Archive for March 2014

Men need to talk to men about violence against women.

A few weeks ago, I was at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where I was taking part in a panel discussion about what men and boys could do to promote women’s rights in Africa and its diaspora.  I felt privileged to be invited along, yet also somewhat nervous: privileged because I had been invited by a group of people whom I deeply respected, but nervous because, as men and boys, we are not doing nearly enough.   The discussion was very good, and good-humoured until the last – and the most memorable – question of all.  A woman rose to her feet and, perhaps observing that a slight air of self-congratulation seemed to have settled over our all-male panel, she asked us: “Where is your anger?”
She was referring to our apparent lack of fury about violence against women; a phenomenon described by Margaret Chan, the Secretary-General of the World Health Organisation, as “a global health problem of epidemic proportions”. Chan made her remarks upon the launch last June of a United Nations report into this issue, which found that “more than a third of women worldwide are affected by physical or sexual violence, many at the hands of an intimate partner”.
More than a third. This is an overwhelming proportion, and is therefore a statistic that, in my view, cannot be repeated enough. If we are to regard violence against women as a global health problem, then it should be regarded and reported upon with the same urgency as AIDS, malaria or tuberculosis. Nothing less will do.
Because, again: more than a third. The other day, I posted a link on Facebook about a woman who had been physically assaulted by a stranger in the street, and who following this brutal event was now raising many thousands of pounds for a rape crisis centre in Oxford. Over the next few hours, I was horrified to learn just how common an experience this was for my female friends. Other than the grim theme of spurned men responding with force, I noticed something else: that this conversation, along with most others like it over the years, was one that I was conducting almost entirely with women. And there aren’t statistics on this kind of thing, but I think there’s a missing piece in this puzzle, which is that men generally don’t seem to talk to other men about violence against women.
Why is this? Well, maybe because the issue itself is an uncomfortable one. But why is it uncomfortable? I partly suspect this is because it would involve acknowledging that the problem is in our midst: that the abusers may be among our friends, may be within our family. The thought that I may have been close to someone who has used force against a woman is almost too numbing to contemplate.
But such squeamishness is of no use to anyone. Worse than that, it is detrimental. Men who are physically abusive towards women are not magically demarcated from other men. They are among us: proud, jealous, domineering, possessive, they very often are us.
What, then, should we do?  Well, on a formal level, it would be great if we could study feminist theory in schools as carefully as we study the civil rights movement. This would remove feminism from the current intellectual ghetto which seems to suggest that it is only a subject that women should think or care about. That might help to lead to a world where casual sexism attracts as much distaste as casual racism.
Simply, and informally, it would also help if more of us were more willing to intervene wherever we see women being verbally harassed by other men as they go about their daily business. This is easier said than done: after all, the kind of man who is brazen enough to call a woman something filthy in the street is often capable of escalating things very swiftly, physically and dangerously against the fellow male who calls him out. Hell hath no fury like a man scorned.
Less dramatically, we as men can also talk more amongst ourselves about these issues: and, therefore, begin to pull up some of the roots of sexual entitlement that have led to violence on this scale. I believe that, with the aid of these discussions, we will one day find a cure for this epidemic.

“The Burden of Beauty”: a note on my visit to Brazil.


I have just visited Brazil, where I spent ten days working on a documentary that I will be presenting for the BBC World Service. The documentary, called “The Burden of Beauty” and due out in May, will take a look at the pressure on the host nation not only to win the World Cup, but to win it in a style befitting their most glorious forefathers. Towards the end of my visit, a friend asked me if I had enjoyed it. I tried to agree, but instead I sort of nodded. Enjoyment wasn’t the word.  I didn’t just enjoy it: I loved it.  It was overwhelming.

I have always seen football as two things: first and foremost, as a game, and secondly, as a sport. I love the game: the playfulness, the freedom, the spontaneity, the self-expression. So often, though, I have found myself hating the sport: the snarling money-men, the growling profiteers, the blindly tribal. This isn’t what I signed up for when I first set foot upon a ball. I write about football now, something which pays a substantial part of my bills, but I spend more time occupied with the sport than with the game. Learning more and more of the sport’s excesses, I have frequently found myself engaged in the often joyless deconstruction of one of my life’s greatest loves.

I don’t love football because of the sponsorship deals my club has just struck. In truth, I don’t love it because a rival team is struggling. At best, I might smirk if one of them comes a cropper, but it goes no further than that. I love football because it’s the one thing I’ve ever found, beyond even being on stage, which leaves me giddy with the liberation of it all. It’ll sound sad, or revealing, or hopelessly tragic, or perhaps all three, but I have never known any moment more pure than being put through on goal, ten yards from the penalty area, with the wind at your back and the knowledge, the arrogance of the knowledge, that whatever the goalkeeper does you will score.

I know there’s probably some way for a psychoanalyst to explain that – that being through on goal represents breaking boundaries in one’s personal life, it represents going it alone, and knowing I will score means knowing that, when truly under pressure, I will deliver. Yes, maybe it does mean that. But maybe it also means that, whenever I’ve ever felt that nothing else in life is providing answers – when I was coming out of the closet, or having the shit kicked out of me at school – I have sought out the nearest field or five-a-side pitch, put on those boots or trainers, and approached goal thinking: “This. At least, I can do this”.

