Tuesday, 31 January 2017

In defence of anger

People across the world are angry. They are rising up in response to the actions of President Donald Trump. And they are told that American politics are none of their business unless they are actually in America. Never mind that American foreign policy affects the whole world and we are part of the world, as much as we'd like to get off it some days. That sort of global view doesn't wash with the current tribe of Trump apologists.

Angry women in particular are being told to calm down, especially if they have the temerity to be angry while living in a western country instead of being angry in Saudi Arabia.

Apparently, women can only be angry if they live in repressive shitholes and therefore women have absolutely nothing to be angry about if they live in anything resembling a democracy. This always seems to come back to some intellectual bankrupt yelling "BUT SAUDI WOMEN CAN'T DRIVE!" as if western feminists think this is OK and as if none of us have ever spoken out about this, or countless other oppressions against women in Saudi Arabia and other restrictive states.

Apparently, women are not allowed to care about issues that affect the lives of women in countries other than the one they live in. 

Apparently, women who lead comfortable lives should just shut the fuck up and not speak out on behalf of our sisters in countries where they may not have a voice. 

Apparently, our ladybrains are so tiny, we can't care about more than one thing at a time in more than one place at a time.

Frankly, I've had enough. Mansplaining has reached Everest-like heights. In recent weeks, more than one man has tried to tell me I should hail Kelly Conway as a feminist heroine because she successfully managed a presidential campaign. Yeah, get back to me when you can tell me why helping a self-confessed sex pest win high office is some sort of victory for women. Equally, I am not about to get my blue stockings out in support of Theresa May's embarrassing sycophancy to Trump, something that could have been replaced by diplomatic caution if only we'd voted to stay in the EU.

Then there was the genius-with-a-penis who told me women were already equal where he comes from (Turns out he comes from India... Yeah, sure, honey. That is another column for another time as I'm sure my Indian female friends would agree.) and that we should wait and see what happens with Trump's reinstatement of the global gag rule and then we can "discuss" whether women should be angry about it. Never mind that there is plenty of evidence that girls and women in developing countries have suffered when funds that are used for essential healthcare are taken away for ideological reasons.

Today, some twat on Twitter told me that because I am a feminist, surely I must be a student, a vegan and unable to cook, Er, no, no and no.

And another bloke had a pop at me because I pointed out that it was poor media strategy for Jeremy Corbyn's Labour to do a public protest on the NHS on the same day as the women's march. Cue further explanations on how feminism should be done along with accusations that I - and by implication, other women - don't care about healthcare. Again, we are capable of caring about more than one thing. 

I'm the first to agree that I am not personally the victim of horrific oppression. I am nobody's sex slave. I can drive. I have a management job. I have access to every women's health service I need without cost. I don't need to ask my husband's permission to do anything. I married a man of my own choosing. I have money of my own. I dress how I please. I have an excellent life.

But why should I, or countless women like me, stay silent? Why shouldn't we speak out? Why shouldn't we use whatever platforms we can access to shine a light on issues we think are important? What is wrong with speaking out, especially if it is on behalf of women who are held back from doing so?

Of course, mass movements are always messy, not always coherent, and can be perceived as lacking focus. The women's marches which happened around the world in response to Trump's elevation to the office of POTUS were not always perfect. There were events where sex workers, trans women and women of colour felt excluded - these are issues that feminists need to deal with if they are to be successful about changing the world. But it is no surprise that there were conflicting views - that is the inevitable result of intersectionality.

And there was a very real sense among the women marching globally that this was not just about an obvious sexist ascending to power. It was a chance for more localised women's issues to come to the fore, for women to have a chance to speak out against multiple bees in multiple bonnets. There were women who took to the streets having never marched before.

The real challenge now is for people to take real action beyond the marches to happen. It is all too easy for people to look back on marches over the years and ask what was achieved. Wars still happened, it looks like the UK is still leaving the EU, last night's marches won't on their own bring down the Trump presidency.

But everyone who marched last night and the day after the inauguration showed the world that there are places where we have the freedom to publicly protest, to see where the power of free speech might lead, to set an example for countries such as Saudi Arabia where there is no freedom of assembly, to quite simply be heard. Hell, I'm a militant pro-choicer but I'll even throw the recent March for Life into the mix here - not because I am anti-abortion, quite the opposite, but because I believe that even those with whom I disagree have the right to peaceful protest. 

