International Women’s Day 2015 and why you should never apologise for being a feminist

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^^International Women’s Day represents an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women while calling for greater equality. The theme this year is Make It Happen. You can get involved by sharing your support on social media and wearing purple (the colour used by suffragette’s to symbolise justice and dignity)^^

I’d hoped to write a post about International Women’s Day before, erm, International Women’s Day. But life got in the way. An insomniac* baby, a poorly 4-year-old, and an insurmountable pile of work to do by tomorrow has left me a bit weary, and I considered not writing this. But then I remembered how much today matters, and how the voices of women are too often stifled by brute force, guilt, shame, and exhaustion.

* I jest. Kind of.

Women are still effectively being punished for being female, and in so many ways. One of the most significant and far-reaching issues is the objectification of female bodies. It’s a feature of most, if not all, cultures. In the best case scenario objectification riddles us with shame, in the worst instances it brutalises us. I truly believe that no woman is free of it, we have all, at some point, felt obligated to contort our minds and bodies into society’s vision of Girl and Woman. And all the while we have to carry on with the work that’s been designated to us by a world that defines femininity in the most rigid of ways.

Too often we are exhausted to our bones from spinning more plates than men, from working for less money than men, for employers who take little responsibility for challenging gender disparity. We tend to the financial, domestic and emotional needs of everyone around us, with little help, as if we were born to do nothing else, and it leaves us with no energy for the resistance needed to make our lives more manageable. Such is the nature of patriarchy – we become so tightly woven into its structure it becomes difficult to see an alternative.

So when it comes to talking about girls and women and that epic list of inequalities we still suffer, those of us who can must make time to share our thoughts and experiences this International Women’s Day. Each time we tap away on WordPress and Twitter and Facebook, we should remember our words encapsulate the autonomy that many woman are still denied. I know I’m privileged to have a voice that I no longer have to hide. I know each blog I write is an opportunity to call out inequality. But I’ve not always been so vocal about my passion for feminism. It wasn’t until about 5 years ago that I realised my voice needn’t be an apologetic whisper and that I could contribute to the debate.

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^^Jasvinder Sanghera (actual hero) ^^ (source)

In 2010 I was asked to attend a conference on forced marriage, honour based violence and FGM, on behalf of my employer. I jumped at the chance. Having been forced to convert to a strict form of Islam as a child I was all too familiar with the topics of forced marriage and izzat (the South Asian concept of honour that subjugates women and seeks to control their bodies), and I was desperate for a different perspective on what I’d heard and witnessed growing up. We listened to several brilliant speakers, but the person who shifted my world on its axis that day was Jasvinder Sanghera. As a British child Jasvinder faced the prospect of a forced marriage. She experienced abuse, ostracism and rejection because of a misogynistic culture that still prevails in many communities. Thankfully she fought her way out and as well as demanding autonomy for herself she established Karma Nirvana, a charity that supports women, men and couples trapped by abusive cultures that limit human rights.

The day was inspiring, motivating and hugely educational. But I hadn’t expected to feel so drained by the facts. Being presented with the numbers of girls being subjected to honour based violence, FGM and forced marriage in the UK, and being told about the lack of support they receive and the cack handed response by agencies that should be helping was hard. I felt devastated both for the women whose stories I heard, and because of the realisation that what I’d seen in my own community – the physical and emotional manipulation of women – was abhorrent. It was a sucker punch of a moment, and it changed me.

After that the word feminism, which I’d nervously toyed with for years, made complete sense. I was a feminist. I am a feminist. I don’t care about the men who are offended by the word,  and I’ve no time for the apologetic term ‘egalitarianism’, because there is no compromise when demanding that women be free. So those of us who can must fight sexism and misogyny until we lose our voices and make our fingers numb from typing. And for those of you who feel like we’ve already made it because your lives are good: you’re wrong. This isn’t about you, or me, it’s about us. Women, not woman. So many of us still suffer because we were lucky enough to be born with a vagina. Take a look at this, read it, weep. Then, fight.

1. Approximately 85,000 women are raped on average in England and Wales, each year. Over 400,000 women are sexually assaulted each year. 1 in 5 women has experienced some sort of sexual violence since the age of 16

2. Nearly 30% of women in the UK have experienced domestic abuse

3. Women are massively under-represented in government, making up just 22% of our MP’s

4. and in journalism. In a typical month, 78% of newspaper articles are written by men, 72% of Question Time contributors are men and 84% of reporters and guests on Radio 4’s Today show are men. Relatively few women are rising to senior jobs and the pay gap between male and female journalists remains a stubbornly wide one. And this is despite the fact that women substantially outnumber men in journalism training and enter the profession in (slightly) greater numbers. (source: Women and Journalism by Suzanne Franks)

Just take a moment to remember that these are professions that are key to shifting policy, influencing culture, and changing society. And that glass ceiling is still there. 

5. The gender pay-gap is still very much present. In fact the UK is among Europe’s worst offenders, with a pay gap of 19.1 per cent

6. The top earners in all societies are men. Just 11% of all billionaires are women

7. The cost of childcare continues to keep women out of the workplace and limit their choices. In 2012 an Australian study found that a mother from a low-income family faces losing 69% of her income if she returns to work after having a child, partly as a result of the extortionate cost of childcare, the average cost of which has risen by 150% over the past decade

8. In 2012, the Forced Marriage Unit had to give advice or support related to possible forced marriages in 1,485 cases. But this figure is deceptive because it only factors in those who have been made known. Jasvinder Sanghera estimates that the actual figure of forced marriages in the UK is well above 100,000. This abuse remains underreported as victims are extremely isolated with multiple perpetrators.

9. There are approximately 12 reported ‘honour’ killings per year in the UK. This doesn’t take into account the many people who are taken abroad and don’t return. ‘Honour’ killings are murders in which predominantly women are killed for perceived immoral behaviour, which is deemed to have breached the honour code of a family or community causing shame

10. Over 20,000 girls under the age of 15 IN THIS COUNTRY have had their genitals mutilated* This figure rises exponentially when you add to it to the number of girls outside the UK who have also had to endure the practice

11. Rape continues to be used as a weapon of war, and it overwhelmingly affects women more than men. The Independent reported only a few months ago that Yazidi girls were killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants, and the problem isn’t isolated to Iraq. According to the Global Justice Center rape is being used more than any other prohibited weapon of war including starvation; attacks on cultural objects; and the use of herbicides, biological or chemical weapons, dum-dum bullets, white phosphorus or blinding lasers.

12. Worldwide, girls constitute over half of the children out of school. Only 30 percent of all girls are enrolled in secondary school. In many countries, less than one third of university students are women

13. In the UK females outperform males in examinations at all levels of the education system, but go on to earn substantially less than their male counterparts

14. Girls and women suffer disproportionately in countries that lack hygienic sanitation. The impacts are far-reaching, whether it be poor maternal and newborn health, inadequate facilities in schools for girls on their period (and the related stigma associated with menstruation), or being vulnerable to harassment or violence when travelling the long distances to use shared toilets, or practice open defecation. Just imagine if every time you went to the toilet it involved harassment, violence, and indignity

* the source I took this statistic from refers to FGM as ‘circumcision’. It’s not, it’s mutilation.

