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.

Anecdotes from my Grandmother

By Kaammini Chanrai

My whole life I have been told how much I resemble my grandmother. I have been approached at parties by people I don’t know, commenting on the uncanny likeness. Friends and family alike have said that our facial expressions, our mannerisms are the same. I once even received a remark about how we share identical eyebrows. My grandmother and I are, indeed, very similar. However the lives we have lived are, quite literally, oceans apart.

My grandmother, or Nani as I call her, was born in Hyderabad, Sindh in 1929 – at the time where the British imperialists were still based in India. After the Partition of India, Nani, as well as all of my other grandparents, were forced to flee their homes. My grandmother and grandfather married in 1954, then moved to Lagos, Nigeria in 1960, whilst it was still under British rule. They have been based there ever since. For every year since I can remember, my grandparents have had a routine. They spend six months of the year in Nigeria, three months in India and three months in the UK. My mother uses this as an explanation for why we are such nomads ourselves – it is truly in our blood.

I think if my grandmother were born in my era, she would classify herself as a feminist. However, Nani is very much product of her time. We very rarely talk about women’s rights because I fear we will argue. I am, to put it lightly, an opinionated individual. And the apple, in this case, does not fall far from the tree. However, I recently found us in a discussion which I have not been able to shake since.

My Nani, reading the latest version of the Evening Standard the other day, began to shake her head in shock. She started to discuss the article that caused her such disgust, and explained that a recent case of honour killing had occurred in the UK. She bemoaned over this tragic occurrence for a few moments, expressing her sadness that such things still happen today. She reflected, to my surprise, about how all cultures are guilty of poor treatment towards women. Then she began to talk about sati.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, sati is a practice whereby a recently widowed woman burns to death on her husband’s funeral pyre, mostly by force but occasionally voluntarily. This heinous Hindu funeral custom was banned in India in 1861 during the British rule. Although this did not occur during my grandmother’s lifetime, her relatives would tell her stories of this growing up. Her dismay was visible as she spoke.

Nani then began to share her own stories with me. My grandmother’s marriage to my grandfather was arranged, and although they have been married for over sixty years, it is quite clear that it was not always an easy ride for them. She tells me about her in-laws.

“They don’t think they have a new daughter-in-law. They think they have a new slave.” She tells me that, in her case, having a joint family was not easy. Every night, she was forced to massage her in-laws feet. Birthday celebrations for her children were cancelled due to family politics. She was not treated like family, she was a second-class citizen. She repeats the word rhabab over and over again.

“Power”, she replies when I ask her its meaning. “I was the youngest. I could not talk. Who would take my side? Who should I complain to?” She is emotive as she explains the family dynamics of her generation. The behaviour of families towards women was a way of asserting control, emphasising authority. She discusses how this has moulded her into the person she is today – the advocate for women that she might not even realise she is.

“I never interfere”, as she describes her relationship with her daughter-in-law. She reflects that times have changed, that mothers-in-law are different. We briefly discuss dowry and how, with my mother’s encouragement, she refused to accept any gifts during her son’s marriage. This might not seem like an achievement, but in a culture where dowry was the done thing, this was.

Whilst there are still gender discriminations that exists within our family, my grandmother has always subscribed to equality of opportunity. She has always supported me to be ambitious in my career. She has always wanted me to strive for more. Perhaps this is because she was never gifted with these same opportunities. The Partition prevented her education, although her father was always keen for her to study. Circumstance dictated her pathway, as it does with us all.

Nani felt that she was denied a voice in her new family. She felt that she did not have the opportunity to express these dreams, these desires. She felt she was silenced.

I truly hope she knows that we are all listening to her now.

This is Why We Must All Celebrate Mother’s Day

By Noa Sasson-Brooks

I did not think this would be the title of my article.

I thought I was going to have an angry rant about the commercialisation of this day, about the suggestion it gives that mothers want to be given pink things, or overpriced chocolates and flowers – the production of which is destroying our planet with chemicals…. I thought I was going to write about how narrow-minded the cards one can buy seem to be, focusing as they do on thanking mum for all the cooking and the cleaning, all in pink; about how this deification of mothers is another way to make women feel inadequate when they become mothers, or doesn’t allow for the lonely road that is believing you are the only person whose mother is a bit rubbish and not worthy of thanks… And I thought I’d write about how alienating the holiday can be for single mothers, single dads and children of single-parent families.

