I still find it astounding that rape myths still exist in the general consciousness with such power and prevalence. Rape Myth Acceptance (RMA) has long been a topic for study by psychologists, and was quite probably the reason why I first studied Psychology. Rape myths were defined by Lonsway and Fitzgerald (1994) as ‘attitudes and beliefs that are generally false but are widely and persistently held, and that serve to deny and justify male sexual aggression against women’. There are a number of variations on the definition, and I would personally remove the ‘generally’ from generally false, but you get the gist. In layman’s terms (or laywomen’s) they are beliefs about the victim which are used to place the blame on the victim and justify an assault.
As a young woman trying to figure out my place in the world and what this whole being modern woman thing meant, I grew to be astounded by the views that people have about women; about women generally; women’s sexual identity; and women who are victims and survivors of sexual violence.
Academically my interest in RMA started during my law degree nearly ten years ago; I completed my dissertation examining Judges’ comments and summing up in rape trials. It was not much surprise to me at this point that they were deeply sexist and largely victim blaming. But, I thought to myself, these are old white men of incredibly privileged backgrounds and great wealth, it is no surprise they have deeply distorted views about women, that is after all surely what a public school education does to you. I thought that the solution was greater heterogeneity in the judiciary; judges of colour, women judges, openly gay judges, and perhaps most controversially, judges who didn’t go to public school, perhaps ones that didn’t even go to Oxbridge! Surely, I naively thought to myself, ‘normal’ people could not actually think in this vile way about women. Oh how wrong I was. I remember one night at the student union, where I wore some fairly low cut jeans, and a tight t shirt exposing my midriff, as was the fashion in the height of the Britney Spears’ days. On rocking up to the bar to meet my friends, one of them proclaimed ‘nice outfit, I wouldn’t wear it, I’d be afraid of getting raped’.
When I went on to study psychology I wrote my dissertation on the effect of pre trial publicity on juror’s verdicts in rape trials; did newspaper accounts of rape which conform to rape myth stereotypes (e.g. she was wearing a short skirt and was drunk) inform whether juror’s find the defendant guilty or not? And sadly of course it does, highlighting the impact of rape myth acceptance amongst jurors, and also the importance of a publicity blackout for rape survivors, and, I would argue, not allowing things like clothing of the victim to be admissible evidence at court.
I don’t mean to just recite my academic CV at you, but to further illustrate my journey, I then went on to do a Masters in Forensic Psychology. This time, exploring differences between groups (men, women, older, younger) in their attitudes towards rape and rape myth acceptance. Predictably, again there was a high acceptance of rape myths among all groups, women judging and blaming other women, and particularly older women, expressing the idea that they wouldn’t dress like ‘that’ anymore and were somehow lucky to not be sexually assaulted when they did dress like ‘that’. Most astounding to me of all, one young man sat opposite me openly expressing the view that once a women is in bed with you she has consented to sex. I wasn’t even so shocked that he thought this, but more that he would openly admit it and talk like it was obvious and common sense – like he thought I was going to agree with him! I thought I would have to delve deep with clever psychologising (not a real word) and analysis to get at these insidious beliefs and where they come from, but no, it was right there, straight on the surface, shouting loudly and unashamedly.
Now none of these pieces set the academic world on fire, and ten years on I can’t 100% vouch for their scientific rigor. if anything they were my attempt to make sense of the world we live in and to try to understand why attitudes towards women are so judgemental, what I should do about it, and how I should generally live my life. I’m not sure I answered all those questions, but when I finished studying I felt I had resolved something for myself, if only that I would spend the rest of my life actively challenging these attitudes wherever I might find them. Even though I accepted that then, It does still surprise and sadden me that 10 years later there seems to be little change.
Which all brings me to why I was at Slutwalk London 2012. Slutwalk is a protest/rally/march with a simple message; no matter what someone wears or does, they are not to blame for being sexually assaulted.