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The hijab (and page 3)

Disclaimers:

1. this is my story
2. this isn’t the story of all Muslims
3. this isn’t the story of all hijabis
4. there can be more than one story

Once upon a time (about 14 years ago), in a land far away (South East England), I wore the hijab. It’s surreal looking back. I’ve spent a long time actively detaching myself from that part of my identity, so I feel almost fraudulent claiming it as my own. Even now, after 14 years of fixing myself up and reclaiming all the bits of me, I struggle to talk face to face with people about the hijab. My experience was bad, and the word and the memories still stick in my throat. This post is about how more than 5 years of forced veiling affected me, and why the recent furore over page 3 reminded me of my stint as a hijabi.

Here, wear this lion costume…
I was ordered to cover my hair after my parents began practising Islam. To say I was upset is a monumental understatement. The thought of wearing the hijab felt as alien to me as wearing a plant pot on my head, the theological reasoning behind it seemed nonsensical, and it was obvious (to me at least) that it was happening because certain men felt threatened by my sexuality. But, at the time, all those things were irrelevant, there was no room for compromise or debate, it was made very clear to me: I had to veil. Almost 20 years have passed since then, but when I think about it (which I avoid as much as possible) I remember feeling utterly trapped. I remember the panic, the ache in my muscles from holding back the tears, and the feeling that life had taken on a surreal, nightmarish quality.

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Source

It’s difficult to describe being forced to veil. The closest I can get is this: imagine you’re made to wear a fancy dress costume every time you leave the house, let’s say it’s a lion costume. You wear a mane, huge paws and a tail. No one asks you if you feel comfortable dressed as a lion, because it’s politically incorrect to question the norms of minorities[i]. Only your immediate family know how ridiculous you feel, but after a while even they convince themselves that your costume is an act of freewill. So, you’re a lion, every day, for more than 5 years. You have to act normally and take yourself seriously despite your costume. It’s impossible. You start to hate yourself. Your physicality changes, you walk quickly and with a slight hunch. You want to take up as little space and time as possible. You want to disappear. Being forced to wear the hijab taught me that shame evolves. Months, weeks even, into wearing it and I was ashamed not only of  the innocuous square of cotton on my head, but of my thoughts, my body, my lack of faith, and the daily charade of being someone I wasn’t.

The hijab didn’t make me feel protected or liberated, as some women claim. I felt like a walking sex object. The idea that I was effectively hiding from men, who were incapable of defining me by anything but my body, filled me with shame. And it represented something else, even more insidious, it was a mark of ownership and control. When I wore it I was no longer my own person; I belonged to my stepfather, my brother, and in years to come, my husband. I was the girl dressed in a shroud, half-living, staring vacantly at the walls of my family home, a space beyond which I had very little presence. I willed the years to pass so I could be free. And then, finally, it happened.

Beyond the veil
After falling in love with a non-Muslim at university I was told to leave home. By this point I’d stopped wearing the hijab and I was at last free of the all-consuming control of religious men. But the huge expanse of freedom was as distressing as it was liberating. I was dizzy with the disassociation and self-loathing that comes with disownment. I spent my nights searching for ways to dull the pain of abandonment. My escapism became self-annihilation, but at the time it felt like the only way to get through the process of creating an identity from scratch, and of lessoning the gulf between myself and all the ‘normal’ people around me – people with families who loved them, despite themselves.

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Source

Making the leap away from religious misogyny was the best thing I ever did, but at the time I didn’t realise I’d be walking out of one sexist culture and straight into another. After spending years wrapped in cotton wool I was woefully unprepared for reality, whether that be the practicalities of surviving independently, or the pervasive culture of sexism. I attracted attention that only perpetuated my self-loathing. Despite leaving behind the bind of religious misogyny, I was still treated as a body that existed for the use and judgement of men.

The hijab and autonomy
The Qur’an is pretty ambiguous when it comes to the hijab. Wow. Typing that sentence without a Muslim yelling his disapproval in my general direction is liberating (that fact alone should give you an insight into how contentious the issue is, and how little room there is for dissent). The ‘party’ line is that different Islamic schools of thought have different opinions on the hijab. In my experience ‘schools of thought’ is another way of saying ‘men’. Some men argue ‘passionately’ (think: smoke coming out of ears) that the hijab is unequivocally commanded by Allah in the Qur’an. Other men disagree. As with any prescriptive text interpretation is everything. Personally I’ve no time for dogma that demands women dress a certain way. I find conservative religion to be cruel, detached from reality, devoid of any understanding of what it is to be female, and it tends to express the following basic ‘truths’: men know god best, men have divinely commanded authority, men fear women, men fear sexuality. Because of these ‘truths’ women suffer.

Of course many women are happy to wear the hijab. Some claim it offers a form of protection, and that it allows them to be understood and appreciated on the basis of their personality and intellect, rather than their appearance. Others believe it encourages both men and women to focus on the greater jihad – the struggle for piety and a relationship with Allah in a world filled with distraction and superficiality. None of these things happened for me. The only thing I felt was a disconnection from reality and a deep depression. So, while I celebrate the rights of all woman to dress however they wish, I’m concerned about those who aren’t afforded that freedom. In my brief stint online I’ve come across vast numbers of women who are being forced to veil and practice religions that they disagree with.

When I think back to the convert community that I grew up in I remember very few women actively choosing to wear the hijab. I’m talking about real choice. The kind of choice you make from a position of autonomy. The kind of choice that means, whatever you decide, there’s no backlash, no guilt tripping, no shaming, and definitely no exclusion from the community. I do however know women who kid themselves into believing their hijab is an act of freewill when it’s not. I was one of them – after a few years of indoctrination and socialising only with people who argued in favour of the hijab, my sense of self was all but obliterated. The awful (and unspoken) reality is that many girls and women within Muslim communities have little say in the hijab. As soon as parents recognise their daughters as sexual beings, they are expected to veil. It’s a rite of passage. Once a girl starts to wear the veil, she’s seen as having made the right ‘choice’, the only choice, and for that the community celebrates. In contrast the handful of women I know who made the difficult decision to stop veiling were met with a barrage of judgement and negativity from their respective communities. It’s often assumed that when someone stops wearing the hijab she’s been led astray, she no longer knows her own mind and she’s been morally corrupted. Initially the response is one of concern and encouragement to return to Islam, this can soon turn to outrage, disgust, and finally, exclusion.

