Learning Curves: My Experience with Sexism in Further Education

By Jack Ford

Childhood is a critical time – our early experiences shape the way we look at the world and everything in it. From what food we enjoy, to our tastes in music and indeed, our attitudes towards other races and sexes. Our early interactions with people who are different to us can be hugely influential, and for some, bad environments can form negative opinions.

The divide between boys and girls becomes apparent from a young age, as children of different genders are often discouraged from mixing socially. Boys are encouraged to be active and adventurous in their play, whereas girls are kept passive and prescribed notions of femininity. However, this segregation is broken when young people desire romantic relationships – the invisible, cultural line is crossed when a boy asks a girl out, or vice versa. Perhaps this lack of early integration ingrains in us the idea that the opposite sex is only to be approached when there are amorous feelings involved, which just isn’t the case at all.

This idea came to me last year, when I made some observations on an Access course for young adults. The students, about three quarters male, were intelligent and very articulate, but unwilling to apply themselves and often boisterous and reluctant to do any of the work set for them.

During my time there I began to notice early on that some of the male students had unhealthy attitudes towards women. One in particular would never take instructions from female tutors. I can’t say for certain why, but it seemed like he refuted their being in a position of authority. Another would regularly tell sexist jokes either involving body parts or their usage, sometimes both.

These attitudes were best personified in one student who I’ll call Aaron. A young man in his late teens, Aaron was smart, funny and industrious, but fairly early on I became aware of his unsavoury views on women. He would brag about the number of girls he had been with and made weak jokes about how we shouldn’t look at his internet history. When there were excursions – the course had regular outings – you would often catch him using his phone to film passing women, strangers to him that he liked the look of. He was reprimanded for doing this, but that didn’t stop him.

This came to a head at the end of year presentation, where students and tutors along with families, friends and even representatives from the university that sponsored the course gathered to celebrate the year’s achievements. All students were asked to make a small speech. When Aaron took to the mic, he delivered a standard speech where he listed his achievements and started thanking all the course tutors, finishing with a young woman of whom all he said was, “She’s gorgeous.”

The room erupted in awkward laughter. A couple of his mates wolf-whistled. Perhaps this bolstered him, because he described her as either “beautiful” or “gorgeous” five more times. My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe he had done that. I couldn’t believe he was continuing to do it. I couldn’t believe someone hadn’t stopped him. It was so uncomfortable to witness that I had to leave the room. It was baffling that he would think that this attitude, broadcasted to everyone, was acceptable. I couldn’t imagine how the teacher he was speaking about must have felt, objectified in front of a large group of people. I asked her about it afterwards and she said it was fine, but she did look a little shell-shocked.

To my relief, some of the others agreed with me that this wasn’t OK, but not everyone. I even complained, but by then Aaron had finished the course and there was nothing that could be done. So instead, I pushed for the teachers to include some education on gender equality and discrimination as part of their curriculum.

I argued that one of the aims of the course was to prepare students for being in the workplace, and if any of them said some of the things I heard them say about women at work, they would have found themselves either at a tribunal, or fired (although the unfortunate reality is that so many incidents of gender based harassment in the workplace go unchallenged by employers). The teachers heard me out, but declined my proposal. This was understandable, I wasn’t a tutor and it wasn’t my place to tell them how to run their course. Their continued reluctance to penalise sexist behaviour is one of the factors that contributed to my decision to leave the course. (And to be honest, it was a relief.)

This is my experience with witnessing sexism in further education, and of course this is not an isolated incident. Last year The Women and Equalities Commission were told that young people nowadays are experiencing a culture where sexual harassment has become the norm. In addition to this, while sexual harassment and sex crime is down a lot from what it used to be, in the last two years the rate has risen.

There is no one answer to resolve this, but there are definitely more actions that can be taken to combat this institutionalised problem. In March, a proposal was put forward to make the teaching of relationships and sex education compulsory in all schools. This is legislature we need to get behind. Teaching this to children who are at a pivotal age will lay the foundation for them to realise that sex, gender and difference are serious issues. Although young boys and girls are segregated, this type of education should include education which goes beyond binary concepts of gender – as well as discussing issues such as harassment, consent and equality.

The gender divide is a problem that exists in all cultures, and it’s about time we cross gender lines to come together and do more to see each other as equals. Until then, we will keep producing more Aarons, more people who think it’s still OK to publicly objectify women because the world they were brought up in, a world which said that they could.

***

About the Author

Jack Ford is a charity worker, anti-rape activist and volunteer art gallery attendant from Somerset. Currently, he abides by the Hunter S Thompson quote: ‘I have no taste for either poverty or honest labor, so writing is the only recourse left for me.’ His work has appeared in Jupiter magazine, on the Bristol Sport website and he writes for The Redeem Team and Nondescript.

 

A Handy Guide to Debunking Mansplaining and Sexist Pub Shouting Matches (Thanks for the Feminist Fuel Mr Trump)

By Katie Staal

At the primary convention in Denver, Colorado in 2008, Barack Obama was elected as the Democratic Party candidate. A historic move for the United States, and one that is forever etched into my memory, and the memories of millions of people across the world. Obama, of course, ran against Hillary Clinton. When we discussed this at school the next day, my politics teacher clumsily explained in short that: ‘America was more sexist than racist’, at least in the Democratic Party vetting process. Of course I’m not sixteen anymore and I know now that both race and gender injustices are sourced from the same generic fear of the unknown. This is why feminism always stands at its most powerful when it is fully intersectional and inclusive. 

Throughout the 2016 political campaign, the words from my teacher floated eerily back into my mind. How was America going to define itself when faced with the first election in modern history with a female candidate to complete the race? Post-Brexit blues had left many Londoners with a sour taste in their mouth so last week’s election found me pessimistic, and with a sinking feeling in my stomach. As I drifted uneasily to sleep, I considered that perhaps this time America was going to vote in force as a nation of unacknowledged sexists. Although the vote was close, this was ultimately confirmed as I woke up the morning after.


Hilary Clinton, although certainly a right-wing Democrat, has had a history of compassionate activism. She holds a bounty of political and legal qualifications along with a pre-existing reputation as the silent influencer of the Bill Clinton Presidency. ‘Mrs’ Clinton pushed for healthcare policy from within the White House before the nation had even muttered the name Barack Obama.

