Archive for the 'Activism' Category

What do assembly candidates know about gender equality?

 On Wednesday 6th April, one of the first hustings of the election season took place in Queens’ Student Union. A panel of 5 political hopefuls faced questions on the subject of gender equality at an event organised by the QUB Feminist Society and supported by Belfast Feminist Network and Platform for Change. Basil McCrea, the UUP’s keenest bean was there, as were Conall McDevitt of the SDLP, Alliance’s Anna Lo, Sinn Fein’s Jennifer McCann and newbie Clare Bailey of the Green Party. It’s worth pointing out that the QUB FemSoc organisers did go to great lengths to try and entice the DUP to send along a representative but they eventually declined.

I must admit to having been pretty excited about this event, in a ‘political nerd’ way. In the plethora of overly sincere promises and idealistic policy commitments that are flung around at election time, I couldn’t wait to see what the parties best efforts on this subject, one particularly close to my heart, might be. Armed with my copy of the ‘Women’s Manifesto’, produced by the Women’s Ad Hoc Policy group, made up of a range of local women’s sector lobbyists/campaigners/activists, and of course with a healthy dose of righteous feminist anger, I had plenty of pressing questions to put to the panel. On arrival at the venue in Queen’s Students Union I knew instantly that my excitement was shared by those gathered, a large number of whom, I’m delighted to say, make up the growing ranks of Belfast Feminist Network, now in it’s second year and an increasingly thriving community of young women and men passionate about fighting sexism and gender inequality. Surely a great night’s challenge and debate was about to unfold…

Two hours later and the mood was significantly more flat. Somewhere in the middle of all that potential the purpose of the evening had gotten a little bit lost. As a few of us gathered to chat about it afterwards we were still in shock at how quickly the focus on gender equality had slipped away and were desperately trying to figure out where it all went wrong. Getting people to submit questions to the chair in advance probably would have made a difference, as would more assertiveness on the part of the chair who frustratingly seemed content to let the panel meander off-topic for extended periods. A larger number of questions and challenges from the floor should have been gathered in the middle section of the event and the mixture of vague, obsequious and idealistic waffle that came from the direction of the panel should have been held up to much closer scrutiny. There were definitely interesting points raised on a couple of questions, some of the highlights having been really well summarised in the BelFemNet Twitter feed coming live from the event. We heard Anna Lo reiterate her commitment to support the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act toNorthern Irelandand her belief that our current legislation on abortion is a disgrace. Claire Bailey also made a public statement of support for the extension of the Act, claiming that politicians should not have the right to restrict the choices of Northern Irish women seeking abortions. The other panellists gave their parties’ usual non-committal, safe answers about personal conscience and how there is much debate among party members on the subject. That’s nice to know…meanwhile 40 women a week have to get on a boat or a plane and go through a tremendously difficult experience, often without the support of their friends and family and with no medical aftercare in their own communities. But sure, you folks just keep on debating it!

We also heard a range of views on how to promote more gender equal representation in our political institutions. Conall McDevitt was the most clear on his commitment to this as a fundamental sign of a healthy democracy and emphasised the need for regional shortlists to be used. Anna Lo pointed out that more women representatives are needed across the assembly and executive as women have a right to representation not just on issues perceived to be ‘women’s issues’ but in all areas of decision-making. Jennifer McCann was also clear that parties have a responsibility to field women candidates in winnable seats and not just make tokenistic gestures. Basil McCrea made a somewhat ambiguous remark about women not being treated as ‘inferiors’ needing ‘special treatment’ and appeared to miss the point that men in powerful positions such as himself need to check their privilege and understand the prejudice in the system that helped them get where they are. I was personally irritated by the over-emphasis on childcare as the main barrier to women entering politics, as was one speaker from the floor who expressed anger at this automatic assumption that women are always primary carers for children. Only Claire Bailey properly addressed the fact that maybe parties need to examine their own ideologies and look at the sexism all women face when trying to step into a role that many still see as one most suitable to a man.

