The Burkini: Provocative or Protective?

The whole point of female Islamic dress is modesty; so how come it’s become so trendy all of a sudden

Muslim_woman_in_YemenThe whole reason for the burka, the burkini, niqab etc is that they are items of modesty clothing.  While it is not essentially called for in the Koran, the female  “cover up” has become a strong cultural statement of women in Islam.

But burka wearing has now become quite trendy. I’ve seen black-cloaked women with Liz Taylor make-up, six inch heels and Dior handbags competing with one another for public attention. They may not be showing all their body flesh, but nor are they acting in a demure and restrained fashion.

And where a normal full swimsuit was the standard dress worn before by Muslim women on beaches if they wanted to go swimming to fit in and not attract attention, now a type of 50s style wet suit has been adopted and sexed up for sales as a ‘burkini’.

The other day I was passed on Chiswick High Street by women walking astride each other in full Western gear. The only thing out of the ordinary as they walked towards me was not their shoes and handbags but they were all wearing full black face veils or niqabs with eye slits. I suppose the point of this was to be able to gauge the reactions of passers-by too polite to react. It was a cross between something out of a Stepford-type horror movie and a replay of Riott, the feminists icons of the 1990s who used to shock the establishment by removing all their clothing in churches.  Again the statement they were making was anything but related to restraint and humility.

Pussy_Riot_by_Igor_MukhinVeiling up appears to be no longer about protection against the stares of  muslim males who apparently can’t control their sexual urges at the sight of a bared shoulder.  It is now more about one-upmanship and following fashion!

There is also an element of “slut shaming” in it. As one young woman said to me with real concern,  ‘If you are wearing western summer clothes like a bikini, shorts or a mini skirt you now feel these women are implying by comparison that if you are raped or assault then it’s your own fault.’

That is the disturbing part. Feminism, what are we to do about this one?

To learn more about similar challenges on modern feminism read my book “Moderating Feminism: The Past The Now And What Comes Next”

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Olympic Sexism And How to Deal With It

I’ve just been talking on BBC Newcastle with Anna Foster about the level of sexist reporting at the Olympic Games. There’s been heaps in the papers over the last few days so its been hot topic on Twitter. I agree that to denigrate a woman’s genuine achievement at winning the highest accolade in sport is out of place in today’s world. It’s unfair. It is also faintly ridiculous. Women are doing breathtakingly well on their own merit and deserve all the coverage and respect to mark their special moment in the sun.

However, by over-reacting to ever bit of banter and oafish criticism is probably not the best way to go.  Part of the legacy of an athlete is their ability to focus, to remove themselves from daily distractions and to mentally rise above the common herd.  That’s part of the reason we admire their accomplishments. Its not just that they can run faster, throw further, or tackle someone twice their size on a rugby pitch, but the discipline and stoicism they display is what we crave in our every day lives. Their unruffled demeanor becomes part of their legend. Therefore to complain about some ill-informed sexist reporSEXISM AT THEting could actually do their reputation more damage than to let it roll.

Women are garnering a huge new fan base at the moment because of their superb results and we don’t want to undermine that freshness by entering into the world of PC hypersensitivity over it.

To complain that Jason Kenny didn’t show enough excitement over fiancee Laura Trott’s medal is taking things surely a tad too far.   Surely most of the viewing public would react to the “what’s for tea comment” like I did. Part of their “backstory” is their love affair and the comfortable rhythm they have with one another.  That simple statement said reams, but not reams of sexism.  Just something rather lovely.

And what about the constant reference to swimmer Dana Vollmer being a “new mum”.  Again, not in my book “sexist”,  just fact. I would think there could be nothing more inspirational in this day and age when women are balancing (as they always have done) work and family, to have an example of someone who has achieved just that on the world stage to boot. Well done.

Yes there has been some silly trivial reporting about athletes and make up, but probably much of that flowing from the spirit of the entertainment of the games. The ones that were genuinely sexist don’t dignify writing about.  In fact I would think that the commentators who made them will have suffered far more by their Twitter barrage than the athlete!

