Should we ditch the term ‘Check Your Privilege’?

By Lindsay Riddoch

Tumblr

I am going to start this by checking my privilege. I am white. I am able-bodied. I am heterosexual and cisgendered – so far as I accept the meaning of that word. I am writing this on a MacBook in my flat in central London – which, yes, is funded by Mummy’s money. I am, by all of these measures, privileged. Please be rest assured that in everything I write from here on in I am more than aware of all of these privileges, and of the impact they have had on the fortunes I have been blessed with in my life.

As well as all of these things, I have an unlucky affection for the website of Tumblr. Fondly thought of by many feminists, race activists, mental health aficionados and those that like beautiful pictures of interior design, this website harbours many a dark secret. Whilst I could spend the rest of my working life discussing these, today I will focus on just one – the phrase ‘Check your Privilege.’

Starting its long career on social media on the site shrub.com, it has become the go-to for many feminists in enraged wine-fuelled discussions on just why the good male friend sitting opposite you has no right to tell you that ‘you should just scream.’ I myself have used it on numerous occasions – unable to express to someone how little they could understand this feeling of certainty: that the person sitting next to you on that bus is stronger than you.

On Tumblr however, the phrase has taken on a life of its own. It has come to represent the privilege of lesbians who are only attracted to one gender – for they never have to feel the oppression of enjoying both genitalia. It has come to create the words ‘cisscum’ and ‘truscum’ – used to silence the voices of cisgendered or transgendered people who believe that claiming one’s gender as ‘only attracted to intelligent people’ alienates the long term cause of queer rights. It has formed the cornerstone ethic of a world where one’s level of oppression is one’s biggest badge of honour.

It is easy to write this off as the online ramblings of bored 16 year olds who have picked up words from Jezebel and ran with them so far that they could no longer remember where they came from. Or it would be… if ‘cultural appropriation,’ the new wave of feminist strength and even the useful modern concept of privilege itself hadn’t also started on Tumblr and sites like it.

Yet now, Tumblr has somehow managed to so flip the meaning of the word ‘gender’ that to be the oppressive class one must be completely absorbed in the society-subscribed notion of gender associated with what is between one’s legs, as well as having no obvious preference for any sort of person, based on any kind of personality trait. I could be wrong, but I think therefore Tumblrites would struggle to find the ‘cisscum’ that are oppressing them – except perhaps a few teenage boys in a dormitory somewhere, no idea that they are single-handedly responsible for the oppression of the rest of the world’s population.

When one adopts – and confidently uses – a phrase or concept, one not only bares the responsibility for how one means it, but also for where it could lead. The Oppression Olympics and Social Justice Warriors of Tumblr are the obvious, and very real, ending to the phrase ‘Check your Privilege.’ Instead of believing in human empathy you remark only on someone’s luck of having been born with certain advantages, and so you close down your cause. The more I delve into the deep dark worlds of Tumblr the better I understand the inevitably petty, ignorant and narcissistic ending of this obsession with privilege. Similar to the phrase ‘it could always be worse,’ it adds nothing useful to a discussion or a cause. It unhelpfully leaves all of us scrambling to justify our opinions by attaching them to some form of oppression which ‘they’ have put upon us. If you make having privilege a flaw or a fault, then you make the desire to be oppressed strong. Making the desire to be oppressed strong ensures people stop looking for solutions.

I have taken the active decision, therefore, to never use, or imply the premise of, ‘Check your Privilege.’  By not using this phrase I am not denying my, or anyone else’s, privilege. Instead I am merely accepting that bringing attention to it does not further my fight for gender equality, or for equality in any other areas of my life where I may consider myself unlucky. I am in no doubt that there will be much disagreement with just about every word that I have just written – and I have no issue with that whatsoever: never did I claim to hold everyone’s answers. As I do not claim to hold the answers of anyone else I hope that in rebutting what is written they will not claim to hold my answers either – whether or not I am ‘privileged.’

Dropping out of Childhood: The Silent Cry of Child Brides Around the World

By Angelica Belli

“My name is Thea and I’m 12 years old. On October 11th 2014 I will get married.” A few weeks ago, a child from Norway published a blog where she described her hopes and fears about her upcoming wedding to Geir, a 37-year old man.