So that’s what was talked about. Now for what wasn’t talked about: What budget decisions they think are most important to minimise the hugely unequal impact the cuts are set to have on women? How they would enhance our equality legislation to make it harder for employers to hide unfair payment practices that perpetuate the gender pay gap? What commitment they would make to progressing the Childcare Strategy that has been treading water for far too long? How they would work to bring our approach to violence against women in line with international standards, promoting a comprehensive strategy that recognises all forms of violence against women as part of the oppression perpetuated by misogyny and the exploitation of women’s vulnerabilities? What they think of how rape is handled here, from the victim-blaming approach in public awareness raising and prevention campaigns favoured by the DHSSPS and PSNI, through to the low conviction rates and lack of support for victims? How would they suggest the relevant departments respond to the sex industry in Northern Ireland, the grooming and abuse of young people and the trafficking of women and girls from abroad, and what legislative approach they think best tackles the demand for this exploitative industry? Whether or not they are willing to speak up for much needed relationship and sexual health education for young people in the face of opposition from religious leaders with an unhealthy influence on our education system?

Huge credit is due the QUB Feminist Society for the work that went into organising this event and I’m also impressed that the candidates came along to show their interest in gender equality. I just hope that all of these outstanding questions will continue to be asked by all of us involved in this growing feminist movement to anyone with any power or influence at every given opportunity. We should be quizzing them on our doorsteps, dropping into constituency offices, emailing them, Tweeting, making appointments for a cup of tea and a nice friendly chat. If you have any interesting conversations with candidates between now and the election on any of these subjects, or if there are questions of your own that you think I’ve missed, please comment below.


A year of feminist blogging.

As I’m reviewing the year that has passed since starting the blog here at soisaystoher, today has presented 2 events that provide a starting point for reflecting on how the feminist landscape has changed, or stayed the same!

Women’s bodies – NOT FOR SALE!

My adventures in feminist activism started with a billboard that presented a faceless, personless pair of boobs to encourage people to buy cars. Since the message was sent, by us, to local companies loud and clear that women deserve to be treated like human beings rather than a sum of their body parts, have we seen any real change in the way our gender is depicted in the media here? We’ve had the Hunky Dory’s furore, with some useful debate and a decisive ruling from the ASA. The outgoing Labour government showed some late commitment to tackling the hyper-sexualisation of women’s bodies through a home office report that highlighted the particular effects of the mainstreaming of porn through lads’ mags and music TV in particular. But on the other hand, feminist groups all over the UK have had to take on retail giant Marks and Spencer over their decision to profit from sexual exploitation by sub-letting property in Bristol to the infamous Hooters restaurant chain. Products like ‘POM Wonderful’ juice still think the only way to break into a new market is to place your juice bottle beside some naked ladies on every TV ad – when you run out of creativity in your marketing department you can always rely on the currency of sexism. Local company Harlequin / Burning Desires costume shop have recently drawn a snarl from my lips every time I pass their billboards advertising their sexy Halloween costumes for women, with a tacky porn0-vampire character accompanied by the truly cringeworthy tagline ‘HELLOween boys’. Because there’s nothing like drawing your pop culture references from 1994. There are many people who’ve written brilliantly on their frustration at the strict code of Halloween practice for women which apparently states ‘Thou shalt be sexy and look like a het male fantasy and we shall ensure this by not giving you any choice of costume that doesn’t allow us to view your boobs and legs through nothing but corsets and fishnets.’ My biggest problem with the whole culture is actually that it seems to say women are never funny. Men are funny – they go as crazy cavemen and whacky werewolves. Women are not allowed to be funny, therefore we should settle for sexy and shut the hell up.

One local company that has upped its game of late is the notoriously sleazy Creations furniture who seem to have finally grasped the concept that they are selling furniture and therefore a near-naked woman does not have to appear in every ad. I’m wondering did they have a spate of people expecting to get a free lady with their chest of drawers like the one in the billboard and realised they better stick to picturing the essentials? Whatever has caused this apparent enlightenment I say, well done folks. More of the same please.

The reason I bring this issue up for reflection is that a bunch of us from Belfast Feminist Network are preparing to restart Feminist Friday this evening after a bit of an extended summer break. This simple piece of activism which involves covering lads mags with positive feminist slogans and explaining to shop owners that we’d rather they didn’t sell them, is a hugely satisfying and motivating thing to be involved in. We’ll keep working in this way at the grassroots, keep pushing for the debate to be aired and keep reclaiming the idea that women’s bodies are not for sale.