I also thought that before I started ranting I should make sure I knew exactly what Mother’s Day is about. I had a vague idea that it has something to do with Easter but wasn’t sure exactly what. I researched the history and I have to say that, despite still believing all the rant-worthy things about the commercial side of the day, I have completely fallen in love with Mother’s Day and I will celebrate it every year until the day I die.

My history lesson starts with today and will work its way backwards.

The commercialised Mother’s Day we recognise today was modelled on something which started in America in the late 19th century, and has its roots purely in the desire to express appreciation for mothers. It was brought to the UK in the 1920s and by the 1950s was widespread and commercialised, which explains why there is still such a heavy emphasis on mid-century values of motherhood and homemaking in the cards and gifts widely available.

We in the UK, however, celebrate Mother’s Day on a different day to our transatlantic friends. Constance Penswick Smith, who was responsible for establishing Mother’s Day in the UK, was from a family of vicars and chose the traditional Christian Mothering Sunday to be the date of Mother’s Day. This explains why my Granny always calls it Mothering Sunday. But what was it?

It had historically been the fourth Sunday of Lent, a surprising feast day in the middle of Lenten fasting. It was a day when everyone, even servants, would return to their ‘mother church’ where they were baptised. It was the only day of the year when working-class families could all be together, as servants usually had to work on other holidays. Due to the celebrations taking place in the spring, there was an emphasis on flowers, decorating the church with flowers, and giving flowers to their mothers. There were even special types of Mothering Sunday cakes, which developed over time.

This is where my interest was piqued. Why the random feast day in the middle of Lent? Its real name was Laetare Sunday but became known as Mothering Sunday because of the return to the ‘mother church’? Really? The only information I could find about it is that it occurs on or near the vernal or spring equinox. Now I sensed pagan roots forming, and delved further….

The Romans had a week-long celebration of a demi-deity called Attis, and the day of the vernal equinox was supposed to be a celebration of his resurrection. Three days after his death. Involving carrying a tree trunk through the streets and being killed. Sound familiar? (Fun fact: the reason the date of Easter changes every year, despite the Romans’ scrupulous recording of events, is because it is calculated according to the first full moon after the vernal equinox).

But let’s talk more about Attis. He was the ‘husband’ of the Magna Mater, Cybele. When Cybele first decided to make Attis hers, by gate-crashing his wedding to a princess, he was so overcome by her power that he and his would-be father-in-law went mad and chopped off their own genitals. Cybele felt bad about this and made Attis a demi-god, and their followers in Greek and Roman society were eunuchs. There was another romantic spring festival for Cybele, the Megalesia, which was about agriculture and involved castration of livestock.

Who on earth was Cybele? I’ve always been interested in Greek gods and their Roman counterparts, but had never heard of Cybele. Well, she wasn’t technically a Greek goddess, but it was very common for these ancient empires to absorb the deities of territories they expanded into, to keep the people happy. The Greeks found Cybele strange and exotic but she was welcomed into their pantheon. Aside from her association with castration, she rode a chariot pulled by lions, and lived in the Leo constellation, and was usually depicted seated.

This is where it gets really good so stay with me. Cybele was originally a Phrygian goddess. She was the lead deity of their pantheon, but the only female. She was goddess of agriculture and fertility, and reigned as ‘mother nature’ from 1200 to 700BCE.

But before the Phrygian people, there was a society called Çatalhöyük, from around 7500BCE. Archaeologists have discovered a probable precursor to Cybele, in the form of many figurines of a female deity (and not very many male ones). She is depicted seated and pregnant, flanked by two lionesses. It is unclear whether she was a goddess of harvest, fertility or death, or all three and more. Many ancient religions linked fertility with agriculture, and birth with death, and represented them with a female deity. It is believed that Çatalhöyük was a completely gender equal society or perhaps a matriarchal one.

