Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


Who Needs Feminism?

We’re all equal, right?

Here are some of the front page articles in today’s Observer:

Despite having one two top-notch female candidates, the BBC chooses yet another man as DG.

Jesus was happy with female apostles, but the Church of England still can’t decide on female bishops.

Family planning summit in London threatened by religious groups.

UK recession hits middle-aged women worst.

ETA: Andy Murray, who as of this morning, has not yet won the Wimbledon Men’s Final, is all over the front page, whereas it takes four clicks to even find out who took the Women’s Final. (It was Serena Williams, if you care.)

Slap yourselves, folks. Apparently we are living in 2012 – although today’s headlines would indicate otherwise. Right now, men at better at leading broadcasting companies and being bishops, 200 million women around the world don’t have access to contraceptives, recession is worse for women than for bankers and no-one gives a rat’s arse about women’s tennis.

Are these the messages you want your children to receive?


Are quotas really so bad?

Stats from earlier this year show that Germany is doing really badly at getting women into senior management – not to mention paying women significantly less than their male counterparts. Angela Merkel has mooted quotas, a concept I support whole-heartedly. What surprises me, however, is how little support for quotas I am seeing in the workplace.

People say things like, “I would never want to be promoted just because I am a woman. I want to be promoted on merit.” or “Quotas are insulting. We don’t need them.”

I notice that the women who dismiss quotas are usually in some kind of a management position already or who have strong technical qualifications and experience – people who have already fought a hard journey to secure their positions. They have made sacrifices to get there: had no children or only one, paid a premium for childcare, worked long hours, perhaps worked harder than anyone else, sacrificed their personal lives. It is these people who, understandably, aren’t happy to see others swing in on the liana branch of quotas and grab jobs similar to those they have nearly killed themselves for.

For those who have taken on the patriarchy at great personal cost, and won, it doesn’t seem fair to then hand out jobs like so many bananas to others. I get that.

I have two counter-arguments:

1. Men have had a quota system in place for 2,000 years. They have been handed bananas, many have been promoted above their skill sets – because there was no-one else there. The other half of the potential work population was elsewhere, fulfilling their “biological destiny”. There was no competition.

It’s time for some reciprocity.

2. The only way to fight the patriarchy is to break it. The system will never change unless there is radical action and the only radical action I can see that will enforce and inscribe change is the introduction of quotas.

I am South African, and for the last 18 years, South Africa has had a radical system of affirmative action to counteract the injustices of apartheid that privileged white people over black people. People weren’t going to hand over jobs out of the goodness of their hearts. It had to be systematic.

It’s the same with gender. We can talk diversity until we are blue in the face, but until there is systematic change – a quota – the patriarchy will continue to feed itself the bananas.


Pictures for Women’s Day, 8 March 2012

I’ve written words about International Women’s Day here and here.

This time, I made a mood board on Pinterest instead. I looked for images that didn’t include:

  • nakedness
  • waifs
  • nubile women
  • women laughing alone with salad
  • women missing their mouths while drinking water
  • women as backdrop to a product
  • hardbodied women
  • women sweating while wearing small amounts of clothing
  • women as body parts
  • women in duets of romance with men
  • women in wedding dresses

Instead I tried to look for

  • happy women
  • colourful women
  • women in groups of friends
  • women in art
  • women in literature
  • women in music
  • inspiring photos of women
  • women who fought for us
  • bold words about being a woman
  • women from all over the world
  • women from long ago

And here is my Pinterest board to celebrate International Women’s Day 2012: Women

Hope you enjoy it.


