November 2009


Photo courtesy of Kaptain Koboid under a Creative Commons license


TMZ‘s scoop that police are investigating if Tiger Woods’ injuries were as a result of domestic violence will no doubt highlight the issue that men are also victims of domestic violence.
I wince at some of the “men are victims of domestic violence too” articles. Not because I don’t have sympathy for men who suffer it but because often there’s an underlying assumption that stories about violence against women are old hat and over-familiar while violence against men has shock factor or that the attention given to women is somehow unfair to me.
But there were some thoughtful articles about violence in this country like this one from Camilla Batmanghelidjh, the founder of Kids Company who called for “a more sophisticated narrative about violence” and for initiatives that get to the source of the problem.

Cultural permission for violence towards girls needs to be perceived as completely unacceptable, but let us not forget the boys. And let us not present the argument as “men do harm and women are victims”. Men and women can both be perpetrators of violence, and as no one is born a criminal or an abuser, then we need to understand that the origins of violence towards others are nearly always a by-product of violence survived.

Tim Lott in the Independent looks at figures from the British Crime Survey that show the rate of domestic violence is about 0.4 per cent in the female population while for 16-24 year old males the chance of being a victim of violence is 13.2 per cent.

…perhaps it might be worthwhile during the “Why It Is Bad for People to Hurt One Another” double period, to deliver a few doubtless ineffectual words about the continuing and disgraceful casualisation and normalisation of violence among and towards young men – which arguably is a phenomenon that overflows seamlessly and poisonously into male/female relationships.
The violence of men against men is not necessarily a more serious problem than the violence of men against women. But it is a far bigger one. If this project of men learning not to hit or assault women is to be addressed in our schools, then it is surely worth wasting an equal amount of time rehearsing the injunction that men should not hit other men either.

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Photo by Carpetblogger through a Creative Commons license


The story about primary school children being given lessons in gender equality as part of a government campaign to tackle domestic violence by 2011 was headline news on 25 November, which was Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
Here’s just a sample of the coverage from: the BBC; The Guardian; New Statesman and the Daily Mail.
Five days later it was in China View that I first got to read about a 16-day campaign to eliminate violence against women in Afghanistan.
The New York Times also picked up the story with a piece headlined Rape In Afghanistan A Profound Problem, U.N. Says
News agency AFP was at the same press briefing with Norah Niland, Chief Human Rights Officer of United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

Violence targeting women and girls is widespread and deeply rooted in Afghan society. It is not adequately challenged and condemned by society and institutions,” said Norah Niland. “The space for women in public life is shrinking. The trend is negative.
“It’s also a problem because there is very little possibility of finding justice, there is no explicit provision in the 1976 Afghan penal code that criminalises rape.

A journalist who frequently travels to Afghanistan told me it has become almost impossible to find editors interested in stories about women in the country.
“We’ve done it already” is a familiar refrain heard in newsrooms when stories are put forward about women in Afghanistan, about honour crimes, about domestic violence.
Can you imagine an editor saying ‘Sorry, we did a story about a sacked football manager last week’? Since when did stories about women become so “niche”?
The line at the end of the China View piece was particularly striking:

Some 100 women in attempt to get rid of miseries mostly due to domestic violence, according to media reports have committed self-immolation over the past one year in Afghanistan.

The BBC did look at Afghan women who turn to immolation in March this year and November 2006 and there are organisations such as the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan are working to highlight the issue
I know that it can often be a question of resources for cash-strapped news organisations and that a story has to be “new” to make the news, but I’ve heard some fascinating and shocking and depressing stories about women around the world that are unlikely to ever see the light of day in a national news paper or on a news bulletin. It’s a reminder that you have to look beyond the mainstream news agenda to get a balanced diet.

Photo by Anthony Kelly via a Creative Commons license

One day on a bus a woman got into a mild disagreement with a man who demanded she give back what he insisted was “his” seat. After a little resistance she gave up and moved to a seat a few rows behind me on the right. The man, who was sitting two rows in front of me began in a steady, quiet tone to insult the woman, making jibes about her weight, telling her she needed to go to the gym, that she was ugly.
She didn’t respond and nor did the man sitting in the row in front who kept his eyes glued on his book. After a while I leaned out slightly and said quietly “You’re out of order”. The statement had a surprising impact: the man immediately turned to face ahead like a child chastised in class.
The glares the man gave me for the rest of the journey were threatening enough to make me relieved when he got off the bus. And if I was expecting to be bathed in the warming glow of sisterhood I was disappointed: the woman didn’t speak or even look at me when she walked past. Sticking your neck out on someone else’s behalf can feel awkward and uncomfortable. But I do have a firm conviction that we shouldn’t avoid navigating that kind of awkwardness.
I write about this because I’ve been thinking about Clive James’ essay on honour crime and his attack on feminist thinkers for failing to speak out which I’ve already blogged about here:

After 70 years of hard training, I had finally accepted that it was not a woman’s job to wash my socks, but I still thought that if there were thousands of madmen all over the world ready to murder or mutilate their own daughters for imaginary crimes, then it was a woman’s job to object in the first instance, always provided that she was free to do so. On the whole, however, it hasn’t happened.

