This is why the “Die in a Fire” meme constitutes VAWG

This morning, a headline on the BBC announced: 3 small children were killed in a house fire. The sub-heading read: 2 adult women and 3 small children killed. There were very few details released about the incident at first. My instinctive response to this information was that the fire was started by a man to punish an ex-partner and that the two women may have been in a lesbian relationship. Clearly, this is a massive assumption based on no information whatsoever except that fire is a common weapon used by men to murder women or murder their children as punishment.

More details have been released in the last few hours and the victims are Shabina Begum, the children’s grandmother,  Adhyan Nazim, 9, Amaan Nazim, 7,  Anum Parvaiz, the children’s aunt, and a nine week old baby girl. The children’s mother survived the fire. At this moment, the cause of the fire is unknown. 

My immediate assumption that this fire was set deliberately to punish a woman was not unusual. Many women across twitter were worrying that this was a deliberate fire. And, this is why the “die in a fire” meme constitutes VAWG. It isn’t just a random threat: it is a real and common way for women to be murdered throughout history. It isn’t just “one of those things people say”. It’s a deliberate attempt to frighten women into silence. There is no acceptable excuse to use this language. Ever.

The fire in Sheffield which took the lives of 5 people may turn out to be a tragic accident but that doesn’t change the immediate fear women had in response to the news: the fear that another family has been destroyed by male violence through the use of fire.

The “die in a fire” meme is triggering for women and it is not acceptable.

Trigger Warnings/ Content Notes are Necessary

I missed the New Republic’s article on trigger warnings last month. There has been a lot of debate in feminist circles about the importance of trigger warnings versus the erasure of women’s experiences by labelling. I have read a lot on trigger warnings from feminist writers on whether or not trigger warnings are helpful or harmful. Rebecca Mott argues eloquently for feminists not to use trigger warnings. Her piece “Being Alive is a Trigger Warning” is an essential read on this discussion, as is her piece “I Do Not Put Trigger Warnings on the Reality”.  I have thought a lot about this because I do understand the import of Mott’s words. I have chosen to use warnings, although I also fundamentally agree with Mott’s reasons for not using them. This is, simply, a very difficult decision to make because either way it has the potential to harm other women.

I have chosen to use the phrase “content note” rather than trigger warning as the latter is mostly used for people with PTSD. I use content note on my blog and when sharing posts on twitter and Facebook.

The New Republic’s article focuses on trigger warnings in lectures which is a slightly different situation. I do think it is important that universities use content note in lectures and readings. This isn’t to say they shouldn’t teach the material because, they must. However, it is not inappropriate to warn students if a lecture will deal with rape or trauma in some form. It will, no doubt, result in history classes being taught with content note at the top of each lecture but that is rather irrelevant. What we need to do is ensure that students still engage with the material, even if it is difficult.

I have taught the Holocaust at primary level and at university level. Most of the university  students refused to read the texts on the Holocaust claiming it was “too depressing”. These are students doing history degrees  a subject not known for it’s joy-enducing lectures. These students weren’t worried about feeling triggered. They were, in many cases, simply unwilling to do the reading and were using the term depression as an excuse. It is absolutely essential that students studying the Holocaust read personal testimonies from survivors. We cannot allow them to escape from dealing with difficult topics just because they want too. We can teach it in such a way that students suffering from PTSD aren’t triggered.

We absolutely need to be up front with secondary school students about the racism, misogyny, homophobia, sexual violence and suicide in the texts they are reading for literature and history. Refusing to teach the history of slavery to 16 year olds because it might upset them is utterly ridiculous. It is upsetting and they should feel upset. They should feel angry, confused, disgusted and horrified. We simply need, as teachers, to be aware of those students who will find the material difficult without allowing lazy students to use it as an excuse to get out of doing the work. Or, allow over-protective parents who think their 16 year old will be traumatised for life from reading Beloved or The Handmaid’s Tale to dictate educational policy.

Posting a content note on art galleries and films so that people understand the graphic nature before entering/ viewing is a simple act of kindness. Using content notes doesn’t mean we should stop teaching the topics, nor does it mean we’re raising a generation of kids who are wrapped in cotton-wool. It just means making students aware that the material will be difficult before starting it so that those who will need emotional support can access it in advance of teaching.

Using content notes online is also a simple act. I frequently save blogs with a content note tag for when my youngest child is in bed because I don’t want her accidentally coming up behind me and reading something over my shoulder that she is too young to access. This doesn’t mean we don’t talk about the Holocaust or slavery or violence in general. We talk about it in age-appropriate manners and in a place where it is conducive to her understanding the topic.

 

Update: 

I’ve had some very thoughtful conversations with some friends via twitter on this blog and want to add two points to this point.