Some of slogans on the day were:
- Buffy wouldn’t stand for this shit
- A kiss is not a contract
- Yes means yes not how I dress
- Being asleep does not make me fair game
The atmosphere on the march was lighthearted, but pretty empowering, with women and men of all ages, colours, shapes and sizes singing and chanting and wearing mainly underwear to illustrate the point. It was a good thing to be involved in, and I wholeheartedly believe in the main message and felt pretty proud to be there.
Then came the speeches in Trafalgar square; some heartfelt stories about people’s experiences of being judged, not believed and having rape prosecutions fall down, or not even be brought in the first place by the Crown Prosecution Service, because of what they wore, what they drunk, or who they kissed. I’ve heard them before, from friends, in articles, during my research, but it still needs to be said; people still need to tell their story of how their lives have nearly been destroyed, and attitudes still need to be challenged, because having a brave woman stand up and speak out, and provoke an emotional reaction in my heart, and throat and eyes is the most powerful weapon we have.
Unfortunately people want to believe that it was a person’s own fault for being assaulted, want to blame them rather than the attacker, it’s a natural defence mechanism and that way you can believe it won’t happen to you because you wouldn’t be in that situation, wouldn’t act that way. But rape happens to people from all backgrounds; people in care homes, old people, young people, transgender people, people in jeans, people in skirts, sex workers, people with make up, people with long hair, people with short hair, people who are mothers, sisters, friends, lovers. The sad fact is it can happen to anyone. The way to stop it is not to lay the blame on those it happens to, but to support them, and to challenge and change views which support violence against women.
I did however have mixed views about the march on leaving at the end of the day. During the speeches the English Collective of Prostitutes contributed. It absolutely fits with the message o f the day to highlight that sex workers are also often not believed when they report rape and are therefore even more vulnerable to sexual violence. Challenging victim blaming attitudes feeds into this and is intrinsically linked. Unfortunately, the issue of legalising prostitution was also brought into the mix. I’m not sure what I feel about legalising prostitution, I don’t think sex workers should be criminalised and I think safer working conditions and taking control away from pimps all sound like common sense. I also know that some research shows that the red light district in Amsterdam, for example has not solved many of the problems it was hoped it would, such as exploitation and oppression of women, by men. It’s a big messy issue and I feel is a debate that should be reserved for another day. And that’s ok, there is room for disagreement and debate amongst feminists, we’re all individuals and are not going to think the same thing on every issue. But I felt, the message from Slutwalk should be kept clear and simple; yes means yes and no means no. That’s why I was there, and that’s why I was walking (in high heels of course).
Changing workplaces and the role of women
I wanted to write a post about the workplace, a topic I find particularly fascinating. The UK places a real emphasis on work, which is reflected in the figures-the UK work some of the longest hours in Europe (not to mention the fact we don’t even get a siesta in the afternoon…)
It has occurred to me recently that many people, by their own definition are ‘floating’. This is a very technical term for doing jobs which tend to involve temporary contracts, or moving on after a year or two. (And this is men and women, young and old)
I can certainly vouch for this. I recently tallied up every job I have had since I began working at the age of fifteen, and in ten years I have worked in sixteen different jobs. Averaged out over the ten years, this amounts to an average of approximately six months per job.
I have worked everywhere. If you don’t believe me, take a look:
Wanna Haircut, Millets, MKOne, Whsmiths, Barclays Bank, Lloyds TSB, The Litten Tree, The Richmond Group, Au Pair, The Disney Store, Michael Rhodes Estate Agents, Doubletake Studios, London Advice Services Alliance, Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum, Groupon, and my current role at The College of Social Work.
I think I cover a lot of the bases-banking, retail, childcare, catering, admin, IT, charity work, creative industries…
Based on scientific research (aka talking to friends/work colleagues) I’ve noticed a real change in the way we view the employment market. Jumping from one job to another had the potential to feel liberating, that we weren’t committed to one role until we retire, like many generations before us.