The dangers of a single story[ii]
The biggest challenge, I find, when discussing the hijab and being Muslim (albeit a pretendy one) is that people aren’t great at are RUBBISH at understanding that my story (and the stories of other women I know and mention) doesn’t negate theirs. It’s pretty tedious having to explain this each time I blog, but just so we’re all clear: this post isn’t about judging Islam and Muslims en masse, it’s about calling out those who use religious dogma and culture to limit female autonomy. Even so I know this piece will be an inconvenient truth that many would rather I didn’t share. In the past radical Muslims, relativist leftists in denial, and anti-Muslim bigots, have either taken issue with my story or used it to support their own hateful agendas. Ex Muslims with terrible experiences of Islam are generally expected to (silently) ‘man-up’ and be grateful for the fact that they’ve come out the other side of their shitstorm, or take one for the team – lest their talking whips up Islamophobia. It leaves us in a no-win situation. Wider society and the press find us tricky – our stories are too contentious and nuanced to be written about with ease, so we’re left to the internet, where we find solace in one another’s existence and either try to avoid, or plunge head first, into the wrath of people who wish we didn’t exist. However, on a more positive note, the tide is turning. Organisations like The Council of Ex Muslims of Britain and its affiliates are promoting voices that, until now, have been side-lined or silenced. And it was a pretty special moment last week when Janice Turner wrote about the experiences of ex Muslims in The Times – Ex Muslims, I should add, who documented their experiences in these brilliant videos.

The Sun and Page 3
When the recent furore erupted over page 3 and ‘censorship’ it reminded me of wearing the hijab. Odd, right? The thing is, topless models and hijabis – so often pitched as the antithesis of one another – aren’t so different, at least not in situations where autonomy is compromised. Take the example of a woman who is emotionally or physically coerced into wearing the hijab, and a topless model who feels exposing her body is her only chance of success in life. Both women have been manipulated into their situations by patriarchy and its process of othering women. Both are products of a society controlled by the sexual desire of men that treats women as commodities and playthings, and that judges them on the value of their ‘parts’ (hijab/niqab/washboard stomach/double D cups) rather than their minds. And the lunacy of naked breasts in a family newspaper is just as ridiculous and insidious to me as the sight of children wearing the hijab. In both instances the powers that be innocently claim freedom of expression, in both instances the screwed up context exposes the hyper-sexualisation of girls and a system that teaches females they can only achieve social acceptance if they satisfy men. Caitlin Moran spoke brilliantly about the issue of context and page 3:

“Its just an unnecessary bit of hassle – having to deal with a world where little children see pictures of naked girls in a family newspaper…you wonder how those boys would feel if page 3 were pictures of huge hard-ons on 16-year-old-boys and all the girls were gathered around it, going, “I bet you wish you had one of those, Mark,  instead of what looks like the worm in the bowler hat in the Mr Men books”.

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Source

As I’m on the topic of page 3, here are my thoughts on several arguments in opposition to the No More Page 3 petition (which I signed). I thought I’d discuss them here because they’ve been annoying the hell out of me and I need them out of my head.

Argument number 1: there’s not enough empirical evidence to believe page 3 is really, properly, actually harmful to anyone in society
The lived experiences of huge numbers of women is good enough evidence to suggest page 3 is harmful. Some men disagree and argue “wrong, wrong, wrong, I needs me boobs…” that we need more robust, scientific evidence. Now, I’m pretty sure someone, somewhere can whip up a few graphs and analysis of the vast array of evidence that the objectification of women (that’s treating 50% of the population not as equals, but as commodities, sexual objects, ‘things’) has a detrimental effect on society. Except that’s not really the issue here, because what men are actually saying when they whine about a lack of science, is: “Boo-hiss to you claiming our objectifying you is wrong. We love boobs. We own boobs. Give. Us. Boobs”.

Argument number 2: feminists should be talking about FGM, Boko Haram, *sob* anything but the precious boobies *sob*
This argument makes two ridiculous assumptions:

1. That feminists aren’t concerned or actively addressing the issue of FGM and a million and one other ways that men fuck women over. Of. Course. They. Are.
2. that feminists are incapable of being concerned with more than one women’s rights issue at a time. Rubbishy nonsense.

Argument number 3: feminists argue for freedom of speech (think Charlie Hebdo) and then want to censor the precious boobs. Stupid feminists.
WRONG. The reaction of The Sun to the NMP3 campaign (the equivalent of 2 fingers up and a moonie out the back of a coach window) is testament to the fact that NMP3 is an act of free speech and not censorship. As such it can be acted upon, ignored, or, as in this particular instance, shat on from a great height.

Being forced to wear the hijab has left me with uncompromising views about female autonomy that extend beyond the context of religion, but my past means I’ve a social responsibility to share my experience of forced religion, and to reassure people that there is a way out. In the words of Deeyah Khan, “being a woman is a provocation”. I say we must provoke, and resist, and debate, and challenge, until the choice of every woman is hers and hers alone.

[i] No one at school questioned the sudden change in my appearance or behaviour. I can only think misguided notions of cultural relativity were at play. The moment people identified me as Muslim, my worth plummeted. I see that attitude in wider society and mainstream media- ‘political correctness’ leads to value judgements about Muslim women. They are seen as they ‘other’, people who don’t deserve the autonomy granted to the rest of society.
[ii] With thanks to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for her inspiring words  

Charlie Hebdo, freedom of speech, and male privilege

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19

Freedom of speech is a funny beast. I don’t mean ha-ha funny, I mean loaded with difficult questions, uncomfortable, and often not very funny at all. A bit like cartoons that poke and prod at minorities. On the one hand freedom of speech is this brilliant part of being autonomous that enables things like intellectual growth and emancipation. On the other hand, it means that (unless we live in isolation or spend our lives flanked by yes men) we will be offended by the views of others on a regular basis. But here’s the thing: being offensive is not a crime, and being offended is not a reason to restrict human rights.

"To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticise." ~ Voltaire

In the days since the Charlie Hebdo attack there has been a lot of discussion about freedom of speech and whether boundaries need to be asserted, and I, like a million and one others, have an opinion that I thought I’d throw out there, because…well, freedom of speech.

The moral ambiguity of freedom 

Will Self appeared on the Channel 4 news last week to discuss the freedom of speech debate. He said: The whole notion is that freedom of speech is to be some absolute right, and that’s exactly the same as a religious point of view, interestingly, it places the ethics, human ethics, outside of human society, it makes them something that are here in the cosmos in some way”.  The connection he makes between freedom of speech and religious absolutism, while interesting, is unhelpful. By its very nature, freedom of speech invites debate and the calling out of injustice; it’s a driving force behind intellectual growth, and enlightenment. Religious absolutism does the opposite, by promoting a culture of fear that leads to blind observance, prejudice and discrimination. Self (and many others) implies that Charlie Hebdo cartoons are irresponsible in their provocation of powerless minorities, he says You always have to ask with something that purports to be satire, who is it attacking? Are they people in a position of power? And if it’s attacking people in a position of power, is it giving comfort to people who are powerless and who are assaulted in some sense by those powerful people? This is not the dynamic with Islamist terrorists, they are not in power in our society, and it is not comforting the people who look at these cartoons whether in Charlie Hebdo or in newspapers here, they don’t feel better about themselves or about life to see Islamist terrorists mocked…why does it make anybody feel better?