1. The conclusion to the New Republic article was really quite snide with a throw away remark about letting “vulnerable” people dictate policy. It was completely unnecessary.

2. I have seen a lot of dismissal of the idea that it is impossible to suffer PTSD from online harassment and that people who claim they do are making it up. Personally, I think this position is horseshit. It is absolutely possible to experience PTSD from online harassment. Granted, there will always be 1 or 2 who use any excuse to get out of taking personal responsibility for their behaviour but that has nothing to do with the potential for people to experience PTSD through online harassment.

I have no time for the argument that online harassment and abuse is less traumatic or less real than “real-life” harassment and abuse. It is all part of a spectrum of male violence against women and children which needs to end.

Shoes which require surgery to wear are a harmful cultural practise

The UN has been discussing gendered violence and harmful cultural practices for years. I like this definition:

By harmful practices, we mean all practices done deliberately by men on the body or the psyche of other human beings for no therapeutic purpose, but rather for cultural or socio-conventional motives and which have harmful consequences on the health and the rights of the victims. As such, these practices do negatively impact often irreversibly on the life of the girl, the spouse, the mother, the husband or their family members; it is therefore a societal phenomenon.

There are very obvious forms of gendered violence which are internationally recognised such as forced marriage, FGM, forced feeding, corrective rape, foot-binding, and breast ironing, yet the two biggest forms of gendered violence aren’t generally written about as harmful cultural practices. We discuss FGM as a harmful cultural practise with ease because it happens “over there”*. Yet, we ignore the reality of vaginoplasty being undertaken by young women here in the UK despite their being no medical need. We other the victims and perpetrators of FGM so that we don’t need to examine the fact that domestic and sexual violence and abuse are harmful cultural practises which occur in the “West” by “educated” people on a daily basis. We don’t talk about the brutal murder to two women a week by an abusive current or former partner as a harmful cultural practise despite the fact that it clearly is.

Gendered violence by men against women and girls, in all its forms, are cultural practises. They do not exist outside of our culture and they are not ‘anomalies” or “isolated incidents”. We focus on practises committed elsewhere because we do not want to acknowledge the reality of misogyny, racism, classism, and homophobia. We live in a white supremacist culture which defines violence against women in “non-Western” as cultural, yet we refuse to acknowledge the same violence within our own culture in a similar manner.

This week, the New York Times published an article on the increase in foot surgery among wealthy women in New York so the women can wear shoes created by Louboutin and Manolo Blahnik. We know that high heels cause permanent damage to women’s bodies, which are exactly the same as the damage caused by foot-binding. We know this, yet we pretend that having surgery to be able to wear designer shoes is a “choice” women make – that women do so out with any cultural pressure.

If we are serious about ending violence against women and girls across the world, we need to stop pretending that harmful cultural practises are things which only happen to “other” women from “over there”. We need to start examining the rise in plastic surgery in the “West” as a harmful cultural practise. We need to start examining the fashion-beauty complex as part of these practises: from shoes to make-up to surgery to fit an idealised version of female beauty which is young, white, thin, and utterly unattainable.

We need to recognise that gendered violence does not exist in isolation. We need to recognise that domestic and sexual violence and abuse are harmful cultural practises regardless of where they occur. And, we need to recognise that a culture which bases women’s value on their physical body and ability to pass the patriarchal fuckability test is harmful.

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* All of the terms in quotation marks are clearly problematic and inherently racist.

Celebrate Sexual Violence on Campus with Cake!

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(image from here)

Columbia University, following the age old tradition of pretending rape doesn’t exist on college and university campuses across the US, has felt the need to celebrate Sexual Violence Prevention with CAKE! Because nothing says we take the safety of our female students seriously like cake.

And, not just any cake. Nope they’ve gone with one festooned with red roses and hearts. Because, celebrating sexual violence isn’t completely awesome unless it comes covered with the traditional signs of romance: red roses and hearts. It’s a wonder they didn’t go for the whole hog and have female students hand-deliver long-stem red roses to every male student on campus accused of sexual violence and rape.

Al Jazeera has recently published a damning indictment of sexual violence on American campuses with colleges replacing the term rape with non-consensual sex. There are countless examples every year of universities not punishing rapists appropriately and effectively stating that men’s rights to a post-secondary education are more important than the safety and post-secondary education of women.

This is rape culture in action: popping a cake into the canteen as an “awareness” raising comment which basically congratulates men on being rapists whilst helpfully telling rape victims that all they deserve for being a victim of a violent crime is a piece of cake.

Our young women deserve the right to access education without worrying about their rapist living down the hall from them. Men need to learn that rape is a serious crime with long-term consequences which should include immediate expulsion from university (and a long jail sentence).

