Monday, 31 December 2012

Rape - not a serious crime in India

We’re about to celebrate the beginning of 2013, but I’ve read today that celebrations of the New Year in India are being scaled down. This is because of the horrible events which led to the death of a 23-year-old Delhi medical student.

The woman, whose identity has not been released, was gang raped on a bus with a metal bar. The injuries to her body and brain were so horrific that she died on Saturday, nearly two weeks after the attack. 

Measures to make Delhi safer for women have been announced, such as police night patrols and banning buses with tinted windows. These are not to be sniffed at – they may prevent the same thing happening to other women. But the real problem in India is not protecting women from men, but making, or helping, men to see women as human and equal.

Women in India

According to official figures, a woman is raped in Delhi every 14 hours, while women across the country say they are frequently subjected to sexual intimidation and violence. And that’s just the official figures. In a country in which women reporting rape or sexual assault are often at best ignored and at worst blamed, the reality is bound to be much worse. 

It is well known that women are valued less highly than men in Indian society. Female foetuses are often aborted, and baby girls killed. This is just another side of that coin.

Political parties in India have put forward 27 candidates for state elections who declared they had been charged with rape (and what about the ones who haven’t declared it), and there are six elected state legislators who have charges of rape against them, according to a report out this month. The implication is that rape really isn’t considered a serious crime in India.

I also read a newspaper article that pointed out that the woman is referred to as the ‘daughter of India’, that women are always wives, daughters and sisters, never independent people in their own right. Until this mindset changes, and women begin to be seen as real people, it is difficult to see how any meaningful reduction in the numbers of rapes and sexual assaults can come about.

This story reminds me of tales of the Holocaust, with the way Nazi guards treated Jewish people in concentration camps, seeing them as inherently inferior, and less human then themselves, and therefore able to inflict all kind of atrocities upon them. 

Extra security might protect women in public, such as in this case, but many of these cases will take place behind closed doors. What it needs is to understand that women have rights as individuals, that violating these is not acceptable, and those who do won’t get away with it, whether they are members of the political elite or the poorest of the poor. 

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Is it OK to enjoy sexist films?

Over Christmas I’ve been watching lots of non-strenuous films, the kind that if you nip out to top up your drink and reheat the Christmas pudding, it won’t be much of a challenge to work out what you missed. It’s a great feeling, when all the present wrapping and turkey cooking is over, with a new collection of still-cellophaned DVDs and a few days of dedicating myself to eating and watching.

Here I go, harking back to a time when men were rugged and go-getting, tracking down criminals and chasing people about in fast cars, and women had little to worry about other than looking good in evening dress. Ah, happy days. Hang on a minute...

How do I reconcile my love of these films, and their devilishly attractive yet hopelessly sexist men, with my feminist principles?

Silly girls

Women in so many films look nice, but are mainly pointless. Think Willie (Kate Capshaw) in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, pictured with the lovely Harrison Ford. She is constantly tripping over things in her inappropriate footwear, needing rescuing from animals and being squeamish. There really are a lot of women like this in films.

How many pre-1990 film actresses does it take to change a lightbulb? Just the one to wiggle her bottom until a man turns up to get the job done.

Scary girls

Another film I watched this Christmas was Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill! If you don’t know Meyer, his hallmark is sexploitation with big breasts. I bought my husband a box set for Christmas.

This particular film (which is very badly acted), is both pro and anti-feminist. It features vicious women who get their kicks from fighting and killing. They are free and independent, using men only as sex objects and to prove their own superiority. So far so feminist. But Meyer's women are clearly (and infamously) chosen for their figures, most notably their enormous breasts. What the whole adds up to is a big fighty-feisty-girl-breast-fest. Fun though. 

Bond girls

Then there’s the compulsory Christmas Bond film.

In old-style Bond, the Connery and Moore school, women are usually pretty helpless (pretty and helpless) and invariably end up running about in a bikini, getting themselves and the hero into scrapes, but being forgiven because they're so darn attractive.

The women in new-style Bond, Brosnan and Craig, still spend a lot of time in bikinis but tend to be more useful (think Halle Berry in Die Another Day, although she does still need rescuing at the end, but what's a girl to do when she's trapped in a palace made of ice?).

They may be picked so that they look good in swimwear, but then so is James Bond, so I’m not about to complain about that. In The World is Not Enough they even allow a woman to be really clever (Denise Richards), although they ruin it by calling her Dr Christmas Jones. 