That is the end of my history lesson. Let me sum up this amazing theory: nearly 10,000 years ago, a powerful goddess was revered above all else. She clung on through the religions, being incarnated as various mother nature characters or fertility goddesses, associated with lions and always remaining powerful, to the point where the males surrounding her were castrated. And her festival has survived until today, and is now called Mother’s Day. And if that’s not amazing, I don’t know what is.

By all means, join me in eschewing the commercialised aspect of modern Mother’s Day. But this is a day of ancient celebration of the power of all women.

*DISCLAIMER* I am not an anthropologist, theologian, historian, or even a Christian. I don’t want to offend anyone, and would love to hear more information on this topic from those more knowledgeable than I am.

We Need to Talk About Sex (Education)

By Amber Wilson and Kaammini Chanrai

Originally delivered as a speech at the Young Local Authority of the Year 2016 public speaking competition by the representatives of Brent Council on Thursday 19th February 2016.

***

We need to talk about sex. Well actually, we need to talk about relationships and sex.

***

Consent workshops were recently introduced in universities around the country. However, one particular university student didn’t see their value. Holding up a sign stating ‘This is not what a rapist looks like’, George Lawlor publicly refused to attend. He found the invitation an insult, arguing that the seminars would be “a waste of time” and that no new information would be learnt. Yet, an astounding number of myths continue to surround the concept of consent, such as references to a grey area and references to victim blaming.

Clearly, we are not the only ones that need to talk about sex and relationships.

However, comprehensive Sex and Relationships Education is still not statutory across British schools. At most schools, some topics are compulsory from the age of eleven, such as reproduction and sexually transmitted infections. However, discussions on consent, healthy relationships and online safety are often missed out entirely. With nearly half a million cases of sexual assault every year, decreased funding to domestic violence services and an influx of online abuse, we must ask ourselves: are we really doing enough to teach young people about sex and relationships?

So, what is Sex and Relationships Education?

Sex and Relationships Education, or SRE, teaches the emotional, social and physical aspects of growing up. Although SRE includes lessons on sex, sexuality and sexual health, it is not limited to this. SRE gives young people essential skills for building positive, respectful and non-exploitative relationships and staying safe both on- and offline.

So, why is SRE so important?

Although it’s not mandatory to teach SRE, we definitely have a legal obligation to protect children from harm. Ofsted found that SRE is inadequate in nearly half of schools and that this leaves children vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. An estimated one in twenty secondary school children have been sexually assaulted and sadly, most of these cases go unreported. Children need to be taught how to recognise this abuse. Too many children don’t even know the official names of genitals let alone how to report when somebody is taking advantage of their body.

In the wake of several scandals, child sexual exploitation and grooming have become a national priority for social services. What we have learnt from high profile cases is that, too often, vulnerable young people have been groomed to expect that a Happy Meal deserves a “happy ending” for the person buying. Consent requires choice and the freedom and capacity to make that choice. This is not just about the grooming and abuse of children. The demand for university consent workshops arose because young adults feel they are leaving school without having properly addressed the issue of consent. Statements like “well, she seemed up for it” can no longer be tolerated.

Young people have a right to information that will keep them healthy and safe. It’s widely reported that when pupils receive lessons on sex, consent and relationships, their first sexual activity is likely to occur later, and is more likely to be safe and consensual. Effective SRE can also lower rates of STIs, teenage pregnancy and abortion. Let’s take Finland for example. When SRE was made optional in 1994, Finland saw a fall in the use of contraception and a 50% increase in teenage pregnancy. SRE has since been reintroduced. It is careless that we continue to ignore these tangible benefits that SRE can bring.

Teenagers are frequently involved in online sexual activity, often below the legal age of consent. The UK’s largest group of internet pornography consumers is 12-17 year olds. Yet, the last government guidance on SRE dates back to the year 2000, well before the rise of Facebook, Snapchat and Tinder and Grindr hook-ups. Considering these changes that we have seen to social networking, it is crucial that we provide proper education on online relationships and cyber-safety. Online bullying towards the LGBTQ+ community has also increased dramatically in recent years. The fact is that virtual relationships are being virtually ignored by the outdated SRE guidance.

