Monday, 7 July 2014

Liar. You’re too ugly to be harassed.

On Saturday night, Caroline Criado-Perez tweeted about hearing men hissing at women on the platform – a kind of street harassment she hadn’t experienced before. Yesterday, I joined in the conversation, saying that the hissing thing was not something I had had happen to me (knowingly) but was something I had heard from other women. I mentioned that in terms of ‘noises’ as harassment, there had been a phase where men would click their tongues against their teeth, or make squelchy kissing sounds as I walked by. 

Our conversation was then rudely interrupted by someone who called himself ‘radical’ but clearly held some deeply conservative views about men and women. He wrote:

‘I don’t believe for a fucking minute you’ve had guys making kissing noises at you’.



(this guy’s twitter feed also reveals he doesn’t know the difference between ‘empathising’ and ‘emphasising’ so I wouldn’t give too much credence to what he says). 

So anyway, at the same time this happened, Vanessa Feltz disclosed publicly that Rolf Harris had assaulted her live on the Big Breakfast. Tweeters everywhere decided not to believe her. They called her a liar, and one person even said she was trying to ruin the life of ‘an innocent man’ (in spite of the fact Harris was found guilty on twelve counts and has been sentenced to jail as a result). 

Obviously the awful assault committed against Feltz is far, far more severe than men making kissing noises on the street. But what both these episodes illustrate clearly is just how willing our society is to disbelieve women when we talk about male aggression committed against us.  

The charming man on Twitter, who responded to my comments about men harassing me on the street with rude disbelief, is not so far away from the people refusing to believe Feltz. And neither of them are very far away at all from the many, many people – some in authority, some friends, some family members – who refuse to believe women and girls when they speak out about the violence committed against them. 

It’s so common. So common. And it starts with a conversation like the one Caroline and I had. I talked about an (very mild) act of aggression committed by men against me. Man pipes up, refusing to believe me. He calls me a liar. 

Feltz talks about an assault committed against her by Rolf Harris, a man convicted of indecent assault. Men pipe up and call her a liar. They refuse to believe her. 

Susie arrives at a police station in Rochdale. She reports multiple rapes and sexual exploitation. The police call her ‘unreliable’. They refuse to believe her. 

Girls tell their head teachers that Savile abused them. They get called liars. No one believes them. He continues to abuse women, girls and boys until he dies. 

A woman goes to the police to report she has been raped by a taxi driver. The police don’t believe her. He rapes an estimated 100 women. 

I could go on. 

Every single one of these incidences has one key thing in common – the refusal to believe women when they disclose the violence committed against them. 

Of course, I am in no way saying that men harassing me on the street is anywhere near as serious or painful or awful as the rape and abuse experienced by women and girls in those examples. I cannot emphasise that enough. What I am saying is that over and over again, when women disclose male aggression – no matter how severe or mild – they are disbelieved. And that disbelief allows the abuse to continue. 

This refusal to believe even the most minor story props up rape culture. It is this that prevents justice for victims and survivors of male violence. It is this that allows the men who rape and abuse women and girls to get away with it, over and over again. 

In the face of such terrifying levels of disbelief, in the face of a concerted effort to refuse to hear women, is it any wonder women don’t report the men who abuse them? Is it any wonder women don’t speak out? Do you think a woman or girl could look at the shit thrown at Vanessa Feltz yesterday, and think it’s worth accusing her abuser? When bravely raising your voice risks you being hurt further? Risks you being disbelieved, mocked or worse? 

We need to start believing women. We need to start hearing women. When women raise our voices to say what has happened to us, all of us need to believe her. Because when you start believing women, you can start tackling violence. As long as you disbelieve women, you are aiding the abusers. You are allowing them to carry on. You are covering for them, and you are giving them permission to abuse. 

There was another angle to the tweet sent to me, and to a lot of the nasty comments directed at Vanessa Feltz. And that was the implication that I was too unattractive to “attract” harassment on the street, and that Vanessa Feltz was “too unattractive” to be assaulted. 

Man, even writing that sentence feels so, so ugly. But that was certainly what was happening – as this Storify testifies to. 

Now, say what you like about how I look (and believe me, people online have never been afraid of that!), but whether tweeters think I’m hot or not has very little bearing on whether I get harassed or not. Because harassment, like all examples of male violence against women, is not about sexiness. It isn’t about being fancied. Street harassment is about power

Men don’t shout crap at you on the street or make hissing and kissing noises at you because they fancy you. Street harassment is a way of reminding women in public space that the space does not belong to them. It is a way of asserting male power. It is a way of reducing women. It’s the man or men explaining to you, in the most demeaning way possible, that this is their space, and that they have more of a right to be in it than you do. 

There is an implicit victim-blaming going on when men try to tell you that you can’t be harassed because you’re not pretty enough. It suggests that women who do get harassed are only harassed because they’re pretty. It suggests that these women are going out there, with their pretty faces and pretty outfits, and they get harassed as a result. It removes the agency of the perpetrator and puts all the focus on the women’s behaviour – and that behaviour is ‘daring to leave the house with a female body’. 

The only reason any woman gets harassed on the street is because a man or group of men chooses to harass her. It’s not because she’s so gorgeous ‘they just can’t help themselves.’ It’s because they want to exercise power. It’s because they want to remind us that we don’t belong in public space. 