Redressing the balance

I’m glad that films are slowly redressing the balance when it comes to sexism, but that doesn’t help me reconcile my love of sexist flicks featuring men of action with my theoretical dislike of their portrayal of women. The later Bond films have proven that you really don't have to show women being hopeless to show men at their best, but it took a long time for Hollywood to figure that out.

When I ask myself what I would change about the women and men in these films, the answer is nothing. I love them too much as they are. What do you do?

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Men don't wear bras

The Guardian has done an anecdotal, tongue-in-cheek survey, to see if it's more expensive going through life as a man or a woman.

The (completely unscientific) piece, 'Is it cheaper to be a woman - or a man?', looks at spending on clothes, underwear, shaving and cosmetics, food and drink, and haircuts. It concludes that being a woman costs roughly 6% more than being a man.

The article cites recent ONS data suggesting that on average women spend £588 a year on their wardrobes, while men spend £322. It seems that this is, as you might expect, a mixture of women's clothes costing more and women buying more things, partly because we need to (men don't wear bras) and partly because we want to.

It's interesting, but not really surprising, that some retailers charge different prices for near identical items, depending on whether you are in the men's or the women's sections. Despite more material being required for the men's version, you guessed it, the women's is more expensive.

I don't think we can really blame the retailers being sexist for this - it's basic economics. The same economics that means you will pay £5 for a white T-shirt in Tesco and £20 for pretty much the same item at Boden or wherever it is you shop. After covering the costs of production (usually) the retailer charges you what they think you will pay. If you are shopping for clothes in Tesco, you're probably expecting to get a bargain, so prices have to be kept low. If you walk into a Jigsaw store on the high street, then you're happy to pay a bit more for the way you look, and the shop charges accordingly. They charge us what we, collectively, are willing to pay, and by and large women are willing to pay more than men.

How women can spend the same as men on clothes

If you really object to spending more on clothes than your boyf, you can:

  1. Dress in men's clothing (although this won't help with the bras)
  2. Get all your clothes from Tesco (very cheap)
  3. Become an extremely thrifty and brave sales shopper (personally, I pay more to avoid the sales scrum)
  4. Embrace the world of charity shops
  5. Become a nudist

'Despite feminism...'

It's all swings and roundabouts really. Men need to eat more calories than women, so it should cost them more to feed themselves, but women use tampons, that type of thing.

The comments, on the Guardian article are hilarious (definitely worth a read), with women boasting about their sartorial decisions that help them save money, and men bemoaning that 'despite feminism, women expect men to pay for at least the big occasions, like Valentines meals, engagement rings'. Well, some women do, some women don't. That's another day, another blog (I love that phrase 'despite feminism' - you always know what's coming).

Whether you're the type of woman who has more lip gloss than Jordan and needs a spare house just to store your jeans, or you're happy with soap, water and one nice outfit for special occasions, don't moan about it. Let's all just strive for equal pay to help us support our spending, whatever it is.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Stereotypes – there must be more to life

I attempted to buy a birthday card for a man this week. This particular man is not all that interested in football, cricket, beer or golf. Men come off very badly in the world of greeting cards. For women, there are more options, although there is a tendency to depict us as either cooking, drinking wine or shopping for shoes.

Why is there this reductionist attitude in the world of greeting cards? Even if we do like the activities assigned to us, the implication is that it is these that define us, and nothing else. In a truly equal world, where we acknowledged and respected the similarities and differences between sexes and individuals, surely the choices we go to make when we want to mark an event in the life of a loved one would not be restricted to such a limited list of hobbies which they may or may not share? 

Congratulations on your new arrival

‘New baby’ cards are even worse. Can it really only be pink or blue? Granted, the new child is only a few days old, so hasn’t yet had an opportunity to decide whether they favour football, golf or shoe-shopping as a leisure activity. The shape of their genitals is really the only defining feature about them at this stage of their life, so it's not unreasonable to focus on this with 'it's a girl/boy'. But as a girl who grew up loathing the colour pink, it just seems sad to colour-code children so early in life. Can’t we stick to expressing joy at their arrival and not assigning pastels to them? 

That’s not to say there should be no greetings cards depicting football, cricket, golf and beer, just an acknowledgement that there are a lot of men out there who aren’t interested in these things, or at least not just these things.

Brave new world

I want to live in a world which accepts that men are more than beer and cricket, that women aren’t just interested in shoes, and that a new baby is born into a world which will let him or her be whatever he or she wants to be, without making assumptions in the first days life.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Abortion in Ireland

Savita Halappanavar died on 28 October in hospital in Galway. She was happily pregnant, until she went to hospital with severe back pain and was told she was miscarrying.

