Bella Kinesis: The Ethical Sportswear Brand Moving from Strength to Strength

By Shaleena Chanrai

In school I hated Physical Education. I was never good at competitive sport and I couldn’t see the benefit of it either. When I got to university, there was obviously no mandatory workout and I was living on junk food with no exercise. Eventually, the lack of healthy living caught up with me. I had gained a lot of weight and become increasingly lethargic, and there were days when I was tired of being tired. My only saving grace was that, as a photography student, I was building my own sets and doing a lot of heavy lifting.

I thought it would be easier to control my food intake and workout regime after I had graduated, but I was wrong. Working as an assistant photographer for one of India’s top fashion photographers meant that, most days, I was on set from 5 am until midnight and all we were given to eat were rice-based dishes or pizza. Initially I thought it would be fine as I was burning calories while building sets. However, I was put in charge of computer and camera duties and as a girl, I wasn’t allowed to do any heavy lifting; instead, I was told to sit and watch. I was far from dainty so I couldn’t understand why anyone thought I was incapable. When I started the job, the crew was made up of men except one other woman and myself. A few weeks later, she left and another girl was hired. We were constantly surrounded by models, which did not do much for my self-esteem — especially when at the end of the day my boss would comment on my weight, hair or my “professional look”. Neither of us girls stayed as long as we would have liked. My boss once told me that he didn’t know why women never lasted in his studio and I didn’t know how to answer without offending him.

About a month before I left my job, a young woman who was on a photo assignment was raped and brutally beaten in a studio down the road from where I worked. When we heard the news we were all angry and heartbroken and from that day on I was treated like a glass ornament. I was not seen for my full potential and I could feel my talent slipping away from me, as I was never given an opportunity to prove that I had any. I was incredibly unhappy with my situation — I was not where I had pictured myself being, close to two years after graduating. One day, however, I suddenly felt this fire light up inside me. I had spoken to a friend who understood my passionate feelings towards my situation and also understood that if women wanted to be taken seriously, we needed to work from within the workplace to change the way men see us. This is why we developed Bella Kinesis.

Bella Kinesis is an ethical sportswear brand, inspired by the fact that my best friend (now business partner) and I both had different health issues we needed to address and that when we went shopping together, there was a lack of fun, functional and well-priced sportswear for women of all sizes. The existing brands seemed to be designed by fit people, for fit people and as a newcomer, it was overwhelming and intimidating, so we decided to create our own brand that women could identify with. We manufacture our clothing in the UK, which gives us an opportunity to test our clothing to make sure it functions and does what we say it does. As we were becoming healthier and stronger, we wanted to transfer that strength elsewhere and so we teamed up with the foundation Mann Deshi. For every item we sell, we fund a one-month business education course for women in rural India. By giving them the tools needed to start their own businesses, we are helping them achieve financial independence, which will not only boost their self-confidence, but will also earn them respect within their communities. This will lead to young girls being more valued and therefore pushed towards education and jobs, instead of early marriage or even prostitution. Projects like this have a domino effect; these courageous women inspire others, resulting in a real change in attitude in villages, then cities and then finally on a national level.

For us, combining our idea for a sportswear brand with this push towards women’s empowerment came naturally. As women start to become more active, both their physical and mental strength grow. This increased stamina translates into other benefits, mainly increased self-confidence. Strong, confident women work to help and motivate others. Our brand supports healthy body images and hopes to encourage young girls to keep active, even if they aren’t good at traditional competitive sport.

Bella Kinesis is about self-improvement as well as the improvement of other people’s lives. We call our movement Strength for Strength!


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The Curious Case of Women’s Organisations

By Jane Derishu

Last (Jewish) year I found myself in a bar in South Tel Aviv, listening to a panel where four women from three different peace organisations presented their work and talked about their experiences as women involved in this sector. Two interesting things occurred to me while I was there that still find their way into my thoughts once in a while, and I think it’s time I write about them.    

For some reason, although it was a panel about women in peace organisations, most of the women did not use the ‘F-word’ or even make a connection to feminism. The only exception was the Coalition of Women for Peace (disclosure alert — I volunteer for this organisation) which defines itself primarily as a feminist organisation. After the panel ended, I heard a man behind me say that he didn’t understand what feminism had to do with this discussion, since feminism is a movement which tried to help women obtain the right to vote. Whilst originally I was very angry with him, I subsequently felt saddened when I realised that this man honestly didn’t understand the connection between the two concepts.

