Friday, 2 August 2013


A few years ago, coming back from a holiday with my family, I was stopped at the UK border. When I handed my passport over to the UKBA official, he looked me up and down, studied my ID, and then looked at me again, with an air of quizzical superiority. He then looked at my mother, who was standing next to me, and who is white. I am half-Chinese; my father, who was not with us (my parents are divorced) is from Hong Kong.

"Can you tell me how you know this boy?" the official said over my head, to my mother.

"I'm sorry?" was my mother's rather shocked reply.

"What is your relation to him?"

"He's my son," my mum said.

"Can you prove that?"

To put it mildly, it is deeply unpleasant to stand in a busy public space, with other people staring at you and the people behind you in the queue listening in, while an intimidating man in uniform questions your mother in an officious and sceptical tone and refers to you as nothing more than "this boy". I'm used to odd glances. My mum is white, my step-father is, so are my two little (half) sisters. I see people looking over, slightly bemused, when we're out as a family, no doubt a question along the lines of "why is that Asian boy with that white family?" floating about in their heads. I've grown accustomed to it. Now, in this moment, it was amplified. And my little sisters, too little to understand divorce and remarriage, and too little to have ever questioned or wondered why my skin and my surname were different to theirs, were now, for the very first time, being alerted to the fact that I was Other.

"What do you mean can I prove it?" my mother said, becoming increasingly ticked off.

"Do you have his birth certificate?" the official asked plainly.

This may shock you, but it hadn't occurred to us to pack my birth certificate. The official was told as much, and I was then informed that I may have to be detained (yes, detained) until such a time as my relation to these white people could be verified and my right to be in the United Kingdom established. At this point my parents were quite angry, and I was quite upset. Eventually, after liaising with his colleagues and asking us a few more questions, it was agreed that my family and I would be allowed to pass through the border this time, but next time we "should really carry all the necessary papers".

The UK is fast becoming a very scary place to be a person of colour. This happened to me, as I've said, a few years ago. A few years ago also, @SandiaElectrica experienced another despicable instance of racial profiling, this time on public transport, and this time carried out by the police (on the behalf, lest we forget, of the government), which you can and should read about here. The situation is getting worse. There have been many more reports of similar cases of racial profiling and interrogation. Then there is the furore surrounding what have been rightly dubbed the "racist vans", which inform "illegal immigrants" they should "GO HOME OR FACE ARREST". And yesterday on Twitter, there was an angry backlash against @ukhomeoffice's latest vulgar, xenophobic and disturbing use of the social media platform, as they told their followers how many "#immigrationoffenders" had been arrested today, even providing a few pixelated photographs to really put the tasteful cherry on the sickeningly bigoted cake. This is all happening, of course, against a backdrop of rising popularity for UKIP, a surge in EDL activities, an increasingly divisive and insidious public discourse and the political elite's shameful acceptance and propagation of racist terms of debate.

On a personal level, the number of instances of everyday racism which I've experienced have grown rapidly. It used not to happen that much (let me stress, that much). Nowadays, I know that if I go on a night out, at least one stranger will at some point throw a racist comment in my face ("Look it's Gok Wan!", "Look it's Psy!" "Look it's Jackie Chan!", "Can you do Kung Fu?", "Do you like sushi?", all of these things have been said to me at some point). One of the worst experiences occurred when I was walking alone late at night through suburban Liverpool, on my way to a friend's house. As I passed a bus stop a teenager started loudly and obnoxiously doing his idea of an "impression" of a Chinese/generically Southeast Asian person. His mates laughed. I wanted to say something but I was alone, it was dark, and quite honestly, I was scared. So I put my head down and carried on walking.

The experience of being racially profiled, of being targeted because of the colour of your skin and your funny-sounding name, be it by an immigration official, a person in a club, or a teenager at a bus stop, is awful. When it happens to me, I immediately feel ashamed, small and worthless. I am reduced to physical appearance, and I know the person who is doing the reducing is also attaching a plethora of cultural and social stereotypes to me, they are assuming they know who I am and they are judging me. Sometimes - often - ridiculing and attacking me on that basis.