And that is what is happening - protests are making headlines, the pictures will live on in years to come, this will be taught in history classes in the coming decades. Actions are just as important as marches but, regardless of your politics, if you live in a country where angry people can march, where peaceful protest is a right, you should be proud and grateful. 

Photography by Chris Brown/Flickr

Sunday, 8 January 2017


This week's right-wing fauxrage was all about British foreign aid funding Yegna, "the Ethiopian Spice Girls". Unsurprisingly. the hate-fuelled, ill-informed charge was led by the Daily Mail and The Sun, with much smug crowing after Priti Patel, the hard right populist excuse for an International Development Secretary, a woman now leading a department she wanted to abolish, announced the £5.2m grant would be withdrawn.

OK, a few things...

1. The only thing Yegna has in common with the Spice Girls is that it is a five-member, all-female group. The Spice Girls was set up to as a moneymaking venture. Sure, the "girl power" message may well have inspired plenty of girls and women to take an interest in their own empowerment, and it'd be churlish of me to dismiss that, but the "girl power" slogan was a marketing tool, first and foremost.

2. Yegna is part of a bigger project called Girl Effect. Girl Effect works in multiple ways to empower girls and young women in Ethiopia as well as other parts of Africa. Since 2013, Yegna has reached millions of girls through music, drama, a radio talk show and online platforms, discussing issues such as child marriage, forced marriage, violence against girls and women, female genital mutilation and ensuring girls complete their education. Ending child marriage, forced marriage, violence, FGM and girls not completing their education are all essential not only for their own safety and empowerment, but to fight poverty.

3. As well as Yegna, the Girl Effect projects include Ni Nyampinga, which educates girls and their communities on education, sexual health and violence prevention, online youth clubs and mobile platforms allowing girls to communicate with each other and share ideas, job creation in the fields of research and data collection, and a programme to encourage girls to study in the field of technology in Nigeria, soon to expand to Rwanda, Ethiopia, India and Indonesia.

4. Sadly, "UK foreign aid helps a broad-based project that empowers girls and women to finish their education, not marry as children and not be subjected to FGM, all of which helps fight the root causes of poverty in Africa" does not make for as snappy a headline as "ETHIOPIAN SPICE GIRLS AND YOU'RE PAYING FOR IT!".

5. A common howl from the outraged right was "FOREIGN AID SHOULD BE FOOD DROPS!". The problem with limiting aid to food drops is that food gets eaten. And then more food is required. But with food drops, nothing is done to create jobs that enable people to buy food, or to improve agricultural methods so food can be successfully grown, or to ensure kids are going to school so they can go on to work in skilled and professional jobs, or to stop girls from marrying young and never reaching their full potential. Food drops are like putting a sticking plaster on a compound fracture.

6. Anyone who watched TV in the 1980s saw the harrowing scenes of famine in countries such as Ethiopia and this helped create two false narratives. The first was an inaccurate image of Africa as a homogenous blur of parched landscapes full of starving children, when it is a diverse continent of varied landscapes and climates and differing levels of poverty in different nations, many of which have a growing middle class. The second was a mentality that food drops equal effective aid. As per my fifth point, it is not effective in addressing the root causes of poverty. Creative ways to bring people out of poverty need to be explored and supported.

7. It is naive to think all aid funding goes to projects that help people and that none of it ends up in the coffers of corrupt governments. But by directly funding projects such as Girl Effect and Yegna, the money has a much better chance of being used constructively rather than funding some dictator's new Bentley, again another stereotype when democracy is becoming widespread across African countries.

8. There was the additional fauxrage in the last couple of weeks about, according to the increasingly parodic Daily Express, "UK foreign aid spews out of cash machines in Pakistan". This created inaccurate images of every Pakistani simply rocking up to their nearest ATM to greedily hoover up thousands of our British pounds. Again, it was hateful, inaccurate reporting on the Benazir Income Support Programme which helps people living on less than a dollar per day - it has enabled children to stay in school, empowered marginalised women to earn a living, improved healthcare and enabled people to start saving money. Educated, empowered people who are earning an income are less likely to be radicalised. It is a hand-up rather than a hand-out and it is working effectively. The aid is distributed via ATMs as this is a cost-effective, ensures it goes to the people who need it, and prevents fraud.

9. It is also naive to think that the motive for spending money on foreign aid is entirely altruistic. In the long term, there are additional trade and investment benefits for countries that get involved in aid projects. Indeed, foreign investment, when done properly is a win for all parties and often more effective than traditional forms of foreign aid. Multiple African countries, for example, benefit from foreign investment in energy, construction and infrastructure projects, especially in countries such as Nigeria and Ghana where local content laws require employers to hire local people and use local companies and suppliers wherever possible.

10. The UK spends 0.7 per cent of GDP on foreign aid. We can afford this and we should continue to ensure our money is being spent responsibly on projects that address the root causes of poverty across the world. Unfortunately, Priti Patel is the wrong person to be in charge of this budget as she demonstrated this week by letting inaccurate, hateful headlines that pander to racists sway her decision-making. She has thrown girls and young women in poverty under a bus with her latest hard right populist stunt. Yes, this is where we are in 2017 and it is shameful.

Photography: US Embassy Addis Ababa/Flickr

Monday, 2 January 2017

A right royal Brexit mess

Reports emerged around Christmas that Queen Elizabeth II said she was in favour of Brexit but BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg did not report it at the time. This news story got lost in the speculation as to whether she was actually alive and not spending the festive season getting embalmed when she was meant to be at a church service.

In the meantime, Buckingham Palace confirmed that the Queen is indeed still alive, but there were some shrill voices screaming about BBC bias because Laura Kuenssberg did not report the story before the referendum. She did not report the story because she only had the one source and, for a story as potentially explosive as the Queen expressing a clear view on such a contentious issue, this was quite simply not enough to run it.

Without a second source, the story was on very shaky ground. Laura Kuenssberg followed good journalistic practice but she was still slagged off, particularly by those who favour leaving the EU. Brexiters were whining that she didn't report it because the BBC is pro-remain and if people knew the Queen supported Britain leaving the EU, that would tip the vote in favour of voting out.

For a pro-remain broadcaster, the BBC sure as hell gives Nigel Farage a lot of airplay... But I digress.

I trust every Brexiter who got a bit excited because the Queen might favour leaving the EU is a republican. After all, pesky "unelected" people seemed to be a cornerstone of every pro-leave argument and a post-Brexit republic would mean the unelected Queen would become a private citizen and vote like the rest of us can. Or she could run for office herself and her popularity and world view could be put to the test at the ballot box. And how about some House of Lords reform with an elected upper chamber while we're at it, eh? Wouldn't that be just lovely?

Of course the "unelected people in Brussels" argument is bunkum because we do vote for MEPs. But we are now in a post-fact, post-expert idiocracy.

And it is a post-responsibility idiocracy if low voter turnout in Britain for European elections is any indication. God forbid anyone take an interest in voting for those who represent us in Brussels. As a result, we ended up with gravy-train-riding UKIP MEPs not turning up for important votes despite these self-serving hypocrites telling us at every opportunity that they were our "eyes and ears in Brussels". It would seem our eyes and ears did not very often extend to being bums on seats.

In the meantime, MEPs from other parties did plenty of good work that was seldom reported in the British press and engagement with constituents by MEPs was poor. If the hounds of Article 50 are released, we won't get a chance to forge closer links with our MEPs or demand better media coverage of their work, or, I dunno, take some bloody responsibility and seek out information on what our MEPs are doing - it's actually not that hard to find if you have an internet connection and a functioning brain stem.

But back to the Queen...

If you're a monarchist Brexiter, is one of your pro-monarchy arguments that the Queen is above politics? If so, you might want to really think hard before getting too excited about a Brexit-loving monarch on the throne. If she did express a view on the referendum, she is clearly not apolitical so that's that pro-monarchy argument shot to pieces. If Laura Kuenssberg had a second source, it would certainly be in the public interest to report it.

Kuenssberg's source claimed the Queen said: "I don't see why we can't just get out. What's the problem?". Good Lord. The problem is that this is exactly the kind of ignorant, simplistic statement that helped a bullshit-ridden, cynical leave campaign win against a complacent remain campaign in the first place. If the Queen really said such a stupid thing, she is like millions of other people in this country who seem to think leaving the EU will be easy-peasy and that trade deals can be easily done over a cup of tea and a slice of Victoria sponge.

Whatever the hell Theresa May meant by a "red, white and blue Brexit", one thing is clear. We are gearing up for another year of extreme levels of stupidity, possibly starting at Buckingham Palace. The other certainty is that Laura Kuenssberg will continue to be a responsible journalist but that won't stop elements of the left and the right criticising her without ever bothering to do a proper content analysis of her work.

2017: my expectations are very low indeed.

Photography by Maxwell Hamilton/Flickr