This year, for obvious reasons, I’m not able to spend the day with those sisters who endlessly inspire and encourage me with hope for the future. Instead, I’m holding a smaller, quieter celebration, from home – wearing my WSPU T-shirt, reading some of my favourite feminist writers, writing about feminism for one of my female clients, and reflecting on the challenges ahead for the international feminist movement.
But I also wanted to mark this IWD by sharing some of the articles on feminist issues that I’m most proud of having written over the last few years. Some are interviews with incredible campaigners and activists, while others address problems still facing women across the UK, and worldwide – from representation and healthcare provision, to violence and trauma.
Last week I finished my 12 month sabbatical-cover contract at Women for Refugee Women (WRW). After a year of cramming my freelance work into two days a week, I’m now officially a full-time freelancer again – but I’m not the same freelancer I was this time last year. It’s an easy phrase to throw around, but this year out with WRW really has been nothing short of life-changing. I cannot thank the staff, trustees and refugee women enough for welcoming me with such warmth, and allowing me to contribute to the amazing work they do.
Although words are how I make my living, I’ve struggled to find the words to sum up this experience. I simply cannot do justice to the strength, courage, resilience, humour and compassion of the women I’ve had the great honour and privilege of working with. I thought I’d try and keep it concise – short, sweet and to the point – and I have totally failed. I just can’t write about a job like this in 700 words or fewer. But, in keeping with the whole ethos of WRW, I’m going to start by letting the women themselves do the talking.
Campaigning to Set Her Free
Looking back over the last year, the majority of my work has centred around WRW’s fantastic Set Her Free campaign. I’ve protested outside Yarl’s Wood, I’ve visited women there on a monthly basis, and I’ve spoken at events alongside ex-detainees, raising awareness of the campaign and sharing their experiences. The things I’ve seen, and the stories I’ve heard, are both horrifying and heartbreaking. I have nothing but awe and admiration for my colleague Heather Jones, who has been visiting Yarl’s Wood for more than a decade and still has the most phenomenal capacity to be shocked and outraged, as well as compassionate, loving and giving beyond measure.
One of the most powerful stories to capture the trauma of Yarl’s Wood is told by the Set Her Free animation, which WRW commissioned before I joined. In August we premiered it at the London Feminist Film Festival, and the response – both at the festival and online afterwards – was incredible. Margaret’s story really encapsulates why the Set Her Free campaign exists, and why it’s so vital. It has been such an incredible movement to work at the centre of, and I’d urge you all to find out more and get involved.
Celebrating and demonstrating with 99 women
There’ve been so many memorable moments during my time at WRW that it’s hard to condense it all down. One of my proudest achievements though was working with so many inspiring women, including many of my personal heroes, on the 99 women action. In March, for International Women’s Day, we asked 99 women – campaigners, celebrities, writers, businesswomen, politicians, performers, NGO leaders, healthcare professionals, and academics – to write a message in solidarity with refugee women. Each woman reflected one of the 99 pregnant women who were detained in Yarl’s Wood in 2014.
The list included Malorie Blackman, Mary Beard, Noma Dumezweni, Charlotte Church, Yvette Cooper, Pragna Patel, Romola Garai, Juliet Stevenson, Nimco Ali, Yasmin Kadi, Caitlin Moran, Bridget Christie, Valerie Amos, Caroline Lucas, and so so many more amazing women. The action was covered by Guardian G2, the Evening Standard, and even Germany’s leading women’s magazine Brigitte, and WRW’s social media channels lit up in ways that I’d never seen before. But my favourite part was delivering those 99 messages to the Home Office, on International Women’s Day, as part of a loud and proud gathering of music, speeches and poetry that we held outside the building.
IWD 2016 was not just another protest, but a passionate celebration of women who cross borders, and a defiant demonstration against the policies that harm them. We were joined by more than 50 refugee women from around the UK, as well as Juliet Stevenson, Stella Creasy, Natalie Bennett, Kate Osamor, Shami Chakrabarti, Zrinka Bralo, Caroline Lucas, Nimco Ali, Sophie Walker, Gaggle, Lips Choir, London Klezmer Quartet, Sabrina Mahfouz, Demi Mseleku, Sula Mae, Sajeela Kershi, and (my personal highlight) the absolutely incredible African dancing of Nyakaza.