But after a thoroughly misogynistic campaign, America has voted for an unqualified candidate and, as a result, an unstable and unpredictable future. Perhaps people forget that ‘politician’ is a profession, just as a plumber or a builder. 

As a woman I feel personally victimised by the white, uneducated men of the United States. The smug faces of those who believe so vehemently in the vague, impassioned, and colonial hyperbole of ‘taking back what’s ours.’ As white men, they have had undeniable privilege handed to them, and yet they feel the need to ‘take’ even more for themselves. The worst part: they have voted in this direction because of the years of pent-up frustration towards people who make a habit of calling out hurtful or derogatory behaviour. Political correctness becomes the enemy, and the extreme right surge into the mainstream.

All this aside, there is a lesson to be learnt here, and it is one that could potentially elevate feminism to a fully ‘commercial’ level in the eyes of a wider group of men. Since I discovered that there is a name for what ‘sexism’ is, I have realised how I am affected by it every single day. People are naturally opposed to strong inflammatory words, like ‘sexism’ or ‘racism’, but having a name to describe my experience gave me the golden opportunity to share it with others. Discussing feminism in social groups was both an emboldening and terrifying venture — empowering, as you find amongst your peers the feeling that you’re not alone. Terrifying because you live on the edge of an argument, with your feminist beliefs placing you on the knife-edge of often nasty and emotional disagreements. Often with a white man.

After a few pints, the rhetoric begins to flow: ‘Sexism doesn’t exist anymore’, ‘I’ve had women get paid more than me’, ‘I’ve never seen anyone get catcalled’. The list of argument catalysts is endless and tireless. These conversations permeate both our public and private spaces: from otherwise nice trips to the pub to the comments section of uni papers like The Tab or UniLAD. I almost cried with joy the day a male friend backed me up in one of these pub exchanges (he had started dating a feminist). 

Getting into verbal fights over whether something is legitimately ‘sexism’, or being casually derailed by a man with a different perspective to you is undeniably a typically Western, middle-class and educated female problem. It’s not a new problem either. Nonetheless, it is an experience which quashes your sense of self, and this feeling is representative of everyone who has ever felt different or discriminated against, from all backgrounds across the world. 

What’s interesting about the Trump vote is that his public ‘faux pas’, a.k.a. rampant sexism, provide a fairly foolproof example that can help us all silence mansplaining voices. Sexism does exist and here’s the proof! Ha! (Not that we need it, but here it is!)

This sexism is the very mandate that Trump has been elected on by the most powerful most assumed ‘forward thinking’ Western superpower in year 2016, now. Right now. His history of harassment and abuse towards women has been exposed for the world to see, and even the most loyal Republicans were reluctant to dismiss it as ‘locker talk’.

In case you need more fuel to the fire: Mongolia elected a female president in the 1950s and Argentina, Sri-Lanka and Israel followed suit in the 1970s. Yet the United States of America would rather vote for (someone polled as) the most unpopular political candidate ever. They would rather mobilise as a mob for this, than vote for a woman. That’s enough for us in the UK to combat a century of patronising pub talk. 

As feminists, we have always known that this sexist community existed. We also know that this community was larger than many men would admit in the company of women (see: trendy ‘not all men’ arguments/’Mennists’). But now, this community has been placed on display on a global scale. Obama helped us to believe in change, but Trump is a visual embodiment of the USA’s true colours: and that colour is as white and male as it always has been. Trump has helped bring our attention to the problems that 21st century women have been screaming about since the day we understood — and felt brave enough to declare — what sexism is. 

So, thanks for that Donald.

President Trump: Reflections on the US Elections (Part 3)

I can’t bring myself to watch her concession speech. Not yet. I’m not in denial, exactly; I’ve already moved through several stages of shock and anger and grief and I can say that I’m now in determined fighter mode. But that doesn’t change the fact that this was an outcome I hoped so fervently against. While I’m resigned to him being around for the next four years – please let it be only four – her steely grace and dignity in the face of this humiliating and incredulous defeat is more than I can currently bear. When I’m ready, I will watch her and I will read the full transcript of her speech, because she inspires me and because she deserves my (and our) fullest attention, today as every day. I’ve seen the headlines; I know she bowed out with a message that was so presidential, so thoughtful, so strong, that it will make me cry. I can’t bear to see her face. In her face live all the hopes she had and we had and the reminder of everything we could have had, now lost.

I wasn’t one of those cheerful millennials who thought we had this in the bag. I had a premonition, the night before Election Day, that something would transpire at the midnight hour and that we would be facing four years under the leadership of a brutish, bigoted, proudly uneducated man. I went to a yoga class and, halfway through, I tensed up even more. I left that class with a new knot in my back. Afterward, I told my boyfriend how overwhelmed I was feeling. There has been so much venom directed toward people like me during this campaign, I said. People of color. Women. Immigrants. People already marginalized, already fearful of their futures. I don’t know how we can navigate through the stain that this venom leaves behind, I said, even if she wins. I don’t feel safe anymore, I said. I said that, the night before – and he said ‘Don’t worry sweetheart, 24 hours from now, we’ll be rejoicing at this country having elected our first woman president. The most qualified candidate, the most outstanding woman, to have ever run for this office. It will be a great, great day. You’ll see.’

The morning of November 9th, it was a grey and drizzly. The streets of my neighborhood in Washington, DC were close to being empty. I passed older African-American men huddled on street corners and Latina women pushing young children in strollers. I made eye contact with several people as I passed. We exchanged nods, knowing looks, sometimes smiles. We wished each other a good day. Our faces all said: I don’t know where to go from here, I don’t know what will happen, and I’m so sad and scared. But look at me: today, I am surviving. I am putting one foot in front of the other and showing up. I am doing my best to own my life.

—-

Politics is an unfriendly sport, a fickle one, one that takes away as much as it gives. There are issues that our elected leaders debate in the halls of Congress, some of which seem removed from our everyday lives. But I know how much the decisions that Trump’s administration will make will affect how I and everyone around me lives. I know, for instance, that I need to switch to a form of long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) like an IUD or implant as soon as possible. Because if Roe v. Wade is repealed, as Trump promises, I will lose my constitutional right to an abortion. I will lose an essential part of my reproductive choice. I am somewhat comforted by the knowledge that the damage the next administration will inflict on the country and the world at large will seem irreparable, but that some of it will be reparable. There are some issues, though, that can’t wait four years. Climate change is real, it is not a hoax invented by the Chinese, and we cannot afford to let petty political squabbles stall efforts to combat it and exacerbate what is already a grave and global humanitarian crisis. On climate change, we are f*****. On immigration, too. I think of all the DREAMers, who grew up in this country, who are every bit as American as my housemates, white children of Massachusetts and Indiana and Missouri. Have the DREAMers lost their chance to dream?