Overall the incidents that advanced women’s cause have been many so far. When BBC presenter John Inverdale said to Andy Murray, “You’re the first person to ever win two Olympic tennis gold medals, that’s an extraordinary feat, isn’t it?” and he corrected him by pointing out that Venus and Serena had won about four each, was terrific.  He fought their corner and corrected the huge oversight as so many modern informed men and women do daily in a light and effective way.

I was also struck by just how many happy partnerships or relationships there seem to be in the sporting world which can only be an advantage to being a professional athlete.

Also what a great spirit of camaraderie appears to have been part of these Rio games.  These are the memories to savour and build on and hopefully we will have more  of this to enjoy before the finale.

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The Tenuous Link Between Feminism and Witchcraft

The other day I received word from my daughter in Salem. Of course had it been August 1692 I would have been more concerned. At that time the city was the centre for a series of hearings and prosecutions of those accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts. The trials resulted in the executions of twenty people, fourteen of them women, and all but one by hanging. But of course we’ve come a long way with our views on unorthodox practices in the last 320 years, Brooke was just visiting to research a future film, and the only spells we know between the two of us are of the dizzy variety following a few bottles of prosecco.

However, the witch is apparently the ultimate feminist icon according to an article in the Huffington Post last year. So this raised my curiosity. What on earth is the connection between a faction which seeks equality between men and women and the moon worshipping group of Wicca?

Surprisingly for its world popularity, the spiritual initiative which most people associate with today’s version of Salem thinking, was only created in 1954 by a retired British civil servant named Gerald Gardner. Fresh and sassy, it appealed to a collection of liberal thinkers known as the ‘women’s spirituality’ movement who, understandably because of how they treated women as second class citizens, rejected the established religious orders of the day.

Wicca was wonderful for them. It gave the perfect opportunity to scratch out one set of rules and replace them with others more in line with the goals of women’s liberation. Then when everyone went spiritualist mad in the 1960s and 1970s and the sale of Ouija boards went through the roof, the resurgent feminism movement had found a kindred philosophy. Myths and magic became core to understanding female subjectivity. Non-religious women now could claim the witch as a symbol of their feminist ambitions. It was the perfect community practice, anti-establishmentarianism, anti-Valium (‘Mothers little helper’, the drug all housewives were hooked on) and pro-Verbena, and the only broom they exercised was between their legs.

The new feminist witchcraft became synonymous with inner strong female power, nurturing and caring, and the indisputable authority of the tarot card. To be fair, though, it did give feminine intuition back its legitimacy. Which is where the rub comes in.

Radical feminists have long believed that men are involved in some nefarious plot to undermine and suppress this innate female clairvoyance. Personally, I don’t believe that for a second. If it were so, they would starve. For example, how on earth would men be able to find anything edible when they need it if it is hidden more than two jars back in the fridge?

To read more about the celebrations as well as the inconsistencies of feminism you can download my book Moderating Feminism: The Past The Now and What Comes Next

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William Shakespeare… Sympathetic or Misogynistic?

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‘Taming of the Shrew’ at Victoria Park, Bermuda. Directed by Kelly Johnston

Apparently for freelance theatre directors, the Taming of the Shrew is one of the least liked assignments and one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. This isn’t even a recent change in audience attitude, as more than one hundred years ago, George Bernard Shaw judged it as “disgusting”.  The text and premise is far too provocative for today’s theatre goers and unpalatable for many feminists.

A brief storyline. Petruchio (Maxwell King, very funny) woos headstrong Katherina (Brooke Burfitt, manically brilliant) to tame her until she becomes a compliant and obedient bride.  At the same time there is serious competition between suitors of Katherina’s sweet and compliant sister, Bianca.

We flew from London to see an open-air performance in Victoria Park, Bermuda directed by the formidable Kelly Johnston who’s been doing Shakespeare for twenty-seven years since his Masters at the California Institute of the Arts, through the Sirius Theatre in LA, The Arizona Shakespeare Festival and in umpteen regional theatres around New York, where he now lives. Back home, fellow directors, Alice Mottola and Pitr Strait, are running in Central Park with an all female nude cast of ‘The Tempest’, we were sweltering in the heat and humidity observing a traditional true to the Bard rendition of ‘the Shrew’.  A brilliant, high energy, rollicking performance which had even the youngest children bewitched.