We feminists (I apologise to all post-modern supporters — I know there is no ‘we’, as such) sometimes tend to forget that many people (if you think about it, sadly, it’s most people) do not speak ‘feminish’, and often where we see clear patterns of oppression and stereotypes others see… well, I’m not sure. But many people manage to suppress the recognition of any oppression they witness on a daily basis. The problem is that after adopting a critical perspective and noticing certain issues, there is no going back and it is very hard to remember how we used to look at the world before that. But enough about this point for now, since I think it deserves a post of its own.

The other point that has remained in my mind since the panel event is the widespread confusion between women’s organisations and organisations for women. Let’s take, for example, one of the organisations on the panel — Women Wage Peace. This is a women’s peace organisation that does not address gender issues at all and does not make a connection between peace, conflict and security issues and the lives of women — or the gender stereotypes these issues help to develop. Even though it emphasises the fact that it is an organisation that is built by women, it does not do any work that is related to gender inequality and it does not promote feminist ideas.

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We all know how the game works. This organisation got most of the attention because it doesn’t demand that individuals take responsibility, but instead accuses the government — something everyone everywhere can relate to.

It is easy to get massive support when you don’t have an agenda that forces individuals to reflect upon themselves, but rather asks you to support a vague idea. And so it happens that a women’s organisation that has nothing to do with women’s lives (besides the fact that it consists of women), is wrongly perceived as an organisation for women. Worse yet, the basic assumption of this movement strengthens the essentialist approach that women are naturally peaceful whilst men are naturally violent — an approach that does not counter the idea of ‘natural’ sex roles and actually fixes restrictive gender stereotypes. There is nothing natural about violence or peace; instead we make choices relating to this all the time.

A counter-example for Women Wage Peace is Asli, the Israeli branch of the White Ribbon organisation — a movement which is organised by men and works to end violence against women and girls. I have to admit that I am not completely familiar with their work and I do find the issue of men who fight a ‘women’s war’ to be a bit problematic, but — and it is a big but — it is an organisation nevertheless that works for women, even though it is not operated by women.     

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To continue this train of thought, I also want to point out and clarify the difference between women’s achievements and achievements for women. I have often been accused of being a hypocrite when a ‘feminist like me’ does not support the number of women in right-wing parties. In other words, I’ve been accused that in the struggle between my left and feminist identities, I let my ‘left’ identity win over my feminist one. In response to this, I say that women can sometimes be some of the worst perpetrators of harm towards other women and many women who are famous for their achievements cause a great deal of damage to other women in this respect.

Let’s take, for example, the former Knesset (Israeli parliament) member Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich. Shamalov-Berkovich can take credit for many impressive achievements as the former head of the biggest Russian newspaper in Israel and other achievements both within and outside of the media. Nevertheless, as the first Bukhari woman in the Knesset, she chose to speak out against single mums, victims of sexual assault and of course feminism, which according to her goes too far and so actually harms women.

Shamalov-Berkovich is not, of course, the first or the last woman to achieve great things, gain power and then choose to use it against other women. With each similar story I hear and read, I realise how careful I should be and not automatically bow down before every woman who has achieved something. I feel safe to argue that although I often find myself impressed by women’s achievements, I am much more inspired by achievements for women.

‘Suffragette’: Why Hasn’t it Been Done Before?

By Noa Sasson-Brooks

Suffragette is a great film.

I took my mother and granny to see Suffragette in honour of my granny’s 89th birthday. As she was born in 1926, women were granted equal voting rights during her lifetime. I have always considered her to be something of a matriarch. She was a single mother to two daughters, now has seven female descendants, and has always been one of my feminist icons.

As I had also brought my daughter with me, we were four generations of women watching the film together, and notably every adult in the screen was a woman. I sincerely hope that this was not a reflection of the film’s audience worldwide — I believe it is just as important that men see this film as women.

Despite some obvious issues to do with race, I found that the film gets so much right. And, to me, raised one huge question in particular: why hasn’t it been done before?

