The very act of walking as a woman…

This week has been a tough one for a lot of reasons. This year has been tough. So let me start by saying that I know my privilege.

I am white. I live in a country where I got a almost free university education. I have a job. I have a driving license. And I own a wee car.

I grew up in a city. Not in the suburbs but right in the city. Until I was 14, I was walking distance from a theatre, department stores, the city’s main train station, bus station, a football stadium, a waste disposal plant…

I was the child of a single parent.

My stair was generally full of lovely neighbours who had lived there for longer than I. An elderly couple across from us. Various people on the top floor. A retired lady and her adult daughter underneath us.

My friend and I first had a taste of ‘stranger danger’ when we were very young. Somewhere between 6 and 8. We were playing in a council car park on our street which was empty at weekends. A man offered us ‘sweets’ from a matchbox. We said no and ran to her house and told her Mum.

Police were regular visitors to our stair, as men…mostly ‘professionals’ we found out later who took fun after football games going down the streets and smashing car windows, slashing tyres. So our rusty fiesta would be one of the victims every few months. Until they caught about 30 of them in a furniture store car park along the road from us one night.

I remember being in primary school when a man was trying to beat up (we assumed his partner) after they got into a screaming argument. My Mum was about to call the police when the lesbian couple who lived in one of the flats in a stair along from us came out and pulled the guy off her in no time.

A new couple moved in above us at some point. They would often get drunk and we would hear them running about laughing. And then something would smash. The laughing would stop, and we would hear hitting and punching. The police would come. We would see black eyes hidden behind sunglasses.

My Mum remarried, and it meant we could move to a bigger place so my brothers wouldn’t have to sleep in the living room when they came to stay, and we could get a table big enough for all 5 of us to all sit around. And it meant we could move to a better school catchment area. However, to do this afforably we had to get a very much falling apart place that it took us 3 years as a family to refurbish (doing most of it ourselves). My first 2-3 years of high school I had a long walk to school.

I could take the shorter route, down the path through a park and on an old railway path with bushes often littered with glass bottles, glue and needles inside them. My Mum didn’t like me going that way (especially on winter mornings) because it was not busy.

So I took the longer route down a main road to a crossroads and up another main road to get to a park where it would be busy with 100s of students making their way to the high school on the other side. Until one morning a man came out from a car and asked if I would help him find a buzzer to a flat, telling me he couldn’t read the names on the buzzer as he had forgotten his glasses.

It was 8 am. It was daylight. Cars were going by. But there weren’t many people. The crossroads had some walled car parks where there were garages and bigger retail outlets (your electronics, carpet stores, tyre places) none of which were open yet.

He was persistent. There was no one else around.

I refused to go in the doorway kept my distance and watch on him and pretended to look and then walked as fast as I could without seeming like I was running away scared.

From that day on, unless I could meet a friend at the crossroads, I went along the pathway. It somehow felt safer even though it was legitimately exactly the kind of place you’d imagine being where a dead body might be found.

I travelled on my own on buses. Several times I stood in bus stops where people came to smash them up. One afternoon while travelling on a bus to a dance class a brick came through the window. The bus went through the red light district and I often saw the female sex workers, and skeezy men in the cars picking them up. I also learned where to sit on the bus and saw men leering and making inappropriate comments to other women, and sometimes to me.

I was taught what ‘saunas’ and ‘beauty salons’ were actually brothels so I knew not to go near them. I knew which pubs to keep a wide berth from. I was taught to dress ‘appropriately’. When we started going ‘up town’ our parents would give us money to share a taxi, and we would plan our route so that two of us would be pretty much dropped off together. We learned to take note of the taxi number. And when we got mobile phones, we would even call one of our Mums to tell them we were in the taxi, what the number of the taxi was and where we were and how long we’d be. So the driver would hear.

When I was 16 my friend who lived in the suburbs came to stay at my house after we’d been in town. It was Saturday night and the taxi queue was long so we decided to walk home…on the main roads. We were 15 minutes from my home when a man started following us, slightly drunk cat calling. My friend from the suburbs was freaking out, she had never experienced it. My Mum had taught me from a young age what to do. So we crossed the road, I knew which parts of the street had places we could more easily be dragged into. My friend started shrieking at him to leave us alone. I told her loudly how we were almost there at ‘XXXs house’ (we weren’t) and went to go into a residential street. I got my phone out to call the police. He shouted obscenities angry and went off in another different direction. My friend burst into tears.

When we went on holiday with her family, a man stood in the street at 3 pm in the afternoon masturbating in front of us, hands down his pants as we walked down the road to the beach.

One night her holiday boyfriend insisted his friend come to the local bar with us, and then his friend kissed me and groped at me. He was bigger than me and I couldn’t get him off me. My friend saw downed her drink and dragged me out of there. Then her boyfriend tried to come into our apartment. We were pretty sure the reason why. We didn’t let him, so he dumped her. A few nights later he had a new ‘girlfriend’.

On my 16th birthday it was the last day of term so I wore my new vest top and a small cardigan over the top. Lots of us didn’t bother wearing uniform on the last day of term and teachers rarely bothered to give us punishments on the last day. One of my male classmates called out ‘Whoa! you’ve got boobs!’ I looked at him. And just said ‘Yes, I’m a girl. I’ve had them for a while now’. He genuinely meant it as a compliment, and the reason for his shock was that usually I wore baggy blouses or an oversized school sweatshirts or oversized sports jackets over my uniform. A lot of my male friends ‘complained’ that I didn’t flaunt my ‘assets’ (which were sizable F cups by then).

At university, I lost track of how many men thought it was fine to grab onto my ass or start trying to put their hands up my top in night clubs. I was very lucky I had 3 ‘big brothers’ who looked out for me. My tall rugby player friend insisted on walking me to my friend’s 21st Hawaiian themed birthday from the bus stop before heading back to the student union bar because he was worried I might get attacked by someone in the 5 minute walk.