He quotes Australian journalist Pamela Bone who criticised Western feminists for failing to protest

“against female genital mutilation; or against honour killings, stonings, child marriages, forced seclusion or any of the other persecutions to which women are still subjected. The fire of Western feminism has quietly died away, first as a victim of its success, lately as a victim of cultural relativism, of anti-Americanism and reluctance to be seen to be condemning the enemies of the enemy.

Concerns about cultural imperialism have rightly shaped the debate about how Western feminists should engage with third world feminism on issues pertinent to women globally, as Naomi Wolf’s answer to that exact question by a Guardian reader illustrates.
But has the judgement that to want to help is somehow a demonstration of superiority on behalf of an individual or culture made Western feminists less inclined to engage with these issues? Do we have to be “sorted” before we consider helping others as Germaine Greer appeared to suggest in an exchange with Pamela Bone in 2007?

Photo by Jean-Christophe Dichant via a Creative Commons license

At some point I will do a round up of all the books and blogs that pore over the style and outlook of French women. For now I’m just wondering if the appeal is straightforwardly superficial – the appeal of well-heeled, well-dressed, mainly bourgeois women? Or does it say something more about women and identity today?
This article hints at some of the appeal of Mireille Guilliano describing how the “pleasure-oriented approach to staying thin” in her first book French Women Don’t Get Fat “combined classic principles of Gallic gastronomy, time-honoured secrets of French women and common sense”.
Mireille Guilliano wrote her latest book Women, Work & the Art of Savoir Faire: Business Sense & Sensibility “as a guide to balancing work life with life life”. This is why her business book not only covers “important workplace skills and strategies” but “also covers style and food and wine and entertaining: because you can’t disassociate work from life. The book I wrote is as much about ‘art de vivre’ as it is about getting ahead.”
The aspiration to live life like a French woman is based on the narrow cultural stereotype of French woman = beautiful, elegant stylish creature and rightly has its critics. Zoe Williams sees in the proliferation of “themed diet books” a discourse that “both reveals and keeps alive a way of talking about women that should have been dispatched by now”.

Just as a lot of subtle racism slipped in under the guise of anthropology in old-school National Geographics, so a lot of misogyny slips in under the obfuscating, colourful gauze of Studies in French Etiquette.

Samara Ginsberg, writing on the FWord agrees:

I’m glad I’m not the only woman who gets pissed off about the idea that in order to be elegant, sophisticated and “feminine”, I am supposed to be wearing Chanel, smoking Gauloises, pouting a lot whilst sitting outside cafes, and not getting fat. How many women actually have the money and inclination to buy designer clothes? And since when has smoking given you anything except yellow teeth, chronic bronchitis and a greater-than-average chance of dying a hideous death?

Recently published books on French Women include Debra Ollivier’s‘s What French Women Know Leaving aside the wrangle over copyright with another blogger Polly-Vous Francais? there Debra Ollivier publishes a list of Twenty things that she thinks distinguishes French women.
This fascination with the (idealised) French way is says Zoe Williams a “cliche of French womanhood” that “is retrogressive and seems to have halted circa Dangerous Liaisons”.
But why are so many women in the US and UK in particular turning to “time-honoured secrets of the French”? It’s not just whether this is a new guise for oppression of women I’m interested in, it’s also what it says about what women are looking for. Whether the prescription is a good one, does the search reflect a desire for something more resonant in womanhood?

Is Sarah Palin a feminist? It’s a question that has been exercising the minds of some commentators:

Sarah Palin

Pic: Jeff Geerling

Matthew Continetti believes she is. In an interview with Shawn Macomber in the American Spectator he says:
“Palin does not subscribe to the full menu of what the political consultant and author Jeffrey Bell has called “adversarial feminism.
“But Palin is a feminist. She supports Title IX, frequently mentions the “glass ceiling” separating women from men, attacked Barack Obama for paying his female Senate staff members less than male staff, and outlined a pro-woman foreign policy that Hillary Clinton would be comfortable supporting. But she is also pro-life and does not believe that women necessarily must trade off a happy home life for professional success.”