The detention of pregnant women
Our particular campaign focus, for the year I was there, was on the detention of pregnant women. Some of the political conversations that happened around this were such a testament to WRW’s lobbying work, and proof that change really is possible. Conservative MP Caroline Spelman hosted a Parliamentary event on the subject. Labour peer Baroness Lister put forward an amendment to the Immigration Bill, which would have ended the detention of pregnant women. That amendment passed in the House of Lords, but was later defeated in the House of Commons. The Government did, however, introduce a 72-hour time limit on detaining pregnant women which, while not the total exclusion we’d hoped for, did represent a significant step forwards.
My role in this part of the campaign included working with two women who were both detained in Yarl’s Wood while pregnant. I’m so grateful to them both for working with me to tell their stories to the media, to politicians, and to the UK’s biggest online parenting network Mumsnet. I’m also incredibly grateful for the generosity of WRW’s supporters, who donated mountains of maternity clothes, baby clothes, nappies, bottles, toys, and accessories to support them both.
Of all the things I wrote during the year, the piece I’m most proud of is this interview for The Pool with a brave woman who, for media purposes, I referred to as Lucy. She and her gorgeous baby boy hold such a special place in my heart. Long before I left WRW I’d already made plans to visit Lucy for her son’s first birthday later this year, but I was so honoured and moved when she recently asked my husband and me to be his godparents. I never imagined, a year ago, that I would leave this job with new lifelong friends.
Sisterhood at its best
I’ve long suspected it, but at WRW I learned definitively that sisterhood is one of the most powerful forces in the world. On Saturday, just three days after my final day in the office, I was proud to march alongside WRW at the 2016 Refugees Welcome march, where one woman – a refugee from the DRC, who has been waiting 12 years and counting for asylum in the UK – summed up the spirit of the organisation so beautifully. “In our hopeless condition, we give each other hope.” WRW is a place that embodies sisterhood, friendship and compassion, where relationships are nurtured, and women are both supported and empowered – in the truest sense of the word.
At WRW I have truly been privileged to work with some of the bravest and most inspiring women in the world. Women who, having been through more horrible circumstances than I can even imagine, dedicate so much time and energy to supporting one another. It’s one of the things the most struck me about the women I’ve met in Yarl’s Wood – for all the trauma and depression that place breeds, it also forges unshakeable bonds of friendship and solidarity between the women who are locked up there. Their determination to speak up, both for themselves and each other, has been a constant source of inspiration to me. The London Refugee Women’s Forum, who I’ve seen perform the Set Her Free poem countless times, never fail to move me.
As part of WRW’s Women at the Borders project, I also visited women in the Calais ‘jungle’ refugee camp, and was heartbroken to meet a 17-year-old Sudanese girl and her husband, who had spent months making the treacherous and exhausting journey across Africa and Europe in search of safety. My colleague Rehab Jameel, herself a Sudanese refugee and now a British citizen, did such a wonderful job of speaking to her in their native Arabic about the trauma of their experiences and what they hoped for next. It felt like such a small thing to be able to offer women in such a desperate, bleak situation. Just a few hours of solidarity, sisterhood, support and sympathy. But this year has taught me that those small things are often all you can give, and often mean more than you realise.
I’m proud to call so many of these women my sisters and my friends; to have laughed and cried, both with them and for them. As I’m writing this from my office, at the end of a day of freelancing, the photo of our recent trip to the seaside stands pride of place on my desk, alongside my other proudest achievements – my BA and MA certificates, the first book I edited, my first national newspaper front page story, and a copy of the beautifully designed WRW annual review.
Women getting sh*t done
In another recent conversation, Afghan refugee Rahela Sidiqi described WRW as a place where refugee women’s knowledge and skills are recognised, valued, and used, and where their voices and experiences are at the forefront of everything they do. It’s also, she pointed out, an organisation that makes far more efficient use of its limited resources than many much bigger and better-resourced charities manage. People are constantly surprised to learn that WRW is made up of just five part-time staff – all of them amazing women, who get sh*t done and have a huge impact.
