Monthly Archives: November 2015

What’s so special about women?

October nineteen-ninety-seven. Mother Teresa and Princess Di are barely cold in their graves. I’m sitting in a low, concrete building in the middle of a Delhi slum with a bunch of other naïve foreigners, while a local doctor talks about her work with the women who live here. She’s explaining how a project that began as an outdoor clinic has progressed, via organising campaigns for improved community facilities, to giving loans so the women can set up small businesses. The inevitable happens. A man puts his hand up. Why give money to the women, he wants to know. Wouldn’t it be more effective in the hands of men? Aren’t men the ones with vision and energy? After all, they’re not hampered by minutiae like housework and childcare. Surely they’re better equipped to run businesses.

The doctor’s gracious. You can tell she’s been asked the same thing a hundred times. No, she says. It’s been tried. The men invested the money in ambitious schemes. Minimum-effort-maximum-return, look-how-great-I-am ideas, with feet of clay. Or they frittered it away on drink and card games, then came cap-in-hand asking for more. Either way, the women and children ended up no better off than before. The women, on the other hand, think of what’s best for their children. For their neighbours. For the community as a whole. They work together. Share resources. Co-operate, instead of competing. That way everyone ends up with a slice of the pie. The squalor of the slum is transformed for everybody, instead of escaped by the fortunate few.

Eighteen years on, and it’s International Women’s Human Rights Defender Day. I’m perusing my Facebook feed over my toast and marmalade, when a man puts his hand up in a comment on a post about domestic violence, just the way that one did all those years ago. Why don’t we have International Men’s Day, he wants to know. What’s so special about women? Actually, we do. It’s on November 19th. My mind goes straight for the jugular. Men have free rein 365 days every year. The world runs on testosterone. One woman in three will be subjected to male violence at some time in her life. Can’t we have a day off from all that now and again? Even it if is purely theoretical. Apparently, we can’t.

To my core I believe every human being is of equal value. No exceptions, no provisos, no quid pro quos, to misquote Aladdin’s genie. There have been generations of activism, from Suffragettes to Everyday Sexism, yet inequality remains the daily experience of women everywhere. We’ve been fighting this corner for more years than I care to remember. What on earth are we doing wrong?

I look back at 2015. It’s been a bit of a year for fighting. Shooting. Bombing. War. Terrorism. Revenge. Retribution. Come to think of it, was there ever a year in human history that wasn’t this way? Different places, different people. Same behaviour. ‘The war to end all wars’ ended in 1918, but alien observers of life on Earth might be forgiven for having failed to notice. And who’s led the charge through all this mayhem? Men. OK, there are exceptions I’ll grant. The Iron Lady springs to mind, but what did she ever do for equal rights? Even Hasna Ait Boulahcen probably wasn’t Europe’s first female suicide bomber after all. Our overlords are used to all this conflict. It’s in their blood. Maybe, just maybe, we women aren’t wired that way. All this time we’ve been up against men on their own turf, they’ve simply changed the rules whenever we got a sniff of victory. If you don’t believe that’s how it works, try living with an abuser for half a lifetime. Not that I’m suggesting for one moment that all men are unscrupulous, warmongering narcissists. When all’s said and done, a number of my best friends are men. Nonetheless, in a world that values competition ahead of co-operation, these are the dubious qualities that place people in positions of power. How else do you account for Donald Trump?

My ex nursed an irrational grudge against knitting. Not that he ever tried it, he just objected to me doing it. It was a waste of time, he said. If I was knitting, I wasn’t giving him my full attention, he said. There must be more important things I could be doing, he said. The excuses were many and various, but none of them made full sense of the ferocity of his hatred. After a while I began to realise that the bottom line was, he felt threatened. He couldn’t understand knitting. He didn’t get why I enjoyed it. When I was knitting, he had no control over me. I wasn’t on his turf any more, and he didn’t like it. Small wonder my living room’s littered with wool and needles now. Who knew knitting could be so subversive?

I first called myself feminist somewhere around 1975. We dreamed big back then, although in truth equality in the workplace wasn’t much to ask for. Ironically there’s still a million miles to go. It’s calculated that we’ll achieve our goal about 118 years from now at the present rate of progress. I sometimes wonder if we didn’t tackle the whole thing back end on. We could have re-imagined the world and worked towards a better life for everyone. Instead, we were lured onto their turf. The place they understood. Where they were safe and secure. Instead of weaving new dreams, we borrowed their fantasies of individual fulfilment. We failed to value our collective strengths – co-operation, caring, creativity, empathy and attention to detail, to name but a few – or to see how powerful we might be if we worked with those strengths. Instead, we trampled our traditional roles in the stampede for the citadel of male privilege. We made the basic, strategic error of agreeing with our enemy. What they had was better, and we wanted it. We confused equality with sameness. We ended up with neither. To be honest, it was never going to work. What dictator willingly relinquishes one shred of power, for heaven’s sake? The unscrupulous, power-hungry elite simply lowered the drawbridge, then robbed us of everything they could use and drew up the conditions for our surrender. Forty years on, most of us are still doing the lion’s share of the domestic drudgery we dreamed of escaping. Only now we’re considered inadequate if we don’t hold down a demanding full-time job at the same time. All this for around 20% less pay than a man.

In a world controlled by unscrupulous, warmongering narcissists small things often pass under the radar. The men in Delhi’s slums dreamed big. Nothing wrong with that, but someone has to do the spadework. You can’t leap from a slum to a palace without a good deal of hard work, especially if you choose to do it single-handed, although I’ll allow some exceptions for those who win the lottery, or become the stars of Slumdog Millionaire. The women dreamed big too. They dreamed for their children. For their friends and neighbours. For a better future for everyone, not just for themselves. They did the graft. They understood the importance of those piffling details.

