The Enemies Within Feminism

 

Aftershocks are still being felt around the world since the USA election. The result heralds the death of dreams, struggles, aspirations and ideals. Civil rights, social justice, economic equity  and fairness have been vanquished by reactionaries of all shades. Liberals are nonplussed, desolate and lost. They ask themselves why so many Hispanics, African Americans and even Muslims voted for an iniquitous Republican leader  who demonised and threatened Hispanics, African Americans and Muslims. We feminists are also distressed and confused. Trump openly disrespected and scorned females, their bodies and minds; he was accused by credible women of groping them; he promised to take away their reproductive rights. And yet, and yet, 53% of white female voters chose him over Hilary Clinton. Without them Trump would not have won. What were they thinking? What do we now think of such women, the enemies within?

Their perfidy seems boundless. On Monday, a West Virginia country worker Pamela Ramsey Taylor was sacked from her job after she wrote these celebratory words on Facebook: ‘It will be refreshing to have a classy, beautiful, dignified First Lady in the White House. I am tired of seeing a Ape (sic) in heels’.  That bad, real bad post, got a response from Beverly Whaling, the mayor of some small town called Clay. ‘Just Made my day Pam’, wrote Ms Whaling, under Taylor’s horrible post. These two are not exceptions. Over the past many months we have seen too many feral, antifeminist US females. Some of them made Trump sound relatively sane and civil.

We have them here too, women who seem to despise other women. Some of them are the most powerful females in the land. Theresa May is rolling out policies from various departments that are having a punitive effect on vulnerable women. The new tranche of benefit ‘reforms’ will deprive lone mums of essential cash. We are told these will encourage them to go look for jobs. But how? Childcare is prohibitively expensive. Families can help, but they too are under severe pressure. Margaret Thatcher was just as indifferent to powerless, voiceless women. Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary,  is another one of those women who wants to prove she can be harder than any man. I blasphemously find myself looking back wistfully at that nice John Major, sincere Gordon Brown and the most egalitarian Home Secretary we have ever had, Roy Jenkins who got sex and race equality laws through parliament.

Throughout history, female advancement has been opposed by misguided, stubborn or traditional females. In the early decades of the 20th Century, when indomitable suffragettes fought tenaciously and bravely to get votes for women, they were resolutely opposed by the Anti-women’s Suffragette League. The novelist Mrs Humphrey Ward ( 1850-1921), for example, was convinced that ‘ …the emancipation process has now reached the limits fixed by the physical constitution of women’. Today, as more women get into top jobs, more of them tyrannize females underlings. A Canadian research study found that female workers suffered from more emotional and physical problems under female supervisors than male supervisors. The American Management Association reported that in another study, 95% of women felt undermined by other women (www.forbes.com/…/management-issues-workplace-forbes-woman-views-worst-bosses…)

 

Some such put upon workers have gone to Industrial tribunal courts. A few won their cases and huge compensations. In 2006, for example, Helen Green of Deutsche Bank was awarded £800,000 after proving that four female colleagues had bullied her depleted her confidence. In too many girl’s schools, female heads create a cutthroat culture. Some girls break down and never recover.

So tell me sisters, was it all for this? Or has feminism lost its way and purpose?

These uncomfortable questions are mostly avoided by today’s most active feminists. They prefer to blame everything on men, or find spurious excuses for oppressive women or glorify femaleness as  divine and flawless.  These comforting myths cannot sustain us any longer. We did not walk the long, tiring road just to get the right to behave even worse than men. Or to become inside agents for sexists and misogynists.

Trump’s babes and post Brexit female political leaders have shaken up everything. Feminism needs to get tough, self critical and truthful if it to survive this turbulent, regressive new age.

Edited Version I newspaper 17/11/16

Hardline Muslim Sisters

 

Brexit, Trump’s victory and populism pose an existential threat to westernised Muslims. These are  testing, volatile times. Blameless believers are caught between unbending Islam and an extremist political right. We will have to get smarter and more strategic.

Islam was once diverse, flexible, wise, essentially kind and unthreatening. In 1887, William Quilliam, a convert, opened the first Islamic prayer house in Liverpool. Hundreds, including Lord Stanley of Alderley Edge, converted to the faith. Queen Victoria was delighted when a traditional mosque was built in  Woking in 1888. Regent’s Park mosque is constructed on crown land which Churchill presented to Muslims, thousands of whom had fought with the allies in both world wars. It was never easy, but early Muslim settlers fought hard to belong, to keep their faith without aggressively pushing it.