Unsurprisingly, the lack of comprehensive and consistent SRE in schools disproportionately affects women and girls. SRE would include teaching on healthy, equal relationships and violence against women and girls, including topics such as Female Genital Mutilation, domestic violence and sexual abuse. This surely lies at the heart of a society based on gender equality and human rights. As women, we are told how to keep ourselves out of danger. But shouldn’t we be teaching the next generation not to perpetrate violence rather than just how to avoid it? Prevent isn’t cure. The economic cost alone of violence against women and girls in the UK is over £40 billion a year. And what of the human cost? Two women are killed by domestic violence every week. This is frankly unacceptable.

We would like to see a compulsory, age-appropriate programme of SRE on curricula across all primary and secondary schools. If SRE were statutory, the material would gain legitimacy and consistency, and teachers would feel more confident and supported teaching the subject. This would also mean increased funding and resources, better teacher-training as well as specialist teachers. While there is of course a financial implication of implementing SRE nation-wide, future benefits would definitely outweigh any short-term costs.

***

George Lawlor has not been alone in arguing that consent workshops are a waste of time. However, different reasons have been given for this. Introducing consent classes at university is too little, too late. These lessons need to be embedded from childhood. Otherwise, we are complicit in the exploitation of children, we fail to prevent violence against women and girls, and we undermine the opportunity for both women and men to have happy and healthy relationships. Enough is enough.

A call by MPs to make Sex and Relationships Education compulsory in all schools was rejected by Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, earlier this month. This decision has been widely criticised by students, teachers and parents.

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.

The Consequence of Tiny Compromises

By Nazanin Kaur Rai

My father is, in many ways, a textbook hero. He did not have the privileged start to life my sister and I enjoy – far from it. He grew up with almost nothing, worked very hard and gave his children better lives. In many ways, he forms the essential pillars of his family – providing support to his siblings, children and extended family members time and time again. He is giving, loving and deeply religious. He was able to go from worrying about where his next meal would come from to creating enough financial and social stability for his children to study abroad in the UK. In prioritising his children’s education and his family’s needs, he has been able to provide more opportunities than he himself could ever have had growing up. He is an admirable man: knowledgeable, focused, disciplined and diligent. If you are sensing a ‘but’, you have good instincts. Here it is: he has been oppressive to the women he loves.

The oppression to which I refer cannot be given a singular definition. It is manifested in attitudes and incidents that have formed the basis of the gendered status quo in many households across the world. I will focus on one particular, arguably minimally intrusive, aspect of it in this article. At this stage, I would like to stress that I am not an expert in social sciences. This is an article about my own personal experiences, and those of close friends. It is focused on my relationship with my father. It is relevant that we are part of the Indian diaspora and we have held on to many cultural values.

I would argue that my father has more liberal attitudes towards gender-based issues than many of his peers. For example, he has never given me the impression that he believes I must get married to a man in order for my life to be complete, he believes in a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion and he would never tell me to choose one profession over another simply because I am female. He has always, however, had very strong views on how my mother, sister and I should dress. There have been many fights, tears and even public outbursts of anger over the years which centre on what we choose to wear. His main issue is with sleeveless clothes and ‘low’ necklines. He does not seem to have a problem with the shorts and skirts I choose to wear – it would appear that the level of thigh exposure I engage in is OK. Shoulders and cleavage, however, are a different story. Again, it would seem that, compared with so many of his peers who would flinch at the thought of a girl wearing anything above the knee, my father is liberal and not asking for too much. It may all seem trivial, but it is a symptom of a much larger issue.

