Friday, 30 December 2016

For What the hell just happened?

I contributed to this group round-up of what happened in 2016.

It's in alphabetical order so scroll down to find me!

I argue that while 2016 seemed like a year when everything changed, perhaps it showed just what hasn't changed enough.

Mainly sexism and racism.

Have a read and HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Reeling through 2015, changing through 2016, planning for 2017

“2016,” I’ve said cautiously the last few weeks, “wasn’t so bad, on a personal level.”

Those of you who know me in *real life* will know that 2015 was, err, let’s go with turbulent, on a personal level. Whenever I think back on that year, I picture myself like a spinning wagon wheel, reeling down a bumpy road yelling ‘what the fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu’. It was quite an odd year, all told. Merely experiencing one of the things that happened that year would have been bad enough

But 2016 has been a year of big changes. I moved into my flat in February after frantically decorating it, living off takeaway pizza and having a meltdown about plumbers. After a period of sickness I re-evaluated how I wanted my career to look. That re-evaluation led to me quitting my job so that I now work part-time in a circus as I pursue life as a freelance writer. I’ve made stunning new friends, lost some much-loved people, started writing poems, finished drafting my novel (again) and persuaded the Arts Council to fund me on a writing residency. 

I even got to travel a bit. 

That’s just half the story, though. Because whatever 2016 brought on a personal level, on a political level there’s been no escape from horror and violence and upset. From waking up sobbing at 5am on 24 June to waking up sobbing at 5am on 9 November, to the unbearable experience of watching a news programme start with a breaking terrorist attack in Ankara and end with a breaking terrorist attack in Berlin on Monday night, it has been a frightening and troubling year. 

And it’s got me thinking. 

About 2017. 

Because with Brexit and Trump and increasing instability and violence in the world, I feel like we all need to do something, to do more, to fight back against the march of the right, the swing towards isolationism and protectionism, and the increasingly acceptability or normalisation of hateful speech, attitudes and actions. 

At the same time, it can feel like there is very little anyone can do on a personal, day-to-day level against these huge political tides. What does one do when faced with the horror scenes of Aleppo? How does one respond when we hear news that Trump has barked out every racist insult under the sun? What do we say to the government as they parrot meaningless, circular phrases about what Brexit is and isn’t (it is Brexit, it is red, white and blue, it isn’t going to be shared with us in advance).

I don’t have a clue, quite frankly. 

But here are some things I am going to do in 2017. 

I am going to use the one skill I have – writing – to try and tell more political stories and to try and explore marginalised issues. I’ve always done this – my Paris book which I’ve been working on for the last few years is very focused on telling the untold stories of women artists and writers. But I want to do this more. I’ve got two residencies lined up this year where I’ll start exploring these new stories and new ideas. I feel more and more that there’s almost a duty right now to use art and literature to create alternative media that brings new, honest and perspective-changing stories into the light. 

To be honest with you, writing is all I have. So I’m going to use it more and use it better. I’m going to keep on writing about violence against women and girls. I’m also going to try and write more about other subjects. 

Through my up-coming residencies at Spike Island, Wales Arts Review, and with my continuing involvement in the Read Women project, I’m going to try and do more to provide a platform for, and promote, women’s voices. In a world which saw confirmed groper, alleged rapist and alleged abuser Trump elected over the most qualified person ever to run for President, we need to work harder and raise our voices louder than ever. 

That feels like something I can do. Something I want to do. To tell stories, to build platforms where other women can tell their stories, to collaborate with writers and artists to unearth these stories and give them air. 

Because if we don’t write our stories, if we don’t build our own platforms, then the continuing swing to the right will go unchallenged. The narratives that are being fed to us that normalise hate – racist, sexist, homophobic hate – will become the dominant story. 

My platform is small. It’s here, and in a few other publications. Contrary to rumours in response to this piece from March, I don’t have a weekly national newspaper column!! But in 2017, I’m going to use what I have for all I’ve got – use it to tell the stories that I think need telling, and to challenge the stories that risk causing harm, pain and further political turmoil and violence. 

Watch this space…

Friday, 16 December 2016

For Open Democracy: Ali Smith's Autumn

I adore Ali Smith so of course I was going to love her latest novel, Autumn

But it really is an extraordinary piece of work. 

She's written a novel about summer 2016 that was published in autumn 2016. 

So as you read it, you are reading the history of now. 

Here's my full review for Open Democracy

If you haven't read it yet, do it now. Because it is uncanny to read the now, now. 