The point is, casual racism in day-to-day life, the spread of insular, xenophobic right-wing political groups and the activities of the Home Office, the police, the government and the political establishment at large, are all inextricably linked. The growth of one facilitates the growth of the other, in a poisonous downward spiral hurtling towards - and I do not use this word lightly - fascism.

We absolutely must not accept the current environment, and we must challenge it whenever and wherever possible. That's easier said than done, but it's essential that we try. For the first time in my life I am wondering whether I still want to call the United Kingdom my home, and I will admit I am more conscious now than I have ever been about my race. I shouldn't have to feel that way, and nor should anybody else.

On the way back home from the airport that day I was reeling after what had just happened to me. An official, a responsible man in uniform, the kind of person I had been brought up to respect and trust, had spoken about me like I was an object, an alien. He'd interrogated my mother about how she knew me, and in the process made me feel further away and more cut off from her and my family than the different shades of our skin had ever done. Was I, from now on, always going to be looked upon suspiciously, on account of my race? Was that the country we lived in?

The next time we went on holiday, we took my birth certificate.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

On Gove, O Levels and education

Hardly a week goes by without some new policy either being leaked from or revealed by the DfE. The education secretary, Michael Gove, seems to live for the irresistible glare of the media spotlight. And his latest brainwave - to get rid of 'dumbed-down GCSEs' and bring back 'rigorous O Levels' (in the entirely objective and balanced words of the Daily Mail) - has certainly garnered a lot of attention.

At the moment, we do not have enough detail, due to the plans being leaked before the DfE was ready to unveil them formally. But let's look at what we do know. The National Curriculum is to be scrapped and instead of a range of exam boards issuing different papers, there will be one gold standard national paper drawn up by a single board and sat by every student. There will be 'harder' exams in English, maths and the three sciences as separate disciplines, as well as history, geography and modern languages. But it is this which is the biggest bone of contention - 'Less intelligent pupils will sit simpler exams, similar to the old CSEs...Questions on these papers will emphasise real life situations like counting change in a shop or reading a railway timetable'. The strikingly elitist and condescending tone is unmistakably Tory, and indeed unions have already warned of a return to 'a two-tier system'. They are right to worry. I'm worrying too.

Underlying the entirety of the Tory-led government's policy on education are a number of erroneous, damaging and politically motivated principles. We cannot yet say if the new O Levels will be just like the old ones, but we can say that Gove is quite the nostalgia freak. He envisages a return to the classroom of the 1950s - think Latin grammar and reciting Tennyson by heart; a solid and traditional 'British' education. Like all rosy and romanticised visions of the Glorious Days of Yesteryear, it is not to be trusted. To see this, look no further than the fact that students will now, just like the good old days, be banned from taking set texts into English exams. This is is an absurd proposal, based on the equally absurd idea that a person's appreciation of literature can be measured through their ability to remember quotes. I can love
King Lear & have a whole lot of interesting, original things to say about it. But if I can't memorise Edgar's speech in Act II, sc iii, I'm fucked. It angers me, because reverting to the old methods of forcing kids to learn passages by rote will make them hate the piece they're studying - and that is a tragedy.

If Gove does indeed want to bring back old style O Levels, he ought to realise that it is a myth that they are so much harder and more challenging that modern day GCSEs. As Adrian Elliot notes in the TES, 'Only the very brightest pupils sat O- or A-levels then - a fraction of the numbers who now sit public exams - and yet they failed in droves'. Moreover, a Cambridge Assessment study of English scripts from 2004 compared with ones from 1993 and '94, as well as O Level scripts from 1980, found that there had been 'an overall improvement in standards. Spelling was better... and in all other respects - content, writing, vocabulary and punctuation - the scripts of 2004 were better than those of 1993 and 1994'. I sat my GCSEs only a year ago, and trust me, they are no walk in the park. They require real knowledge, real skills and hard work. And they are by no means perfect, but I am always deeply offended and infuriated when every results day - without fail - the achievements of so many young people who have worked their socks off, are poopooed in the national media. It seems we enjoy nothing more than lambasting kids - for being rude and boisterous, or withdrawn and antisocial; for being lazy and undedicated, or doing well in their silly and facile exams.

