Awareness is All

Recently I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my take on feminism. It informs most of my blog posts, and indeed I started this blog (in part) to retain a public ‘voice’ when I was being silenced in a very male environment. I generally don’t use words like ‘feminism’, ‘patriarchy’ and ‘women’s rights’ in my posts because I know they can attract unwanted attention and put some people off what I’m trying to say, but all of those things inform my writing, and I think about them every day.

But today I’m saying it out loud. My name is Lisa and I am a feminist. I haven’t always been, but it’s become an important part of my life in the past few years, with the rise of the female voice, particularly in social media.

Last week I went to the launch of Polly Vernon’s Hot Feminist book in Waterstones Piccadilly. She is a journalist I really enjoy keeping up with, both in her Grazia magazine column and her Twitter feed. She is a strong voice in contemporary British culture and I’m interested in what she had to say. I’d heard her on the radio the day before and been surprised when I found myself disagreeing with her stance on feminism – and it took me a while to process it. She is in favour of a ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ take on women’s rights, stating that she’s quite happy to let a bit of manspreading, all-male panel shows and wolf-whistling go by, in order to concentrate on the ‘big’ issues of rape, the pay gap, female genital mutilation (FGM) and abortion rights. She states that she loves fashion, beauty and staying skinny, but maintains that these are things entirely for her own love of them, and nothing to do with doing them for men. At the same time she says she loves being sexy and fanciable. Hmm.

This is where she and I part company on the subject. To me, all of the small stuff that objectifies and demeans women gives rise to the big stuff like rape culture, and there is no doubt that an urge to be sexy and fanciable to men comes from socialisation among women to do so from a young age. Fashion, beauty and body-consciousness come from the same source but Vernon is unable to see the connection between these elements. She has rebadged them as her own desires, seemingly completely unaware of where they came from.

This is when I realised what sort of feminist I am – one that advocates awareness. I am all in favour of women doing exactly what they want – whether it’s being a housewife, making a living in sex work, living for fashion or a being a glamour model – as long as they know WHY they have the urge do those things. We’ve been socialised to want to please men, be sexy and beautiful for them and be their homemakers while they go out to work. If you decide to turn that into a way of life or a way of making a living, then that is your right, but just know why you’re doing it and be happy. Like Vernon, I want to be sexy and fanciable too, and I love the odd ‘hello beautiful’ comment, but I know why I want those things. I try not to need them, as a way of managing my expectations, but the urge is there and I know where it comes from. I’m not going to pretend that I want to look sexy purely for myself.

Similarly, men have been socialised to objectify girls and women, to see them as something they are entitled to comment on, touch and have sex with. Relatively few men are aware of that fact, which is why there is a such a backlash from them when we refuse to accept their comments or have sex with them or when we say we want Page 3 removed from our papers and more women on panel shows. We’re rejecting a thing that is so ingrained in our culture that many people, men and women, refuse to believe it’s actually there. They think we’re making a fuss. In fact, the main reaction I’ve had from (mainly male) friends when they’ve asked about my feminism is a questioning whether what I’m saying is actually true. I believe that the scale of it is so massive that they’d rather deny it’s even there or that they might be party to that male sense of entitlement to women.

I usually point them in the direction of Laura Bates’ excellent 2014 article: “10 common comments on feminist blogposts”. The very first comment, that ‘this is not an issue specific to any gender’, cites the statistical evidence (from 2012) that floors any argument to the contrary. Women are not yet equal to men in any sexual, political, or economic arena and yet Twitter is filled with people arguing with feminists to prove that what they’re talking about is real with yet more facts and statistics. We certainly have them, but why should we keep having to prove it? To me it feels like the science vs creationism argument – the science behind feminism is so obvious to me that saying that it doesn’t exist feels like I’m arguing with someone who maintains the world was built in seven days by a man with a beard in the sky. I might as well give up. But I’m not going to stop believing in it.

I can understand why men feel under attack from feminists because we are directly attacking the male bias in our society – otherwise known as ‘patriarchy’. It’s not their actual individual fault that it’s there, but many men feel as though we are saying it is. We’re not. They’re a victim of it too – does no one think that there is a correlation between the high rate of suicide among young men and the pressure on them from a young age conform to traditions of masculinity? I’m fascinated by the subject, and Shakespeare was too. His tragedies are littered with men who fail to conform to the norm and are angst-ridden and suicidal because of it.

