Why do we need International Women’s Day?

 

So what’s the deal with International Women’s Day? Isn’t it just angry women ranting about not getting a pay rise or whatever? A bunch of feminist bloggers?

Hmm, the F word.

Feminism is such a tricky term; one that is often treated with as much contempt as the other F word.

The Huffington Post’s Poorna Bell claims that:

“We have moved beyond the procrastination of 2013, when women were deciding whether or not they were feminists,” to this year where “the voice of women grew from a murmur to a roar.”

Well that maybe true in certain sections of the press, and perhaps on Twitter. But in real life, do people really care about inequality and gender issues? Do you?

 

What was it that broke the internet?

According to one editor of a prominent women’s magazine, the articles that get the most click-throughs on their site are chicken recipes and Mary Berry’s cupcake recipe. It seems we care more about fluffy lifestyle topics such as baking or how to contour our cheekbones to cut glass than we do about FGM, the gender pay gap or domestic violence.

Think about it. It wasn’t the picture of Malala receiving her Nobel Prize that broke the internet was it?

It’s great to celebrate some of the steps forward that we have taken as a society. Like the changes to paternity leave that mean the responsibility of childcare no longer falls solely on women. Or the growing openness around breastfeeding.

But let’s not overstate the case. What about the issues that don’t gain a hashtag or social media attention? What about marginalised women who don’t have a voice at all?

If you need further convincing on this, then consider the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day, #PledgeForParity. Not #LetsCelebrateHowFarWe’veCome. According to the official website, “progress towards gender equality has slowed in many places.”

#PledgeforParity is about the continued fight to see women gain equal status all over the world. Not just here in the West. It’s the fight to see women in India have access to indoor toilets. It’s the fight to end FGM, the practice that is said to maintain a woman’s sexual purity. It’s the fight to stop girls being married off as young as 12. And so much more….

But I fear that before we take on that fight, we have to move past our own apathy.

Because let’s face it, most people would rather watch the video of the baby panda sneezing or anything to do with cats before they engage with gender issues.

 

Some unlikely home truths

So how do we get people to care? It seems that once a year, the stats and figures on the plight of women across the world get rolled out; only to be put away again until March 8th the following year. Instead of shocking people once a year with “what’s happening out there”, how do we really bring it home?

Well how about asking a few home truths that may seem unlikely. Like:

Do you have a vagina?

Do you have children?

Do you have a non- English name?

Do you have coloured skin?

Are you gay?

Are you on the minimum wage?

Are you an immigrant or the child of one?

Are you disabled or suffer from a long term illness?

Answering yes to any one of these questions means you WILL face discrimination at one point in your life. Simply because there are power structures in place which mean that most of us will experience discrimination and disadvantage.

That’s why we should all care about International Women’s Day. Because its a day for the disadvantaged, and yes that includes women. Because, as Hilary Clinton so famously said in her iconic 1995 speech to the UN, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

And one more thing. Why should it be me, you, us that roll up our sleeves and do this? Because:

“I am resourced. I am educated, I have the right to vote, I have access to medical healthcare. WE must open doors for others who don’t have the rights that we take for granted.”

Annie Lennox, speaking at Women of the World 2015, London.

 

 

 

If you want to read more on this topic, you might like these posts:

A letter to my daughter on International Women’s Day

Can Twitter really change the lives of women?

Why we don’t care about other women

What is Desi Feminism?

Why you won’t see many brown faces in women’s magazines

mags

One editor of a women’s magazine described it to me like this: “If we can produce an issue that isn’t full of blondes from the Cotswolds, then we’ll be onto something.”

It seems that even the insiders of the British women’s magazine industry are growing tired of publishing the same content each month that’s focussed on one type of woman and allows for very little diversity.

You know what I’m talking about. The endless magazine covers with white women, white models and white celebrities, interspersed with the occasional appearance from Beyonce or one of the Kardashian sisters. Inside is more of the same. Page after page of feature stories, beauty, skin and hair advice…very little of which is targeted at me. Of the few times Asians do grace the pages it’s for the usual stories on forced marriage and other aspects of cultural oppression.

Ok, I know I write about the latter quite often. But outside of that time, I’d like to know which new foundations work on my skin tone. Or about the new generation of products that help tame my often frizzy hair. I know you can find that kind of stuff in specific Desi publications. But where are the mainstream columnists and writers who provide a more culturally diverse perspective on life? Why is content for women like me still so marginalised?

A large part of the problem is the lack of black and minority ethnic (BME) journalists and editors in mainstream women’s magazines.  According to the Creative Skillset Employment Census of 2012, BME representation in the creative industries has declined from 7.4% of the total workforce in 2006 to 6.7% in 2009 and stood at just 5.4% in 2012.