A year later, on Hallowe’en, while I was working in my job as a night club bartender, my friend got assaulted on the 2 minute walk from our flat to her flat right in front of a church. She managed to fight them off. One of the first questions my fellow staff asked when I explained why I was upset 2 days later was ‘Was she dressed in a costume?’ like it was her fault for dressing up for Hallowe’en.

A week earlier, the regional manager of the company that own the nightclub and 2 bars in the city came to visit and called me into the manager’s office. He asked if I could possible unbutton my uniform shirt more to help ‘sell more drinks’. I stood there in shock. I told him no. I stopped getting as many shifts, and I needed the money. So I’d agreed to cover Hallowe’en. I felt guilty that my friend had been assaulted. If I hadn’t agreed to do the Hallowe’en shift we would have been out together and my flatmate and I would have walked her to her flat, because the 2 of us could have walked back to the same flat after. I quit my job.

Within 6 weeks of my friend being attacked, a male friend got jumped while cycling through the city centre and assaulted. Another male friend got mugged. A female friend had someone jump in her car and held at knifepoint until she went to a cash machine to give him money.

When I got my first youth work job, we were given panic alarms.

One night a male friend got drunk so I made sure he got home safely. He tried to pull me into his bed. Thankfully yelling at him made him realise that his behaviour was inappropriate.

Twice men tried to get into my car while driving in city centres. Each time I had someone in the car with me so I felt less scared. I learned to make sure to lock the doors as soon as I got in, just in case.

For several years I’ve had to do regular trips to London for work. I’ve had my fair share in the evenings of interesting encounters most of them being anecdotes I laughed about but the only time I felt threatened was not at 9 pm from the guy who begged me for money as he had got so drunk he had lost his oyster card, it was at 6 pm on a summers evening when they had put me in a hotel outside of central london in a more residential area. Two guys started catcalling me and shouting offensive stuff at me because I had been visibly disgusted by them spitting in the street. They followed me until I pretended to go in a street towards a tube station that was thankfully busy it being the end of rush hour.

One night on a bus a man started cat calling a girl a little younger than me. She was visibly scared, and other passengers did nothing. He went to spit at her, and she moved shrieking. He then moved seats to regain his closeness. So I moved to sit on the aisle seat next to her window one. A female passenger started calling to the driver to do something. I told him to leave her alone and then a guy finally stood up when he started having a go at me, and Mr Skeezy man went to punch the guy in the face. Only then did the driver stop, pull over and call the police. I stayed with the girl as the driver and some passengers pulled the guy off the bus and the driver locked the doors as the man started kicking the door and windows of the bus yelling at the driver to let him back on. The girl was shaking and crying. She thanked me for moving to sit next to her.

One of my boyfriends thought it would be funny to pin me to the floor showing how he was stronger (ha, ha, ha) while I screamed at him to get off me and went into a panic attack. He laughed. Until I managed to get an arm out and slapped him across the face. Only then did he unpin me. He looked at me shocked and ran out. He made out that I’d attacked him and been violent. He manipulated me into apologising to him for not being able to take his ‘joke’.

Another boyfriend got mugged one night, having just moved to a new city. He got jumped from behind. He was too embarrassed to go to the police.

Most of the women I know who have been sexually abused, raped or sexually assaulted – it’s been by people they knew and not at night. They’ve told people and not been believed because ‘those boys/men’ are good people, and it’s been assumed they led said man/boy on.

I purposefully get to know my neighbours in the hope that if something happens to me or I go missing, they’d notice and help me be found. I keep my phone by my bed in case someone breaks in during the night so I can quickly phone the police.

I will go out of my way to give friends or colleagues a lift home when it’s dark outside.

During the times in my life when I’ve lived in less desirable neighbourhoods or had to walk home from somewhere alone at night, I’ve called a friend and given a loud running commentary sharing my location so if anyone is trying to sneak attack me they are aware that someone knows exactly where I am. And also so my friend can call 999 and tell the police exactly where Iast was.

I used to choose my bus routes carefully knowing which routes were more likely to have someone on the bus that would give me hassle or creep me out.

Remember my 3 big brothers at university? All 3 of them are straight men, and you know when I got sick one of them slept in my room to make sure I was ok. When some of my fellow halls mates got drunk (one of started stripping off in front of them and everyone else with her door wide open as she got changed into pyjamas one time), they never took advantage. They were respectful. And trust me, they saw us in mini skirts. They saw our underwear. Two of them did end up dating one each of my hall-mates. In fact one of them is now married to the ‘hall-mate’ they got to know through me. So I know that guys can control themselves and it has got squat to do with our bodies and what we wear.

You might notice that through these memories I’ve shared (and there are those I’ve chosen not to share) they’ve not all been female. Because the whole issue of violence and safety at night – there’s plenty of guys who are just as much at risk…from other guys. Especially if they are part of the LGBTQ+ or seen as ‘different’.

It starts at school, with a tolerance for teasing and bullying, it starts at home with us overhearing the opinions of parents as they judge others. It begins with us thinking it unacceptable for boys to like to dance, wear dresses or pink. It begins with expecting that boys will be messy and girls will be neat. It begins with us showing on TV that men are the ones we should listen to – our politicians are men. Our news readers. The sports games we show. Who has power in the courts. Who is policing our neighbourhoods. When our economy is built on the free labour of women, and our systems give more power to the perpetrators and leave victims wondering if they’d be better off with their abusers so at least they have food and shelter.

This did not begin with Sarah Everard.

And the Black Lives Matter movement did not begin with George Floyd.