Over the years, my mother and I have managed to care less and less about my father’s attitudes. Very wisely, my mother always let me decide for myself how much I was willing to fight against my father’s clothing impositions. I am proud to say that after years of restricting my choice in clothes to my fit my father’s definition of modesty, I was finally able to tell him that his views were sexist and oppressive. But while this has appeared to put an end to his comments on what I wear, I do not feel that it has solved the problem. I have to hope, however, that what I said has caused him to at least consider his views from a gender-sensitive perspective. Though I cannot hope for an apology, or any logical (as opposed to emotional) discussion on the matter, I may have taken a very small step towards addressing a fundamental attitude towards his exertion of control over the women in our family. When you consider this issue in the grand scheme of everything my father stands for and has achieved, perhaps it seems like a very small, forgivable ‘but’. In fact, this is the argument that has been put to me multiple times by friends and family who face similar issues with their parents: when you have a father who has given you the world, who has provided for you and supported you, who has made sacrifices and placed your needs before his more times than can ever be counted, why is it so difficult to do the one small thing he is asking of you? This is how many of my friends choose to view the situation.

I would guess that some of you (even some of you in the ‘West’) may agree with my friends. You may think that wearing a t-shirt as opposed to a tank top or avoiding a push-up bra so that I don’t have a cleavage are very small sacrifices to make for my father’s happiness. If that is the case, you are probably thinking (not necessarily incorrectly) that whether something amounts to oppression is a question of degree, and that compromises can and should be made for the people you love. We feel that we ‘owe’ our fathers something for all they have done for us, that they get to have a big say in how we live our (adult) lives because they feed, clothe, educate and support us. Moreover, there is a poisonous, associated guilt complex – we feel we are hurting our fathers by not conforming to the ‘little’ things they want. This, I think, is to do with independence. Somehow, my father is personally affected by what I choose to wear. This is very different to the dynamic in many of my ‘Western’ friends’ houses. There, parents are emotionally affected by the consequences of their daughter’s decision where some detriment has come to the daughter as a ‘result’ of her decision, rather than because they themselves feel hurt by what she has done. It is so difficult for my father to see that I am not doing something to him by wearing a tank top.

I cannot agree with my friends who tell me to make this small compromise. To do so would be to allow myself to feel guilty about having independent thoughts. Perhaps a good argument could be made for ‘owing’ our fathers respect and gratitude for all they have done. But we do not owe them control over what we choose to do with our independent lives. It is not an issue of how much control over our bodies we should compromise, it is the fact that we are asked to make any compromises at all. No matter how small or large the compromise appears to be, the point is that we should not have to compromise our inherent right to have control over our own bodies, especially not for those whom we love and who love us.

Mothers Who Move

By Victoria Palazzo

Migration, Racism and Gender

Migration has become a central point of discussion in British politics and the recent election results suggest that the debate will continue for a long time yet.

The question is- why is migration a gender issue and why should it be included in a blog such as Gender And The City? There are many answers to this question however the issue I shall address here is reproduction.

Reproducing migrants

There has been much scaremongering from the right of British politics over the issue of immigration. It has been alleged that expectant mothers cross the planet in order to use NHS facilities and in order to gain British citizenship for their children. This environment of distrust has lead to the detention of pregnant women and children in asylum facilities whilst services are also being refused to pregnant women without proper documentation.

‘Migrant’ motherhood is a gender-issue and one that exposes racism at the heart of the British establishment. Non-UK women are punished for their sexuality and resultant pregnancy. Politicians seek to ‘protect’ the Nation from the ‘threat’ of increasing non-ethnically-British children. Media sources capitalise on this fear in order to push the agendas of their advertisers and political affiliations leading in turn to an increase in racism.

This image of ‘overly-fertile’ foreign women has a history. During colonial periods (usually non-white) foreign women were portrayed as hypersexual. This can be seen throughout the artwork and literature of the period: think “exotic” and ask yourself what comes to mind. This ‘exotic’ and ‘rampant’ sexuality was seen as something to be controlled and thus one justification for colonialism was born. As the effects of colonialism were felt and inequalities grew this hyper-sexuality was used to ‘explain’ the suffering of the colonised. These women were too fertile, they were having too many children- unlike proper protestant, white, English Ladies. Thus international inequality was blamed on the foreign poor.

Fast-forward to today and we can still hear echoes of this fear of foreign sexuality in our press, from our politicians and amongst ourselves. Politicians promise to protect us from these hypersexual women: Government minister Lord Bates recently stated that migration to Britain must be controlled for precisely this reason. Journalists argue: Britain is full! We only want useful migrants! The terms of utility seem to be defined by education, employment history and physical abilities: three criteria that pregnant women are less likely to fulfil.