Naturally the end result of such poor BME representation is editorial content with a blindingly white bias. There’s hardly anything that speaks to black and Asian women that is beyond cultural stereotyping.

Whilst there are many editors and writers amongst the British women’s press that I have a lot of respect for, I can’t get past the fact that there are so few black or Asian women in key editorial positions.  Instead, the women who are forecasting trends and telling us what is zeitgeist don’t actually reflect an ethnically diverse Britain at all.

Here’s a case in point. I love the new online publication The Pool, which launched just before Easter this year.

Their manifesto is to provide original, news-y content for busy, on the go women who often consume media on their smartphones. So far so good. It was co-founded by 6 Music DJ and presenter Lauren Laverne and former Cosmopolitan magazine editor Sam Baker. Great.

I was interested to see Sam Baker pop back up in the women’s magazine arena as she worked at Hearst magazines at the same time that I did. And for the record, I do love what they’ve created- it’s innovative, fun and genuinely original.

But it’s very disappointing to see that there isn’t one black or minority ethnic writer on their editorial team.

The Pool

Some of the staff writers at The Pool

Why have Laverne and Baker not accounted for ethnicity at all? Yes they have a fabulous team on-board, many of whom I admire. But – for now- I can’t see anything on The Pool about parenting and ethnicity; beauty for darker skin tones; racist sexism; the ethnic gender pay gap or diversity in the boardroom. Why should topics like that be confined to blogs and specialist publications alone?

So here’s my plea to the women’s magazine industry. Take note of the fact that the women of Britain don’t fit one mould.  If you include a non-white voice in your editorial offering you’re not going to alienate all your white readers. Breaking: they might actually enjoy a different perspective. And with the number of white people decreasing in the UK, chances are your readers won’t all be white women anyway.

Do you have life envy?

facebook thumbs downThey tell you as a blogger, that you need to be authentic- or your readers will see straight through you. That’s true in life too, don’t you think?

There are so many voices vying for our attention everyday- social media, blogs, 24 hours news; that it can be really hard to hear your own still, small voice. The voice that tells you who are you, encourages you to keep going, tells you you’re doing a good job even when you feel insignificant.

I think that’s why so many of us fall short of being true to ourselves and try and take bits of other people’s identity.

It’s easily done. Sign posts that make us feel life-envy are all around, and are heightened by the likes of Facebook and Instagram. As if we didn’t already know this, new research has found that Facebook can increase feelings of depression, stemming from envy. We see the amazing holidays, outfits, relationship success and instantly feel challenged: why doesn’t my life look that good?

Cue feelings of inadequacy and insignificance.

Here’s a newsflash: their life doesn’t look that good either. It’s simply self-presentation of the best bits of their lives.

And yet we all compare ourselves to our friends and many of us, in some inadvertent way, end up modelling ourselves on those we deem the most successful. Certainly Facebook and Instagram have fuelled that, but it’s an age-old practice.

Some peer support can be useful at times- we all need support and guidance. Role models are crucial in my opinion and not just for young people. I think we are constantly redefining ourselves as we enter different lifestages. What does it mean to be a newlywed? Or a new mum? Or recently divorced or recently bereaved? How about redundancy and a change of career, or moving to a new town or country? These are life events that many of us face and tackling our own identity in the midst of that can be bewildering and confusing.

But I’ll tell you what’s not cool, and that’s simply copying someone else. Sounds childish right? No one does past primary school.  Well actually, everyone does it- to varying degrees anyway. We often aspire to others and that makes us want to imitate them- because we see something in them that we want for ourselves.

Let me tell you that that is unhealthy and it cannot be sustained. Sooner or later you’ll tire of trying to be someone or something that you’re not. You cannot be someone else because you are unique. However appealing the mum at the school gates is, with her hair and makeup intact and the perfect job and happy kids, you won’t be her. What’s more, there are struggles going on in her life that are not meant for you.

I think as women we are wired to compete with each other. From the earliest age we look to other girls and envy them. And do you know why we do that? Because ultimately we’re all trying to work out that big question “who am I?”

Identity is a difficult thing. What’s more, its ongoing. It’s never a question that is settled. Your identity is constantly going to change because you are constantly changing. And that’s ok. Just please don’t rip off someone else’s style. Be YOU. Be authentic. Only you can do that with style.

Why British Asians must vote in the Election

vote1

I know, you’re bored of the election.

But here’s the thing. If black and minority ethnic (BAME) people don’t get involved with the election, there could be serious consequences.