Which brings me to the final (I promise!) moment that I want to write about. The night before my last day with WRW, we held an event in partnership with CARE International UK. The event, Listen To The Women, was an inspiring evening of refugee women’s voices and stories. Held ahead of the United Nations refugee summit, the idea was to ensure that refugee women – so often unseen and unheard in coverage of the refugee crisis – are not forgotten.
We had an incredible line-up – musician and Sierra Leonian refugee Yasmin Kadi, who opened the night with a burst of energy and passion; campaigner Helen Pankhurst and comedian Shazia Mirza; actresses Tanya Moodie, Juliet Stevenson and Anne-Marie Duff, who read powerful testimonies from refugee women who couldn’t be there to speak for themselves; the London Refugee Women’s Forum with their Set Her Free poem; a Sudanese refugee, who spoke with a translator about her experience of Calais; a panel discussion, chaired by Jane Garvey and featuring MPs Yvette Cooper and Heidi Allen, CARE’s Howard Mollett, and Iraqi refugee Ghada Alnasseri; and finally Scottish-Sudanese singer-songwriter Eliza Shaddad, who beautifully closed the evening.
The power of women’s voices
We sold out. We filled every chair, and more guests, staff and volunteers stood around the edge of the room, all there to hear from refugee women. The testimony readings, the poem, the music, and the speeches were so powerful, poignant and moving. There were moments of heartbreak and despair, and moments of inspiration and insight into what refugee women can achieve when given a chance. Most importantly, the Set Her Free poem received a standing ovation, led by Tanya Moodie. That recognition was so well-deserved, so beautiful, that it brings a tear to my eye and a lump to my throat even just thinking about it now. At the time, I felt like I could burst with pride at what the London Refugee Women’s Forum have achieved, through their own words and their passionate, confident performances. They are quite simply amazing and, as their biggest fan, they can expect to keep seeing me crop up at their drama classes and performances for the foreseeable future! I so look forward to seeing their confidence continue to grow.
Finally, we closed the event by asking attendees, and our supporters on social media, to share the following short film. It’s just one minute long, with a simple message for the UN and the UK government: please, listen to the women.
I wrote for VICE’s Broadly channel about We Trust Women, the campaign launched by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) calling for the full decriminalisation of abortion in the UK. The campaign describes the UK’s current abortion law as “cruel and Victorian”, and urges the Government to end to the legal requirement for two doctors to sign off on procedures, and to scrap the legal time limit of 24 weeks. Click here to read the article in full, and click here for more information about the campaign.
Originally published at New Statesman, written as part of my communications work for Women for Refugee Women:
On Saturday, hundreds of protestors gathered in the muddy field outside Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, calling for an end to the detention of vulnerable women who have claimed asylum in the UK.
Despite the pouring rain, the mood on both sides of the fence was impassioned and defiant, with the women inside apparently buoyed by the support and solidarity of the chanting crowd.
On the way back from the demonstration, message after message reached me via asylum seeker and ex-detainee Karen*, who was travelling with me and taking calls from friends inside Yarl’s Wood detention centre. The news that seemed to please her most was that a hunger strike was being held, with one friend telling her: “We told the officers, ‘We have just come from a huge protest; we won’t spoil it by eating your food!'”
Karen is a keen supporter of these hunger strike tactics and was quick to encourage the friends she’d left behind when she was released from Yarl’s Wood less than two weeks earlier. She personally took part in four hunger strikes during the three months she was detained. The first, in early September, involved about 30 women, while her fourth strike was coincidentally held not long after the release of the film Suffragette.
At the time, as I watched Carey Mulligan’s Maud being force-fed on the big screen, I felt overwhelmed with sadness for the sisters who I’d been calling and visiting in Yarl’s Wood since I joined Women for Refugee Women (WRW) – a charity that works with women who have sought asylum in the UK – six weeks earlier.
There’s no forced feeding in Yarl’s Wood, and the hunger strikes there may at times be more symbolic than sustained – but I couldn’t help feeling an echo of the women’s desperation and defiance in their belief that, if they refuse food, the authorities will eventually have to listen.