Post 2015 Election

The incumbent Conservative government, fresh off their 2015 victory have pledged to reduce immigration to the UK through a series of measures, including though restricting child benefit and social housing to EU Migrants (non-EU nationals already do not have access to these services). Women, due to various barriers to entry, tend to rely more heavily on these welfare provisions than men. These restrictions therefore are an example of how gender and racial bias converge in the current British political climate.

As global inequality grows, climate change intensifies and wars continue to rage people will continue to leave their homes in search of a better life. The issue of migration will not go away. The British public therefore has two options: Do we build a wall against migrants, isolating ourselves from the poor non-British other? Or do we seek to improve the global conditions that lead to increased migration in the first place?

The Struggles of Malaysian Women

By Siti Abdul-Muttalib

“Only boys are allowed to be Scouts!” This was the rule proclaimed after I asked permission to join the Scouts’ team when I was 13 years old, back in 1996. As more and more secondary schools granted female students the right to be part of a Scout team, I was startled with this decision which decreed that no girls were allowed to join and it struck me as discriminatory. For him, a Scout team is male-dominated and requires much physical strength. This so-called “unjust ruling” left me with the choice of joining either the Girl Guides or St. John Ambulance: I chose the latter. Since that life-changing event, I became more critical and defensive towards gender dynamics because, prior to this, I had always been made to believe that boys were superior and that undervaluing and belittling girls is correct to be commonly accepted. Likewise, I used to be convinced that in a male-centric field, women are supposed to passively accept what occurs around them. A woman cannot be as dominant, aggressive, competitive or outspoken as a man, and if she is, she will be stereotyped, scrutinised and discriminated against by others. But it is unexceptional if a man is any of these things.

I am neither a female chauvinist nor a sexist so to speak, but I believe in equality for all. I live in a country that has yet to give equal rights to women. Despite the fact that rapid steps to address Malaysian women’s issues are being taken, there is still a long way to go  most notably in areas where women are hindered in reaching high-ranking positions, and where equal political participation is concerned, women remain underrepresented. Discrimination; patriarchal attitudes and perpetuating stereotypes towards women; violation of women’s right; gendered constraints due to women’s reproductive roles; different retirement ages, such as in the case of female flight attendants on the National airline (MAS). These are merely some examples of a never-ending list of unequal practices.

Ironically, Malaysia celebrated its 57th Independence Day this year but, overall, the concerted efforts to address women’s issues are not proportional to women’s invaluable contribution and plethora of efforts to the nation’s accelerated economic growth and rapid development.

Nonetheless, what appeals to me most is how globalisation affects Malaysia and has implications from a gender perspective. Globalisation has different interpretations and meanings. It is crucial to consider the consequences globalisation will have on gender mainstreaming and policy formation. It is vital to identify globalisation and examine the qualitative changes that could affect women. And if globalisation does have a positive impact, why are Malaysian women still not equal to their male counterparts? Before dealing with the conditions of development, we must take into account the consequences and intricacies that this will bring to society in terms of gender. Any assessment of the merits and perilous effects of globalisation would be inadequate if differences between women and men are not taken into account. Gender-based differences are significant in the formulation of effective and efficient strategies and action plans. The alarming question that we have to ask ourselves is how can we utilise and re-design the forces of globalisation to further empower women? And how long will it take for Malaysian women to be accepted as first class citizens? It seems like the journey to victory is still impenetrable.

What is ‘Normal’?

By Jessie Brookes

If you type ‘romance’ into Google Images, you have to browse through over a thousand photos before reaching one that does not contain some reference to a heterosexual relationship. Preconceptions of what is deemed to be ‘normal’ social behaviour are constantly challenged in the world that we live in and yet if we listen carefully to the background noise, it appears that the pressure to be ‘normal’ has an unfaltering presence in everything we do.

In this post-modern world, the need to be different has become paramount. We aspire to stand out from the crowd, to escape stereotypes, to be individuals in our own rights. And yet stereotypes still exist, everyone still fits into categories — and these categories are either normative, or they are not.