If you’ve grown up in a culture of male privilege and entitlement, where you are the privileged one, then you’re not really going to have a clear counter-view you, are you? Just accept that, and be aware that this social system has an effect on you, as well as all the women around you. If you’re a young woman who thinks there’s no need for feminism because ‘we’re already equal’, just know that we’re not. Yet. If you’re a young man who says he has a ‘problem with feminists’, stop and think about what you are saying. You are saying that you don’t approve of equality for women. Most men I’ve met who’ve said that clearly don’t believe in inequality.

Awareness, awareness, awareness. That’s all I’m saying.

This is my feminism.

Because I Cannes

All the furore over the Cannes Film Festival this week about red-carpet heel-wearing reminded me that I was lucky enough to attend once.

A party I went to, in 2007 courtesy of New Line Cinema, was at the Villa Rothschild and all the ladies received a note saying we should avoid wearing heels because the party would take place in the gardens. (The VIPs were in the Villa itself, so they were probably made to wear heels…). I went for a low kitten-heeled sandal which seemed to do the trick.

Anyway, what was important about that night wasn’t the height of the heel I was wearing. It was my watershed moment. My game-changer. My world turned on its axis that night and it wasn’t the same ever again.

I’d turned forty a couple of months before and was in the midst of a boom-time for me, career-wise. I was married, but spending most of my time at work or in the pub afterwards, celebrating the achievements of the team I was working with. Increasingly, I’d started to feel that my husband didn’t want to celebrate any of my success so I’d started to stay out night after night, to get it out of my system before I went home. Looking back, I was cruising for a divorce right then (it would take three years to happen).

I knew then that I’d only ever get one invitation to Cannes so I went for it. I’d bought a beautiful mediterranean-blue maxi dress and took time to get ready. I have two pictures of that night – both taken pre-smartphone so they’re just of me standing awkwardly in my hotel room. I look back and see someone preparing to take on the world, with a serious face. I’d dieted too much so you can see my bones, I’d applied too much fake tan so I didn’t really look like me. But I was where I needed to be to get out there and shake things up.

I attended the party with my then boss, and we ended up with a group of guys who we’d been working with on a related film project. She left early, which then left me to party on with the boys, feeling like Julia Roberts in Ocean’s Eleven.

And boy, was I ready to party.

The DJ that night was Mark Ronson, who was then very new to the scene. He swaggered to the open-air stage and nonchalantly played ‘Valerie’ with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. I danced energetically and happily with a guy we shall call ‘Nick’ for most of the night. He was from my part of the country and we got on well. It felt so good to be with a guy I could be openly celebratory with, there in the balmy Cannes night, in the gardens of a beautiful villa.

At about 2am the whole group headed back to our hotel in Juan Les Pins and there was an aborted attempt to go skinny-dipping in the pool. (Good job, because I can’t actually swim.) The others drifted back to their rooms and I drifted back to Nick’s, to continue the evening. I was still high on the experience and couldn’t face going to bed.

You’re going to think, ‘oh she slept with him’ at this point. Reader, I didn’t. We went out on his balcony and looked at the night sky and talked. I’ve always loved that song, ‘Strangers in the Night’ and now I know why. Nick lived in America so there was no real chance of meeting again. It was a one-off encounter.

I now know what Nick did for me. Nick told me everything I’d needed to hear from my husband, who didn’t enjoy complimenting me ‘in case my head got too big’. Nick told me I appeared to him as someone who was between girlhood and womanhood (despite being forty) – I think he picked up on the fact that I was on the verge of emerging from my life chrysalis. He told me I was beautiful and sexy, that he didn’t usually go for older women (only a four-year difference, mate) but there I was in front of him. I didn’t know what to say. No one had ever said those words so clearly and directly to me.

It was around 4.30am when I decided to return to my room. We hugged each other at his door and agreed that it had been one of the best nights we’d ever spent. It still is, to me, one of the best nights of my life, if not THE best. As I went to pull away, Nick moved his hand from the small of my back and began to draw his fingers softly up my shoulder blade. It was the tenderest, most erotic touch I’d ever felt. A brief kiss followed and I left.

Nothing more than that kiss happened, but it was as seismic as full sex as far as my life was concerned. More so. I returned to the UK and he to the US, but there was a crackling line of electricity between us that lasted for months, even years, after. I felt as though I’d been jolted awake after years of sexual slumber. When I returned from Cannes, my husband joked that he thought I was having an affair. I wasn’t, but he could see that something in me had shifted.

So thank you, Cannes, and thank you, Nick. You are both very important to my story. And as hackneyed as it may sound, my life really did begin at forty.

Poor You!