The first thing they did was to get the stagnant pond at the heart of the slum drained. Now it no longer attracted mosquitoes and made their children sick. I can almost see men’s hands going up. Why bother? We won’t need to worry about a stupid pond when I make my first million. Next, the women clubbed together and bought a generator. They sat late at their sewing machines, making insignificant things, while the men played their card games and dreamed of that elusive big win. The things the women made brought in money to pay for their children’s education. As time went on, they began to campaign for proper sanitation for the whole community. They fought to be connected to mains electricity. Before long, they found themselves collectively powerful beyond all their individual dreams. I don’t doubt the men felt threatened. Oh, the subversiveness of sewing! I imagine some of the women paid a high price for their insubordination. But the fact remains that those women changed the face of their slum for ever, transformed the future for their families, and demonstrated something crucial about attention to the small things, and about the power of collective action.

Right now, all of us are living with chronic war and irreversible climate change. The resulting human misery stares out from our newspapers and iPads every morning. It’s getting closer by the day. Cities being bombed to rubble. Families fleeing for their lives. Children sold as sex slaves. Men and women beheaded for believing in the wrong god, blown to kingdom come on a night out in Paris or slaughtered in a Planned Parenthood clinic. All of us risk becoming the victims of those too focussed on their individual dreams to care about such piffling details as other people’s lives. We have to come together. We need to weave new dreams. We must learn to act collectively. To value one another’s lives. To work co-operatively for the small changes that will transform our communities. If we fail now, the face of the world will change for ever. Our children and our grandchildren may well be left with no future at all.

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Collateral damage

Hope. That’s her name, in a language not her own. We’re chopping cabbage and grating carrots for coleslaw. Negotiating the unexpected hazards of the English language as we go. She stops from time to time to write down an unfamiliar word, the letters ill-formed. Childlike. She used to be a teacher, she says. In her own country. How hard it must be to start all over again, in a language that doesn’t even use the same alphabet as the one you’ve known all your life. To leave everything and flee your oppressors, only to find yourself in a hostile place where even your style of dress can put you at risk of being identified with the very people who threaten your life.

The mayonnaise stirred in, we find ourselves with time to talk. She’s tired, she says. She doesn’t sleep well. Her husband wakes often at night, and she has to get up early in the morning to pray. There’s a stirring in my conscience. It’s been a long time since I was so disciplined in any spiritual practice. Her face lights up as she talks about her faith. I’m not sure mine would these days.

The topic moves to families. She asks about my children. When I return the compliment I realise I’ve strayed over a boundary. She can’t look at me for a moment. She has four children, she says. One’s still with her. She’s lost two. The last has disappeared. She has no idea if she’s alive or dead. We hold one another wordlessly and weep. Yes, I’ve lost a child. How it feels to have no idea whether your child’s alive or dead, I can’t even begin to imagine.

Less than forty-eight hours on, I’m typing a tribute to my niece. It should be her twenty-fifth birthday. Instead, it’s a little over three years since the accident that took her life. My conversation with Hope blends raw with the pain of loss. It’s then the news of the Paris massacre begins to filter through. A hundred-and-twenty-nine lives pointlessly ended on a Friday night out in the city. Hundreds more changed for ever, by injury or loss. Hearts broken. Bodies maimed. More suffering piled upon that of the attack on Beirut the previous day. Upon that of all the attacks perpetrated in pointless wars throughout human history.

I’ve never understood the need to have everyone else see the world your way. I can see how it might be comforting to be convinced of your own rightness. But what if it turns out you’re wrong, or have only a part of the truth? What if you’ve brought misery to millions in pursuit of a mistake? Daesh, ISIS if you prefer, is only too willing to exploit this thirst for crude certainty. Fundamentalism, if you like. From medieval crusaders to the Hitler Youth, people have been seduced by its heady blend of triumphalism and self-assurance. It’s found in religions, political parties and patriotic movements the world over. It thrives on persecution. It feeds off fear and ignorance and grows like a weed in the face of opposition. The cruel and the clever exploit it for their own ends. The rest of us play directly into their hands when we retaliate in kind.

There are few phrases in the English language I dislike more than ‘collateral damage’. It sounds like a handful of tiles knocked off a roof. A couple of broken windows. An electricity pylon taken out of action for an hour or two. Inconvenient, but unavoidable. It masks a grim reality. Lives destroyed, hearts broken and loved ones lost for ever. Hope and her husband are collateral damage. Forty-three people in a market place in Beirut, their friends and their families are collateral damage. 4,287,293 refugees from the conflict in Syria are collateral damage. Real people, flesh-and-blood human beings. Just like you and me. Collateral damage is the price we pay for crude certainty. Someone else’s, more often than not.

I’m not in the habit of disagreeing with total strangers on Twitter, but this morning I was lured into a conversation by those very words. Collateral damage. A red rag, under the hashtag #PrayforSyria. There will surely be innocent lives lost (collateral damage) but you CANNOT berate France for defending herself, said the tweet. It was the mention of innocent lives, as if they were of no consequence, rather than the scarily blurred line between self-defence and retribution. I asked whether the tweeter would feel the same if said lives were those of his friends and family. He responded. Would I be tweeting #PrayforSyria if my friends and family had been in Paris? I wouldn’t be tweeting at all, I thought. But after a moment I realised that if I were, I’d be singing of empathy between the bereaved. Of art and music and poetry and all the other things that transcend man-made borders. Of Hope’s childlike trust that God will bring good from all her suffering. Of hearts brought together in the quest for peace. And of the inextinguishable beauty of the human spirit. I couldn’t squidge all that into 140 characters. Madam Empathy he called me. I think he meant it as an insult, but I wouldn’t want to be any other way.

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