It’s interesting that Self feels he can talk on behalf of us all here. Perhaps it’s because those of us who are/have been made powerless by religious absolutists are rarely invited to this kind of debate. In one sense he’s right, Islamic terrorists aren’t in power in his society, and thankfully the religious right don’t feature in my life any more either. But there are experiences other than his and mine at play here. As Nick Cohen says, “power depends on where you stand and who stands below you. The unemployed man with the gun is more powerful than the Parisian journalist. The marginal cleric may have a hard life, but if he sits in a sharia court imposing misogynist rules on British Muslim women he is to be feared”. If we’re lucky enough that the dynamics of our society leave us feeling safe and empowered, then lucky us, but we mustn’t assume that everyone else feels the same. 

I spent a good chunk of life controlled by a radical religious ideology, and another chunk too scared to talk honestly about it. My experience, and the experiences of many who are marginalised, controlled, and silenced by radical Islam, is that the figures of authority responsible for spreading the rhetoric of terrorism do indeed have power and privilege. They aggressively tout misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic dogma, and they control individuals, families, communities, and sometimes whole states through fear. So, personally, I find living in a society where I’m free to ridicule terrorists who want to dictate the terms of free speech, and have me stripped of my autonomy and my right to laugh and poke fun, a very comforting thing indeed.

The legitimacy of grief 

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“I am Charlie”, “Yeah, yeah. Me too” (source)

While Obama, Cameron and various other heads of state pledge their support for freedom of speech – a concept that in so many other contexts they really seem to struggle with – other harrowing stories have been unfolding, away from the spotlight of the world’s media. Just consider the following:

In 2015 atheists still face the death penalty in 13 (Islamic) states, Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger convicted of insulting Islam was flogged 50 times in front of hundreds of spectators. He is to be flogged another 950 times over the next few weeks. In Nigeria Boko Haram have carried out their deadliest massacre with 2000 feared dead, and another 19 died when a bomb that had been attached to a girl of 10 years old, exploded. In Sanaa, Yemen, at least 37 people have been killed by a car bomb. In India 2 brothers have been arrested for the confinement and repeated rape of a Japanese student

Above are just a handful of stories that have featured in the media this past week but without an accompanying international rally cry. When I saw the 40 world leaders walking arm in arm at the unity march in Paris I felt conflicted. On the one hand, after a brutal 3 days which saw the murder of 17 innocent people, and an attack on free speech, the sight of Cameron and Merkel et al was pretty incredible. But it’s unsettling to think that the media and political frenzy of the last few days could, at least in part, be down to our outrage that a privileged group of people fell victim to brutality. That our world leaders are prepared to gather in a public show of support for these men (and one woman), and not countless other victims of brutality, suggests that they believe some lives are more valuable than others. Victoria Brownworth illustrates this perfectly:

We may say “pas peur” in solidarity, but it is a solidarity that is illusory and doesn’t actually include us. For women, for Muslims, for Jews, for anyone who comes from a marginalized group or class, “pas peur” can never be true. Those of us who are the real targets of violence–which is not the journalists of Charlie Hebdo, who are actually anomalous victims–are in fact, afraid. We are afraid precisely because we know our lives have little worth in the global hierarchy. We know there will never be massive vigils held for us or hash tags created to memorialize us. The Paris shooting unsettled the world precisely because its victims were not the victims we usually see–and dismiss..

But not all men are granted privilege by everyone. Indeed, there’s an odd dichotomy at play here, because fundamentalist Islamic culture thinks little of non-Muslims and is nonchalant about their death and suffering. I reflect on this as someone who grew up exposed to insidious judgements about non-Muslims. I remember listening to men (always men) talk about non-Muslims as irrelevancies (unless they converted) in a world that needed to be focused only on Islam, and I’ve seen a lot of that attitude online (hello, Twitter) over the last few days.

The reality is while our beliefs deepen our empathy towards some, they can make it easier for us to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others; creating a stark ‘us’ and ‘them’ divide. That divide is no more apparent than at times like this. Just consider the reactions to the terrible events of last week. On the one hand there was a flurry of predictable judgements tarring all Muslims with the brush of radicalism, out and out Islamophobia, racism, the absurd Murdoch-esque attitude that all Muslims be held accountable for what has happened. And on the flip side of exactly the same coin some Muslims, I repeat: SOME Muslims, reacted angrily to the public display of empathy towards the victims at Charlie Hebdo, some actively separated themselves from the large scale support of free speech, some demanded we tighten the parameters of freedom, and some responded with whataboutery “yeah it’s sad, but what about Palestine, Syria, Iraq, <insert name of predominantly Muslim country here>?” All these reactions demonstrate the belief that some lives have less intrinsic value than others. The simple fact is, if we only care about people who are like us, chances are we’ve lost our humanity somewhere along the line.

#JeSuisCharlie

I’ll admit I didn’t know much about Charlie Hebdo before Wednesday. I’d seen a couple of cartoons online, that was it. So, over the past few days, like lots of other people, I’ve attempted to find out more (this is a short, but interesting reflection on the publication). I flinched at a couple of images and probably made a face like my grandma does when she sees me swear on Facebook, but then I had a closer look, and a read (context is our friend and all that) and as it turns out I find most of the images inoffensive. Most, not all. Some of them I struggle with. But – and this is key – freedom of speech is infinitely more important than my discomfort at being offended.

And anyway, free speech is most dangerous not when it occurs in a magazine, a newspaper, or on tv (because all of that invites a response), but behind closed doors, away from the public gaze, where discussion and resistance are prohibited. I’ve been privy to free speech that incited racism, the murder of apostates and homosexuals, and violent misogyny, and on each occasion there was no debate, no media furore, and life went on as normal. I think back to those appalling ‘discussions’ and they make me shudder. But that doesn’t mean I think we should start policing private spaces, or limit freedom of speech, quite the contrary in fact. The only way xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny and any other kind of blind hate can prosper is if we feel too threatened or apathetic to resist – the default reaction of people without freedom of expression, who live in cultures ruled by fear. People with privilege, like Will Self for example, don’t feel the bind of those restrictions, at least not until they wish to write something controversial about Islam. But those of us who have lived at the mercy of religious absolutism know its impact, and for us the freedom of speech debate is about something far bigger than whether cartoonists should be allowed to satirise prophets.

We have to acknowledge that there is a minority but very “real fascistic force”  within some Muslim communities that demands complete control of human expression.  But we can’t let that skew the narrative, because for every xenophobe misusing free speech to tout hate, there are countless others using their voices to dismantle prejudice and oppression. If in some fear induced compromise we relented and started to police anything other than speech that incites violence, its not like radical Muslims would suddenly become reasonable. Their focus would shift to other ‘immoral freedoms’ that need to be stamped out. We can’t start down a slippery slope that has the potential to suffocate all but the most powerful or aggressive voices. We must resist, and that means clinging on to our freedom for dear life.