Those were the soft old days, before Saudi Arabia and other rich, conservative Arab nations spread their fanatical doctrines. London, the worlds’ most dynamic and mixed city,  is the centre of British Salafism and Wahabism. Successive governments have been totally relaxed about this religious takeover. Remember, all the 9/11 attackers were linked to Saudi Arabia, Britain’s good friend. Focus on many years has been on terrorism, less on the ideological base, the punishing, puritan form of Islam which denigrates non-Muslims, Muslims who are seen as deviants, and  females. Bewilderingly, millions of women are drawn to this hard core credo. Veils are the visible symbols of obscurantism and segregation.

Like many Muslims worldwide, I get caught up in a vortex of ire and incredulity when I see fully niqabed ( veiled) British Muslim women or little girls whose hair and bodies are already covered up. In Shepherd’s Bush market you can buy stretchy hijabs ( head coverings)  for six month olds. Sometimes I ask the ladies why they live as tribes within a nation or where it says in the Qur’an that female children are dangerously carnal. Most refuse to engage. A few do, and say things like: ‘ We must train the girls to be good Muslims’ or ‘You non-hijabis will not go to paradise’. Well, frankly, paradise would be joyless  if only hooded, self-righteous sisters are permitted through the gate.

In 2014, I wrote a book Refusing the Veil ( Biteback), in which I described early feminists in Egypt and Iran and my own family who threw off the wretched shrouds. After publication, I had some of the worst hate mail I have ever had from Salafi women. When I appeared on a Channel4 programme on the niqab, angry, noisy bats cornered me and physically pushed me around. You cannot question them, because they are, like cult members, unquestioning.

In Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, females are forced to cover up completely; in Iran, they cannot go out without a headscarf. Savage punishments are meted out to those who accidentally or purposely reveal a bit of flesh or lock of hair.  Meanwhile ultra-purist females in free countries follow these oppressive dress codes. Why? This is the burning question.

A new study, The Making of a Salafi Woman, by Anabel Inge, a white academic, tries to find some answers. This is an under-researched subject and so any credible information is very welcome. Inge clearly gained the trust of these usually reticent and wary women. Many are troubled and find solace in rules and certainties. One young interviewee, raised by her relatives, said: ‘ Instead of asking my mum or dad I didn’t have, I turned to God from a young age’. For Warda, bad GCSE results felt like punishment from Allah. She had been a ‘bad Muslim’, so she sought religious purification. Some interviewees hold odious views. All of them accept male dominance, express religious supremacy  and relinquish pleasures- including birthdays, music and dancing. Inge claims none of them are coerced, but I know there is both soft and brutal coercion pushing the thoughtless ardency.

The new world order will push more Muslims towards Salafism or Wahabism, which will whip up more hatred and right wing nationalism. An all- out culture war looms. This, as Obama told his daughters, is no time to take up a foetal position and hide.  Good liberals and progressive Muslims must wake up and together confront the emerging forces of darkness.

Edited version I newspaper 26/11/16

Social Care

 

My mood darkens every December. Another birthday rolls along too, too fast, bones ache a bit more, the skin feels as thin and fragile as a butterfly’s wing. Mortality shuffles closer, brings quiet terror. But for me, far worse , is fear of infirmity and dependence, a long wait for the end, of being lonely and incontinent in some institution, of becoming a burden on society and my family.

Too many people in the west are now living too long – an unintended consequence of cumulative improvements in medicine and diets. NHS hospital services are under severe pressure as increasing numbers of very old and helpless people are kept on wards because local authorities cannot provide adequate social care. The NHS gets national funding while social care comes out of council budgets which have had budgets slashed mercilessly by first, the coalition government now the Tories. The LibDems, to their eternal shame, backed George Osborne’s maniacal drive to cut, cut, cut, welfare costs. That led to the present crisis, though admittedly the problem has been neglected or sidelined by all our political parties for a very long time.

Governments set up sober committees and commission weighty reports, but recommendations are quietly shelved. Till the next time. Just as individuals dread thinking about getting old, ministers dread producing policies to deal with the burgeoning ageing population. The powerful do not follow expert advice, and have chosen the path of least resistance. Their inaction and hesitancy comes out of political expediency and feebleness.

Here is what I think would help transform social care. First, taxes for all those except the low paid must be raised substantially. In Sweden, for example, where workers and bosses pay very high taxes, the elderly are exceptionally well looked after. Recently 4.3 billion Swedish krona to further improve provision. Our nationals are encouraged to think taxes are iniquitous or state theft while Scandinavians believe  paying taxes is a duty for socially responsible citizens. In almost all international surveys Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland come top when it comes to the well being of the young and old. GB needs to get less vain and learn from these nations on how to create good societies.

