days ago, I was thinking of a particular post written by a woman whose blog I read, a woman I greatly admire and respect. Recently she'd written a post that I could tell had been difficult to write and had stirred up a lot of feelings in her. The post received a lot of comments. Most of them at the time I was reading seemed to be focused on how "gracious" her post was. "Thank you for being so gracious in the way you have written this". You know how it goes.

I was annoyed for her. Were people engaging with the issue she wanted to discuss? No, they were patronizing her for being good enough to write the post without getting "angry" or sounding "bitter". I didn't say anything about it to her, until we were discussing all this on Twitter on Thursday night.

"I hate it when [readers] pat my head and congratulate me for being gracious..." she said.

I told her which post I knew she was thinking of. She was. And she had felt patronized. She wanted people to engage with her opinions, not tell her how gracious she had been, when as she said, "I try to be respectful in hopes that they will hear my point instead of get defensive because I was too forceful". I think that this can be a good thing to do in the Christian blogosphere. There is, sadly, a great reluctance to see someone's view as valid if they are forceful in the way they write it. And so some people choose to adapt. And of course, there is no good reason to be vitriolic towards people, or act like a bully. But you can't talk about controversial issues without some sort of disagreement happening and we shouldn't try to stamp it out when it does.

When I see another post where the comments are more focused on tone than actually debating issues, where women are repeatedly criticised for having a strong opinion, feeling angry about something or disagreeing with someone (particularly a "big name" male blogger or preacher), my heart sinks. When this criticism comes from a place of male privilege, or from the perspective of women who are reinforcing the status quo, it reinforces the position that many Christian women see themselves in constantly - that they are ignored when they speak out and that no-one shares their concerns. We all need to listen to each other and understand that there is nothing wrong with righteous anger, or feeling emotional about a particular subject. There is nothing wrong with dissenting opinion. There is absolutely no reason to congratulate someone just for being nice and making sure they don't upset anyone, if this does not achieve anything. If Jesus's ministry had not caused dissent and controversy, where would we be today?

This post is part one of two. In part two I hope to discuss how this relates directly to discussion and understanding of gender equality and the feminist movement within Christian circles. 

The image at the top of the post, from here was the first thing that showed up when I typed "gracious living" into Google Images. I thought it was quite fitting, considering the subject matter. 

Exciting times for the Dorries-approved womb (plus women and blogging)

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

So back at the beginning of September I wrote a post for Nadine Dorries, all about my womb, which I described as "just about the most boring uterus ever". Behold, it does the same thing once a month with no fuss, I said, adding that Nadine would most heartily approve because I'd never managed to "go and get myself pregnant".

Yet unbeknownst to me, my womb was harbouring a secret. A big (not literally), life-changing secret. One week after I wrote that post I was staring at a positive pregnancy test. It said "3 weeks +". This was not entirely unexpected; I'll add (more Dorries points for me). I was pleased I'd been out partying the weekend before and therefore had one final hurrah on the booze (that's what's known as hyperbole, concern trolls; I don't binge drink). Aside from that, I was, quite simply, freaked out. When was I going to start getting symptoms? Was I going to have hyperemesis, like my mother?

The past couple of months have been interesting. Much to my mum's chagrin, the dreaded sickness never reared its ugly head. Mostly, it's been all about complete exhaustion. I'm used to being tired - I get up at 6am, I have a long commute, a busy job, I write a lot in the evenings and I work out. If you're wondering why blog posts have been thin on the ground since September, it's because I've tended to hit "the wall" at around 2pm. For several weeks, I felt like I could barely function by the time I got home from work. I've dragged myself to the gym occasionally and genuinely felt as if I was about to nod off while on the cross trainer

I've also been dipping in to what is uncharted territory for me: parenting forums and blogs. This has confirmed what I knew already: that despite being great places for advice and support, these places often take judginess to a whole new level. If you blog about taking a "relaxed" (as opposed to "smothering and paranoid") approach to parenting, there are people out there who will email you to let you know you don't deserve to be a mother (yes, this really did happen to a friend). Let's not even go there with the monumental breastfeeding bust-up that's recently happened among certain bloggers I read.