But I want to argue that it isn’t liberating, We are clinging to our temporary contracts, and shrugging off the lack of pension or maternity benefits. We are scared to search for a new role, counting ourselves lucky we have a job at all.
Gender also comes into the discussions (because you just knew it had to). Women are losing their jobs at a disproportionately greater rate than men. Of the 2.67 million people who are unemployed, 1.12 million are women – the highest number for 25 years. Women are paid less. FACT. In the UK, women get paid, on average, 15.5% less than men.
And a final interesting point by the Guardian this week. Women pay more for stuff. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/shortcuts/2012/mar/21/women-pay-more-than-men)
We pay more for haircuts, for our toiletries. Why do we pay more? Because we spend more I hear you cry! But WHY do we spend more? Because we have been bashed over the head with the message that WOMEN NEED TO LOOK GOOD. Must shave, must fake tan, must smell good, must do my highlights, lowlights, back comb, perm, relax, condition, moisturise, scrub, cleanse, tone, and rub in circular motions?! If my boyfriend rubbed cream on his face in circular frickin motions I’d laugh til I cried. But he wouldn’t, because he doesn’t have to, and he doesn’t use creams. I’m lucky if I can get him in the shower.
Women also experience sexism in the workplace. Recently I’ve been asked to serve tea and lunches in more and more meetings, as has my fellow female colleague. This isn’t part of our job description, but we’ve done it. I have since been referred to as ‘stewardess’ and trolley dolly’ whilst carrying out these duties, which I have to say, leaves me feeling pretty demoralised.
It’s good to be aware of these patterns. The ones affecting all of us, regardless of age or gender, and also of the discrimination that women still face. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one with stories like this…
Addressing Parliament about the London riots, David Cameron said, “This is not about poverty, it’s about culture. A culture that glorifies violence, shows disrespect to authority, and says everything about rights but nothing about responsibilities.”
The ability to protect our rights is a privilege we have in our “free” society. But there is a difference between upholding our rights and flaunting a sense of entitlement. This week we all watched the images of looters breaking into stores and helping themselves to whatever was in their line of sight. They displayed a total lack of responsibility for their actions. In order to feel responsibility, you need to have self-esteem and to be aware of your place in society. These people did not consider themselves to be part of society.
We live in a consumer culture, and it has become a game to see how much we can get for less. I subscribe to Groupon, Living Social and Vouchercloud. I won’t let myself buy any more Groupon vouchers because I keep allowing ones I have purchased to expire. It has become more about the deal than the product.
I am not particularly materialistic, but I am definitely a consumer when it comes to how I spend my time. There are so many books to read, shows to watch and experiences to be had. But there is only so much consuming we can do before we begin to feel empty. Real meaning comes from creating and contributing. It is more fulfilling to write a book than read a book, but it’s much harder and a great deal more time-consuming. Our natural inclination is to be lazy, but when we do invest the time and effort, the dividends are invaluable.
It also seems easier to stand back and let other people handle a situation than to take action ourselves. We often have ideas about how to act, but we tell ourselves that we have no place taking control and that those “in charge” will be most effective. Then we sit back and talk about how we would have acted differently. It may feel easier to be passive, but it is more satisfying – and our responsibility – to follow through with our instincts. If you have an idea, don’t wait for someone else to think of it; go ahead and act yourself. You can do the job as well, if not better, than anyone else.
When I lived in New York, I stood by and watched someone die on the street, signalling for others to call for help rather than making the call myself. I realize now that I knew the most about the situation, but I was overwhelmed by what was happening and did not consider myself qualified to take control. We have to think highly of ourselves to not cause harm and to act in the face of harm. We have to be aware of the impact we can make on the world because our actions, whether we realize it or not, have an effect on others.
It is when we dare to put ourselves on the line that we have the capacity to realize our full potential and make a difference. Pushing and challenging ourselves can feel uncomfortable, but when we embrace this feeling and even seek it out, we learn that it is nothing more than growing pains. It is by stepping outside of our comfort zone and not shying away from responsibility that we will lead truly exciting and fulfilling lives.