Fundamentally, across the spectrum, all male violence is about power. It is not about sexual attraction. No matter what people on Twitter think. No matter what Judges in court rooms think. Men don’t harass or abuse or rape women because they are ‘overcome’ and ‘lose control’. The men who harass or abuse or rape women do it because they make a deliberate choice to. To write online that Feltz is lying because she is too ugly to be assaulted is to deliberately ignore why the men who choose to abuse women do so. To write online that I am lying about men harassing me on the street because I am too ugly to “attract” that kind of “attention” is to deliberately ignore why the men who choose to harass women do so. 

It’s awfully hard for women to speak out. It’s hard because we know what’s coming. We know we will be met with disbelief and victim blaming. We know it is our behaviour that will be criticised, that will be censured. We know it is us who will be told to change. We know it is our experience that will be undermined and minimised and brushed off. We know the men who rape and abuse and harass will continue with a free pass. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way. It can be different. We can all choose to start believing women. You can make that choice today. 

#IBelieveHer


Tuesday, 17 June 2014

'Go die in a fire" is not just an idle threat - as I know only too well

Before we start, let’s have a listen to Electrelane covering Bruce Springsteen’s I’m On Fire. 



Ahh. Isn’t that something? 

OK. Now on to the point. This blog is about two things. First, it’s about my experience of an incident of male violence, the difficulty I had in recognising it as male violence, and what their act of violence meant. Second, it will discuss a recent spate of nasty online behaviour directed at women, and why this behaviour needs to stop. 

So. Twelve years ago, two boys a year younger than me set me on fire. They stuck a lit lighter in my hair, and my dry hair, as dry hair is wont to do when matched with flames, caught alight and burned bright for a moment or two before my friend extinguished it by repeatedly hitting me on the head. The boys smirked, and exited scene left. Like all good teenagers, I tried to laugh it off. It was only later when I got home that I cried. Alone, in the garden.  

I didn’t report it. I didn’t report if for all the reasons women and girls don’t report male violence. I was ashamed. I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to ‘make a big thing of it’. My mum, when I said I wouldn’t report it, told me to go to the deputy head of my school. After the deputy head ‘resolved’ the issue by asking the boys to write me a badly-spelled lie of an apology note (“dear sharn, Im sorry I set your hair on fire, it was an accident and wont happen again” – those words are engraved in my brain with an angry, angry pen) I wished fervently I had gone to the police. I wished I had shown them I wasn’t afraid. I wished I could watch them get what they deserved. I wished they had got to feel ashamed and embarrassed and humiliated – got to feel like I did. But I didn’t report. 

That was the end of that. I turned it into a funny story, like we often do with things that are horrible that happen to us. You smile a little more stiffly at each retelling. And you don’t think about what it meant. You don’t think about what it meant to have someone decide to attack you by setting your hair on fire. 

It took me a long time to realise this was an act of male violence. I know that sounds silly – it’s so obvious isn’t it? Two men attacked me by setting my hair on fire, and I didn’t see that as male violence. I now realise that one of the barriers I faced to naming what happened to me was that I didn’t report. Not reporting meant I never recognised what had happened, or why it ‘counted’ as violence. I’ve written about this in terms of naming experiences of sexual assault and how long it took me to realise that what happened to me was assault

These two boys set my hair on fire as an act of intimidation against my brother. They knew that attacking me was a way of attacking him. They treated my body as a cipher – my body was a proxy – to send him a message. It’s all tied up in the idea of women’s bodies as property of male relatives, and of course it’s all sub-consciously tied up in ideas of the importance of women’s hair. Understanding this, seeing the historical, social and cultural patterns, all of this helped me recognise this was an act of male violence against me, a girl at the time. It helped me name what happened to me. It helped me to understand that what happened to me was deliberately meant as violence, and that it was cruel, and that it was vicious. It helped me understand why I felt scared, and upset, and hurt. It helped me understand why I felt ashamed, embarrassed, and humiliated. And it helped me understand why I felt so angry when nothing happened to show them what they had done to me. 

Twelve years ago, two boys a year younger than me set me on fire. 

Last week, I saw a return of the online ‘trend’ of attacking women who some people don’t like online by saying they hope they ‘burn in a fire’. These people tweet that they want women to ‘burn’. One tweeted that once one woman had ‘her hair set on fire’ she would ‘eat her words’. 

As someone who has survived being set on fire by violent men, I not only find these words repulsive, I find them actively frightening. 

How dare anyone write that they want to silence women by setting them on fire? How dare they use that language and those threats to intimidate and frighten women into silence? How dare anyone go online and threaten a woman with violence? It’s disgusting. And knowing what we know about male violence against women, and how common it is, and how likely it is that the woman being attacked will have experienced at least one incident of male violence, it’s purely wicked. 

Throughout history, millions of women have died by being set on fire. Outspoken women were burned at the stake. Powerful women and women who refused to conform were burnt as witches. Widows were thrown on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands. Victims of domestic abuse are still burnt to death in their homes by violent partners. 

When you pose online with matches and a grin, when you tell women you hope they die in a fire because you think they are ‘scum’, you are aligning yourself with the thousands of men throughout history who have murdered women by pushing them into the flames. You are no better than those men. 

Telling women to die in a fire is no idle threat. It is the reality of millions of women throughout history. It is the reality of women alive today. It is my reality, as a survivor of having men set my hair on fire. It is not ok to despise women’s real life experience of male violence. It is not ok to use women’s experience of male violence in your desperate efforts to make women shut up. 

If you read this, and you are one of those people who has told women to die in a fire, who has threatened to silence women by setting them on fire, then for fuck’s sake, think about what you are saying and who you are saying it to. Because the woman you are threatening might know all too well what it means to be set on fire. I do, after all. 