There’s more, of course – Muslim Americans, LGBTQ+ Americans, Americans living with disabilities. In voting in Trump, we voted out their rights to a life of dignity, safety, bodily integrity. We repudiated Obama and the legacy he worked so hard to preserve. We allowed male white supremacy to rear its ugly head. We reversed the course of history.

I am so, so devastated. I am out of words.

Priya Kvam, based in Washington DC

*

My first thought on watching the Trump victory was how this could come from the same place as Black Lives Matter. And then I realised that actually they came from exactly the same place – a place of disillusionment with the status quo. In the same way that people voted out of Europe because they were angry at the establishment people voted not for Trump but for an anti-establishment candidate. Just like black lives matter campaign against the inherent injustice of the system. The question we have to ask ourselves is why is the anti-establishment feeling is doing better when it breeds on xenephobia and misogyny, than when it breeds on respect and tolerance. My answer to that is because the liberal intelligensia classes have gotten arrogant. They believed the fight was already won, and put one of their own a  – pure breed elitest liberal – against the anti establishment candidate. We, as a collective, failed to provide an alternative anti-establishment narrative, we sat back on our laurels and assumed that we had already won. No candidate could take the black lives matter message to the mainstream, so we lost. We held onto our establishment, when the other side let the anti-establishment message ring. This is not the fault of the xenephobic elements of society, they’ve always existed, it’s the fault of everyone who believes in a different message – who failed to get that message across.

Lindsay Riddoch

*

“I can’t believe she voted for Trump – she’s a woman!” I sat back and agreed silently. Yes, as a woman I felt furious, disgusted and insulted that a man so openly sexist had just become President of the free world. Suddenly, a quiet bubbling erupted within me and I began to feel ill. Something felt wrong.

It felt wrong to me that the person sitting in front of me expected women to vote for Clinton – perhaps based on an assumption of the defiance, anger and resentment that ‘should’ be felt by the female population of voters. It echoed too the roaring assumption that voters ‘should’ support the candidate that most resembles their narrowly defined stereotypes and ‘tick the box’ characteristics. And perhaps even more worryingly, it underlined the assumption that voting for one’s benefit ‘should’ come before voting for the future of one’s society.

And perhaps, after all, that was the big downfall of the polls, which predicted greater numbers of women voting for Clinton, and lesser number of Muslims, Asians and Hispanics voting for Trump. The failure to look beneath the surface and into who people really are is the reason for the wave of shock that gripped the world as Trump’s states ticked over the line. But if there is one positive take away from this event, it’s the blindingly obvious demonstration that people are more than what they appear to be on paper. That ‘she’ and ‘he’ are more than a ‘woman’ or a ‘man, ‘Muslim’ or ‘Catholic’, ‘white’ or African-American’. They are, above all, individuals – each with their own visions, hopes and fears. And that they are larger, louder and more powerful than the boxes that we confine them to.

Kiara Alves, based in England

*

It’s a depressing state of affairs. A presidential race in which a candidate with years of political experience loses against someone without any experience, who is facing numerous accusations of sexual assault and rape, and whose campaign has been based on bullying, sexism and racism.

It has been pointed out that Clinton is in fact set to win the popular vote but, ignoring the bizarre American electoral system, this should have been irrelevant. Against such a candidate she should have won by a landslide. Why didn’t she?

I think there were myriad reasons for the result – disillusionment with the “establishment”, the email scandal, America’s love of celebrity. But what is most interesting is the gender dynamic. I think Clinton and her team took for granted winning votes simply for virtue of her being a woman, which proved not to be the case.

I would, of course, have loved to have the first female president, but wouldn’t vote for someone solely for this reason (I would have voted for her as a Democrat and against Trump, obviously). And for many, her gender would either be an irrelevance or an active deterrent, therefore her campaign should have made more solid arguments beyond this.

The Democrats’ focus on her as a woman has then meant that post-election debate has started to question “Is America ready for a female president?” when this isn’t the issue at all. Clinton, as a person, and her campaign, had issues irrespective of her gender.

For me, however, the most depressing take home from the result is that, while people aren’t prepared vote for someone solely because they are a woman, to break “the ultimate glass ceiling”, they are seemingly prepared to ignore rampant misogyny, sex crimes and racism when they make their vote.

Emily Morrison

*

“Never forget that a political, economical or religious crisis is enough to cast doubt on women’s rights. These rights will never be vested. You have to stay vigilant your whole life” – Simone de Beauvoir

8th November 2016 was always going to be a historic day for the United States: I was convinced that the American people would elect their first female President: Hillary Clinton. How wrong I was… After a very long night, which rapidly turned into a nightmare, the entire world found out that Donald Trump would become the 45th President of the United States. I was deeply shocked and terrified. How is it possible that a xenophobic, racist, violent, misogynistic billionaire will lead the United States from the 20th January 2017?

The American elections are a disgrace and a severe endangerment for women’s rights. The appalling result is a step backward for women in the United States and all around the world. However, I am convinced that we – women and men – who believe in inclusiveness and equality will keep fighting for our rights.  As Simone de Beauvoir said in 1949, there always will be crises that will affect women’s rights. She wrote this 60 years ago, but it is been true for almost all of human history, and it is even truer today. The fight carries on and it is up to us to fight it.

Apolline Parel

President Trump: Reactions to the US Election (Part 2)

Today

Today I wept. I wept for all of the survivors.
I wept for
This
Present
Moment.
I wept for the message blaring out into the ether
as the numbers wormed towards 270,
oozing but booming,
And each time reminding:

“We. Condone. This.”

The numbers kept creeping
10 Complete and utter lack of knowledge
20 No taxes/Yes lawsuits/Thanks, Dad.
50 Misogyny/Misogynoir
100 “There has to be a religious test”
150 Ban Gay Marriage.
200 Incite Violence
220 Sexual Violence
250 Racial Violence
270 Ableism-bigotry-grab-her-by-the- pussy-they-rip-it-from-the-womb-where’s-your-birth-certificate-eating-machine-build-a-wall-no-Muslims-you’re–fired
You’re Hired.
…We rubber stamped this guy?