But are you listening? Are you willing to piss off your mates by pulling them up when they laugh about a girls’ tits, or think that it’s ok to grope a woman on the dance floor, or try to show you the violent porn on their phone? Are you willing to not police what your daughter wears any more than you would your son, and not make jokes that your daughter can’t date until she’s 30 while high fiving your 15 year old for getting his first kiss? Will you show in your actions that learning how to clean a bathroom, do laundry, cook meals, wash dishes is the work of all genders. And will you not be afraid of your friend, child or family member being gay, bi, non-binary, trans…because love is just love. Love is caring. Will you believe someone when they report assault? Will you make sure the first question isn’t ‘what were they wearing/doing/why were they there?’ when you find out when someone is attacked but instead ask ‘why did the attacker think that was ok?’

Will you show up to ask your politicians why Breonna Taylor’s killers walked free? Why police thought it was ok to arrest women protesting without violence? Why it is that a domestic abuse victim has to leave, but the abuser gets to stay in their home?

Listen to the women. Listen to people who have experienced racism. Learn. Go research.

Then do the work. It’s going to be exhausting.

But with any luck, the next generation are going to be looking back at us saying how they can’t believe the attitudes, laws and policies we once had.

It will seem like madness.

Because it is.

Happy or Despairing? My thoughts on how to be a good citizen after the election.

Some friends have woken up this morning feeling happy with the result. Others are feeling sickened, anxious, disappointed, fearful and hopeless. Some are feeling happy with the overall result but didn’t get the MP they voted for. Others are in the latter category but did get an MP that they voted for. Some felt pushed into voting contrary to where they wished to put that cross knowing that their vote was needed in a different box to have the best chance of the future they wanted for the country.

Regardless of where you fit in, here are some actions you might like to take depending on your thoughts and circumstances.

1. If you feel frustrated because you had to vote tactically or felt there was no point in going to the polling station at all yesterday. Follow the Electoral Reform Society, sign their petitions so that people’s votes count more than they do currently.

https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/

There is a petition specifically about the First Past the Post system in the UK. The representation in Parliament today is not at all reflective of how people voted.

2. If you feel strongly about making radical moves to change the outcome next time – join the party that you feel most represents your views, so you have the power to make change in your local constituency and who leads that party.

3. Even if the MP you got isn’t the one you voted for, they work for you now. It is up to you to hold your MP to account for the next 5 years. Follow them on social media so you know what work they are/are not doing. Write to them. Tweet them. Make sure they turn up for your community.

www.theyworkforyou.com

4. Don’t blindly follow headlines, check them out. If you are wondering why your friends are getting angry about what you are posting, check if your facts are straight. Chances are the messaging you’ve got from newspapers, news channels, sponsored ads and campaign leaflets is misleading if you don’t read the fine print or understand what is actually causing the issues you feel passionate about.

https://fullfact.org/

5. Speak to your local councillors to make sure that your local authority is funding community learning programmes and libraries. They are needed more than ever before. The rich, elite and powerful benefit from people staying ignorant and being easily led or feeling like there is no point in turning up to vote. Community Learning and Development work helps prevent crime, bridges divisions, get people out of poverty and improve health of everyone from babies to the elderly.

6. Wish you could give more tax to increase access to university so that we could train more nurses, paramedics, doctors, pay for people’s pensions so they aren’t going to work until they drop dead, or so that kids don’t go hungry?

Set up a £1 (or more) direct debit or payroll giving to charities that are already struggling to fill the gap of need, that is likely going to increase even more over the next 5 years. A teeny donation every month could make a huge difference to them.

    • The Trussell Trust – have set up their network of foodbanks in a way that if we eventually have less need of them, they can reduce the number in a way that still means that no matter where people live there’ll be access to a foodbank that can help
    • Refuge (England and Wales only), Women’s Aid, Mankind, Shelter – all charities that will help people who may become homeless or flee domestic abuse.
    • British Red Cross – continually they fill in gaps of healthcare services from renting wheelchairs, transporting patients for hospital treatments and appointments, providing help during emergency situations like floods and snowstorms, helping refugees and asylum seekers find missing family members and so much more.
    • Book Trust/Scottish Book Trust – Reading, storytelling has possibly never been more important to reeducate and empower.
    • Any healthcare charities – From working with one, I can tell you that we are all struggling to find funding to keep services going as the government funding for projects and services we provide is no longer there from Department of Health, and the needs have increased so much more.
    • Your local universities – particularly in England and Wales. If they have scholarship funds you can donate to, do it. One of the reasons the NHS is struggling is that they cannot recruit more healthcare staff. Many people can no longer afford to access university education because of high tuition fees and lack of grants/bursaries.

Oh, and one last thing – if you are confused by the header image, this is from when I was doing a 2 week long Erasmus intensive programme in Wurzburg, Germany. There were local elections happening at the time, and we found the fact that candidate’s faces were on the posters funny. A few friends from the course stumbled across a candidate that they thought looked like me and insisted I get my picture taken with one of her posters. Please know that I am not, don’t plan on or have ever ran for election as a politician. Other than class rep for my primary school council when I was 8/9! 🙂

A TMI warning comes with this post…

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10 years ago I summoned the courage to go on an international flight again (and 2 domestic ones) to travel to Durban, South Africa to visit, learn from and help out with a project being organised by the incredible community centre Seed of Hope.

However, 10 years ago I was also regularly struggling with the pain of what a doctor suspected was endometriosis. The downside of living in a country where you only get healthcare that is absolutely needed is that because I was single, not planning on having children in the near future or at death’s door it was decided that surgery to confirm this would not be done, and instead they would treat the symptoms with medication and not confirm the cause. Doctors had prescribed many things over the years from painkillers that made my nosebleed, painkillers that made me sick to vitamin tablets to various hormone pills that were meant to regulate and lessen but rather made me suicidal, depressed, enraged and in one case brought on an onset of dyspraxia. My friend may still remember the night I called her crying because I could no longer had the coordination to pick up, hold or peel a banana. To her credit, she responded by coming round to my flat, asking if I still wanted a banana, taking the bananas off me and peeling it for me. Then she watched as I – the one who friends had made a mission to find a film that would make me cry (nope, not even The Notebook worked) – sobbed at an episode of Friends because Chandler was talking to his bunny slippers.

