Saturday 28 August 2010

Girls, exams and employment: a race to the bottom

Young women are doing disproportionately well in this recession. Girls have outperformed boys at GCSE and A-level for the tenth consecutive year, and along with the cursory smattering of articles bemoaning the educational fate of our nation’s masculine promise, it has also emerged that women are overtaking men in the treacherous world of entry-level employment. Whilst 11.2% of young women are not in work or training, amongst young men that figure is half as high again, at 17.2%. Why aren't feminists excited by this news? Shouldn't we be chalking up the fact that young women are hoarding top grades and precious low-wage vacancies as a major victory for 21st-century women's liberation?

Not so fast. Another equally well-evidenced trend over the past ten years has been the dizzying rise in mental health problems and low self-esteem amongst young women and girls. Women in the developed world are, it is estimated, over twice as likely to suffer depression and chronic anxiety as men; 80% of young self-harmers and 90% of teenagers with eating disorders are female. A recent study of Scottish 15-year-olds showed that whilst 19% of girls experienced common mental disorders in 1987, that incidence had increased to 44% by 2006, compared to just 21% for boys. These trends do not occur in isolation: they are linked.

It is not far fetched to surmise that it is precisely the alienation and distress that young women feel that make them ideal students and workers in today's ruthlessly profit-oriented economy, especially in the lower tiers of the labour market, where servility and identikit quiescence are paramount. In her book 'Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters,' Courtney E Martin describes this alienation:

"girls and young women across the world harbor black holes at the center of our beings. We have called this insatiable hunger by many names -- ambition, drive, pride -- but in truth it is a fundamental distrust that we deserve to be on this earth in the shape we are in."

Girls are trained from an early age to understand ourselves as social and physical commodities, as objects for others’ consumption who can adapt and should submit to whatever the current labour market wants from us. We expect to have to work hard for little or no reward, to be pleasant and self-effacing at all times. If we encounter failure - whether in the face of frantically standardised educational 'assessment objectives' or a job market so drained of opportunities that only the most abject and malleable wage-slaves need apply - women and girls tend to assume that it is we who are at fault, rather than the system itself.

Our response, as Will Hutton wrote in the Observer last month, is to "fearfully redouble [our] efforts, to avoid failure." Insecure and keen to please, young women will accept lower wages, longer hours and little to no job security. No wonder it is women who seem to represent the best business investment in this brave new post-crash world - the future of human labour in a labour market that hates humans. No wonder it is young women, not men, whom business owners and agencies are keen to employ. No wonder it is pretty young women who appear on the front covers of every paper in exam season, grinning and jumping on cue... (read the rest at New Statesman).

Monday 23 August 2010

The West must not use women's rights to justify war

Despite an international outcry, Iran seems determined to have Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, 43, stoned to death for adultery. Her plight has become a test case for the global community's response to Iran's barbaric, institutional misogyny. Tehran has responded by thumbing its nose at the rest of the world, forcing Ashtiani to confess her "crimes" on television. In Britain, our outrage is unanimous, and rightly so.

It seems curiously inconsistent, then, that, just a few weeks ago, the Home Office was quite prepared to deport another Iranian woman, Kiana Firouz, to certain execution in her native country for sexual unorthodoxy. Firouz made the film Cul-de-Sac to raise awareness of the oppression of lesbians in Iran, outing herself very publicly and embarrassing the state in the process: both crimes punishable by death in Iran. Nonetheless, it took a co-ordinated campaign by LGBT activists and solidarity networks in the UK to shame the Home Office into granting Firouz leave to remain.

Bita Ghaedi, another Iranian woman facing execution for breaking her marriage vows, also escaped to Britain -- where she was sent to a holding cell and repeatedly threatened with deportation. Ghaedi has been on several hunger strikes to protest at her treatment, but she still lives in fear of being sent back to Iran. Had the unfortunate Ms Ashtiani been smuggled to the UK, it is fair to assume that she, too, would currently be detained in Yarl's Wood, subjected to the indignity of pleading for her life to a government whose professed solidarity with Iranian women has not yet overcome its prejudice against immigrants to extend support to the hundreds of women who arrive on these shores fleeing violence every year -- all of whom, unlike Ms Ashtiani, we could actually do something materially to help.