We took everything we knew about him, and we said, “That’s okay by me”?

……………………………………….?

I know things will get better. I know that this will push some people to finally say, “I need help, too.” “This isn’t ok with me either.” And we will dig in our heels and lock arms and move forward.

But today?
I wept today.

Meredith, based in Chicago

*

I think more than anything, the victory of Trump goes to show that we are a long way off the achievement of gender equality. How a man can be elected president having incited such hatred towards women, objectified them to such an extent, and spoken out so openly against their legal, maternal and bodily rights is truly terrifying.

The disproportionate amount of women who voted in his favour, regardless of this bigotry, goes to show the dire need for greater discussion of gender issues and evidence of their reality. I hope the women of America do not suffer to the extent that I fear they will. Hopefully his sickening combination of racism, sexism and homophobia does not translate into even greater struggles for women of other minority groups too, for I am sure they are those most at risk in Trump’s America.

Ellen Jones, student at the University of Bristol

*

I feel this so personally. My daughters are growing up in this world. With the changes global society has started to see, of people becoming more accepting of different races cultures and sexualities, of racism and sexism being condemned slowly more and more, it felt as though we were on a slow but positive trajectory. The possibility that my daughters may face their adulthood powerful and free was within grasp. Hillary could have been the PoTUS of their childhood, and that could have led to events which defined their generation as Femennials or something. But the American voters have taken this away from them, away from us, not simply by voting in another boring old white guy, but by sinking to very low depths and going to extraordinary lengths to prove just how sexist the world still truly is. And that hurts. Personally.

Noa Sasson-Brooks, based in England 

*

I am no expert in US politics (though I do watch VEEP) but as a former student of Political Science and IR, I am trying to keep up with important events in ‘international’ politics. There are so many horrible things that happened during this American election that I don’t even know where to start. I do know that, sadly, this proves why feminism is still very much needed. Oh yes, my friends, we have not finished, we have barely even started.

Racism, chauvinism, LGBT+phobia, xenophobia and other evils which have been invented by humanity — we thought that we would be able to reduce them. But in practice, these things did not disappear — they just became silent. Many (I am afraid to think that it is most) people learn over time that, in order to avoid shaming, it means that they do not just need to stop saying offensive things out loud but they need to stop thinking these things too. It breaks my heart when I realise that people who believe in equality, justice, human rights and women’s rights are marginal in this world. We are the minority who are fighting for our right to support human rights.

I want to offer my condolences to the Americans who did not vote for Trump based on my experience. It’s hard and it is going to be harder. Every step that your government takes will tear a piece of your soul so that eventually you will become completely alienated from your country and start to think about it as something that happens far away from you. Just take a look at the people who worked with Trump along this election. How many of them are white? How many of them are men? Take a closer look now because some of them will be nominated into key positions in his government. Toto, we’re not in Obama’s regime anymore. The good news for you is that he will not be President for more than 8 years.

Goodbye Barak Obama, I will truly miss you.

Jane Derishu, based in Israel 

*

The prospect of the first female US president brought tears to my eyes. I am not even American, but as a woman and a global citizen I was aware of what it could mean. We saw a woman who stood by her husband’s side and lived in his shadow her entire life. A woman who, when she was allowed to stand front and centre, managed to shine bright by her own merits. But then we saw that not everyone took her seriously, some believed her flawed just for being a woman. After the results, I was impressed — the US is a lot more sexist and racist than I thought.

Many may say that she didn’t loose because she is a woman, but the fact is, it is one of the reasons she lost. There is a huge cultural problem worldwide: women are not taken as seriously as men, women are not considered as trustworthy as men, women are not believed to be as capable as men.

I thought the election would be the beginning of a period of change. I am from Latin America, women have been presidents in various countries in the region, but the first US female president had a different meaning. As much as we want to deny it, we still see the US as a land of hope, and I hoped that the US example would help to lower the macho culture we have in the region. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I am both confused and disappointed.

Majo Guevara, based in Ecuador

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.

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.

Cuttin’ It: The Heartbreaking Play Uncovering Female Genital Mutilation in the UK

By Kaammini Chanrai

Cuttin’ It, written by Charlene James, has been on a few different stages since 20th May 2016. If you are not already familiar with Cuttin’ It, please get your hands on a copy of the script. If you happen to live in London, please see this play at The Yard Theatre from 26th-30th July. Tickets are still available here.

***

I can count on one hand the number of times I have been stunned into silence. It is a rare occurrence that words fail me. It is unusual for me to have nothing to say. There are few times when I am affected by something so much that my lips do not move. Yesterday was one of those times.

As I entered the Royal Court Theatre to watch the production of Cuttin’ It, I was prepared for something heavy. I knew beforehand that this was a play about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). The NHS describes FGM as a “procedure where the female genitals are deliberately cut, injured or changed, but where there’s no medical reason for this to be done.”

The play tells the story of Muna and Iqra, two fifteen-year-old girls who attend the same school in England, having both been born in Somalia. The back of the book reads: The 47 bus to school. On the top deck sits Muna, chatting with her best friends about their idol Rihanna. Downstairs sits Iqra, alone and desperate to fit in. 

With light-hearted quips and typical teenage banter, Cuttin’ It lulls you into a false sense of security. Don’t be fooled. This is not the happy coming-of-age story of two children finding friendship in one another. This is a heart-wrenching, eye-opening and tragic tale of the unadulterated pain of FGM. This is not just a criticism of the practices that occur worldwide, this is a damning indictment of what is happening in our own backyard — in our countries, in our schools, in our homes.

When the play ended, I sat in silence for nearly five minutes — still — except for the tears which involuntarily slid down my face. I was not the only one.

I will not discuss the play any more because I really encourage you to see it for yourself. However, I will not avoid the subject of FGM. If you don’t already know the statistics, according to UNICEF, more than 200 million girls and women alive today have been cut in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia where FGM is concentrated. In the UK alone, 65,000 girls under 13 could be at risk of FGM and a case of FGM is reported in England on average every 109 minutes, as stated by Plan UK.