Halappanavar asked for an abortion, but was told she couldn’t have it because Ireland is a Catholic country, despite the fact that doctors told her husband the foetus wouldn’t survive. She was told that while there was a foetal heartbeat they couldn’t abort. Her family say she would still be alive if she had been allowed a termination. Two inquiries are now being conducted into the case.


Whether or not an abortion could have saved Savita Halappanavar is not really the point. Maybe she would have died anyway. But it is scary to think that an otherwise healthy woman could be in her situation, in pain, in hospital where she could have been saved, and she was denied the potentially life-saving treatment because of other people’s religious beliefs. Not her beliefs - she was not a Catholic, she was a Hindu. It makes me thankful that I live in England, not for the first time.

Aren't we all pro-life?

I don’t think any of us really want death, or abortions. It’s OK to not like abortions – they’re not very nice. And you know what – if you are against abortions you never have to have one. That’s your choice. But what shouldn’t be your choice is what the rest of us do, especially when it's based on spurious beliefs about the sacredness of a human life that hasn't yet come into existence (it's called 'being born' for a reason).

Savita Halappanavar’s case is high profile because she died and that makes it desperately sad. But what about the other women? Teenage girls who make mistakes and end up pregnant – we all make mistakes and we all have to deal with the consequences. Maybe one day they will be brilliant mothers, but they know they’ve got a lot to learn before then. Does one misjudged shag really have to mean they lose the life they’d hoped for? And worse, women who are raped. Or just women of any age who for whatever reason become pregnant and know that this isn’t the right thing for them - wrong man, wrong time, etc.

I’m not arguing for abortion as a family planning tool – it’s a serious procedure at any time and shouldn’t be undertaken lightly. But the same goes for motherhood. Do we really need more unwanted children – there are quite a lot around already?

Give the women the freedom, with the help of their doctor, to make the decision that is right for them, and if their religion says they shouldn’t do it, then that’s up to them.

New legislation on abortion

The results of a new poll were announced this weekend, suggesting that the majority of people in Ireland want new legislation to prevent what happened to Savita Halappanavar from happening again.

The Sunday Business Post/Red C survey suggests eight out 10 people would support laws which allow abortion where the mother's life is threatened, including by suicide.

The Irish government is considering introducing new legislation and/or regulations on abortion, and it looks as if some kind of decision will be announced before Christmas.

This won’t be a complete reform – more a tinkering of the existing laws to allow very few women, in the most desperate situations to have an abortion, and I suspect that the majority of the 4,000 Irish women who travel to England and Wales every year to have their pregnancies terminated will continue to do so. But it is a step forward, opening up the door just a crack, to give some hope for a future where one person's belief that abortion is evil does not mean that those who need it are denied it – whether because their lives are at risk, or because they made a mistake.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Church of England says ‘no’ to women bishops

My recent record in predicting the outcome of current events is pretty poor. Last week I predicted that Obama would lose the US presidency to Romney. This week I predicted that the church would vote ‘yes’ to women bishops. On the first could I was wonderfully, gleefully wrong. On the second, I was also wrong. Sadly wrong.

I can sort of understand that the church might decide that Jesus chose men to be his disciples (ignoring the whole Mary Magdalene thing, as some of them seem to), so vicars should therefore all be men. I’m sure the argument is a bit more complex and theological than that, but that seems to be the gist. OK, so if you think that’s what your religion teaches you, then fair enough. Although you could argue that Jesus worked within the culture of his time, when having women trekking about with him and preaching, or whatever it was disciples did, wouldn’t have been acceptable. He worked with what he had.

One problem with saying ‘no’ to women bishops, is that they’ve already said ‘yes’ to women vicars. That makes no sense. You either accept female clergy, at all levels or you don’t accept them at all. This is plain discrimination – let women in to help with the ground-level stuff. After all, women can be cuddly and nice, so they’ll probably be good at that whole compassion bit. But you wouldn’t want them telling people what to do, deciding what direction the church should take, or whatever it is that bishops do. Besides, those pointy hats won’t make the most of their cheekbones, and they’d only get their stilettos caught in the cobblestones outside the cathedral.

Bishops in the Lords

I’m not a Christian, so in a sense, it’s none of my business. After all, no one is saying that women shouldn’t have independence, education and other positions of power, just that women shouldn’t become bishops. Where I do think it is my business is when it comes to the House of Lords. The Lords have limited power, but they are very influential, and can have an impact on the way the UK laws are made. There are 26 bishops seats in the House of Lords (out of a total 760 seats that's 3.4% - small but not insignificant).

