Monday, 15 September 2014

Re-thinking sisterhood conference and what I said about women only space

So. For me the story of sisterhood and the importance of women-only organising is a story of moving from what might be called ‘liberal’ feminism to a more radical feminist outlook. 

When I started out in feminism, organising Ladyfest 2007 and then, not long after, taking over the stewardship of the Bristol Feminist Network, I believed in the importance of including men in my feminist organising. After all, I reasoned, men can be feminists too (a belief I now question) and patriarchy hurts men too. So why shouldn’t men come along, contribute, share, and listen? Why shouldn’t men be present? 

I do still have sympathy with this outlook in part. I do think that patriarchy hurts men too, and I do believe that men need to be allies to the feminist movement. I believe this because in order to achieve the goals of the women’s liberation movement, men need to change. They need to give up some power and privilege. And for men to do this, they need to see why it is necessary. Feminism is part of the why. I also believe that in many ways, patriarchy does hurt men too. It preaches a damaging ideal of masculinity that celebrates violence and machismo, and leaves men and boys feeling hurt and confused. A good example of this is the exposure of very young men and boys to pornography that glamorises violence against women – telling men that the only way to be sexual is to be violent and aggressive. This message helps no one. 

When I ran the Bristol Feminist Network, very few men attended our meetings. The vast, vast majority of meetings, although open to men, were women only by default. And it is in these meetings where I discovered the beauty of sisterhood. 

Sisterhood is not about liking women, it’s not about being best friends with every woman you meet. I met some women in these meetings who I couldn’t stand! Instead, sisterhood is about creating a space or a world where women’s voices are heard, listened to – really listened to – and respected. 

In these women only spaces, I found myself laughing with women who were ten years younger and forty years older than me. I found myself crying as we shared painful stories, and as I told painful stories myself. I found myself listened to, and heard. 

In those meetings, I discovered the importance of women-only space in creating an environment where all the women speaking had a shared experience of oppression, and where all the women speaking were equal and valued. 

Now, sometimes men would come to the meetings. Mostly these men were lovely. Kind, sensitive, “feminist” – but also filled with male privilege. And I started to realise how different the dynamic was when men were present. Collectively, the women in the room listened to men more. We privileged their voices. We looked to them to be the voice of wisdom and sense. 

This was not something these men consciously demanded from us – far from it. But it was something that occurred because as women, we have been raised from day one to defer to men. We have been educated to put men’s voices first. And it is hard to erase 25 years of patriarchal training to shut up and listen to him, even when you are in a feminist meeting. 

That was my first lesson in why we needed women only space. The second was from a story my friend told me about a meeting she had to go to with a cabinet minister, to talk about women’s rights in conflict zones. The minister arranged for the meeting to take place in his “club”. Yes, a male only club, like the ones you read about in Georgette Heyer novels. My friend had to get permission to enter. 

It was a lightbulb moment for me. For years, I had heard people tell me that women only feminist space was exclusive and excluded men. But in one flash, I realised that the centres of power in this country – the boys schools, the bullgindon club, the golf clubs, the gentleman’s clubs, they were male only spaces that consciously and legally excluded women. The places where the decisions were made, where the men talked, where the men made connections, where the men ruled – all of these were set up to deliberately exclude women. And no one was really talking about it. Whereas men were up in arms at women daring to come together in women only spaces to talk about rape, they were strangely silent about men coming together in male only spaces to talk about laws around rape. 

This is hugely important. If you want to speak to a cabinet minister about including women in conflict resolution in their own countries, as my friend was doing, and to have that meeting you have to go to a place that absolutely excludes women, something is very, very wrong. 

This was when I realised why women only space is so threatening to men. And threatening is the word – if it wasn’t threatening we wouldn’t have to spend so long explaining why we want it, justifying why we want it, and being forced to give it up because we’re ‘discriminating against men.’ Women only space is threatening because men know that male-only spaces are spaces of power. They’re the spaces where men make the decisions that govern society. Women only spaces are spaces where women are creating their own power. 

Because women-only space is empowering – for all of those reasons of sisterhood I explained before. It’s empowering in the real, true sense of the word, because it creates a space where we have an equal and valued voice. 