Voltaire  : "I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". We need to remember this in today's political climate.

I’ll leave you with what are (I think) two of the most important articles about the events of the past week – Unmournable Bodies, by Teju Cole, and On Charlie Hebdo: A letter To My British Friends, by Oliver Tonneau. Go on, read them.

Christmas and the muddle of multiculturalism

It’s nearly Christmas! This means:

1. I’m having palpitations about the number of gifts we’ve bought (zero).

2. I’ve failed (again) at Christmas cards, homemade decorations, and Christmas pudding *wrings hands/hangs head in shame/yells “down with Pinterest!” and punches air with anarchic glee*

3. Everything. Must. Smell. Of. Cinnamon.

4. My selective memory/eternal optimism leave me with only romantic memories of snow (both my babies were born during snowy times). So I’m thrilled by the Daily Mail snow ‘terror’ alerts. Snow is beautiful. I love snow. I want it to snow. Snow.

5. I’m having an annual flip out with my inner grinch. I had Christmas banned as a child and (small detail) I’m not Christian, so each year I feel like a Christmas fraud and I worry my children will see through my attempts to create meaningful tradition from nothing.

Christmas time, mistletoe multiculturalism, and wine making it up as I go along…

I think it might be an unwritten law of blogging, parent-blogging at least, that December is dedicated to wish lists and that elf on the shelf thing, but I won’t be going there. To me Christmas is about lots of the usual fun (foooooooood, Bridget Jones on tv, all the wine, a 48 hour period of intense Christmas shopping involving tears and expletives, the tinsel debate – yay or nay?) but with an added layer of niggling worry that I’m doing it all wrong.

As the half-Iraqi, half-British, step-daughter of a Pakistani revert to Islam (I am all the hyphens), I grew up in an intersection between different faiths and cultures. We stopped celebrating Christmas after my parents began practising Islam when I was about 10, and we were herded with the psychological equivalent of hot-pokers into an Islamic ideology that was intolerant, exclusive and uncompromising. Some of the cultural changes that occurred after the ‘conversion’ were gradual, but Christmas ended abruptly. We had one year’s grace when we were allowed to put up a Christmas tree on New Year’s day as an odd compromise, but that was just weird for everyone. The following year there was nothing. After that, whenever I heard Bob and the gang sing “do they know it’s Christmas?” with their earnest, self-important faces, I’d feel terribly sad. For myself. It was obvious that Ethiopia had more pressing concerns than missing out on *cough* a-white-saviour-complex-themed *cough* Christmas, but me? I was heartbroken. What can I say? 10 is a selfish age.

As the years went on, new challenges arose that made Christmas a non-issue. I spent my teenage years battling for clarity amidst conflicting cultures and the pressures of a religious ideology that I had little respect for. Despite being mixed race, my white skin and blonde hair granted me white privilege. I felt it from a young age, especially when I saw my ‘half’ (I hate that phrase) siblings battle against racism and stereotypes that bypassed me. But my ‘whiteness’ also meant I grew up on the periphery of each of my cultures. I was the perpetual oddity; the novelty gori (white person…with loose morals) in the Pakistani-Muslim community, and to white British people I was the curious convert girl. As is often the case, my siblings and I were seen as half this and half that; lacking in culture and identity, rather than having it in abundance. Those feelings of cultural inadequacy have stuck.

My experiences leave me with conflicting ideas about multiculturalism. I see how positive and enriching it can be, but I hate that it’s become synonymous with misguided, lazy notions of tolerance. I know people want multiculturalism to work, but they need to be more considered. Communities, schools, families and individuals mustn’t assume that multiculturalism necessarily plays out as the utopian ideal of cultures existing side by side, in harmony. In reality, conflict, tribalism, prejudice and abuse cam seethe just below surface level. It’s wrong when the traditions of any ethnic group or religion trump all other value systems. And it’s dangerous. I remember my life turning upside down after being forced to convert, and how not one teacher batted an eyelid. They never questioned my upset, my transformation, or the way I retreated into my shell. Religious misogyny was played out overtly, day after day, in my life and the lives of so many girls I knew, but no one in my school, or the wider community, dared challenge the status quo dictated by religious leaders. Maybe they were worried about being seen as politically incorrect and culturally insensitive. Or perhaps, on a subconscious level, they were making the value judgement so often confused with cultural tolerance:  that ethnic minorities and Muslims don’t deserve the freedoms afforded to other British children. Either way I realised pretty quickly no one would help me, so I kept my head down and focused on university, knowing it would be my escape from religious fundamentalism. A few months after starting my degree I met my now husband, was disowned, and the rest is history. And heartbreak. And freedom.

During the cultural hiatus between leaving home and having children I had to feel my way with all things festive and previously forbidden. As is the case with most parents, I want my children to enjoy things that I couldn’t and to have traditions in which they find comfort and happiness. But the guilt I was taught to associate with Christmas, birthdays, Halloween…and anything else enjoyed by the kufr (non-believers) was deeply ingrained. As time’s gone on I’ve developed into a more rational person, but I think Christmas will always be symbolic of a monumental and disorientating shift in my life. The ‘convert’ years have left me with a sense of cultural dislocation, so I continue to make up ‘tradition’ and cultural identity as I go along.

The man who refused to sit next to a woman on a plane (and why I find his behaviour deeply offensive)

Earlier this week someone I follow on Twitter shared a story about an ultra Orthodox Jewish man who refused to sit next to a woman on a plane. It sounded absurd, even to me, and I spent years sitting behind curtained partitions, scurrying to the kitchen whenever the doorbell rang in case the visitor was male. But it’s easy to forget, once you’ve left behind the norms of radical religion, how cruel men can be.

I struggle to be politically correct about gender segregation. I also struggle with the men (and sometimes women) who find it impossible to ‘up’ their humanity even temporarily to bypass archaic doctrine. In my experience people who demand gender segregation in public spaces are either irritatingly precious about their right to enforce their decisions (never mind the rest of society), or terrorised by the concept of a god who defines and values us all on the basis of our sexuality and gender.

My family converted to Islam when I was a teenager, and my siblings and I were expected to follow suit. I don’t remember any official conversion moment, it was more a wearing down over time sort of thing. After a while I realised I had no choice and that until I left home I’d have to live as a Muslim, whether I believed or not. It was my first and so far only foray into acting.

I’ve spoken before about how life changed once we started practising my stepfather’s interpretation of Islam. One of the hardest parts was how my sex, gender, and sexuality were used as a weapon of control. How I dressed, how I behaved, who I spoke to and befriended, which school I could attend, and how I was treated by men in both personal and public spheres was, all of a sudden, entirely dictated by what was between my legs. I found the obsession with sexuality crude and backwards, and I hated the way it was used to manipulate female life. But as a woman my opinions were irrelevant.