I have issues about religious people having a role in the political process anyway. They should stick with visiting the sick and bothering their flock, and not try to inflict their views on the rest of us. But assigning seats of power to a group that refuses to represent 50 per cent of the population is just unacceptable. The fact that the majority of the clergy voted in favour of female bishops suggests that they probably know this. But the church has to get its act together on this one. Sort yourselves out, boys (and girls).

If the Church of England wants to discriminate against women, contradicting itself in the process, by refusing to let women become bishops, then that’s its decision. But then it should relinquish its seats in the House of Lords until it decides to treat people equally, regardless of gender. 

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Why you 'probably’ shouldn’t drink during pregnancy

Sometimes you have to be a rude and nasty girl, to make people sit up and listen to you. When people I know are pregnant, and the subject of alcohol comes up, I feel the need to do this. It feels too important to be polite and pleasant and let them get on with it. So I was delighted to wake up to this headline on Thursday this week: 'Moderate drinking in pregnancy harms IQ'.

The BBC article reports a new piece of research from Oxford and Bristol universities, which looked at the IQ scores of 4,000 children and the alcohol intake of their mothers. It found that a ‘moderate’ alcohol intake of one to six units a week during pregnancy had a very small affect on the children’s IQ. It was pretty tiny - just one or two points of their IQ.

But who wants their child to one or two cards short of the full deck?

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris, 1954

You know you shouldn’t...

Everyone knows you shouldn't drink during pregnancy. It’s bloody obvious that it’s not going to be good for your developing child.

This famous photograph, shows a small boy carrying two bottles of wine. The sinister aspect is that his face shows the signs of foetal alcohol disorder (FAS).

I feel strongly about this, because I’ve met adoptive parents who deal with the effects of the extreme end of this – bringing up the children of alcoholic mothers who didn’t moderate their drinking during pregnancy and as a result gave birth to children whose problems can include: heart defects, sight/hearing impairment, hyperactivity, attention problems, cognitive problems, impaired coordination, learning difficulties, impaired memory. For more about this, read Matthew’s Story. 

Protect your child with magic beans

All the pregnant women I have known will do pretty much anything to protect their unborn child. If you tell a pregnant woman that rubbing baked beans onto her belly will promote foetal brain development and help her child become the next Einstein/Shakespeare, she will probably do it. 

The trouble is, despite knowing for decades that alcohol and pregnancy shouldn’t really mix, we’ve not yet managed to come up with a coherent or coordinated message. 

Alcohol and the foetus

During the different stages of pregnancy, different parts of the foetus are being formed at different times. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy, can affect the development of whichever parts are developing at that time. For example, the heart is developing during weeks four and five, so drinking during this time could lead the baby to have heart problems. Drinking when the eyes are developing could lead to the child having sight problems. 

This is a well-known and extremely scary photo. On the right it shows a normal brain. On the left it shows a brain damaged by alcohol. 
No one is suggesting that if you have one drink a week, or even just a couple of drinks over your whole pregnancy, that this will happen to your child. It definitely won’t. This is the result of serious and sustained alcoholism. With just the odd drink or two, probably your child will be absolutely fine. But it’s this ‘probably’ that bothers me. 

Current guidelines on drinking during pregnancy

Women are clearly told not to drink much during pregnancy, but what’s not clear is whether it’s really OK to have the odd glass, or whether they should abstain completely. Drinking in the first and second trimesters, when the baby’s brain is developing, is the most dangerous time, so women are sometimes told to avoid drinking at this time, and wait until the final three months of pregnancy. 

Part of the problem is that if drinking small amounts of alcohol does have an affect on unborn babies, then it is very small, and therefore difficult to detect amid the many other factors that influence children’s development. Previous studies have produced inconsistent and confusing evidence about this. 

Relatively little harm

Dr Arun Ghosh, who is interviewed in the BBC report, ends by saying that women shouldn’t drink at all during pregnancy, but if you have the odd drink “You’ll do relatively little harm, if any at all, to your baby.”

But do you really want to do "relatively little" harm to your baby. Wouldn’t you prefer to not have a glass of wine, and therefore do no harm at all? Is having a drink really worth any risk, however tiny?

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Why no female conductors?

I play the violin in an amateur orchestra, and we’re currently on the hunt for a new conductor. We’re going through an interesting process of having lots of different guest conductors take our rehearsals and concerts. Suggestions of conductors come from the orchestra. But all of the candidates on the list so far are men. Why aren’t there any women? Where are they all?