Other friends witnessed the effects of Laurie on that particular drug and bless them, only after I came off it did they inform me how scary it was to watch how it changed me. We all agreed I should never take it ever again. And it was why when a GP handed me a prescription a year later with a brand that seemed suspiciously similar that I questioned him on it ‘Is this xxxx?’ and he categorically told me it was not, that the mistrusting part of me went to my Junior Doctor friend’s flat and asked to look through her copy of the BNF to check. I was right. He was either ignorant or blatantly lied to his patient because he thought he knew better and didn’t want to discuss with me why he thought I was wrong to ask never to be given that drug again.

I wish I’d made a complaint, but instead chose to ask the receptionist not to give me appointments with that particular doctor.

Part of the problem is that women’s health is under researched, under resourced and people aren’t very knowledgable about it. Not even doctors who deal with it on a daily basis.

Over the years, I’ve relied on online community for advice and my own gut instincts to refuse treatments or ask for others. I’ve also like many women, given up on advocating myself until I’ve got to a point where friends and family have begged me to try again because they can’t bear to watch me in pain any longer. It takes a lot of emotional energy to keep fighting your corner, and when most of your life is trying to continue as normal and pretend you’re fine your energy tank gets depleted pretty quickly.

So for 10 years I got injections. Injections that in the last 2 years I began to question getting. That my nurses thought it was strange I was still getting without any doctor follow up. They just churned out prescriptions without even seeing me in person. Eventually because I was concerned about some changes in my body, plus the return of the pain on a more regular basis, I asked to an appointment with my GP. The end result was them saying to keep getting those injections until I turned 40. Then we would scan my bones to see if there was any long-term damage.

As the months went on, I just had that niggling discomfort with what the GP had said. The things my body has been doing I’m sure aren’t normal for a 34 year old. And I felt they had just been glossed over.

And so this Christmas I made a decision. A scary one. I wouldn’t go back to the nurse for another injection.

It means at some point, my body should bleed again. And I’m willing to take that risk of suffering all that used to come with that. Pain. Anaemia. Because the hair loss, the weight gain, the pain in my joints, he twisting and stabbing in my lower abdomen bothers me. It is surely not normal for hair loss to begin at 26.

There is a part of me hoping that the weight gained will be lost, the hair lost will start to grow back and that perhaps all the depression and anxiety will level out because perhaps the major wobbles I’ve had in the last few years are actually due to hormone imbalance caused by these injections like the pills they gave me before.

Or maybe I’ll discover that life on injections is preferable than one without them.

Who knows. All I know is that even though I’m nervous as I wait to see what my body will do, I’m glad for it to be MY choice.

The one where I protest…again…

Last week, I posted a Flashback Friday from 2009 where I quoted lyrics from a NOFX song. The first part of that song goes like this

First they put away the dealers,
keep our kids safe and off the street.
Then they put away the prostitutes,
keep married men cloistered at home.

Then they shooed away the bums,
then they beat and bashed the queers,
turned away asylum-seekers,
fed us suspicions and fears.
We didn’t raise our voice,
we didn’t make a fuss.
It’s funny there was no one left to notice
when they came for us.

Yesterday I finished work to discover that yet another executive order had been signed by the President of the United States of America. One banning anyone born in a certain select number of countries from entering the United States of America. He says this is about the war on terror. To me, the tyrant is him. Some people laughed and shrugged off when I said that Donald Trump was following in the footsteps of Hitler. It’s now really not funny and not a joke. My own Prime Minister is in the USA on a state visit, and I am ashamed of her for not standing up and openly and publicly criticising some of these orders he has signed in the last week. Especially one that targets a specific religious group.

I don’t care whether you voted Republican or not. I do care if you do something about these awful acts now – before you become the people that our children and grandchildren around the world look at and go “How could people support such a terrible man?”

It is no shock to me that one of the world leaders on the phone reminding POTUS that what he has done is against the Geneva Convention is the leader of Germany (Go Angela Merkel!). All children who go through state school education in Germany are taught about their history and how it all happened. A huge element of recovering after World War 2 in Germany was community development through re-education. Both the catholic and protestant churches set up organisations to enable people to travel and learn to enable this process.

Today, myself and more than half a million of my fellow residents and citizens in the UK are asking our government to take a stand by not allowing POTUS a state visit while this despicable order – which has had US residents arrested at airports, prevented asylum seekers seeking refuge and more – is in place. Many of us will be taking to the streets for a 2nd or 3rd time since 20th January to protest, raise our voices and show that we stand with our friends who are most affected by this. I’ve been writing to my political representatives to ask them to stand against hate and racism. I’m considering writing to key Republicans, POTUS, and VPOTUS (because only a year ago he expressed condemnation for a ban such as this one).

This morning, I rode the bus listening to songs about Jesus. And I thought…Jesus said when we let a stranger into our home, we welcome him. Jesus stood up against the leaders when they stigmatised and oppressed certain people. He talked to the Samaritans, the poor, the sick, the prostitutes. He was himself a refugee, along with his parents.

Think about that. Then think about how your country’s leaders speak of the people that Jesus loves and asks us to love and care for.

 The petition for any UK citizens or residents to sign campaigning for POTUS to banned from  a state visit is here. approx. 41,000 people have signed it just while I’ve been writing this post. One of my American friends who lives and works in D.C. is currently outside the White House with others protesting. There is a protest organised in Edinburgh tomorrow evening, and one in London next Saturday.