At the moment, the Home Office locks up around 2,000 women who have sought asylum every year. A growing movement is speaking up against this unnecessary indefinite detention. Supporters come from across the political and social spectrum, but some of the most inspiring women I have met are those who have experienced Yarl’s Wood first hand.
I wrote for VICE’s new women’s channel, Broadly, about a new study into the impact that anti-abortion ‘vigils’ outside clinics have on women. The study, by Dr Pam Lowe and Dr Graeme Hayes of Aston University, and using data from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), found that protests outside abortion clinics are distressing for women, even if the protesters are quiet and respectful. Click here to read the article in full.
So, a bit of work news that I’ve been keeping quiet for a while… In September I’m joining the brilliant team at Women for Refugee Women, for a 12-month, part-time role as their communications executive, while Sophie Radice takes a year out to go travelling. I’ll also still be freelancing for the remaining two days a week. Really looking forward to getting started!
As the name suggests, Made In Dagenham: The Musical is the latest retelling of the story of the fight for equal pay by an amazing group of women machinists from the Ford factory in Dagenham, in musical theatre form.
Much like the 2010 film, Made In Dagenham: The Musical is a feel-good, comic portrayal of the 1968 machinists’ strike, which succeeds in making you laugh and cry in equal measures.
Gemma Arterton plays the lead role of Rita O’Grady, a working-class Essex woman who works on the sewing machines producing car seats. Her husband, also employed by the Ford factory, is a typical 1960s ‘man’s man’ who does nothing round the house, while Rita takes on the roles of housewife, working mother and all-round “busy woman”, as she sings in the musical’s opening song.
Though adamantly “not political”, Rita is sufficiently enraged when the women’s work is downgraded from skilled to unskilled that she accidentally finds herself (alongside the women’s union convener Connie) leading a ground-breaking walk-out to demand not only the recognition of their skilled labour, but to be paid equally to men doing equivalent work, taking on Ford’s management, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the government in the process.
The production itself is unashamedly and upliftingly feminist, with the women of the cast wonderfully portraying the group of no-nonsense, working class strikers, fighting their fight with humour and passion aplenty. With a drive and determination much like the tenacious E15 mums, who are today campaigning for social housing in post-Olympic east London, Rita and the machinists are prepared to take their fight all the way to the top and unprepared to settle for anything less than the right to equal pay.
With the men forced to take on domestic responsibilities for the first time in their lives, Arterton heartbreakingly demonstrates Rita’s struggle as a mother trying to be there for her family, while fighting to build a better future for her daughter. It’s a familiar problem that, even today, women are so often expected to put their battles for equality to one side and put their domestic responsibilities first.
Equally familiar, Isla Blair, as childless Connie, captures all the frustration and disappointment of a lifetime spent fighting to change the world and being told by the men of the left that women must wait their turn. Neither the Labour party nor the TUC is let off the hook in this regard, with Sophie-Louise Dann’s formidable Barbara Castle also bemoaning the slowness of change and the need to first win over the men.
However, while the women are real and passionate and beautiful and human, the men representing their patriarchal opponents are far more two-dimensional, played as old-school casual sexists and pantomime clowns. The union bosses, Ford management and Prime Minister Harold Wilson are as bumbling and incompetent as each other. Alternatively, in the case of the cowboy from Ford’s US headquarters, they are pantomime villains: the evil capitalists the audience loves to hate.
These caricatures, pitted against the competent, wilful and articulate women, were amusing at first but quite quickly wore thin. When members of the audience began booing and hissing the villainous American Ford boss, I couldn’t help but feel that the rigid role of male power had been grossly over-simplified. As in any classic pantomime battle between good and evil, the women’s ultimate victory over patriarchal forces almost seemed inevitable rather than hard-won, which was a real shame.
Nevertheless, Made In Dagenham: The Musical was a genuinely moving, entertaining production and I cried all the way from the picket line to the TUC conference, where equal pay is finally adopted as TUC policy and Rita is reunited with proud husband Eddie.