In addition to nostalgia, the holy doctrine of competition also makes up the bedrock of coalition policy on education. Already we have a system dogmatically fixated with league tables, assessments and constant, grinding examination. The belief is that the principle of the markets - that rivalry drives up standards - can be applied just as neatly to schools. New Labour, unsurprisingly, went along with this idea, and the Tories wish to accelerate it aggressively. Free schools, academies, even the possibility of profit-driven schools  - all contemptible assaults on the education system - demonstrate this, and so too does this latest policy. At the age of just 15, kids will be divided into the clever and the thick. Sure, they'll dress it up to make it sound nicer, but that is in effect what will happen if Gove gets his way. As ever, the Tories wilfully ignore the connection between social class and academic achievement. I've heard stories of teachers who can see a bunch of kids on their first day in Year 7, and predict with startling accuracy what grades each of them will get 5 years later. As well as this, the emphasis will be unflinchingly placed - even more so than it already is - on examination success in the 'real' subjects: maths, English, the sciences, languages. Again this is a regression to old methods, and it fundamentally misunderstands the true purpose of education.

In a lecture given to TED in February 2006, Sir Ken Robinson, a highly-esteemed international educationalist, said, 'There isn't an education system on the planet that teaches dance everyday to children the way we teach mathematics. Why? Why not? I think maths is very important, but so is dance...Academic ability has come to dominate our view of intelligence...And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they're not, because the thing they were good at wasn't valued at school, or was actually stigmatised'. His words have immediate relevance. The government's elitist and nostalgic view of education is rooted in this intellectual snobbery, which has time only for the A students, while the rest are blamed for their inferiority and given an exam that their weak little minds will hopefully be able to grasp. The system already suffocates creativity, and tells kids that they're only worth something if they excel at calculus or can say something smart about a fancy poem. Screw vocational courses and forget the likes of drama or art or food technology. These are 'Mickey Mouse' subjects, for the lowlier non-academics. It is a crying shame, it is unacceptable and the new O Levels will only serve to cement these notions into crushing rigidity.

It would seem only sensible that politicians who want to improve their country's education system should take a look at the methods of those who are doing a better job. The PISA survey is conducted every three years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and in every survey since 2000, Finland has 'ranked at or near the top'. In Finland, private schools do not exist. Educational establishments are not allowed to charge tuition fees. They have no standardised examinations, but rather a student's ability is assessed by their own teachers, through independent, self-made tests. Moreover, there is zero attention paid to competition and academic supremacy. The focus is on equality and cooperation. Far from a system that splits kids in two based on exam results, the Finnish system is founded on the principle that each child 'should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location'. Maybe there is a reason Finland is ignored by the Tories.

Gove's latest education policy stays true to form, following on from the same ideas which make up all previous proposals. The fact that it was leaked, and was being drawn up behind the back of the Liberal Democrats and without reference to the select committee, shows, once more, a government in incompetent, shambolic disarray. But more than that, they have no democratic mandate with which to impose these reforms. The Tories gained just 36.1% at the last election, and such radical and sweeping educational changes were in neither party's manifesto or the coalition agreement. Worse still, Gove's plans will not even require Acts of Parliament and are designed in such a way as to be practically irreversible once established. As with the NHS, the government has launched a stealthy, concerted and ideological attack on education - dressed up in the words of 'modernisation' and 'improvement'. In the public consultation coming up in Autumn, we must all make as much noise as possible. Unions, schools, teachers and students will fight this tooth and nail, because what is it at stake could not be more important - the education and future of our children and the nature of our society. The case must be made for a fair and equitable educational system, a system that fosters rather than stifles creativity, a system that favours cooperation over competition, a system that snubs intellectual elitism and is committed not to to the excellence of a few but to the fulfilment and well-being of each and every child. We must make that case now, we must make it loudly, and we must win.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Please vote. I wish I could

Voting is a wonderful thing. It's a chance to voice your anger, dissatisfaction or, as the case may be, approval of those in power. We often take it for granted, but when you go into your local polling station and put a cross next to your preferred candidate's name, you're making a statement, a statement which many thousands of people the world over are forbidden to make: "I am a citizen of this country, and I have a say in how its run". 

Cynics, please put down those pitchforks. 