And then, there's "mummy blogging". Or "mommy blogging", if you like. C. Jane has been talking about it a bit recently, following her talk to university students about women and blogging. She asked me if I had any thoughts about being a woman and being online. Clearly I do. At the time I'd just been to the Christian New Media Conference and had attended the panel discussion on gender and digital media. The panelists asked the audience if they felt that "blogging is a man's world" and almost everyone said "no". This much is true in the sense that women are a very visible presence online and we don't shy away from writing. Yet how are we perceived, as bloggers? This is something I've written about before and also something of a hot topic recently, as shown by this column by Helen Lewis Hasteley for the New Statesman.

"The sheer volume of sexist abuse thrown at female bloggers is the internet's festering sore: if you talk to any woman who writes online, the chances are she will instantly be able to reel off a Greatest Hits of insults. But it's very rarely spoken about, for both sound and unsound reasons. No one likes to look like a whiner -- particularly a woman writing in male-dominated fields such as politics, economics or computer games. Others are reluctant to give trolls the "satisfaction" of knowing they're emotionally affected by the abuse, or are afraid of incurring more by speaking out."

Over the last week the subject of abuse faced by women online has really taken off with discussion not simply limited to blogs or Twitter as is usually the case, but a number of articles, very long comment threads and links being exchanged back and forth across the pond. There's been a hashtag - check out #mencallmethings to see women discussing the abuse they've faced. Cath Elliott has also done a good round-up of posts on the issue here.

So we have the misogynist attacks, the insinuations that we know nothing about particular subjects, the "silly girl" and "hysterical and emotional" put-downs every time we get passionate about something. And then there's the distinct lack of sisterhood which comes hand in hand with a lot of the parental judginess I mentioned above - something I was privy to when I wrote a guest post for Courtney earlier this year and found myself being berated by other women for being "young" (and therefore ignorant) and not yet having any children, among other things. I wasn't even writing about children or parenting, yet for some readers, it was clear that as a childless woman, I was somehow deficient and not worth their time.

Courtney doesn't like the term "mommy blogger" because it always ends up having a lot of negative connotations and being associated with unpleasant and often misogynistic stereotypes. The freebie-hungry mother who's out for the giveaways and trips and products to review and nothing more. The vacuous mother intent on portraying her life - and her children - as winsomely perfect. The oversharing mother who regales her readers with every tedious detail of her little darlings' development. From the post on Courtney's talk I linked to above I gathered she discussed the commercialization of it all, the pressures of modern womanhood extending to the blogosphere and the kowtowing to patriarchy which she sees as a particular issue for women of faith, but which of course applies to us all.

I've been part of conversations where people - men and women - have pretty much spat out the words "mummy blogger", with great disgust, or otherwise used it in a mocking, smirking way. I've read mummy/mommy blogs from the excellent to the very, very bad; of course they're not a terrible thing per se. I'm not sure if I'll ever want to count myself among them, though. Because for the time being, now I'm feeling a bit better, I'm happy to keep on writing about my usual topics. You might see pregnancy-related posts (you may wish to avoid them), who knows?

Last week I had my dating scan and saw my baby for the first time. Things feel more real now, and less stressful, for the time being. And so, it starts. I am starting as I mean to go on and taking it to its first feminist conference on Saturday. Let's hope I manage to stay awake.

I blame the media: equality, consumerism and sensationalism

Sunday, 30 October 2011

For the past two or three years, most newspaper coverage of the feminist movement has heralded its return, its new-found popularity and the renewed fervour of 21st century women to see gender equality realised. In the past I've written about how this has become tedious. How many times can you talk about the "return of feminism" - especially when you've done so on a regular basis since 2008 - before it gets old? And yet it seems that not all Guardian journalists feel the same way.

On Friday, a piece by Tanya Gold, entitled "I blame the media for ignoring feminism in favour of makeup", appeared. It's in the third paragraph that she says:

"I pondered why the feminist movement seems so comprehensively to have stalled. Feminism seems so tiny today, so niche, of such little interest to the outside world and even to women."

Stalled. Despite new groups of activists and campaigns and conferences and demonstrations and petitions and documentaries and blogs and tireless work by many people I know: stalled. I don't think the movement has stalled. It's just hard to be heard when the problems of the world are so numerous and women's voices are the most marginalized.