Like many amateur orchestras, we employ professional conductors and soloists for our concerts. In the past ten years, playing with three amateur orchestras and many conductors, I have encountered one lone female, Katherine Dienes, then Musical Director at St Mary’s Church in Warwick, who has since gone on to bigger things becoming, her biog says, 'the first woman to hold the most senior musical post in a Church of England cathedral'. Go Katherine.

Does my bum look big?

The conductor will have his/her back to the audience, so if you are sensitive about large numbers of people scrutinising you from this view, it might not be the career for you. That said, black is quite a flattering colour. And the aerobic arm movements could do wonders for your bingo wings.

Antisocial hours

On a more sensible note, the classical music industry (like the wider music industry) is not exactly family friendly, with performances almost exclusively taking place in the evenings. Professional soloists or conductors working with amateur orchestras have the added grind that all rehearsals must also take place outside normal working hours, once us players have finished our day jobs. But most of our concerts involve at least one professional soloist, and these are a good mix of men and women. If there are female soloists, why are there so few conductors?

Power and pressure

I wondered if it was something to do with the way women and conductors are perceived. The conductor is in a position of power. He or she sets the pace, brings his or her interpretation to the piece and keeps the orchestra together. The conductor runs orchestra rehearsals in the same way that a director runs theatre rehearsals. They tell us to shut up if we’re talking or playing too loudly, and they make us go back and do it all again if, in their view, we haven’t done it well enough (quite like a teacher).

It's the conductor's responsibility to keep everything together during the concert. There is a lot of pressure on them, particularly shortly before the concert when it invariably looks like it's going to go wrong. So it's a pretty stressful job, but lots of women do stressful jobs. And there are plenty of female music teachers conducting school orchestras. So if women regularly do this from the classroom, what is keeping them off the professional podium?

Marin Alsop conductingA touch of Googling reveals a scattering of female heavyweight conductors, including Marin Alsop (USA, pictured) and Julia Jones (UK), but they are a rarity. Jones points to this being a peculiarly British problem, saying: “There are far fewer women conductors in Britain than in the rest of Europe: I know at least 20 young female conductors, but not one of them is British" (Guardian, 2010).

Increasing numbers of female directors are breaking through in the theatre world, the traditionally male-dominated arena of comedy has been well and truly infiltrated. But it looks like the world of conducting might be one of the last all-male bastions of the arts. I'm hoping we will see a few women on the podium soon.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Giving feminism a bad name?

Today I came across this picture, of the Ukranian feminist protest group Femen:

It shows young, attractive women, some of whom are showing a nipple, in slogan T-shirts amid furniture. The women were protesting in Ikea in Paris, because the company has removed pictures of women from its catalogue for Saudi Arabia.

But by getting their nipples out and creating a ruckus in our favourite furniture store, are they giving feminism a bad name?

Rude girls

Undoubtedly many people across the world will have looked at these pictures in their newspapers and on the internet and tutted, dismissed them as feminists, seen these women as young and misguided, exposing themselves, causing trouble where they don't need to. Or else they will be pleased that they chose to wear nipple-exposing garments, as if you don't care or don't know what they're protesting about, at least you get to look at some attractive topless women, so everyone's a winner.

But whether you like it or not, you have noticed. Millions of people have seen these pictures. And it took showing their nipples to make that happen, because if they hadn't shown their nipples, we all know it wouldn't have been big news. They wouldn't have made the newspapers in the way that they have. So, yes, they do have to strip off to get themselves noticed, because it worked. And now you know that Ikea was happy to delete women from its publicity material in some parts of the world.

Nice girls

Femen is the face of radical feminism today. In the UK we take for granted the fact that we no longer have to chain ourselves to railings to get the same rights as men, but in other parts of the world (such as Botswana), this just isn't the case. And these women are standing up and telling the world that that's not OK. It's not acceptable for powerful multi-national companies, like Ikea, to collude in the suppression and censorship of women. These are our modern Emmeline Pankhursts.

Of course, we don't all need to be stripping off for equal rights. We don't all need to be Emmeline Pankhursts or Femens. Sometimes, just having your rights and showing you value them by exercising them from time to time, is enough. We don't have to join the Femen women, but we can, quietly support then, by not condemning then, by not laughing at them for getting their nipples out in Ikea, and by acknowledging that actually they have a very good point to make, and how else were they going to make you sit up and listen?