If we don’t stand up for the issues that affect us , those issues will become marginalised and eventually ignored. What’s more, the anti-immigrant, generally negative language towards ethnic minorities that UKIP is stirring up could get more dominant.

The fact is, not enough of us are involved. Research has shown that in the last general election, in 2010, a significant number of black and minority ethnic people were not even registered to vote. Lack of citizenship was one reason given; perhaps the language barrier might be another in some cases. But what about the rest of us: second and third generation Asians and Black people who were born and educated here- what’s our excuse for not voting or not even registering to vote?

Ignored

Perhaps it’s because many of us feel ignored by our politicians and by Government. Our concerns are talked about very little in the political arena- other than when issues like immigration and terrorism are raised, where we get tarred with stereotypes. We simply don’t feel clear enough on how most of the parties will deal with racial inequality. And with only 27 Asian and black MPs at the moment, most of us don’t see ourselves reflected in Parliament. In the current election campaign so far, only Labour and the LibDems have launched BAME manifestos. I think that’s really significant. How is it the Conservatives have no detailed plans as to how they will serve minority communities and deal with our issues?

I want to know what each of the main political parties will do about issues such the BAME pay gap and stop and search. What about ensuring proper racial representation in senior executive positions or dealing with racism in institutions such as the police force? Our politicians are simply not talking enough about these issues.

An all-white discussion

I was at a Women and Politics panel discussion last month at the Women of the World festival in London. The all-white panel of some high profile MPs spent the hour discussing a variety of women’s issues.

From right to left:  Mary Macleod (Conservative);  Lynne Featherstone (LibDem); Ritula Shah (Chair & BBC4 presenter); Harriet Harman (Labour); Amelia Womack (Green)

From left to right: Mary Macleod (Conservative); Lynne Featherstone (LibDem); Ritula Shah (Chair & BBC4 presenter); Harriet Harman (Labour); Amelia Womack (Green)

Not once did they talk about race- related issues; not once did they take a question (which were pre-fielded) on issues relating to minority ethnic communities. This was despite the chair of the discussion being Asian! And at a “Women of the World” festival- how is this is even possible?

The media want to talk about how disenfranchised British Asians are. That we’re disillusioned with Britain and packing our bags to go to Syria. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is not representative of our community- there are many of us that are really concerned. In fact, research also shows that of those registered to vote in the 2010 General Election, the turnout was very similar to that of white British voters. It found that concerns about the commitment of ethnic minorities to British norms and values were displaced and in fact that we are ‘highly supportive of British democracy’.

Put that in your pipe Mr Farage.

Stop blaming us by saying not politically engaged enough and instead look at how the political race is run, and how the issues are addressed- whether they are addressed at all. Engage us! Include us in the conversation!

Let’s silence Farage

And as for our part as voters, let’s not let the side down. It is imperative that we get involved in this election. It’s vital that we silence the likes of Farage with our vote. Take a look at what parties are saying they will do for minority communities and other issues that are important to you. Perhaps there’s no candidate that gets your full support; in that case, consider voting tactically- voting for someone who is likely to win your in local constituency to block another party from getting into power.

I know many of us look at the political landscape today and say “they all say the same thing- I simply don’t know who to vote for.” It makes you feel powerless. But the truth is that your vote is powerful. Our Asian/Black/minority vote is needed to level out all the white voices that drown out ours. You can help decide who makes it into Downing Street for the next five years. Sounds really simplistic doesn’t it? Well, it is that simple.

And if you still need convincing, consider the words of activist Reverend Al Shapton, speaking in January at the launch of Operation Black Vote’s national campaign:

“People went to their graves so you could vote.”

“You may never lead a march but you can strike a blow for freedom in May and help change the destiny of this country. Your strength will not come from Downing Street down but from your street up.”

“You can be the balance of power.”

Can Twitter really change the lives of women?

hashtag

It’s been a year since 200 Nigerian school girls went missing, kidnapped by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram. Some reports claim that many of the girls have been trafficked or forced into marriage.

Michelle Obama added her voice to the campaign to free the kidnapped school girls

Michelle Obama added her voice to the campaign to free the kidnapped school girls

Public response on the social networks at the time they went missing was overwhelming. Celebrities including Michelle Obama joined the campaign for their safe return, pictured holding placards bearing the slogan #bringbackourgirls.

At the time, a Fox News panel were criticised for mocking the #BringBackOurGirls campaign by saying:

“Are these barbarians in the wilds of Nigeria supposed to check their Twitter accounts and say, ‘Uh oh, Michelle Obama is very cross with us, we better change our behaviour’?”

I hate to agree with them, but they have a point.