Update

Karen Ingala Smith has written a blog in response to this, detailing the number of women who have been murdered in the UK since the start of 2012. I urge you to read it and remember the names of these women. Then go and sign the Counting Dead Women petition. 


Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Government's hypocrisy on violence against women, and asylum

Last night, Afusat Saliu and her daughters were deported back to Nigeria, after Saliu was refused asylum. She needed asylum because her daughters are are at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM) in Nigeria. Saliu fled to the UK in 2011 after her stepmother threatened to cut her daughters. A survivor of FGM herself, she believed the UK government would protect her children from violence. She believed wrong. 

Thanks to concerted campaigning by the inspiring and incredibly brave women of organisations like Daughters of Eve and Integrate Bristol, the UK government has made a number of significant promises to end FGM. This is really important, and a testament to the dedication of feminist campaigners who have refused to be silenced.The government has, for example, commissioned a report on the lack of convictions for the crime, invested in a helpline with the NSPCC and sent out educational materials to raise awareness across the education and health sectors. This is all important and fantastic work that has been made possible by the brave women who have campaigned tirelessly on this issue. 

But whilst the left hand of government works to end FGM, last night showed how the right hand of government is deporting girls to be cut. This reveals a grave and troubling hypocrisy in the heart of our government and their attitudes towards violence against women and girls. 

How can the government claim to be committed to ending FGM, when they refuse to give asylum to those who are at risk of the crime? When they refuse to see it as a form of gender-based persecution from which women and girls need protecting? How can they make promises to girls in the UK, and break those promises to girls not born in the UK? 

It isn’t just FGM. It’s all part of a troubling hypocrisy between the government’s professed commitment to ending violence against women and girls, and a culture of disbelief at the UKBA when it comes to processing survivors of male violence. 

William Hague has become a real champion in the fight against rape as a weapon of war. Anyone who has heard him speak on this issue cannot doubt his dedication to eradicating this awful crime. I believe Hague truly cares about this and is doing his best to put policies and actions in place to tackle violence against women and girls in conflict. 

But. 

But once more, we see one side of government making all the right noises about ending violence against women and girls in conflict, whilst the other side deports survivors back to the places where they were raped. Worse, before they deport the women, they lock them up in Yarls Wood, a detention centre riddled with allegations of sexual assault

The organisation, Women for Refugee Women, recently published a report on on the plight facing women asylum seekers in the UK. The report interviews 46 women – 43 of which disclosed the reason why they were seeking asylum. 80% of the 43 women had either been raped or tortured, and 52% said they were persecuted because they were women. One of the women said she had been sexually assaulted by a Yarls Wood guard. 

The government cannot have it both ways. They cannot end rape as a weapon of war when they deport survivors back into the hands of their rapists. They cannot end violence against women and girls when they lock women up and leave them at risk of sexual assault. They need to have a joined up policy where survivors of these horrific crimes are listened to, heard and respected, and where their safety is taken seriously. They need to have a policy that recognises women are persecuted because they are women, and therefore are entitled to asylum if threatened with gender-based violence. 

I once went to a talk by a group of women asylum seekers. One of the women speakers told us about how she had been raped by soldiers. On arrival in the UK, the male border guards asked her why she was seeking asylum. Frightened and unsure, she didn’t know she had the right to speak to a woman in a private room. She didn’t want to talk to men about the violence committed against her by men, in front of a room full of other asylum seekers, again many of which were men. Her reticence meant the guards refused to believe her, and she was detained in Yarls Wood. 

She was later released. But her story is not uncommon. Many, many more women face this culture of disbelief within the asylum system, and are subsequently locked up by the people they came to for help. Once at Yarls Wood, the Women for Refugee Women report reveals, the women often suffer depression and suicidal thoughts. 

And it gets worse. The government plans to remove legal aid for detainees at Yarls Wood and foreign nationals. This will make it almost impossible for women to legally fight the guards who have allegedly committed sexual assault in the centre. It’s a policy that effectively gives the green light for the abuse to continue, and again undermines our government’s commitment to ending violence against women and girls.  

These women are not criminals. They are victims and survivors of an abhorrent crime that our government professes to be dedicated to tackling. And yet we lock them up in a centre where they are allegedly verbally, physically and sexually assaulted. About her time in Yarls Wood, one woman said:

When the big door closed it brought back everything that had happened to me back home when I was in prison. I thought that I was going to be raped. The fear overtook me. I felt that I was not strong enough to go through anything like that again.

Another woman detained in Yarls Wood, who sought asylum after being raped by soldiers in the DRC, said:

I came here because of the war back home. I can’t understand why they put me in prison.

If our government is truly sincere about tackling global violence against women and girls, from FGM to rape as a weapon of war, they need to start believing women who claim asylum because they are at risk of gender-based violence. They need to stop locking women up who have survived or are at risk of gender-based violence. They need to start joining the policy dots – and they need to start understanding that they cannot commit to ending rape as a weapon of war when they continue to treat survivors of that crime as criminals themselves. 

You can donate to Women for Refugee Women here, and to Integrate Bristol and Daughters of Eve here. I urge you to do so! 






Thursday, 29 May 2014

From 'Not All Men' to rape threats - on feeling like I've had enough, but not stopping fighting.

The news over the last few days has been starting to get to me. 

There’s nothing new here. But sometimes the overwhelming-ness of it all, the absolute horror of living in a world where women are routinely killed, beaten and raped for being women, sometimes simply gets too much. 