Sunday, 21 October 2012

The Battle of the Brooms: Housework

Housework is still an issue that looms large. Recent news stories about housework have included:

It's still a topical issue, this deciding who does what. Interestingly, an internet search revealed a lot more articles in the Daily Mail about this than anywhere else, suggesting that the writers of this particular rag believe the issue to be a particularly pertinent issue for their readers. So is housework The Elephant in the Room? Or is it just something that reactionary newspapers like to write stories about every time they get hold of another bit of research that they can pull out of context?

Where are we now?

So here we are girlies. Here is the wealthy western world we have more or less equal opportunities, we are thoroughly enfranchised, with access to education, the pill, abortion, maternity leave. The glass ceiling may still be there, but it's definitely cracking. Really, it's not that bad.There are still things to be done, but we're doing OK.

But what about the housework? Women now work the same hours as men but invariably end up doing a lot more housework. Figures from the Institute for Public Policy Research thinktank in March this year suggested that eight out of 10 married women do more household chores, while just one in 10 married men does an equal amount of cleaning and washing as his wife.

Now one thing I do think is that if he works full time and she stays at home or work part time, then yes she should be doing most of the housework. That is logical. Likewise if she works full time and he works part time or not at all, she should be able to come home to dinner and a clean house. Stands to reason. The trouble is, that while in the past he went out to work and earned the money while she stayed in and cooked and cleaned, now they both go out and earn the money, and in their spare time, she runs around frantically trying to do the cooking and cleaning. What's going wrong? Why are our men sitting idly by as we spend our evenings skivvying? Here are some reasons for this:

1950s-style drawing of a woman slumped down with a mop and bucket1. They see housework as 'women's work'
While there may be a few dinosaurs left out there who take this view, they are dying out fast now. It's now normal for men to cook and change nappies and I think they expect to be doing at least some of this stuff. The men I know don't expect women to do the housework as a matter of course, as they would have done a couple of generations ago.

2. We see it as 'women's work'
I think there are far more women who think this than men. We've done a far better job at winning over the men than the women. A lot of women still see it as an innate part of their femininity to cook and clean for a man. If you are both happy for you to stay at home and do this, then fair enough. But if he expects you to bring home some of the bread, then he should be helping to bake it.

3. We like cooking and cleaning
Our innate nestmaking instincts drive us to it. We like doing it, and we like the feeling of satisfaction we get when it's done. There is something in this. I do love cooking. I don't always count it as housework. The pollmakers do.

4.  Men don't care about the cooking and cleaning as much as women do
Maybe guys just aren't that bothered about whether the house is cleaned top to bottom and they have a cordon bleu meal every night. They either don't care about living surrounded by dirt, or else they just have a higher dirt threshold than their women, which means that we always get to it first. He would rather have a sandwich and ignore the dirty sink, while she will come in after a long day and rush around cooking and cleaning but feel satisfied that at the end of it they can both settle down to eat a nice dinner in a clean house.

In reality you can't separate these out. We're not that simple. We're a big mess of motivations, instincts and cultural practices. We don't make sense (people, not just women). We're full of contradictions, and I'm sure housework will continue to be an elephantine presence for generations to come. Anyway,  must go cook dinner. 

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Victorian feminism comes to Botswana

This week the High Court in Botswana ruled that women can inherit property. The country has a constitution that guarantees equality to men and women, but until now a woman could not inherit her family home.

This is fantastic news for Botswana, and marks a step further in the road to real equality. It also waves a little flag reminding us of something that we probably knew all along, but hadn't thought about. Until now women in Botswana couldn't inherit their family home, and in Zimbabwe, Sudan and Zambia - and I'm sure many more countries, they still can't. Bad enough to lose your parents, husband, brother - but to be left destitute as well?

In Britain we have to go back to the Victorians, more than 130 years ago to find a similar state of affairs. We have the landmark Married Women's Property Act of 1870, which for the first time allowed women to be the legal owners of the money they earned and to inherit property. Then, in 1922 husbands and wives could finally inherit equally. It took half a century to move from between these two stages. I only hope it's quicker for women in Botswana. 

Some feminists argue that there is still some way to go to achieve full equality in western countries, and maybe there is. A gender pay gap, and the costs of childcare are still issues that need our attention, and I don't think we should neglect them - they are important. But compared with the women in Botswana, I am pretty lucky. I grew up equal to my brothers, with exactly the same rights and opportunities. This is something that women in Botswana and Zimbabwe, and other countries, in Africa and elsewhere, wouldn't dare to dream. As a world, we still have a long way to go. 