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Selfies and photos depicted the journey any bride-to-be undertakes, from choosing the venue to having her hair and make-up done. But when Thea tried on wedding dresses, they all fell loosely over her small body and were unreasonably long for her stature. When she asked for a chocolate cake for the reception, it was deemed unsuitable. When she realised she would have to share a bed with her future husband, she was disgusted: “does that mean we should be naked together and touch each other and stuff like that?”, she wrote. Standing in front of the mirror in her pink and baby-blue pyjamas, she wondered whether she would have to wear the sexy lingerie that everyone seemed to be showing off in all those wedding commercials, and grew more and more concerned about the intimacy that this wedding would lead to.

Her blog has received over half a million readers, with many calling the police and child protection to prevent Thea from getting married. On the day, 400 people were present at the ceremony, shouting “Stop the wedding!” and hundreds gathered to demonstrate against child marriage outside the church. Fortunately, Thea did not get married. Her blog was in fact part of Plan International’s campaign to end child marriage, which went viral on social media, reaching more than 3.5 million people via Facebook and being the subject of around 8000 Tweets.

The outrage and media attention the campaign triggered towards Thea’s marriage reached extremely high levels – higher than those received for reports by UNICEF, Human Rights Watch or Save The Children, even if they feature not one, but hundreds of testimonies of child brides around the world.

Plan’s campaign aimed at raising awareness about all the victims of child marriage globally, and it did so through a very smart and provocative feature: the use of a white Norwegian girl as the victim.

The reason why people were so shocked to see a 12-year old about to get married is because it was so close to home. Thea was like any other child we see on the street daily. She was like our sisters, our daughters, our nieces. She had an iPhone to take selfies and send Snapchats, she went to school, she liked chocolate cake, she enjoyed going to friends’ parties. She is a reality we know and we can relate to, and this is why we are so appalled when that scenario changes so drastically.

However, we merely need to push that known reality aside for a moment to realise that there are currently 700 million ‘Theas’ around the world who were married off as children, but for them, nobody was there to cry out “Stop the wedding!” Many have had to drop out of school, missing their chance of education which would empower them as women. Most of them have had no access to family planning services or contraception and are unable to negotiate safer sexual relationships. A great number of them have fallen pregnant at a very early age, becoming more vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections (including HIV) and are more likely to suffer from complications or even death from childbirth. According to UNICEF, 70,000 girls aged 15-19 die each year because of issues related to excessively early pregnancies. Child brides are very likely to be abused and exploited by their partners, and are often separated from family and friends. Their children also face major risks, since if the mother is under 18, her child is 60 times more likely to die in their first year of life than if the mother were older. Even if the child survives, they are at a high risk of under-nutrition and late physical and cognitive development.

Child marriage occurs all around the world and is most common in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Girls are disproportionately affected but boys are among the victims too. This harmful practice is rooted in tradition and culture, and is often seen as a way to protect girls from pre-marital sex and unwanted pregnancies, which would undermine family honour. It is also an important way for families to access resources such as cattle or money, since in some countries such as South Sudan, parents receive a wealth transfer through the traditional payment of dowries when they marry off their daughters. In India and Nepal, on the other hand, the dowry is the payment of cash or gifts that the bride’s family gives to the groom’s along with the bride herself. As the price of the dowry increases if the bride is not a virgin, parents marry off their daughters as children in order to pay less. Finally, poverty plays an important role as parents resort to marrying off their daughters if they are unable to support them.

Child marriage does not merely affect girls in developing countries and it is closer to home than we think. Many children who have been brought up in Britain are often taken back to their country of origin to be married off to older men, and according to an Observer investigation, a growing number of girls are now being married off in the UK itself through illegal and unregistered arrangements. According to the government’s Forced Marriage Unit, 29% of the 5000-8000 people at risk of forced marriage in England in 2012 were children.

