Thursday, 29 May 2014

Reading Elliot Rodger's manifesto so you don't have to...

There are a couple of things that I can't see changing in the wake of Elliot Rodger stabbing, running over and shooting innocent people in California. One of them is gun control laws in the state of California (or indeed anywhere else in America) and the other is mental healthcare.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue of gun control, it's hard not to be moved by the tearful, angry speech made by Richard Martinez, the father of Christopher Martinez, one of the young men killed by Elliot Rodger. In any case, Californian gun laws were tightened up after the Sandy Hook shootings in Connecticut and Elliot Rodger still managed to obtain a gun and kill people. This latest incident is not likely to inspire other states to tighten up firearms legislation.

Rodger's family alerted the police prior to the killings about his mental health issues and, perhaps if these reports were taken more seriously and police were able to uncover his manifesto and three semi-automatic handguns, perhaps his victims might still be alive. Or perhaps Rodger would have found other ways to kill people. We will never know now that Rodger is also dead. Should he have been detained against his will in a psychiatric unit? Will any of this lead to changes in mental healthcare for California or anywhere else? Probably not. And there are plenty of mentally ill people who do not kill people and they do not deserve the stigma of being tarred with the same brush as a murderer.

But the big conversation that is happening is centred around the bitterness and hatred towards women that is expressed in Rodger's 137-page manifesto. This is good because misogyny - endemic, entrenched misogyny among many men - was central to his actions and this needs to be discussed. I have seen this important conversation happen with people across the political spectrum and it is heartening to see that Rodger's issues with women are horrifying plenty of people from the left, the right and the middle.

He was a 22-year-old virgin and this seemed like a fate worse than death. He resented young men who were getting laid, he was particularly vitriolic and racist towards sexually successful black men, and he was seething with rage at women who would not have sex with him. This is despite him not apparently making any real attempts to interact with women. He seemed to think his mere existence as a wealthy male with a BMW entitled him to sex. The way he dealt with his hatred of women by committing multiple murders was an anomaly, but his vile attitude is not uncommon.

Rodger had wealth, privilege and a comfortable, international childhood, but this came with an inflated sense of entitlement in relation to women's bodies. He was a classic case of a guy who was viewed by women as the geek who gets "friend-zoned" or is invisible to them. But while the notion of geeks missing out on sex is a well-worn comedy movie trope, it's also the public face of much darker notions and this is uncovered in his manifesto.

When Rodger's family moved to the US when he was five years old, his first friend was a girl. In the manifesto, he deems her to be the only female friend he ever had - it would seem she was the only female he was willing to befriend before he started to believe that women were out to get him by denying him sex. But he also describes other women in his life, such as a teacher and his step-grandmother, with much fondness. Despite his parents splitting up, he was not isolated from positive female role models.

His manifesto describes his childhood in great detail. He attended good schools, he had opportunities, he writes quite well and his words are sometimes even touching, especially when he writes about his teacher. But a thread of bitterness runs through his words and deepens as you read on. Being told he was too short for an amusement park ride, not quite fitting in with the cool kids and having to change schools are described as injustices. He resents his mother when she encourages him to get a job. As puberty kicked in and he was attracted to girls, his story gets darker and more disturbing, a horrible case of a kid discovering he could have anything he wanted apart from social cachet and sex.

Rodger pinpoints his last satisfying physical experiences with girls as school dances where he was taught to slow-dance in the seventh and eighth grades. He never moved on from this. He discovered masturbation and then he hated himself for masturbating. He became obsessed with the way girls would interact with him, reading way too much into unremarkable behaviour, and he resented that self-pleasure was the only sex he was getting. He deemed sex as well as women to be evil, especially when he realised that, thanks to artificial insemination, women could get pregnant without having sex. He dreamed of a world where nobody had sex or relationships as long as he remained a virgin. His words are those of a hate-ridden, self-involved narcissist.

And so the hatred of girls and women and the resentment of sexually active boys and men built up, unchecked, over the course of his life. Rodgers was not an idiot. He had great potential to be a success in life but all this was warped by perceived sexual rejection which turned into a certain kind of misogyny that has found its place in the world. It is not new for men to feel entitled to sex and rage-filled if they miss out, but it is a notion that has been not been questioned enough. Now is the time to do so.

To any man out there who is enraged by the fact that women are not having sex with them, I'm sorry but sex with whomever you want is not a right. Sexual rejection, or simply being ignored by women, is hurtful but it's not an injustice. Being a 22-year-old virgin may be frustrating and annoying but it is not an injustice. Are any of you even trying to form meaningful relationships with women? Men like you have got to stop looking at female friendship as being akin to tokens you put into a woman like she is a slot machine until sex comes out.