Monday, 8 October 2012

How do you solve a problem like Maria?

The Minister for Women Maria Miller has said that she thinks we should bring down the legal time limit when women can have abortions. Currently the latest point you can have an abortion is 24 weeks. Miss Miller wants to bring this down to 20 weeks.

I am thoroughly pro-choice. I think the right to have an abortion if you are unfortunate enough to require one is massively important. If you don't want to have an abortion, no one is going to make you, but for women who have been landed with an unwanted pregnancy, whether through bad luck, a mistake, or in the worst case because they have been raped, then I think they should get it if they want it. It’s hardly an easy option. The medical profession encourages women seeking abortions to get them as early as possible. Late abortions, as I understand it (I’m not a medical professional) are most likely to be in the most desperate cases. And what are the most desperate cases? Young girls, rape victims, foetuses displaying signs of serious medical conditions, and women whose own lives could be at risk if they bring the baby to term.

My problem with Miller in this case (I think I could have quite a few problems with her) is not that she is against abortion, it is that she is against medical science. The decision to allow legal abortion in a society is a moral one. It is exactly the kind of issue that politicians should be able to talk about. Debating these kinds of issues, whether you are for or against them, is how our society, our attitudes and our laws grow and change. The precise medical details of when and how abortions take place is an entirely medical issue and should be for the professionals to decide.

Miss Miller argues that care for premature babies has improved and so the point at which a pregnant mother can have an abortion should go down. The implication is that we are now aborting foetuses that are old enough to be living screaming babies. But a review by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists two years ago said there was no scientific evidence to justify a lower limit. And that, I think should be the end of the story.

Jeremy Hunt has now waded into the debate with his twopence-worth, saying that women shouldn't be able to have abortions after 12 weeks. A lot of women don't even know they're pregnant until then! The Royal College (the professionals) says it better than me. In their statement, about Hunt's helpful interventions, they say that his comments 'do not put women at the centre of their care.' And that, Maria Minister of Women, is why you should be staying well out of this. If we need a Minister for Women, shouldn't she be on our side?

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Shoes, Bras and Fantasies

Recently I was reading Caitlin Moran's book How to be a Woman. It's mainly really good - lots of fun and a few insights about feminism that have made me think. My main criticism is that I wasn't particularly interested in the long autobiographical sections about the author going to parties and getting very drunk with famous people. It sounded fun, but just not relevant to most women's lives, which surely is what the book is supposed to be about. Anyway...
There were two particualy interesting points that I have been thinking about (apart from the bit about yellow shoes going with everything, which I plan to try out).

1. It takes to your thirties to get good at being a woman

By the time you get to your 30s you have finally become quite good at being a woman - you're doing OK with your job, you own at least three dresses, etc. etc., says Ms Moran. In my case, I have come to terms with the handbag as something useful and pretty to put stuff in, rather than a symbol of femine dependency; I have learnt how to apply eye make-up without looking like I've been punched; I have discovered what a bra is meant to look like when it fits; and I have and earned enough money to have several of said bras in pretty patterns. Most importantly, I believe that I am attractive - not in a jaw-dropping boys walking into things and dribbling kind of a way, but in a sort of acquired taste for some people who might like that kind of thing.

Moran's point is that you get to this age and you are on the decline, tits moving south, fertility declining, hair going white/grey (not quite yet), wrinkles appearing. Cheerful things like that. I suppose it suggests that the business of being female, and doing it well is so incredibly difficult and complicated, that it takes fifteen years from puberty to learn how to do it. Maybe I will spend the next fifteen learning it was a colossal waste of time, or maybe I will just be able to enjoy my handbags, dresses, underwear and yellow shoes, safe in the knowledge that I am not contributing to the repression of women by doing any of these things.

2. Fantasies

The second thing I want to talk about from Moran's book is fantasies. I don't mean this in a fun, sexy way, I mean it in a weird psycho way that is actually quite tedious, so you may want to stop reading now. I've given you a picture of some pretty shoes and mentioned bras a couple of times - you can go away happy.

The lovely Caitlin talks about day-dreaming fantasy relationships with casual acquaintances, which go into a minute level of detail and incorporate the beginning, duration and ending of the relationship. Often the relationship ended badly, though no fault of her own, but leaving her with smouldering feeling of resentment to the other person, that spill over into actual life. I do that, and I thought it was just me (I love reading books when the author describes a thing that I do that I thought no one else did, it's a beautiful feeling of  not-anloneness [or is that just me?]).