And that’s what I’m feeling right now. 

Last week, as part of my day job, I researched the case of a Sudanese woman sentenced to 100 lashings and hanging for marrying a Christian man. Yesterday she gave birth to a daughter, shackled, in prison. 

Then, on Saturday, Elliot Rodger killed two women and four men. His YouTube videos and 141-page manifesto explained his motive. He wanted to kill women because he hated women. He said: 

"I'll take great pleasure in slaughtering all of you. You will finally see that I am in truth the superior one."

Then yesterday I learnt of the woman in Pakistan who was stoned to death whilst community members looked on. Her so-called crime? Falling in love with someone she wasn’t supposed to. 

Then I read about a woman shot dead by her husband. Like most murders of women, this one didn’t make headline news. Men killing their wives, girlfriends, sisters and mothers is just too commonplace a story to really count as news anymore. Fifty women were dead at the hands of men in the first four months of 2014. Fifty women, killed by men, because they were women.  

Today I read about the UKBA threatening to deport a family back to Nigeria where the girls are at risk of FGM.  The government’s promises on FGM ring rather hollow when they send girls back to be cut, just as Hague’s statements on rape as a weapon of war seem rather empty when his colleagues deport survivors of the crime back to where it happened.   

All of this violence has something in common. All of this violence is about male entitlement to women’s bodies. It is about men believing women do not have the right to do what they want with their own bodies. It is about denying women the right to bodily autonomy. 

Take the first example. Meriam Yehya Ibrahim is facing death because she married the man she wanted to marry. She made a free choice to marry the man she fell in love with. She is now in prison, awaiting death, for exercising her right to bodily autonomy. 

Elliot Rodger’s misogyny is rooted in the idea that women should have had sex with him, regardless of whether they chose to or not. He wrote that women should not have a ‘choice’ about who they ‘mate with’ – that the choice should be left for men to decide. His words echo the sentence pronounced by the Sudanese court. He did not believe women had the right to bodily autonomy. His refusal to accept that women have that right, that no one should tell a woman what to do with her body, led to the deaths of six people. 

As in Sudan, and as with Rodger, Farzana Parveen was murdered because she didn't believe someone else should choose who she married, and what she should do with her body. She married the man she chose to marry. Her family were enraged that she chose to marry him instead of the man they picked for her. They killed her for exercising her right. The thirty people who stood by and watched her murder gave their tacit acceptance to the concept that women do not have that right. They stood by, and refused to recognise Farzana Parveen had the right to love who she wanted to love, and had the right to live free from fear and violence. They stood by and refused to recognise she had the right to live

I don’t know why Harold Ambrose killed his wife. But the patterns are the same. It’s unlikely this was the first incidence of violence in their relationship. Another man who believed women shouldn’t have bodily autonomy. Another man who believed women shouldn’t have the right to live.

Organisations like Daughters of Eve have done a huge amount of vital work raising awareness of how FGM is a form of violence against women and girls within a patriarchal culture. Once more, it is about patriarchal control of women’s bodies. It is about denying girls bodily autonomy.

233 UK women will be raped today. None of their rapists believe they have the right to bodily autonomy. None of them believe women have the right to say no. None of them believe women have the right to decide what happens to their bodies. 

This week has proven to me once again that there is a war against women and we are all living in it. We are living in a world where women are raped, beaten and killed because they are women. We are living in a world where too many men do not believe women have a right to bodily autonomy. 

This would be bad enough on its own. 

But part of my utter despair this week is the response to all of this. 

A response that says ‘not all men’ as soon as any woman dares to speak about male violence against women and girls. 

You don’t need to tell us ‘not all men’. We know that. We know that not all men are rapists, or killers. We’re not fucking stupid. 

If you say ‘not all men’ when a woman discloses her horror at the violence committed against her and other women because they are women, you need to ask yourself why you are so defensive. And then you need to listen to what women are saying. 

‘Not all men’ is a derailing tactic. It forces women to stop talking about the violence committed against us, and instead start reassuring men. And then the conversation comes to a halt. The conversation stops being about male violence against women, and instead becomes a cookie hunt. 

These two things would be bad enough on their own. 

But there are more responses that have prompted my despair. 

The cousin of ‘not all men’ is ‘men are victims of violence too.’

Again, we know this. We’re not fucking stupid. 

Once more, this is a derailing tactic. It’s saying it is not ok to just talk about male violence against women and girls. It says it is not ok, it is not acceptable, for women to talk about the violence committed against us. It demands that we shut up, and start talking about something else. It tells us we “should” instead be talking about what happens to men. 

But why? Why can’t we talk about male violence against women and girls? What is so scary about that conversation? Why can’t you stand it? Why do you not want to talk about it?

Whenever someone derails a conversation about male violence against women and girls in this way, I can’t help but believe that they think that what happens to women doesn’t matter. That they think the lives of women and girls, and our right to live free from fear and violence, is unimportant. That they believe it’s certainly not as important as what happens to men. I can’t reach any other conclusion than that. 

These three things would be bad enough on their own. 

But there is one more response that has prompted my despair. 

And that is how when women write about male violence against women and girls, we are met with more violence. We are met with rape threats and death threats and sent vicious ‘fantasies’ of what men want to do to us, ‘fantasies’ which would not look out of place in Rodger’s manifesto. As Laurie Penny wrote in her response to the Rodger murders: 

I know for sure that just by writing this I will have exposed myself to more harassment, more threats, more verbal assaults.’ 