Women get friend-zoned or unnoticed by men too. Sure, it feels like you've been consigned to the unsexiest kingdom of it all, but it is not an excuse for violence or wholesale hatred. As a woman who likes things like cars, cricket and rugby, it has happened to me plenty of times - I have often been the woman a with whom a man wants to watch sport but not take to bed. Shit happens. I didn't walk away from those cringe-inducing "I just want to be friends" conversations feeling entitled to the man-in-question's penis. Friend-zoning and merely not being noticed are things that happen among gay and bisexual people as well. It is simply what happens when the sexual attraction just ain't there and it is something people need to be able to deal with maturely, regardless of who they are.

But, like lifting a rock and finding it crawling with spiders underneath, Elliot Rodger's story has revealed a deep vein of hatred among some young men (and it is pretty much exclusively young men, let's not be shy about this). It is a vein made up of feelings of entitlement to women's bodies, of viewing women as prey or targets, of assuming women are all shallow bitches who only want musclebound, wealthy athletes, of hero-worshipping Rodgers, of rape apologists, of stalker apologists, and, chillingly, of plotting manifestos and copycat attacks in online chat rooms. They are not just talking about guns or knives but about bombs, about using their intelligence to kill as many people as they can.

To pretend this isn't a problem is naive. The geek who isn't getting laid is not merely a pitiful caricature. In Elliot Rodger, we have an example of the deep, violent hatred of women that is real and encouraged by an awful underbelly of men. If this is left unchecked and not talked about openly, if sex education is either suppressed or merely talked about in terms of genital plumbing rather than the broader context of respect and relationships, more awful things will happen to innocent people.

Photography by Piotr Siedlecki

Monday, 12 May 2014

Conchita Wurst: A ray of light in a shower of shite

I love Conchita Wurst. I don't care if that makes me a politically correct, bandwagon-jumping, Eurovision-loving sap.

But Conchita only won because she is a bearded man in a dress!

So what? It is naive to suggest that Eurovision is purely about the song. It has never been purely about the song. The commercial music industry is never purely about the song. This is not fair but it's the way it is. Elvis would never have been idolised by millions if he was an obese, spotty geek with hips of lard rather than rubber. Kylie Minogue, by her own admission, is a "good all-round package" rather than being the best at anything. Nobody turned around for the overweight country and western singer with the competent-rather-than-soulful act on The Voice. But if he looked more like Brad Pitt than John Candy, the judges would have kicked themselves for missing out on a marketable opportunity.

Likewise, Austria's Conchita with the fabulous hair, lithe legs, elegant hands, glamorous dress sense, impeccable makeup, stunning bone structure and, yes, a beard and XY chromosomes, represents an intriguing prospect. Add to this a decent set of pipes and a song that has "future Bond theme" written all over it and you have something that will potentially make Conchita (also known as Thomas Neuwirth) and a record company plenty of money. Good for them. Lesser talents have gone on to make buckets of money without causing an outrage.

The song might not have won if it was sung by a beardless woman in a dress. Who knows and, seriously, who cares? Last year's dreary Danish song probably wouldn't have won if it was sung by a frumpy housewife in sensible elastic-waisted trousers and matching cardigan rather than a pretty, young Joss Stone-alike with no shoes on.

But more people in Britain voted for Poland! The judges just pandered to political correctness!

Oh, boo hoo hoo and cry me a freakin' river. People who are genuinely up in arms about the democracy of Eurovision but don't give a damn about the problems with a process that has resulted in a ridiculous coalition, an irrational fear of minority governments, a moronic ignorance as to why AV would have been a good thing for British democracy, the farce that is the House of Lords, out of control expense claims and an irrelevant monarchy, need to get a grip. Poland probably did well because of patriotic Poles living in the UK and because plenty of people like boobs. Move on and find something worth getting angry about.

This is just another example of gay people forcing their lifestyle on the heterosexual majority!

Good Lord. Answer these questions honestly if you are a heterosexual person who really feels oppressed by Conchita winning Eurovision.

1. Did anyone force you to watch Eurovision? Yes or no?
2. Has Conchita winning Eurovision forced you to become gay? Yes or no?
3. Has Conchita winning Eurovision forced anyone you know to become gay? Yes or no?
4. Will anyone force you to buy any album Conchita might make as a result of winning Eurovision? Yes or no?
5. Have you lost any rights or privileges as a result of Conchita winning Eurovision? Yes or no?

Let's move on, shall we?

The voting in Eurovision is just political!

No shit, Sherlock. And if this year's vote makes a political point about accepting people regardless of their sexuality, or helps people understand that there is a spectrum of sexuality, that's a good thing. If you're not interested in the politics of LGBT rights, that's your choice too. Nobody is forcing you to grab a rainbow flag and march anywhere.