I have long become used to imagining a disagreement with a colleague over some small issue, that resulted in a screaming row and left me feeling off-kilter and resentful towards them, before I even arrived at the office. Occasionally I have confided in my (real) beloved about these situations, to be met with incredulity. He doesn't do this. But what he and I do isn't necessarily a yardstick for the whole of humanity. The fact that Moran and I do this, isn't much more conclusive, but she seems to have gathered more circumstantial evidence on this (she asked her friends) and suggests that it is something common to women.

Moran's theory is that women test relationships in our heads with these scenarios, and when they don't work out we have thus saved ourselves the trouble of pursuing the person/relationship for real. Since my arguments are generally with colleagues and aquaintances, I'm not sure this bears out. I don't know what it says, other than that a lot of women seems to do this really odd thing, that can actually be quite stressful, and doesn't really serve musch purpose, since the level of invented detail we put into the scenrios we imagine make them unlikely to ever come true. It's like our brains just constantly need extra and more complicated things to think about, or that life doesn't provide us with enough angst, so we invent new, fantastical confrontations. What's going on there?

Monday, 17 September 2012

A delicate condition

Today I was editing a piece of writing about the human condition. At university I was taught to avoid talking about how a text articulated universal truths, that everything was a product of its own time and culture and that the impulse to read like this was very old fashioned and imprecise.

Of course there must be some consistencies with our past. We still love, hate, live, die. And we still appreciate so many of the stories from the past, so we can't be that different. But isn't it a bit fatuous for anyone of use to try and define the human condition, or say that a particular thing emulates the human condition.

Wikipedia of course has something to say on this matter:

The human condition encompasses the unique and believed to be inescapable features of being human. It can be described as the irreducible part of humanity that is inherent and not dependent on factors such as gender, race or class. It includes concerns such as the meaning of life, the search for gratification, the sense of curiosity, the inevitability of isolation, or anxiety regarding the inescapability of death.

Is my condition the same as yours? Is the condition of a man the same as that of a woman? Come to think of it, is the condition of a black, disabled woman, who has grown up in poverty likely to be the same as that of a white able-bodied man from a privileged background? To say no, I suppose is to de-humanise one or the other. If you say we are all essentially the same, you are claiming equality, which has to be a good thing, doesn't it?

Are we all the same deep down? I think probably not. We have impulses: we're never satisfied with what we have,

And what if the reason we haven't yet discovered the meaning of life, is that it's different for everyone? Call it 'raison d'etre' instead of meaning of life (I know that's not meant to be the same thing) and it seems more likely that everyone will have their own. Why should the meaning of my life be the same of yours?  Maybe I live for other people, maybe I live to be loved, maybe I live for my religion, or maybe I get a kick of the sheer fucking amazingness of just being alive.

Just saying.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Women and children first

I just listened to Jeanette Winterson's short Radio 4 series on the Titanic. The last of the five short programmes was a look at the aftermath of the disaster. It's well known that women and children were prioritised for lifeboat spaces when the ship went down, but I didn't know that this was used to throw back in the faces  of the suffragettes who were campaigning (women over 30 got the vote in Britain in 1918, six years after the Titanic sank). They were basically told that they should be grateful for this kind of gallantry that meant their lives were saved, and accept their place.

Something that I've always found troubling is that in championing a cause you have to take the good and bad that comes with it. If we are truly equal to men, then, as much as practicable, we should have the same rights, but also the same sacrifices, we shouldn't be discriminated against, either positively or negatively. What is most troubling about this is that it is easy for me to say - I am one of the luckiest women alive: I have lived a priviliged cared for life, I am educated, free from abuse, independent with a fantastic job, with my own money, free to make my own choices and do as I please. Is it really for me to say what women in a lesser position should accept. Because if you haven't been given the luxury of education and cannot exercise the kind of freedom and independence that I can, isn't being given a seat on a bus by a man the least you should expect? Didn't these kinds of women deserve to have their lives saved?

Is it wrong for a man to give up his seat on a train for a woman? Is he showing her respect or is he disrespecting her gender?  It's no good pretending their are no differences between us. I was born a feminist, although I never would have owned it. I don't know where my convictions came from, but I spent the first 25 years of my life refusing to acknowledge any differences between myself and the boys/men I knew. At times I wondered if I was more a misogynist, hating women for wearing pink, talking about hair and make up, being weaker then men, having periods. But in my own small way I have fought against discrimination. And I hope that I fight against it still. For the last eight years I have finally begun to celebrate our differences, embracing a muted form of girliness that has finally led to my current aspirations to motherhood.