When discussion of male violence is met with male violence, you can’t ignore how pervasive it is in our society. And yes, ‘not all men’. And yes, women can be nasty online too. But do you know how frightening it is, let alone how disheartening it is, to know that when you speak out about violence, you have learnt to expect that someone will threaten to rape you? Do you have any idea how that feels? Do you have any idea how hard it is to talk about these issues anyway, without dealing with the knowledge that talking about it marks you out as a potential victim in the eyes of some men? Do you know how often we then hold our tongues, because to speak is dangerous, and the response is devastating?

I have had enough today. I have had enough of the violence. I have had enough of the derailing. I have had enough of the silencing. Enough, enough, enough. 

But I won’t stop. 

Yesterday my niece was born. As I held her in my arms, I told her that I was her ‘fun, feminist aunty’ (not a ‘fun feminist aunty’!). Silently I promised her that I would do everything I could to make sure she grows up in a world where we, as women and girls, no longer have to put up with this violence. I want her to grow up in a world where her right to bodily autonomy is not just respected, it’s not even conceivable that anyone wouldn’t respect it. I want her to grow up in a world where women’s bodies are not seen as objects that men feel entitled to. 

It shouldn’t feel like such a big ask, should it?

No matter how much I feel like I’ve had enough, I won’t stop fighting. I won’t stop talking about male violence against women and girls. I won’t stop questioning it. I won’t stop working to end it. Because not only does my niece deserve better, we ALL deserve better. Every woman and girl across the world deserves better than the headlines, and the non-headlines, this week. 

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Calling misogyny what it is - a response to the Rodger murders.

When is a hate crime not a hate crime? Apparently when it is committed by a man against women.

That’s the lesson I’ve learnt this weekend, from the reaction to the Elliot Rodger murders.

At the weekend, Elliot Rodger killed six people – shooting two women and four men – in ‘revenge’ for the treatment he believed he had suffered at the hands of women. In a long and ranting and deeply frightening ‘manifesto’, he detailed his hatred of women in vicious detail. He fantasised about rounding women up and putting us in concentration camps, where he would watch us die. He ranted about women’s ‘power’ over men by the fact that we ‘control’ breeding, and pronounced that women should not be allowed to choose who to ‘breed with’ because men should make that decision. It was a screed of hate. No one reading it could mistake the hateful rhetoric, with every word dripping with misogyny.

Except people could. Yesterday, in an exchange with writer and former MP Louise Mensch, she told me she felt ‘sorry for him’ and that feminists were wrong to link his violence to misogyny. Many more people agreed with her. Many people expressed sympathy with Rodger, one tweeter saying he blamed ‘blondes not guns’ for this killing. Others wondered how hard it would have been for a woman to ‘put out’ for him.

Who wouldn’t feel sorry for this guy? they write. He just wanted to get laid, and selfish, selfish women wouldn’t sleep with him. No wonder he was angry. No wonder he was hurt. Selfish, selfish women, with their belief that they should be able to have sex with people they want to have sex with, and not have sex with people they don’t want to have sex with. Selfish, selfish women with their belief that their bodies belong to them, not to men. They’re the ones at fault here. Not him, he just wanted women to have sex with him. It was women’s fault for not complying with that demand.

It’s so much easier to blame women for the hate and violence committed against us, isn’t it? It’s so much easier to point at women, rather than look at the manifesto and see what is written there as clear as day. The manifesto reveals a man who hated women, a man who believed he was entitled to women’s bodies. His manifesto wasn't about being a man after "love" as some sympathetic tweeters speculated, as love includes mutuality and respect. The manifesto reveals a man who believed he was entitled to access to women's bodies, a man who believed women do not deserve, do not have a right to, bodily autonomy.

It isn’t just people expressing sympathy with Elliot Rodger. There are the people treating him as a sort of MRA superstar. It didn’t take long before someone set up a Facebook page celebrating Rodger as a hero because he killed women, and because he wrote in graphic detail about killing women.

As a woman who has been writing online for over seven years, this MRA response was no surprise to me. After all, Rodger’s writings were nothing I hadn’t seen before. They are in keeping with the MRA rhetoric that stalks women online. I’ve had comments on my blog screeching about women’s control over sex and reproduction, and how that punishes men. I’ve had the odd death threat and rape threat, and god knows I have seen on other women’s blogs the vicious and violent fantasies of MRA men detailing how they want to watch specific or nameless women die, how they want to kill and rape those women. I’ve had men on my blog bemoaning how real life women aren’t like the women in porn movies, and how that isn’t fair on men – revealing a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies and sexualities that frightens me (we’re not your fuck toys. We are human beings. I can’t believe we still have to say it). I’ve read MRA rants on how children who are victims of sexual exploitation are actually exploiting men, (not a direct link obviously but a link to a blog discussing the views) that men are the victims because those children have ‘sexual power’ over men (one day I want every news outlet in the UK to make a sincere apology for giving that specific MRA activist uncritical and endless coverage a few years ago).

What happened this weekend was that the misogyny I have seen in so many comments and articles over the years was acted out. The violent rage was acted out. The result was a terrible tragedy, the deaths of six people, the grief of their families, the horror of their friends. The result wasn’t a victimised man driven to kill by selfish women. The result wasn’t an American hero who ‘paid the ultimate sacrifice in the fight against feminazi ideology’. This was a misogynistic hate crime that led to six people dying.