Post authored by: Kim Mansell
False sexual assault claims are making a mockery of serious crime
This week, prosecutors have asked a judge to drop the sexual assault case against former IMF Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn in the U.S. Mr. Strauss-Kahn was alleged to have raped 32 year-old African immigrant Ms. Nafissatou Diallo who was working as a hotel maid at the time. It was argued that Ms. Diallo had been inconsistent in details of the alleged attack therefore questioning the credibility of her story, and that “reasonable doubt” could not be fathomed. It is reported that Diallo spoke to a friend in prison about the case, mentioning his wealth, suggesting the possibility of a financial motive. Following a decision next week, if the case is dropped, Mr. Strauss-Kahn will be allowed to return to France.
Sexual assault allegations have traditionally been complex cases to draw judgement upon due to difficulties in forensics differentiating between a perhaps hurried or rough sexual encounter and a violent assault. Problems determining whether the incident was consensual or indeed even took place at all are also an issue due to the lack of witnesses usually present in such circumstances.
“Reasonable doubt” is of extreme importance in rape cases due to the hefty sentence that conviction carries, but, due to an increase in the number of false allegations made against celebrities for money or five minutes of fame, or made against sexual partners for revenge, women across the world who have suffered real sexual assaults are failing to acquire a conviction for their assailants.
Earlier this month Mr. David Tune of Doncaster was cleared of paedophilia claims after his former lover Victoria Haigh manipulated her seven year-old daughter claiming sexual assault from her father. The high court had heard how Miss. Haigh had “coached” her daughter to lie convincingly, posting the accusations on the internet.
It’s another tale to add to the string of false allegations women make against innocent men, tainting their integrity for the foreseeable future and slowly destroying the reliability of women’s’ claims in genuine attacks.Miss.Haigh could face imprisonment for her false accusations but her crimes against women across the world will be far worse in the long term.
Since the sexual liberation of women in the “swinging sixties” and subsequent decades, more and more have come to use sex not only as a weapon but to attain their much desired five minutes of fame. Many will remember the famous allegations made against David Beckham in 2004 in which his alleged extra-marital partner also became famous. In the past seven years Posh and Becks have had to repeatedly defend their marriage whilst Loos went on to enjoy a celebrity status, albeit at more “Z-list” than “A-list”, appearing on various reality television programmes.
Former team-mate of Beckham, Wayne Rooney also made headlines when it was alleged that he had sexual relations with a £1200-a-night prostitute Jennifer Thompson, an allegation which Rooney has never denied and almost cost him his marriage to his then pregnant wife Coleen. Even in this case of “bought services” Thompson sold her story to tabloids in order to make money out of her customer, most probably in an attempt to boost her career.
A news report by the BBC in 2007 suggested that around 85,000 women in the UK were the victims of rape in the UK in 2006 – around 230 cases a day! If even only half of that reported number were genuine that equates to over 40,000 women suffering a violent and horrific crime which can destroy mental health if the proper help is not provided.
It is yet to be decided whether Ms. Diallo’s case against Strauss-Kahn will be dropped but huge implications rest on either side of the argument; if she is indeed telling the truth and the case is dropped justice will be denied for a woman who has suffered a terrible ordeal and a dangerous man will walk free. On the other hand, if she is lying then this woman has destroyed the reputation and career of an important figure in global finance, something that is much needed in the current climate. If the judge rules that the case be dropped, we can but only hope that judicial systems will not let cases such as this and Miss. Haigh’s affect their opinion of other women who may be making authentic claims in the future. Let us also hope that women who are willing to use assault allegations as a weapon or sexual relations for self-gain will soon learn that implications of their actions are highly dangerous; god forbid that in the future those who have been found to lie about a sexual assault actually become a real victim of such an attack and find themselves untrustworthy in court due to their track record.