State violence against women has long been used to justify military interventionism. The government of Iran is rather unusual in taking it upon itself to employ the executioners, but plenty of states with whom the US and UK have no military disputes currently allow men who feel their women have besmirched their family honour to carry out the killings themselves on the understanding that punishment will be minimal or non-existent.

Article 340 of the Penal Code of Jordan states: "He who discovers his wife or one of his female relatives committing adultery and kills, wounds or injures one of them is exempted from any penalty." Similar laws were struck down only very recently in Syria, Morocco and Brazil; in Pakistan, incidences of women and girls being slain by their families for sexual transgressions (including having the gall to be raped) are routinely ignored by police and prosecutors.

Moreover, across the world, 68,000 women are effectively condemned to agonising death each year -- 5 per cent of them in developed countries -- for the crime of wanting sexual and reproductive self-determination in states with sanctions against abortion. There has, as yet, been no systemic global outcry at their plight. And in at least one European country, the defence of "provocation to murder" -- the so-called "cuckold's defence" -- was enshrined in law until just two years ago, allowing husbands to plead for a reduced sentence if the wife they had killed was unfaithful. The country in question was Great Britain. Were the US or UK to launch a systemic offensive against every country brutalising its female citizens because of their sex at the level of policy and culture, it'd be World War Three on Tuesday -- and we would have to start by bombing our own cities.

In this context, it could well be construed that there is another, more sinister agenda at play beyond concern for women's rights. Yesterday, Iran told the west to butt out of its right to murder Sakineh Ashtiani, making it clear that this case is now less about the well-being of one woman than about moral and militaristic positioning between hostile states. There is clear precedent for this callous, ideological long game.

This month, Time magazine published a cover photograph of a young woman, Aisha, whose nose and ears had been cut off by her father-in-law. The cover ran with the unambiguous title, "What happens if we leave Afghanistan". However, as the Afghan women's rights activist Malalai Joya told France24, Aisha was attacked under western occupation and such atrocities have arguably increased since the 2002 invasion.

"Eighteen-year-old Aisha is just an example -- cutting ears, noses and toes, torturing and even slaughtering is a norm in Afghanistan," said Joya. "Afghan women are squashed between three enemies: the Taliban, fundamentalist warlords and troops. Once again, it is moulding the oppression of women into a propaganda tool to gain support and staining their hands with ever-deepening treason against Afghan women."

In March, WikiLeaks published a CIA briefing that outlined a strategy to counter growing opposition in Europe to participation in the US-led occupation of Afghanistan. It recommended using a narrative about the oppression of women in the country that highlighted the Taliban's misogynist violence while ignoring that of the pro-occupation warlords and the occupation armies. A similar story is now being disseminated about the plight of women in Iran and poor Ms Ashtiani has become a tokenistic figure in that absolving narrative.

Instead of the solidarity they deserve -- solidarity that might first be extended by treating asylum seekers with something less than contempt -- Iranian women are being co-opted into a Nato narrative whose trajectory seems to point inexorably towards invasion. That the state of Iran hates and fears women is not up for debate and if even one person can be saved from fascistic, fundamentalist woman-haters, an international campaign is more than justified. However, if, as seems likely, Iran executes Sakineh Ashtiani anyway, it would be beyond distasteful for Nato governments to cannibalise her corpse as part of the moral groundwork for further bloodshed.

Monday 16 August 2010

Peterloo: 191 years ago today

Today is the anniversary of the Peterloo massacre, when pro-democracy and anti-poverty protesters in Manchester were brutally murdered by mercenaries and cavalrymen in the service of the British government. The aftermath of the day led to an acceleration in the progress of suffrage in Britain (and more directly, to the formation of the Guardian newspaper).

Brits: there's a reason why they stuck to Henry the Eighth and the Empire in school. They want us to be proud, but not about this sort of thing. We need to remember that there's another history of Britain, a history of poverty and disenfranchisement and the struggle for workers' rights and women's rights, the struggle against slavery at home and abroad.