Why We Need Women’s Day

It’s the 100th International Women’s Day and here at Phlegm Central, I’d like to give you an intelligent post about why we still need a day to celebrate women and to mark the inequities between being a woman and being a man in 2011. However the phlegm has invaded my brain so I’m only able to give you bullet points:

  • glass ceilings
  • corrective rape
  • clitorodectomies
  • sex slavery
  • pay gaps
  • domestic violence
  • honour killings

And the facts that:

  • one in five women will become victims of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime
  • 19% of parliamentarians worldwide are women
  • women own 1% of the world’s property but do 66% of the world’s work
  • women make up 75% of the world’s illiterate population
  • two-thirds of children denied schooling worldwide are girls
  • women hold 12% of board-level positions in the UK

We need International Women’s Day because women around the world – even in your country – are systematically abused and discriminated against. In the absence of my own ability to cobble thoughts together, here’s what some other women have had to say:

Marielle Frostrup on feminism’s global challenge

Susie Mesure on countries where women on the march (including South Africa)

The Guardian’s 100 Inspiring Women

Dame Judi Dench and Daniel Craig’s video Are We Equals?

Lia’s post on Celebrating Women

Marie’s riposte to the question ‘Why Isn’t there an International Men’s Day?’

Lilian’s post on Yiddish and the Literature of Prayer

Helen G at The F-Word on the equality debate

Bluemilk who’s sick like me but still on the hunt for great feminist bloggers

Dad Who Writes on Patti Smith

Litlove’s essay A Woman’s World about how we can all stop chastising ourselves quite so fiercely and learn to worry less.

Annie Lennox talks to other women about feminism and the gap between developed and developing countries here. Top quote from Beverley Knight: ‘It’s interesting that in the countries where women have the least power, the least equality, International Women’s Day is much more treasured. Here in Britain, with our excess of everything, the very things that are so precious that the Emmeline Pankhursts gave their spirit and their lives to, we take for granted. We don’t think about the struggle that other women have across the world.’

If you’ve written a post about IWD or read an inspiring article, let me know and I’ll link to it here.


What Are You Going to Give Up?

I love it when a Times Online columnist espouses one of my views loudly and publically on a long weekend so as to get the attention of all the reading masses on my behalf.  It means I get the feeling of being validated without having to get out of my pyjamas.

My opinion: Women can have it all, just not all at the same time.

Minette Marrin’s opinion:  Don’t even bother trying.

The esteemed Ms Marrin says the only way to ‘ do a demanding job, pay attention to family and friends, preserve a competitively toned body, maintain an elaborate beauty programme, including trips to dermatologists, depilators and assorted beauty bandits, keep up with tweets, emails, telephoning and aggressive networking, dress stylishly, shop for food, cook elaborately, entertain regularly, attend school functions, keep up with reading, listen to music and remember jokes’ is to be really rich and pay people to back you up. Nigella’s Team Cupcake, par example.

On the one hand, Marrin says the pressure on working mothers is unavoidable (until, Otter says, their husbands and partners wake up to the revolution and start doing their 50%). On the other hand, she says women can decide to ignore the aggressive consumerism that underpins much of the last paragraph and – now here’s the revolutionary part – just let things slide. (After all, Otter says, most of their husbands and partners have been doing the same and getting away with it for generations.)

Marrin doesn’t mean that women shouldn’t stop working, stop having babies or doing things that they love. She means they should stop competing with other women, stop trying so hard, drop their standards, do less.

And – here’s the rub – she says ‘fortunately, doing a lot less is quite easy when you try — or, rather, stop trying.’

She says we should think of each thing we give up as an opportunity gain. Giving up two hours at the salon means two hours extra to keep up with friends. Giving up cooking elaborate meals means more time with the family. Giving up fashion magazines means less lusting after and trying to afford inaffordable items.

Living in a land that still expects good mothers to be home by 12.30pm ready to cook the family a hot lunch, I’ve had to give up a whole lot of things in order to make time for what matters to me: writing, working, exercising and spending time with the people I love. Here’s my list of things that have gone out of the window:

1. Keeping up with the laundry. Why do it? So that some housewife in the sky will give me a good report? I address the piles, with the dubious but enthusiastic help of certain members of my family, on a need-to-wear basis.