Cathy Glass, an English foster carer and writer under pseudonym due to the sensitive nature of her work, exposes this reality in her book The Child Bride. Zeena, a British-born child from Bangladesh, was blamed for dishonouring her family after she was raped by a cousin at the age of 9 in Bangladesh, and was subsequently forced to marry a 49-year old man on her 13th birthday. After suffering serious abuse from her ‘husband’ as well as from her father and uncle, Zeena found the strength to ask for help. Thanks to her outstanding courage, together with the support received from her foster carer, a social worker and the police, her story had a happy ending despite the scars left from the many years of ill-treatment. But there are still millions of girls all around the world that are scared into not reporting, that have no one to turn to, that are too traumatised to trust anyone with their story or are brainwashed into thinking this is what they deserve.

Despite significant improvements achieved thanks to international organisations and NGOs, if progress remains at the current rate it will be unable to keep up with the growing world population and the total number of women married in childhood will rise to approximately 950 million by 2030. This cannot be an option. No child should be forced into a marriage wherever they live, whatever country or culture they are born into, whatever their religious background and whatever their family income. And while governments, international organisations and NGOs will need to scale up their efforts to end this harmful practice, we too have a duty to stand up for each and every one of these children and shout “Stop the wedding!”.

An Intersectional Analysis of the Reeva Steenkamp Trial

By Kate Gilchrist

Last week, Oscar Pistorius was sentenced to five years in prison for the fatal shooting of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, with a further three-year sentence for firearm charges to be served concurrently. The media coverage of the trial has been extensive and it is widely known as the ‘Oscar Pistorius trial’ – a fact that has already been critiqued by feminist analysis (see posts by Tumblr and Huffington Post). However, it has not, as far as I know, been analysed from an intersectional perspective. Such an analysis reveals a fascinating example of how systems of power are continually shifting, often in contradictory and coalescent ways. Thus, whilst taking an explicitly feminist approach, I want to explore how the strands of race, gender, class and disability are intricately intertwined within this one trial. Although this may be one individual, high-profile case, it is important to situate it within the social structures it is produced by and in which it is located.

I also want to counteract the shift in focus that the trial has brought to the gun culture and the militarization of post-apartheid South African society, as well as the South African prison system. Whilst such issues are important, I believe this focus only serves to further obscure the complex gendered issues at stake, centred around what was ultimately the brutal killing by a male of an intimate female partner.

Gender-based violence

The killing of Reeva Steenkamp occurred in a climate of domestic violence. In South Africa, approximately half of women who are murdered are killed by an intimate partner. Such incidents occur at a rate of an average of six women every day, which is the highest reported rate in the world. To place this in context, in the UK, two women are killed every week by their current or former intimate partner.

[While I have been conscious of closely situating this case within its specific location, it must be noted that domestic violence is of course by no means an exclusively South African problem. Although research has indicated it is a hugely significant problem there, domestic violence is a widespread, global, gender-based problem, not one which conforms to national or geographical boundaries. For more on this, see the recent UN report which describes the issue as a pandemic.

Although Judge Masipa convicted Pistorius of the lesser charge of culpable homicide rather than murder, it must be remembered (a fact that seems to be often forgotten) that there was clear evidence presented in the trial that Steenkamp – and Pistorius’s former girlfriend Samantha Taylor – had both felt controlled and harassed by their partner. The privileged positioning of both Steenkamp and Pistorius along the lines of wealth, race and fame, ironically worked to shine a spotlight on the often-ignored issue of intimate partner abuse, as well as highlight the fact that such abuse occurs across all social strata. It must be said, however, that throughout the case, Steenkamp was consistently positioned only in relation to Pistorius. Unfortunately, Judge Masipa’s institutionally privileged ruling only served to reposition the issue of violence against women and abuse within relationships as being ‘normal’. In reference to a text message that Steenkamp had sent to Pistorius saying: “I’m scared of you sometimes, how you snap at me and of how you will react to me” and describing how she felt attacked by the “one person I deserve protection from,” Masipa stated: “Normal relationships are dynamic and unpredictable most of the time, and human beings are fickle.” This is a frankly astonishing assimilation of abuse into ‘acceptable’ or ‘normal’ behaviour, because it occurs between intimate partners.