As we read on we see that Gold is referring to the depressing statistics we learn of on a regular basis. The pay gap, the workplace, the treatment of women in politics, the beauty industry, celebrity. It's not an attack on what the activists are doing, it's an attack on a society that refuses to listen and media organizations that won't give issues any coverage unless they're explosive and sensationalized. I don't always agree with everything Gold writes, but I really identified with what she's saying here, from the rage at government cuts to her recollection of how many people she knows react to the concept of gender equality.

"That was their comment on modern feminism – an indistinct, half-imagined dislike for Harriet Harman, although they cannot remember why."

It's all too familiar, isn't it? And it's a miserable thing to think about, the thought that as far as some people can see, our efforts as activists aren't changing anything because as far as the rest of the world can see, talking about "Millie's Fillies" is funny. We have "career women" and "working mums" but not "career men" and "working dads" and when you point that out to some people, they fall about laughing because you're just so ridiculous and then roll their eyes because "no-one cares". The media's favourite statistics are the ones that reinforce traditional gender roles, victim-blaming and negative stereotypes of women. The stats and reports that show men in a vaguely negative light don't get the same attention, because then men get upset, which just won't do.

The examples Gold uses of this lack of progress, of impact, from the movement, are numerous. The glorification of less equal times through television shows like Pan Am. The media's role as a vehicle for the fashion and beauty industries and the oft-promoted lie that consumption, spending power and rampant materialism equal "empowerment". This is one of my all-time favourite bugbears: the co-option of "choice" so that it becomes less about gender equality and more about the choice to buy a dress or a handbag, to feel "sexy" by using a certain product, empowerment by "doing what feels good" and spending your money on whatever you want, or choosing a certain brand of chocolate or tampon. "It's my choice, I want to do it, therefore it's empowering to me and how it affects other people doesn't matter". Nina Power calls it "Feminism TM", and Sian Norris has written more about it here.

Gold argues that feminism is now seen as so insignificant that it is not having an impact on these things that matter - objectifying and sexist imagery, or the idea of consumerism as empowerment. I would argue that these are not the only things we work for and that while it is critical, there are other things that we're focusing on that matter just as much. Consumerism and objectification are often criticized, when relentlessly focused on, as the concerns of privileged, middle-class women who prioritize such concerns over issues like poverty, the economy, race and VAWG, refusing to step outside the bubble and acknowledge the experiences of others. You've all seen the call-outs and the discussions. This is important and I think we all agree that the focus can't be so exclusive. But as Gold - and the rest of us - are sadly very much aware, these are the issues that get the media coverage.

Slutwalk and protests against Playboy get the attention because they're "titillating". It means the media can talk about sex and print pictures of young women. It means the trolls can castigate the protesters for being "ugly" and everyone can have a good smirk at the shrill, bitter harridans who clearly just need a good shag. Equality legislation, issues surrounding race, pregnancy discrimination and anti-victim blaming perspectives on the justice system aren't titillating or explosive enough - and so coverage is limited to the feminist blogs and the couple of daily newspapers that are more sympathetic to the cause. And it's not in the interests of the media to denounce capitalism and criticize the things they're so invested in - beauty, materialism, celebrity. It happens up to a point, but at the end of the day money has to be made. When you start to discuss these things with people outside your own little bubble, you remember that not everyone thinks consumerism is a problem. For many, it's an absolute joy.

A friend said on Twitter yesterday:

"To me, it always feels as though women are being encouraged to consume to please some huge 'other'. It's as though you're always being told to strive for perfection, and the only way to achieve perfection is by buying more shit."

Even for many who set themselves apart from the unbearable side of mainstream consumerism, it's still about defining themselves by the things they've acquired and cultivating an image carefully based around said things. And this, no matter what, will always trump "boring" reports on various aspects of equality from the women's sector. So do we change tactics to get the media coverage and hope it brings about more change? And does this inevitably involve "dumbing down" and sidelining the issues that "no-one cares about", the issues that invariably involve women of colour and working class women?

When Caitlin Moran criticized the obsession with beauty and handbags in her autobiography, discussing sex and body issues and relationships and clothes, thousands of women read the book and many said it made them think about things, for the first time, that they'd never really considered before. But many others were perturbed that it focused on, "yet again", the concerns of the privileged and ignored the wider concerns of the women's movement. It got a lot of media attention and a lot of hype.