Taming of the Shrew can go down two routes. If it is done “serious”, it’s basically a play about an abused woman.  As a comedy, it is something entirely different – more an ironic take on the male/female relationship.

As a historical exercise it is great this work is still out there, because it is factually based. The play is believed to have been written between 1590 and 1592. At the time, there was in fact quite a bit of feminist activity focused on the dispelling of established thinking that society was founded on the rule of the father. For a nation with a female Queen, women in Elizabethan times had few rights at all.  Only those of noble birth were educated. If a girl did get schooling, she had nowhere to exercise her learning. Women were not allowed to enter the professions. There were no female doctors, lawyers or actresses. This play is obviously inspired by just that predicament. Indeed, that is brought out in the story, as Bianca is wooed by her Latin and music tutors (who are dressed in disguise to court her). Even though Katherine and Bianca’s father, Baptista, educates both his children, the play is very clear that his greatest concern is marrying off his eldest daughter.

So was the Bard actually a feminist trying to help the cause?

Unfortunately some of the lines like the following do incite passions….

PETRUCHIO: She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house, My household stuff, my field, my barn, My horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing; (Act 3, Scene 2)

KATHERINE: I am ashamed that women are so simple, To offer war where they should kneel for peace; Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway, When they are bound to serve, love and obey. (Act 3, Scene 2)

Or is it, as Kelly Johnston suggests in his interpretation a game between men and women. The fascination with it can be reflected in the recent success of Fifty Shades of Grey, which has sold more than 100 million copies. A trilogy based on bondage and servitude. The jury is out.

This has been and always will be a big tongue in cheek. But when you write about something, you don’t necessarily endorse it, so to claim that because of the content of this play the Bard was a beast may not be entirely fair. What do you think?

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The Feminist Conundrum of Mysogyny On The Net

After The Guardian launched a campaign called The Web We Want, in preparation for a conference next month,  it was discovered that of the top 10 most abused accounts on Twitter, eight were women and two were black men.

As women make up the majority of internet users, tend to worry more about what people say about them online than men do, it comes as no surprise that they suffer more from the black web syndrome.  And it’s not just celebrities like  American rapper Azealia Banks, the outspoken columnist Katie Hopkins or the likes of Hillary Clinton getting bulk of the harassment.

When think tank Demos carried out a three-week study in the Spring (they used the words “whore” and “slut” to find these offenders) it turned up with 6,500 users in the UK users had  faced abuse from 10,000 menacing tweets.

Cyber harassment of any form is a serious affair. As the founder of Act Against Bullying I know the consequences on anyone can be life-threatening.

Discussing Internet Abuse With Maria Miller

Me discussing Internet Abuse With Maria Miller MP (right)

However, the investigation coincides with the launch of Reclaim The Internet, a political consultation about the worryingly high levels of misogyny on social media and online. It was spearheaded by a group of female MPs from both the political right and left, namely Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Jess Phillips, former Tory minister Maria Miller and former Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson. The aim of the cross-party campaign is to take down, in particular, women-bashing trolls.

Giving this operation a distinctly feminist overtone, Yvette Cooper explained that the campaign title had been inspired by the Reclaim The Night movement of the 1970s, where women took to the streets to protest violence against women by men.

So while this seems on the surface a worthy cause to bring gender abuse into the 21st century, the news that half of the authors of these “misogynistic tweets” were actually penned by women has rather put a spanner in the works.

What’s to be done about it? Death and rape threats are obviously terrifying. No one, male or female, should have to tolerate such aggression on the net for voicing their opinions in a free speech forum.  The whole ethos of the World Wide Web was positive and educational, not the opposite.

Sure, it would be good to get something done. However, the success of the operation will also depend on finding an answer to the conundrum of what to do when it’s not actually online sexism that is the problem, i.e. men against women or vice versa, but something far more complex and less politically convenient.

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Why Feminism Must Not Forget The Other Side

Feminism has achieved a lot a good things for girls. It’s gone far beyond just getting the vote and property rights. Women now outnumber men in the UK in almost two-thirds of degree subjects, and, according to university admissions service UCAS, the gender gap in British universities has almost doubled in size since 2007.