I remember the justifications for the treatment of women. The insistence that God’s law was final, no matter the pain or inequalities it caused, or the logic it defied. I remember the offensive, saccharine nonsense about how female subjugation was an ultimate kindness. Apparently I should have been grateful that I was all but banished from the public sphere and wrapped up, away from the gaze of unsophisticated men who’d never been taught to control their most primitive urges. Apparently it was special treatment that meant I wouldn’t be tainted, it meant I was ‘free’ to live without being a sex object, and, most importantly, it meant I could be loved by God.

One of the worst experiences was seeing women internalise the misogyny they were exposed to. It’s one thing listening to men bark about how women need to be controlled, it’s quite another witnessing women espouse the virtues of subservience and victimhood. Each time a woman told me how important it was for me to be covered, pure, humble, and grateful to the men who effectively owned me, I felt betrayed and utterly crushed. Which is why writing, like Elana Sztokmans piece, is so wonderful to read. Here’s an excerpt, it’s pretty perfect. More power to you Elana, we really do deserve better.

If there is one thing that I would like to change in the world, it is this: I would like women to respect themselves enough to say no to all this. I want women to allow themselves to feel the impact of the silencing. I want women to be honest with themselves and to look at their lives and the places where they are powerless or oppressed, and to acknowledge that. Better yet, I want women to say no, I will not be silent or servile. I will not continue to absorb the insult as if this is all OK. I want women to say that they deserve better. I want women to believe that they deserve better.

It’s hard to put into words just how suffocating I found religious oppression, but this poem I wrote comes pretty close:

The Bind

Only a little light made its way
through opaque windows.
The air was still. Artificial.
I could hear
the deep
hum of
him.

I thrashed like hopeless bait
before resigning to fate
I didn’t believe. But in
darkness with no air,
you forget who 
you
are.

I stooped
to fit. I scrubbed
til dirt gleamed. I learnt all about
covering and draping and buttoning high, about
lowering eyes, about shuffling; not sauntering my thighs.
I learnt about the flash of my ankles, the lure of my smile. I silenced
my voice, reined in my mind. Suffocated soft, round flesh in a constricting bind.

If you are humble
and pure, quiet and
kind, He will wait for you,
in no man’s land, behind brick,
cloth, ticking clocks, lusty, flinching
eyes, sharp exhalations and disapproving sighs.

But I needed air and light, day and night. I needed love and touch and joy undefined by wizened men so terrified, they dare not meet my eye. Unshackled from the dead-weight shroud, from the doctrine of men who know no bounds, I am free.

The Cave

Recently I stopped everything to write. I switched off the biggest distractions, reined myself in, and poised my pen. Unfortunately life didn’t get the memo about my book, so I’m hunkering down and writing poetry until this storm passes. The book is waiting.

Outside my cave, coffee steam
whirls around faraway eyes,
and fingers tap dance
atop flickering screens.

This cafe is rhythmic
with people and noise, and music
that skips from melancholy
to euphoria without pause.

I sat here with my firstborn.
Perfect and perfectly round.
So many plans.
So much joy it hurt.

I sat here with my second.
He grew despite my battles
and cracked body
and the fog that hung heavy.

And now, instead of writing
myself free, I sit here stuck
in a loop of cryptic stanzas,
waist deep in cloying uphill battles.

I hunch in a corner of my cave,
all jagged edges and sleeping bears.
My fists are tight with fear and full
of crumpled men from my past.

I’d hoped by now the fog would have lifted.
I’d hoped for more than shadows of forms,
tiptoeing between broken things,
whispering so there’s no echo.

Writing a book on religious patriarchy

I have another blog and recently I was asked to talk there about the book I’m writing. The book will be an extension of this space so it seems right that I share my piece here too…

What am I working on? A non fiction book about my past. As a teenager I was forced to convert to Islam and after the ‘conversion’ I experienced (and witnessed many other women experiencing) years of religiously sanctioned misogyny. After falling in love with a non-Muslim I was disowned and forced to leave my home and family. In the years since I’ve pieced together a new, autonomous, identity. My book will tell my story and it will discuss how the female experience can be limited by religious patriarchy.

How does my work differ from others in the genre? the research process has helped me discover some great writing about women who escaped religious control and misogyny, but these pieces tend to be written by, or about, people who were born into the religion. I’m not aware of any books about women forced into converting to Islam, as I was.

There’s a dearth of first-hand representation regarding religious misogyny. This results in a disconnect between the reality of being controlled and abused by religious patriarchy, and the stories being told. My book will offer an alternative to the faceless, academic analysis of religious misogyny. It will discuss, honestly, the emotional (and sometimes physical) manipulation that occurs in the context of forced conversion, as well as the reality of living under extreme patriarchy, and with conflicting cultural identities.

My story might sound unusual, but it’s certainly not unique. Islam attracts large numbers of converts each year and, if what I witnessed is anything to go by, there are other women (and men) who are emotionally corralled or trapped into Islam, by parents or partners.

Why do I write what I do? Initially I started to write as therapy. I spent years consumed with guilt over my decision to leave my family, but writing has allowed me sift through the emotional debris of my past. Writing has taught me that I had every right to want more from my life than being an automaton, that I’m entitled to feel angry about the way I was treated and about the years of lost opportunities, and most importantly that I can and should talk about my past.

Writer’s Boot Camp Week: 21 Things No One Will Tell You As a Writer (But Someone Probably Should)

I also write in the hope that I might be able to help others. And that’s not an entirely selfless act. If, all those years ago, I had come across a book like the one I’m writing, it would have started the healing process so much earlier. I would have found my voice before having my own family and it would have saved a lot of people a lot of heartache. I want to help those isolated by ‘sacred’ or cultural misogyny to feel less alone, so that they have the confidence to demand their freedom.

Lastly, I write because I know that human rights are being abused by those at the helm of organised religion (men). I passionately believe that any religious practice involving emotional or physical coercion, patriarchy, prejudice, or discrimination must be ripped apart for analysis – there can be no sacred cows. And women need to talk honestly about their experiences, because if we don’t rock the boat with truth, misogynistic attitudes and behaviours can’t be dismantled.

What is my writing process? I’m an impulsive writer and not particularly organised, but once I decided to write my book I knew I needed a more methodical approach, so I allocated time during the summer to plan my chapters, put them in order using Scrivener and fill them with notes.

In terms of writing software, I flit between the Evernote app on my phone and Scrivener. Evernote is so user-friendly, it syncs with all my other devices and I can use it whenever I have my phone to hand. Scrivener is a pretty slick programme that gives you complete control over formatting, but there’s no app so I don’t find it as practical as Evernote, especially as I tend to write in snatches – 10 minutes here and 20 minutes there – on my phone. My writing process is far from ideal and I often get frustrated at not having longer stretches of time to sit down and organise my ideas, but with two small children and a job, I’ve got to work with what I have.