I hope I will never become apathetic so that love continues to win over hate.

The one where I ponder what we remember…

It’s been a terrible year. I was really sad to hear from my sister how the hate and incresingly right wing politics is spreading to Austria, and well…I think you’d have to be living in a cave not to know about what my friends in America have just gone through. I know a lot of people have complained about people protesting and holding rallies and vigils. Freedom is not guaranteed, and the things that the American President-Elect has promised to do is basically take away a lot of liberties from particular groups of people. There are already signs that WILL happen based on people he’s putting into office, so I think that people are right to be worried and use their voices. Not only that, for those who are genuinely afraid because of the awful things he has directed at them (or people that represent them), I hope it’s an encouragement to see that people are proactively saying what my Canadian-American friend has said in response to the events of this week:

I love you if you are Muslim. I love you if you are Black. I love you if you are Hispanic. I love you if you are gay. I love you if you are disabled. I love you if you are the victim of sexual assault. I love you if you are poor. I love you no matter what and will fight for you no matter what. 

And if he builds a wall, I will raise my children to tear it down.

It seems pertinent that on this week we have had the anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down and Armistice – a day we remember a ridiculous war that many young boys were cajoled into signing up for because they’d be ‘home by Christmas’. That was  followed by another world war that was started by a ridiculous politician that no one took seriously or thought would become their country’s leader. When he did he worked to  make people suspicious of people of a certain religion through media propaganda, and had the power to take full advantage of the groundwork laid.

On anniversaries, we pause to take stock. And remember.
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Remembrance Sunday has always meant something to me because my grandparents lived through it. My grandfathers fought in the army and navy during World War 2. My great-great- grandfather died tragically along with many others coming home from WW1 leaving his daughter (my great-grandmother) an orphan.

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My great-great-grandfather who died on New Year’s Morning 1919 during the sinking of the H.M.Y. Iolaire

But now I wonder, as I look around and see history repeating itself, and many friends and family members getting annoyed by people getting angry about it are sticking their heads in the sand. “It’s not that bad…?” they say. These wars did not begin with a world leader suddenly dropping a bomb one day. The holocaust didn’t just start one day with no warning. Countries refused to accept refugees for the same reasons we are hearing now. Mussolini announced when he was running for leader of Italy that it should be Italians first, and he would make Italy great again. We were down with slavery – we built our cities on it. We have people on our banknotes that were pro-slavery. We took over countries, and made them fight in our wars…and we don’t see anything about it on much of our ‘Remembrance Day’ documentaries.

Have we focused so much on teaching our children in schools about the events of the war – trenches, concentration camps, bomb sirens, evacuees – that we forgot to explain how these country’s leaders got away with starting the regimes that we ended up fighting against in the first place? How much do we white-wash our history – and what effect does this have on our indifference to others?

History teaches us that freedom is not guaranteed. We take over countries. We kidnap people. We teach people that they are less human. We feed people stereotypes so that they fear ‘the other’. We arrest people for no reason because we have a badge. We make out that our God is someone He is not and that they’d want us to vote for a particular person who favours us over ‘the others’ or kill those who aren’t like us. We segregate our schools. Our hospitals. Our beaches. Our neighbourhoods. We keep people who look like our decided ‘ideal’ in books, TV, film, plays in..and if the others are in they are portrayed as the ‘baddies’ or stupid.

The little things do matter.

And so because the little things do matter, when we all do our little bit, and stand up where we see even the small injustices and misrepresentations…it all helps the bigger picture.

When we know our God is about love, and that His son was a Palestinian Jew, and once a refugee fleeing genocide. When we see all of life in all its colour in our books, our TV shows, news casts, films and theatre productions. When we teach all of history – not just the bits that show certain figures demonised or perfected. Perhaps then we all come to the table with a better grip on reality, less patriotism and more humility – no matter where we come from.

And perhaps we’ll be more on our guard and ready to organise…to prevent such atrocities like slavery, the holocaust, genocides, apartheid…from happening again.

 

The one where I have a rant about sexism in sport…

I grew up with a Dad who worked in football. I was the first female born into the family in quite a number of years, and the boys – well they were introduced to football from an early age. Like most kids, I wanted to be just like my Daddy – and that meant I wanted to play football.

When I got to primary school, the boys in the playground told me and my friend Tracey (who was probably the best at sports out of anyone in our class -male or female) that we couldn’t play football with them because we were girls. Kids will be kids, and we were mostly at that stage were the other sex is apparently ‘gross’ and ‘icky’. But the main injustice that sparked for me was when I was around 7 (I think) and our primary school teacher announced that our school was starting our first sports team – a football team! I was sooo excited. And then I got told I wasn’t allowed to join because it was only for the boys.

Yes folks.

Our school only provided a sports team for boys to join, but nothing for the girls.

That may have been when I started campaigning for a pupil council so we could change things like that. Sadly, the ‘boys only’ football team remained so while I was there. The same happened in high school. There was a rugby team for the boys, a hockey team for the girls. About a year into high school they introduced a football team – only for the boys. Despite the fact we had some talented female football players in my school (one of them was in my class – even the boys wanted her on their team during the football module of the hideous compulsory P.E. lessons I endured for four years of high school).

Like what the actual ding dong heck?! This was the 90s people. Hadn’t feminism already been through a few waves by this point?

People have asked me once again during this Olympics – “Laurie, how do you know so much about gymnastics?” They assume I grew up a gymnast.

I’ve never done gymnastics in my life.

I mean, I had a few lessons as part of P.E. at school which involved doing forward and backward rolls, attempting handstands and I think at one point trying to somersault through the air and landing on a crash mat. But I was pretty terrible.

But I fell in awe of gymnastics at the 1996 Olympics. They could do all the things I couldn’t as well as dance. Only throughout the year, it was hard to find coverage of the competitions.