Next month, the Fawcett Society will hold a day of action in London. Women are being encouraged to come to march dressed in "50s get-up" (pinnies, rubber gloves, dresses, headscarves, chains) to symbolize the way the government wants to "turn back time" on women's rights. We are also being encouraged to hold "Don't turn back time tea parties" to raise awareness locally. It's a nifty gimmick. Remember the approach to freedom and equality in the 50s? That's what we could return to! So let's make like it's the 50s and make sure people sit up and take notice, right? Some people are unhappy with the gimmick. Tea parties? 50s housewives? Hardly representative of the experience of all women! Is it a great way to protest what the government's doing - or is it dumbing down and excluding voices in the name of hoped-for media coverage?

The concerns of today are just as important as the fights for equality legislation and involvement of women in public life four or five decades ago. The spectre of consumerism today, however, is larger and it's seen as laughable to challenge it, despite what has happened in recent years with the economy and everything else that should have sounded warning bells. The media is driven by sensationalism and sex, and while feminism may be "back", gender equality is still a big joke to many, including those in positions of great power.

It's difficult to know which track to choose in the quest to see change happen. Go for the marketing and focus on popular culture, like the industries we criticize, or watch as yet another successful protest, another victory, happens largely without coverage? How can we make sure that the media cares about the issues that affect those other than the privileged? As we feminists like to say, it's problematic.

Image: Barbara Kruger

Miss Representation tells it like it is

Friday, 28 October 2011

A new film exposes the way representations of women in the media lead to under-representation of women in positions of power. And it's long overdue.

"You can't be what you can't see". The words jump out at us from the screen in the trailer for Miss Representation, a new film exposing and challenging the media's portrayals of women and girls, which is causing a stir in the US since its broadcast premiere last week.

Written and directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the film interviews teenage girls as well as famous faces like Condoleezza Rice, Nancy Pelosi, Rosario Dawson and Gloria Steinem in a quest to show the public just what's so wrong about the way the US media treats women and girls and what sort of effect it's having on their lives. Its findings are depressing, showing that while women continue to be seriously under-represented in politics, business and journalism, they're continuously judged on their looks, age and weight. Its aim is to get people thinking about just what is so wrong with all this.

"I'm hoping that we can start the discussion, and actually the discussion turns into action around valuing women in our culture. And that's huge," said Siebel Newsom in a recent interview.

Even if you haven't watched the trailer yet, with its footage of bikini-clad women in music videos interspersed with derogatory newspaper headlines about women politicians, you can probably reel off a list of the ways the media and popular culture makes it abundantly clear what us women are good for. We're the eye candy, the gender whose worth is bound up in how "sexy" we are. We're the bitches and the backstabbers and the lovers of "catfights". The "yummy mummies" and the "slummy mummies". The bosses from hell and the boardroom "ballbusters". When we go into politics, the newspapers run stories on our dress sense and cleavage rather than our achievements. Men turn up at our public appearances holding banners saying "Iron my shirt".

How is this making the women of the future feel and what's it doing to their ambitions? Miss Representation reveals all. It reveals how such toxic imagery is making girls and women feel devalued and ignored - as one teenager says, it's as if no-one cares about their brains, only their looks. It reveals how girls' dreams and ambitions change over time, as they find themselves trapped in stereotypes of what a woman should be and treated accordingly by boys, trapped by the perception that "feminine" or "like a girl" means "inferior".

It feels as if a film like this is long overdue. We've seen the reports on the value of really including women and raising them up to their full potential. The positive impact when they participate fully in the workplace, in the making of laws and the running of nations. And yet in countries like the US and the UK - countries seen as leading the way in other areas - women are being let down badly.

The way we're guaranteed to get media attention is by taking our clothes off. Of course the reception will only then be positive if we adhere to certain beauty standards, otherwise our "imperfections" will be raked over. Keeping our clothes on doesn't make us immune either - we're encouraged to judge and snipe from the off at unflattering cuts, visible body hair and unsightly bulges.

I hope the film will really make people think and start productive discussion about how we can combat these messages about women. All too often I think they're accepted as a fact of life. Even when people aren't happy about it there's a shrug of the shoulders and a roll of the eyes: that's just how the media is, right? Wrong. Something has to be done - and thankfully, Miss Representation isn't just a film: it's also a campaign.