I’ve just come back from a trip to Dahab in Egypt (an hour north of Sharm El Sheikh in South Sinai) and one of the fun parts of the holiday was teaching my friend silly English words and phrases in exchange for Arabic ones.

I told him a story about a person I know who loves it when things go wrong in my life, so I’ve stopped saying anything negative about what’s happening to me on social media. If I post something really positive, with only an iota of negativity, she will pick up on the latter and exclaim, ‘poor you!’ This makes me feel angry.

The Egyptian, as he has become known, seemed to pick up on this phrase and repeated it back to me randomly the next day, pulling the pseudo-sympathetic face that goes with it, that I’d obviously used the day before. It made us laugh so much – everything that didn’t go to plan came with an explosive ‘poor you!’ and we’d collapse into giggles.

This happened on a day when the British were exercising their right to vote (well, 66% of them were) and I was struck by the ridiculousness of The Egyptian exclaiming ‘poor you!’ when I told him of the horrific result. Just the fact that we are allowed to choose our own government and vote in a democratic and free society is something of a privilege. Yes sirree, I checked my privilege.

The election happened to be in the same week that disgraced former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was due to find out his fate: just three years’ imprisonment for embezzling millions of pounds of state funds. His earlier life sentence for the deaths of 800 protesters in the 2011 Revolution had been thrown out the previous November. The month before my trip, Egypt had seen its first democratically elected head of state in Egypt sentenced to 20 years in prison. Mohamed Morsi had used his status to grant himself unlimited power, resulting in the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. The Egyptian said that the freedom everyone felt after the Revolution was so sweet, but so fleeting. There was no follow-up plan, so corruption and power-wrangling quickly set in.

The Egyptian had been working in one of the restaurants in Dahab where three anti-Mubarak nail bombs went off in 2006. He’d been lucky, but he stumbled outside to see bodies everywhere and people running into the sea. The emergency services were not quick enough to save all the casualties. Twenty-three people died, mostly Egyptians.

Now, the police crawl all over Sinai, ostensibly to protect the tourists from the threat of terrorism, but the reality is that they prefer terrorising innocent Egyptians. There are two checkpoints between Sharm and Dahab, but the police are only interested in who the drivers are, not who’s in the back of the cab. They make a huge deal out of making people wait, checking ID, being suspicious. If they think that tourists don’t notice what they are doing, then they are very wrong. It stinks.

The general consensus is that the police are bored, just making stuff up to give them something to do. Their directive is to leave the tourists alone – even if they’re the ones committing a crime in public, they will pick on the Egyptian with them and ignore the foreigner. It’s horrible but a fact of life and the locals’ response is a chilled ‘what can we do?’

I ended up going on a glorious day trip with a group of women of all nationalities: Egyptian, Swiss, Austrian, Anglo-Greek and me, Welsh. One of the main topics of conversation was the ‘woman problem’. Apparently the women of Egypt are rising up in a way that is making the male population uncomfortable. Of course, being a feminist, this was music to my ears. Some women are not happy with the deal – just staying in and looking after children and cooking for their men. (Some of them are, it has to be said, and some of these aren’t Egyptian. Russian women seem to enjoy it and many Egyptian men in Dahab marry them. It’s a good match.)

One night, I saw two Egyptian women having a ‘ladies night’ out – their kids were running around outside while they sat in a restaurant, chatting and drinking tea. One was breastfeeding. One was sitting alone with her child. It was so great to see that.

Initially it wasn’t as great to see little local girls running around the town all day selling homemade bracelets. I’d see them walking on isolated roads carrying their wares from town to town, and worry for their safety. No, the women told me, this is their moment of freedom and they are completely safe. As soon as they start their periods they are confined to the house, drinking tea with the other adult ladies of the family. It seems as though some mothers have started hiding the onset of puberty in their daughters from the men in the house, just to prolong their freedom, even to the point of trying to make the girls look younger. It seems to work.

As I sat there in my bikini, being served Bedouin food by a woman fully covered except for her eyes, I checked my privilege again. I could stride into Dahab and into this beautiful Bedouin isolated beach settlement (Ras Abu Galum, in case you’re interested) and literally let my hair down, wearing a bikini.

I may never say, ‘poor you!’ again, unless in jest with The Egyptian. Poor, poor us, and our democratically elected government who aren’t embezzling millions of our pounds to fund their palaces (I’m sure someone will point out that they are doing this), or killing 800 protesters who happen to disagree with their policies. Poor us, and our freedom as women to go about as we choose after we become adults, to have jobs, wear what we want and have sex outside marriage.

Yes, yes, I know everything is relative, but it is worth putting things in perspective every now and again.