Sunday, 11 December 2016

How society and the state gas lights victims of domestic abuse

I’ve written before about how culturally we have a vested interest in ensuring women don’t report incidents of male violence. With 1.2 million incidents of domestic abuse every year in England and Wales, and 500,000 sexual offences (the vast majority of which are perpetrated by men against women), pursuing justice for all perps and all victims would be a societal nightmare. The justice system simply would not be able to cope with the number of men needing to be investigated, tried, sentenced and imprisoned. More than that, the economy would collapse if so many men were taken out of the system. 

If every rape in England and Wales (97,000 a year) was prosecuted and every rapist was sentenced, then there would be chaos. How would our prison system cope with another 90,000+ men behind bars for a minimum of five years (two years with good behaviour)? We can’t imagine what justice for every victim would look like. We just can’t! 

As a result, women’s silence is immensely valuable. 

Recently, however, I’ve come to think of this as not just the state and society passively being invested in women’s silence on male violence. Instead, I’ve come to believe that the state and society is actively gas lighting women, in order to maintain our silence on male violence. 

To give you a definition of gas lighting, I turn to this excellent editorial in Teen Vogue, about how Donald Trump is committing this abuse against an entire nation: 

"Gas lighting" is a buzzy name for a terrifying strategy currently being used to weaken and blind the American electorate. We are collectively being treated like Bella Manningham in the 1938 Victorian thriller from which the term "gas light" takes its name. In the play, Jack terrorizes his wife Bella into questioning her reality by blaming her for mischievously misplacing household items which he systematically hides. Doubting whether her perspective can be trusted, Bella clings to a single shred of evidence: the dimming of the gas lights that accompanies the late night execution of Jack’s trickery. The wavering flame is the one thing that holds her conviction in place as she wriggles free of her captor’s control.

To gas light is to psychologically manipulate a person to the point where they question their own sanity, 

So how are society and the state committing this abuse against women? 

Every day, women are sent messages that the violence committed against us, the day-to-day assaults and violations that we grew up with, don’t really matter. We’re told that they don’t really count. That they’re not that serious and they’re not that bad. Worse, we’re told that they’re probably our own fault. 

Trump is a good example to start with. After the recording of him boasting about committing sexual assaults was released, the backlash against women began. We were told that his comments were just ‘locker room banter’ and therefore not to be taken so seriously. We were sent a clear message: groping women by the pussy was just something that lads do, and we’d be silly to get upset by it. 

Never mind that women know how serious it is. Never mind that women know this, because it happens to us all the time. We were being oversensitive. We were being, dare I say it, hysterical. 

That was two months ago. Since then, the narrative around Trump’s admitted assaults has changed again. Now they’re allegations of which he is innocent before proven guilty (wade through the replies to this tweet). Women’s reality is once more challenged. A man openly boasts about sexual assault. He couldn’t have made his boast clearer. And we’re told that even though he actually said it out loud, it’s still not true. It’s still not that bad. It’s still women complaining about nothing. He can still be President. 

Another recent example is found in the devastating report on violence against girls in schools. The report revealed that:

  • almost a third (29%) of 16-18 year old girls say they have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school
  • nearly three-quarters (71%) of all 16-18 year old boys and girls say they hear terms such as "slut" or "slag" used towards girls at schools on a regular basis
  • 59% of girls and young women aged 13-21 said in 2014 that they had faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college in the past year

The report also exposed how, time and time again, teachers respond to girls reporting this kind of sexually aggressive behaviour with the answer ‘boys will be boys.’ As Laura Bates said in this BBC interview

"We do also hear from girls who report this type of harassment or even unwanted sexual touching to teachers only to be told, 'Boys will be boys,' or, 'He probably just likes you.’"

What this tells us is that from a very young age, girls are sent the message that the violence committed against them isn’t that bad. It’s just something that boys do and that girls have to learn to put up with. We’re taught from the beginning not only not to expect justice for the violence committed against us, we’re not even to think of it as actual violence.  

Can you see how this is an act of gas lighting? 

Let me spell it out. Women are abused by men. Girls are abused by boys. We feel uncomfortable, angry, hurt or afraid. We don’t like what has been done to us. We start to think of it as violence. 

But then we’re told that it’s not. We’re told it’s locker room banter, or boys being boys. We’re told that it’s not that bad after all. We were told it was our fault, if anything did happen. 