All university staff need to have mandatory training in sexual and domestic violence awareness, and not by RAINN who do a great number in victim blaming. Universities need to use the term rape and not “non-consensual sex”. They also need to fundamentally rewrite their policies on dealing with violent crime so any reported is handled by the police and not the university. Expulsion can be the only appropriate punishment for sexual violence.

And, seriously, whoever thought this cake was a great idea needs to stop drinking the stupid kool-aid.

Anna Politkovskaya – A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya

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It feels like I have read this book a thousand times. This is just another war with another brave woman crossing into hell to report on genocide, mass rape and the real consequence of capitalism. I have read it a thousand times reading testimonies of Holocaust survivors – Odette Abadi, Eva Brewster, Ruth Elias. I’ve read it when the countries named were Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Bangladesh. I’ve read Linda Polman’s catalogue of failures of UN peacekeeping forces in Somalia and Haiti. I have read it in Beverly Allen’s Rape Warfare: The Hidden Genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia  and Anne Llewellyn Barstow’s War’s Dirty Secret: Rape, Prostitution, and Other Crimes against Women. I have read Judith Zur’s research into memories of violence among Mayan Indian war widows. I have read about the Rape of Nanking and the slaughter of civilians at Mai Lai. And, I read every blog posted on Women Under Siege about Burma, North Korea, Libya, Sri Lanka Darfur and countless other war zones where sexual violence is an intrinsic part of genocide. I have read feminist texts like Beatrix Campbell’s End of Equality  which demonstrate the direct link between capitalism and the oppression of civilian populations through sexual violence and war.

The names of the perpetrators change. The name of the conflict zone changes. The civilian populations targeted change. The names of the reporters changes. The names of those murdered grows longer. But, still the Twentieth Century remains one where genocide, mass rape and torture were normal – a  century where more people lived in abject poverty without access to clean water, sanitation and even food in order to perpetuate a capitalist economy that privileges very few.

Anna Politkovskaya’s text is powerful, distressing and enraging. It is a catalogue of torture, murder, rape and the acceptability of concentration camps all whilst the rest of the world looks on and does nothing. It is about men’s desire to exert control and power: to control natural resources, including people. We allow children to starve to death and grandmothers to perish from preventable diseases despite having the ability to prevent them because it would interfere with men’s desire for power.

We upgrade to an iPhone 5 when our iPhone 3 would work just as well because we must have the newest toy; never mind that this desire continues the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We see thousands of boys conscripted into armies to fight other boys and taught to rape to build bonds of brotherhood so that a few men can control a mine. We buy from Tetley, despite their perpetuation of the modern slave trade. We buy new clothes ever 3 months even though we know that there are women and children working in subhuman factories making them. We fight a “War on Drugs” which serves only to make weapons manufacturers richer.

After the Holocaust, the world swore “Never Again”. And, it’s happened over and over and over and over again. We owe the millions of people who have been brutally tortured, raped and murdered in wars across the world to, at the very least, acknowledge their experiences. We owe it to them to make sure their lives are heard. Politkovskaya’s text is essential reading because we cannot continue to pretend that civilian casualties and male violence are normal behaviour. We cannot turn our backs any longer to human rights abuses that we support financially through our purchase of laptops and tea.

Politkovskaya documented genocide and was murdered for her work.

Two weeks ago, 200 young girls were kidnapped in Nigeria whilst the world looked away. Some have escaped but many remain missing. And, the media does not cover the story.

Our planet is dying from abuse and our most precious resource, people, are being slaughtered in the name of the capitalist-patriarchy.

A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya is a must read because we cannot live like this.

 

 

On Josie Cunningham and abortion

I am pro-choice. I believe that every woman knows what is best for herself at the moment she makes the decision to have an abortion or continue a pregnancy whilst living within a capitalist-patriarchy.

I support Josie Cunningham.

With no ifs, ands or buts.

I just support Josie Cunningham.

Angela Bourkes’ The Burning of Bridget Cleary

Angela Bourke’s The Burning of Bridget Cleary is a social history of the use of fairies and other myths to control people’s behaviour in Ireland in the 19th century. She traces the history of these myths to contextualise the brutal torture and murder of Bridget Cleary by her husband and kinsmen. It is very powerful but equally horrifying. What impressed me the most is that Bourke places the murder of Bridget firmly within a narrative of domestic violence. There are no excuses for male violence so, whilst the murder is contextualised with a history of faeries, changelings, power struggles, and jealousy  Bourke holds the murderers accountable. Bourke then situates the trial of Bridget’s murderers within the political context of British Home Rule of Ireland and the British construction of Irish people as savages.

The Burning of Bridget Cleary is one of the most fascinating and well-researched books I have ever read. Bourke traces multiple layers of  history and myth to tell the story of the murder of Bridget Cleary. It’s rather like Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher* but from a feminist perspective rather than a comprehensive social history.