This is why I love the game that is football. And being in Brazil reminded me why I love this game, and always will. Walking along the Ipanema beach, seeing men in their fifties, sixties and seventies playing volleyball with everything other than their hands, I felt my heart clattering against my ribcage. Standing in the crowd at the Maracana Stadium, as the golden clouds welcomed the evening, I felt as happy on my travels as I ever have. Walking into the trophy room at Santos’ football ground, the home of a team which was the foundation of three of Brazil’s World Cups, I was as breathless as a pilgrim might be on entering a temple. Sitting listening to Carlos Alberto talk his way through his goal, the last one in Brazil’s 4-1 triumph over Italy in the 1970 final, I had to compose myself briefly after he had done so. My grandfather, who coached Uganda’s national team for several years, would have loved to meet Carlos Alberto. He was another great man of football, and the thought of the two of them talking the game together gave me an emotion I cannot, for all my supposed skill as a writer, put into words.

Brazil blew me away. It made me look at Neymar, the player whose transfer to Barcelona is currently surrounded in such scandal, in a new light. Neymar is a man, scarcely in his twenties, who is carrying the bulk of a nation’s hopes; and how lightly he wears that pressure. He is a man who brought the Copa Libertadores, South America’s club championship, back to Santos almost forty years since Pele and his illustrious colleagues had last done it. Neymar understands the burden of beauty all too well, and he bears it with a smile. He is a player who illustrates like no other the sharp divergence of the game, which he plays with such thrilling abandon, and the sport, whose corruption may yet engulf him. In Brazil, I became acquainted again with the former, with the simple and eternal magic of the ball, endlessly welcome at my instep. And, forever, I will be grateful for that.

Happy International Women’s Day.

Happy International Women´s Day; though, in truth, I am not happy at the way that things are. In fact, I am angry. This is not good enough – we should not still be here. The stream of actual and structual violence against women worldwide in our society seems endless. Each new article I see about the state of how things are fills me with a fury I can barely contain, and which leaves me, as now, shivering with rage. It is not difficult for we men to be better people. It is not difficult to set far better standards for ourselves. And those of us who are afraid of starting to improve for fear of falling short of perfection need to get off our backsides, and now. Even now, as I type this, I fear the accusation of self-righteousness. But, at some level, fuck that. There is not nearly enough self-righteousness out there. There are not nearly enough men giving this issue proper thought, or asking proper questions, or doing careful reading, or doing careful thinking. There are a thousand things that do not even occur to us about sexism and misogyny even though these two freely infect the air around us like they were bacteria. This might seem like handwringing, and maybe it is. But there is not nearly enough of that either. There is so much more room for respect and understanding and support and compassion, and I hope that we either begin or continue to see this.

“Love Against Homophobia”: for Russia, Uganda and the USA.

Given the spate of anti-gay laws either mooted or passed in Russia, Uganda and the USA, I thought I would repost this poem of mine, “Love Against Homophobia”; please share it with anyone who you think might appreciate it.

“Love Against Homophobia”

To some people

My love is somewhat alien;
When he comes up, they start subject-changing, and
In some states he’s seen as some contagion –
In those zones, he stays subterranean;
Some love my love; they run parades for him:
Liberal citizens lead the way for him:
Same time as some countries embracing him,
Whole faiths and nations seem ashamed of him:
They’ve tried banning him,
God-damning him,
Toe-tagging him,
Prayed that he stayed in the cabinet,
But my love kicked in the panelling, ran for it –
He’s my love! Can’t be trapping him in labyrinths! –
Maverick, my love is; he thwarts challenges;
The cleverest geneticists can’t fathom him,
Priests can’t defeat him with venomous rhetoric;
They’d better quit; my love’s too competitive:
He’s still here, despite the Taliban, the Vatican,
And rap, ragga in their anger and arrogance,
Who call on my love with lit matches and paraffin –
Despite the fistfights and midnight batterings –
My love’s still here and fiercely battling,
Because my love comes through anything;

My love comes through anything.


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Putin, Sochi, FIFA and appeasement.

I am seeing several comments, on Twitter and elsewhere, about appeasement. The argument is that Vladimir Putin is proceeding unchecked because the West has shown no recent military desire to rein in the excesses of other autocrats. Here’s the obvious but understated thing about appeasement: it’s neither merely nor necessarily about refusing to confront someone on the battlefield. Appeasement is incremental.  It’s about all those times that dictators are allowed to publish their public images long before conflict is even on the cards. Appeasement is the glossy centre-spread in the lifestyle magazine for the despot whose regime is ankle-deep in blood. Appeasement is making no effort to bar said despot and his or her entourage from any of their favourite haunts in your capital city. Appeasement is failing to freeze even those of their assets which you can readily identify. It’s ducking the issue and imposing sanctions on their nation’s people even as they are free to roam the world with all the opulence their hearts desire.

Appeasement is allowing Putin to go ahead with the Sochi Winter Games, an event which made an apparent mockery of several of the principles of Olympism. In that context, appeasement will also constitute inaction around the 2018 World Cup in Russia, allowing Putin another opportunity to project his imperial prestige around the world. These sporting events, in the current political context, look like little more than grotesque marquees. FIFA and the International Olympic Committee both make claims in their founding documents and on their official websites to celebrate the best of humanity; but, by giving Putin two of the globe’s biggest showcases, they may unfortunately seem complicit in celebrating its worst.