Post authored by: Kim Mansell
A Mexican Wave of Brave, Young Women
Mexico may be the image of white beaches, expensive resorts and the holiday adventures of Carrie Bradshaw and co to most women, but to those native to North West Mexico, their country is an ongoing battle which has seen brave, young women step forward to take on the most dangerous jobs imaginable. Warning: the following women will give you strength and fill you with pride.
The war between the Sinaloa and Juarez Cartels has plagued the state for years and claimed the lives of over 30,000 people since President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006 and declared war on the drug smugglers and subsequent death squads which have taken control of North-West Mexico. In June 2010 Manuel Lara Rodriguez, Mayor of Guadalupe Distrito Bravos, was murdered outside his home in Juarez; violence capital of Mexico, ravaged by drugs cartels. Articles at the time told of how police were having to start their working days an hour early to make time to collect the numerous dead bodies from the streets each morning in towns of the state of Chihuahua and struggled to appoint and maintain an honest police force.
Praxedis Guerro was one such town which had struggled to find anyone willing to take up the job of Chief of Police, after the former chief had been brutally decapitated, until a criminology student at the age of just 20 stepped forward in October 2010 to be protectorate of her home town. Marisol Valles Garcia made international news headlines as “the bravest woman in Mexico” and rightly so; in the same week that she was sworn into her new position other headlines from neighbouring towns told of a woman’s head being found in a bag on the streets of Ciudad Juarez, three bodies hung from a bridge in Tijuana, and the murder of eight people in Praxedis Guerro itself just days before.
Garcia had not intended to fight the cartels, however. Her new police strategy was designed to pull ordinary citizens away from the involvement of the drugs wars and leave the colossal task of the drugs trade to the federal forces. Instead Marisol wanted to focus on rebuilding the townships, emphasize crime prevention and build social development programmes.
Since 2008 five women took up chief of police positions in North West Mexico, a beacon light of hope that women would not let their country fall. Amongst these five was Hermila Garcia who became Chief of Police in Meoqui in October 2010 and refused to have bodyguards as a symbol of her stand. Garcia, 38 had taken on the high profile role in an area where men were scarce due to the amount that had been murdered or fled through fear. She lasted less than two months as chief before being shot on her way to work in December last year, but her sacrifice did not dampen the courage of other young women.
Not long after the death of Hermila Garcia came another story of a heroic, young woman in the village of Guadalupe which sits near the U.S border and a channel for drug smuggling into neighbouring Texas. Irma Erika Gandara, 28, became the last police officer in Gudalupe after her seven colleagues resigned leaving Gandara as the sole law-maker in the town. Gandara was abducted from her home by masked gunmen in December 2010, believed to be dead.
Less than 5 months into her position as Chief of Police in Praxedis Guerro Marisol Valles, Garcia fled to the USA with her husband, son, parents and sisters after the dramatic increase in death threats and intimidation she was receiving. She has since sought refuge in the USA and is awaiting a decision to remain there. Although her departure may seem like the final nail in the coffin for the courageous women of Mexico, hundreds of women across the country continue the fight as normal officers and the message those who have been killed or forced to flee have left behind is far more significant now than ever. Marisol, Hermila, Irma and the countless other female officers murdered or missing in Chihuahua are a sign that the drug cartels have fear too; they fear these women who stand against them without weapons, without protection but with a voice and with a determination to bring about change and to protect their people-and this is why they were targeted, to silence the beginning of what will hopefully be change.
As recently as April this year, more stories appear about the deaths of female officers in the Juarez region. Thirty-three year old Paola de la Rosa Garcia was shot multiple times in the hallway of her home and the new Chief of Police in Praxedis Guerro and her family were attacked in their home, in June, leaving all three victims in a critical state. The cartels should not underestimate the number of women willing to stand up for their country.
The fight continues…..
Post authored by: Kim Mansell
The Real Rebekah Brooks…
“I feel a deep sense of responsibility for the people we have hurt and I want to reiterate how sorry I am for what we now know to have taken place.” On first impressions you would forgive anyone for accepting this as a heartfelt apology and worthy of sympathy. But look into the lengthy scandal that is Rebekah Brooks, and an awfully pitiless judgement will begin to take image in your mind.