Our system is nowhere near perfect - and if you follow me on Twitter or know me in real life (you lucky thing, you), then you'll be aware that I have no qualms about saying so. Often with lots of swearing. But I do not buy into the apathetic cries of "all politicians are the same" or "voting is pointless". Yes, party politics is often a royal pain in the arse, and the two main players have far from squeaky clean records. Yes, corporations, the financial sector and media monopolies have too big a sway over the agenda. Yes, cash for influence is a huge problem. And yes, the First-Past-the-Post system is an utter joke. But you still have that unalienable right, you still have that unsilenceable voice, and if it didn't matter, the folk in Westminster would not have sleepless nights over opinion polls.

And we should not just bitterly accept the things that make modern politics such a dirty and depressing business. Be active. Join a party that best fits your principles, and if you want to change it, work with others to do so. Write, lobby, campaign, organise - for more transparency, for electoral reform, for money and politics to be separated. Go on protests, occupy shops, shout until you're listened to. Join a union and withdraw your labour. Voting is not an entity in and of itself, it goes alongside the many rights we have as citizens and which enable us to call ourselves a 'democracy'. 

It's very easy to complain, but we forget that we are the ones with the power. We elect individuals not to tell us how to live our lives, but to represent our views. Maybe if we stopped being so apathetic, politicians would stop breaking their promises. Maybe if we stopped lamenting that our vote means nothing, and instead fought for a fairer and more pluralist system, we'd find that a cross on a ballot paper can truly change things. 

These are just local elections, but the point stands. MPs and councillors work for us. If you find their service lacking, bloody well tell them so. If they fail to change, fire them. Don't stay put and capitulate to the lie that there is no alternative. 

Democracy is one of humanity's greatest inventions. I'd like to see it improved - by, for starters, adopting a better electoral system, doing away with safe seats and lowering the voting age (this irritatingly opinionated 17-year-old does not like being disenfranchised). As a socialist, I'd also like to see it extended beyond politics and to the economy, to all aspects of public life. But fundamentally, I'd like to see it valued. Current democracy is imperfect, warped by vested interests, hijacked by oligarchs. But that does not mean it should be rejected by us. It's too important. It's something so many do not have, something so many are fighting and have fought for, often with their lives. It's time we reclaimed democracy and transformed it into what it should be - the voice of the people. So please, don't shun your civic duty. Go out. Organise. Change things. And vote. 

Thursday, 8 March 2012

What feminism means to me

To me, feminism means equality.

Feminism means fighting with every fibre of your being for a better world: one in which a person's sexual organs do not determine the rest of their life; one in which a person is not harassed, abused and oppressed because they happen to have a vagina.

Feminism means combating gender essentialism. It means rejecting and challenging social constructs, it means refusing to accept that little boys play with toy cars, while little girls play with toy dolls; that little boys go out and explore, while little girls stay at home with their pretend miniature kitchens. It means believing that gender is a profoundly complex issue, which can't be reduced to black and white terms. It means inclusiveness, it does not mean transphobia.

Feminism means endless campaigning. It means rejecting the media's idea of wimmin's issues being somehow niche, when this, in fact, is the reality:

Feminism means fighting for equal pay, better maternity laws and free childcare. It means tackling the casual sexism of the workplace. It means demanding that essentials like tampons are free on the NHS. It means lobbying for better sex education in schools, and ensuring advice and contraception are available to those who want and need them. It means standing up to every attempt by the state to control a woman's body. 


Feminism does not mean pushing through a programme of cuts which will hit women hardest. It does not mean closing Sure Start centres and slashing benefits. It does not mean launching an attack on women - of all classes - to pay for a crisis caused by the financial elite. It does not mean cutting vital government funding to domestic violence charities, which could well result in their closure, putting hundreds of lives in very real danger. It does mean putting two fingers up to the vicious clusterfuck of morons who currently govern us. 

Feminism means unity, it means solidarity, it means working together for a common cause, but it also means healthy debate and disagreement. It means confronting the rise of 'free-market feminism', a warped ideology which purports to be in favour of female equality, but it is quite happy with the social inequality and exploitation wrought by neoliberal capitalism. 