Update: having braved the rain and cold tonight to take a swipe at lads’ mags I felt it worth commenting on that the stance ‘Spar’ (run by Henderson foods) has taken on the publications is truly fantastic. What it means in practice is that a massive percentage of local grocery shops and petrol stations do not stock these offensive mags. Because of that we have real choice as consumers and I can’t imagine it helps the fortunes of what is a disgustingly sexist corner of the magazine industry. It would be great for us women to find a way to show our appreciation. On the other hand, tonight I was struck by the difference between Spar and Centra on this issue. While we have invariably found pleasant and sympathetic sales staff in all the Centra stores, any managers we have come into contact with aggressively defend the sales of lads’ mags and dismiss our feedback with rudeness and disdain. One particular manager prides himself on having the highest sales of one of these mags in all of Northern Ireland. I’m increasingly feeling that a focused campaign to single out the attitude of Centra and compare it to the progressive policy and practice of Spar might be in order.

Understanding sexual violence.

This morning’s lead headline in the local radio and television news was the announcement that the PSNI and DHSSPS are relaunching their ‘Be SMART’ anti-rape and sexual violence campaign as a response to rising numbers of this type of crime being reported – a 10% increase in the last 6 months. My heart sank. In an earlier post I expressed my complete disgust at the pink version of this public awareness flyer that is riddled with victim blaming ‘advice’ and the very clear implication that if you are raped then you have not been smart enough to stop it. However, as the police officer interviewed began to speak the first words out of his mouth were,

“This campaign is designed to encourage people to better understand the issue of consent” (slight paraphrasing perhaps as I can’t access iPlayer to check it.)

The fact that this was his starting point left me feeling that at least progress is being made. There is a blue version of the Be SMART flyer which carefully outlines advice for men on how to ensure they have consent for any sexual act and helping reinforce the fact that consent cannot be assumed under the new legal framework in the Sexual Offences Order (2009). Hope at least that some of the feminist discourse extremely visible in the UK and Ireland over the last year, which challenges victim-blaming assumptions about the ‘causes’ of rape, may finally be filtering through. Policy makers and law-enforcers are starting to realise that it is simply unacceptable for the focus of rape prevention work to be on demanding that women engage in fewer ‘risky’ behaviours. The conversation must begin at the point of men’s behaviour and their abuse of the physical, mental or emotional power that enables them to rape. I have to admit that this is heartening.

It would also be naïve however to think that this is any more than a baby step in the right direction. Until we see an increase in the conviction rates for rape and other serious sexual offences and we see the number of these attacks significantly decreasing then we definitely have more to work at than to celebrate. Even the ongoing confusion of messages shows how far we have yet to travel – while the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster report may have provided space for a coherent and appropriate interview to be aired, their local news website features the same story with a very different focus. Here the discussion of consent has been sidelined in favour of what appears to be a regressive focus on the implications of drinking too much:

“We, as a police service, want this campaign to encourage people to make more informed, responsible and healthy decisions about their alcohol intake and also to think about the possible harmful consequences of impaired judgement.”  Det Ch Insp Don Glass

This leaves me with so many questions, like when you say ‘people’, do you mean women? Is it women who need to watch our alcohol intake? Or do you understand that for many who are attacked their attacker is the drunk one, just too big or intimidating to fend off? When you say ‘impaired judgement’ do you understand how offensive it is to make rape sound like nothing more than a one night stand we cringe about the next morning? Do you have any idea how much damage these few simple lines can do in the mind of a rape victim, already riddled with the voices of prejudice and stereotyping that our culture tortures them with? Do you give a shit about improving reporting and conviction rates when you come off with patronising bollocks like this? And then there’s this little piece of nonsense:

“Sex without consent is rape and the consequences for being convicted can have a devastating effect on both the victim and accused.”

No actually, I think you’ll find the consequences of an attacker NOT being convicted can have a devastating effect on the victim, something you should perhaps be a little more concerned about.