FGM is painfully misunderstood. Even for someone who is relatively engaged with these issues, I was appalled by how little I actually knew about FGM. There are multiple ways in which FGM occurs. As listed by the World Health Organisation, there are four main types:

  • Type 1: Often referred to as clitoridectomy, this is the partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals), and in very rare cases, only the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris).
  • Type 2: Often referred to as excision, this is the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora (the inner folds of the vulva), with or without excision of the labia majora (the outer folds of skin of the vulva).
  • Type 3: Often referred to as infibulation, this is the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the labia minora, or labia majora, sometimes through stitching, with or without removal of the clitoris (clitoridectomy).
  • Type 4: This includes all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.

The fight against FGM is painfully underfunded. The Tackling FGM Initiative, which has given £2.8m of funding to community-based prevention schemes, warns that the lack of funding is a major barrier against tackling FGM altogether.

FGM is painfully unprosecuted. FGM has been illegal in the UK since 1985, but in the more than 30 years during which it has been banned, there has been one — failed — prosecution of this injustice.

FGM is a priority in the ending of violence against women and girls (VAWG). FGM is child abuse. FGM is a key safeguarding issue. But putting labels on a phenomenon does not make it go away. We need children to be aware of what is happening to them and we need the resources to be able to combat it. There are plenty of initiatives which are aiming to do this, including this excellent video by FORWARDuk which uses needlecraft as an allegory to speak to children.

We need greater visibility. We need stronger legal justice. We need more action.

Opening the £3 book that I purchased just as I left the theatre, my eyes tear up again as I read the first page:

The European Parliament estimates 500,000 girls and women living in Europe are suffering with the lifelong consequences of female genital mutilation.

Amnesty International, 2014

This story is for them.

Featured image © YoungVicTheatre

Why I Didn’t Pursue a STEM Subject and How I Got Back into Coding

By Beverley Newing

Beverley Newing, Programmes Intern at Code First: Girls, reflects on why she stopped coding as a young teenager, the issues she faced in STEM and how she’s now gotten her coding mojo back.

Code First: Girls (CF: G) is a not for profit social enterprise startup with a mission to get more women into technology & entrepreneurship. I work on community programmes there and we offer free coding courses to women to help them get into coding. Over the past 18 months 3000+ participated in one of our courses or events. In telephone interviews I do at CF:G, I often get insights into the crazy gender imbalance in university courses across the country – there often being only 3 women in computer science courses (for some weird reason, it’s always 3) and that only 17% of those in the tech industry are female – and I’ve been wondering why this ever since starting this job. There is a personal story behind why every girl interested in STEM subjects turns to alternative subjects, and so I’ve decided to share my own.

When I was a young teenager, I used to start and tweek the HTML of Invisionfree forums. I loved books, and living on a lonely farm in the middle of nowhere, used to chat to people on a huge online forum instead. I soon realised there were also lots of smaller communities of groups who had created their own forums and before I knew it, I was creating, publicising, customising and managing my own with a group of international friends. I loved this community and the creativity, and was always pestering my mum for more internet time (back then, it was 1.5p per minute through the phone line in the evening!). This world was a home to me in those early teen years.

Despite this hobby, STEM subjects didn’t come easily to me at school. My engineer maths-genius father was disappointed at my choices at GCSE – ICT and languages, not Design Technology. This was a blow to me, and his knowledge of technology wasn’t sufficient for me to explain to him that I did actually enjoy making and creating things just like he did. Further disappointment came after a year of classes, when I left the last Further Maths class of year 12 in tears with an exam that was graded 30% and the written recommendation that I move down to Standard Maths.

My Further Maths class was a male-dominated class, and the (always incredibly) enthusiastic help I asked for from my male peers was often overwhelming. I’ve found that men and women often communicate differently, and my low confidence meant I often felt bad interrupting the well-intentioned but overwhelmingly long explanations from men to speak up and ask the small questions I really needed to ask. I quickly got left behind and felt like an outsider because of this.

The failure hit me hard. In hindsight, the qualities that I had used in the forums – Googling bits of code, troubleshooting things myself and with the help of peers – would have translated to Maths, but I’d lacked the confidence to do so. Over the same years, personal issues hit me hard and some home issues meant I had limited internet access, so my online communities all died as we all drifted apart. I drifted away from STEM and away from coding.

After the Further Maths failure,  my university options for studying Physics were limited – Russell group universities were only an option if I went down the English and German route. In a year 13 assembly, the headmistress announced to us all that University ranking, not subject, mattered the most, and so a bit spooked, I applied for and got accepted onto English and German Literature at Warwick University. I spent four years on the whole enjoying my degree but wishing I was doing Physics instead.

Five years on, by a twist of fate, I noticed the Code First: Girls internship advert in the Warwick Graduate Internship scheme and successfully applied. I’m now back to coding after having done one of our own HTML/CSS courses and co-organising the same coding courses for women all over the UK. Beyond HTML/CSS, the course taught me that it’s okay to ask questions, to not know or understand everything and to use Google. I’m once again in a motivating, friendly, coding community.

As well as this community helping to rebuild my confidence, coding itself is empowering. You start with a blank screen and end up with something you’ve designed and created yourself with your own bare hands. I’ve seen the same enjoyment in lots of my female CF:G coder peers. I’ve found the passion for coding again that I’d lost all those years ago, and whilst it’s not all plain sailing, I’m so happy.

If this resonates with anybody else, I’d love to hear your stories. I’d also like to say that there are also tons of communities out there to help you get back on your feet. Code First: Girls offer amazing courses, and Founders and Coders and Women who Hack for Non-Profit are wonderful as well – there really are so many organisations. Get Googling and reconnecting! There are so many groups out there for you who would love to have you join them.

Confessions of a Drunk Feminist

By Anonymous

It’s 7.30am on a Saturday morning and, for some godforsaken reason, my phone alarm is ringing. My initial disorientation develops into sudden panic and I jolt up into a sitting position then fumble around to find my phone. For reasons beyond my knowledge at this moment, it is inside my bed. I quickly come to the realisation that my momentary rush of energy is not sustainable and, if I stay in this position for too long, last night’s McDonald’s Happy Meal (who still buys a Happy Meal?!) will resemble the furthest thing from ‘happy’ possible. It is the combination of these feelings that lead me to wholeheartedly accept that I am almost definitely still drunk from the night before. My head is pounding and the light seeping into my room from the crack in my curtains causes last night’s events to dawn on me. My palm reaches for my forehead in shame.

I did it again: I talked about feminism.

My stomach begins to swirl uncontrollably. At first, I think it’s probably the alcohol but it comes to my attention that it’s last night’s recollections that are causing me to feel this way.