My mother suggested that this could be because women — or anyone who has risen out of a terrible situation — are inclined to want to leave it behind them. A sort of ‘We have the vote now, let’s move onto the next thing — no need to dwell on the past!’-type attitude. However, I’m more cynical than that. I don’t believe that the reason it hasn’t been done before it because of the attitudes of the women. I think it’s more to do with the way in which their history has been written for them.

Has anyone else noticed that whenever the history of women’s suffrage is discussed, it always seems to be referred to as women having been ‘given’ the vote? What the film Suffragette highlights, unequivocally and unapologetically, is that women were not ‘given’ anything. Women fought — tirelessly and painfully — in a long war that was eventually won. We weren’t ‘given’ shit.

I found that my enjoyment of Suffragette was affected by the memory of how I was taught this subject at school. We’re not talking about many lessons here, perhaps two or three, but the overall tone of these lessons stuck with me. Below are some snippets that I remember my teacher saying, strung together to produce the overall message delivered by these lessons:

“Women were given the vote after the First World War, because they had been so crucial to the workforce and the Home Front. They had proved their worth to the nation and deserved to be rewarded. They had finally shown that they could be trusted, having built up that trust again after all of the terrible things the Suffragettes had done for the cause. They had acted like terrorists, blowing things up and chaining themselves to things — statues in Parliament had to be vandalised in order to remove women who had chained themselves to them. And another really idiotic woman was killed trying to attach a scarf to a galloping racehorse. That could have seriously injured lots of people! If it weren’t for the violent tactics of the Suffragettes, women would have got the vote a lot sooner.”

That’s what I remember being taught. At the time, I didn’t challenge or question it. Some of it even made sense. I knew vaguely that I must always exercise my right to vote at the very least out of respect for the women who had fought for it for me.

So I decided to write this article, about how pissed off I am at yet another aspect of the cesspit of misogyny that was my education, and thought I would read a couple of reviews of the film. And I was amazed. The tone in which I was taught about the suffragettes was also used in the reviews, even now. Several of the reviews of the film chose to point out that ‘historians have often concluded that enfranchisement of women was actually held back by militancy, rather than advanced by it.’ I also read that ‘historians still debate whether the violence of the women’s suffrage movement was justified…the deeds of the suffragettes did not directly result in women getting the vote.’  These are just two of many examples I encountered.

How is it that these journalists and film critics share the same views as my old history teacher?

The problem is with the history itself. More specifically, the problem is with the historians. To use an old cliché, history has been written by men. And I’m tired. I’m tired of history being about men. I’m fed up of ‘women’s history’ being addressed, taught and learned separately. ‘Women’s history’ needs to be included in what we learn as ‘history’ because, as Maud Watts says in Suffragette, we’re half the human race. I don’t want a Women’s History Month. I want it to recognised that women have played an equal part in literally all of history.

But still, why has this film taken so long to be made? I’m not just talking about the fact that we have never had a film about the Suffragettes. That’s bad enough. But let’s consider the fact that it took this very film more than ten years to obtain the necessary backing to be able to get off the ground at all. According to scriptwriter Abi Morgan, this was because the team were too stubbornly attached to their vision: ‘A film that is being fronted by an ensemble of women […] not being funny or romantic, is hard. That became a huge obstacle.

This is why, in my opinion, it was good that they cast some big names in this film. The inclusion of Meryl Streep has been criticised as just getting an ‘icon to play an icon’, but to me that’s exactly the point. It’s respectful. It’s about trying to maximise ticket sales not just for profit, but to try to give this story the scope of audience it deserves.

Suffragette is not simply about the vote. It also deals with workplace sexual harassment, domestic violence, a woman’s rights over her children, a wife’s expectation to serve her husband, the idea that the roles of wife and mother are the only significant parts of a woman’s life, unequal pay, the expectation on women to be quiet and obedient, and more. These are all issues faced today in every country of the world.

Take a stand against the patriarchy, against the way it manipulates our history and impedes the progress we are still struggling to make in the realm of gender equality. Stand up for greater and better representation of women in film and popular culture. Go and see Suffragette.