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep on saying it until they wise up and treat us like adults – everyone, male and female, should be encouraged to be aware of our own personal safety. But when the overwhelming majority of all communications from the authorities tasked with protecting women from rape focus on telling us to be more careful then that is sustaining the problem. It puts people off reporting, it creates a myth that women raped by someone they know/flirt with/be polite to have only themselves to blame. It provides a protective layer of secrecy and shame that allows rapists to safely manipulate and abuse women again and again and again because they will get away with it. The only way this will change is when we leave the victim blaming out of it and throw all our efforts into convicting more rapists. End of.

Update: A very similar story was announced in London today, with that city reporting a horrifying 37% increase in reported sexual attacks in the last year. Notice the difference in how this trend is being responded to however – when will we have this level of insight and commitment to equality?

Ever wanted to be sexually harassed at a bus shelter? Hunky Dorys are here to help.

I hate to say it but it’s time to get in touch with our old friends at the Advertising Standards Authority as another local company decides to completely take the piss with an overtly sexist poster campaign.

Hunky Dorys crisps are a product of Irish company Largo foods and currently have an advertising campaign in bus shelters around Northern Ireland using women as sex objects (and some bizarre rugby references which seem weirdly off target given the football world cup is about to start), and with one being ‘the ass shot’ and another ‘the boob shot’ it’s clear that Largo foods and their ad agency consider women as nothing more than the sum of their body parts. These ads reveal a depressing lack of understanding of the effects of plastering hyper-sexualised images of women on ads for crisps, especially given that they are placed in public spaces where people gather, often for extended periods of time considering Translink’s excellent time-keeping, and such blatant sexism creates an atmosphere where women are dehumanised, demeaned and potentially harassed. Continue reading ‘Ever wanted to be sexually harassed at a bus shelter? Hunky Dorys are here to help.’

Celebrate International Women’s Day by doing something for equality.

I hope you’re enjoying International Women’s Day. I’ve spent more time than my employer would be happy about this morning online reading great articles, listening to interviews, looking at photographic exhibitions and reminding myself of why it is so important that we engage with a movement focused on “equal rights, equal opportunity and progress for all”. A day like this sharpens your focus and nudges you from a place of irritation or anger at the sexism around you, into a place of affirmation that it is OK to to speak out, to be visible and to make feminist claims.

Continue reading ‘Celebrate International Women’s Day by doing something for equality.’

OBJECT Supporters Northern Ireland Meeting Thursday 25th Feb!

This delightful picture to the left was snapped yesterday in my local Sainsbury’s supermarket at Forestside shopping centre, Belfast. What you may not be aware of is that Sainsbury’s adopted a policy in 2006 of covering lads’ mags up to the title due to pressure from customers who complained about being subjected to such offensive and degrading images of women. Not only are Sainsbury’s Forestside failing to adhere to this policy but they have even drawn extra attention to Loaded magazine by placing it in a ‘Recommended Read’ box. Given the consistently falling sales figures for these publications I can only assume they are desperate to shift copies. Unfortunately the gentleman in charge of magazine displays wasn’t there yesterday when I approached customer services to complain, but I have his name and I will be back to follow up on this.

Continue reading ‘OBJECT Supporters Northern Ireland Meeting Thursday 25th Feb!’

Object AGM… time for a regional group in Northern Ireland.

Last weekend I was delighted to have the opportunity to attend the AGM of feminist activist group Object, of which I am a member. I’m expecting some of you will have heard of them, given the media spotlight they’ve been pushed into over the last year, emerging as the face of progressive feminism in the UK and attracting the support of many young women who are sick and tired of the climate of sexism and objectification in which we are forced to live.

I’ve been a member for a few months now and have been hugely impressed by their successes. Janice Turner, writing in The Times, colourfully summarises their ‘Stripping the Illusion Campaign’ which brought about a change in the licensing of lap dancing clubs which allows local councils to classify them as ‘sex entertainment venues’. It was a campaign won on the victory of common sense over profit – given that clubs are currently licensed in the same classification as cafes, the public responded to Object’s requests for support with agreement that we should call a spade a spade.

At last Saturday’s AGM we heard more about the campaign as well as the even more ambitious ‘Demand Change’ campaign which also resulted in changes to the law after months of public awareness, petitioning and lobbying MPs and Peers. The subject of this campaign was the urgent issue of sexual exploitation which enslaves people, particularly women and girls, in our own towns and cities. Object, in partnership with Eaves, were seeking a clause in the Policing and Crime bill which would render the consumers of the sex trade open to prosecution if they use the services of people who have been forced or coerced. After a lot of work by a relatively small group of dedicated and passionate activists (women and men) Clause 14 passed. And guess what folks… it freaking applies in Northern Ireland too. No shit.