I vaguely remember the conversation: it started with someone making a comment about the way a woman was dressed. Then it escalated and I was on a roll: safe spaces, equality in the workplace, and the value of care work – I lectured my peers with a sophisticated glass of Sauvignon Blanc in my hand on these topics of great importance. After a double G&T, I showed off with proclamations on intersectionality and self-regulatory behaviour and almost certainly dropped Foucault in to the conversation. Shots were downed and I veered to the feminist connotations of the Power Puff Girls and mumbled about how Disney combated and encouraged sexism simultaneously. I ranted about my confusion on Beyoncé being the feminist icon of the 21st century after another, less sophisticated, glass of wine, and recall debating one or more of Rihanna’s music videos. I said something about the constraints of body image and something else about the freedoms of it with a much-needed glass of tap water in my hand. I definitely shouted “DOWN WITH THE PATRIARCHY!” at least twice.

I eventually switch off my phone alarm and quickly turn the screen to face the bed. There is a high chance that I have clicked ‘Attending’ to some gender-related lectures on Facebook in my drunk state and left a passive-aggressive (mostly just aggressive) comment on the status of a classmate from primary school about how his views could be construed as sexist. Good riddance.

Now, let me make myself clear: talking about feminism is not a problem. In fact, it’s quite the opposite (see: every other article on this website). However, there is a time and a place for everything and I think it’s fair to say that 2am in a cocktail bar in Central London is probably not the time nor place to be delivering my feminist diatribe or any other semblance of intellect for that matter.

At the best of times I struggle to articulate my arguments in conversation and, given that drunkenness basically breeds poor communication and lack of clarity, trying to make a significant point in this state is virtually impossible and not advisable. You will not come across as intellectual, articulate and passionate. You probably come across as dogmatic, self-indulgent and aggressive. This, in my experience, is probably not the best way to illustrate your point, nor is it a good recipe for having a crazy-fun night out with your friends.

This occurrence of me trying to argue the feminist cause when intoxicated would not be so embarrassing were not the case that most of the people I hang out with are already sympathetic to gender equality. They have heard it all before from me. They have listened and been empathetic towards my concerns. They are not the problem and alcohol is also not the solution.

For the random strangers that I have engaged in conversation with while at a party or in a bar, they probably did not come out to hear a slurred rant on decreased government funding for domestic violence services or how unfair the Tampon Tax is. And when I say probably, I mean definitely, as much as I try to convince myself that that’s not true.

Moreover, talking about feminism has become a default position, an almost inevitable consequence of having a drink or two. If this were the occasional conclusion to a night out on the town, it would be fine. However, I am probably not doing feminism or myself any favours by ramming my ideas down people’s throats alongside a Tequila shot or two. I have become an oversharer, and just as people divulge more information than usual about their sex lives, exes and micromanaging boss when under the influence, I am no different as I bemoan the pay gap, maternity leave and how I need a husband who is willing to share the care.

Clearly, this is something that I care about a lot. Studies show that alcohol doesn’t make you become a different person – it just causes you to care less about how you are viewed by others. This could be related to self-regulation: there is a lack of ease talking about feminism in everyday conversation because of the stigma associated with it. One imposes a filter when discussing gender equality in everyday life for fear that others might judge them.

I mean, I would be inclined to agree with this if I didn’t already talk about these issues all the time: I have a Master’s degree in Gender and write for a website on the subject on a regular basis.

In truth, I probably just need to find more hobbies.

*

They say a drunk man’s words are a sober man’s thoughts. Well for me, it looks like a drunk woman’s words are her less well-articulated thoughts on women’s rights, equality and the patriarchy more generally. Friends, please don’t stop talking about feminism. In fact, talk about it as much as you like, even when you’re drunk. I have tried, and failed, to bring it up less. But it looks like I’ve become a trope that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The next time Buzzfeed brings out a list on The Types of Drunk Friend Everyone Knows, I will be asking them to add another: I am a drunk feminist and I am here to stay.

Fight, Flight…or Freeze: Rethinking Reactions to Sexual Assault

By Lindsay Riddoch

September is my least favourite month of the year. I figure I’m not the only one who hates it — Green Day at least seem to be on my side. My hatred for it — aside from the obvious end-of-summer reasons — comes from September 9th 2011. I’d just been staying with a good friend in Cardiff. It was the summer between my slightly unusual sixth form and university. I had 3 weeks until I started my new life in London. I was booked on a Megabus from Cardiff to London, and then from London to Edinburgh. It was a hellish journey, but one I had done before. My iPlayer was fully loaded with documentaries and it was all going to be fine.

At Victoria Coach Station, a man sat next to me on the bus. I don’t have a visual memory, and probably couldn’t even describe what my best friends look like, but I could draw you a picture of this man. After about an hour (judging by the fact that I had watched one documentary on iPlayer) he started to assault me. Four long — though simultaneously incredibly short — hours later, he got off the bus in Manchester.

I didn’t scream, I didn’t even say the word ‘no’. I moved my legs, moved them again, and then my brain disappeared. In the last few seconds before my brain and body went into shut-down, I was more scared of causing a scene than I was of losing my autonomy over my own body. I had flashes of a video we watched in year six about ‘feeling yes, feeling no’. I considered, as instructed on this video, shouting no. But as I was considering this option my brain went into survival mode and decided that taking me out of that situation was the safest option. Without an option to physically escape, it let me mentally escape.

Those 4 hours changed my life forever. As I tried to process the trauma in my mind and body, I was told by a psychiatrist that I needed to ‘get counselling to learn how to say no’. My lack of assertiveness was seen as the problem that needed treating. Even as more empathetic people explained trauma theory to me, they kept talking about ‘fight or flight’. Common parlance and psycho-babble alike kept explaining to me that when in danger, my body goes into fight or flight mode. Yet I didn’t do either of those things — did that mean I wanted it, that my body betrayed me? I didn’t punch him, regardless of the fact he wasn’t that big. I didn’t get up and demand to be let off the bus. After attempting to move within my seat I sat completely still. I froze. In terms of evolutionary survival, I played dead.

Running and fighting are not the only two options when faced with a threat. There is a third option — often touted in response to grizzly bears. Play dead. Stop fighting. Wait for the attacker to get bored whilst inflicting as little violence as possible. As children, girls are told not to fight: they are taught not to raise their head too far above the parapet. They are taught to wait, to ignore. Meanwhile their subconscious mind quickly picks up on the strength of boys around them. Their subconscious makes a snap judgement — that on the balance of probabilities, this man is stronger than they are. Back then, as an 18 year old, I was faced with a situation that my rational mind had no map for — no learnt or taught reactions to — my evolutionary brain took over. It used all the information available to it and froze.