Armchair Justice

Perhaps hashtag activisim simply makes us feel like we are doing something about social injustice- but it’s nothing more than armchair activism. And what about the so-called smaller issues that don’t make the news or gain hashtag attention- but oppress us and destroy our souls nonetheless?

The thing is, the Suffragettes of the early 20th century chained themselves to railings; women of the 60’s took to the streets and burnt their bras, while we…. what, stay at home and silently tap away on our keyboards? Is that what our generation will be known for? All the while, how much is really changing?

We tweeted to #bringbackourgirls, then we said #yesallwomen, we’re reclaiming #likeagirl to be a positive statement.

But for all our tweeting and campaigning, are the lives of women really changing for the better?

The Internet gives us a voice

I grew up in a male dominated household. As you can imagine, I had lots of opinions on social issues- but they were rarely taken seriously.

Fast forward twenty or so years and I have written about some difficult topics including child sex abuse and rape. The internet has allowed me the opportunity to carve out a credible space for my voice and opinions.

For all the criticism that the likes of Facebook receive, the one thing the social networks have done well is to socially and politically engage us. What is more, (ok two things then) they have given us a voice.

Yes it will take a lot more than blogging and tweeting alone to stamp misogyny. It will take a lot more than that to ever see those lost Nigerian girls.

But speaking out against these crimes against women IS the starting point. The collective voices of women- on Twitter and on social networks everywhere will eventually change the dominant male narrative that silences us.

Instead of feeling frustrated that all I can do is sit here and type, I remind myself of this: twenty years ago I didn’t know it was ok to have these views and opinions, let alone have a space to voice them. Where once no one listened to me or women like me, we now have a platform and that’s vital. What is more, I can spread the word, and get others to engage. And for those victims who aren’t able to speak up- those lost victims, perhaps some of this will help empower them in knowing that someone else is speaking on their behalf.

Perhaps the hashtag is our friend after all.

Mumbai’s invisible poor: Review of Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forever also stars Meera Syal Photograph supplied by National Theatre

Behind the Beautiful Forever also stars Meera Syal. Photograph: Richard Hubert Smith

“I’m not going back there. I WON’T! I can still taste the hunger”

Poverty is one of the big themes explored in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, on at the National Theatre at the moment. This is one of the opening lines, delivered by the brilliant Stephanie Street who plays Asha Waghekar. It sets the tone early on as to what we can expect.

Adapted from Katherine Boo’s book of the same name, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a non-fiction novel based on Boo’s time studying slum life in India. The play is set in fictional Annawadi, a slum created on land owned by Mumbai airport. A billboard for a tiling company that bears the slogan “Beautiful Forever” divides the land- as well as the rich and the poor.

The play focuses initially on boys who make a living from picking rubbish. Tensions in the village between Hindus and Muslims; the younger and older generations; and modernity versus tradition, soon see the drama escalate.

A scene from Behind the Beautiful Forevers image by Richard Hubert Smith

Drama eventually turns to tragedy Photograph: Richard Hubert Smith

Strong Female Themes

In part, Katherine Boo set out to understand the domestic lives of girls and women in Indian slums. It’s no accident then that we see some important female themes explored.

“In Annawadi, the women are the survivors,” Stephanie Street tells me.  “And Asha clearly understands the system in which she lives – on a domestic front; in Annawadi and India; and also on a global scale – as being a battle in which only the fittest survive. The men have very short life expectancy because of the significant danger in their work with rubbish.”

“The men who do survive often then waste their lives away to alcohol, as does Mahadeo, Asha’s husband. So it’s left to the women to hold the homes together.”

A fantastic theatrical experience. Photograph: Richard Hubert Smith

A fantastic theatrical experience. Photograph: Richard Hubert Smith

And they often do so through any means possible- whether it’s lying, stealing, bribing and prostitution. I asked Stephanie if Asha is the ultimate Tiger mum, or simply corrupt. She told me:

“I can see that it’s tempting to make a moral judgement on her. But I have a young daughter myself and I would do literally anything for her. Asha is no different to me it just happens that she lives in circumstances radically different from my privileged reality, in the liberal West. She has to adopt means that are available- and necessary for their survival.”

‘Education is rebellion’

In real contrast, we see the younger female characters Manju and Meena really striving for a more lasting form of emancipation from poverty, namely education.

“Manju is passionate about education,” Anjana Vasan who plays Manju, told me. “But it isn’t just about improving herself. She has a natural instinct for teaching in that she wants to help others. Teaching gives her a sense of purpose. That’s something Katherine Boo said to me which really stuck with me. Manju’s strong sense of duty and passion for teaching is what gives her strength.”