There are more women in formal paid work today than at any point in history, making up 40% of the global formal labour force. While wage parity is still an issue, it is nothing like what it used to be.

Equality and feminism has meant more awareness and sympathy for the difficulties of just being female. Issues like FGM are up on the radar, along with patriarchal injustices such as child marriage and honour killing.

But why did we want all this in the first place? Just to earn more money, to be independent or get acknowledgement for the part we have played and will play in scientific research? No. We wanted it because we believed that a woman possesses a  compassionate, conflict-avoiding nature which serves to counterbalance the “yang” male energies. We needed feminism because of human decency, and the belief that raising women from a position of inequality to one of equality with men would allow a fresh evaluation of what is right and proper between the genders.

So what about boys? While sexual harassment of women receives media validation, when it is against men it is often not taken that seriously. The same applies to domestic violence. While self esteem issues like anorexia and bulimia are now being addressed, less is known about male eating disorders.

Elliott Johnson took his life after complaining of bullying The rate of male suicides in the UK has increased in 2013, with the level among males its highest since 2001. Suicide remains the leading cause of death for men between 20 and 34 in England and Wales, representing 24% of all deaths in 2013, and for men aged 35-49, at 13% of deaths.

Where girls suffer from body image anxiety and expectations of perfection, so do boys agonise over late physical development, and the need to be accepted by their peer group or into their chosen “community”. When they don’t make the cut, buck the system or complain, they too get marginalised. If boys are not macho enough (football, rugby, sales, knock-on bullying) then they feel there is no one to turn to.

Prof Louis Appleby, the chair of the National Suicide Prevention Advisory Group in England, said: “Men are more at risk of suicide because they are more likely to drink heavily, use self-harm methods that are more often fatal and are reluctant to seek help.”

If we are talking about equality between the sexes then surely we have to acknowledge our responsibility to vulnerable males as well as females. The recent high profile cases such as the suicide of political activist  Elliott Johnson  and the four young people from  Deepcut Army Barracks  in the 1990s are examples of how much pressure they are under when they first leave school or university. As someone who set up an anti-bullying charity sixteen years ago I have had sufficient experience to know the following: Girls get bullied by other girls, and harassed and intimidated by boys, but boys too get bullied by other boys and harassed and intimidated by the opposite sex.

Has the feminism movement now become so focused on the victimisation of women that we cannot conceive of needing to take positive action to secure some help too for boys?

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Hillary Clinton Employs Some Common Sense Feminism

Hillary Clinton employs some common sense feminism

Hillary Clinton employs some common sense feminism

Its ironic that the icons of women’s liberation are often those who personify the very opposite of what was originally intended, in that they represent chained-to-the-home domesticity: our own mothers. As I wrote on this blog a couple of years ago,  if you ask young women in particular who their pin up is, Mum always gets a mention.

Unsurprisingly, really. It is  someone who has invested unstintingly  on a daily basis, for free, has been loyal, steadfast and used her common sense to get by. Someone she has seen celebrating small achievements while at the same time countering ageism, sexism, and ever other “ism” of today’s world.  It’s also a “real” person who she has seen in private scrimping and primping with very little, while publicly “keeping mum” so as to reflect the best she can. This is usually carried out for quite unselfish reasons,  to dignify  family values and to help her children get ahead in an increasingly competitive world.

The “Who do you admire most?” question usually gets a completely different answer if asked of a man. It probably says more about the difference between the sexes (which I think is vital) than anything else. Probably there for a very good reason.

It seems Hillary Clinton’s fits that pattern too. Just after being nominated the first woman American presidential nominee, she was asked by Gail Collins of The New York: If she could go back in time to tell someone that a woman has been nominated for president, who would it be? Clinton said it would be her mother, Dorothy Howell, who as an unwanted child, had been sent west sent at age 8 with her younger sister, Isabella, to be raised by relatives.

Whether the response was just for political effect or not, (probably been scrutinised so as not to single out any other  public figure) it was poignant and won my admiration.

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