In his book The Persecution of Sarah Palin, Continetti argues that the “story of Sarah Palin is the story of American political journalism’s intellectual bankruptcy”.
And it was “the feminist establishment” that began the “crusade to expel her from the city of ladies,” he goes on. “They succeeded in making her politically polarizing. But, I think, they also irrevocably tarnished their ability to speak on behalf of women as a whole.”

More criticism of feminists comes from Leslie Sanchez in her book You’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe. Writing about the book in the New Yorker Ariel Levy criticises the direction taken by American feminism of focusing on identity politics and getting women in positions of power rather than what they should do when they get there.
Picking up on Sanchez’s complaint that Gloria Steinem‘s criticism of Palin sent the message that, “you can run, Sarah Palin, but you won’t get my support because you don’t believe in all the same things I believe in” Jezebel writes: “The idea that men had the luxury of choosing candidates they actually agree with but women had to vote with their vaginas was one of the most upsetting things about the 2008 election.”

On the day Amnesty International and women’s organisations lobbied MPs for increased protection for all women facing violence in the UK, I re-read Janice Turner’s recent article on the silence of feminists in the face of casual sexism. Wondering where feminism went wrong Turner writes that of the half dozen twenty-somethings she met in a bid to find out only one identified themselves as a feminist and the rest didn’t identify with it at all:

The only feminist they can think of is Julie Bindel, the radical lesbian writer. Feminism means no fun or make-up, anger and hating men. It is a broken brand, not needed now. As one put it: “All the battles are won.”

Why is it, Turner asks, “that while America has a tradition of feminist writers and thinkers, including Naomi Wolf and Katie Roiphe, there are no young women “questioning the orthodoxy here”?

In a later article Turner sets out to rally feminists and stir up resistance to the “pornification” of culture. It’s time to challenge casual sexism she writes, inviting readers to send in examples of sexism.
The response to her first article she says was “thank God, someone is saying this — I thought I was alone”.

Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony argues it isn’t a case of feminists being silent, although she acknowledges those voices are rarely heard in the mainstream. She also criticises Turner for showing “a lack of knowledge or disregard of just what has been going on in the online world for the last decade” and picks up on the fact that feminists are often criticised for being silent on a variety of issues: “I’ve had it up to here with the “feminists have been silent about…” trope that springs up everywhere in the media both on line and off”.

So to an article by Clive James I recently re-read criticising feminists for their silence on the subject of so-called honour killings. He writes about Pamela Bone, an Australian journalist whose 2005 article in the Melbourne Age attacked Western feminists for failing to speak up against abuses in the Western world.

Reading around this issue, as with many others, it’s clear there are many vibrant feminist writers online.
If you are looking for authoritative voices speaking out in the mainstream media in the UK however, “silence” is what you’re likely to get.

Whether that’s important depends on how much weight you give to the mainstream. If you think it’s important that feminism is “heard” in the media then some of the questions Janice Turner raises about the pressures to keep quiet are important ones – but is it as much about deafness as about silence?

The news bulletins during Kate Silverton’s Five Live programme yesterday included three grim stories:

The discovery of six bodies in the home of convicted rapist Anthony Sowell in the US city of Cleveland, Ohio.

The attack in Liverpool of trainee policeman James Parkes and the candlelit vigil attended by 1,500 people.
Kate Silverton followed this up by playing Rod Stewart’s Georgie Boy, opening a discussion about a 14 per cent rise in homophobic attacks including the murder of Ian Baynham in Trafalgar Square with this:

As a teenager I remember listening, this was in the 80s to this track by Rod Stewart the killing of The Killing of Georgie, a song about a gay man killed simply for being gay and I remember distinctly thinking at the time that such a terrible thing really couldn’t happen today. That was in the 80s and here we are again seeing exactly the same kind of violence meted out to someone just because they are deemed to be different, strange, not normal, whatever justification someone uses to turn against someone else.

Emily Carr, the woman attacked by Marlon King provoked a different discussion when she called for the footballer to be given a lifetime ban: George Riley’s report focused on the theme of the Wigan Athletic forward’s career and the backing he received from Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballer’s Association.

So what makes for the different approaches: that it’s a footballer doing the punching, or is it less shocking if a woman gets punched?

Talking to Kate Silverton about the homophobic attacks Dr Matthew Waites, senior lecturer sociology Glasgow university, said calling it hate crime was “complex” – it implies it’s an issue for a small minority of people.

His suggestion that it was an issue of masculinity got lost as the conversation moved on.. Masculinity, gender, violence: they just don’t seem to fit in a radio show discussion.