By signing up through the organisation's website, you can become a Social Action Representative, download materials for use in schools and universities (US/Canada only) and access a conversation guide to help you bring up the issues the film raises with your family and friends.

I for one am excited about the impact all this is going to have as more people watch the film and are moved by its message. If taking action would mean more girls reaching their full potential and not being afraid to show who they really are, would you do it? By refusing to buy into and take notice of the stereotypes that bring us down and patronize us every single day, I think it's possible to effect change.

Check out Miss Representation on Facebook and Twitter for more news.

This post originally appeared on BitchBuzz. Photo via guelphguy's Flickr

A tale of two rape prevention campaigns

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Here is the poster for Rape Crisis Scotland's new campaign, "Stop Rape!"

 As the organisation's website says:

"Rape Crisis Scotland has adapted an apt and popular revision of the traditional approach to rape prevention in a new poster and postcard campaign. We hope this will help to reverse the popular trend of focusing rape prevention messages on women and instead transfer these towards more appropriate recipients - potential perpetrators." 

You can click here to read the list of "top 10 tips to end rape", which include "Don't put drugs in women's drinks" and "Don't forget: it's not sex with someone who's asleep or unconscious - it's RAPE!"

Here is a poster produced by South Wales Police, spotted in Swansea today by the eagle-eyed and subsequently enraged @welshfeminist. "Don't be a victim," it urges women, adding that "alcohol features in two thirds of all rapes".

It seems that every winter brings a fresh crop of anti-rape campaigns from the police or local authorities. It's the dark evenings, deserted streets - and the festive season with its "high spirits" and partying that sets them off. And every winter, you can guarantee that at least one of these campaigns will find new, catchy, and creative ways of victim-blaming.

In 2009 we had the Association of Chief Police Officers telling women to "Let your hair down, not your guard". The campaign's poster aimed at men, on the other hand, said "Rape: short word, long sentence". But when the media got hold of the story, the focus, as usual, was firmly on the fairer sex. "Women hitting the town for Christmas drinks are being warned not to make themselves easy prey for rapists," said Sky News, while the Metro's story told us that "Women heading out for Christmas drinks have been warned not to make themselves easy prey for rapists". It's telling that I haven't managed to find a standfirst explaining that "Men have been warned to think about the consequences of committing rape this festive season".

I'm sure you can think of similar campaigns. Another that came to mind for me was TfL's campaign, also from 2009, warning women of the consequences of getting into unlicensed taxis.

I love Rape Crisis Scotland because they make it their mission to challenge victim-blaming culture through in everything they do, including the brilliant Not Ever campaign. And this new campaign is a great example of how all the old lines used against those who have been raped can - and should - be turned around so that they place the blame firmly where it should really lie. I've read a few discussions on the campaign this week and among all the support there's been a smattering of voices claiming that it's "extreme", "patronizing" and "anti-men". Of course the wording sounds a bit patronizing - as is explained, it's reversing the usual, thoroughly patronizing messages that women have to put up with from other campaigns. You think telling women to be careful about how they dress, where they go and who they talk to isn't patronizing?

Actually, a lot of people don't, because it's what we're used to. As women, we need to be "warned" and "encouraged to stay safe" because that's just how it's done. And so we've ended up with a situation where some people feel "uncomfortable" about campaigns targeting perpetrators because it seems, well, you know, a bit harsh and unfair.

I noticed that Rape Crisis Scotland have promoted the Welsh Government's "Stop the Blame" campaign from Christmas 2010, which used traditional victim-blaming excuses - alcohol, clothing, flirting, being in a relationship with the perpetrator - to emphasize that it's time to put the onus on those who rape to stop. Clearly South Wales Police missed the memo. Discussing alcohol could have been a good opportunity to turn the message around because I'm sure that it's a pretty major factor in the choices rapists make. But alas!

"Don't be a victim" is such a negative slogan. It implies shame; it implies that the matter is probably more trivial than the person who has been raped thinks. It encourages people to think of themselves as having done something wrong. I would say that it certainly gives out a message that could discourage people from reporting a rape, something that's already a huge problem due to the current level of victim-blaming exhibited by these campaigns, by the media and consequently, by the public.

When will the police take notice?

Thinking positive about women in the church

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Today I have a guest post up on Anna Blanch's blog, Goannatree, entitled "Thinking Positive about Being a Woman in the Church".