Next, politicians should stop being defensive about migrant workers and tell the public that social care provision depends on them. In her last few years, my mother was washed and sometimes fed in her own flat by Nigerian, Lebanese and  Rumanian care workers. I looked after her, but needed supplementary help which the council was happy to provide. She was lucky. Those days are gone. Councils can no longer pay for these services. Furthermore, care homes are closing as immigration rules harden. A childhood friend who runs a number of these homes told me that she is thinking of pulling out of the sector because excellent Filipino and Indian nurses are denied visas. The anti-immigrant hysteria which is leading to draconian new regulations will leave the most vulnerable without assistance. Has Mrs May told her people that fact? Have Gove or Boris or Fox or  any of the hard Brixiters? No. They do not attend to such inconvenient truths.

Thirdly, those of us who own our homes can no longer expect to keep those assets intact when we grow old and need physical assistance. We will have to remortgage, downsize or sell up. The poorest in our country must get free and good care. The middle classes must make more of a contribution towards the costs. Of course they will hate the very thought and their friends in the media will kick up a storm, without offering solutions. The huffy, self righteous, entitled middle classes, of whom I am one, must now adapt to new realities.

We should also allow old people of sound minds to choose to die with dignity. I hope, when my time comes, I can see myself off. Parliamentarians have too long dithered over this fundamental human right.

Finally, tax the rich properly and give big tax breaks or cash to the many Britons who are looking after frail old relatives. They provide an essential service and yet remain in the shadows, unacknowledged and unrewarded.

Our MPs and ministers need to adopt radical ideas and bold interventions before the crisis in social care turns into a catastrophe. Will they step up? Or are they too scared to dare?

Edited Version I newspaper 15/12/16

 

 

 

 

White, Middle Class and Mine

 

The hoo-hah continues. Talented Mr Jon Holmes,  a comedian loved by many, who appeared on the Now Show on BBC Radio 4 for eighteen years, was politely informed by a female producer: ‘ I’m afraid, for the next series, we’re not inviting you back. We are recasting it, with more women and diversity’ . He was aggrieved. Outraged even. Understandably. I think Holmes is very funny. So too countless other women and diverse folk. The seat he sat on probably had the shape of his bum imprinted on it after so long. He will be missed. Some tabloids now claim, Shock! Horror! that other Caucasian male presenters have privately told the jilted Mr Holmes that they too have been shoved aside for second rate individuals who happen to have the x chromosome or dark pigmentation. I feel their pain. But can they feel the pain of ace women and people of colour who have never been regularly gifted choice gigs and jobs by broadcasters? Eighteen years is a long time not to notice white privilege. To give him credit, Holmes does concede that it is important to represent Britain’s multicultural society. Apparently, important to say that, but to cry foul it when it starts to happen. Cos dammit, that means he has to step aside for a while. There will be plenty of other offers I’m sure. I hope.

If such difficult decisions are not made, pray how will change happen? There can be only three reasons why women, who make up more than half the population, and people of colour- now into the third generation- are still not breaking through the triple glazed glass ceiling. One: they abjure big success, prefer to stay safe and lowly. Two: they are not good enough and never can be. Three: they are kept down and out by the boss class, still predominantly white and male. Call me paranoid, but I am inclined to believe the last explanation. The powerful and influential don’t consciously plot systemic exclusion in secret turrets, but most of them trust and feel comfortable with their own types. Their assumptions and decisions naturally exclude those who are different. Involuntary, unrecognised bias are almost more pernicious than overt sexism or BNP chants.

In 2007, in a radical move, the sparkling, witty Sandi Toksvig was given the chance to chair the News Quiz on Radio4. Until then, producers had only ever picked slick and droll white men. Toksvig left in 2015 ( interestingly to co-found the Women’s Equality Party) and they have reverted to the ‘norm’. Miles Jupp, her replacement, is brilliant, just like Holmes is. But why they didn’t  give the spot to another sharp and funny woman? Someone, say, like the Scottish comedian Susan Calman or smart Samira Ahmed or quirky Sue Perkins? Just when you think there is a breakthrough, traditional forces come in, like angry waves, and wash away the hopeful signs. This happens in politics, the media, business and all the professions.