Amber Rudd MP, Theresa May MP, Louise Mensch MP and Claire Perry MP 

Feminism means tackling misogyny in public life, both verbal and physical. It means challenging the overt sexism of the the press, which, in the words of Laurie Penny, "is the dirty oil in the engine, the juice that makes the whole shuddering sleaze-machine run smoothly". It means not being afraid to take on a media which consistently objectifies women, which airbrushes models to super-skinny, blemish-free goddesses and then demands that its readers, viewers and listeners lose weight, lather themselves with cream, shave, pluck,  scrub, conceal - lest they displease their demanding male overlords.

Feminism means combating 'banter'. It means exposing the grotesqueness of 'lad culture' and online swamps of chauvinism like UniLad. It means refusing to let rape 'jokes' go unchallenged, for nominally 'humorous' sexist slurs to go unquestioned. It means taking a vocal stand against the likes of this: 

And this: 


Feminism means putting an end - full stop - to slut-shaming. It means making the point that a woman's sex life is her own god-damn business and nobody else's. It means tearing to shreds the idea of a man's sexual promiscuity being amusingly 'laddy', while a woman's is "slaggish" or immoral. 

Feminism means putting an end to rape culture. It means emphasising the point that rape is rape; that it isn't only when a cloaked figure jumps out at you from the bushes. It means challenging and eradicating the inherent sexism of the police, and working to ensure that women are not afraid to report a sexual assault. 


Feminism means rejecting the still persistent idea of women as carers and men as breadwinners. It means smashing the glass ceiling into non-existence, and demanding female representation in the worlds of politics and business, to name just two. It means making a noise whenever a comedy panel show or a current affairs programme has solely male guests. It means challenging the fact that 78% of newspaper articles are written by men, 72% of Question Time contributors are men and 84% of reporters and guests on Radio 4's Today programme are men. 

An Extract from A Doll's House, a play by the 19th Century playwright, Henrik Ibsen:

Nora: What do you consider my most sacred duties?

Torvald: Do I need to tell you that? Are they not your duties to me your husband and your children?

Nora: I believe I have other duties.

Torvald: That you have not. What duties could those be?

Nora: Duties to myself. 

Torvald: Before all else you are a wife and mother. 

Nora: I don't believe that any longer. I believe that before all else I am a human being.

Feminism - and today especially - means celebrating women throughout history and championing the huge progress that has been made; be it universal female suffrage, sexual liberation, the establishment of fairer laws and many more. It means singing the praises of influential, inspirational female figures of the past and present - writers, journalists, scientists, activists, campaigners, pioneers, visionaries. But it also means remembering that the war is far from over; that though leaps have been made, we are still a long way away from full equality. It means remembering that women in every country are still oppressed. It means remembering that feminism's work is not done. It means considering how the mother of feminism - Mary Wollstonecraft - would react if she saw the state of the world 215 years after her death. 

Created by the eternally wonderful @stavvers
Feminism means never giving up. Feminism means standing shoulder to shoulder fighting for a better, more just world. Feminism means faith in fundamental equality. Feminism means laughing, crying, rejoicing, shouting, demanding, challenging, striving. Feminism means getting angry. Feminism means believing in the radical notion that women are fucking HUMAN BEINGS. Feminism means smashing the patriarchy - the kyriarchy - into a thousand tiny pieces.

My name is Sam Liu, and I am a feminist.

Friday, 4 November 2011

An open letter to Ed Miliband

Dear Ed,

I was there on 27th September when you addressed the Labour Party conference and the nation. And, believe it or not, I take the unfashionable view that you did a good job. There were parts I fundamentally disagreed with, but the vision you began to set out instilled within me a feeling which I haven't associated with Labour for a depressingly long time: hope.

Of course, words and deeds are two entirely different things. Especially in politics.

In your leader's speech this year, you said, "In every generation, there comes a moment when we need to change the way we do things". You are right. Now, perhaps more than ever in recent history, the old system has shown itself to be catastrophically unworkable and deeply unjust. If ever there was a need for new ideas, new approaches, new ways of doing things, it is now. In your speech, you painted yourself and our mutual party as being the vehicles of this desperately needed change. But are they? To be true to your promise, you must do as well as say. Will you?