And so we start to think that perhaps we were oversensitive. Perhaps our feelings were wrong - an overreaction. Perhaps it was us, after all. And so we live with what’s happened to us, and we keep on living with it, because it keeps on happening. 

I’ve had personal experience of this. That sense of violation, and then questioning my own reaction. Was it my fault? Did I lead him on? Am I overreacting by thinking of this as assault? I wrote about that specific thought process after the Dave Lee Travis conviction, when a lot of men were very invested in denying that his actions were violent, let alone criminal. 

If everyone is telling you that what happens to you is not really violent, is not really criminal, then you start to doubt your own reactions to it. How could you not?  

And once that doubt creeps in, there’s no way you go and report. So the status quo is maintained and violent men can continue to violate women with impunity. 

This is the kind of societal gas lighting that tells women our experiences of violence don’t matter. But there is a more direct way in which the state itself gas lights women survivors of male violence - again to maintain that status quo and deny women justice for the violence committed against us

Recently I spoke to a friend about her experiences of dealing with the criminal justice system in England after reporting a violent ex. I use her story with her permission. 

During the abusive relationship, her ex would tell her that she was overreacting to his violence. I won’t go into details here, but suffice to say these were severe and extreme acts of physical violence. He would call her oversensitive, and say she took his actions too seriously. He was gas lighting her - telling her that her experiences and her reactions to those experiences were not only invalid, they were not real

Another example was how when she tried to speak to him about his behaviour, he would tell her that it was ‘in the past’ - even if that “past” was only a few days before. Again, he was using manipulation to deny her experience. 

What my friend found when she went to the police was a repeat of this exact same gas lighting. 

From officers telling her that she’d be better off not pursuing the case and talking to her friends instead because it would be too hard to prosecute, to other officers expressing empathy with her ex, she faced a constant battle to mentally hold on to her reality, her real and lived experience. As time went on, the statute of limitations for some of the accusations passed. She was told by the CPS, just as her ex had told her, that these things were ‘too far in the past’ to do anything about. 

With the statute of limitations passed on one aspect of the case, she is now faced with a reality where legally, nothing can be done to prosecute certain incidents committed against her. Legally, it's as if they never happened. She has no recourse to justice left and he will never be charged for what he did. 

That, right there, is how the low conviction rate for crimes against women is an example of the state’s gas lighting. We know what is done to us. We may even tell the police what is done to us. Time moves on, nothing happens, and suddenly it’s too late. With no justice in sight, women are forced to accept that, according to the state, what happens to us isn’t so bad. We’re left, floundering around, asking in desperation whether we were, in fact, wrong to take it seriously. Whether it really was so bad as we thought it was. 

Because, the state forces us to ask, if it were so bad, if it were as frightening and horrifying and devastating as we experienced it to be, then surely something should have happened? Surely justice should have been done?

It’s truly disturbing. Everywhere women live with the knowledge that men have committed violence against them, and yet time and time again men are never convicted. They commit these awful crimes, and nothing happens to them. In that ‘nothing’ is the pressure on women to accept. In that ‘nothing’ is the gas lighting statement: what you thought happened to you didn’t happen in the way you thought it did, wasn’t as bad as you thought it was, because if it were then surely he’d be in jail.

This brings me back to the beginning of the post. There is an epidemic of male violence in this country. Every day, hundreds of women are raped, abused and assaulted by men. For every woman to receive justice is too much for society and the state to cope with. So there exists a need to ensure women and girls keep their silence. And that need is met by endless messaging sent to women, telling us that the violence committed against us is not only normal and inevitable, it’s also not as bad as we think it is. It’s boys will be boys. It’s locker room banter. It’s just get over it and talk to your friends if you’re upset, it’s too hard to prosecute. 

This is an act of mass gas lighting. It denies women justice and maintains a gendered power structure where men as a class can oppress women as a class, using violence as its ultimate tool and threat. 

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Stop trying to make 'fascie' happen...

...or, how we must resist the normalisation of the far right. 

On Thursday, a friend of mine put on Facebook that she and a friend were in an Arabic restaurant in London, ordering their food using the correct Arabic names. A man shouted over to them that ‘they should speak English because this is England.’ Aside from the irony of this man enjoying Arabic food in England, this is not the only such incident she has spoken of since Brexit and Trump’s election victory - two political events in the last six months that have emboldened racism, misogyny and homophobia. 

On the same day, another friend of mine re-tweeted about an Evening Standard article on the ‘fascie pack’ -  a puff piece gushing about how the new generation of fascists were well-dressed, well-groomed and, well, I don’t know how to put it, really. Cool? Hip? Edgy? 