Over the years I’ve been disappointed with the lack of coverage. One year just before one of the British gymnasts won a Bronze medal at the European Championships, the tv coverage suddenly stopped halfway through her routine and switched to a football pundit show. I, along with the British Gymnastics community were spitting mad (especially when it turned out we missed watching a medal performance from one of our country’s gymnasts!)

And so I’ve been the one trying to find live feeds online, befriending sports journalists attending competitions, hounding them for updates and scores and details. When there’s a great achievement it rarely makes the sports homepages, and definitely not the back page of the papers along with the rest of a few select sports where only the men who compete get reported on.

That is annoying enough.

But then there is the sexism. Whether it’s journalists and commentators who simply haven’t done their homework or commentators who spend their time making comments about how a woman athlete is looking or referring to her as a ‘girl’ or ‘lady’ (have you ever heard a male footballer being referred to as a ‘gentleman’ while he is on the pitch?). The 19 year old gymnast is ‘so cute’. The six time gold medallist who hasn’t quite taken in what just happened is described as looking to his four time gold medallist fiancee “wondering what’s for tea”. Apparently women don’t want to win enough if they are having to pose for pictures with toothpaste because that company is giving her an endorsement. Which is weird, because I’m sure I saw two time Gold medallist man gymnast posing with a car on instagram, and it didn’t seem to affect  his performances. And man, that running guy (what’s his name again? 😉 ) he seemed to be on my TV a lot trying to get me to switch broadband companies, and seems to pose for a lot of pics – even taking pictures of his mates with journalists’ cameras during the Olympics – but I think he just defended his Olympic title too.

What is most annoying is the people that argue that “well, they didn’t mean to be sexist”. Well perhaps the woman who wrote about how difficult she found it when her white daughter brought home her black boyfriend “didn’t mean to be racist”. But it doesn’t take away from the fact…IT IS.

And we need to address it. Because it starts with a comment…and some cat calling…then turning a blind eye to women getting groped on public transport..and it can lead to us growing adults who believe it’s ok for men to rape a woman because marriage means sex on demand.

So back to that question everyone keeps asking me: why do I know so much about gymnastics? Because in the lead up to London 2012, I made a concerted effort to do everything I could to give the journalists and spectators some background on the amazing stars we had that nobody else had been watching in the previous four years. Kohei Uchimura, the best male gymnast that’s ever lived. Oksana Chusovitina, who won medals before most of her competitors were born. The British men’s team that everyone had assumed wouldn’t have a chance to place in the medals. So I created their wikipedia pages, updated ones that already existed – and with others created medal tables and stats so that people could easily look back and know if someone had won 3 consecutive All-Around Golds before with just a few clicks.

It’s also why I wanted to make sure at the end of my placement last year, all four of our heroines had their own wikipedia pages. Priscilla Bright McLaren was not just ‘the wife of the Lord Provost’.

And to the men like Andy Murray and Adam van Koeverden who are joining the feminist movement and calling out the sexist commentating and reporting… THANK YOU! Welcome to the club working for gender equality!

On a side note, I do have hope. My friend’s daughter started primary school 7 years ago today(ish). I still remember when I saw her after her first day, her excitedly telling me about the school football team she was joining. And my honourary nephews? They do gymnastics.

🙂

Some words about hate, politics and love…

I’ve started writing several blogs this week. Each of them deleted before publication, because they were written in anger.

I’m genuinely scared we are going backwards in this world.

After decades of making progress towards equality for people regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion…things are taking a turn.

At the weekend, 49 people were killed in a hate crime towards the LGBTQ community. I have many friends in that community. Friends that worried when I started going to church that I’d be banned from being friends with them. And then today, a terrific MP – one of the good ones who has stood for immigration, stood up for vulnerable children fleeing war, who has stood for peace, justice and diversity at home and abroad was brutally murdered – possibly for her beliefs – by a right wing nationalist while she was in her community doing her job, ready to listen to the concerns of her constituents.

And so this week, families and friends are mourning. Families and friends of people who welcome others. Families and friends of peacemakers. Families and friends of people who see what unites us rather than what divides us.

There are politicians and groups with extreme views. Yelling. Shouting. Spreading lies. Spreading fear. Taking exceptions and making them generalisations. To the point where the other week someone asked me advice because a woman was contacting everyone in her old church to try and get a pastor sacked because he was reaching out to a family of refugees who did not share their faith. According to this lady, this equated to supporting terrorism.

If all your friends look like you, think like you, follow the same religious/non religious belief as you…take a beat and reflect on that. It’s not good if that’s the case. Your mind will be narrower as a result. You will be more susceptible for believing propaganda and media nonsense branded as truth.

I’m not a sonnet writer, and I know Lin Manuel Miranda wrote this with Orlando in mind. It also fits today’s tragedy in Yorkshire too. To the families of those who were at Pulse on Saturday night. To the Cox family. I can’t speak for everyone else in the world, I can only speak for myself, but I stand for love. And hope with all my heart that love will always win over evil in the end. I’m angry for your loss, I’m sad about your loss, I wish with all my heart that you weren’t going through this pain.

Let’s stand up for love, peace and embrace our ability to create together a diverse world that has room for all of us, and our stories.

 

Girls, Bodyshaming and our media…

I’ve done a lot of youth work with teen and pre-teen girls over the latter half of my life (because scarily I’m old enough to have been doing youth work for half my life now). I started at 16 as a trainee Guide leader in an inner city Guide unit, and went on to become a Youth Advice Worker, a Community Education worker, and in later years while working for a charity I went into schools running lessons on pregnancy to dovetail into the Scottish Sexual health and relationships education curriculum. And over time, I’ve become increasingly convinced of my feminist beliefs.