Will you join the hundreds of thousands of people the world over and fully support the implementation of a Robin Hood Tax, a tiny charge on financial transactions that could raise £20 billion in the UK alone? It goes some way to making the bankers pay for the crisis they caused, but for which blameless citizens are now being made to suffer. The money raised from this tax could not just save countless hospitals, schools and libraries, it could build more of them. David Cameron, despite a growing number of G20 nations getting behind the idea, still opposes it. Will you set yourself apart from this out-of-touch Tory?

Will you support the protesters camping outside St Paul's (and elsewhere in the country) as they fight for a world without poverty and inequality? I don't expect you to get out a tent and go and join them, carrying with you a placard decrying the evils of capitalism (though, by all means, be my guest to do so). But at least say, "The Labour Party supports the right to protest. And we also support the movement for fairness, equality and peace". Will you be on the side of the many, not the few? The 99% vs the 1?

Will you criticise the shameful way in which the BBC has systematically targeted "benefit cheats"? Will you point out, as @suey2y did on her blog (which I implore you to read), that we already have one of the toughest welfare systems in the economically developed world? Will you bring up the fact that tax evasion costs the Treasury 15 times more than benefit fraud? The right-wing press and the BBC may wish to smear innocent people, lie and distort the facts, but do you? Instead of bowing down to the tabloids, why not do the dignified thing and be true to your principles? It is better, is it not, to make public opinion rather than follow it?

Will you read this excellent piece by Deborah Orr and accept that Britain is facing a crisis in education? Rightly, you have already apologised for a lot of Labour's mistakes. But will you accept that we also got this wrong? And will you vehemently oppose Michael Gove's toxic agenda?

Will you join the plethora of economists (not to mention the New York Times) in rejecting George Osborne's disastrous plan for the economy? Ed Balls is right to say that the UK economy is flat-lining, with just 0.5% of growth in the last quarter. But will your party provide the alternative? Will you state fact and say: cutting and austerity do not work? Will you instead call for growth stimuli, investment in infrastructure and a radical re-haul of the financial system as a whole?

Will you say the criminalisation of squatting is wrong? Your shadow justice minister, Andy Slaughter, condemned the government's targeting of those with "severe mental health or addiction problems". But with so many people homeless in the UK and so many houses abandoned or not in use, will you go further? And will you take a leaf out of your predecessor's book, Clement Attlee, whose post-war government built over 4,000,000 new council houses at a time when the country's deficit and economic situation were both far more precarious than they are now?

Will you say it was wrong of the United States to cut its crucial funding to UNESCO simply because they gave Palestine full membership? I applaud the fact that your shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, said Labour were willing to support Palestine's bid for statehood. But will you remain loyal to this promise? Will you and the Labour Party stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with your Palestinian counterparts?

Will you say that increasing military aggressiveness towards Iran is a wrong move on the political stage? I was elated when you said Iraq was a mistake, but you will learn from it? You and other politicians wear your poppies, but will you be true to what they represent - the futility and horror of warfare, which we should always, always avoid?

Will you support the millions of teachers, health professionals and public servants as they exercise their fundamental right to withdraw their labour in protest at the Tory-led government's unfair pension reforms? You have constantly said that strikes should be a last resort, and I totally agree. But when the government still insists on imposing these changes, with only a few concessions, will you at last accept that public sector workers have no other options? Will you be true to the Labour Party's founding values and support ordinary working people as they stand up to the rich and powerful elite?

I clapped your speech on 27th September. In fact, I even joined in with the rest of the hall and gave you a standing ovation. You took the first integral steps to lay out the foundations of a vision - a vision for change, a vision for equality. It was far, far from perfect, but it was a start. For it to mean anything though, you have to stick to it. The opportunities to make the Labour Party a force for good, and to change the society we live in, are staring you in the face. Now is the time to be bold, and grab them. But the question I am asking is - will you?

Friday, 16 September 2011

Topman, misogyny and feminism

When I saw this, I can honestly say I was not shocked:

Disgusted? Yes. But did seeing such a casual display of misogyny in 21st Century Britain surprise me? Not in the slightest. If you've been living under a rock for the past few days, allow me to explain. The above image is a new T-shirt recently released by the high street giant, Topman, which, until the backlash against it, was on sale in shops and online. As you can see, it breezily compares women to animals which men have a right to own and, presumably, use and abuse at their will. Lovely stuff, eh?