And all the time, peeved men ( and sadly some successful women too)  moan about ‘unfairness’, the lowering of standards and tokenism. Or they claim that Britain is now truly meritocratic and that equality campaigners are indulging in special pleading. The rise and rise of Theresa May will be used by these deniers. The Canadian feminist Charlotte Whitton  ( 1896-1975) wrote: ‘Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought to be half as good.’ For black and Asian women the burden of proof is even harder and for our men the odds are stacked so high it’s a wonder any of them make their mark.

For over thirty years, the BBC and other channels too have been bleating on and on about diversity and inclusion. They have hired special tsars, spent money on conferences and training, talked the talk.  I remember being paid a tidy sum to do some of this training. A few exotic individuals and dauntless women were admitted to the club but, as Lenny Henry tirelessly points out,  the culture remained stubbornly resistant. Remember how the irascible John Humphreys asked Mishal Hussein if she got the job on News at Ten because she was good looking?  Some of those who managed to get in, left, because they were ghettoised or humiliated, or barely tolerated.

In the last five years, some sectors are getting serious about diversifying their workforce. The advertising industry has transformed itself. High tech firms have no gender or race hangups. Some media outlets are becoming more diverse and inclusive, partly because Ofcom is now  pushing hard for that to happen. In this new landscape, Jon Holmes et al will not be guaranteed jobs for life. But they will still survive and thrive. So please guys, let’s see less self pity and more munificence. You’ve had it really good. Give someone else a turn.

Edited Version I newspaper 5/10/16

IVF and Feminism

 

Sometimes, a few well articulated words can make you question your own settled, sometimes congealed views.  It happened to me on Thursday morning, while I was listening dozily to  the Today Programme on BBC Radio4. One report was on IVF. Apparently,  in some areas of England, health care trusts had surreptitiously withdrawn this service because of budgetary pressures. The National  Institute for Health and Care Excellence ( Nice) backs these treatments and has extended the age limit for women entitled to get three free IVF cycles. Yet now, if you live in some parts of England, you have to go private, go abroad, or remain childless. Claire Thomas, a young mum interviewed on the programme, was refused IVF because her husband already had two children from a previous marriage. They had to spend over four thousand pounds, go to the Czech Republic to have the baby they craved. Until this broadcast, I, a mother of two, was either turned off by  IVF sob stories or simply not that bothered.  But Claire’s lucid testimony shook up my complacency, compelled me to look into the subject . Call it an epiphany.

According to Sarah Norcross, co-chair of the Fertility Fairness campaign group, the number of people getting NHS infertility treatment is at its lowest since 2004. Some area clinical commission groups are withdrawing access because, says, Norcross, it is a soft option. I think she is right. It’s easier than, say, denying drugs to cancer patients or closing down facilities for premature babies. These matters are as much about emotion as cost and priorities. Many Britons believe IVF is a luxury, a lifestyle choice for those who must have it all. I used to think that too. I wrote, as if I knew it all, that having kids was not a right but a privilege, that couples should adopt or adapt to their circumstances.

Claire described how isolated she felt, the depression she fell into. How would I have coped if I had been unable to have children naturally? It would have been unbearable.  Yet over the years, I became cruelly indifferent to women and men who longed to be parents and had to seek medical interventions to get there. Maybe some of this was the influence of earlier manifestations of feminism. In the late seventies, feminist theorists were highly critical of marriage, penetrative sex, female procreation and the duties of motherhood. I wore loose dungarees to hide my pregnancy from the radical sisters in my feminist group, then discreetly left. Those were the bad old days.

Feminism is worthless if it only engages with politics, power, inequality and economic parity. Biological needs and human desires  must be part of the struggle too. Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon successfully challenge the way childless women used to be stereotyped  in our society- pitiable and not quite female. However, women desperate to have kids who then opt for medical interventions can still be seen as pathetic and spoilt even. Few know or care about the arduous processes, the toll on the body, the disappointments when the treatments fail.  Campaigners try their best, but this cause still does not stir most Britons. It should. Women now have to work and so wait longer than their mums did to start families. As you get older, it becomes harder to conceive or carry a baby.

Childbearing is a fundamental human right. I would go further: spending on IVF makes more sense than spending good money on drugs for people who only have months to live or indeed keeping the very old and sick ticking over, waiting for death. Decision makers in the NHS have to make tough judgements. But they must act fairly too. Cutting free IVF provision means those on modest incomes can never have the child they yearn for. They can in Scotland. Whatever happened to universal healthcare based on need and not ability to pay?

Edited Version I newspaper 23/9/2016