In a world of sexting, snapchat, facebook and kids getting access to phones younger and younger, things have changed radically for teens since I was one myself. I remember vividly what it was like to be a teenager. And I am insanely thankful that digital cameras were not something we had access to. Because I know in a fit of giddiness during sleepovers (which I firmly believe should be renamed ‘awakeovers’) or when we first began experimenting with alcohol – there is stuff that I’m sure we would have posted on something like instagram for a laugh.

Amongst my friends and I – many of us suffered from poor body confidence and eating disorders as we grew up. I still remember all the girls’ magazines telling us about what we should and shouldn’t wear, our mothers reading up on crash diets in trashy women’s magazines. The boys in our class read magazines with scantily dressed women and gave ideas on creative positions for intimate couple activities. And as time has gone on, the actors on television have got skinnier and skinnier. It’s not just women who are being objectified on body image (though I’d argue it’s still far worse for women). The magazines and newspapers have got more judgmental on body shaming women. And last year after overhearing one too many conversations amongst my Guides calling themselves ‘fat’ or confessing that they didn’t want to try an activity for fear of looking silly we did a programme produced by WAGGGS called Free Being Me. One of the first sessions required me to go find some magazines aimed at their age group so they could analyse the visual content of them. I was utterly appalled when I picked up a magazine called Top Model clearly aimed at 8-11 age group which had an article teaching girls how to judge people based on what they were wearing. I had long stopped buying magazines myself – I have strong views on gossiping and refuse to help a market that uses gossip to sell their product – so it had been a while since I had really looked. I remember standing in the supermarket feeling sick. Because that magazine was aimed at my friends’ daughters.

So you can imagine my rage and disgust when someone posted a news article about this American magazine aimed at a similar age group teaching girls about how to pick the best swimsuit for their body shape.

What 8 year old girl has developed a body shape?! And why should they care what they are wearing when they go for their swimming lessons, or play in the ocean with their family and friends in the summer?!

I was enraged. And concerned.

But most of all, I want to know how the heck I can change this awful body shaming society girls and young women are growing up in. A day later, this clip of an interview Melissa McCarthy (who I love, love, love from Gilmore Girls) appeared on my YouTube homepage.


The whitewashing, the ageism, the photoshopping, the judging a person on fashion choices over ability to do a job. I’m trying to think of all the ways I can give them opportunities to see how the world really should be over how it is portrayed in media of all forms.

Because I think it starts with the adults…

They told me…

IMG_6558

So they told me I needed to wear contact lenses, because glasses don’t make me look so pretty. After all no one on TV wears them all day long…

They told me I needed to dye my hair blonde, because blondes have more fun (plus grey hairs are evil and make me seem like I’m worthless. Hair dye is all about being ‘worth it’)…

When nine sets of friends got married in the same year, I got told that I needed to buy nine different outfits. It would be terrible to see the same outfit in the different wedding photos. Yet the boys wear the same kilt. Huh…

They told me I needed to buy serums, conditioners, ceramic straighteners. Because frizzy wavy hair doesn’t float and shimmer like straight hair does…

They told me spots were bad, dark circles were awful and the way to fix this was lots of expensive make up. Who cares if it was killing the environment or animals to produce it?

My African friends got told to lighten their skin with potions and lotions. Pasty girls like me got told to darken their skin by baking under sunlight. What did it matter if I got melanoma?

They told me I couldn’t be on the school football team. Because on the telly, only boys play football, and I didn’t have a penis. Girls don’t want to play football. Or can’t. Or something like that…

When I grew breasts, they told me I should flaunt them. After all, I had frizzy hair, pasty skin and four eyes. Big boobs are newsworthy, and take attention away from your head.

They told me I had to wear skirts, because jeans are made me unfeminine. But don’t cartwheel because it’s unladylike to reveal your knickers. Wouldn’t have happened if I’d been wearing jeans…

They told me I had to let boys chase me and wait around for ‘the one’. Because I need a boy to accompany me before I can do my own dream chasing…

They told me if I fell  in love, I had to give  up my name. It’s just the way it is, and apparently it’s so romantic…

…and then somewhere along the way, I realise someone was trying to make money out of telling me how I should be. Because not being able to see means I won’t learn as well, contact lenses, make up, lotions and potions, heels, bags, dresses, straighteners, hair dyes…they all cost money. But some people see me as a threat, because if the world was a better place, they would have to give up their greed. And breasts aren’t supposed to be news. And I could cover up, wear comfortable clothes and chase my dreams by being simply…me.

A well named frizzy haired, bespectacled, greying, single woman who likes to decorate her head with earrings more than face paint, cartwheel on beaches and keep her breasts underneath a cosy warm hoodie. A woman who would rather spend her money on a 100 hundred books than 10 fancy outfits, who understands that she doesn’t need one particular person but a whole posse of diverse people to go chase her dreams of seeing the world become the way it was always supposed to be…

..equal.

Happy International Women’s Day.

I found some other people to listen to…they like me as I am.

PS – There’s also a whole host of folks (including me) linking up posts inspired by International Women’s Day over on Lucy’s blog: Lulastic and the Hippy Shake. Do go check them out, and feel free to link up your own blog post if you’ve written something for IWD 2016!

 

 

 

My fictional female role models…

As a young girl, it was tough to find role models. When I became a Christian, I discovered that there were a whole new bunch of expectations on young women that I didn’t feel I would ever live up to. When you are younger, if we can’t see what we want in our immediate life – we often look to the arts for inspiration. Books, TV and film often give us ideas and possibilities of what other options of being are out there. And too often as girls we were shown examples of needing to find a guy to come save us and love us to be complete. Thankfully it wasn’t always the case, and I wanted to share some of the fictional female characters that have given me hope throughout my childhood, teen and young adult years…

Abby Sciuto – Abby, the ‘happiest goth you’ll ever meet’ who is a forensic scientist at NCIS. Always compassionate, loves hugging Bert the Hippo, goes bowling with nuns, builds houses for charity and is every bit as capable with IT as Timothy ‘I went to M.I.T.’ McGee. Which is probably why he admires her so much. I love that none of the more conservative characters like Jenny Shepherd or Leon Vance ever try to make Abby dress differently. They accept her for who she is, because they respect her, her work ethic and her talents.