I honestly can not recommend this book enough. It is brilliant, insightful, frightening and, above all, a true picture of the complicated processes required to tell the history of women.

*The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is worth a read too as it contextualises the origins of detectives in British society within the literature of the day particularly in relation to the work of Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens.

Once Bitten: Stupid Vampire Book and I Should Have Known Better.

It’s a book about vampires and werewolves. I wasn’t exactly expecting a Feminist treatise. I was tired but not quiet tired enough to go to bed and wanted to read something forgettable to put my brain to sleep. That didn’t happen.

Trina Lee’s Once Bitten is a serious pile of misogynistic twaddle that even manages to makeTwilight look not-too-evil-in-the-domestic-violence-perpetuating-stakes. The basic premise is woman born with psychic powers is turned into a werewolf in an incident which involves the slaughter of the rest of her family. Then, she has sex with a vampire who bites her. They end up with a strong psychic connection which requires them to have sex whilst she’s simultaneously having sex with another werewolf who’s the “good boy”. So far, so stupid. 

The book gets worse. Alexa joins a pack after the “alpha male” saves her from being raped; aged 17. The response of the emotionally traumatised child is to “offer” herself sexually to the man who saved her physically from rape and emotionally from the loss of her family. And, the “alpha male”, an adult nearly 20 years her senior, fucks her. She is an emotionally traumatised child. That isn’t consensual sex. It’s sexual abuse. An adult who has “sex” with a child in this scenario is a sexual predator and rapist.

But, it gets even worse. It turns out that the werewolf who makes Alexa a werewolf is also the head of the pack that she now belongs too. The “alpha male” was involved sexually with Alexa’s mother and he murdered her because he was jealous. He killed Alexa’s entire family because Alexa’s mother stopped having sex with him. So, he starts having “sex” with Alexa instead. And, apparently, it’s Alexa’s fault she was sexually abused by this predator because he couldn’t control himself sexually and she “offered” herself up to him.

This book is the most heinous kind of rape-myth, victim blaming, misogynistic bullshit. I genuinely couldn’t stop reading because I couldn’t believe just how many rape myths the author had internalised. It’s the same kind of victim-blaming shite that Gabriel Garcia Marquez tries to pass off as “romantic” in Love in the Time of Cholera except this time its a werewolf who can’t “control” himself. Men who rape do so because they want to; because they are rapists. It isn’t about loss of control. They know perfectly well that they are raping a woman. They just don’t think that women are human.

Trina M. Lee could do with reading these rape myths before trying to write another book.

Lisa O’Donnell’s The Death of Bees

This is the best book I’ve read in ages and I’ve read some pretty freaking brilliant books lately. The Death of Bees was one of my random choices from the Edinburgh Book Festival. I always buy a few books by authors I’ve never heard of but this is the best one by far. It is triggering since it covers the systemic violence against women, particularly against those young girls who aren’t considered “proper” victims but it is also beautiful, funny and full of hope.  It is the story of two sisters, Marnie and Nelly, struggling to survive in  a Glasgow housing estate without their parents, who they’ve just buried in a shallow grave in the backyard. They are victimised and revictimised in every manner possible and left to self-destruct by a welfare state that doesn’t give a shit about poor kids from the housing estates. After all, when school is only “a convenient way for all of us to congregate in one place”, it is obvious that these are the kids no one cares about (p.47). But, it’s more than a litany of abuse. It’s about surviving, friendships, the meaning of sisterhood and what really makes a family.

I don’t tend to rate books but if I did, this one would have 5 stars. It’s beautiful (as I said when I bored Twitter senseless whilst reading it).

Barbara Kingsolver’s Pigs in Heaven

I love Barbara Kingsolver’s books. I know I’m late to the party on this having only discovered her books two years ago but she is an amazing writer. The Poisonwood Bible is one of the best books I have ever read. Pigs in Heaven covers the same terrain as The Poisonwood Bible: motherhood, sisterhood, female friendships, family and surviving.

Pigs in Heaven is the story of Taylor and her adopted daughter Turtle who is Cherokee. The central plot is who Turtle really belongs too: the woman who illegally adopted her but who nurtured her through the trauma of her extensive physical and sexual abuse or the Cherokee nation into whom she was born. Kingsolver asks complicated questions about family and sisterhood and, whilst the ending is too pat, it is, fundamentally, a testament to how we should be raising our children: not as possessions but as members of extended communities built on love and tradition.

These are my two favourite quotes:

Alice realises something important about her daughter at this moment: that she’s genuinely a mother. She has changed in this way that motherhood changes you, so that you forget you every had time for small things like despising the color pink.

 …

Sympathizing over the behavior of men is the baking soda of women’s friendships, it seems, the thing that makes them bubble and rise.

 

For obvious reasons.