It’s time to join the dots now. There is no evidence to tell us that these killings were related to mental illness. His parents have confirmed there was no diagnosis. Yet there are pages and pages of evidence to tell us that these killings were related to misogyny. So why are so many people so eager to pretend it has nothing to do with misogyny? Why are so many people desperate to point to any other reason for the killings – pointing at mental health, or the actions of symbolic women? Why are so many people determined to ignore or deny or brush off the misogynistic outpouring that preceded these murders?

It’s hard to admit misogyny. It’s hard to face up to the fact that some men hate women so deeply, and that so much of our culture allows, excuses and forgives that hatred and violence. It’s so much easier to turn away from the obvious misogyny, and place the blame firmly on women’s shoulders, to say we should be less precious about bodily autonomy and support male entitlement. Then nothing has to change. Then no one has to confront the misogyny.

But it’s not good enough. Because this was misogyny. And misogyny kills. Women not wanting to have sex with individual men has never killed anyone. No one has ever died from not having sex. Women’s right to bodily autonomy has never killed anyone. Some men believing women shouldn’t have that right – well, that’s killed plenty.

If we refuse to see this as a hate crime against women, if we refuse to explore how this was a hate crime against women, then we can do nothing to prevent it happening again. If we refuse to take misogyny seriously, if we refuse to look at patterns of male violence and male entitlement, then we can do nothing to stop the next murder, the next killing.

Rodger’s writings revealed a man who believed he was entitled to women’s bodies, a man who viewed women as lesser, a man who believed men should have control over women. The concentration camp fantasy, the view that women should not have control over their own sexuality and reproduction – it’s all there to read. As I say, I have read similar things from MRA men over the years. This, coupled with the celebration of him by MRA groups show that this is not an isolated ‘mad man’ fantasy. This is part of a pattern. I know from first-hand experience that Rodger was not alone in believing this about women. He is not alone in killing women because of a belief that women aren’t fully human and aren’t entitled to be treated as fully human.

We need to call this killing what it is. If we don’t, it will happen again. As one tweeter said,

He was a great man, a hero for 1000s of betas. Next week there will be blood of feminists in the streets.’

You might tell me that this one tweet is the ranting of an ‘idiot’, a ‘mad man’ who shouldn’t be taken seriously. Yet that’s what they would have said last week about Rodger and his manifesto. Now six people are dead.

How many more women need to die before we stop talking about "isolated incidents" committed by "deranged" men? How many more? How many more before we stop trying to turn the blame on to women and instead start calling these crimes what they are - misogynistic hate crimes?

Thursday, 22 May 2014

The system doesn't care why you don't vote. That's why I voted today.

Yesterday I tweeted this image from @FeministPics (follow them, they’re awesome) 



and my timeline went whoop! Seriously, so many RTs. And, inevitably, so much backlash from people informing me that voting was a waste of time. After all, the Suffragettes weren’t fighting for a vote in the kind of Parliament we have today (yes they were!). Voting? What about the Arab Spring! (you mean, the revolutionary movement for democracy instead of dictatorships? Surely that’s about why voting matters?). Voting is a waste of time when they’re all the same, dontcha think? CaMORON and BLIAR – all in all voting won’t change anything, we need to overthrow the whole system and get rid of the current Parliamentary democracy and you know what? The best way to do that is to do…nothing. Nothing. Apparently. 

You don’t need to tell me the system is a bit crap. Being a feminist in the last few years has brought home day after day just how much the Government’s actions are screwing us over. Every day I see policy after policy disproportionately impact negatively on women – from benefit reform to cuts that lead to refuge closures to the continued presence of Yarls Wood. I hate this system. I’m sick of it. I just want to get that out of the way before anyone calls me a stooge. 

But you know what doesn’t change the system? Doing nothing. And that’s what not voting is. Not voting is a negative. It changes nothing. 

Unless you’ve been on Mars for the last month, you’ll have noticed that UKIP is expected to do surprisingly well in this election. This is despite their continued racism, more racism, sexism and homophobia. Somehow they have positioned themselves as the ‘anti-establishment’ party despite their totally establishment views, and now are seen as the obvious ‘protest’ vote against the main parties. 

People who want to vote UKIP are going to go out and vote today. People who are on that section of the right, or who are disenchanted with Labour and the Conservatives and believe the answer lies in scrapping the Human Rights Act and stigmatising immigrants for the failures of domestic policy; they are going to go out and vote today. They’re not going to register their “protest” by doing nothing. 

And so when UKIP does well, and all the non-voters stay home, what do you think happens next? Do you think Cameron and Miliband look at the proportion of non-voters and say ‘hold up! A bunch of people didn’t vote! Better try and start appealing to them, even though I don’t know why they didn’t vote. Maybe they did it because they’re disenchanted with the Parliamentary system that ignores them and passes policies that hurt them. Lets do something to get them on our side! Just in case!’ 

I don’t think they’re going to do that. I think they’re going to look at the people who voted for UKIP, and try and work out how to woo them back to the centre in time for next May. 

And seeing as we know that UKIP has flirted with their voters by whipping up fear of immigration and distaste for human rights, I think we are going to see a lot more statements and announcements that will appeal to that view point. 

It sounds strange I know, but in a Parliamentary democracy, the political parties are always going to make an effort to appeal to those who vote. 

If you don’t vote, they’re not going to make any effort to appeal to you. Because they don’t care why you didn’t vote. They have no reason to take any action to talk to you. They will not revise their policies to try to appeal to non-voters because they want to put their energy into people they know are going to turn up at the polling station. 

As a result, you can bet your bottom dollar they will make an effort to appeal to UKIP voters.