This week, the News International chief executive resigned from her powerful position and its hard not to feel intense anger against this woman, not only for the pain she has caused numerous families and individuals via a continuous phone hacking campaign, but for her betrayal of women across the working world.
Rebekah Brooks, formerly Rebekah Wade, had all the potential to be a role model and inspiration for ambitious, young women everywhere for her remarkable ascent in the male-dominated industry of journalism. At the age of just 32 she became Britain’s youngest national newspaper editor for the, now closed, News of the World. Shortly after accomplishing this title Brooks embarked on a controversial yet brave campaign against paedophiles following the heart wrenching murder of school-girl Sarah Payne; a crusade which led to the introduction of the child sex offender disclosure scheme (CSODS). Similar stories seem to stand Brooks in good stead, such as her work for the organisation Women in Journalism, and her support for mental health charity Sane.
However, behind this perhaps façade of human decency are the reports of the real life Rebekah Brooks who will go to any lengths to get a story. Lest we forget the appalling phone calls made by Brook in 2006 to the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, following the devastating news that their son had been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis-and that she planned to make this a tabloid story before the distressed parents had time to announce the news themselves. Not only can this behaviour be deemed anything but despicable, it is also outrageous to hear that Brooks had the audacity to threaten and bring to tears the Prime Minister’s right hand man, one of the most powerful politicians in the world at the time!
It was not shocking, therefore, to come across an article published by the New York Times in which homosexual Labour MP Chris Bryant told of how he had met Brooks at a News International party at a Labour Party Conference; “She said, ‘Oh, Mr. Bryant, it’s after dark — surely you should be on Clapham Common,’ ” He went on to claim that this was not said in good humour. As more and more stories of this calibre come to light, it is clear that this woman who will at one stage in her career have been a role model for aspiring, female journalists, has been outed as little more than tabloid trash. To anyone wishing to climb the journalism career ladder….DO NOT THINK THAT THIS IS THE ONLY WAY TO GET NOTICED! Instead, look at the real examples such as the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg and take pride in good journalism.
Post authored by: Sayyidah Salam
A Broken Door towards Peace
As a new intern at Women for Women International-UK, an organisation that assists women victims of war, I have been fortunate enough to attend a private audience with Karak Mayik, WfWI Sudan Country Director. A woman whose story moved, inspired and humbled me. She re-affirmed my belief that there is always hope; that human endeavour and a striving towards a better future for people can and will overcome any obstacles. I listened as she told her harrowing story, taking us beyond images frequently seen in the media.
Life there is hard, in ways those of us here will not be able to comprehend. War and violence are part of their common culture and the women bear the brunt of this. Steeped in gender inequality, the rights of women are taken away by men who view them as worthless commodities and use rape and sexual slavery as weapons of war.
Karak and her family were forced to flee their home after civil war broke out. They spent many years at an IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp where they lived in severe hardship. Violence against women was widespread. But whilst in the camp, Karak voluntarily began to educate the women. Taking them through the Arabic alphabet written on a broken piece of door, this was the first step towards a leadership role beyond the family sphere. She later went on to start her own community-based organisation and joined with WfWI.
The WfWI year-long Sponsorship Program is a life-changing experience that works through a ‘sistering’ system by which a survivor of war must receive a sponsor to enrol; thus illustrating the importance of the Sponsor within a woman’s life. Letters from Sponsors are gifts many keep close to their hearts. Karak would tell these women: “If there are women in the US and the UK and other places that believe you can have a better life, why don’t you believe it yourself?”Through sponsorship funding, the program helps women receive vital job-skills training, business, money management and rights awareness education. Karak explained that the women are taught to view their sponsorship money not as relief but as a gift that must be utilised effectively, for the whole family, not just their husbands. Since 2007, this initiative and the Sponsorship Program have supported 10,000 women.