It is also significant from an intersectional perspective that Judge Masipa – in the context of post-Apartheid South Africa – is a black female judge. While it could be argued that Masipa’s positioning as a black woman is irrelevant to her legal standing, it is interesting to note that such a positioning effectively conflicts with her ruling which ultimately favoured the white, male in question. Her ruling and sentencing has been extensively criticised by the public, media and prominent figures. Would such a ruling by a white male judge have received more condemnation, coming from one who would enjoy similar racial and gender privileges as the accused? Or less, coming as it would from one whose authority and credibility is more supported by the social structures within which it is produced? Does Masipa’s positioning conversely add more credibility to her judgment coming as it does from one who more closely aligns with the victim?

Disability

The defence team in the trial sought to frame Pistorius’s disabled position as generating anger: a sense of vulnerability and anxiety that explained his actions, leading to acute anxiety and an over-defensive reaction to an exaggerated ‘threat.’ It was also used to argue that he should be placed under house arrest rather than be sent to jail. Pistorius’s positioning is, of course, distinctly different to that of an able-bodied person – both physically and psychologically (and in the trial he was not found to have an anxiety disorder at the time of the shooting). However, it must be remembered that he had, up unto this point, achieved a level of physical performance which far exceeded the average in his profession, successfully overcoming his physical impairment and competing against able-bodied athletes.

Race and class

As touched on above, the double racial and class privilege – as well as the wealthy famous status of both Steenkamp and Pistorius – collectively served to elevate the trial and draw widespread international attention. Taking an intersectional perspective reveals the depth in which such privilege is engrained. For example, if Pistorius had indeed done what he claimed, i.e. shot an implicitly black, male intruder, it wouldn’t have made half the headlines; such is the commonplace of such an occurrence in South Africa’s history. Similarly, it illustrates how the case has linked both patriarchal lines of violence against women with historic racial divisions.

Again, the defence ironically used Pistorius’s privileged position as a reason not to send him to jail saying that he had already lost so much he didn’t deserve to be punished any further, such was the huge fall from grace that he had “suffered” within society. This simply highlights and reinscribes the privilege he still enjoys as a white male within a society that remains deeply divided along racial and economic lines. No matter what the consequences of this case for Pistorius, this is a privilege he will always enjoy.

All that is Wrong with America in 77 Words

By Meredith M.

“Get girl-approved hair.” That seems a double standard…
An Axe commercial echoes in my head and I laugh out loud because this is all so absurd
If there were a commercial
For women
That said get “boy-approved” hair
And showed some pin-up blonde
Go from frumpy to sexy
In a cardboard cutout highlighted mask of a face Marylin Monroe Some like it Hot Way
We (the women)
Would be up in arms
Washing our hair
With that shampoo.
….Dammit.

Rape is Rape.

By Kaammini Chanrai

On a number of occasions, I have been presented with the following analogy: if you leave your front door unlocked, you are partly to blame if your house is robbed. Therefore, if you are drunk, you are partly to blame if you are raped. Needless to say, this not only baffled me but – I don’t exaggerate here – it chipped away at the already damaged view that I have of humanity. I’m not sure what angers me more: the careless comparison of a woman’s body to an unlocked house door, or the conclusion of the statement itself. Likening a human body to property is like comparing the loss of an iPhone to the loss of a dear relative: it is ignorant and entirely lacks empathy. And deducing that fault lies with a lack of attentiveness to detail, well that’s just silly. If you get burgled, it was the burglar who did it. It was their actions, not yours, which resulted in the final outcome. What a dire world we live in if we, as human beings, cannot understand these basic morals.

Understanding a crime – particular one shrouded by controversy – can be deemed a difficult task given the diversity of opinions that are often exhibited towards the crime in the public sphere. Arguably, therefore, understanding a crime involving a celebrity figure is additionally difficult as such cases can amplify both the amount and polarity of views that a crime can induce. Several of these cases have been in the limelight lately, with the conviction of Oscar Pistorius as the most recent. So, when one public figure, Judy Finnigan, of This Morning and Richard and Judy fame, remarked on another public figure, Ched Evans, this caused a whirlwind media frenzy and catalysed a much larger discussion on rape.

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Ched Evans, a former footballer for Sheffield United, was convicted of rape in 2012. Although he maintains that he is innocent, a petition signed by over 150,000 people urged his former club not to allow him to rejoin. Finnigan, making her debut on Loose Women, said the following: ‘The rape and I am not, please, by any means minimising any kind of rape – but the rape was not violent. He didn’t cause any bodily harm to the person.’

The comments made by Judy Finnigan on Ched Evans’s possible return to football are just the most recent in a string of remarks which have publicly undermined the occurrence of certain ‘types’ of rape. Finnigan said that Evans had ‘served his time. He’s served two years’ and that the woman in question had ‘had far too much to drink.’ She later apologised ‘unreservedly’ for any offence that she may have caused ‘as a result of the wording [she] used.’

I am not going to discuss Ched Evans. So much has already been said with regards to whether or not he should be allowed to return to his football career. I am more interested in talking about the undermining of rape itself. Although she overtly stated that she is not ‘by any means minimising any kind of rape’, Finnigan manages to do just that. I wish to state that the proportionality of many responses to these comments have been grossly inappropriate and have entirely missed the real issue at hand. However, some have hit the nail on the head: the narrative of undermining occurrences of rape and victim-blaming must come to an end.

This was not the first time such comments were made about the occurrence of rape and, unfortunately, it probably will not be the last. Last year, CNN journalist Poppy Harlow became the centre of a controversy after a report on the conviction of two high school football players for the rape of a sixteen-year old in Steubenville, Ohio. Harlow said it was ‘incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures – star football players; very good students – literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart.’ The victim in question was incapacitated by alcohol at the same and, during this ordeal, was carried from party to party by her assaulters. Although she was unresponsive, members of the high school football team digitally penetrated her and there were reports that she was urinated on.

‘She should have known better’, ‘she should have been more careful’, ‘she was partly to blame’ are not appropriate responses to rape. They are unhelpful in establishing the crux of the problem at hand and, importantly, these statements are simply untrue. They do not add to the debate, they simply distract from the real reasons why rape occurs. Rape Crisis deconstructs some of the common myths about rape. Just to summarise, rape is an act of violence. It is not anyone’s responsibility to avoid being raped. It is our collective responsibility, however, that society shifts this responsibility to where it truly belongs: with the perpetrator.

The extent to which rape can be considered tragic should not be determined by circumstance or brutality. The World Health Organisation defines rape as “…physically forced or otherwise coerced penetration– even if slight – of the vulva or anus, using a penis, other body parts or an object.” In England and Wales alone, 22,116 rapes were reported to the police in the last year. Indeed, there should not be an extent to which rape should be measured. It is always wrong. As is the case with murder, or assault, the perpetrator is the one who committed the crime and should be prosecuted, not the victim.

Rape is rape. If the rape was non-violent, it is still rape. If the rape occurred in a marriage, it is still rape. If the victim was drunk, it is still rape. This underlying rhetoric of victim-blaming needs to stop. Instead of propagating the narrative that places the blame of the occurrence of rape on the woman, we need to start perpetuating the truth: the rapist committed the crime. Crime is difficult to understand, yes. But some things are simple. Rape is rape.

Gender and the City: Why now?

By Kaammini Chanrai

I am at a party. I am not acquainted with the majority of people who surround me. I make polite conversation with a stranger nearby, full of appropriately awkward pauses and questions sufficiently boring that my attention is somewhat diverted to an exchange occurring close to me.  ‘I would bang her’, a man behind me comments to his friend, eyeing a near woman from head to toe. ‘Yeah, I would love to rape her’, his friend observes casually. I am rendered motionless with horror. I question the content of what I just heard, unable to believe the absurdity of this flippancy, but adamant that my ears had not deceived me. I want to approach these two imbeciles and give them a piece of my mind, lecturing them not only on the implications of their careless objectification of a woman, but of their naivety and inconsideration towards sexual violence. I want to describe the exact demeaning connotations that such actions can have, not only on women but on men too, and chastise their idiotically inappropriate use of such terms. But I don’t. After a momentary pause during which I have managed to compose myself, I carry on talking to the unknown person by my side as if nothing had just happened.