If you are on the left, and you don’t vote today and UKIP does well, and in response the Tories make more noises about scrapping the Human Rights Act, and make it a manifesto pledge to scrap housing benefit for under-25s (a group who notoriously don’t vote), and put in more policies that discriminate against families where the spouse is not from the EU, and send out more racist buses, don’t be surprised. Don’t complain to me. Go and vote instead. 

And you know what else? Check your privilege. Voting should be a right, but it isn’t at the moment. Whilst it is denied to millions across the world, it remains a privilege. When people are dying and being put in prison for demanding this basic right, it remains a privilege. This isn’t just a Suffragette issue, although the battles women fought for me to have the right to even be writing this blogpost is one of the reasons I always vote. It’s too easy for too many people to forget that not having the vote and being imprisoned for demanding it is the reality for women and men across the world today. 

Do you know why their Governments and Dictators still deny their people the vote?

Because they know how much having a vote matters. They know that the vote can change things. 

That’s why they didn’t let us have the vote for so long. 

I know the system sucks. I feel so disenfranchised sometimes, I feel so angry at the ways in which politicians have repeatedly betrayed us. I watch the braying men in the House of Commons and despair at how they will ever represent me. 

But I don’t believe I can change any of that by removing myself from the conversation. Change comes from doing, not from doing nothing. 

I’ll leave the final word to Hunter S Thompson:


Vote. It ain’t much. But it’s the only weapon we have against the greedheads.’ 

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Women of the Left Bank series part 3: It all started with Colette

Other posts in the series:
Gertrude Stein and Cultural Femicide
Having a drink with Janet Flanner

It all started with Colette for me – this obsession with Left Bank women that put me on the path to writing my book. To be precise, it all started in Barter Books in Alnwick, and me picking up a Penguin edition of The Vagabond.  You know the type, orange and cream, with a black and white illustration on the cover, in this case of a dark-haired, dark-eyed woman brushing her hair at a dressing table, a top-hatted gentleman by her side.



‘What do you think of Colette?’ I said to my well-read uncle. 

‘I haven’t read her,’ he replied. ‘But those books were written when people didn’t have television.’

So I bought it. Immediately I was swept up into Rene Neree’s world of the fin-de-siecle Parisian café-concert and music hall, a disastrous marriage behind her and an ill-fated love affair with the ‘Big Noodle’ throwing her carefully-structured life and carefully-controlled emotions into confusion. Through the evocative descriptions on the yellowing pages, I could smell the sweat of the rehearsal studio, feel the emptiness of her big bed, the heat of the south coast’s sun on the crowded train, hear the shouted commands of her dance teacher/partner, the throaty singing of Jadin – every sense tingled and responded to this extraordinary, tiny novel. 

I was hooked. I wanted to gobble up every word Colette had ever written (and she wrote A LOT). So I turned to the Claudine novels. They were a revelation. Fifteen years on, these are the books I still return to when I need to read something that feels like a hug in a cosy blanket.

From the moment I joined her wandering alone through the tall woods outside Montigny, I fell head over heels in love with Claudine. I was enthralled by her naughty antics with her school friends as she flirted and frolicked with dubious doctors, seductive teachers and bumbling assistant masters (as an aside, I overheard a conversation in Paris where a woman introduced a man called ‘Antonin’. It took me straight back to Colette’s line about the Antonin Rabastens – ‘one simply can’t be called Antonin!’) After she quitted the woods of Montigny, I longed for Claudine’s Paris, observed from her room on Rue Jacob as she fell for the handsome Renaud. I read about her feeding grapes from her mouth to her lover Rezi and about the awakening of her friend Annie from her horrible marriage. The novels are a wonderful and honest depiction of a young woman’s budding sexuality.

Next came Cheri, The Pure and the Impure, Gigi, The Cat, The Break of Day, The Ripening Seed – as well as her short stories, most notably The Hand. I devoured Colette’s novels and stories. I scoured second hand bookshops for forgotten memoirs and novels that I hadn’t yet discovered. To me, Colette was my key to the world of the senses, she was my escape from boring late nineties/early-noughties Bristol, my teacher of what it was to be a woman. Through Colette I learnt about sex and costume and food and animals and jealousy and dizzying love and dizzying lust. I learnt about opium and cross-dressing and madness and the joy of being outside in the woods. 

For Christmas in 1999, I was given Judith Thurman’s excellent biography of my favourite writer. And that’s when I discovered just how much The Vagabond, the Claudine novels and much more of Colette’s writing were essentially autobiographical. Somehow this made it even more thrilling. 

Colette had a most extraordinary life. Born in 1873 in Yonne, she moved to Paris when she was twenty with her older husband, Willy. Mostly forgotten now, Willy was a huge success in turn of the century Paris, the quintessential man about town with his top hat and tache, publishing novels that he never wrote under his name. Instead, he employed a factory of ghost-writers, turning out saucy, sexy texts that fitted neatly into the whirlwind of Belle Epoque Paris. 

The marriage was not wholly happy. Willy was not a faithful husband, and Colette had affairs with women (including Natalie Barney who was a life long friend). She had some kind of nervous breakdown and there’s some suggestion she contracted an STD from Willy as a result of his infidelities. As she recovered from one bout of illness, Willy suggested Colette tried writing something for him to publish. 

Colette famously describes this incident in My Apprenticeships. She bought herself some school exercise books and wrote a memoir of her school days. Willy read it, and rejected it. The books were put away and not mentioned again until a while later, when they were found in a drawer. On second reading, Willy decided there was something there. He asked Colette to spice them up a bit, and a hit was born. 