"Being “a woman in the church” is fraught with problems. We know this because we experience it, we think about it, we write about it. A lot. 

 It is absolutely vital that we discuss what it means to be a woman in the church and the things we come across that upset us, that make us feel patronized or limited or ignored. Some years ago, I was struggling with finding my identity and wondering whether or not it was okay to just be myself at church. I was a bit concerned that it wasn’t okay and that this was backed up by a lot of books and other materials aimed at women, which tended to talk about “Biblical womanhood” as if this was a specific set of personality traits and skills. How wonderful it was to find different voices out there, through blogs and through books; women who felt the same way as me and who have helped me immeasurably on my faith journey."

Click to read on

This Saturday I will be at the Christian New Media Conference at City University London and am really excited about learning a lot from the sessions and talks on offer, as well as getting to meet some online acquaintances. You know what do if you spot me!

Image via State Library of South Australia's Flickr.

Return of the round-up

Monday, 10 October 2011

Feministing - Topeka, Kansas considers decriminalizing domestic violence to avoid prosecuting cases

"Last month, the Shawnee County District Attorney’s office, facing a 10% budget cut, announced that the county would no longer be prosecuting misdemeanors, including domestic violence cases, at the county level. Finding those cases suddenly dumped on the city and lacking resources of their own, the Topeka City Council is now considering repealing the part of the city code that bans domestic battery."

Observer - Joyce Carol Vincent: How could this young woman lie dead and undiscovered for almost three years?

"The video cut away from Joyce to the Wembley crowd and I thought of her, backstage, in her element, on a high, talking to Anita Baker and Denzel Washington, shaking hands with Nelson Mandela, in a room with verifiable stars. She was 26 years old, ambitious, beautiful, full of hope for the future. She had her whole life ahead of her but in 13 years she would die and nobody would know and nobody would notice."

Role/Reboot - Men Still Frame the Debate: Baseball, Banking and Why it's Not the End of Gender

"It is still considered important to be tough when participating in areas that are traditionally male-dominated. In fact, many women consciously try to avoid seeming feminine or naïve when they interact with men in professional and even casual settings. Although more women have become doctors, it’s important to note that few men have become nurses. This begs the questions: is it that women have learned to participate like men in male culture, while men have not really been forced to change their behavior?"

Public Religion Research Institute - Evangelical Woman Criticizes “Biblical Womanhood” By Embracing It

"My purpose in embarking on this project is not to belittle or make fun of the Bible, nor is it to glorify its patriarchal elements. It is simply to start a conversation about how we interpret and apply the Bible to our lives. In the end, I hope my misadventures inspire women to cut themselves and one another some slack….because the truth is, we all do a little ‘picking and choosing’ when it comes to biblical womanhood!"

The Simple Pastor - Should A Church Be Excellent?

"OK, maybe I’d be a little more gracious than that. Perhaps I’d say this, ‘I’m sorry you didn’t think our worship service was excellent in every way but we were never going to get there. We are just ordinary people loving an extraordinary God who loved us when we were his enemies and getting it all wrong. And sometimes we still get it wrong but we’ve found a freedom and a love and a grace that means we don’t have to be excellent to be loved, we don’t have to be excellent to be accepted, we don’t have to be excellent to be a success...’ "

The Independent - Why equality is a distant dream: Girls, boys and the real differences between them

"Fewer than half of British boys agreed that it would be good to have the same number of women as men leading top companies. And British girls are twice as likely as boys to clean the house and help with the washing and cooking. Although the vast majority of girls in the UK think that boys should help in the same way, only 71 per cent of their male peers agree. 

Almost two-thirds of UK boys think that a woman's most important role is to take care of her home and cook for the family – something less than half of girls agree with. And 39 per cent of British boys think that men should have the "final word" at home – compared with 20 per cent of girls."

Joy Bennett at A Deeper Story - Burn, Ladies, Burn

"She thinks God made a mistake. And to be honest, I’ve often thought the same when all I saw around me were lines I wasn’t to cross and barriers to keep me out. What is a woman supposed to do with that fire? Why would God give us such unquenchable passion to right wrongs and stand for justice, and then hem us in? 