This was due to the daring idealism and steely determination of a woman who has instigated a spark of positive progress within her shattered society and created the space needed to negotiate peace. Karak described her motivation as being cultivated by her environment, with a matriarchal attitude towards leadership and clearly driven by her faith. She has valiantly demanded her place at the table, raised gender education and encouraged women towards self-reliance and income generation to help themselves, their families and ultimately the wider society. This is ground-breaking work that is causing a shift within this generations’ thinking and attitudes towards life and culture. Women within the program are now wanted education for their daughters, rather than early marriages, as they see this is the way forward and they view women like Karak as role-models.
A woman, a leader, a home-maker, a peace-keeper. She is a mother, a diplomat, a negotiator; the driver and the vehicle. Such women deserve our recognition. We should know what they are capable of in such extreme circumstances, to act as triggers within ourselves. She said something that truly struck a chord in me: “I’ve done this, voluntarily, starting from nothing. If I can do this, what about you?”
It rarely occurs to us that very small amounts of assistance can go such a long way in changing a person’s life. When asked about what we here can do to make a difference, Karak responded that we need to inform ourselves of the situation there and to help in whatever capacity possible to lead them towards their vision of their future. In the coming months, WfWI UK will be launching the Sponsorship program to partner sponsors in the UK with survivors of war in Sudan, Iraq, Bosnia and five other countries.
We’d love to hear from anyone who wants to know how they can take action and connect with women around the world who are putting their lives at risk to rally for female empowerment and peace. For more information please visit our website: http://www.womenforwomen.org.uk/ or alternatively find us on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/WomenforWomenUK
Women beneficiaries of the WfWI programme in Sudan join together to call for an end to the fighting in their country.
Post authored by: Sayyidah Salam
The Bravest Woman in Afghanistan
Recently, a global survey has named Afghanistan as the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a woman. But within this place, one woman in particular has been hailed “the bravest woman in Afghanistan.” With a long list of achievements to her name, and the recipient of many international awards, politician and activist Malalai Joya is most commonly known for her outspoken long-term commitment to women’s right, peace and justice in Afghanistan. A critic of the Taliban, the present ‘warlord’ government as she describes them, and the occupation, Joya claims that the situation for women has not improved since the invasion stating that war is never better for women. She believes that left to their own self-determination, the progressive men and women of Afghanistan could move the country forward for themselves.
As a staunch opponent of the coalition’s invasion of her country, Joya holds to the notion that the occupation is a crime that is doing nothing more than propping up newer warlords. This fierce criticism of the occupation led to her being denied a travel visa to the U.S. earlier this year though the official reasons given were her “unemployment” status and the fact that she “lives underground”. This was eventually lifted as the government was inundated with pressure from the public to allow her in and to be given the opportunity to speak:
“My country is still in chains of bloody and terrorist fundamentalists. The situation in Afghanistan and conditions of its ill-fated women will never change positively, as long as the warlords are not disarmed and BOTH the pro-US and anti-US terrorists are removed from the political scene of Afghanistan.”
Her refusal to compromise when plainly stating the truth about the realities of life in Afghanistan has also left her the target of many assassination attempts. And yet she demands her voice be heard as an elected member of the Afghan Parliament, touring internationally and authoring an autobiography ‘A Woman Among Warlords’. Times 100 listed Joya as amongst the ‘100 most influential people in the world’ in 2010 and the Guardian named her among the ‘Top 100 women activists and campaigners’, whilst Noam Chomsky personally described her as a “truly worthy choice for the Nobel Peace Prize”.
I think what strikes me as a common theme that can be found in such figures of genuine peace-loving, justice-seeking individuals is a fearless determination to have the truth speak for itself, regardless of consequence. And just as glaringly obvious as it would seem to have the truth of international affairs available to us all, it is becoming eerily apparent that these efforts may be squashed if they proceed to question or criticise the common narrative that is sold to us. As the opponents of wars and oppression are beginning to find it difficult to be given that platform to speak publicly, especially in countries such as the U.S. that prides themselves as being homes of free speech, one has to then question the very foundations upon which we frame our understanding of these monumental world events. Despite this, it is encouraging to know that the most dangerous place to be a woman is clearly not stopping this woman becoming an incredibly influential figure spearheading justice for Afghan women and all peoples of Afghanistan.