And that’ Colette writes ‘is how I became a writer.’

Claudine at School and its follow-ups were all published under Willy’s name and they were HUGE! The naughty schoolgirl with her big white collars and jabots became a national obsession. The books were performed as plays with Polaire and her 16-inch waist taking on the title role. Paris was hit with  Claudine fever. Willy needed more to fuel the fire, and so allegedly he locked Colette in her room until she delivered the goods. She wrote and wrote – and got none of the credit. Meanwhile, Willy got richer and richer off his wife’s labour. 

Eventually the pair divorced and a bitter legal battle on who owned the rights to Claudine followed. But it wasn’t until Willy’s death that Colette succeeded in getting his name removed entirely from the books and was able to claim sole authorship. 

After her divorce, Colette began a long affair with the Mathilde de Morny, known as Missy and immortalised – along with Renee Vivien, Natalie Barney and a whole host of gay and lesbian personalities – in Colette's stories about gay and lesbian Paris, The Pure and the Impure. But without the security given to her by marriage, and unable to claim the recognition she deserved as author of the Claudine and Minne books, she needed a new way to support herself. So she took to the stage – training as a mime and a dancer. It was these experiences that led to the creation of Rene Neree in The Vagabond – a character she returned to throughout her writing career as another foil to herself. 

Colette excelled as a mime – but her career was not without controversy. In her performance of La Reve d’Egypte she caused a riot when she kissed Missy on stage. 

Missy and Colette split up and she married again – this time to Henri de Jouvenal who edited Le Matin. She embarked on a journalism career, reporting throughout the First World War. Her journalism is often forgotten but an important part of her writing that deserves celebrating. The marriage didn’t work out – Colette had an affair with her stepson and de Jouvenal wasn’t exactly a great husband – and the pair divorced in 1924. She married for a final time in 1935, to Maurice Goudeket, and the pair stayed together until her death. 

Her career in the music hall and her incredible (in the true sense of the word) marriage to Willy led to Colette collecting a host of experiences in the Parisian demi-monde of dancers, prostitutes, singers, gay and lesbian men and women, cross-dressers and drug addicts that she would draw on to create some of the most exciting and original literature of the 20th Century. Her writing is truly sensual – not just in a sexual way, but in her appreciation of ALL the senses and all the experiences that stimulate the senses – from the Asti and shrimps that Claudine gobbles down on the night she realises she is in love with Renaud, to the drawing of the gardens in A Retreat from Love, to the descriptions of physical longing and satisfaction with a new/existing lover. 

As well as sensuality, Colette is one of the truly great writers of animals. From Saha the eponymous cat in The Cat, to Claudine’s Fanchette and Rene’s bulldog – animals and their sensibilities and personalities are beautifully – but never sentimentally – drawn. In fact, with Saha the opposite is certainly true, as this beautiful demon wreaks destruction on the failing marriage of Camille and Alain. 

Cheri is probably her most famous work, and it is Colette’s masterpiece. Written whilst she was still married de Jouvenal in 1920, the novel tells the story of Cheri’s separation from his much older lover, Lea. Having always believed their relationship to be casual, it is only when Cheri marries that the pair realise they have been in love. But when Cheri goes back to Lea, he sees her as an old woman and leaves her for good. 

Cheri is spoilt and beautiful, charming and cruel, unbelievably selfish and immature. And yet, through Colette's sensitive and evocative writing, you understand why Lea loves him, and why he loves Lea. 

What makes Cheri so good is what makes all of Colette’s novels and short stories so wonderful – her gift at writing the senses, and her ability to conjure up passion, loss and resignation, of wanting what one can’t have, of longing, and of satisfaction followed by dissatisfaction. Cheri is a beautiful, stunning novel that captures in a short volume the depth of Colette’s brilliant gift. 

I loved Colette as a teenager and I still love her now. I love her daring. I love how she refused to conform – how she refused to bow down to Willy’s stealing of her talent. I love how when the chips were down, she did whatever she could to survive, and that meant dancing and writing. I love how she was determined to live a life that was true to herself. And I love her short hair, and how she looks equally gorgeous in a tux as in a Grecian dress…





Life was so important to Colette. This matters, because in so many ways her marriage to Willy threatened to drown her life. She writes about the lethargy of being married to him, the laziness and the loss of her sense of self. So when she was given the chance to live again, to live her life, she took it and she never let it go. 

Colette’s absolute need for life is perhaps best expressed in Shari Henstock’s description in her superb book, Women of the Left Bank, of Colette’s relationship to Renee Vivien – the alcoholic, anorexic lover of Natalie Barney who died aged just 32. She explains:

Natalie Barney claimed that Vivien’s life was a “long suicide” from which she tried to save her, and Colette, whose will to live was so strong, could not understand the nature of her young neighbour.’

Henstock goes on to say that through writing:

Colette discovered…that writing was an essential act of creativity bearing direct relation to her womanhood, a way of discovering herself as a woman’ 

You can understand this when you read Colette’s work. Every word she writes sparkles with life and self-discovery. She is not necessarily a happy writer, and her books aren’t happy books. But they burn with a desire to live. I think that is what makes them so attractive and how, even now they are out of fashion, they still burst with excitement and energy to a new and returning reader.  

Colette isn’t widely read any more and a lot of her books have fallen out of print. But you can still find them, in second-hand bookstores around the UK. I am so glad I did.