So that’s how I made the journey from mixed to women-only space. Since my light bulb moment, it’s one I’ve become more convinced by – having had the infuriating experience of being told by men who identify as feminists that I need to shut up, sit back, read more books, or being told ‘I don’t know what I’m talking about’. I need a space that is free from male privilege, where women can share their experiences and self-organise and be empowered. 

Sisterhood has been the most important thing to me since becoming a feminist. As I said, sisterhood is not about liking every woman you meet. But it is absolutely about feeling that women’s voices can and must be heard. It is about recognising common experiences of oppression whilst valuing and talking about how intersectionality means that different women experience oppression differently. And it is about coming together, and creating our own, empowered spaces, having been locked out of the centres of power for so long. 

After all, as Robin Morgan so wisely said, SISTERHOOD IS POWERFUL!!!!!

Monday, 18 August 2014

Women of the Left Bank Series Part 4: Djuna Barnes

Read the rest of the series

I was devoted to Djuna and she was very fond of me in her own superior way…’

So goes Janet Flanner’s reminiscence of Djuna Barnes, and it’s one that seems to speak for most of those who knew this extraordinary writer. Barnes inspired devotion in her friends, and it was a devotion that saved her life on various occasions. 

Janet goes on to tell a story about how Djuna gave her one of her manuscripts to read. Janet read it, and returned it, admitting she was baffled by the content. Djuna responded in her magnificent way:

Oh Janet. I never expected you to be as stupid as Tom Eliot.’ 

Born in 1892 in New York State, Barnes had a terrible and traumatic childhood, something she explores in her picaresque Elizabethan epic, Ryder. Her father was a failed composer, musician and painter who was unable to support his family financially. And he had a big family – moving in his mistress when Barnes was five and fathering eight children. Barnes spent most of her childhood caring for the kids. Barnes was raped as a teenager, and when she was 17 she was married off to the brother of her dad’s mistress, in what was not a consensual match. She remained with him for two months. 

Barnes’ violent and unsettled childhood influences much of her writing. As I mentioned, Ryder deals with the impact her father’s sexual antics had on her family, and it also obliquely references her rape. She later deals with this latter subject more explicitly in her furious play, The Antiphon

In 1912 Djuna Barnes moved to New York, where she pioneered a new kind of journalism – documenting her own experiences of the stories of the time. She volunteered to be force-fed so she could document the trials of the hunger-striking suffragettes, and was rescued by a fire fighter from a skyscraper. Barnes joined the thriving bohemian community in Greenwich Village and in 1915 published her book of poetry ‘The Book of Repulsive Women’. 

But like many women of the time, Barnes believed that in order to live the life she wanted to live, she needed to be in Paris. And so, in 1921, she travelled across the Atlantic and arrived in the City of Light. 

One of the things everyone remembers about Djuna is her incredible beauty. She was stunning. And she knew how to make the most of her gorgeous looks. She was always immaculately made-up, with red lips and red nails, wearing the fashions of the day. But her beauty was a double-edged sword. Gertrude Stein dismissed her talent because she didn’t believe such a beautiful woman needed to be taken seriously. Whilst other raved about her work, Stein merely referred to her as having ‘beautiful legs.’ It was not a compliment Djuna took kindly. 

In Paris, Barnes became a member of the expat community, and one of Natalie Barney’s circle. She had a brief affair with Natalie not longer after her arrival (but then, who didn’t?). 
Natalie eagerly promoted Barnes’ work at her salons, and was a lifelong friend and patron. Barnes later went on to pay a tribute of sorts to Natalie in her privately-published ‘Ladies Almanack’. This hand-illustrated book was a satire of the lesbian circle that orbited Natalie. Stars of the Almanack include Janet Flanner and Solita Solano as ‘Nip and Tuck’; Dolly Wilde as ‘Doll Furious’; and Natalie herself as ‘Dame Evangeline Musset’. 