I am proud that so many people recognised the vileness of this item of clothing and took a stand against it. Topman was forced to withdraw the monstrosity, such was the anger it sparked. So can we conclude that this crude chauvinism is merely an aberration on the behalf of one company from the gender-equal norm? The answer, sadly, is no. 

Misogyny of the sort displayed above is everywhere; in schools, offices and, indeed, homes up and down the country. I have lost count of the number of disgustingly offensive groups and pages I have seen on Facebook. These include: Never hit a woman. No matter how bad the sandwich is, A girls [sic] period should be referred to as "Blow job week" and a fan page for Women who know their place to name but an infinitesimal number (and those, would you believe, are relatively mild). And not just this. Quite literally, a day does not go by where I don't encounter a misogynistic comment, be it a scrap of a conversation I hear when in school or on the bus, or some raucous laughter, the catalyst of which, I soon ascertain, is an hilarious rape joke. What's more, women are forced to put up with sexual harassment from perfect strangers day-in, day-out. On adverts, women are told that lathering themselves with expensive creams, eating nothing but two bowls of cereal for a week and investing in the latest fashion will keep them young and beautiful, safe from the judgement and ostracisation of a society which deems them "useless" when they are no longer pretty and fruitful. Still we live in a world which rigidly adheres to gender stereotypes. Go into any supermarket and you'll find a pink section for "girls' magazines" and a blue one for "boys' magazines". The former of these will deal with make-up, celebrity gossip and fashion. The latter with football, cars and gadgets. This segregation continues into teenage- and adulthood, with "girlie nights in" and "lads' nights out". We may pride ourselves on women no longer being forced to stay at home and rear children. But look at the reality of things. Make no mistake, the 50s attitude still lingers in the minds of many. And even now this government has launched an assault on women and, in particular, those messengers of Satan, single mothers, with their programme of brutal cuts to essential services. Speaking of politics, the recent Nadine Dorries debacle illustrates quite starkly that there are still those who believe the state should be in control of a woman's body. We know we're in a sorry situation when a white, middle-aged, male Tory comes on Newsnight and pontificates about the evils of abortion. 

The point is this: equality before the law and gender balance in the world of work are not enough. Attitudes still remain. The patriarchy is alive and kicking and mere Acts of Parliament ain't gonna get rid of it. Misogyny is commonplace in the present day, and people are not horrified by it as they would be by, say, racism. In fact, let's remodel that T-shirt. Let's imagine it saying: Nice New Black Slave. What breed is she?. Now even the morally bankrupt knobs at Topman wouldn't dream of putting that on one of their products. And yet, it's perfectly fine, funny even, to imply that women are nothing more than the slaves and pets of their male overlords. Sexism and racism are as bad as each other. The sooner this is realised, the better. 

And if anyone calls me "humourless" and protests that those Facebook groups and that top are "just a joke", I say this. It is it "just a joke" when women are abused and raped every day, often by men they know and trust? Is it "just a joke" when women are too afraid to walk the streets alone at night? It is"just a joke" when a 10-year-old girl is kept up at night with worries about her appearance and weight? You say that top is merely a joke. I say it is merely the manifestation of the deeply-rooted, poisonous misogyny which is present in every aspect of our lives.  

So I'd encourage you to boycott the sexist, tax-dodging Topman, and to combat misogyny wherever you find it. Feminism has a lot of work left to do yet if it wishes to establish real gender equality, but I believe such a world is attainable. Every revolution begins with the words "No more". It's up to you to use those words. The patriarchy is waiting to be smashed. 

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

A symptom of our society

We all know what's been happening for the past week, so I won't give a preamble. Instead, let's cut to the chase: attempting to understand and talking about the reasons behind the actions is not the same as condoning them. The events we have seen taking place in cities across the country, the looting, the destruction and the violence, are unacceptable. I, and pretty much everybody else, condemn them.

The media has been abuzz with cries of "opportunistic criminality" and "mindless thuggery". Pundits have lined up to denounce the rioting one by one as totally dissimilar to what happened in the 80s - when the people on the streets were protesting, when they had a political point to make. Now we've just got "scumbags" and "feral rats" seizing a lack of order to get themselves a free new pair of trainers and a plasma screen TV. 