2. Ironing. We embrace the crumpled look.

3. Sorting socks. Puh-leeze. I put all socks in a large container and then bring them out when my South African friends and family visit for them to sort. It makes them feel useful and they can go home and tell stories about how hard it is living in Europe. 

4. Baking. I’ve taught my children how to do it. One kid made biscuits this weekend, another made carrot cake muffins. Team Cupcake’s got nothing on us.

5. Complex depilation. None in winter; bikini, leg and armpit on a need-to-display basis.

6. Beauty salons. Expensive time wasters.

7. Highlighting my hair. Ditto, plus I get to be cutting-edge grey.

8. Posh creams. Ditto. Nivea is the way forward.

9. Long make-up routines. Nivea’s tinted moisturiser rocks.

10. Soaking pulses. Tins and cans are just as good.

10. Buying fashion magazines. Blogs are better written and more interesting and they never make me lust after a Prada handbag.

I love Marrin’s mantra of Just Do Less. If it speaks to you, then what are things you’ve given or are giving up? I need more time for reading and writing and will gladly accept tips.


The Revolution Has Only Just Begun

I love this message from Germaine Greer in the Times today:

But in the real world, women have changed; bit by bit, they are growing stronger and braver, ready to begin the actual feminist revolution. The feminist revolution hasn’t failed, you see. It has only just begun. But in the real world, women have changed; bit by bit, they are growing stronger and braver, ready to begin the actual feminist revolution. The feminist revolution hasn’t failed, you see. It has only just begun.

Greer says we should stop bemoaning ladettes, the pinkification of girls and ongoing, constant and, let’s face it, boring sexual objectification of women as signs that feminism is on the wane. Instead, she says the fact that women walk out of their marriages, refuse to accept servility, is a sure sign that the revolution is ongoing.

As women’s economic independence increased, their tolerance of marital infidelity, and of emotional and physical abuse, diminished. If you ever doubted that family stability depended on the oppression of women, you now have the proof. The proportion of divorces rises so inexorably that my figures are probably already out of date. In the developed world 40 per cent or more of marriages end in divorce, typically after seven or eight years, with a year or two to establish separation and then the actual divorce. Most of these divorces are initiated by wives. This is proper change. There’s no going back from here.

Another factor for Greer is the banks’ realisation that women make good customers:  

Banks were slow to wake up to the fact that women’s credit performance is much better than men’s, but they got there in the end. Now we have a worldwide system of microcredit, based on giving small loans to women, who won’t spend the money on prostitutes, booze, gambling and cigarettes. 

 (Read the whole article here.)

I interviewed one of Germany’s top women scientists this week and it was a privilege to do so. I asked her what advice she’d give young women going into science now and she said: one, get into the best lab possible so that you are exposed to excellence, and two, make sure the person you have a family with is prepared to do 50% of the work.

How remarkable, but also how simple. 50% of the work, that’s all it is. To me, that’s the revolution.


In other news, please don’t forget the Big Bad Bloggers Competition.

In still other news, this is my 500th post!


Beautiful Creatures

Can I just say how much I love 10-year-old girls? We had a bevy of them sleep over last night for L’s birthday and I’ve come away replete with their gorgeousness.

I love how they are on the cusp of childhood and womanhood and the way they swing between the two unselfconsciously. One minute they’re singing their hearts out to Rosenstoltz and Pink and Duffy, then they’re earnestly teaching each other board games and the next minute they’re on the floor playing farms. They watch Harry Potter and go to sleep cuddling their fluffy toys. Some of them, I might add, don’t sleep at all.

They love talking, to each other and to the grown-ups, and they haven’t swallowed any of the crap about being cool. Or if they have, they’ve forgotten it after an hour when they pull L’s four-year-old brother onto their backs to gallop him around the house.

I love their long legs and flat chests and how they haven’t started believing any of the lies society tells them about their bodies. I love how they’re still caught in the moment, not regretting the past or hoping for some unknown future. I love their potential – what will little S, who I’ve known since she was three, and who is a now beautiful dancer and talented pianist, one day be? Will they be zookeepers and scientists and pilots and archeologists, as they now dream?

I hope the people who are raising these gorgeous daughters are also raising gorgeous sons. I want these 10-year-olds to be respected and loved by men who are as wise and lovely as they are.

Yesterday I glimpsed the future. I hope that the impending teenage years don’t chip away their trust in the world. I hope their dreams don’t implode. I hope the men they encounter don’t expect them to fit into a mould of femininity that constricts their sense of self. If they meet such men, I hope they have the confidence to say, “Stuff you. This is me. Take or leave it.”

Let the future be kind to them, beautiful creatures that they are.


Women Writing

I finished the second draft of my novel on Monday night. This was a complete rewrite of the first draft, and took six months to complete. (The first draft took 15 months.) When I finished, I felt scattered, unsure, anxious. I was prepared to dive in and start a third draft in the voice of yet another character – the feeling of being scattered also pertains to the novel, where I can’t seem to commit to a protagonist. It’s the same story, over and over again, with different narrators.

I went to my new writers’ hangout, Litopia, where I received some sage advice: put the manuscript in a drawer and take a rest from it. Look at it again in six or eight weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, carry around a notebook and note down any novel-related epiphanies. Write other things. Just don’t look at the manuscript.

After a day’s grief (this is my baby; we’ve been together for 21 months), I decided to follow the advice. My emotional reaction to the words of wisdom was indication enough that I absolutely needed to pause, reflect and gain some distance from the words in which I’ve been entangled for nearly two years. I am in no place right now to edit; I’m too tied up to be objective, and I strongly feel it is too early to bring in my readers.

One of the books I read this year was A Room of One’s Own, which made me think about my own writing process, about interruption and about having to live life as well as write about it. Then I read Rachel Cusk’s superb article on women writers in today’s Guardian. Here she talks about the woman writer:

What compromises women – babies, domesticity, mediocrity – compromises writing even more. She is on the right side of that compromise – just. Her own life is one of freedom and entitlement, though her mother’s was probably not. Yet she herself is not a man. She is a woman: it is history that has brought about this difference between herself and her mother. She can look around her and see that while women’s lives have altered in some respects, in others they have remained much the same. She can look at her own body: if a woman’s body signifies anything, it is that repetition is more powerful than change. But change is more wondrous, more enjoyable. It is pleasanter to write the book of change than the book of repetition. In the book of change one is free to consider absolutely anything, except that which is eternal and unvarying. “Women’s writing” might be another name for the book of repetition.

Cusk talks about how both Woolf’s book and de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex shaped the discourse of 20th century women’s writing, a discourse that is about property. She says, “A woman needs a room of her own to be able to write; thus her silence has been the silence of dispossession.”

How funny then, that as I put down the manuscript, I immediately began writing a story about a group of women who get themselves a room. Some like the version of themselves they find there, some learn something and take it back to their real lives, others are inspired to recreate themselves and still others run in terror back to their own lives, hating their new reflection. What happens to us when we are graced with space and time? Why is it so scary? Why is it so much easier to be in the flow of everyday life and not think too hard? Not challenge ourselves?

My family have made sacrifices over the last 21 months for me to get my novel written – my children have had a mother constantly at the laptop, they’ve probably watched too much TV (though they have done some stunning independent crafting too – my son turns out to be a dab hand at basteln), I’ve earned less in the last two years than I have previously, and I’ve been grumpy and distracted. On the other hand, they have a mother who has a passionate interest, and all three of them have written their own books this year, not necessarily completed, but the thought counts.

My writing life will continue to be a juggle, probably forever. But what I love is that as I’ve gained confidence, I’ve taken more time for myself, moved from writing sneakily or when people are sleeping, to openly spending large chunks of time writing. I’ve made the space in my life for my writing. I have given myself that gift, terrifying though it seemed at first to even suggest I deserved it.

Since I stopped writing my manuscript, I’ve written one short story, revived two old ones and started a fourth. Twenty-one months of writing means I have momentum, ideas and energy. I’m getting the novel-related epiphanies, as well as amazing support from online and real life friends. And my family are there, being sweet to me and greeting me with smiles when I deign to arise from the cellar.

I have given myself a room, I have allowed myself the time. All I have to do is keep writing.


Fighting Entitlement

One of the things that I’ve had to face as a white South African is that the many advantages I had were largely due to my privileged position – the apartheid government spent more money on my education, made sure the hospitals I went to were better and allowed me to live in leafier, safer suburbs than black kids my age. These were not things that came to me because I was a better person, but merely because I was white in a society that oppressed black people.

Something that comes when false privileges are built into society is a sense of entitlement. White South Africans had to let go the notion that they deserved their privileges and have had to adjust to the concept of earning them. White South Africans have also had to step back and allow the previously disadvantaged time to catch up – hence the government’s policies of affirmative action and social equity.

On Sunday night, a blogging friend of mine marched with 2000 other women in London’s Reclaim the Night march. They were marching against sexual abuse and violence against women and for women’s rights to walk the streets in safety. While on the march, while surrounded by other women and police, she was sexually abused. It is hard to believe, but a man – apparently one of a number who had been jeering, cat-calling and making lewd gestures at the marchers – pushed through the barricades, knocked her aside as she was marching and grasped her breasts. You can read her post here, and that of the friend she was marching with.

It is staggering and sickening to believe that an individual was so threatened by a group of women marching for their rights that he found it acceptable to assault one of them.

It shows that the streets still aren’t safe.

It shows that there are many men out there who still believe that they are entitled to abuse, jeer, grasp, grope, comment and instill fear.

It shows that we have to fight not only the privileges that still run artificially through society, but the entitlement that goes with it. (For anyone reading who may not know what male privilege is, let this blogger tell you. Here’s his checklist.)

And to the man who abused my friend, let me tell you that groupthink is not going to save you. The march goes on. We will march, both literally and metaphorically, until you understand that we are not for your taking, until you understand that our bodies are not yours, that you may not comment or point, that you may not approach, or turn violent when rebuffed. We will march until the night is safe again.

ETA: Those of you who live in London and want to show your solidarity can join tomorrow’s vigil in Trafalgar Square at 7pm to mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.


Women, AIDS and Poverty

I am writing a novel about AIDS in South Africa. God knows if it will ever sell, because it’s very depressing, but it’s also about love, hope and ridiculous self-belief so maybe there’s a small chance. The thing that angers me most about the AIDS epidemic in South Africa is that it affects the poorest, the most vulnerable, the least educated and of this group, the largest proportion is women. It’s as if for them, apartheid is happening all over again, but it’s an apartheid of rich versus poor, of haves versus have-nots, of those with sexual power and those without.

So, to mark this year’s Blog Action Day – which has poverty as its main theme – I want to talk about the place where poverty collides with gender inequality, and how both affect the AIDS epidemic in South Africa. When Thabo Mbeki became South Africa’s ex-president a few weeks ago, the one thing that stood out for me in the reams of press copy I read was this:

First his culpability in the death of hundreds of thousands of ­people in South Africa with HIV/Aids cannot be underestimated and its impact will be felt for generations. Death certification by Stats SA shows more than 1,5-million deaths in the ages 0-49 and more than two million new infections during his rule. The long-overdue roll-out of a comprehensive antiretroviral programme, compounded by state-sponsored pseudo-science, has left 524 000 people desperately in need of the life-saving treatment unable to access it. As a direct result life expectancy has dropped every year Mbeki has been in office.

(Zackie Achmat of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), writing in the M&G, 27 September. Whole article here.)

That’s 1,5 million people – children and their young, economically active parents – who are now dead. That’s another two million who have become infected, of whom a quarter cannot access the life-enhancing drugs. Of these people most were, and are, poor. What a legacy, Mr Mbeki. According to the TAC’s website, most of the people who are infected live in informal settlements. There are more women infected than men, and most of those infected are black South Africans.

As part of my research for my novel, I have read a book by Edwin Cameron, a judge who sits on South Africa’s Supreme Court and who is living with HIV. Called Witness to AIDS, the book is part autobiography, part analysis and it is gripping. In it he describes the guilt he feels in being able to afford, just barely, the anti-retroviral treatment he needs to stay alive when so many millions in the country were being denied access. Cameron also bravely decided to go public with his HIV status in 1999, in order to begin to counteract the negative stereotypes of people with AIDS. He says:

The external manifestations of stigma are horrific enough. At Christmastime 1998, a 36-year-old South African woman, Gugu Dlamini, was stoned and stabbed to death. The horror of her death has never been fully investigated, because her murderers were never held to account. The prosecution brought charges, but dropped them for lack of evidence. What is clear is that shortly before her death Gugu told Zulu-language radio listeners that she was living with HIV. Three weeks later, members of her own neighbourhood rounded on her. Her attackers accused her of shaming her community by announcing her HIV status … Three months after Gugu died I decided to announce publically that I was living with HIV.

One of the main topics in Witness to AIDS, and of vital importance to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like the TAC is access to drugs. There are two types of patients in South Africa: those who are privately insured and who acquire their drugs from dispensing doctors or pharmacies, and those who use the public health system. Here they can expect long queues and inconsistent service. Also, they have to get there. If you are poor and sick with AIDS and live in a rural village, you still need to find someone to help get you to the clinic in order to get your drugs. Poverty impedes people from getting treatment.

So, how do AIDS/HIV and poverty affect women specifically?

  1. Women and girls will be expected to give up their jobs and schooling to tend the sick, thus fuelling a cycle of poverty.
  2. The poorest households are mostly female-headed. Very often grandmothers, having nursed and buried their children, are left to raise their grandchildren, many of whom are also ill.
  3. There are also orphan-headed households, where the oldest child or oldest girl, takes care of the younger children.
  4. Society and customs do not allow women to abstain from sex or insist on condom use, so they are at heightened risk of infection.
  5. Women and girls in poverty are often forced to sell sex to survive, which opens them up to more risk of infection.
  6. Fear of abuse, or community retribution, discourage women from getting tested and seeking treatment.
  7. Lack of respect, and the custom of seeing women as commodities, means they are at risk of sexual abuse, rape and thus infection.

According to a paper by the HIV and Development Programme on poverty and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, the HIV epidemic has its origins in African poverty and unless and until poverty is reduced there will be little progress either with reducing transmission of the virus or an enhanced capacity to cope with its socio-economic consequences (my emphasis).

And the that question remains, for those who care, is what to do? There are many small ways to help make a difference:

1. Donate to Oxfam or another reputable NGO.

2. Join the Stop AIDS in Children campaign (see my side-bar).

3. Join a global volunteer programme.

4. Volunteer your professional services (I edit for an NGO in South Africa, and am about to start doing the same for one in Kenya).

5. Become a fan of The Girl Effect and spread the word that girls are the future.

6. Help a family affected by AIDS. PACSA is an NGO in the heart of the South African AIDS epidemic. I can put you in touch with the director, Danielle Gennrich. Through her, I am sending money to the widow and children of Tony Shelembe, an AIDS worker who died last year.

Edited to add: Following the wonderful example of LadyFi, I will make a donation for every comment on this post today to Global Giving’s project to Fight HIV/AIDS and build lives in South Africa. Why don’t you go and have a look at the amazing work they are doing?