UKREN blog

Wednesday 9 March 2016

#IWD2016: Women breaking borders


It’s fitting that as I sat down after work yesterday in front of my laptop- on International Women’s Day- and tried to cram in finishing this blog between a million other tasks and demands, I decided to give myself a break.

This year, for me as a woman of colour is going to be about prioritising self-care. Hopefully. As one bright pal of mine recently told me: I am not an output. In a similar vein, as radical feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde said: caring for myself is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.

Nonetheless, I’m a day behind the trending hashtags, so let’s jump straight in.

Feminism, women’s rights, and the demand for gender parity certainly reached some heady heights in the past 12 months. The general election in the UK saw more female MPs elected than ever before in British history. In September 2015, Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn announced his cabinet reshuffle- staying true to his pledge for a 50:50 gender ratio within it.

On the flip side, the 2015 election also saw Harriet Harman’s ‘Woman to Woman’ pink Labour campaign bus which toured 70 constituencies in the UK. Sophy Ridge, writing for the Telegraph in February 2015 disliked the ‘quirky’ bus because it treated half the population as ‘a kind of niche group’. Ridge wrote that, “It builds up a stereotype that all women are the same”. A BBC newsbeat article interviewed some self-identifying woman van drivers, who remarked that, “It's a bit patronising and seems like a bit of a cop out”. Harman also recently criticised Corbyn’s statement in support of de-criminalising sex work, flatly denying the agency of sex workers to refer to their work as anything other than ‘exploitation’ and ‘abuse’.

To step away from the shenanigans of politicians, 2015 also saw the ‘victory’ of the ‘No More Page 3’ campaign, which had been battling to put the kibosh on photos of topless models from The Sun’s notorious Page 3 segment since 2012. The campaign called The Sun “one of the few places in Britain where you can encounter pictures of topless women in the workplace, and in places where children might see them”, and points out that other media forms (such as television and film) have ‘watersheds’ and ratings to prevent young children’s exposure to nude and sexualised imagery.

All true in my opinion; all valid.

However...I absolutely don’t agree with taking away work from the models of Page 3. I don’t agree with the tacit slut-shaming which often underwrites these sort of campaigns- the ‘cover yourself up, love’ sentiments which are broadly damaging to all women, and specifically hindering to models who are simply trying to make a living within a capitalist patriarchy which will always, necessarily sexualise and objectify its subjects.

The Sun’s now discontinued Page 3 segment was absolutely part of the misogyny and structural and physical violence that is endemic in the home, the street and public spaces (as documented in this great short video released yesterday by Imkaan and the End Violence Against Women Coalition), the workplace, the science lab, the academic institution, the football pitch, the entertainment industry, the art world, and any other sphere you could care to mention.

But this violence doesn’t begin or end with a single page in a single newspaper. As Stavvers wrote on their excellent blog: “I find Page 3, with its large picture of boobs taken with the woman’s consent, actually somewhat better than all of the other pages of longlensings and body-shaming and gleeful rubbing over celebrities and their mental health, and so forth”.

Does the eradication of Page 3 condone the other pages of The Sun to continue on their merry racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist and cisnormative way? Stavvers continues: “It feels almost like going after this one page legitimises the rest of the sorry mess [...] No More Page Three feels like a synecdoche for the shortcomings of a particular flavour of liberal, bourgeois feminism. It’s something which is nowhere near enough and popular precisely because it will not rock the boat for those in power”.

I’m inclined to agree. This ‘liberal bourgeois feminism’ was a popular flavour of 2015- and provides a decent segue into the release of the British film Suffragette (written by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron). It would be a joyless omission not to mention that the direct action group Sisters Uncut, whose feministo outlines their fight against life-threatening cuts to domestic violence services, held a lie-in protest at the Suffragette premiere. Their action garnered huge support and attention from media outlets all over the world. The Sisters chanted “dead women can’t vote”- a cutting reminder that struggles for women’s rights are being fundamentally sideswiped by the UK government’s de-prioritisation of the domestic violence support services which simply keep women alive.

Suffragette surfed into cinemas on an incredibly problematic wave of marketing which included a Time Out cover featuring Meryl Streep, Anne-Marie Duff, Romola Garai and Carey Mulligan wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”. Sure, the quote is from a speech given by Emmeline Pankhurst. However, the de-contextualised positioning of this phrase, on T-shirts worn exclusively by white women, was for some a real signal that ‘white feminism’ (or non-intersectional feminism), which overlooks and excludes the voices and perspectives of women of colour continues to be an insidious, seeping, and widespread problem.

The film itself is also guilty of ‘whitewashing’ the story of the suffragette movement. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve linked people to this great piece by writer and publisher Shahida Rahman on the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association Blog. In the piece, Rahman explores the significant contribution to Britain’s suffragette movement by women of colour including individuals such as Sophia Duleep Singh and Bhikaji Cama.