I own this

Today I spoke to a troll. Not an ugly cave-dweller (although…) but one of the Twitter folk who crop up from nowhere, wielding their 140 characters like an overtired toddler with a pointy stick. I know I should take a deep breath and step away from the internet, I know his words (I’m assuming it’s a he) should have no bearing on my thoughts, but they do.

I’d been keen to find out what literature already exists on misogyny in Islamic communities, so earlier this week I tweeted this:

image

No one came back to me with any book suggestions, but instead I had several tweets from Mr Troll telling me, among other things, that my story is a ‘yawn inducing cliché’, that I’m building ‘sensationalised mythologies’, that I have ‘little independence of thought’, and that I’m playing ‘into a toxic public narrative about Islam’ with a ‘tired story that is heavily politicised and deeply divisive’.

At first I was pleasantly surprised. So, the tweets weren’t overly supportive *cough*, but I was amazed that my little blog with just 6 posts had evoked such passion in someone I’ve never met. My smugness didn’t last long, because his words dug away at the part of me that until now has been too scared to talk about my past.

Mr Troll implied that I’m using my ‘small, personal story’ to attack Islam. It’s not the first time I’ve been told that in opening up about the forced conversion, the misogyny, and the disownment, I’m pitting myself against a whole faith. Several people have suggested that despite, or perhaps because of what I’ve been through, I’ve a responsibility to defend Islam and Muslims. I’ve been told that instead of reflecting angrily I should help to improve the lot of Muslim women from within the faith. All those arguments have niggled away at me for years and so I’ve stayed quiet, worrying that I might contribute to the anti-Islamic rhetoric that has hurt so many of the people I love.

I would probably still be weighed down by those fears if it weren’t for the internet. Thankfully my computer sings to me with beautiful feminist writing and women who refuse to be victims. And I’ve come to realise that misogyny is like any other abuse in that it wont sort itself out. In order for men to be held accountable and women to be given any chance of freedom, we need to speak up about our experiences. We need to stop tolerating misogyny. We need to stop feeling guilty for wanting equality. We need to raise our voices. And Muslim and ex Muslim women need to rise above accusations that their stories are inflammatory, irrelevant and anti-Islamic – those arguments are just manifestations of a culture wanting to control female minds and bodies.

Over 20 years ago a man commanded that I be Muslim. I had no choice in the matter. It was an abuse of power. It’s ridiculous to assume that I’ve a responsibility to promote or protect a religion just because I was forced to practice it. I’ve no desire to upset Muslims, indeed some of the people I love most are Muslim, but I’m entitled to reflect on the abuses of power I, and many other women, have suffered in the name of Islam.

The suggestion that my story is just a personal account with no bearing on wider society is absurd and it’s an attempt to belittle and silence me. Growing up I could only watch as women around me were reduced to vessels of male honour, their lives stunted to fit archaic models of purity.

The lack of autonomy that women in so many Muslim communities experience is relevant and must be discussed. As I’ve said before, presenting my story and my belief that women should have complete autonomy is not an attack on Islam, it’s a legitimate demand for equality and a necessary calling out of injustice.

I didn’t ask for the misogyny, but it happened to me, so now I own it, and I will talk about it. Whether you like it or not.

Writing as resistance and why I love to blog

They do best falling from my brain right into the ink in my pen.

I was about 10 when I decided what I wanted to do with my life. I was going to be a journalist. It was my destiny. I would grow up and get paid to write for people. And I’d write books too. Lots of them. So simple. Oh, to be 10 again! As it turned out life wasn’t the smooth path to professional writing that I’d anticipated. Somewhere along the line I lost track of who I was and by the time I needed to make those all important decisions about subjects, exams, and university, my earlier career aspirations seemed painfully unrealistic.

There were a couple of reasons why my plans for international journalistic success *snort* were scuppered. I had a breakdown that spanned my A Levels; I didn’t realise this at the time, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. I understand now that the panic attacks and hiding away to cry in the toilets most days weren’t just teenage angst. In being forced to convert to a very strict form of Islam I’d had my identity stripped from me, and I felt like I was suffocating. As well as this I only had a small parameter of choice with regards to subjects – Islam (of course), teaching and medicine were viewed as acceptable options by those pulling the strings in my life, but most other subjects were seen as a dangerous distraction from god. This made the year or so before going to university an emotionally fraught time. I was frightened someone would put their foot down at the last minute and forbid me from going and I knew it was my one opportunity to escape the religious control. So I did what I had to do, I manipulated my patriarchy by studying for a degree I wouldn’t have chosen had I the freedom to make choices. It was a necessary inconvenience to achieve the autonomy I so desperately needed. I did a degree in Islamic Studies, Arabic and English Literature (although I gave up the Arabic in my third year: utterly hopeless) and then a diploma in International Relations.

image

I loved the English and a lot of the political and sociological modules, but the rest I found arduous. If I’d had the clarity and the freedom I would have done gender studies and journalism, or something along that vein. Writing has always given me a giddy high, and analysing gender inequalities was my coping mechanism during the years of religious misogyny. 12 years on from graduating and I’m more passionate than ever about feminism and writing, and I still harbour the rather whimsical dream of being a writer when I ‘grow up’. But at 33, with a career and two young children, I’m bound by responsibilities that make my dream a little impractical. So I blog. It kills 2 birds with one stone – it sates my burning desire to write, if only temporarily, and it allows me to learn more about feminism.

Blogging has triggered so many epiphany moments. Since I started tapping away on WordPress I’ve realised I have a voice, that I’m entitled to feel anger and that it can be a constructive emotion, that I’m not as hopelessly dim as I thought I was, and that women like me can make a difference. My experiences mean I connect with certain feminist concerns, like ‘honour’ crime and religious patriarchy, more than others. But I realise that my experience is only one in a sea of inequality suffered by women, and the beauty of blogging is how much it teaches me about others. There are so many inspiring people online (women like GlosswitchSarah DitumJasvinder SangheraRaquel SaraswatiMaha, Huma and Mona Eltahawy) who’ve opened my eyes to sexism and the potential for emancipation, and after years of questioning my own worth and the legitimacy of my pain their words validate my anger and encourage me to believe that I can bring about change.

I hope that one day I’ll get the opportunity to write ‘properly’. I turn a bit green with envy each time I’m on Twitter – I’m pretty sure 75% of the people I follow have either written for newspapers or had a book published – but I’m also inspired and motivated by the success of other women. I have a book and articles burning away in my mind that I’m desperate to write about my forced conversion, the religious misogyny, the disownment and the piecing together of my new identity, but it’s only since I’ve had an online presence that I’ve felt I could make it happen. It’s a story that needs to be told. It hurt me so much, but now I’m free, and I’ll be freer still when my words fill up those pages and perhaps encourage some other poor soul who feels as trapped and hopeless as I did. But whether or not the book and my dreams to write professionally happen, I’ll continue to blog, because every time I write a post like this I feel like I’m chipping away at the patriarchy that took away my agency and manipulated my choices. These words are my feminist resistance.