I tell her she’s right about one thing - God did give her that fire in her belly. But God did not make a mistake. God does not forbid women from taking action."

Guardian - Is Iceland the best country for women?

"Parents here talk strongly of community support, of collective care for children, and there is no sense that motherhood precludes work or study, which effectively changes the whole structure of women's lives. "You are not forced to organise your life in the 'college-work-maybe children later' way," says Thorunn, who is a single mother to a young daughter. Andrea says when she had her first child, on her own, at 19, she took him with her to school, "and the teacher would hold him while I was studying"."

Barna Group - Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church

"The research points to two opposite, but equally dangerous responses by faith leaders and parents: either catering to or minimizing the concerns of the next generation. The study suggests some leaders ignore the concerns and issues of teens and twentysomethings because they feel that the disconnection will end when young adults are older and have their own children. Yet, this response misses the dramatic technological, social and spiritual changes that have occurred over the last 25 years and ignores the significant present-day challenges these young adults are facing."

Women in Afghanistan, 10 years on

Friday, 7 October 2011

Will Afghanistan's women see more positive changes in their lives in the decade to come? Many fear the future.

This Friday will mark the 10th anniversary of the US and British military intervention in Afghanistan. Its goal? To dismantle the al-Qaeda organization, remove the Taliban from power and create a more democratic state. In the last decade, billions have been spent, thousands have died - but the war has ensured that progress has been made.

As this anniversary approaches, organizations are assessing the effect the last decade has had on the people of Afghanistan, and plans are being made for the country's future. We can expect much discussion and assessment from world leaders, ahead of a conference in Bonn in December, where representatives from 90 countries will come together to talk about the country's future and plans for withdrawal of troops, currently planned from 2014 onwards.
Several organizations have this week released documents focusing on the situation for Afghanistan's women and among them is A Just Peace? - a report from ActionAid, which has obtained a rare insight into the lives of Afghan women by polling them about the issues that matter to them.

One of the major promises made by politicians ten years ago was that life for women would improve as a result of the war. The situation for women under the Taliban is now notorious, characterized by violence, forced marriage, a ban on having a job, no going to school beyond the age of eight, restricted access to healthcare, and restrictions on appearing in public.

After the fall of the Taliban, equal rights were enshrined in the country's new constitution and women are now, in theory, free to do the things they could not before. But it's not that simple. Women still continue to suffer discrimination such as forced marriage and domestic violence. Women who take an active role in public life are the targets of attacks and threats. Many women vote only on the direction of their husband or father. There is concern that they are also being "frozen out" of the peace process, which could have dire consequences should the country see a return to Taliban control. Just recently, Afghanistan was named as the second-worst place in the world to be a woman.

Without the participation of women in political decisions, the clock could be turned back on the gains made. And as ActionAid's report shows, Afghan women are deeply concerned about this. Almost three quarters of those ActionAid talked to said they felt their lives today are better than they were 10 years ago.

Unsurprisingly, 86% of those surveyed said they were worried about a return to Taliban-style government, rising to 92% in urban areas. One in five of these cited their daughters' education as their main concern here, while another major concern across women of all ages was sexual assault. In fact, more women singled it out as their biggest fear above abduction, being kidnapped, and being caught in an explosion combined.

So going forward, what do Afghan women want? They want to see an end to conflict in their country, but they also want their rights respected and are clear that they do not want a government that does not give them equality. This is why ActionAid and other organizations are calling on the international community to ensure that they support this vital part of the peace process, consider funding struggling women's rights groups in Afghanistan and fully include women in decision-making.

How can you get involved this week? For a start, take a look at this video giving a glimpse into women's lives, 10 years on.

Check out the #10yearson hashtag on Twitter to join in the discussion, share links and raise awareness of the importance of this Friday. Urge your MP to acknowledge how crucial women's rights in Afghanistan are. 

Earlier this week, Afghan MP Fawzia Koofi spoke at a session at the Conservative Party's conference in Manchester. She has already urged David Cameron to make sure Afghan women's lives are at the top of the international agenda. The UK government can make a difference and you could help.

On Friday, the No Women No Peace network, which includes ActionAid, will be launching actions, including a petition to the government, to mark the anniversary of military intervention. Follow @nowomennopeace for more information.

This post originally appeared on BitchBuzz. Image via DVIDSHUB's Flickr.

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