Gender and the City: Reflections on Identity and Crossing the Two Year Line

By Kaammini Chanrai

There are lines everywhere.

Lines we draw. Lines we quote. Lines we write. Lines we learn. Lines we neglect. The outline. The front line. The line on your forehead. The fine line. The forgotten line.

Lines often come with rules or meanings.

Don’t cross the line. Toe the line. Line up. Read between the lines. Keep within the lines.

Lines don’t have to be positive. Lines don’t have to be negative. But in a way, we are defined by lines.

Boundaries are made by lines. Borders are drawn by lines. Lines are the twelve edges of the rigid boxes that we are put into. Gender, sexuality, race, class, religion – lines are used to determine the boxes we are meant to tick to neatly identify ourselves into these categories. But what we have learnt is that identity is not neat – it’s extremely messy and, rather than use a single straight shape to categorise ourselves, we should be allowed to scribble with curved edges and fluidity to represent who we are.

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Gender and the City will be celebrating its second birthday this week. In the last two years, we have had the privilege of publishing nearly 100 articles – thousands of words – hundreds of lines – which have been written by our incredibly talented and passionate group of writers. For this, and the support that we receive, we are infinitely grateful. If you are reading this now, I thank you.

Line by line, we have tried to do justice to the topic of gender equality in a multitude of ways. This is not an easy task. There are an infinite number of subjects that can be analysed through a gender lens. Our contribution is a microcosm of what is discussed and writing about gender-related issues is a drop in the ocean of what needs to be done to actually achieve gender equality.

When we started Gender and the City two years ago, I asked the questionWhy now?” This time last year I asked the questionWhat more can we do?” This year, my question veers from the nature of this blog slightly because, in a little over a week, we will be facing a divisive day in global politics. Because in this past year, we have seen changes to the world that I hoped I would never have to witness in my lifetime. This year I ask the question “How did we get here?”

I might be prone to hyperbole but I don’t ask this question to philosophise. I ask it in relation to societal attitudes – how we think – because this is at the crux of the way that gender, race, sexuality and class, and all the intersections of these, are viewed. How are we allowing people fleeing from their homes to be perceived as parasites on our state, whilst others who were once in the same situation seem to be pulling up the drawbridge so easily? How are we still defining our state policy and funding on the narrow perspectives of historically dominant societal groups in our so-called democracies? And how on earth is it possible that a sexually predatory, racially discriminative, inflammatory, destructive and callous bigot is in the final two to take one of the highest positions of office in the world?

We are lining up to a performance that I, quite frankly, don’t want to see. We are spectators of history – a history that will no doubt be remembered in parts for it nationalism, conservatism and bigotry, amongst other things. The lines have once again been blurred around the acceptable ways there are to act towards one another. The efforts we have made to erase the lines which so clearly distinguished us from one another are undermined. Those lines are being redrawn with more vigour, ripping through the already delicate outlines of what originally existed. If I sound like I am speaking in metaphors, I confess that I am because, in truth, this is not the first time we have been in this position. This stream of consciousness is relevant in countless situations, times and places.

It hurts me how this war on ourselves has become personal. “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” This was a recent line drawn by the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May. The rationale, “You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.” As someone who has consistently defined themselves as a global citizen, this is not just an insult but a dismissal of my identity. I have spent my life trying to feel comfortable in the shades of grey and, with one statement, Theresa May has drawn a line in the sand and polarised black and white even further. We are made to feel as if we no longer fully belong. We are rejected by both our homes because we are a part of the Other. As Ijeoma Umebinyuo said,

“So, here you are
too foreign for home
too foreign for here.
Never enough for both.”

In a time when xenophobia is already rife, we are told to hold the lines of borders in higher regard – we are told that we should erect linear walls to sanctify these lines.

Peter Singer in his work on The Expanding Circle said, “The only justifiable stopping place for the expansion of altruism is the point at which all whose welfare can be affected by our actions are included within the circle of altruism.” It seems that, somehow, society has reached the end of its altruistic line in the infinite circle. Paradoxical, yes, but dangerous more so. The contraction of our circle of altruism happens hand in hand with a retraction of empathy. We are able to relate less to those around us. We are less compassionate, less considerate for those who are not like us in some way.

This is a problem. From a gender perspective, this reinforces the binaries. It undermines the spectrum of sexuality, the fluidity of gender identity and redraws the stereotypes which we have fought hard to overcome.

If you are not already paying attention to what is happening around us, please start. We are in a constant stage of change. What happens around us are not setbacks but indications of where we actually stand. Achievements will be made, I have no doubt about that. But as the saying goes, the finish line is just the beginning a whole new race. There will always be more we can do to improve this world. That’s the bottom line.

Fatherhood: Parenting, Not Babysitting

By Noa Sasson-Brooks

I sat down behind an old lady in a synagogue last Wednesday afternoon. She turned around, recognised me, and said “Have you abandoned your children?”