Djuna’s reputation as a writer went beyond the lesbian Paris scene. Despite Ezra Pound calling her a ‘baboon’ (Fuck You Ezra!), her talent was hugely respected by the leading modernists of the day. She had a very close relationship with James Joyce. She saw him as her equal, and would talk with him about her writing and her work. TS Eliot was a great admirer – he would go on to edit and write the introduction to her masterpiece, Nightwood. And Ford Madox Ford championed her work in his Atlantic Review. 

Which brings me on to Nightwood – Djuna’s 1936 novel that, among other things, tells the story of her relationship with the artist Thelma Wood.  But before we deal with Nightwood, we should deal with Thelma. 

Born in 1902 in Kansas, Thelma and Djuna began a relationship in 1921 that would last for eight years. Thelma was very tall and boyish looking – a very attractive woman who dressed in androgynous clothes and pursued ‘silverpoint’ art. At first, the relationship was very happy. ‘They were so haunted of each other’ is how Barnes described the intensity of their attraction to one another. 

But over time, the relationship started to show cracks. Thelma was a drinker and unable to remain sexually faithful to Djuna. And that was what Djuna wanted, and needed, from her lover. A drinker herself, the pair became lost in a painful spiral of drunkenness and infidelity, until they could no longer sustain their relationship. When Thelma began an affair with Henriette Metcalf, Djuna ended it for good. 

The end of the relationship was devastating for Djuna. She locked herself away and drank solidly. Finally, increasingly concerned for her welfare, Natalie Barney brought her to her home on rue Jacob and her housekeeper, Berthe, who fondly recalled Djuna’s elegance, nursed her back to health. 

As she recovered, Djuna poured her heartache into Nightwood – a novel that remains one of the greatest and most beautiful works of the modernist period. 

I first read Nightwood as a teenager and it is a book that has haunted me throughout my adult life – a book I return to year after year, each time discovering something new and frightening and beautiful. That is its power. 

Nightwood tells the story of Felix Volkbein, an Austrian trying to uphold the traditions of European nobility – a section of society which he doesn’t really belong to. He marries the androgynous Robin and she has a child, but Robin leaves him and their son in pursuit of her own wandering adventures. She meets Nora, and the two fall in love, but Robin constantly seeks out affairs with strangers. In an appallingly frightening and intense chapter, Robin meets a woman called Jenny – a grasping bitch who is intent on stealing the happiness of others. Jenny grabs at Robin, who leaves Nora. 

Nora desperately tries to find Robin and bring her back to her, searching for her across Europe and America. She looks for her in the bars and the ports, tries to love the girls Robin has loved, but only finds women who Robin has left. The descriptions of her search are among some of the most heartrendingly painful and beautiful passages in the novel. 

Central to the narrative is the character of Dr Matthew O’Connor, a transvestite who opines on the nature of the night (in my fantasy film version, I always imagine him played by John Hurt). His babbling monologues on night, sex, history, philosophy and Robin are the heart of the novel. Despite not taking part in any of the main action, he is the observer. Through Matthew we understand everything that is happening in the novel. 

It is impossible for me to put into words the extraordinariness of Nightwood and its impact on me as a reader. There is no other book like it. Although it is seen as a cult gay novel, it really is so much more than that. It is a novel about gay characters, certainly, but it is also a novel about pain, despair, the encroaching fascism taking over 1930s Europe, of misfits and strangers, of love and loss, and of life. Its prose is poetry – rich with visions and intense, sensual descriptions. It is grotesque and beautiful all at once. 

Nightwood was a success, yet the applause didn’t bring Djuna happiness. She continued to drink and drink, and she was broke. But the devotedness she inspired in her friends never faded. With war approaching, her friends recognised the need to get her out of Europe. Worried for her safety, Peggy Guggenheim paid for Djuna’s passage home to America. She was so ill that Peggy worried she wouldn’t survive the journey. 

She did survive. After returning to New York, Djuna became increasingly bitter and reclusive. In fact, she lived a very long life – dying in 1982. Throughout she maintained correspondence with Natalie, the pair reminiscing on their life in 1920s Paris. 

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Think same sex parents are inherently worse than straight ones? Then sorry, but you are homophobic.