The women’s victory was greeted with a mix of whoops and tears from the audience, as the triumphant closing song declared “Now we’re equal paid in Dagenham”, and a voiceover paid tribute to the striking machinists, likening their struggle to the suffragettes’ fight for women’s right to vote and demanding they be remembered and celebrated by the history books.
As is the nature of musical theatre, Made In Dagenham closed on an uncompromising high, with the machinists’ equal pay victory portrayed as an unqualified success.
It was somewhat unsettling to watch knowing that, just a week before the performance, it was reported that supermarket giant Asda is facing mass legal action from female employees who claim they are paid less than men for equivalent work. Equal pay may be enshrined in law but, nearly 50 years later, it remains far from a reality for many women.
Despite this, I came away feeling quite emotional. It’s not often you see a piece of theatre not only dedicated to women’s stories but that reminds you of the incredible courage and tenacity of women’s activism that makes change really possible, however slow.
400,000 women each year are sexually assaulted in Britain, and 80,000 are raped.
One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, and the Guardian yesterday reported that domestic violence accounts for 10 per cent of all emergency calls.
The UK government estimates that up to 24,000 girls under the age of 15 are at risk of female genital mutilation (FGM).
And all that’s just in the UK. Worldwide, the UN estimates that up to 70 per cent of women experience violence in their lifetime.
Rape as a weapon of war affects millions of women, including more than 200,000 since armed conflict began in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and between 250,000 and 500,000 during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
According to the World Bank, women aged 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than cancer, car accidents, war and malaria.
It is no exaggeration to describe violence against women as endemic across all countries and cultures. It must stop.
“Millions of women and girls around the world are assaulted, beaten, raped, mutilated or even murdered in what constitutes appalling violations of their human rights. […] We must fundamentally challenge the culture of discrimination that allows violence to continue. On this International Day, I call on all governments to make good on their pledges to end all forms of violence against women and girls in all parts of the world, and I urge all people to support this important goal.”
– UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in his message for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, 25 November 2012.
I spent last weekend in Bristol at UK Feminista’s Summer School 2012, staying with my good friend MadamJMo.
After last year’s Summer School, I came away buzzing with energy and excitement about the future of feminism; this year though, I feel very different.
It’s no reflection at all on UK Feminista or the hard work and organisation of their many activists, volunteers and speakers. Despite a much lower turn-out and a building-site for a venue, the conference was varied, interesting, well-organised, and for all intents and purposes very similar to last year’s event. Equally, it was wonderfully reassuring and encouraging, as always, to spend time in a room full of like-minded feminists for the weekend. Yet it felt, somehow, a bit flat. There was a real consciousness that things have only got harder since last year – the sustained attack on our abortion rights, the impact of the cuts on women, repeated high-profile incidents of victim-blaming and rape apologism, and a reshuffle which looks set to only make the situation worse.
There was a lot of talk about how feminism makes us feel – liberated, excited, empowered, angry. All those still very much apply, of course, but lately feminism has done a lot of making me feel jaded, weary, isolated, disheartened, and frustrated. I can’t help but wonder if that sense of futility played a part in the change of atmosphere for other people too. Of course there were some really positive, useful discussions, particularly during the open space sessions, but I came away feeling mentally exhausted. Even within feminist circles I’m endlessly frustrated about the debates on whether we need to go out of our way to engage men who aren’t interested in engaging, or to rebrand feminism to make the name sound more palatable.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom though. My highlight of the weekend was the Saturday evening entertainment, provided by What The Frock!comedy.Comedians Kate Smurthwaite, Angie Belcher, Bethany Black and Danielle Ward were a wonderfully uplifting part of the weekend, giving some much-needed light relief in performances which covered topics from feminism and politics, to sex and personal grooming.
Another highlight was meeting Maid of Orleans Prints, a brand new Bristol-based business, printing T-shirts of their “sheroes, heroes & queeros”. The excellent suffragette T-shirt I bought from them is currently serving as a useful reminder of why all this frustration and exhaustion really is worth it. Life keeps getting in the way, and I don’t expect that to change, but I’m looking forward to the new allies and activism that London has in store.