The Politics of Pop
I love Rihanna, Beyonce and Gaga. I wait enthusiastically for every new single release and the exciting cycle that comes with the campaign: the build up, the inevitable leak, the furious Googling for the ripped mp3 file, the first radio play, video release and TV performances that follow. But it’s not just their bass lines and beats that have attracted so many loyal fans like me. It’s also their bodies.
It seems cruelly reductive to suggest that these globally successful women can thank their physiques for their fame. But, as I’ll explain, I don’t mean to conform to the usual critique of these women. We often hear that their sole talent is for taking their clothes off. They’re bad dancers and average singers, puppets of a male-dominated music industry that perpetuates harmful stereotypes of femininity, providing young women with terrible role models and encouraging them to think that stripping off is the key to success. Or so the story goes. This kind of assessment is one we’re used to hearing all the time. It’s the sort of thinking that saw Ofcom deluged with thousands of complaints after Rihanna’s racy X Factor performance.
Similarly, other feminists may have watched Rihanna’s X Factor performance, or her recent video, and seen just another pop video produced for the heterosexual male gaze. Scantily clad woman? Check. Provocative dance moves? Check. Lyrics that suggest she’s totally up for it? Check.
We’ve heard all this before. But what interests me is the fact that Rihanna’s fan base, like Lady Gaga’s and Beyonce’s, largely seems to consist of young women aged 18-30. Women like me, who appreciate their performances as much as their pop tracks. Indeed, a colleague at work said to me the other day that she only became a fan of Rihanna after that X Factor performance. So, why do we enjoy watching these women so much?
Perhaps we’re all gluttons for punishment. We watch pop stars parading their perfect bodies on stage and then love to revel in the misery of how unattainable it all is. Perhaps we’re pawns of the patriarchy, duped into buying into the whole enterprise. So, we buy their albums with their supposedly empowering anthems that suggest we’re all sexually liberated, independent women… but we then go and buy a ton of new make up, numerous Weight Watchers products and a wardrobe of Topshop clothes in the hope that we can capture a little of our favourite pop star’s shine.
Of course, all this could be true. But it doesn’t feel like the whole truth to me. It’s such a joyless way of explaining the influence of these remarkable women in our lives. As a newly converted Rihanna fan, my colleague can perhaps shed some light on this confusing situation. When I asked her what’d made her change her mind about Rihanna, she explained that she found the pop star’s performance ‘just incredible. She looked fantastic and she seemed to be loving it’ And this, I think, gets to the heart of why we love to love these women.
They’re simultaneously real and unreal. They’re living incredible lives defined by glamour, fashion and performance. And it’s the idea of performance that’s key here. Most young women know the difference between an act, a show, a charade- and real life. We know that pop stars live an extraordinary existence and that their seven minute videos and five minute stage performances are far removed from the grind our daily lives. But we admire these women for embracing the joy of dressing up, getting in character and putting on a show all the same. I will never have Rihanna’s fantastic body, but it’s wonderful to see her exploring the potential of just what she can do with it on stage and watching her having the time of her life in the process. We idolise these women because they’re leading an alternative version of our own lives: if we’d only had a better voice, a more innate sense of style, the opportunity to get ahead in showbusiness. However, whilst we can’t and won’t be the next Beyonce, we can still get pleasure from pretending we’re her every time Crazy in Love comes on in a club and we attempt to shaky our booty (however misguidedly) on the dance floor. And for most of us that’s fun enough. We can do without the preening that comes with proper popstardom.
As a feminist, I think there’s a simpler, less anxious, case to be made for the success of these singers. It’s just about joy, about celebrating womanhood and the role of performance in our lives… what it means to get out, go dancing and embrace life.