Everything about this article was completely mind-boggling. It dripped with celebratory descriptors for its subjects, from calling Milo the ‘arch celebrity of the movement’ to focusing on Tomi Lahren’s ‘allure’ - she is ‘slim, pretty […] zealous about her mission’ who ‘with a deft hand makes a discussion about cultural appropriation seem trivial’. 

Under a subhead ‘dress the part’, the journalist explains the haircut of the alt-right male - ‘a short back and sides but long on top (nicknamed “the fascie”)’ and their ‘three outfits: a dark suit, a Farage-esque heritage look or a skinhead with Eighties jacket and light-wash jeans.’ Meanwhile, the women are ‘polished […] Lahren has it down: smooth, tonged hair and slim-fitting A-line dresses.’  

So there you have it. A style guide for hate speech, fake news and conspiracy theories. 

This is one of a number of articles I’ve seen in recent weeks that seem to have decided the really interesting thing about the rise of the far right is fashion, not politics. And okay, maybe in being pissed off about it I am just doing exactly what such click-baiting articles want me to do. I’m being as outraged as they want me to be. 

But there is something important to say about the way these articles are normalising the hateful, dangerous rhetoric that is making it easier and more acceptable to shout at a black woman in an Arabic restaurant to ‘speak English, you’re in England’. 

Right now, we don’t need puff pieces about fascist fashion. We never did. I don’t care if Tomi Lahren wears an A-line skirt of a pencil skirt. I don’t care about which fascist wears a suit and which one styles himself on the 80s skin head beating up black kids. I care about the rise of hateful, far-right speech that is inciting hate crimes against BME communities, the LGBT community and women across all communities. That is where our energy and our attention needs to be focused. Articles like this only serve to normalise what is hateful and dangerous. Focusing on fashion over politics might seem like a fun pitch in an editorial meeting. But the impact of the rise of the far right on people across the world is far from pretty and far from frivolous. 

We cannot allow the things these young far-right ‘thought-leaders’ say to become acceptable. We can’t afford to normalise fascism. Because as soon as we do that, as soon as we describe them as ‘impeccably groomed’ or ask whether the leader of Austria’s young far right movement is ‘hipster or hatemonger?’ (glasses don’t make you a hipster, if you spread hate then you are a hatemonger), then we’re treating hate speech as a trend. As something that is just happening in the world that we have to get along with, like Amish-style beards and sailor tattoos. It becomes met with a shrug, with a: it might not be for me, but heck, who am I to judge? 

We are to judge. We need to judge. We need to speak out and say that the rhetoric spouted by Breitbart writers and right-wing YouTube ‘stars’ is vile, and hateful, and causing real harm. 

There’s something inherently naive about these articles that reminds me of the way we talk about domestic violence abusers and rapists. As if all fascists have a swastika tattooed on their foreheads. As if you can’t brush your hair before opening your mouth to pour out racist epithets. Just like the wife-beater doesn’t always conform to your stereotyped expectations, neither need the far right. The hate speech they spout doesn’t become easier to stomach because it’s delivered by someone wearing a sharp suit. The impact of that hate speech isn’t lessened because they’ve given their shit haircuts a sickeningly cutesie nickname. 

As I wrote last month, since Trump’s election there have been exhortations for those of us who despise everything he stands for to reach out to his supporters with empathy and understanding. We’re told that we need to accept the result, and accept what it means. 

I disagree with this. I don’t think we should try and reach out with an olive branch to racism and misogyny and homophobia - that we should try and understand politics that want to ban all members of Islam from a country and damns an entire country’s population as rapists. Yes, we have to ask why these ideas are becoming more and more popular. But we don’t have any obligation to reach out with care and understanding. Because as soon as we do that, what do we say to those under attack from these views? What do we say to the woman whose hijab has been ripped from her head; to the woman denied an abortion in Ohio? Where does our understanding of their attackers take us? How do we answer to the victims and survivors? 

I believe that we need to challenge it. To refuse to accept it. We need to stop pretending that it’s normal and understandable, and instead we need to argue back. Fight back. We need to say that it’s not Milo’s freedom of speech under threat when he’s banned from Twitter, it’s the women he’s set his supporters on. We need to point out again and again that those attacking the ‘liberal elite’ are themselves the elite. We need to put the blame for inequality firmly where it belongs. 