Professor McGonagall – A single woman, a fair if stern teacher. But one that clearly has her pupils’ backs. She never disciplines simply to exert her power and authority. She supports her fellow women. She doesn’t back down from a fight, and she is fiercely loyal to Dumbledore and to Harry. I always loved those little snippets you got of her mischievous side, as she mumbles to Peeves how to unscrew light fittings and in the film that moment of “I always wanted to use that spell!”

Sally Fletcher – The adopted kid of Tom and Pippa, the girl who had the kind heart and got teased for her imaginary friend ‘Milco’. The one who got bullied, was good at school and worked hard at school. No surprises then that she ended up becoming a foster Mum and a teacher…always giving the underdog kids who had had a rough start in life a second chance. Sally was always just that few years ahead of me on TV as I grew up through primary and secondary school watching Home and Away and as the swot of the class, she made me feel a little less alone. (And yes, I did bawl my eyes out when she left Summer Bay).

Miranda Bailey – I know, I know… I’m supposed to love McDreamy, or Meredith. But Bailey was always my favourite character in Grey’s Anatomy. I loved that she was short.  I loved that she wasn’t sleeping around (like all the other surgeons were). I loved that she refused to get a full wax when after her divorce she is trying to find love again (oh, and as a Health Promotion grad was very proud at her responsible attitude to STD protection!). I loved that she was an African-American woman in old white men’s club. Yet she is exactly where she should be as a competent, highly skilled, hard working surgeon. Oh, and did I mention that she is a Star Wars fan?

The Babysitter’s Club – It’s tough to pick one girl out of this group, because they all had their moments. Jessi Ramsey was the ballet dancer of the group but she was much better than I ever was! Dawn was the only one who never seemed to feel like she had to be someone else to impress a guy and I appreciated that about her. I think I most identified with Mallory Pike. Mallory was the big sister, the one that wore glasses, wanted straight hair, had braces, wanted her ears pierced, wanted to be a writer and really sucked at and did everything she could to avoid  PE. I don’t think I was quite so insecure about my looks as Mallory was, but I could empathise with her struggle. Each of these girls had something to offer and their own strengths and weaknesses. It was also refreshing to see that they came from all sorts of cultures and backgrounds and their families all looked different.

Haley James – I used to get One Tree Hill shipped on DVD from the USA (because I couldn’t afford a TV license and it took sooo long to come out on DVD here in the UK and it worked out cheaper usually anyway) and my friend and I watched it weekly at my flat when we were students. The girl who took a while longer to have close friends that were girls, the one who worked part-time, who liked to teach, who loved to sing. I loved that Haley was willing to wait for the right guy, and that even though she was the sensible one she still got pregnant in high school. I also liked that she wore her ponchos and hats that she got teased for, and that she never bailed on a friend. She never tried to dumb herself down and even when she was afraid of failing and pursuing her dreams she found the courage to go out there and try eventually.

Rory Gilmore and Lane Kim – I love Rory and Lane. I kinda loved last year when me and one of my friends (who is a fellow Gilmore Girls fan – several of my friends have borrowed my DVDs) took one of those BuzzFeed quizzes that I came out as Rory and she came out as Lane. That seemed just totally perfect to us. Rory and Lane are equally awesome in my book. Again, two ladies who didn’t act stupid to get boys to like them. Two ladies who knew what they wanted and worked to achieve their dream. Yes, Rory gets a little derailed, but she gets back on track eventually. I’m kind of glad that they showed that part because so many of us have to make mistakes to learn from them. I’d love Lane’s record collection and Rory’s book collection. Oh, and they were Brownies as revealed  by Lane’s note to Rory in 1995.

Lucy Pevensie – I was so mad when my cousin named her daughter Lucy as that was what I’d always wanted as a name for a daughter. Lucy Pevensie is probably the reason why. She’s not the oldest or the obvious leader. But yet she’s the one who finds Narnia, the one who always sees Aslan before the others, and is the one who reawakens the trees. There’s also a glimpse you see of Queen Lucy in the Horse and His Boy where you find that although her sister is off finding suitors, Lucy is not. She is willing to battle with the boys and is a proven warrior.

Precious Ramotswe – Mma Ramotswe is probably my favourite character written by Alexander McCall Smith. I love that her wisdom, her kindness and that she doesn’t feel the need for a husband. When she realises that Mr J.L.B. Matekoni is worth teaming up with, she says yes to his proposal. But I love that they are equals in their marriage. And he is a great guy who supports her in her business, and continually fixes the little van because he knows how much it means to Mma Ramotswe. And if you’ve never picked up the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series of books, um…well…you are going to be lost in many conversations I have with you.

Mulan – because finally we got a Disney Princess who didn’t either a) spend the whole film searching for a husband or waiting for him to save her (yes Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Anna, Ariel…I’m looking at you) or marry a guy that was a bit sketchy (Belle, Pocahontas…). And she basically saves the army, and then saves them again along with all of China. She could have decided to stay, work for the Emperor and possibly be near Li Shang. She chooses to go home. And doesn’t show any romantic interest in Shang until he respects her as a woman. Go Mulan. Until you, the only strong females in Disney were all animals (Duchess in The Aristocats, Nala in The Lion King).

I’m sure there are more that I’ve forgotten, but did you have fictional characters that inspired you, encouraged you or gave you hope growing up?