In an email I wrote a few weeks after my Megabus journey I said the following: “I know you’re going to be sitting there thinking this is some kind of super big deal. But this isn’t sexual assault. Honestly. It’s not as bad as it sounds. I just wish I could know why my mind shut down; and how to stop it doing that to me again, because it seems like whatever kicks in after the brain leaves makes incredibly unsound decisions.” Reading that now breaks my heart. I’d heard of ‘fight or flight’. It made sense to me, and as far as I could tell my evolutionary mind had let me down. It hadn’t fought and it hadn’t run. From there came the victim-blaming; from there came my guilt. Yes, the media is part of that problem, and so is all that advice about how not to get raped. But, in my opinion, the single biggest contributor is every single time we miss out the freeze when we discuss ‘fight or flight’.

The freeze response is, I believe, something less common in men, who are more likely to have been raised to fight, or to weigh-up that they are able to flee. In a world dominated by male ideas, we are given a male understanding of traumatic reactions. Yet actually, across the board, freeze is the most common of the three reactions. Last time a car almost hit you in the road, did you run? Or did you actually, to the mockery of those around you, stand dead still in front of it as it honked its horn? If we’re going to curb the misunderstanding and slander of rape and sexual assault victims, we need to start with a basic psychological education. We need to give people an understanding of how their brains react that is bigger than the basic ‘fight or flight’ idea. Preventing people from raping in the first place would obviously be the ideal, and lessons about consent are vital, but we also need to help people understand their own reactions. Boys especially need to understand the evolutionary reactions when one’s mind assumes a physical strength deficiency. Girls need to learn about freeze when they’re young, not only after — heaven forbid — they fall victim to a terrible crime.
In a sexual assault or rape scenario, freeze is by far the most common reaction. We need to remember that for ourselves, for our loved ones and for everyone who is sitting blaming themselves for something that happened to them. Even more importantly, however, we need to understand why our bodies do it. We need to not hate them for their attempts to protect us. We need to realise that, whatever the after-effect, in those minutes both our mind and our body were doing their absolute best to keep us as safe as possible. We need to remember that whatever happened to our body was not a sign of us enjoying ourselves, but instead of our evolutionary protection of ourselves. And every single time we say ‘fight or flight’ we must say ‘fight, flight or freeze’. We must raise a generation of young people who know that freeze is an evolutionary reaction. We must make judges, psychologists and police officers understand that playing dead works. We must forgive our own bodies for doing their best.

Affect and the Office

By Kate Gilchrist
Much has already been written about the comments made by Nobel Laureate scientist Tim Hunt about his experience working with female scientists at the World Conference for Science Journalists in South Korea on 9th June. He has been widely castigated for his sexist, heteronormative and discriminatory remarks. He swiftly resigned from his various posts as honorary professor with the UCL Faculty of Life Sciences and at the Royal Society. While he has since apologized and claimed the comments were made as a ‘joke’, the whole episode, and the reaction to it, has revealed some interesting gendered ideas about the workplace.

Just in case you didn’t catch the full story, here is a brief recap. Hunt was speaking at a session, ironically sponsored by some of Korea’s leading female scientists and engineers, where he stated that although he didn’t want to ‘stand in the way of women’ within science, he was in favour of single-sex laboratories for three reasons. He said that working alongside women in the lab was bad because: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”

So, say we take him at his word that Hunt was joking. He nevertheless in the process of telling his ‘joke’ demeans women by referring to them as ‘girls’, placing them in an infantilized, non-professional position. Furthermore, the fact that he makes these comments in just about the most public place possible (a gathering of journalists), to an international delegation (who could easy misinterpret such nuances) speaks volumes as to his sense of superiority and inability to view his comments from a another’s perspective. To think that he (in his position as a male scientist, speaking to a room filled with leading female scientists about their advancement within the field) thought it could be suitable to joke about such matters, and broadcast it to the international press demonstrates this inherent sense of confidence, superiority and lack of foresight. Even if, as he claims he didn’t consciously appreciate how his comments would be received, the very fact that he didn’t demonstrates how entrenched and internalised these sexist attitudes are.

Whilst his comments also directly reinforce a heteronormative view of the world, assuming as they do that all relationships within the lab would be heterosexually orientated, it is his comments on crying and emotion which I’d like to focus on. The most prominent response, which represents many, came from a predictable source. London Mayor Boris Johnson swiftly weighed in on the matter by picking up on the comment about crying. To quote Johnson, as reported in the Guardian:

“Sir Tim Hunt was doing what he had done all his life – pointing out a natural phenomenon he had observed. …. Johnson said it was a scientific fact that women cry more readily than men, citing the work of Professer Ad Vingerhoets of Tilburg University, and maintained that it should not be an offence to point out a “gender difference”.

Johnson finished by calling for his reappointment at UCL and the Royal Society. I find it breathtaking that a politician in such a prominent, highly influential position such as the Mayor of London can get away not only with repeating such comments but supporting and reinforcing them. There have been no calls for Boris’ resignation, or even a retraction, despite the fact that he extends gender discrimination beyond the scope of the science industry and into every workplace in the country. Actually, Johnson’s claim that women cry more in the workplace has been refuted by the very same scientist he referred to. Professor Ad Vingerhoets has counteracted that his most in-depth study into the matter found that men were more likely to cry at work.

But this brings me to a wider point. Frankly I don’t care whether men or women cry more in the workplace. I don’t think such gender-binary reinforcing debates help any of us. I think that it’s the devaluing of crying, similarly feminised emotions such as empathy or anxiety – or indeed any emotions ­– in the workplace which should be addressed. The idea that we become some kind of entirely objective, rational, non-feeling, almost mechanised creature as soon as we step into the office is essentially the embodiment of some kind masculinised ideal of a rational, unemotional, wholly ‘logical’ being. It’s nonsense that we are ever completely cut off from our emotions – even a state of dispassion or disinterest is still a form of emotion. Meanwhile mild displays of masculinised emotions such as anger or determination, pride or (suitably orientated) aggression are celebrated in certain (unsurprisingly masculinized) workplaces such as the trading floor. The film The Wolf of Wall Street is a case in point – workplaces, like any other social location, are emotionally driven. I’m not saying we should all be crying non-stop at work, I’m saying we should realise that no-one ‘removes’ or erases or blocks out all of their emotions when they are at work and the idea that we can or should is bizarre and unnecessary. We are emotional, social beings, and the denigration of ‘feminised’ emotions, in contrast to the celebration and elevation of masculinised emotions, wherever it occurs, should be called out for what it is.