Maya Angelou by Katie Rodgers

Sinking: when feminism is a dead weight

The last time I blogged here was through tears, after watching the documentary on Banaz Mahmod. It was a short post, punctuated with fury. I’d intended to be back way before now with a more coherent, useful piece on the issue of ‘honour’ abuse. I just needed some time out – to make sense of the anger and to turn it into something useful.

Truth is I’m still lost in that sea of rage. I’ve yet to achieve the perspective or clarity I was hoping for. I think about Banaz and the swathes of other women and men who suffer ‘honour’ abuse and I feel heartbroken. I want to be productive, to make an effort towards change, even in the smallest way. But it feels like an impossible task while I’m so ground down by upset. It’s taken months just to muster the thoughts I needed to write this post.

It feels selfish to acknowledge this, but I’ve reached saturation point. I’m exhausted by the scale and relentless of the suffering and by my own helplessness. Its not ‘just’ the ‘honour’ abuse – although that alone should be too much for any sane human being to comprehend – it’s the avalanche of misogyny that’s suffocating. Over the past few years my eyes have slowly, slowly, been opening to the extent of the hatred, the violence and the injustice suffered by women.

Misogyny in the news

Recently there’s been widespread media coverage of misogynistic crimes. At first I wondered if my increasingly feminist outlook was just making me more aware of the sorts of injustices that have always existed. And perhaps, to a certain extent, that is what’s happening. Misogyny is certainly nothing new. But the gift of social media and its constant and live news feed means we are only hours, minutes, or seconds away from the next breaking story about violence against women.

Only this month the press has reported widely on the increasingly uncertain fate of more than 200 Nigerian school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram – an Islamist militant group that believes Western education is forbidden, on the slaughter of 6 people in Isla Vista, California at the hands of Elliot Rodgers – a 22 year old with violently misogynistic beliefs, on the rise of the so called “manosphere” – “virulently misogynistic” websites, blogs and forums dedicated to savaging feminism and women, on the devastating gang rape and murder of two teenage girls in India whose bodies were left hanging from a tree, on the chilling reaction of Indian government minister Mulayam Singh Yadav to the proposed toughening up of rape laws, on the brutal death of Farzana Parveen who, at 3 months pregnant, was stoned to death by her family for marrying a man who has subsequently admitted to killing his first wife, on the heart wrenching ordeal of Meriam Ibrahim who just last week gave birth to a baby girl while shackled to the floor. Meriam has been sentenced to 100 lashes for adultery and to death for apostasy. She continues to be held in prison with her newborn daughter Maya and 20-month-old son Martin.

These cases have carved out a place in my consciousness. But now that I know about these women – who have names, history’s, aspirations, and the same rights as every other person on this planet, but are treated worse than caged animals – how on earth am I, how on earth are any of us, expected to carry on as normal? How do you live without a crushing sadness once you know a pregnant woman has given birth shackled in a prison for no other reason than she exercised a fundamental human right? How do you not spend your days consumed with rage once you know that rape and sexual assault are tolerated by so many? How do you function normally when it’s abundantly clear that women who reclaim their sexuality are so often seen as intrinsically worthless.

And as if all that isn’t enough, as well as these barbaric acts, there is also a layer of constant, low-level misogyny and sexism that pervades our media and everyday interactions. You get a sense of just how all-encompassing it is when you read the #everydaysexism and #yesallwomen hashtags on Twitter.

With many of the stories of sexism and misogyny I’m reminded of my own experiences. It might seem egocentric of me to refer to my past, but I imagine that is what defines many a feminist – that we empathise and relate by connecting back to either our own suffering or the suffering of people we love. It’s overwhelming to know that so many other victims are invisible; without a voice or a platform. I know first hand about invisible victims of misogyny because I grew up in a community where sexism was the status quo, where western education was viewed with scorn and counteracted with a culture of female subjugation, where female sexuality was perceived as deviant and female bodies were controlled. I grew up believing that it was perfectly acceptable for men to phone my father and ask for my hand in marriage, without my consent, as though I were a piece of meat that could be bargained over. I grew up knowing that because I’m female I would one day have to make a choice between my freedom or my family. All this happened in the UK, not in a third world, rural backwater. And as far as I know, no one else from the community I grew up in has publicly denounced the way we were treated.

Justifying feminism

Despite cases of brutal misogyny being made abundantly clear to anyone with a tv, a newspaper, or the internet, I’m often asked to justify feminism. And increasingly I’m finding it hard to articulate a response, not because I’ve a lack of reasons (obviously) but because of the sheer rage that the question induces. Are people blind to what is happening? How…HOW do they not see? And then there are the men (and very occasionally women) who see it as their role to bring feminists down a peg or two, to belittle the issue through smirks and rolled eyes. They remind me gently: things have changed, that I don’t need to get quite so histrionic about everyday sexism because it isn’t actually hurting me and, hey, those women who suffer the worst abuse aren’t even from the UK, so what’s with all the guilt-mongering? And I want to shout out:

  1. There is NO acceptable sexism – just as there’s no acceptable racism
  2. No one should be expected to shrug off sexism – because once you start devaluing the worth and integrity of half the world’s population, you’re careering down a slippery slope
  3. Calling out sexism isn’t dramatic, it’s just having conviction in the belief that women shouldn’t be treated as commodities, nor as figures of fantasy, mockery, or scorn
  4. Misogyny should never be shrugged off through a perceived cultural relativity, because culture is no excuse for abuse and that absurd belief only devalues women with cultural ‘otherness’
  5. There is no relativity when it comes to freedom

What next?

I’ve been so swamped by anger recently that I had to pull down the shutters. I distanced myself from all the low-level, socially ‘acceptable’ sexism that I would normally challenge. I stopped reading books on cultural misogyny because I found myself a weeping, exhausted mess, unable to stop reliving my own traumas. I’ve been ‘copping out’ (at least that’s what it feels like) by taking refuge in my other ‘mummy’ blog, a place of relative calm and happiness. I’ve had to acknowledge my limitations, because while I want to make a difference and vocalise my rejection of misogyny, I need time for myself and my family, time in which my mind isn’t consumed by injustice. I’m having to compartmentalise my identities so that my anger doesn’t impact on every other part of my life.

I’m trying to understand how other people move forward and beyond just feeling sad and angry, how they apply their rage so that it isn’t immobilising. I’m taking small steps, by writing this blog, by trying to organise a screening of the Honor Diaries in my local area (something that’s proving to be a painfully slow process), by reflecting on the work of activists like Jasvinder Sanghera, and next month I’ll go to BritMums Live, a conference for bloggers which will reflect in part on women’s voices in the media and becoming an advocate for change. Small steps.

The fact is misogyny will continue to wreak havoc on lives and sexism apologists will continue to patronise the efforts of feminists. I can’t let either of these things consume me, nor can I ignore my social responsibility. Somehow I need to find a balance that allows me to make a difference and live a life in which I’m happy and present for my family.

Brilliant blog posts on HonestMum.com