There are some really poignant moments between Manju and her friend Meena as they meet in the outdoor toilets where Manju shares titbits of what she’s learnt with Meena. This really spoke to me. I wonder how many in the audience made that connection the there are many, many women today who are denied an education- that this is not just the storyline of slum-dwellers?

Sadly the relationship between Manju and Meena ends in tragedy, culminating in what was for me, the most difficult scene to watch.

Meena’s mother, enraged to find out that Manju had been trying to her educate her, admits “we all beat on Meena” to get her to submit. They see no point in educating her because, as puts it, “education is rebellion.”  “Is her mind broad enough for you know?!” she screams at Manju.

Stephanie who plays Manju’s mum says: “I always feel such admiration for Manju: even in the midst of the tragedy and no matter how tough the fight, Manju’s drive to make life better for the kids she teaches is such a beautiful, hopeful thing.”

Hope

Certainly hope is one of the enduring themes throughout the play. Abdul Husain, on whom much of the storyline is focussed on, displays amazing tenacity and hope; despite much heartache and persecution throughout the story. Shane Zaza who plays Abdul told me:

“He is both an ordinary and an amazing young man. He has this wonderful sense of integrity and discipline and maybe that is part of his DNA. His mother, Zehrunisa, has an outer strength and determination and his father Karam has faith. So it may also be a combination of his parents too.”

Heart-breaking at times, deeply moving, often funny; you cannot help but leave the evening somehow changed by the issues explored. This is a truly breath taking performance all round.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Olivier Theatre London until May 5th. Book tickets

What’s happened since the Charlie Hebdo attacks?

Journalist & comedienne Shaista Aziz presents “A Nation Divided? The Charlie Hebdo Aftermath” on BBC3 tonight at 9pm

When 11 journalists from the controversial French magazine Charlie Hebdo were shot dead in January this year, for cartoons that blasphemed the Prophet Muhammed, it rocked the world. At the time, I commented that it was watershed moment, much like the 9/11 attacks. The rise in Islamaphobia that we’ve seen since 9/11 has intensified, with different groups feeling a ripple effect.

In a documentary to air tonight on BBC 3 “A Nation Divided? The Charlie Hebdo Aftermath”, journalist and comedian Shaista Aziz travels to France to explore what life has been like there for Muslims since the attacks earlier this year.

Shaista spoke exclusively to me about her experience.

“I wanted to explore what was really behind the Je Suis Charlie hashtag. At first when people aligned themselves to this, it was very much in favour of free speech. But it became a tag that really divided people. In making this film, I wanted to deconstruct what that was about, and what life has been like since the attacks”

What she found, in some cases, was startling.

“Some French Muslims have felt like they have been rejected by mainstream France. They say they have been forced, in some cases, to disown the French part of their identity. They are Muslims- but not French Muslims. The concept of “country of origin” has become a real issue. Second generation immigrants are not considered French so instead they identify with the faith or the heritage of their parents- because some sections of France won’t accept them.”

“In a country where secularism is the cornerstone, and is there to protect minorities, we’re actually seeing the rise of religious discrimination; with many being pushed away from mainstream society. One young man said he ‘felt locked out’ of France ‘with the key thrown away’.”

“One woman I spoke to, (who doesn’t wear the hijab), says she is unable to find a job because of her Arab name despite being highly educated and well qualified. She changed her name on her CV to a French one and the job interviews started pouring in.”

“Sadly, women face the brunt of discrimination. Because France believes religion should not be visible in public life, the hijab is banned from government offices, public buildings and schools. Therefore women who do wear the hijab elsewhere– particularly in the poorer, more racially diverse suburbs suffer discrimination because they wear a visible religious symbol in a secular state. For example, one girl I spoke to has been excluded from school for four years now because she refuses to give up her headscarf- she is missing out on an education.”

“Ultimately, there are two key issues at work in this debate: identity and race. Identity has become a hotly contested issue in French society, with issues around race- and secularism underpinning it.”

I asked Shaista how the events in Paris back in January might have impacted British Asians.

“There are different factors at work in the UK which that mean life is different for us here. British Muslims in the UK are better integrated into society, compared to those I met in France. Secularism has caused deep issues in France that we are not seeing here- France certainly has some fault lines that need mending. However the general narrative around Islamaphobia and the negativity around Muslims is seeping into the consciousness here. People are sick of hearing about Muslims in the news constantly- I know I am!

As a result, we are starting to see more visible inter-racism amongst Asians. Of course this will have an impact on the British Asian community, going forward.”

“A Nation Divided: The Charlie Hebdo Aftermath” will be shown tonight, at 9pm on BBC3