Remember, remember the sixteenth of August.

Sunday 8 August 2010

Undercover with the young conservatives...

Yup, I haven't even managed to cross-post this week, because I became homeless *again* and had to scrabble for a place to live whilst finishing deadlines, and a dog ate my homework. But you should all read this, because I suffered for this one, godsdamnit. I had to pretend I was a racist for an evening. It was terrifying. Enjoy, with trepidation.


The teenager in the posh frock delivers her advice with the authority of weary experience. "Since this is your first Conservative Future event, I thought I ought to say -watch out for the men here," she whispers, as her friends disappear to the bar. "Most of them can't be trusted." We're at the Young Britons' Foundation summer party, incorporating the leadership hustings of Conservative Future, where I've come to observe the young right in full victory rut.

Descending three flights of stairs to the private function room at the Mahiki club in central London is a little like stepping into a sewer where the cultural overspill of the 1980s has been draining for twenty years. The room is stuffed with pasty young men in suits and ties drinking nasty orange cocktails and gossiping about Ken Clarke; the smattering of women present are wearing expensive polyester and listening prettily to what the boys have to say.

It's like a scene from one of those time-travelling detective shows, down to the droning muzak, the atmosphere of grim introspection, and the suspicion that everyone here is acting a role. The young people lounged around the bar seem to be rehearsing a set of social stereotypes that feel too clich├ęd to be real, mouthing empty lines of propaganda - "Thatcher did what needed to be done!" -with only a rudimentary understanding of their implications.

The Young Britons' Foundation is a finishing school for the centre-right which claims to be non-partisan and offers classes in dealing with the media, but the organisers have somehow allowed at least one journalist to infiltrate an evening they're hosting for the youth wing of the Conservative party. Eighty percent of the people here are men, and they have a lot to say about how the bloody Lib Dems are spoiling everything, and they say it over the heads of the women present.

"Yah, I really don't know what it is about Tory guys," continues Posh Frock. "They're worse than normal. I think it's because there are just so many men in the party, and it makes know..." she fumbles in her bag, pulls out a pink gauze purse full of enough prescription medication to restock Boots, and pops some painkillers. "It just makes them arrogant, I suppose."

Is she some sort of feminist, then? "No! God, no!" she squeals. "No, definitely not, it's nothing like that. It's just - be careful. That's all I'm saying."
A hush falls; the hustings have begun. The three candidates for the Conservative Future leadership are all boisterous white men in their mid-twenties, all tall, all a little jowly, distinguishable by the colour of their shirts and the fact that one of them is wearing hipster spectacles. Their pitches are a unanimous declaration of strategic befuddlement.

"Now that we're in power, we've got to show the left that we can win the ideological arguments, because - because we're right!" declares Hipster Spectacles, but he doesn't sound convinced. His platitudes about "progressive politics" elicit disapproving tuts from the back row, who seem to be conducting a rehearsal for their future in the Commons. "Progressive, what does that mean?" mutters James from Kensington. "Everything seems to be progressive these days. It's the buzz-word."

"Yeah, like the Big Society," enjoins prematurely-balding Ollie, who works in the House of Lords and is slurping a Mai Tai from a tumbler shaped like a tribal woman's skull (my drink is in half a pineapple; it's all terribly ethnic). "Nobody knows what the Big Society means! It doesn't mean anything!"

"It means cutting about a hundred billion a year from public services," says his friend, adding hastily, "I mean, like, obviously that's a good thing."
"We need to make sure our party follows our principles and not those of the Liberal Democrats!" shouts another candidate. "It's the bloody Lib Dems who're the problem, they're getting in the way of everything!" During the bellow of assent that follows, one of my new friends brushes a hand surreptitiously and quite deliberately against my knee, like someone trying to be seductive in the seventeenth century. With a flash of awful clarity, I realise that these are precisely the young men my grandmother warned me about, that they are the heirs apparent to Britain's political system, and that not one of them has paused to consider if they deserve it. [read the second half at New Statesman...]


This piece was inspired by Dan Hancox's excellent report from the CF Christmas party in December.