The booing of Russia and support for the Russian act by its friends was as political as it was predictable. The Tolmachevy Sisters sang an entirely unmemorable song while see-sawing in negligees. They did not deserve to win. Given they are just 17, the booing was probably a bit harsh. We have no idea what their thoughts are on anything much because nobody has bothered to ask them. They probably just want to be famous. But booing and tweeting about the booing is easier than boycotting the Winter Olympics over concerns about Russia's LGBT rights or trying to help Ukraine and Russia come to a peaceful solution.

We're now faced with the unedifying spectacle of angry Russians, absorbed in a pitiful moral panic, calling for a boycott of Eurovision. Conchita's win has probably caused Vladimir Putin's head to explode. But like most bullies, he is also a coward. He silences critics, he censors, he does not tolerate dissent. 

If Russia boycotts Eurovision next year, it is no great loss. The values Putin promotes are not values that I associate with a peaceful Europe, a Europe that allows for freedom of expression and does not panic over a singing man resplendent in dress and beard. None of the politicking that went on over the weekend will sort out the situation in Ukraine, persuade Putin that his laws about homosexuality are ridiculous or get Greece out of debt. But Eurovision is a bit of fun. And, there is nothing wrong with fun. As a bonus, Austria, this year's winning country, can actually afford to host it next year.

Po-faced Conchita haters can sit around marinating in their own bile for all I care. It must be awful to be so joyless, to get properly angry over a singer in a cheesy contest. I'd rather have a dirty martini with Conchita. 

Monday, 5 May 2014

The UAE, women's rights and the dangers of simplistic league tables

It was the kind of startling headline that came as no surprise to anyone working in the media in the UAE. Gulf News proudly trumpeted that in the Global Social Progress Index, produced by a team at Harvard Business School as part of a World Economic Forum initiative, "UAE ranks first in world for respecting women". Except that wasn't entirely true. Or at all true.

The UAE came 37th overall in this rather curious league table and first for respecting women's rights out of the countries of the Middle East. This means the UAE fended off fierce competition from such bastions of feminism as Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

But it is easy for me to sit here in London, almost three-and-a-half years on from a five-year stint in the UAE and snark on the UAE's track record with women. Like most of these lists, the Global Social Progress Index makes for easy headlines, offers bragging rights for the nations who do well and is not particularly nuanced.

"Check your privilege" has become a cliche but it is one for which the UAE may have been invented. It is not as simple as "All men in the UAE have it much easier than all women." or "Everything is super-amazing for all women in the UAE.".

As a western expat woman who worked in well-paid jobs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, my day-to-day life was more privileged than a man from India, Nepal, Bangladesh or Pakistan working for Dh500 a month on a construction site, living in awful dormitory-style accommodation unironically called a "labour camp" while being in debt to his employer for his visa, despite such arrangements being illegal under UAE law.

There was a horrible intersection of privilege one night in Dubai in December 2006 when, for the first and only time in my life, I was sexually assaulted. Thanks to a physically unfit attacker, judicious use of my right elbow and the smashing of my Burger King into his chest, I got away with a cat-like scratch on my decolletage and a ladder in my tights but it was not fun. Based on the circumstances of this event, I can ascertain that my attacker was probably a low income earner whose pitiful wage did not allow him, if he had a wife, to sponsor her residency visa. His probable enforced celibacy in no way excuses what he tried to do to me. It was his attempt to exercise power over me, as all sexual assaults are, regardless of the genders involved.

The UAE loves to promote its low rate of sexual assault but I suspect the rates are higher than the official police statistics indicate because of a culture of fear surrounding the reporting of such crimes. After all, where is the incentive to report a rape when, if it is disproved in a court of law, the victim risks being charged with adultery?

When I reported my attack, I encountered an amateur Perry Mason on the phone. He accused me of making it up, demanded to know why I was walking alone at night and asked me what I was wearing. It was only when I was fortunate enough to be put in touch with a very senior member of the Dubai police force, the well-educated and respectful Major Najeeb, that I was taken seriously. Of course by then it was too late to catch the attacker but I was glad that the awful incident was on the record as a reported sexual assault.

Then there was the horrendous case of being tried for adultery in the emirate of Fujairah after my boyfriend was killed in a swimming accident.

But on the flipside, I had plenty of positive experiences as a woman living in the UAE. It was here that I got a couple of amazing breaks as a motoring journalist and men's magazine editor that probably wouldn't have happened if I stayed in Australia. Despite premarital sex being illegal, it was startlingly easy to obtain cheap birth control. I made amazing friends among the local women because of a shared love of motor sport and fast cars. My work in the UAE offered me travel opportunities that would be impossible or expensive from Australia. And for many women, both local and expatriate, the UAE has offered them a great place to start businesses.