Even within social scientific research — where the goal is surely to gain access to objective truths (or the closest equivalent) — categories are predefined. Studies will occur on homosexual behaviour; or females between the ages of 18-25; or British Asians — as though by narrowing down the field of research to a category smaller than ‘human’, one will be able to understand that category more fully.

Heterosexuality is rarely studied in its own right, but is instead used as a comparison within the study of activities that may be considered less common. Is this because the majority of people are heterosexual, and therefore feel no need to research what are considered to be the obvious and accepted activities involved? Or do ‘normal’ people have an acute lack of awareness of the presence of normativity — a subconscious sense of entitlement not to be marginalised? Is it possible that heterosexual behaviour is the norm purely by chance? Clearly, in terms of survival, there is a biological need for a certain amount of heterosexuality within a species, but why has the conclusion been drawn that it is normal and natural for people to have singularly exclusive heterosexual relationships?

It terrifies me to think about how much of my behaviour could be purely attributed to social constructions. If I had been born in a different age, with different parents, or in a different country, would social constructions have molded me to be of a different sexual orientation? Would it be possible for someone to be marginalised because of their heterosexuality in a different reality? I don’t know. I simply find it hard to grasp the extent to which I am defined by social norms. I am a woman, and therefore subordinate. But not through the fault of any one man; not through the fault of any one person. I am subordinate because hundreds upon hundreds of years of socially accepted inequality have occurred. I wonder whether this gives me any right to complain (or I wonder: does this give me any right to complain?). Should we assume that things become social norms because they are the best of all possible options? Should we accept that things have become ingrained within society because they work? I hope not, but it worries me sometimes.

More importantly, assuming we will not sit back and allow social constructions to define our standing in society, how can we begin to instigate change? It has been done, to a certain extent, in many situations. Our prejudices against others change according to what we feel we are able to accept, and what we feel will fit in with how we perceive a functional society. But I sometimes get the impression that ‘accepting’ is often enacted in a way akin to ‘humouring’ rather than it being based on genuine inclusivity and celebration of difference. How can this change? Should it? I think so, but I am often at a loss as to how.

“Papa, I’m hungry!”

By Farah Haque

A couple of days ago, I had an initially-casual-turned-grim Skype conversation with my partner. It was regarding the decision about when to be parents. Many people may find the sheer topic of the conversation to be too serious to start off casually, however, between my partner and I, this is a much talked about topic that we often bring up in humorous ways.

It is important to mention here that we have been married for the last 4 and a half years — out of which we have been away from each other for the last year, by virtue of my Master’s degree in London and his job in one of the developing countries in South Asia (where I spent the first 26 years of my life).

My partner knows that I love children and would love to be a mother at some point in my life but we both agreed on taking that step once I am ready to do so. In his words, “It’s your body and so you have to be both physically and mentally willing to undergo the whole process” — and he sincerely meant that. This initially sounded awesome and thoughtful, especially taking into account the kind of men we were surrounded by, in an unbelievably patriarchal society such as that of my home country. However, the more I contemplated it, the more I felt that there was something wrong with such a statement. This led me to start writing for Gender and the City.

Back to the conversation… While still joking around the topic, I asked him about his readiness for a child and his immediate response was that he is always ready because he is old and responsible enough to become a father. My pro-gender-equality mind responded saying, “I’ll only become a mother once you’re ready to take an equal share of the childcare responsibilities.” He replied that, needless to say, he would. He asserted that he is a very caring and understanding husband, (jokingly) unlike many of his friends, and that he would never place childcare responsibilities solely on the mother’s shoulders.

Nevertheless, when I asked whether his imagined caring responsibilities included tasks such as changing diapers; singing lullabies to make the baby fall asleep; waking up in the middle of the night to check if the baby was sleeping well; feeding the baby; trying to understand why the baby was crying; teaching the baby to write the first letters of the alphabet; waking the child up in the morning and preparing breakfast and a packed-lunch; getting him/her dressed for school and numerous other chores that I have seen my mother do for us, his simple solution to all these questions did not surprise me at all.

