Archive for the 'Gender' Category

A review of the decade in UK feminism

March 31, 2010

When Labour entered parliament 13 years now, they coasted in on a wave of optimism, sound-tracked by D:Ream’s ‘Things can only get better’. But when it comes to women, have things got better over the past decade or worse?

With all female shortlists leading to the most women MPs in the UK ever, doubling from 60 in 1992 to 120 in 1997, it was expected that the Labour government would bring about a revolution for women. Yet despite the surge in female MPs, female representation in the UK parliament is still only 19.4 %, lower than in Bulgaria (21.7 %).

It is clear that for women to effect real change in politics, a critical mass is needed, and less than a fifth just isn’t enough. For services to women Harriet Harman has become a modern day witch to be burnt at the stake. The day after she attacked The Sun’s record on women’s rights at the Labour party conference in October last year, the same newspaper featured a topless model called ‘Harriet’ from Peckham, Harman’s constituency, giving her views on employment. Against this backdrop it’s not surprising that Labour wins for women have been slight and a frustratingly long time coming. In 1997 women hoped for so much, but so few of our dreams have been fulfilled.

If the Eighties are seen as the decade of the power suit, the Noughties could be seen as the decade of the high-profile sex-discrimination lawsuit. In 2003 Sian Heard and Sian Fellows won £7m between them after a partner at City law firm Sinclair, Roche and Temperley told them ‘The firm should sack you all and get in some better-looking recruits rather than you old bags.’ In 2005 1,600 women who worked for Cumberland Infirmary and West Cumbria hospital won between £35,000 and £200,000 each, in a case of fair pay for comparative work.

But despite these victories little seems to have changed. Women working full time still earn on average 17 % less than men per hour, either through being paid less to do the same job, or because jobs seen as traditionally female are devalued.

When it comes to work and children, women still find themselves between a rock and a hard place. The Fawcett Society estimates that 30,000 women a year lose their jobs in the UK by becoming pregnant, and Labour have recently backtracked on their pledge to extend paid maternity leave to year. Instead men will have the right to take three months of paid paternity leave in the second six months of their child’s life, but only if the mother returns to work. There is little shift to accommodate flexible working hours and job sharing, so that women, who often do the majority of childcare, lose out again by being forced to downgrade their jobs to poorer paying part time work.

London Feminist Network on the Million Women Rise march 2008
London Feminist Network on the Million Women Rise march, 2008

The government’s Equality Bill is pending, but this does little other than unify and simplify existing employment law into one act. There is a ‘duty’ on large companies to publish pay disparities between the men and women they employ, but no legal compulsion, and no extension to all UK businesses. What seems patently clear is that in order to achieve equal pay we need a legal compulsion for every company to publish the salaries of all their employees by gender annually. As long as women occupy such a fragile space in the workplace they will not feel safe to speak out on issues of sexual harassment, flexible working hours and jobs sharing, and so the culture of misogynist workplaces will continue.

Women are just about holding on to our right to a safe, legal abortion in this country, but despite decades of campaigning and favourable public opinion, there has been no move to remove the need to get the signature of two doctors, nor have women in Northern Ireland gained the right to free, legal abortions in their country.

Labour came to power with a clear manifesto to embrace the free market, committed to doing whatever it took to allow businesses, and by extension, the UK economy to prosper. Like rules on 24 hour drinking, the 2003 Licensing Act swept away much bureaucracy and red tape for business. But crucially for women this meant lap dancing clubs could now be licensed in the same way as cafes, so that since 2004 clubs have doubled to over 300 in the UK.

Labour’s move to the right and 1997 election came at a cost to its traditional voters. Broadly speaking the Labour government as a whole has let down those women who need the most help and support – particularly low-income single mothers and female asylum seekers, this is a cost of being in the pocket of big business and striving to please the middle classes.

Benefits for lone parents were slashed in 1997 and last year Labour changed the law so that all lone parents have to come off income support by the time their youngest child is seven, where previously it was 12. Labour’s recent pre-election pledge to place all teenage mothers in a ‘network of supervised homes’ has been compared to Victorian reformatories and penitentiaries for fallen women.

The idea behind all government policy in single-parenting is that ‘work is the best way out of poverty’ which is fantasy and contrary to the latest research. A 2007 report by the OECD found that Britain has the worst benefits trap for women. A single mother re-entering employment has to forfeit 101.3 per cent of her wages through extra tax, childcare costs, and relinquished benefits payouts. Jean Phillipe Cotis, the OECD’s chief economist stated: ‘Quite simply, it’s not really rewarding to re-enter the workforce if you are either a lone parent or a second earner. We are basically forbidding a lot of women from going back into work.’

Labour’s record on female asylum seekers is similarly bad. Currently women asylum seekers who do not have indefinite leave to remain in this country cannot access many of the things other women take for granted, such as free healthcare when pregnant and maternity benefits, and crucially for a group so at risk of domestic violence they cannot seek refuge in a women’s aid shelter because the spaces are government funded for UK residents only. The UK is letting down the very women who are the most in need of our help – those who have suffered and are at risk of rape, domestic violence, so-called honour killings and female genital mutilation, which is a shameful situation.

When faced with the effects of legislation of the last three Labour governments, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that their interpretation of liberalism and libertarianism has been bad for those who are oppressed or belong to a minority. Ditto, when it comes to the biggest revolution of the decade, nay the last 100 years, which is of course the internet; is it a free, liberating super invention, or an unregulated, out of control breeding ground for hatred? The biggest revolution of the decade, nay the last 100 years, is of course the internet. But is it a free, liberating super invention, or an unregulated, out of control breeding ground for hatred?

For feminists, the internet has provided a brilliant means of organising, communicating and gathering for action, through email, e-groups and social networking sites. Free publishing with unlimited space has allowed feminist expression to flourish through blogs and alternative news and comment sites such as feministing in America and The F Word in the UK.

And yet, the anonymity of the internet has created a free frontier which is largely misogynistic. Far from being a haven for minorities, the internet, in many spaces, is a world where bigotry is exaggerated, not diminished. You only have to look at Comment is Free, the user interactive sphere of the Guardian to see that the internet is largely the empire of the white, middle class, English-speaking male.

Nowhere is this more obvious than when it comes to pornography, and the facts are not cheering. 25 % of all internet searches are porn related. The porn industry generates approximately £30bn worldwide; double that of the mainstream film industry. Mainstream porn video production has increased exponentially in the past ten years; it’s pervasive output increasingly extreme and violent, showing women being harmed, degraded and humiliated both verbally and physically. A quick Google search reveals that mainstream porn is no longer a video of reader’s wives or a naked Playboy centrefold. Acts previously seen as extreme, such as multiple penetration and ass-to-mouth penetration are now rarely exempt from mainstream porn, much of it available for free.

Amidst this increased acceptance of sexualised violence towards women, perceptions among the general public, and therefore by extension juries, are still that women are somehow responsible for rape and sexual violence. Studies show that after viewing pornography men are more likely to report decreased empathy for rape victims, believe that a woman who dresses provocatively deserves to be raped, experience anger at women who flirt but then refuse to have sex, report decreased sexual interest in their girlfriends or wives and report increased interest in coercing partners into unwanted sex acts.

This gradual liberalisation has led to the acceptance of the “pornification” of women generally – in music videos, on billboard advertising and in mainstream films. American journalist, Ariel Levy, documented the phenomenon in her 2005 book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, but unrestrained by America’s religious right “family values” brigade, the UK has this wall-to-wall objectification of women can be seen to greatest effect on our streets and in our shops.

The Nineties gave birth to Laddism and a new genre of publication – the lads mag. 20 years after Clare Short published a collection of letters from constituents imploring her to do something about Page 3, one page in a daily newspaper has mutated into two weekly magazines full of such images, largely purchased by teenage boys. Nuts and Zoo, displayed at toddler eye-level in most family supermarkets, include campaigns such as a competition for male readers to win breast implants for their girlfriends.

Object Feminist Friday, January 2010
Object Feminist Friday, January 2010

Pornography is distorting the sexualities of young people experiencing sex for the first time. Girls are coming under increased pressure to wax their pubic hair off entirely, have their faces ejaculated on and take part in ever more extreme acts. It’s unsurprising then that there has been an explosion in women seeking cosmetic surgery and women with eating disorders and other self-esteem related issues.

This misogyny has become so mainstream that women are increasingly perpetuating misogyny against themselves. Nowhere is this compulsion for women to view each other as enemies, to divide and conquer, stronger than in the new celebrity landscape of gossip magazines and websites. No part of a woman’s body, personality or personal life is safe from criticism, and women are encouraged to develop hatred and self-disgust of themselves and other women.

In wider society, despite the joyous outpouring of the Riot Grrrl movement, white, privileged, male culture presides. In the UK most heads of public arts institutions are men, yet the industry is disproportionately female. Of the top 16 theatres in the UK, only four have a female artistic director and it wasn’t until 2008 that the first original play by a female playwright was shown on the National Theatre’s main stage. Less than 10 % of UK film directors are women, the National Gallery only owns ten paintings by women and women artists make up just 13 % of the Tate’s collection. Women are grossly underrepresented in parliament, the judiciary and the boardroom. Just four financial directors of FTSE 100 companies are women.

But if progress for women has been poor on issues of pay and equality, when it comes to male violence against women the feminist activists of the Seventies must be horrified. Amidst a dropping crime rate for most offences such as burglary, murder and muggings, the British Crime Survey 2009 showed a 5 % increase in reported rapes. In the 1970s there were rape conviction rates of up to 32 % in the UK, now it stands at a low of just 6 %. Two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner and one in four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, yet this pandemic of male violence against women goes largely unreported in the media.

There are massive shortcomings in the police treatment of and failure to prioritise cases of violence against women and sexual assault. Earlier this year the Independent Police Complaints Commission found that a Detective Constable in charge of the Worboys attacks did not believe a woman who had been raped because he had ‘formed a mindset that a black cab driver would not commit such an offence.’ Given these shortcomings is it any wonder that the police are often accused of institutional sexism?

Compounding the situation is the crisis in rape crisis funding – ten years ago there were 80 rape crisis centres in the UK, that has now more than halved to just 39 and many are struggling to keep their doors open through lack of central and local government funding.

In contrast while men are getting away with murder and have impunity from rape, statistics released in November last year revealed that in the past decade the number of women in prison has increased by more than 50 % – hitting a record 8,862 in 2008. The Daily Mirror reported that ‘More than two thirds were jailed for non-violent offences, despite guidelines that it be used only for serious crimes.’

So as the decade closes we are faced with a depressing prospect. We have achieved precisely none of the seven original demands of the women’s liberation movement outlined at the Birmingham conference in 1978. Attacked, harassed and under siege from male violence, it is little wonder that women are finding it hard to speak out. But a growing movement is doing just that.

Object on the Million Women Rise March 2009
Object on the Million Women Rise march, 2009

Earlier this month thousands of women took to the streets of London for Million Women Rise – a march calling for an end to male violence against women. Every November thousands of women march to end male violence against women on Reclaim the Night marches across the UK. A key supporter is the campaigning group Object, a canny mixture of grass-roots activism and political lobbying is leading to real legislative change.

If the Noughties were a decade of feminist resurgence, then the last year of that decade, 2009, could be seen as feminism’s big year out. Despite the many obstacles facing them Harriet Harman, Jacqui Smith and Fiona Mactaggart presided over three key pieces of legislation, which will be seen as Labour’s legacy for women.

Following a two-year consultation, Labour launched its Violence Against Women and Girls strategy, which included among other things provision for classes on domestic violence as part of the national curriculum. Harman also announced a drop in domestic violence incidents by 64 % in July 2009 as well as an increase in convictions by 25 %, but Women’s Aid dispute the way this data is gathered and suggest a far higher incidence of unreported cases.

By far the most significant win for women for many years, has been a small clause in the Policing and Crime Bill (2008-9) lobbied for by Object and Eaves. For the first time ever, the law is moving away from criminalising prostituted women and towards criminalising those who pay to abuse them. Clause 14 of the Crime and Policing Bill states that those who use women who are controlled for gain, through trafficking, drug addiction or any other form of coercion, will be prosecuted, whether they knew about the coercion or not. It’s a tiny step on the way to criminalising all those who abuse prostituted women and offering funding for safe exit strategies, rehabilitation and housing, as enacted in Sweden and Norway, but those who have been campaigning on this issue for years know what a significant step this is in changing the cultural mindset towards prostituted women.

Object also fought a two-year campaign to stop the proliferation of lap dancing clubs. The stripping the illusion campaign, in association with Fawcett Society, successfully pushed through legislation to ensure that lap dancing clubs are now licensed as ’sex encounter establishments’ like sex shops and cinemas, rather than in the same way as cafes.

Another 2009 success was the overturning of the provocation defence. This defence has traditionally been used in murder cases by men who have killed their female partner and successfully downgraded a charge of murder to manslaughter by arguing that their violence was not premeditated, but a crime of ‘passion’ as a result of a woman asking for a divorce, revealing an affair or even nagging.

Frustratingly, just as Labour seems to be taking some tiny steps which could be built upon to achieve something really momentous, it looks like things will regress with the imminent arrival of a Conservative government. Amidst huge resistance to the final introduction of Conservative party all-female shortlists, just one female member of the Conservative shadow cabinet (Teresa May) and many stridently anti-feminist Conservative female MPs, it looks like the feminist fight is about to get harder.

If the Eighties were a decade of backlash against the feminist achievements of the Seventies, then the Nineties can be seen as the decade of ‘fake feminism’ with lies such as ‘we’ve never had it so good’ and ‘women are having it all’ trotted out to placate women. In the wake of Thatcherism we had the ugly and damaging twin evils of ‘ladette’ culture and ‘girl power’. Noughties feminism saw those consumerist male led moments for what they were. Women are organising and demonstrating on a scale unheard of ten years ago and it’s clear that there is a growing surge of feminist activism and female anger.

So here’s to the Noughties – a decade of growth and gathering for feminism. A decade that thanks to the proliferation of porn, has increased our challenges and made our battle harder. Our victories may seem slight, but there’s no doubt that change is a coming.

This piece first appeared on TMP online.

Interview with Rania Khan

December 7, 2008


Photo: Suki Dhanda

Rania Khan, 26. Labour councillor for Bromley-by-Bow in Tower Hamlets, London; secondary-school science teacher

‘I got involved in politics because I felt so angry about the Iraq war. I was inspired by the passion and courage of Respect councillor Salma Yaqoob and political campaigner Lindsey German. When I was asked to stand as a councillor I thought it was a completely bizarre idea and that I would never win. Some of the men in the Respect party wanted me to stand in a ward where there was no chance of me winning. But I was selected and in 2006, to my amazement, I won. This year I left Respect for Labour – there’s a lot more resources in the party and I felt I could be fairer to my constituents.

‘I’m Bangladeshi and as an Asian woman I do find you are made to feel like a second-class citizen. The mentality of girls being a financial burden is still there. My dad would complain he didn’t have a son, which I found very painful as a child. That became my driving force. I wanted to prove that I wasn’t lesser for being female; that I was better than any son my parents might have had.

‘I describe myself as a feminist, but feminism doesn’t make sense to me as a separate entity. I see it as part of the wider struggle for equality, alongside class and race.

‘The escalation of the porn industry and lap-dancing clubs really bothers me. I moved from Libya to London when I was about eight and seeing images of women being exploited and used as sexual commodities everywhere made me feel sick. I would walk down Tottenham Court Road as a teenager with my mates, ripping out all the prostitution fliers from the phone boxes.

‘I want to see more women, especially from ethnic minorities, involved in politics. Women need to be educated and empowered to take those key positions; only then will we see change.’

This piece first appeared in The Observer Review.

Interview with Yeukai Taruvinga

December 7, 2008


Photo: Suki Dhanda

Yeukai Taruvinga, 26. Opposition campaigner who fled Zimbabwe fearing reprisals from Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party

‘I didn’t want to leave my country and my family, but I had to flee when I was physically abused by the militia of the ruling Zanu-PF government for supporting and campaigning for the opposition. Within hours of arriving in the UK I was told my claim for asylum had been refused. They wanted me to produce evidence, but how could I? I asked them: “What is more important, the evidence or my life?”

‘I was held for a week, then told to report once a month to an immigration centre while my case was reviewed. Four years later, I was told that my case had been refused and I was being sent back. All I had was my handbag. They wouldn’t allow me to get anything from my home, or to contact my solicitor. I was so scared that I would be deported to Zimbabwe, where I would be imprisoned and never see my family again. Seven years later I’m still waiting on the Home Office. They say my case will be decided by 2011, but until then I cannot work or study. I am in limbo. Most of my time is spent volunteering for Women Asylum Seekers Together, a group campaigning for and empowering women asylum seekers.

‘This idea that asylum seekers get free houses, cars and mobile phones is a lie. When I first claimed asylum I was given £30 a week and a shared room in a bedsit. Now I am classified as a ‘failed’ asylum seeker, yet the government accept that it is not safe for me to return, so I am given accommodation and £35 a week in supermarket vouchers.

‘I want to pay tax, support myself and pay my way but I am not allowed. I want to work with young people and do something positive. I want young people to say: ‘”This is Yeukai. Be like her.”‘

This piece first appeared in The Observer Review.

Courtney Love, Bush Hall, London

July 10, 2007


In town to showcase her endlessly postponed album Nobody’s Daughter to a small group of 300 adoring fans, Love didn’t disappoint. Looking aggressively thin and toned, due to a crash diet reportedly involving a lock on her fridge, she took to the stage on her 43rd birthday with loyal drummer Stuart and a band of puppyish English adolescents. Providing support were two male guitarists; Micko Larkin formerly of Larrikin Love and Liam, a sometime model from Grimsby, and two female musicians; Bethina on keys and percussion and Pato on bass and vocals.

All the old favourites were given an airing – Celebrity Skin, Doll Parts, Miss World and Northern Star, in a set list that spanned 16 songs. The good news is that the new material sounded just as good as the old – opener Samantha went down a storm, as did Never Go Hungry Again, Letter To God and Nobody’s Daughter.

Okay so she had to be taught the chords to her own song – Miss World, by her baby faced guitar player but this crowd were ready to forgive anything. Just as well, because Love was in a brilliantly abusive mood. On being passed a handmade birthday card from the crowd, she used it to fan herself for a few seconds, tossed it to the floor, then drowned out a chorus of Happy Birthday and shouts of ‘We love you Courtney’ with ‘Shut up! Just shut up!’

Intermitttent song requests were likewise rewarded with ‘Shut up. You’ll get your fucking encore’, and; ‘I’m not playing that fucking song,’ to calls for Violet. Rather than use the opportunity to thank her long suffering English fans for their patient wait for new material, Love found something to complain about everywhere she looked.

‘This fucking smoking ban you’ve got here. I can’t even smoke on stage,’ she said looking desperate and throwing a hot pink cigarette into the audience. ‘The only place you can smoke now is the Houses of Parliament. Did you know that? That’s so retarded.’ Of the sound she moaned bizarrely; ‘I wanted chandeliers and shit sound and I got chandeliers and shit sound,’ before dismissing her entire audience and asking one of the puppies, ‘Do we look like retards? It doesn’t matter if we look like retards. This is 300 people. This isn’t Wembley.’

Love played the diva to a ‘t’, swapping her guitar every song, getting impatient if her personal guitar hander was too slow, and then barely playing a note. She also repeatedly stopped songs after losing her place or forgetting what they were playing. Just as well that the puppies were musical prodigies.

In fact some of the best moments were the few songs where she left her guitars alone. This was Love in all her car crash glory (‘Rehab can be good for you. Yeah, I want applause for that.’) The voice and the emotion were both undiminished – raw, real and utterly captivating. The high point of the evening came when Love let rip on a new ballad penned with Linda Perry of 4 Non Blondes fame; Letter To God.

This summer’s exhausting spate of huge stadium telethons – Glastonbury, the Diana Concert, Live Earth has been enough to kill off even the most ardent music fan. But Courtney Love was just the person to restore the faith.

Rude, yes, belligerent, certainly, but this was, quite simply, an exhilarating, exciting gig to remember. Packed into the tiny auditorium, with sweat trickling off every surface, the adoring fans were abused and dismissed by their bumbling, incompetent Queen. But when she did pull it together the raw power of Love’s emotions and the energy of her performance were viscereal and life-affirming. Abused they may have been, but this audience would have stood there all night as long as Love was on stage.

Set list:

‘Stand Up Motherfucker”
‘Sunset Marquis’
‘Miss World’
‘Nobody’s Daughter’
‘Pacific Coast Highway’
‘Doll Parts’
‘Letter To God’
‘How Dirty Girls Get Clean’
‘Celebrity Skin’
‘Never Go Hungry Again’
‘For Once In Your Life’
‘Northern Star’
‘Happy Ending Story’


June 12, 2007

(l to r Cheryl Hines, Keri Russell, Adrienne Shelly)

Billed as a romcom, Waitress is actually a cleverly disguised portrait of the widespread travesty affecting many women across the globe; domestic violence.

Jenna is a waitress in a pie diner married to real bully of a husband. The film follows her various attempts to leave him – stashing money away which he then finds, packing a suitcase only to be discovered at the bus stop.

Jenna’s husband Earl is verbally bullying and threatening, slaps her round the face a few times and tries to force her into having sex. So why were women in the cinema laughing when he raped her?
Admittedly it was not an extreme rape scene in that Jenna was shown as more annoyed than distressed, but it was still rape.

The actor and comedian Lucy Davis recently explained to me how audiences go to watch a comedy film expecting to laugh, and therefore may be harder to entertain than an audience who are watching what they have been sold as a straight film, which just happens to have some funny bits in it.
Perhaps this was the case with Waitress. Were people laughing in the bits that I found most harrowing, because they thought they were supposed to?

What is funny about a scene where an abusive, violent man pressures his pregnant wife into having sex with him? Nothing. But if you are at a comedy film, perhaps you think you are supposed to laugh at this grotesque caricature of a man, in a Men Are From Mars way. The sad truth is that Earl is not an exaggerated character. In many ways he is a tame pussycat compared to the evil monsters a lot of women on the receiving end of domestic violence endure.

To me the audience reaction was chilling proof that sex forced upon women has been normalised, and particularly that domestic rape is not seen as rape, or less damaging than rape by an unknown perpetrator.

How despicably resonant that Adrienne Shelly the writer, director and supporting actor of a film whose central theme is male violence towards women should herself be murdered by a man whose explanation was that he ‘was having a bad day.’ And how deeply sad to imagine Shelly’s only daughter Sophie, who she was carrying when she wrote the film, and who features in the last few scenes, watching Waitress – a portrait of Shelly’s pregnancy and love poem from mother to daughter.

In an industry where 7 percent of films are directed by women, Shelly’s no holds barred refreshingly female world view is to be applauded. The lineage is clear and the message is direct. Like Thelma and Louise, Jenna and her two best friend are waitresses in a diner and sisters doing it for themselves. How depressing that 16 years later this story is still relevant.

There are some very atypical sympathetically drawn characters here – our heroine for instance is a heavily pregnant married woman repeatedly initiating sex with a married man, and is also ambivalent about her unborn child to the point of considering selling it. Just two behaviours women are still publicly shunned for.

Waitress also contrasts dramatically with the traditional Bridget Jones/Jane Austen ending where the story resolves with the beginning of the relationship.

In practically every novel, drama, film or narrative of any sort women are typically given the choice between falling out of the arms of a bad man into the arms of a good one, between marriage and a career, between settling for any old man or loneliness.

It shows just how far women’s liberation has to go that a film where the woman keeps her power and chooses none of these options, instead choosing her daughter and the companionship of her two best friends feels dramatically radical and unusual. For this reason alone Waitress should be compulsory viewing for all teenage girls.

Released 10 August

Goddess Conference

August 11, 2006

Photo: Paul Williment

Turkish Baths are good for the soul

June 10, 2006

Illustration: Amelia Johnstone

Does my bum look big in this? Do I look fat? No matter how many times we are reassured about our weight, we worry. Perfectly healthy women are brainwashed into thinking they’re fat, and three per cent of women will suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime.

Nowhere was the worry worse than in the communal showers at school, where you longed to cover up your body, and where bullying reached its highest pitch. But in the influential feminist book The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf argues that women need to be around naked women in order to accept their bodies: “The fastest way to demystify the naked Iron Maiden is to promote retreats, festivals and excursions that include – whether in swimming or sunning or Turkish baths or random relaxation – communal nakedness.”

I think about her advice, swallow my reservations, and head to the Turkish baths at Ironmonger Row, Islington. When I walk into the changing room-cum-rest area I see about 20 women of all shapes, ages and nationalities lounging on beds. They are mainly in groups of two and three, but some are on their own. Most are completely naked, some wear swimming costumes, and others clutch at unravelling towels. A young Korean girl sits on a bed and paints her toenails. Two thirty-something career women say hello to me. I listen to them chat about Shameless, holiday retreats in Italy, their jobs, and sex, while I undress and empty my things into a locker.

I walk out of the rest room into the main bath area, enjoying the warmth on my naked body. In the main room there is a freezing plunge pool, where women yelp and shriek as they hit the water. In the corner, there are marble slabs where therapists are giving massages, Reiki and scrubs. I was expecting exquisite marble floors and walls and glorious mosaics. There are scattered mosaic details, but these baths date from the 1930s. This is not exactly ancient Rome.

There is a separate steam room and three hot rooms of varying temperatures. I have a warm shower and enter the steam room. Here, women recline on the tile ledges, barely visible through the eucalyptus fog. Some women lie on plastic sheets, because towels get soaked with sweat very quickly. A fan whirrs, breathing becomes heavy. Four Middle Eastern women in their forties babble in soothing tones. In the hot rooms, there are wooden racks like those you’d find in a sauna. The hot air envelopes me like a warm hug. The final room is so hot that it burns the inside of my nostrils. It is brilliant for period pain, and I doze off.

Being naked was strange at first. Absurdly my overwhelming fear was not of embarrassing myself, but of offending others. After a while I saw that Wolf was right – when you see other people’s bodies, it makes you feel comfortable with your own. All the images in my head telling me “lean and angular equals good, round and full equals bad” no longer made sense. Lean and angular are good to hang clothes off, but they don’t have the exclusive right to beauty. I realised that round can be beautiful. I saw lots of beautiful things about the female body for the first time: round bums, round bellies, round breasts.

I can describe it only as an epiphany. The fear of being fat I have held onto for so long has dropped away. For the first time I understood the beauty of plump women in classical painting. Most importantly I saw women as complete human beings, made of flesh, hair, soul, spirit and humour rather than flat images made of paper, plastic or pixels on a screen. I got so used to being naked that putting clothes back on to accentuate lumps and bumps seemed quite a shame.

Ironmonger Row Turkish Baths
1–11 Ironmonger Row, London EC1V 3QF
020 7253 4011.

Women only – Wednesdays and Fridays 9am – 9.30pm, Sundays 10am – 6.30pm.

Weekdays before 12 noon – £7.20. Weekdays after 12 noon and weekends – £12.00.

Payment is for a minimum three-hour session, including access to the swimming pool. You will have to leave after three hours only if it is busy. Give yourself two hours at least for the whole process.

Towels – £5 refundable deposit
Lockers – returnable £1
Hairdryer – takes 20p
Olive oil soap body scrub – £5
Sea salt and essential oils scrub – £10
Apricot and elderflower cream scrub – £10
Massage – 30 minutes £20, one hour £38
Reiki – 20 minutes £11, 30 minutes £15

Shaving my head

June 9, 2006

To baldly go…

…from Rapunzel to GI Jane in ten minutes.

Photos by Oliver Berry

The hairdresser takes a deep breath. “Oh God, I’m really nervous. Are you sure you want me to do this? ” I nod and smile reassuringly although I am petrified. My hair is nearly 50 centimetres long and it almost reaches my waist. The clippers buzz into action and within seconds it is gone. Grade two, about half a centimetre long.

No, I’m not doing a Sienna. Thankfully I haven’t split up with my boyfriend or lost my hair through chemotherapy or alopecia. My haircut was inspired by a US TV programme called Fear Factor. Three women were challenged to shave their heads for $50,000, but only one went through with it. I couldn’t believe it. “Hair grows back!” I wanted to shout. “It’s not a limb. Think of all the wigs you could buy with $50,000.” Then last week a man in Wolverhampton was charged with GBH for cutting off his ex-girlfriend’s pony tail. Is cutting off hair really the same as glassing someone in the face?

When I tell people I plan to shave my head it seems it is a big deal after all. My long-haired friend shrieks down the phone at me for 15 minutes and tells me she cried the last time she had a trim. When I ask her to come with me she refuses, saying it will be like going to a funeral.

Most people are supportive, if puzzled. The first reaction is, “Why?” Followed by, “You’re so brave. You’ve got such lovely hair.” Then they ask about the cold weather and job interviews until finally they say: “What does your boyfriend think?” My boyfriend is unruffled. Not so his friends. “You don’t let your bird shave her head mate,” says one as he flicks through FHM. “It’s up to you to stop it.”

The truth is shaving my head wasn’t just about curiosity. Rather like dieting and being submissive during sex, having long hair seemed to be sacrificing my own comfort and enjoyment in order to provide pleasure for men. After 10 years of being leered at in the street I was pissed off with conforming for other people’s viewing pleasure. I hoped that shaving my long hair would put an end to being treated as public property.

In addition to this peace of mind I imagined that shaving my head would free up cash and time. I am extremely lazy when it comes to appearance; I don’t own a hair dryer, hair straighteners, or hair serums and sprays. I dispensed with dieting and make up ages ago because I really couldn’t be arsed, and the thought of compromising my comfort with handbags or high heels does not sit well with my inner slob. Consequently I enjoy pushing gender boundaries that seem to be there for no reason other than to waste my time, please men, and profit the fashion industry.

The night before the cut my high-minded ideals vanish and vanity kicks in. I constantly touch my hair and twiddle it around my fingertips. Rather pathetically my biggest concern is looking fatter. It is winter, and I am pale and spotty with chapped lips. I wonder if long hair provides cover for your shit bits.

I consider the gallery of famous shaved heads – Demi Moore, Natalie Portman and Sinead O’Connor. How can I compare to such beauties? Will I be compelled to wear make up or dresses to prevent myself looking like a lesbian or a bloke? I have a penchant for dangly earrings. Will I be forced to wear studs to avoid looking like Pat Butcher? And will my boyfriend still find me attractive?

It is the big day. Streets the Barbers in Truro is packed with men reading Saturday tabloids while waiting for their hair to be cut. I ask the hairdresser to shave my head and her face drops in horror. She asks if I am doing it for charity. When I explain, her reservation soon turns into excitement at the prospect of shaving a woman’s head.

I take one last look at the long hair tumbling around my face and down my back. A pit of fear wells in my stomach. The hairdresser chews through my ponytail with scissors and hands it to me in one piece. What was attached to my head now seems utterly disgusting, like a mangy fox’s tail. There is a funny moment when it is shaved on one side but not the other, and then it is all gone.

I look in the mirror expecting my whole face to morph and transform. The truth is that I look exactly the same. No better, no worse. I don’t look fatter, in fact I probably look thinner. I don’t feel any sense of loss. I don’t feel like crying. I don’t want it all back. I feel a bit silly that I made such a fuss about something so small.

A few hours later it still hasn’t sunk in. I keep trying to tuck my hair behind my ear and realising that it isn’t there any more. There are other strange things to get used to. My hair sticks to the backs of chairs and inside hats like fuzzy felt, and rain on my scalp is a new sensation. It is one of the bitterest Februarys in 10 years and yes, I am cold – especially on my neck.

Friends and family who do not know what I have done are satisfyingly gobsmacked. My ten-year-old niece proclaims: “It is horrible, absolutely awful.” My boyfriend tells me I am amazing and takes to affectionately calling me “Kojak” and “baldy”. Once the initial shock is over, people are very complimentary, telling me that I have a lovely shaped head, good cheekbones, and that it suits me. Of course there are the obvious reactions about illness and lesbianism.
Word gets back to me that people in my office have been asking if I am ill. A colleague looks concerned, and asks: “Are you okay?”

As I suspected, the best thing about short hair is the laziness factor. I don’t have to wash my hair every day. I use the tiniest amount of shampoo and no conditioner. Shower time is cut from 15 minutes to 5. I don’t have to worry about my hair blocking the plughole, getting tangled in my brush or sticking to my coat. I do not have to rearrange it or think about what it is doing. It just is.

My fears about looking fat and hideous prove to be unfounded. Female friends say to me “You can pull it off, but I couldn’t do it. It wouldn’t suit me.” I think this is a cop out. In my experience you look exactly the same with a shaved head as you do with long hair tied back. Last May the Daily Telegraph commented on Natalie Portman’s shaved head, saying that “only a handful of women can pull off the sexy skinhead trick.” That’s because only a handful do it. When do we ever say that a man “can’t get away with it”?

A shaved head doesn’t look as bad as I thought, but also not bad enough. I thought I would feel more in control of my sexuality by being able to put on lipstick or a dress when I want to be sexual but otherwise be able to abdicate from the competition. To my surprise and dismay a shaved head is viewed as a sexy attribute by some men, and not just those who frequent A male colleague says he thinks I am more attractive with a shaved head. In his eyes it is exotic, non-conformist, and more of a challenge. Another male friend says he would assume a woman with a shaved head was a lesbian and therefore a threesome might be on the cards (yeah, right).

I thought that by shaving my head I’d rid myself of unwanted male attention, that I’d become a hideous freak, no longer seen as a sexual being. But shaving my head taught me that you can change your appearance and your own self-image, but you can’t change people’s behaviour. I am not a dictator or hypnotist; if men want to treat me as a two dimensional image then they will. But whatever happens, I’m happy to be rid of my girly long hair. In work meetings and negotiations I feel my shaved head is saying: “Take me seriously. Treat me as a human being.” Now I understand why so many women in powerful positions have short hair.

I didn’t get $50,000 – just a paltry £15 from a wig-making company – but the extra 10 minutes in bed is priceless.

Being a doula

November 9, 2005


When it comes to having a baby, women in the UK increasingly report feeling let down by the NHS. A shortage of midwives who are no longer at liberty to offer consistent emotional support and a rise in caesareans often turns what should be a joyful, positive experience into one of fear, loneliness and vulnerability. And unless you are one of the Paltrows or Beckhams of this world, spending thousand of pounds on a private midwife and birthing clinic is not an option. Faced with this bleak outlook, women are turning to the support of doulas.

Doula is a Greek word meaning servant or care giver, but today refers to someone who supports women throughout pregnancy and childbirth. Unlike midwives, doulas do not offer medical support and do not change shift during labour. Instead they aim to “mother the mother” in much the same way as midwives of hundreds of years ago. They fill the gap of absent female relatives and, in the case of single mothers, partners. Although doulas advocate home-births, they assist in all settings, including hospitals.

Annie Branson, 46, a doula from Chiswick, west London describes her role as a birthing buddy, facilitating the mother’s wishes: “It’s the birth that the mum wants. If the mum suddenly wants to go out in the garden, you all go out into the garden.”
Research shows having a doula reduces the duration of labour, decreases the chance of caesarean section, decreases the need for pain relief, gives partners the confidence to participate and increases the success rate of breast feeding.

Doulas also support the mother before and after the birth. Branson’s typical day could involve making a house call to a mother-to-be, give support and help her draw up a birth plan. She also visits women who have given birth. Branson will do whatever she can to ensure the mother’s wellbeing, whether that is a break from the baby, doing a pile of ironing or offering tea and sympathy. Just by visiting once a week, a doula can reassure new mothers and relieve feelings of isolation, despair and depression.

At some point during the day, Branson may get a call from one of her clients who has gone into labour and will rush to give her support. Reena Hughes is one of Branson’s clients and a full-time mother of two. Branson visits to give her a massage and check how mother and baby are doing six weeks after the birth.

Hughes is smiley and relaxed, and attributes much of her well-being to Branson: “I had a very difficult first birth and then my mum died recently, so I really wanted a support through my second daughter’s birth. Midwives are just interested in progressing the birth, but a doula gives a different kind of support.”

Branson is in agreement: “Looking back I wish I’d had a doula at my birth. My daughter’s dad came, but he passed out. It was awful my birth, that’s probably why I’ve taken the role on because I know how bad it can get.”

Branson has been a doula for nearly a year, has assisted at eight births and currently assists at one birth a month. After A levels in art and cookery, she became a member of in-flight cabin crew, a position she still carries out part-time. After 20 years in the same job, and with 23 year old daughter Sophie no longer at home, she sought the rewards of being a doula.

Branson says: “What better job than bringing new life into the world? It’s a fantastic job really and it’s something I can do until I’m eighty. I love children and I’m a very empathetic hands-on, touchy feely person.”

But being a doula is not for everyone particularly those who are squeamish or put off by blood and bodily fluids. It can also be an exhausting job. Labours last anywhere between three hours and three days, and you have to be awake and supporting at all times.

There is a limit to earnings as doulas cannot take on more than two births a month without risking a clash of births. “It’s not a money making job,” Branson warns. “The mum has got to know that you’re going to be there for her.”

Being a doula is not just about the labour. You effectively have to be on 24 hour call for a period of three weeks. “The thing about being a doula is that it is a commitment,” Branson says. “Once the mum has said I’d like you at my birth, you can not go out and socialise. The baby can arrive two weeks early or two weeks late. For that period you can’t go on holiday or go to party far away. You’ve got to always be a phone call away.”

But for those who chose to become a doula, the job is hugely rewarding and exciting. Many women enjoy being in a nurturing, mothering role after years of being a mother or grandmother and bonding with other women and children.

Having given birth yourself would be an advantage but it is not a requirement, and Branson says there is no reason why a man cannot be a doula. Similarly some women who become doulas already practice as midwives or in some area of complimentary therapy, but again this is optional. Branson emphasises the importance of reassurance: “The biggest thing to have is that empathy with the mum, because you are there as a supporting friend. When it comes to the crunch, she needs you to encourage her and tell her it’s going to be alright.”

How to become a doula

There is no compulsory training to become a doula.
To be recognised by Doula UK it is necessary to undertake a training course.
There are two-day workshops to find out more about being a doula.
There is a choice of four different training courses in the UK recognised by Doula UK lasting several days. See for times and locations.
Training should be continual throughout a doulas career.

Rate of pay
Doulas usually charge between £300 and £600 for a pre-natal and birth support package.
A doula could expect to assist on two births a month.
Post-natal visits are usually charged at £10-15 an hour.

Doula UK
PO Box 26678
London N14 4WB
0871 433 3103

Sexism in surfing

June 24, 2005

Layne Beachley tears it up

When Layne Beachley, six times women’s world champion surfer, became the first woman to enter the Australian Open last year, there was uproar both in the surfing world and the media. Despite insisting that she was competing merely to improve her performance, Beachley found her top male rival, Andy Irons, attacking her in the press and openly worring that his masculinity would be on the line if she beat him. Surfermag, one of the sport’s leading publications, was driven to ask: “Is Layne taking the spot of a more deserving male surfer?”

Women’s professional surfing is a multimillion pound industry with some of the most lucrative merchandising opportunities in the world. According to the British Surfing Association (BSA), the number of amateur female surfers has gone up by more than 300% since 2002, and public interest in female surfing is increasing. Three years ago female surf movie Blue Crush took more than £27.5m at box offices worldwide, while the recent arrival of a new UK magazine, Surfgirl, further underlines a growing trend.

But despite such growth, female surfers continue to face animosity from their male counterparts. Beachley is candid about her experiences. “The guys don’t like to be threatened by a girl,” she says. “Andy piped up the wrong way against a little Aussie golden girl. I’m fortunate that I’m very well supported, and I think his attack was taken quite personally by the Australian public. It just became ridiculous, but it did bring 20,000 people to the beach for 20 minutes – which is an enormous amount of exposure for women’s surfing, or for surfing generally. But as far as the guys were concerned it was just bullshit and they were threatened and they didn’t appreciate the fact that I was there.”

These experiences are replicated on British shores. Tracy Boxall, seven times British champion and BSA world tour coach, runs the Let’s Go Surf Academy in Wales and has been offering women-only surfing week ends for eight years. Boxall has competed against male surfers on several occasions, and in 2000 was placed 5th in the British Men’s Open. “The men have a worry about getting beaten by a girl, but if they’re proper males they wouldn’t worry about it,” she says. “I think it’s fine if they want to mix the competitions: it makes the men work harder and keeps them on their toes.”

To help find women a space in male-infested waters, sportswear manufacturer Ripcurl is running its third annual Girls Go Surfing event this weekend. The event offers women of all ages and abilities the chance to be coached by pro-surfers in an all-female environment. Ten surf schools across the UK – covering Cornwall, Devon, Wales, Bournemouth and Jersey – will offer coaching by qualified surf instructors, and Ripcurl pro surfer Elise Garrigue will also be on hand at Newquay’s Fistral beach.

“A lot of girls are put off surfing because they have to put on a wetsuit and they don’t feel comfortable walking down the beach and getting in the water with a load of guys around,” says James Hendy, Ripcurl’s head of UK marketing. “The whole emphasis of the Girls Go Surfing event and the reason we do it is purely because it is considered a male-oriented sport and we want to give girls the opportunity to surf with a bunch of other girls and not feel shy or embarrassed. Without someone introducing the current top female pro surfers into the sport and having an easy way like the Girls Go Surfing days, then a lot of them probably wouldn’t be where they are now.”

But even if they do manage to reach the world of professional surfing, these women are unlikely to be treated quite so kindly. There are nine events in the year-long women’s World Championship Tour, which came to Perranporth in Cornwall last month and also takes in Australia, Fiji, Tahiti, California and Hawaii. Showcased alongside the competition in Perranporth were female-fronted bands, coaching for women surfers, a surfing event for teenage girls and an auction of artworks made from casts of the surfers’ busts in aid of breast cancer.

Despite this general atmosphere of right-on girl power, however, the loudest statement made by event sponsors was in the pay packets and prize money of the women surfers. Each of the nine events in the women’s WCT carries a first prize of pounds 5,500, with a total purse of £35,750. A pot of cash not to be sniffed
at you might say – yet the men’s WCT is divided into 12 events, each with prizes totalling pounds 150,000 and a first prize of pounds 16,500.

“There’s a huge discrepancy between the men’s and women’s prize money,” says Beachley. “The way the industry has been structured, it’s always been about the men.”

Geoff Sykes, UK marketing manager for Roxy, the women’s brand of surf label

Quiksilver and sponsor of the Perranporth WCT heat, says: “The development of women’s surfing has really come a long way. There never used to be a female tour, it used to be only for the men. The prize money [for men and women] has blown up proportionally – but really the money the girls win on the tour is a little bit of money for their back pocket. They make more of their money through their professional sponsorships and partnerships.”

But inequality also appears in sponsorship deals, with professional female surfers generally earning around half as much as their male counterparts. Is the answer, then, for women to bypass the inequality by competing directly against men and thereby having a chance to win equal prize money?

Hawaiian Rochelle Ballard, ranked No 2 in the WCT, thinks not. “That does not make any sense. Really, what is the point? They’re competing for a world title; we’re competing for a world title. Comparing ourselves is like mixing apples and oranges. It’s the old way of thinking.”

Some believe that the financial inequality reflects the physical limits of the female body compared to the male. In fact, Beachley sees male and female surfing as radically different. “I compare men’s and women’s surfing to lightweight and heavyweight boxing: they’re both the same discipline, but they’re very different and they require two completely different forms of participation. Men have a bigger muscle base and this affects their technique and weight dispersion – they have more power and therefore they can do a lot more. The girls are closing the gap, but the best surfer in the world as a female will never be as good as the male.”

Ballard agrees: “To me, the further away we get from that comparison of men to women and appreciate the elements of feminine and masculine within their own being, that’s when we’ll be able to really enjoy the value of the sport.”

It seems the women can catch the waves and perform the manoeuvres, but they just don’t look as powerful, a quality that is hard to quantify but is at the crux of the judging criteria for professional surfing.

British-based surfer Kay Holt says: “It is about how you look. They say style doesn’t come into it, but I try to surf like a man,” she says. “You have to change your style.

“We’ll never be as strong as a man, but women surfers are probably more graceful,” says Boxall. “As in any sport, men are always stronger than women with the same weight ratio – that’s just part of life. The younger girls are surfing like men, but they’re not as powerful as men.”

So where does the power for change lie? Sponsors could make the prize money
and sponsorship equal across men and women’s surfing, but, instead, marketing budgets are spent on glamorous advertising campaigns. Female clothing advertisements in male surfing magazines are littered with semi-pornographic images, and most of the competitions now feature Miss World-style events as a sideshow. Ripcurl has even organised a “Bikini babes” competition alongside its Boardmaster event this August.

Catherine Higgins, marketing manager of Reef UK, whose advertising almost exclusively features thong and arse shots, says: “The bikini-clad girl is an indelible part of the beach-going experience.”

It seems it is hard for the female surfers to win whether they conform to feminine stereotypes, masculine ones, or neither.

This piece first appeared in the Guardian’s G2 women’s pages