Within the movement, women of colour faced did face obstacles hoisted up by their white comrades. Writer Anna Leszkiewicz spoke to Dr Sumita Mukherjee, a fellow at King’s College London researching Indian suffragettes, for a piece published in the New Statesman in October 2015. Mukherjee notes that many women of colour likely felt patronised- specifically within the movement- as white suffragettes built their strategies through an incredibly Imperialistic lens. Mukherjee states that, “British suffragettes tried to convince women from other areas of the British Empire that if they got the vote, they could look after Indian women and other women in the other communes of Britain. There’s an implication that white women felt they were more able to speak for Indian women than Indian women themselves”.

This was all happening in the UK this year. If we adjust our view-finder a little, and look at the situation of misogyny and gender based discrimination and violence faced by women all over Europe this year- particularly by those crossing borders into and within the continent, the picture continues to show a desperate lack of support.

A report released by the Women’s Refugee Commission in January 2016 opens by stating that, “Protection risks for women, girls and other vulnerable groups are present at every stage of the European refugee migration; and at every point where risk could be mitigated, the opportunity to do so is squandered”.

The report condemns the UN’s “hastily developed and chaotic humanitarian response” to the ‘refugee crisis’, and calls for “policies, programs, services and personnel that will protect women and girls from a myriad of risks from the moment they arrive and through the journey to a safe resettlement”. The landscape is stark: the report documents a lack of clinical and emotional care, and gender-sensitive services and systems, as well as an under-utilisation of local and grassroots organisations.

A report by the European Network of Migrant Women (ENMW) states that “Whilst attempting to cross borders, women are a target of smugglers and traffickers to be sexually and economically exploited [...] women and girls are frequently at risk of violence, sexual harassment, assault and rape [...] with no recourse to justice or legal mechanisms”.

But what happens once women and girls reach their destination? The ENMW report notes that “Once women leave a reception centre they are still at risk of exploitation, including [...] racism, social exclusion and violation of their rights to employment and justice”.

A separate report published jointly by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNRA), the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF), and the Women’s Refugee Commission in the same month revealed similar findings. The report stated that, “women and girl refugees and migrants face grave protection risks” and that “the current protection response by government agencies, humanitarian actors and CSOs [Civil Society Organisations] are inadequate”.

The UK has still failed to ratify the Istanbul Convention, which ensures the protection of migrant women and female asylum seekers against 'any form of gender-based violence without discrimination on the ground of migrant status, refugee status or other status’. Mark Leftly, writing for the Independent in August 2015 suggested that Britain’s foot-dragging was related to the fact that the convention would give women a “formal right to counselling after suffering domestic violence or abuse”.

At this point it is useful to examine how the UK government prioritises domestic violence services on its own territory. Since 2012, the False Economy project has used Freedom of Information requests to lay bare the cuts that have been made to the UK’s local council’s budgets relating to voluntary organisations. The project continues to show that domestic violence and sexual assault services had been “significantly cut” as a result of austerity- totalling an approximate 31% funding cut to the sector.

In particular, specialist BME women’s services face severe uncertainty about future funding, and 2016 saw the threatened closure of Apna Haq- Rotherham's only BMA women’s service. Laura Bates writing for the Guardian in November 2015 reported that the service had its £145,000 contract terminated “in favour of a mainstream provider with no specialism in minority ethnic women’s needs, which could carry out the work at a slightly lower price”.

The UK’s record of state violence perpetrated against migrant women across its immigration detention estate is perhaps not surprising then, considering the de-prioritisation of women’s support services, and specifically Black and Asian women’s support services for people already living in Britain. Groups such as Movement for Justice and Women for Refugee Women continue to campaign tirelessly for the abolition of detention, and this Saturday will be protesting outside Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre (the UK’s only all-womens’ detention centre) in Bedford.

So what should and could support for women and refugee women migrating to and around Europe look like?

The joint report by UNRA, UNPF and Women’s Refugee Commission acknowledges that “SGBV [Sexual and Gender-Based Violence] services, in order to be relevant, accessible and used by survivors, must be tailored to the pace of the refugee and migrant movement”.

Specifically, the report suggests that “In areas where refugees and migrants transit very quickly, a minimum of SGBV qualified personnel, information and services need to be available and accessible, including psychological first aid and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) kits”.

By contrast, in areas where refugees and migrants stay for a longer period, for example, in destination countries or at borders with time-consuming registration procedures, the report calls for “comprehensive multi-sectoral SGBV prevention and response services linking into existing national systems led by government authorities with the support of humanitarian actors, must be made available”. The report also demands that all ‘reception centres’ and accommodation should be “Safe, accessible and responsive to women and girls”.

The European Parliament released a statement at the end of January 2016, calling for EU measures to protect women refugees seeking asylum. The statement included the need for marked improvement in support and services offered to women in destination countries, including better facilitation to enter the labour market (with recognition of qualifications obtained abroad), childcare services and family reunification, and language classes and education.

So that’s it: simple demands for support and services at useful milestones in the migration route.

This (belated) International Women’s Day, I hope law-makers, policy-makers, and politicians alike will listen to the requests being laid down by these big-dog reputable institutions who have at their fingertips the power and resources to effect significant, immediate change.

Meanwhile, I’ll be joining friends at the steely gates of Yarl’s Wood this Saturday, shouting loud for freedom and liberty for all women, worldwide.


By Leah Cowan


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