He effortlessly reminded me that many or most of these could easily be taken care of by a nanny whilst we share the rest and that I should not get stressed worrying about all these issues now. I responded by asking what would happen if I did not want to hire a nanny: “Well, in that case I’ll definitely help you out as much as possible but I’m not sure if I’m capable of doing all of those things. Also, given that I am so busy at work, I wonder if I’ll have enough time for these activities on a regular basis. But of course, I’m not insensitive: if you’re feeling unwell, or if you’re busy elsewhere, or if you have to leave for work early, or go out of town, I’ll try to take care of everything.” That was his earnest response and somewhere in the process, we lost the humour!

Before describing the note on which we ended our conversation, let me share my state of mind at that very moment. Too many things were racing through my head. Knowing my partner for the last 10 years as a man who has always been sensitive, understanding and respectful towards women, our conversation left me pondering the socially acceptable extent of a man’s sensitivity towards women. I realised that my husband’s appeals and offers were genuinely made and that he had no intention of looking down on me because this is what he has learnt all his life through our universally acceptable socialisation processes. Despite being open-minded and respecting women’s rights, he was unable to think beyond the socially constructed traditions; he too took it for granted that the above mentioned tasks were naturally meant to be the duties of a mother, even if she was a working mother, often substituted by a nanny. His response implied that being an empathetic husband and a responsible father meant all he could do was help me out in times of crisis. That was as far as his stretch of imagination could take him as a gender-sensitive man in a South Asian context.

I could sense his uneasiness around the topic because, knowing me well enough, he could also sense my apprehension. It took him a while to figure out why these foreboding thoughts were eating me up and that leaving these issues unresolved may well lead to jeopardising our marriage. I was left perplexed at how he ended the conversation — he admitted that he was nervous about making a commitment that he may not be able to live up to later on and that he was still not sure if he could actually make himself do all the tasks mentioned. He emphasised that he would love to assure me as my partner that together we could move mountains BUT apparently, my questions have left him baffled and he asked for time to think about these points.

After this conversation, I did not know what to feel: should I be delighted and hopeful that my partner understood my trepidation regarding equality in parenthood and actively decided to consider my questions? Or should I rather be miserable, feeling hopeless that I had to explicitly put a ‘responsibility chart’ in plain words in order for him to realise what equality in parenting responsibilities means — that parenting not only involves playing with a baby and buying chocolates and toys, but also the not-so-exciting feeding and cleaning?

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I know I am sharing a very personal experience on a public platform and perhaps many readers may deem this inappropriate. Nonetheless, part of the reason for sharing this story is also to challenge the way we divide the public and the private realms, which has an undeniable role in the social construction of our gendered divisions of labour: the father, the mother, the nanny!

The way we attach roles to ourselves and to others based on sex, race and class is evident from this simple day-to-day conversation and there is certainly a power play — albeit unintentionally in my case — which in itself is problematic. These inherently unequal societal notions go unrecognised because they are so deeply rooted and ingrained and if someone points them out to us, they become points to ponder on.

Having grown up in an upper-middle class family in the capital city of one of the developing nations of the Global South, the socially constructed notions of ‘good girl’ versus ‘bad girl’ and ‘good family’ versus ‘bad family,’ always disturbed me. The reasons why my mother left her job in order to take care of us and yet my father continued to work, were always unconvincing to me.

The reasons why five of my female friends got divorced within a year of getting married and even worse, the reasons why they were to take the blame for that, were also unnerving. As a result, the way I used to think (and still do) was never perceived as ‘normal’ for a girl or a woman in my society. Time and time again, since childhood, I have experienced such reactions following my words and actions every time I protested against unequal gender relations.

My personal opinion on this — and I am sure many others will agree — is that we probably have a disproportionate number of women who are aware of and sensitive to gender inequality whilst men are unmistakably not on an equal footing here. The discrepancy in this awareness is probably increasing (if anything) the already-existing gap between the way men and women think of themselves and of others. Increasing men’s awareness of this issue may prove to have a greater effect than getting more women on board. It’s about time!

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!”.