I was really upset to read Kellie Maloney’s comments, reported in Pink News, where she stated that she didn’t believe same-sex couples can or should raise children. As regular readers will know, this is an issue that is very close to my heart, having been raised by my mum and her partner, and my dad and his wife. So I wanted to respond to Maloney’s comments, and to those who agree with her that there is something wrong with the way I was raised.

I find it utterly confounding that today people still believe the gender of a parent determines their ability to parent. That a family of a mum and dad is inevitably better than a family of a mum and a mum, or a dad and a dad. That in spite of everything we hear about abuse, neglect and violence within heterosexual marriage, people still believe that a husband and wife are innately better parents because one has an XX chromosome and one has an XY.

Children don’t need a mum and a dad to flourish and be happy. They don’t need a mum and a mum, or a dad and a dad, either. What children need is love. They need love, and care, and support, and to know they are safe. They need to know they are listened to, that they have parent/s or carers they can depend upon. They need boundaries and affection and cuddles. They need love.

A husband and wife are not immediately better at providing these things than two women parents, or two men parents. In fact, studies show that children raised in gay families are doing just as well, if not better, than their straight-raised peers. Anne Goldberg, quoted in the article, says that this could be because gay parents tend to be more committed and motivated than their straight counterparts.

Now, as it happens I don’t pay much mind to these studies, although it does provide a smug sense of satisfaction that so much research proves the bigots wrong over and over again. But anyway! I don’t think creating a hierarchy of parenting is helpful. Why? Well, for all the reasons above. I don’t believe sexuality creates good or bad parents. I believe that good parents are ones who love and care for their child, regardless of who they choose to have sex with.

If you believe that straight people are always better parents than gay people because they are straight then I am sorry to disappoint you, but you are homophobic. And if there is one thing that causes pain and distress to the children of gay parents, it’s not their parents’ sexuality. It’s the homophobia of other people.

I grew up in a loving and stable home with parents who loved me. Of course, like any family, we had our ups and downs, our rows and our spats. But fundamentally, I was loved. I lived in a home that was full of love – mum and her partner’s love for me and my brother, and for each other. And when I stayed at my dad’s, it was the same – a home of love. That’s what matters to children. Being loved.

Sadly, I have friend who didn’t have that care and stability. I have friends who grew up in very unhappy and violent homes. And guess what? Their parents were straight. And happily, I have friends who grew up in loving and supportive homes. And their parents were straight too. Because sexuality isn’t an indicator of your ability to parent. You can be straight and an abusive bully. You can be gay and an abusive bully. You can be straight and a kind and loving parent. And you can be gay and a kind and loving parent.

The only thing I found difficult growing up around having gay parents was other people’s homophobia. And that was not a problem caused by my mum’s sexuality, but by the bigotry and cruelty of others. I cannot emphasise this enough. The problem children of gay people face is other people’s homophobia. And that was not a problem caused by my parents. It is a problem that homophobic bigots cause, and it is a problem that is solved by tackling homophobia  - not by condemning gay parents.

I don’t understand homophobia. I don’t understand how someone can be so cruel as to sit in judgement of my family, and tell me that the way I was raised was wrong, with no consideration of how that might make me feel. Why would anyone want to make a child feel that their family is second-rate? Why would anyone want to go on TV or stand in a pulpit or in the House of Commons and tell a child that they have been raised wrong, simply because of who their parents fell in love with? Why would anyone care so little about children that they would happily and deliberately make a child feel unhappiness and anxiety that there is something wrong with their family?

So I’ll say it again. If you believe that straight parents are innately better simply because they are straight then you are homophobic.

All people like me are asking for is for people to stop telling us our families are inherently worse, simply because of the sexuality of our (in my case one set of) parents. To let us live our lives, free from bigotry and judgement. Which - as it happens - is what Maloney is asking for, in coming out as a trans woman. It has been heartening to see the overwhelmingly positive response she has received - a real wonderful signifier of changing attitudes. 

In 2014, it really shouldn’t be much to ask, should it?

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

12 years ago my hair was set on fire. Yesterday I published a Kindle Single short story about it.

You may remember that earlier this summer, I wrote about the 'die in a fire' meme and what it meant to me, as someone who had her set on fire by violent boys.