Feminism, Choice and the Glass Ceiling: A Response

By Maheema Chanrai

This weekend, controversy ensued over comments reported in the Telegraph by leading headteacher Vivienne Durham, in which she critiqued the notion that women can ‘have it all’. She came under particular criticism for appearing to suggest that girls should choose between motherhood and a career, claims that she has since strongly refuted (incidentally, a copy of her interview with Absolute Education remains conspicuously absent online). However, amidst the furore, some of her other comments about women and the workplace have slipped under the radar, unchecked and unrepudiated, and it is these that I wish to address here. In particular, I would like to focus on the following statement: “I’m sorry, I’m not a feminist. I believe there is a glass ceiling — if we tell them there isn’t one, we are telling them a lie.”

Before I respond, I ought to mention that I am a former pupil of Durham’s at Francis Holland School. She was my headteacher for four years — incidentally, at exactly the stage of my life that she says young women must make these decisions. I admit this connection out of honesty; my disappointment and disgust do not come from any personal relationship. My issue is with Durham’s supposed comments, what they indicate about the wider perceptions of women in the workforce and how such antiquated beliefs still pervade modern minds.

A feminist, last time I checked, is someone who believes in full gender equality. Feminism is a broad and multifaceted ideology with several theories and approaches, and to disregard this complexity seems disingenuous. As the headteacher of an all-girls’ school — a supposed strong female role model and educator of young women — rejecting feminism so outwardly is quite frankly a dangerous and disempowering view to propagate. Worse still is the implication that feminism ignores the so-called ‘glass ceiling’, because it is precisely this that the feminist movement has fought so fervently to remove. In one sentence, she effectively dismisses the long and relentless history of struggle for equality by feminist activists that continues to this day, when in fact we should be educating more young people — men and women — about it.

Equally concerning is Durham’s reasoning behind the apparent choice that women have between their career and children. As she phrased it, “women still have to plan for a biological fact — motherhood.” The problem, however, is not biology. It is patriarchy, and the irrefutable fact that women face structural discrimination within the workforce. It is that decisions continue to be made about the working rights of women from a predominantly male and heteronormative perspective which ensures that we are systematically forced to confront this dilemma. Society should not be teaching young women to accept this choice as fact — that they can settle for half — but instead that their dreams, hopes and ambitions are just as valid as those of men.

I don’t disagree with everything Durham said. The question about whether women can ‘have it all’ is an important and legitimate one, about which society needs to have a frank and honest discussion.* Women often do need to think about their decision to have a family — just as men do. Society needs to talk about improving support systems for working parents, provision of childcare, maternity and paternity leave. We then need to enact these changes and abolish the ludicrous one-sided notion that this is a woman’s decision alone.

Durham also asserted that ‘society needed to be less judgmental on women who went down “the road less taken”’. I completely agree. A woman’s right to do whatsoever she chooses with her life is absolute, and no one should judge her on this. However, it is only through the imposition of deep-seated social change — such as truly universal welfare or a citizen’s income — that this choice might actually become available to every woman.

Fundamentally, Durham’s comments seem to exemplify the immense privilege from which she speaks. The choice not to have a career — for motherhood to be the only option — is one that most women in this country can quite simply not afford, often literally. It is the luxury of a privileged elite entirely unrepresentative of modern British women — and I say this as someone of a similarly privileged background. This is particularly evident if we consider working women through an intersectional lens. This false dichotomy reflects the most outmoded and outdated aspects of society in assuming the predetermined roles of man-as-provider and woman-as-mother that we really ought to have disposed of by now.

This brings me back to the crucial aspect of the glass ceiling that Durham apparently fails to understand. Of course it exists. The fight for equality is still not over. Centuries of patriarchal decision-making and entrenched misogyny mean that women are still structurally discriminated against for choices they might never make. What is implicit in her comments, however, is a belief that this glass ceiling — this symbol of invisible oppression — is an immovable object, weighing heavy on women’s heads and that we are too weak to do anything about it. We must not deny women this agency that we have worked so hard to win. We should instead be telling young women about these barriers, this oppression, this glass ceiling. Most feminists are. We’re also teaching them to smash it.

* The same Telegraph article references a report by Jo Swinson, former Minister for Women and Equalities, which stated that ‘girls cannot “have it all” and are unable to combine a successful career, motherhood and beauty’ (my emphasis). The inclusion of beauty — an entirely subjective opinion and no doubt one reflecting imposed, normative social constructs — is demeaning, insulting and has absolutely no place in this conversation.