Unlike unmarried Emirati women, I could live alone without arousing suspicions of being a harlot, date whoever I liked without family interference, and, as long as I was discreet, lived with my now-husband for more than a year before we got married. The frustrations I encountered in everyday life, such as absurd bureaucracy, a pathetic postal service, expensive internet and cable TV, shops that don't ever seem to have enough change, incompetent signposting, media censorship and life-threateningly bad driving, were encountered by everyone, not just women.

And then there are the aspects of life in the UAE which seem sexist but can often work in favour of women. For example, I had no issue with being served in record time in banks, government departments and post offices because of the "ladies' queue". Waiting in line for any sort of bureaucracy to happen is a monumental waste of time. I was always delighted to not squander entire lunchbreaks in queues, would merrily sail past a line of despondent-looking men and then get on with my life.

Similarly, the system of working men sponsoring their wives on housewife visas wasn't necessarily a ticket to the 1950s. This worked well for many women who accompanied well-paid husbands to the UAE. With no income tax to worry about, a certain freedom could be had on your husband's visa allowing women to work part-time, to freelance without HMRC-related headaches, or to simply have a nice life. If my husband got a well-paid job in the UAE, I'd have no qualms about being on a housewife visa and working from home/in More Cafe as a freelance journalist. (This would involve the farcical situation of my husband having to authorise the paperwork for my UAE driving licence so I could freelance, inevitably as a motoring writer, but hey-ho...) However, with the Dubai government raising the salary for working men to sponsor their wives' visas from Dh4,000 a month to Dh10,000, this becomes a privilege based on wealth and will negatively affect many men and women.

But what about local women? There are plenty of positives for Emirati women, which makes the patriotism of my Emirati female friends entirely understandable. While the UAE is a long way from universal adult suffrage, 17% of government ministers are women. In the UK, just four of 32 ministers are women - a dismal 12.5%. Emirati women have educational and career opportunities like never before. Women outnumber men in UAE's universities and there will be an inevitable rise in their power and influence as a result. Emirati women, like Emirati men, benefit from free education and healthcare courtesy of a government that looks after its own.

But the evil spectre of female genital mutilation is present for some Emirati women. Like sexual assault in the UAE, it is hard to get accurate statistics. A survey of 200 Emiratis of both sexes found that 34% of the women surveyed had been cut. Of these, 40% said they would circumcise their daughters and, overall, 82% of female respondents and 99% of the male respondents opposed the practice. A survey of 200 people is not enormous but it gives a clue as to what might be happening to many Emirati women. Who is going to speak out on their behalf? I am guessing not a bunch of academics in the US putting together a glib index.

And, at the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, life for many of the women employed in domestic service in the UAE is no picnic either. While Emirati women and western expat women generally enjoy many privileges, the same cannot be said for many housemaids who generally hail from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Phillippines. Reports of physical abuse, poor working conditions and massive curbs on freedom of movement for domestic staff are not uncommon. Indeed, sometimes the abuse is legitimised on forums such as Expat Woman, where it is not uncommon for discussions about denying maids time off, use of a mobile phone or healthcare to erupt among those who can afford to employ them.

This week, the horrific news broke that an Asian housemaid has been sentenced in an Abu Dhabi court to be stoned to death after falling pregnant to a man to whom she is not married. Details are, so far, scant - we have no information about the man involved. Was he a boyfriend? Was she raped by her employer? All we know is that she must be Muslim because under UAE law only Muslims can be sentenced to death. If there is enough international outrage over this case, her life may well be saved because of the Abu Dhabi government's very real fear of bad PR. But it is appalling that anyone can sentence a woman to be stoned to death in any country in 2014. In a perversion of the country's "prolife" stance (as in abortion is completely illegal...), the execution would not take place until after the baby is born but that's no victory for anyone.

My personal experience of life in the UAE was unique and in many ways, completely off the wall. Horrible things happened to me, happy things happened to me and, to this day, I get bouts of Middle East-homesickness. For every woman who is living the dream in the UAE, there is another who is suffering enormously. The satisfied Emirati career woman's life is a world away from the woman who was trafficked into the UAE to work as a prostitute. My struggles were different to those of the amazing Sri Lankan woman who cleaned my apartment and from those of the sad-eyed men who work for a pittance on construction sites.

But as a pregnant housemaid faces the prospect of being stoned to death in Abu Dhabi, I really hope that as well as an international outcry, women from all backgrounds in the UAE speak out on her behalf. As it stands, this shameful situation makes a mockery of claims to gender equality that a government-owned newspaper is making in the UAE based on an index created miles away in the ivory towers of Harvard University.

Image courtesy of Nemo