I have been working on a short story about this incident for nearly a year now, inspired by a conversation I had with two other writers about bullying and violence. I wasn't really sure what to do with it. And then another conversation with another writer gave me the answer - a Kindle Single!

So over the weekend I ventured into the world of Amazon self-publishing and published 'The Boys on the Bus: A Short Story'.

The Kindle Single includes two short stories - the title one, 'The Boys on the Bus', and a second story called 'Anna's Interlude.' Here are the blurbs:

The Boys on the Bus

A writer attending a literary dinner recounts the traumatic experience of having her hair set on fire when she was a schoolgirl 12 years earlier. As she confronts the memory, she realizes how through telling stories, we try to find closure from the trauma caused by violence. This short story explores the nature of violence, memory and trauma in a sensitive and lyrically written way. 

Anna's Interlude

A married woman living during the Second World War embarks on an affair with a young man in the Navy. Through their affair she discovers how unhappy her marriage has made her. She becomes determined to leave her husband and build a new life, a life that is true to herself. But when the letters from her lover come to an abrupt end, she finds she is trapped all over again. 

The Boys on the Bus: A Short Story is available to you for the BARGAIN PRICE of £1.53, and can be downloaded on to your Kindle, or your Kindle app on your smartphone or tablet. 

I really hope you buy it and enjoy it. 

Buy The Boys on the Bus: A Short Story NOW! 

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Greta & Boris: Summer holiday competition!

It's the start of the summer holidays!

Which is exactly the moment when the adventures in my first novel, Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue, begins.

Because it is the first day of the summer holidays when Greta's beloved cat, Boris, is cat-napped by the Rat King.

And it is the second day of the summer holidays when Greta and her intrepid cat-warrior friend, Kyrie, set out to rescue him. On their adventures, Greta must face the challenge of the staircase of the autumn leaves; cross Cloud Top Land and the Milky Sea; end the war between the two tribes of mice and face the truth of the Millpond; before facing the Rat King himself.

Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue makes a fantastic summer holiday read for children (and grown ups!). It's packed with adventure, fabulous characters and fantastic lands.

To celebrate the start of the summer holidays - and the start of Greta's adventures - I'm giving away a signed copy of the book for your whole family to enjoy.

To enter, simply write your name and email address in a comment on this blogpost before midday on Friday 1st August. Comments will not be published so you needn't worry about your contact details being public. I'll then put all the names in a hat and announce the winner on Friday.

Sound good?

You can buy Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue from all good bookshops, including Foyles, Waterstones, Blackwells - as well as on your Kindle.

To get you in the Greta and Boris mood, here's a little taster from the opening chapter:

Swish, swish, was the sound that broke into the stillness of the night. Swish, swish, accompanied with scampering and scratching of claws and paws, rushing forward through grass and fallen leaves towards the palace. And if anyone had been awake to hear it, they would have heard that each scurrying paw-step was landing in time, in the rhythm of a march. A soft thud, thud, swish, swish, echoed through the sleepy kingdom, as only the moon looked down on the onward journey of an army that didn’t want to be seen.
The cats slept on, oblivious to the menace that was slowly surrounding them.
The pack of marching creatures started to head up the hill where the palace stood, imposing and magnificent. In the moonlight, the towering building looked even more beautiful and impressive. The rainbow-colored tiles glistened like tiny fairy lights, a blinding spectacle that illuminated the hills and villages below it. The army continued to advance. As the moonlight reflected off their furry backs, it became increasingly obvious which creatures of the animal kingdom were threatening the peaceful palace of the cats. And there could be no doubt at all, when one of the marching many kicked a stone and let loose a wild and pained ‘SQUEAK!’ before hastily being seen to and told off by the leader of the procession.
The moon could see the horrible truth below her now, yet from her lofty place in the sky was powerless to stop it. It was an army of rats. The rats had invaded the Kingdom of Cats. Under the cover of darkness, safe in the knowledge that every kitten, tom and queen would be sleeping soundly, they had made their cowardly advance, confident that no-one would be able to stop them.
You can buy Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue from all good bookshops, including FoylesWaterstonesBlackwells - as well as on your Kindle.

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. 


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. 


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.