Fiona McTaggart, MP extrordinaire, spoke on Saturday about her experience of the campaign and her thoughts on what the next stage should be. Her feeling is that those same activists who made this happen should work on embedding this change in the consciousness of our communities. As yet, no one really knows about it. It will no doubt be implemented slowly and will require the efforts of local people to engage with local government to lobby for policy to be developed and local policing to call for proper strategy so that those who deserve prosecution for their disgusting disregard for the suffering and fear of another human being can be properly dealt with. McTaggart describes herself as a libertarian but criticized the liberal assumption that the rights of individual women to sell their bodies and individual men to buy them, should not be tampered with. She quoted the UN special envoy on trafficking in reminding us that such liberal ideology is all well in good in theory but it reflects nothing of the reality of prostitution “as it is actually practiced” in every country in the world. Those who call for the legalisation of sex work ignore the facts that have emerged from countries who have been pursuing such experiments over the years. While we are still some way from the Nordic model which recognises the need to protect women and prosecute punters, what Clause 14 does is begins to tackle the demand side of this industry with the potential therefore to cut the constant supply of women and girls brought here under false pretenses and forced into sexual slavery.

Personally, I want to get on board with this. I don’t want to wait a couple of years for NIO to get their act together and filter this through while women in brothels in our own wee country continue to suffer and pimps and punters continue to sustain their pain.

In addition, Object have been conducting regular actions (Feminist Fridays) against newsagents who stock lad mags and display them on eye level, often at the same shelf height as children’s comics. The aim is to have these sexist mags that represent the damaging pornification of our culture, kept where they should be – top shelf, with the rest of the porn and covered to the title so parents don’t have to explain to their impressionable children why the lady has no clothes on and is bending over for all the men to look at her private parts. In March there will be a nationwide Feminist Friday and I think it would be great if Belfast was on the map.

I know a few brave people are keen but I’m convinced there are way more than that. 44 of us protested the UlsterTrader ad. If we organised a monthly activist meeting with Feminist Fridays and plans to lobby for the implementation of Clause 14, how many of you would come along? I’m excited just thinking about it.

An Afghan woman’s defiant voice.

“Obama is a warmonger, no different from Bush”

After spending two days trying to crack the whip here in Northern Ireland with the distance between our two main parties growing ever further, Gordon Brown is back in London tomorrow to host a summit on Afghanistan. Foreign ministers from all over the world will meet to discuss the ongoing war, the instability, the possibility of success in ending both of these and the horrendous mess that is the military occupation in which many of their own citizens are hopelessly embroiled.

There are general rumblings that it is a fairly pointless exercise, with any prospect of ‘winning’ in the sense that our simple little brains are conditioned to hope for, most likely impossible. Political commentators and military experts alike agree that the Taliban (they’re the baddies, right?) cannot be defeated by military means and the attempts to embed a more democratic Afghan government seem laughable when the conditions enabling Karzai’s recent return to power are considered.

My good friend Phil sent me this link recently to a succinct interview in the New Statesman with prominent women’s rights activist Malalai Joya. I’m fascinated by her scathing response to the idea that US involvement in Afghanistan has brought freedom to the people. She is outspoken, courageous and clearly knows more about the reality of life there than we get to see on our news programming – even the Channel 4 news! I wonder if her critics are justified or if her political lens is too narrow, but most of all she makes me feel like I’m broadening my concept of what’s going on there, especially for women. When faux-feminists like Sarah Palin try to distract from the bloody mess their party has inflicted on that nation by proclaiming that at least women have rights now, it’s grounding to be reminded that this is little more than a cheap trick.

Gordon Brown and Hamid Karzai are on Channel 4 news right now discussing women’s rights as I type. 2 million girls in school apparently and women will have a key place in the new democratic institutions. We’ll see. Perhaps it takes defiant women like Joya to remind the world that corruption and capitalism dressed up as freedom and democracy will never deliver for women.

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