My worry is that seemingly frivolous articles about the fashion choices of the far right are part of a creeping acceptance. They are contributing to the normalisation of hate speech. Look, these articles say. Look at their clothes. Not their views. Not what those views mean. Not what those views lead to. Keep looking at the clothes, and how nice the clothes are. 

The rise of the far right isn’t a quirky trend. We simply cannot allow it to be normalised as though it were. 

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Post-Brexit bedfellows, and a story from Bahrain

A couple of years  ago, I worked on the Amnesty campaign to free Mahdi Abu Dheeb, a trade union activist arrested in Bahrain in 2011 following the Arab Spring uprising for organising a strike.  Under arrest, he was allegedly tortured by the regime and held in solitary confinement which in itself constitutes a form of torture.

As part of the campaign, I interviewed his young daughter Maryam. She remains one of the bravest and strongest women I’ve ever had the privilege to speak to. Just out of her teens when I spoke to her, she told me in detail about the horrors her family had endured since her father’s arrest.  She spoke eloquently about the kindness and generosity of her father. She told me about how she learnt of his arrest through Twitter – that he had been thrown from a second-floor window. For weeks the family didn’t know where Mahdi had gone – it was a month before they learnt he was still alive. It was another month before they saw him again – on trial for inciting hatred against the regime.

Maryam told me how her father looked ill in the courtroom and walked as if in intense pain. He wrote to her and her family to allege beatings, broken ribs and being hit with a hose. Arrested, allegedly tortured, sentenced for years in prison – all for calling a strike. All for standing up for teachers’ rights.

Today I saw on Twitter that Theresa May is in Bahrain attempting to ‘turbo-charge’ the UK’s relationship with Gulf States as we move out of the EU and need to find trading partners elsewhere.

Brexit brings us to strange bedfellows, it seems.

When we trade with the EU, we know that a certain standard of human rights and ethics will be upheld by our neighbour states, right? Okay: so it’s not guaranteed. There are EU states that have some dodgy records and are enacting some unpleasant policies – just look at Hungary. But, as a general rule, when a country applies to join the EU there’s an expectation on upholding human rights. There’s a degree of ambition. A promise of shared values.

Outside of the EU, and we’re going to have to start making trade deals with more controversial powers. On her trip to the Gulf, May be meet with dictators who execute people for sorcery and who flog men for blogposts. She’s in Bahrain where, as we’ve seen above, the post-Arab Spring crackdown was one of the most brutal in the region. She’s meeting leaders of countries where homosexuality is illegal and where thousands of migrant workers have died building footballing vanity projects.

It begs the question – how far are we prepared to go? The answer leaves a foul taste in my mouth. Are we willing as a country to give up our commitment to human rights and increase deals with the regime that beat up and disappeared Maryam’s father? Are we going to flaunt our commitment to freedom of speech and set up agreements with states that brutally suppress the written word? Are we going to congratulate ourselves on our equality legislation while signing contracts with nations where women are legally second-class; where LGBT communities are criminalised?

Is this the face of Brexit? More dinners with despots? Tea with tyrants?

None of this is new, of course, but it feels more pressing with the new world order Brexit is confronting us with.

After Castro died, I ended up breaking my “don’t watch political TV you’ll just get cross” rule and caught a bit of Marr. The debate was raging about the appropriate response to his death was. One of the panellists brought up that when ‘the dictator in Saudi Arabia died last year, the flag was flown at half mast at Buckingham Palace.’

‘You mean the King,’ Marr shot back.

Now, I’m not here to defend Castro’s human rights record. I once half-jokingly chatted about marrying a gay guy from the country after he fled the state-sponsored homophobia.

I’m just here to point out that changing the name of dictators, autocrats and leaders of repressive regimes to ‘King’ doesn’t make a difference to someone like Maryam. It doesn’t make the beatings allegedly afflicted upon her father any less painful.

I’d like May to use her time in Bahrain to meet Maryam, and the women like her who searched desperately for their relatives in the post Arab-Spring crackdown. I’d like her to meet the women who have refused to be silenced on the human rights violations committed in their countries. I’d like May to meet these women, and then try to justify ‘turbo-charged’ trade agreements with the men who call themselves Kings, rather than the names they deserve. 

Thursday, 1 December 2016

For the Heroine Collective: Jean Rhys

Writing this series for The Heroine Collective has been such a joy, I can't believe this is my penultimate piece on the amazing and inspiring women who made their home on the Left Bank during the 1920s.

But, it is. And it is on Jean Rhys, absolutely one of my favourite writers.

Have a read