“What have I got to lose?” Hunger strikes and protests at Yarl’s Wood detention centre

Yarl's Wood protest

Originally published at New Statesman, written as part of my communications work for Women for Refugee Women:

Yarl's Wood protest

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.

Continue reading at New Statesman…

Wednesday inspiration

Nothing will work unless you do - Maya Angelou

It’s been a really productive, positive week (already – and it’s only Wednesday afternoon!) so I treated myself to a print of this quote for my office wall. “Nothing will work unless you do” – by one of my favourite women, writers and feminists, the brilliant Maya Angelou.

Available from Etsy.

Review: Inspirational Women of North-East England

Originally published at Feminist Times.

During my recent trip to Newcastle for the North East Feminist Gathering, I also visited the Inspirational Women of North-East England exhibition at the Hatton Gallery. Managed by Roweena Russell, the photography exhibition launched on 3 October and is a stunning example of how extraordinary women can, and should, be celebrated for their achievements. Standing in the exhibition room, I was struck by how unusual it was to see so many women featured, fully-clothed, many of them in their place of work, in one place.

The exhibition showcases 26 women in total, all with links to the north east, using a combination of original photography, by photographer Bryony Bainbridge, and archive images of some of the region’s more historical female figures. Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, historian Gertrude Bell and lighthouse keeper’s daughter Grace Darling appear alongside modern day pioneers, from businesswomen to arctic explorers, and academics to butchers. What is particularly impressive about the women selected is the diversity of ages, races and professions on display.

Simi Ali

Simi Ali, pictured above, specialises in the Immunobiology of organ transplantation for patients with life-threatening diseases. She was born in Northern India and moved to Manchester in 1990 for a Commonwealth Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Molecular Biology. She moved to Newcastle University in 1992 and was made a Professor of Immunobiology in 2011. “I am committed to help tackle the unequal representation of women in science and to improve career progression for female academics,” she says, in the caption next to her photo.

bryony-wp

Bryony Balen was the youngest Briton to ski to the South Pole from the coast, at the age of just 21 – despite being told: “It’s too difficult for a girl.” Growing up in Derbyshire, Bryony completed her Silver and Gold Duke of Edinburgh Awards and climbed Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe, while still at school. She began training for the 56-day South Pole expedition while a Geography undergraduate at Newcastle University.

kat-wp

Katherine Copeland is an Olympic gold-medalist rower, born in Stockton-on-Tees. She won her gold medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games for the lightweight women’s double scull with Sophie Hosking. Previously, she won gold meals at the Coupe de la Jeunesse (womens quad, 2007; women’s single, 2008), and took home gold and bronze medals from the Australian Youth Olympic festival in 2009. She won the World Rowing U23 Championships in Amsterdam in 2011, and took silver in her first senior event at the World Rowing Cup in Munich, 2012.

charlotte-wp

Charlotte Harbottle is an award-winning butcher and owner of Charlotte’s Butchery in Gosworth, Newcastle. She began training as a butcher after graduating from York St John University and her blog led to work for O’Shea’s Irish butcher in Knightsbridge. Charlotte won the meat category of The Young British Foodies competition with her Black Pudding, after which she filmed with Jamie Oliver and judged a national sausage competition. She later worked at Lidgate’s in Holland Park, before a government loan enabled her to open Charlotte’s Butchery in January 2013. She is now establishing a guild for female butchers, to support other women in the industry.

Ummee Imam

Ummee Imam is the Executive Director of the Angelou Centre in Newcastle – a centre offering support for women and children facing violence and abuse, as well as a Well Women service, arts programmes and carers’ groups. Born to a politically active Muslim family in Lucknow, India, Ummee defines as a Muslim feminist and a black feminist. After studying at a Catholic school and later gaining a degree in Psychology and an MA in Medieval and Modern Indian History, Ummee lectured for 12 years at Durham University, researching the impact of domestic abuse among South Asian women and children.

Mary Midgley

Mary Midgley has been described as “the most frightening philosopher of the century” and is one of the country’s leading moral philosophers. She worked as a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Newcastle University and is best known for her work on science, ethics and animal rights. Mary has written 16 books and written extensively about what philosophers can learn from nature. Now aged 94, she continues to write, providing commentary for the BBC and national press.

Chi Onwurah

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle Central. Born in Wallsend in 1965, Chi studied for a degree in Electrical Engineering at Imperial College, London, and achieved an MBA at Manchester Business School while working for a number of computer software and product management businesses, before becoming Head of Telecoms Technology at OFCOM. She was elected as an MP at the 2010 election and was appointed as shadow minister for Business, Education and Skills.

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Penny Remfry was born in Birmingham but moved to the North East in 1973 and was involved in establishing a women’s refuge in North Tyneside and Tyneside Rape Crisis. She campaigned for the Working Women’s Charter – a trade union campaign for equal pay, equal opportunities, maternity leave, and childcare – and worked on producing the Scarlet Women newsletter in North Shields. In the caption next to her photograph, Penny says: “Translate anger into action, preferably with others. Remember: the personal is political. Feminism is deeply revolutionary.”

Alongside the eight women we have highlighted, the exhibition celebrates the achievements of businesswomen Lucy Armstrong, chief executive of The Alchemists, Margaret Emmonds, owner of At Sisters hair salon in Newcastle, and Olivia Grant; community campaigners Carole Bell and Jackie Haq; gynaecologist and fertility researcher Alison Murdoch; public health consultant Caron Walker; Cecilia Eggleston, the lesbian Pastor of MCC Newcastle; and Kathryn Tickell, a composer, performer and recording artist who plays the Northumbrian pipes.

There are also the famous names that you might expect: Emily Wilding Davison, the suffragette who died 100 years ago after running into the path of the King’s horse at Epsom Derby; Grace Darling, daughter of a Northumbrian lighthouse keeper and famous heroine of the shipwrecked Forfarshire in 1838; Marjorie ‘Mo’ Mowlam, former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and MP for Redcar; and novelist Catherine Cookson, from South Shields.

Equally inspiring is the archive photograph of Tynemouth-born Susan Mary Auld, the first woman to be awarded a BSc in Naval Architecture, in 1936, who helped design and construct WW2 warships. After the war she continued to work on commercial and cargo shipbuilding before becoming the Wallsend correspondent for The Shipyard magazine. An archive photograph of Gertrude Bell – the first woman to gain a First in Modern History at Oxford and founder of the Iraqi Archaeological Museum in Baghdad – also features, as well as Maud Burnett, an “indomitable committee woman” and the first woman to serve two terms as mayor of Tynemouth in the early 20th century.

The final two historical women included in the exhibition are Josephine Butler, who promoted higher educated for women and campaigned for the Married Women’s Property Act (1882), and Ellen Wilkinson, Middlesbrough’s first woman MP (1924-31) and later the MP of Jarrow (1935-47). Known as ‘Red Ellen’, she was Minister of Education and implemented ‘secondary education for all’.

I came away from the exhibition feeling moved and inspired, but also thoroughly frustrated by how rare it is to experience something like Inspirational Women of North-East England, where women are celebrated for their brains, their actions and their achievements. Roweena, Bryony and the IWNE team have created something really beautiful which should, but isn’t, be commonplace in every town, museum and gallery. If you’re in the North East, I’d urge you to go and check it out.

Inspirational Women of North-East England is on at the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle, until 21 December 2013.

All photographs courtesy of Bryony Bainbridge.