I thought this was odd, but I decided she probably meant no harm and replied, with a non-threatening chuckle to emphasise that I had taken no offence, “No, they’re with their father.”

For some reason I said their father rather than my husband, even though he is both. He had taken the girls home at 4pm to give them dinner, bathe them and put them to bed, giving me the final few hours of Yom Kippur to spend in prayer without having to worry. A pleasant situation for me, not something so interesting I thought I would write a blog post about.

The lady, who I think is probably in her late 60s or early 70s, laughed as well and responded “Well some would think that amounts to the same thing!”

That threw me a bit. Yes, some men don’t make good fathers, some women don’t make good mothers, there are a lot of roles a lot of people don’t necessarily fit. A strange assumption to make about my children’s father.

“Not in my family.” I said, and I thought of all the fathers I know. My husband. My own father. My father-in-law. The fathers I know in the circle of friends I’ve made since becoming a parent. The fathers I observe in the playground, on the bus, in cafes. Not one of those men take an approach to parenting that looks anything like abandonment.

Also in my circle of ‘parent friends’ are single mums. Of my childhood friends, several had divorced parents with varying levels of contact with their fathers. Many of my extended family members have been touched by divorce and again, that has resulted in a variety of different paternal relationships, and I am not saying that all fathers in my experience are paragons of good parenting. In fact, I am hugely angered by society’s double standard that any small parenting responsibility undertaken by a father is met with disproportionate praise, compared to the extreme scrutiny and harsh judgement mothers encounter for every little slip-up, every decision made (like the really fun one of being a stay-at-home mum versus going to work…surprise! There’s no right answer. You lose every time).

But this double standard is the other side — or maybe even the same side — of the same coin which the old lady in synagogue was using. The ingrained societal belief that men are incapable of performing basic childcare or household chores. Look no further than your local card vendor for a card on Father’s Day for evidence of this. Dad can’t cook, dad can’t clean, he doesn’t even know where the washing machine is; don’t let dad dress them or they’ll look like wizards trying to dress as Muggles; it’s great when dad’s in charge of dinner because we just get chips and mum still has to do the washing up….you know the kind of thing I mean. It’s all part of society’s toxic masculinity and I’m sick of it.
And a lot of people I know are sick of it, and society is changing. I encounter more and more dads who work part-time to share childcare responsibilities, or even take significant time off work when the mother goes back to work after maternity leave (because childcare costs are colossal), and when I go out and about in my local area in the day time, mid-week, I see a lot of dads with buggies or baby carriers or small children. They don’t do it to be congratulated or win dad of the year, they do it because they love their children. This is my reality. This is a lot of people’s reality. But clearly, it’s not enough.

What’s in a (Sur)name?

By Kitty

Predictable blog titles aside, when was the last time you thought about your name and what it signifies to your identity? I suspect a lot of people in the UK go through their lives not giving much thought to their surname – after all, it’s pretty much a given. Until it comes to getting married, that is.

It is estimated that up to three-quarters of British women change their birth surname to that of their husband after tying the knot. Same-sex couples face an even more complicated question, not only “should we have the same surname?” but also – in the absence of the heterosexual dynamic on which this tradition is based – “which one of us will make the change?”

The custom of a wife taking on her husband’s surname is uniquely British and spread to other countries through our imperial or otherwise cultural ties. According to the BBC, the Norman’s invasion first imported the rule that upon marriage a woman loses her surname, becoming a possession of her husband, referred to only as “wife of X”. The English in particular put their own spin on this by allowing married women a surname: that of their husband as a show of sacred unity.

Feminists looking on the matter now might argue that the tradition should be scrapped as it has historical roots in the subordination of women. One example is that of nineteenth century suffragette Lucy Stone, who had to fight legal officials who refused to let her vote using her maiden name which she had kept after marriage.

For some women, it’s a matter of future practicality; one colleague assured me that things can get complicated if, as a mother, you try to travel abroad with your children who have a different surname. Of course, this assumes that subsequent offspring of the marriage will take their father’s surname, which brings forth another gender issue.

Give a child a double barreled surname and people might (wrongly) assume it’s a child out of wedlock, divorce, or terribly posh. In my case, it was neither. In much of Spain and Latin America, women keep their surname and children take both parents’ first surnames, which are paternal. But, alas, I had a particularly long cumbersome name that involved switching languages (e.g. Carlota Miller-Gutierrez) so I decided at the age of 19 to officially axe one of them and be like my fellow single-surname Brits.

After a long, hard think I opted to keep my mother’s surname. It wasn’t originally as a feminist statement but rather because it was unique and more in-keeping with my “ethnic” first name. Five years on, I’ve invested physically and emotionally into this semi-new identity against which all my contributions to the world will be remembered, even if it is a hassle for others to spell and pronounce. My name is part of my legacy and no one is ever going to make me change that.