Bahar Mustafa: #istandwithyou

Liberation movements will continue to struggle if the language we are using has completely different meanings to us than to everyone else. To succeed we need to start by explaining our language – and stop assuming that everyone we’re interacting with has, or should have, an in-depth understanding of the academia of gender and race. Bahar – #istandwithyou.

By Lindsay Riddoch

I was first introduced to the Bahar Mustafa saga by friends from Goldsmiths who had seen the invite to the event politely asking those who were not women (or non-binary people) of colour not to attend. My friends were saying that this was ridiculous – lefty student politics gone mad. I said that I didn’t agree: that as a white woman I wouldn’t want to be in an organising space for women of colour. That my presence there may make it more difficult for people to express their grievances – in the same way that I find discussions of sexual assault more difficult when there are men in the room. I have every other space in the world as a white person – why shouldn’t they have theirs? I don’t think this means I can’t be an ally, or that ‘he for she’ doesn’t have a place in feminism, but that there is a point at which I can get involved and it’s after they’ve decided what their aims are, what their struggle is. My place as an ally, so far as I understand it, is to stand by women of colour on the issues they choose to campaign on – certainly not to be at the meetings where they are deciding on these issues.

Little did I know when I was having this discussion with my flatmates in the safety of my liberal-gender-and-race-theory-aware flat that this very discussion was about to explode in the national media. From the Huffington Post to the Guardian to the Daily Mail, everyone seems to have an opinion on Bahar. First on the original invite, and then on her use of the hashtag #killallwhitemen. Suddenly everyone in the playgroup who has the luxury of hundreds of toys to play with, wanted the one toy that another kid had. I would really love to know which white men were so keen to attend this meeting to the point that they felt that writing to the national press and starting petitions was a reasonable response. Moreover I’m fascinated to know how they cannot see the irony of the way they have been hounding a woman of colour online. I don’t know what led her to close her twitter account but the frequency of rape threats sent to any woman who puts herself in the public domain gives me a pretty good idea of what kind of experience she may have been having. Yet people are confused as to why she may want a space they cannot access.

I am not going to claim that the #killallwhitemen wasn’t a bad PR move. But this girl isn’t a PR professional. She’s a student union president who is doing her utmost to support equality and diversity at Goldsmiths University. Up until a month ago no one cared what she wrote on her twitter feed, and why would she suppose that this would suddenly change? A petition has been circulated calling for her resignation based on an alleged contravention of the EU convention against incitement to genocide, and the police have been called to investigate. Yet no huge petitions, no national media coverage and certainly no police have been involved in the problems on Goldsmith’s campus that lead to Bahar calling this meeting. Only when a strong, articulate woman of colour makes an obviously ironic, if of poor taste, joke ‘threatening’ the holders of almost all the power in the world are these kinds of forces mobilised. This makes me angry to my core, but more than that it makes me feel for her. As a white person I feel responsible, to some degree at least, for other white people’s actions when it comes to race. I feel an unbearable level of rage and a massive desire to find her and tell her – I’m with you.

More important than my deep-rooted anger, however, are the differences between the discussions in my flat and those in the wider media. I am usually under the assumption that the words I use are understood by those around me. We have a communal understanding of the labels applied to different situations, and what those labels represent. Yet watching Bahar try to defend herself to the media has made me realise how I can’t always assume that to be true. I agree with Bahar that people of colour cannot be racist against white people – because racism involves an inherent power dynamic based on a history of oppression. Similarly women can’t be sexist. Now that doesn’t mean these groups can’t be discriminatory, prejudiced or even just horrible people. It doesn’t even mean that they can’t be active contributors to oppressive structures. But it does mean that those, heavily loaded, words aren’t the right ones to describe them. As Bahar put it “I, as an ethnic minority woman, cannot be racist or sexist towards white men, because racism and sexism describe structures of privilege based on race and gender, And therefore women of colour and non-binary genders cannot be racist or sexist as we do not stand to benefit from such a system.
“In order for our actions to have been deemed racist or sexist, the current system would have to be one which enables only women and people of colour to benefit economically and socially on such a large scale and to the systematic exclusion of white people and men who for the past 400 years would have had to have been subjected to colonisation. Reverse racism and reverse sexism are not real.”

As I watched Bahar’s attempt to explain this nuanced concept to the media at large it dawned on me – she isn’t engaging with an audience schooled in gender and race politics. She wasn’t talking to people who had a shared understanding of labels, in the way that she, and I, had got used to.

Similarly as soon as I saw the hashtag I understood it to be an ironic, power-reclaiming device against the ‘feminazi’ taunts often thrown towards feminists – particularly those who are non-white. Taken outside of the circle of feminists and activists who I surround myself with though, it has been seen as incitement to violence, a completely inappropriate use of violence, which is never funny. The national media isn’t blameless in this faltering understanding. More effort can, and should, be made to understand the meaning of words as meant by those who use them. More effort should be made to fairly represent those fighting against immeasurable imbalances of power.

However Bahar, and all of us who stand with her, also need to think about how to overcome those barriers. Through no fault of her own, Bahar has become an unfortunate symbol of how far we still have to go in explaining to people the structural inequalities in power – both in terms of race and sex. This shouldn’t be a fight that Bahar has to take on her own. As a white person it is my job to explain to my friends, family and anyone else who I come into contact with why exactly she can’t be racist. To do that I need to take the time to explain what racism actually means, to accept their initial scoffs and looks of disgust. Because what is needed is a complete re-understanding of what words like ‘sexism’ and ‘racism’ mean. We need to explain that these concepts are about more than offensive words, or doors closed in faces – they are about entire structures of power. To do this we need to be willing to start every conversation by explaining our terms – by ensuring a common language. Liberation movements will continue to struggle if the language we are using has completely different meanings to us than to everyone else. To succeed we need to start by explaining our language – and stop assuming that everyone we’re interacting with has, or should have, an in-depth understanding of the academia of gender and race. Bahar – #istandwithyou.