I am in a shopping mall. I wander around, in my own blissful world, thinking about stopping for a snack on my way out. I walk past the window of a large children’s toyshop and momentarily my eyes are averted to the display in the window. In front of me, I see a half pink, half blue backdrop with the sign ‘Girls’ hanging over the former and ‘Boys’ over the latter. Beneath the first sign, there are dolls, in an array of sizes with clothing to differentiate them from one another. However, that’s not all there is because, of course, dolls need their accessories, fancy cars and houses to reiterate their superficiality. Underneath the second sign, there are cars, footballs, bicycles and toy guns, all in dark colours to restate the toughness that they aim to project. I am more than annoyed. I want to enter the shop and ask the manager why they feel it is necessary to market their toys in such an overtly stereotypical and sexist fashion. I want to explain the impressionability of young children and the negative implications this may have on a child who does not pick the supposed ‘right’ toy. I want to describe how not corresponding to the toy of one’s gender might cause parents to believe that this is a cause for concern. But I don’t. I roll my eyes, a reaction that nobody but myself is aware of, and resume my journey as if nothing had just happened.

I am at home, roaming the Internet, which is unsurprisingly part of my daily routine. Inevitably, I find myself on a social media website, mindlessly scrolling through the activities of my friends over the last few hours. I stop as I read a status concerning a news story in which a male celebrity domestically abused a woman. The status questions the innocence of the woman, asserting that ‘she probably deserved it’ in a callous and careless manner. Livid is an understatement. I want to comment on this behaviour, specifically on how domestic abuse is wrong, full stop, and there is no situation in which anyone deserves that kind of treatment. I want to describe how such actions are not only worrying, but downright terrifying, given that domestic abuse kills as many as two woman a week in England and Wales and significantly more worldwide. I want to state that such flippant remarks undermine the magnitude of such concerns and are dangerous in the discourse surrounding it. But I don’t. The most I do is delete said ‘friend’ from my contacts list and allow the status to stand unchallenged as if nothing had just happened.

However, I should. I have remained silent time and time again but I am increasingly finding fault in my justifications for doing so. I refuse to continue turning a blind eye to such blinding problems. For all those instances in which I remained silent, stayed seated and stopped myself from acting, I am now speaking up, I am now standing up and I am now not only allowing myself to act but encouraging others to do so as well. Earlier this year I wrote a blog post for the LSE entitled ‘Why I Study Gender…’ This article highlighted my frustration for the constant patronising questioning I was subjected to because of my degree choice: why are you a feminist? I retorted with an impassioned response, highlighting some major gender issues which embody where my feminism has stemmed from. However, I feel almost hypocritical, preaching my sermon and yet silencing myself in reality. This is why I founded Gender and the City.

Gender inequality has shaped my life and regulated my thoughts from a young age. My initial awareness begun in childhood, where my upbringing in a traditional Indian family taught me about the segregation and discrepancies in the treatment of men and women. This both angered and confused me as I was living in a culture that cherished and nurtured women yet simultaneously constrained their activities, choices and education.  I became further enraged as my awareness increased. Even accounting for the fact that progress narratives are a flawed measure, I became more and more frustrated that great stretches of time only led to incremental societal changes, not just for India but universally.

Alongside some extremely talented and passionate friends of mine, I launch this blog with the intention of providing a platform to speak. There has been a noticeable surge in discussions with regards to gender in recent times, with conversations arising around anything from Malala Yousafzai’s work on education for girls, to controversies surrounding the #nomakeupselfie campaign, to Emma Watson’s UN speech just a few weeks ago. There is so much to be said on gender inequality and I intend for this blog to enable people to offer their thoughts.

I only ask one thing of you: please respect the views of others. Pass your opinion – disagree, by all means – however, please be respectful. Some of these articles may touch upon slightly more controversial issues than others. We, at Gender and the City, are not propagating one viewpoint. We just intend on joining in the conversation and we hope that you are ready to engage and discuss these important issues with us too.