But that is just too simple. 

Britain is one of the most unequal societies in the Western world. We may tell ourselves it is not so and endlessly repeat that (in?)famous line of Tony Blair's: "we're all middle-class now". Nonetheless, it just isn't the case. With the rise of Margaret Thatcher came the domination of neo-liberal dogma. The 80s saw a counter-revolution in British society. Suddenly, material wealth was the only source of happiness, money was king and greed was good. Thatcherism set out to transform us all into property-owning worshippers of the almighty free market. But not everyone can become middle-class. Some people are left behind. 

The legacy of the political experiment of the 80s is the British underclass. Thatcherism, through the destruction of industry and the shackling of the unions, ensured the "respectable working class" became antiquity. Left over from this assault was a whole swathe of British society who hadn't crawled their way up the social ladder and we're told it was their fault as they were lazy, feckless and unambitious. The underclass has not only been abandoned by the mainstream, they have been stigmatised and derided by it. They have been told they live the way they live out of choice, not because of a deeply unjust system of privilege. They have been dismissed,  labelled as "benefit scroungers", "work-shy scum" and "chavs".  All the time, the middle-classes have taken over the worlds of politics and the media. And thus the underclass does not have a voice in Parliament and is criticised in newspapers by journalists who haven't the foggiest idea what life for them is actually like. Members of the underclass live their lives in poor, run-down areas and come from usually dysfunctional families. Many end up criminals. Some turn to alcohol and drugs because, after all, they must pass the time somehow and substance abuse has the happy effect of allowing you to forget the hell you must endure day-in, day-out. We seem to have gone backwards. Britain has never seemed so socially segregated. 

And so, when a riot breaks out in Tottenham, people elsewhere see it happening and think to themselves, "Why the fuck don't we do the same?" So they do. And it happens again. It is a domino effect. The people rioting have nothing to lose, they have no hope for the future, they do not feel part of a country, let alone a community. Smashing things up is a venting of years of anger and disaffection and despair. Stealing and vandalising gives them a thrill, and it gets them noticed by a world that has constantly shot them down. They steal clothes and electronic items because we live in a society obsessed with rampant consumerism, where having the latest this and newest that is the gateway to eternal bliss. And then people are surprised when these young kids on the streets, who haven't had anything like the education enjoyed by the middle-classes, can't articulate a political theory. What do you expect them to say, that they're mobilising against the bourgeoisie and overthrowing capitalism? There is no grand political ideal uniting this rioting. This rioting is just a desperate expression of hopelessness.   

The populist, right-wing reaction to these riots has been truly sickening. Scores of people have called for the use of plastic bullets and water canons, both of which can cause severe injury and even death. In addition, more police brutality has been proffered as a possible solution. It is beyond me how anyone can possibly think that fighting violence with even more drastic violence would work. It should register in any logical mind that deploying the army to "crush the bastards" will only lead to a fierce backlash from the rioters, resulting in more burnt cars and destroyed high streets. And calling those on the streets "scumbags" and "rats" will also only perpetuate the problem. It is language and treatment like that that has got us where we are now. 

The rioting is horrific and awful and I want it to stop. We all want it stop. It is wrecking lives and causing so much pain. But we cannot ignore the fact that the events of this week are indicative of a much wider malaise. The rioting is a symptom of our society, our broken society. A symptom of a breathtakingly unequal society, a society segregated between us and them; the middle-classes and what is regarded as the feckless, feral and even sub-human underclass. Will the terror of the past few days jolt the political establishment awake? I highly doubt it. Already we are witnessing an assault on the working-class by the coalition - through the swingeing cuts to public services, tuition fees, the scrapping of EMA, the closure of libraies and so much more. All the while, bankers pocket multi-million bonuses, businesses are allowed to dodge their taxes and the elite try desperately to preserve the free market capitalist system which appears increasingly to be collapsing in on itself. What's really needed is change and a re-assessment of our present culture. If we fail to address once and for all the profound problems at the heart of our society, then I fear we will see repeats of this week's events in the very near future. 

Some must-read pieces on the UK riots: