Archive for Women and Girls

Wie umgehen mit den sexuellen Übergriffen in Köln und Hamburg?

Für jede Frau muss ein solcher Moment im höchsten Maße furchterregend sein. In Köln haben in der Silvesternacht betrunkene, agressive Männer im Stadtzentrum Frauen eingekreist und diese angegriffen und begrapscht. Die Zahl der Männer wird hierbei auf 500 bis zu 1000 geschätzt, und ersten Einschätzungen zufolge waren die Angriffe koodiniert. Ein Minister beschrieb die Ereignisse als einevollkommen neue Dimension von Verbrechen”. Wolfgang Albers zufolge, dem Polizeipräsidenten, fand hier ein sexuelles Verbrechen besonderen Ausmaßes statt. Er gab an: “Die Taten wurden von einer Gruppe von Personen verübt, die dem Anschein nach zu großen Teilen aus Nordafrika und der arabischen Welt stammen.”

Das Ausmaß sexueller Gewalt gegen Frauen weltweit ist überwältigend: Es ist grauenerregend, herzzerreißend und letztendlich macht es wütend. Ob in der Öffentlichkeit oder innerhalb der vermeintlich sicheren eigenen vier Wände, die Angriffe gegen Frauen kennen keine Grenzen. Um die Vereinten Nationen zu zitieren: “Es wird angenommen, dass 35% aller Frauen weltweit im Laufe ihres Lebens entweder körperliche und/oder sexuelle Gewalt eines Intimpartners oder sexuelle Gewalt eines nicht-Partners erfahren. Manche nationalen Studien zeigen, dass bis zu 70% der Frauen im Laufe ihres Lebens körperliche und/oder sexuelle Gewalt eines Intimpartners erfahren.”

Die Übergriffe in Köln sind also nicht im luftleeren Raum entstanden, sondern vielmehr Ausdruck einer ernstzunehmenden, globalen Situation. Das mag sich dramatisch anhören, aber die Zahlen und Augenzeugenberichte sprechen für sich. Die Zeitung The Guardian berichtet: Eines der Opfer, Katja L., sagte gegenüber dem Kölner Express: “Als wir aus der U-Bahn Station kamen, waren wir von der Gruppe ausschließlich ausländischer Männer, auf die wir trafen, total überraschtWir sind durch die Gruppe gelaufen, es gab einen Tunnel durch sie hindurch. Ich wurde überall angefasst. Es war ein Alptraum. Obwohl wir schrien und um uns schlugen, haben die Männer nicht aufgehört. Es war entsetzlich, und ich glaube ich bin auf den 200 Metern Fußweg bestimmt 100 Mal angefasst worden.” Einer der Ermittler sagte gegenüber dem Kölner Express: “Die weiblichen Opfer wurden so schlimm herumgeschubst, dass sie heftige blaue Flecken an Brüsten und Hinterteilen hatten.”

The Guardian berichtete weiterhin: “Die Angriffe waren zentraler Diskussionspunkt auf Twitter, wo manche den Medien Vertuschung unterstellten und die Besorgnis, die Vorfälle könnten von Anti-Flüchtlingsgruppierungen für sich genutzt werden, Ausdruck fand.”

Innerhalb der Auseinandersetzung besteht die tatsächliche Gefahr, dass die angegriffenen Frauen aus dem Blick verschwinden, begraben unter einer Debatte zwischen Links und Rechts. Genaugenommen passiert das bereits. Bleiben wir daher bei den Fakten.

Zahlreiche Frauen wurden auf einem öffentlichen Platz von bis zu eintausend Männern in eine Falle gelockt. Neunzig Opfer haben gegenüber der Polizei ausgesagt. Es gab darüber hinaus ähnliche sexuelle Übergriffe in der selben Nacht in Hamburg. Die Selbstverständlichkeit, mit welcher die Männer hierbei über die Körper der Frauen verfügten, ist entsetzlich.

Die Vorfälle sind dabei durchaus kontrovers zu verstehen, hat doch Kanzlerin Angela Merkel im Verlauf der letzten 12 Monate um die 1 Million Geflüchtete aus Afrika und der arabischen Welt ins Land gelassendieselbe demographisch dominante Gruppe unter den jungen Männern, die diese Angriffe ausführten. Merkels Politik wird nun von vielen für den Anstieg von Sex-Attacken verantwortlich gemacht.

Dennoch wird dies keinen Einfluss darauf haben, dass sich die laufende Debatte um das ThemaRassedreht. Also können wir uns auch damit beschäftigen. Deutschland ist nicht gerade divers und die Mehrheit der Schwarzen und arabischen Menschen scheinen der Arbeiterschaft anzugehören. Dafür gibt es alle möglichen wirtschaftlichen Gründe, zum Beispiel die Tatsache, dass Menschen aus Afrika und dem Nahen Osten es durchaus schwer haben, Papiere zu bekommen und Arbeit aufzunehmen, wenn sie erst einmal hier sind.

In Berlin, wo ich lebe, ist die überwältigende Mehrheit Schwarzer, im Alltag sichtbarer Männer arm, obdachlos oder im Drogenverkauf auf der Warschauer Straße oder am Görlitzer Park, zwei der belebteren Bahnhöfe der Stadt, involviert. Und mit überwältigender Mehrheit meine ich so um die 80%, wenn nicht noch mehr. Und auch wenn es provokant klingt, ich denke die sozio-ökonomischen Umstände und die Frage, weshalb diese Schwarzen Männer eigentlich so arm sind, interessieren einfach auch nicht genügend Menschen hier vor Ort. Ich denke es gibt vielmehr eine weit verbreitete Tendenz, die größer ist als so manche hier anerkennen mögen, zu glauben, Schwarze Männer seien grundsätzlich weniger vertrauenswürdig oder eben kriminell.

Ich behaupte dies teilweise auch aufgrund meiner eigenen Erfahrungen in der Stadt und von Berichten mehrerer meiner nicht-weißen Freunde. Ein Freund aus Westafrika fand es bei einem Besuch der Stadt so schwierig eine AirB&B Wohnung zu finden, dass er jemand Dritten für sich buchen lassen musste. Berichte von Schwarzen, die versuchen in der eh schon schwierigen Wohnsituation in Berlin Zimmer oder Appartments zu finden, lassen ein Gesamtbild von Diskriminierung ziemlich deutlich zu Tage treten. Ziemlich alltäglich bin ich immer wieder überrascht, wie oft es passiert, dass weiße Berliner – auch in voll besetzten Zügen – den Platz neben mir verlassen, allem Anschein nach wenig angetan von der Aussicht neben einem Mann mit afrikanisch anmutendem Äußeren zu sitzen. Und sollte sich das paranoid anhören, dann muss gesagt werden, dass mir dies erst auffiel, als ich von einem weißen, kopfschüttelnden Mann amüsiert darauf hingewiesen wurde. Für jene, die denken, ich sei übersensibel, möchte ich ein paar Fakten herausstellen. Ich liebe diese Stadt und hier zu leben ist es wert auch mit solchen Unannehmlichkeiten zurecht zu kommen. Aber diese Dinge haben mir vor Augen geführt, dass die kulturellen Erwartungen an Schwarze Männer in manchen Gegenden Deutschlands bereits erschreckend niedrig sind. Und jetzt haben wir also auch noch solche Angriffe wie in Köln, einer der schlimmsten seiner Sorte, an die ich mich überhaupt erinnern kann.

Also was schließen wir jetzt aus dieser Analyse? Eigentlich simpel. Stehen wir den Frauen bei. Als Schwarze nner mit afrikanischen Wurzeln hassen uns die Rassisten in Deutschland sowieso. Sie dachten schon beim ersten Anblick wir seien Vergewaltiger und Perverse und jede sonstige Form von Sexualverbrechern. Ihnen sind die Frauen, die in Köln und Hamburg angegriffen wurden egal jenseits der Möglichkeit hier die vermeintlichen Beweise dafür zu finden, dass wir genauso animalisch sind, wie sie es immer schon befürchtetoder gehoffthatten. Deswegen sind mir diese Leute eigentlich egal. Es stört mich auch nicht wirklich, wenn irgendjemand eben nicht neben mir im Zug sitzen will. Die Angst vor dem Unbekannten ist schwierig abzugewöhnen. Mich interessieren vielmehr die Frauen, welche sich jetzt in der Öffentlichkeit mehr denn je unsicher und ängstlich fühlen müssen. Ich denke nicht, dass Frauen sich jemals wirklich wohl gefühlt haben, bei Nacht durch Ansammlungen betrunkener, agressiver Männer gehen zu müssen, egal welche Herkunft diese haben. Aber Männer afrikanischer oder arabischer Herkunft werden zukünftig mit noch mehr vorsichtiger Zurückhaltung und Mißtrauen von Frauen zu tun haben.

Hier ist also was ich denke, was getan werden sollte. Wieso fangen wir nicht bei dem prinzipiellen Grundrecht der Frau an, sich, wo immer sie sich auch auf der Welt befindet, frei auf der Straße bewegen zu können, ohne dabei angegrabscht zu werden.

Und wieso sehen wir dies nicht als perfekten Moment für den Mann an, egal welchen Hintergrunds, ernsthaft wütend darüber zu werden, wie Frauen im öffentlichen Raum behandelt werden und sich dem Glauben, es sei irgendwie sozial anerzogen und Teil unseres unkontrollierbaren sexuellen Drangs, Frauen zu objektifizieren und zu belästigen, wenn sie vorbeilaufen, mit Nachdruck zu widersetzen. Lasst uns unser Bestes tun, der global schon viel zu lange vorherrschenden Frauenfeindlichkeit entgegenzutreten und den wie auch immer gearteten sexistischen Lehren der Unterdrückung zu entsagen. Weil Frauen es leid sind uns darüber zu berichten und einen Kampf zu kämpfen, der viel zu lange schon viel zu wenig Aufmerksamkeit erfahren hat.

How to deal with the sexual assaults in Cologne and Hamburg.

For any woman, the sight must have been terrifying. On New Year’s Eve in the German city of Cologne, groups of drunk and aggressive men surrounded them in the town centre, groping and mugging them. The estimates are that there were between 500 to 1000 attackers, and the early indications are that their efforts were co-ordinated. A minister described these events as a completely new dimension of crime”. According to Wolfgang Albers, the police president, “sexual crimes took place on a huge scale.” He continued: “The crimes were committed by a group of people who from appearance were largely from the north African or Arab world.”

The volume of sexual violence against women worldwide is extraordinary: it is horrifying, heartbreaking, and finally it is enraging. Whether women are in public or in the supposed safety of their own homes, the offences committed against them are off the scale. To quote the United Nations, It is estimated that 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives. However, some national studies show that up to 70 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. (My italics.) The Cologne assaults, then, did not occur in isolation, but as a particularly severe eruption of a situation which, in global terms, has always been volcanic.

If that sounds dramatic, then so be it: after all, the statistics and the eye-witness accounts are stark enough. As the Guardian reports:

One of the victims, identified only as Katja L, told the Kölner Express: “When we came out of the station, we were very surprised by the group we met, which was made up only of foreign men…We walked through the group of men, there was a tunnel through them, we walked through…I was groped everywhere. It was a nightmare. Although we shouted and hit them, they men didn’t stop. I was horrified and I think I was touched around 100 times over the 200 metres.” One investigator told the Kölner Express: “The female victims were so badly pushed about, they had heavy bruises on their breasts and behinds.”

The Guardian continues:

“The attacks have been the main talking point on Twitter in Germany, with some people accusing the media of a cover-up and others expressing their concern that the incident would be seized on by anti-refugee groups.”

In the ensuing conversation, there is a very real danger that the women assaulted will disappear from view, quickly buried beneath a tug-of-words between the Right and the Left. In fact, it has already happening. So let us reiterate the facts. Scores of women were set upon by up to a thousand men in a public place. Ninety of them made complaints to police. There were also sexual assaults of a similar fashion in Hamburg on the same night. The level of entitlement that these men felt towards the bodies of their victims is appalling.

These events are proving particularly controversial because the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has within the last twelve months admitted something like a million refugees from Africa and the Arab world – the same demographic dominant among the young men who carried out these assaults. Merkel’s policy is therefore being blamed by many for the influx of sex attackers. On a point of accuracy, it must be noted that many of these attackers were already known to the police, and were not drawn from the recently-arrived refugees. (UPDATE: The Cologne police, in a fresh report issued a few hours ago, have stated that the majority of the attackers comprised freshly-arrived refugees. The link is here.)

This conversation will inevitably be dominated by the issue of race, so we may as well go there. In racial terms, Germany is not particularly diverse, and the majority of the black and Arab people you see tend to be working-class. There are all sorts of economic reasons for that, one being that those arriving from Africa and the Middle East find it very difficult to get papers or work once they are here. In Berlin, where I live, the overwhelming majority of black men you see every day are poor, homeless, or selling drugs by Görlitzer Bahnhof or Warschauer Strasse, two of the city’s busier train stations. And when I say the overwhelming majority, I would say something like eighty per cent, if not more. And, at the risk of sounding uncharitable, I don’t think that as many people as I would like are concerned with the socio-economic nuances of why these black men are so poor. I think that there is instead a tendency, more widespread that many people might like to acknowledge, to regard black men as inherently untrustworthy or criminal.

I say this partly because of my own experiences in the city, and from speaking to several other friends who are non-white. A friend from West Africa, when visiting the city, found it so difficult to secure an AirB&B apartment that he had to ask someone to do it on his behalf. The stories of black people struggling to find rooms and flats in the city are legion – not that it is easy to rent in Berlin anyway, given the popularity of this place, but the tales of discrimination do all start to stack up after a while. More mundanely, I am struck by how often – even on the most crowded of trains – white Berliners will leave a space next to me, somehow fearing the prospect of sitting next to a male of African appearance. And if that sounds paranoid, then it was only something I first noticed when a sympathetic white man, shaking his head with bemused laughter, pointed it out to me.

For those who might think that I am being overly sensitive, I will say that I am merely stating facts. I love this city, and life here is well worth dealing with these inconveniences. But these instances have made me realise that the cultural expectations of black men in some parts of Germany are already dangerously low. And now we have these attacks in Cologne, one of the worst incidents of its nature that I can recall. 

So, what to do with all of this analysis? Well, it is actually simple. Let’s just keep sticking up for the women. As far as being a black man of African descent goes, the racists in Germany and elsewhere hate us anyway. They thought we were rapists and perverts and other assorted forms of sex attacker the second they set eyes on us. They don’t care about the women who were attacked in Cologne and Hamburg, except to prove the point that we are the animals that they always thought – or hoped – we were. In return, I don’t care about them. Nor am I too bothered by the people who don’t want to sit next to me on the train. Fear of the unknown is a hard thing to unlearn. I am most concerned, by far, with the safety of the women who may now be more frightened than ever to enter public spaces.  I don’t think that women have ever felt particularly comfortable walking through crowds of drunk and aggressive men at night, regardless of the race of those men. But groups of young men of North African and Arab origin, whatever their intentions, will most likely endure more trepidation from women than before.

So here’s what I propose we do. Why don’t we just start with the premise that it is a woman’s fundamental right, wherever she is in the world, to walk the streets and not be groped. And why don’t we see this as a perfect moment for men, regardless of our ethnic backgrounds, to get genuinely angry about the treatment of women in public spaces: to reject with fury the suggestion that we are somehow conditioned by society forever to treat women as objects, condemned by our uncontrollable sexual desires to lunge at them as they walk past. Let’s do our best to challenge the rampant misogyny which has gone on worldwide for far too long, and reject whatever lessons of sexist repression we may have been taught. Because women are tired of telling us about this, and exhausted of fighting a battle that for too long has gone overlooked.

 

God bless Kanye West, and God bless Ida B. Wells.

Last week, Kanye West got on stage at the Grammys and, in his own words, acted like “an asshole”. This weekend, I was a guest on the BBC World Service, looking back at the week’s news. One of the items for discussion was the Equal Justice Initiative’s report on lynching in America’s Southern states. This made me think in turn of Ida B. Wells, whose pioneering and fearless research in this area cannot be praised enough; and finally, at one profoundly historical level, it made me thank God for the asshole that Kanye has become.

We will return to Kanye West very soon; but, for now, we should go back to the formidable Ida B. Wells. In 1892, following the murder of three of her friends, she began a vigorous investigation of their deaths and the social circumstances which enabled them. She interrogated a world where black boys and men were routinely taken out in the street, tortured and killed, very often in broad daylight. This happened under the pretext that they had raped white women: most commonly, though, it seems that their true offence was to have had consensual sexual relations with those women. On one occasion, in 1891, one black man – Will Lewis, of Tullahoma – was taken from jail by a mob and hung, for the apparent crime of drunken rudeness to his white superiors. Black girls and women were not remotely spared either, with one Mildrey Brown hung in 1892 “on the circumstantial evidence she had poisoned a white infant”. Well’s resulting publication, “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases”, is a seminal work, and simultaneously a daunting read. Yet so audacious was Wells in her efforts that, at one point, I found myself smiling with glee.

I began to imagine the faces of those everyday white supremacists, so complacent and comfortable in their racial tyranny over the South, if they could have seen Kanye preparing to take the stage at the Grammys. Specifically, I imagined the faces of the editorial team of the Memphis Evening Scimitar. On June 4 1892, they wrote that:

“The chief cause of trouble between the races in the South is the Negro’s lack of manners. In the state of slavery he learned politeness from association with white people, who took pain to teach him. Since the emancipation came and the tie of mutual interest and regard between master and servant was broken, the Negro has drifted away into a state which is neither freedom nor bondage…he has taken up the idea that boorish insolence is independence, and the exercise of a decent degree of breeding toward white people is identical with servile submission….there are many Negroes who use every opportunity to make themselves offensive, particularly when they think it can be done with impunity.” (My italics.)

As I read this I thought of Kanye mounting those steps, I thought of these racists watching him, and as I sat at my kitchen table I allowed myself a quietly maniacal chuckle.  After all, if these editors could have created an algorithm that would have produced their worst nightmare, then it is pretty safe to say that it would have produced someone like Kanye West. (In fact, in the quoted paragraph above, they virtually prophesied his emergence.) Kanye does not even have the good grace to be humble about his talents. He lacks manners; he is frequently impolite; he is rude, boorish, offensive, intemperate, obstreperous and vulgar. And, as I read these words from 1892, I absolutely loved him for it.  Kanye is critically acclaimed, he is independently wealthy, he has the ear of millions whenever he opens that mouth of his, that awful goddamn mouth – in short, he is everything that the slavers feared the day they reluctantly unlocked that final yoke.

Towards the end of her magnificent paper, Wells wrote that  “the more the Afro-American yields and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched.” There is no chance of Kanye ever yielding and begging, and that is thanks in very large part to the extraordinary efforts of Wells, who made possible an America in which a black person could be so free, so bold, brash and unrestrained.

And so I find that there are two contexts in which I view what Kanye did at the Grammys, when he went onstage to tell Beck, the winner of the Best Album award, that Beyoncé would have been a more deserving recipient.  The first context was immediate, in which I rolled my eyes and thought “Kanye, for God’s sake, you’ve been an ass yet again: you’ve disrespected and possibly ruined someone’s big day, a moment which may be the culmination of their career as an artist, let it go.” The second context is historical: and here I watch as the editors of the Memphis Evening Scimitar look helplessly into the future, a world featuring the unapologetic arrogance of Kanye, an uppity Negro the type of which they would gladly have seen dragged out and butchered.  And, in that context, I howl with laughter: and I think, God bless you Kanye West, and God bless you Ida B. Wells.

 

To you men who joke about assaulting women.

Every time you make a remark about assaulting women, and then defend it by saying “it was just a joke”, I think I know what you mean.  It’s not just a joke, really.  It’s not just a joke to the women, or to those who care about them; and, what’s more, it’s not just a joke to you.  It’s really important to you.  You’re saying, under the mask of laughter, something that you genuinely mean.

Don’t get angry at this fact.  You’re angry enough already.  You’re angry that you even have to disguise your intentions.  Because you know there was once a time when you could openly boast absolutely anywhere about the women you assaulted or were about to, and it would go unpunished.  Now, though, you’ve got to be a bit more careful.  Now you have to use jokes, and you hate this.

It’s obvious that you hate this, because when someone says that you are being offensive, you become furious.  Not immediately – at first, you try to patronise them, or laugh them off.  But if they persist with their accusation just once more, you skip past irritation to rage.  You might even start threatening them.  And this is why you’re pissed off – because you’re fed up with the whole fucking pretence, aren’t you? Hate having to bite your fucking tongue.  You wish this fucking bitch would just shut up like the other fucking bitch who had that smack coming.  Fucking hell.  You can’t fucking talk about anything these days, can you?

This is how it feels, isn’t it.  Your blood is up.  Fuck.  What you really want to do is say what you think anywhere anytime.  But you can’t.  Your hatred is like your cock – you want to fuck the world with it, unprotected.  But you can’t: you have to clothe it, so the joke is your condom.

And you hate having to use that condom, but it’s the only way you’re going to get any action.  Because if you hang out with your mates, and tell them straight-faced about the woman you took home who was too drunk to stand, there won’t be so many of those mates any more.  This way, if you joke about it, you can all sit in that pub and you can laugh and the cowards can cower into their pints and you can carry on.  That’s why you hate it when we call you out on your jokes.  Because what you’re really saying is Bitch don’t fucking make me take this seriously.  Because deep down you know it’s not funny and you try to think about that truth as little as possible.

It’s OK, I’m done now.  Go back to your beer and your banter, which is where you feel better.  Just don’t think that we don’t know, and that we don’t see you.  Because we see you just as clearly, when the beer clears and there’s nothing left but the bathroom mirror, as you see yourself.

 

Richard Scudamore’s sexist emails: the triumph of low expectations.

Richard Scudamore, the chief executive of the Premier League, has apologised for the content of a series of his leaked emails, in which he refers to women in derogatory terms.  Scudamore’s former personal assistant, who leaked his emails, stated that “he has no respect for women. I don’t think anyone should have to be exposed to such language and opinions at work.”

A Premier League source, speaking to the Daily Mirror, said that “Richard realises that his comments were inappropriate and wrong but they were not intended for a wider audience. It was meant in a Frankie Howerd style way. His commitment to the equality agenda and anti-discrimination is writ large.” (My italics.)

Whoever the Premier League source was, they have made things worse, since they suggest that Scudamore’s attitude towards women is a pervasive one.  It is worrying if the above statement was carefully crafted by a press team, as it is very revealing for two reasons.  First, to open with a line that Scudamore’s sexism was “not intended for a wider audience” implies that this sexism would somehow be less damaging if no-one knew about it.  Yet this sexism, unseen till now, may already be working to corrosive effect: this sexism may prejudice, for example, every job interview that a woman sits for a senior Premier League position. It may prejudice the budgets allocated to the women’s game, which may come under renewed scrutiny as a result of Scudamore’s comments.  After all, if his commitment to equality and anti-discrimination is indeed “writ large”, we should expect to see robust investment in the women’s game.  All of a sudden, the sums pledged aren’t looking all that substantial.

Secondly, there is the explanation of Scudamore’s comments: that they were meant in a light, comic vein, in the style of Frankie Howerd.  When accused of sexism, there is often an effort among men in football to infantilise themselves: what you might call the “boys will be boys” defence.  “We’re just kidding”, so the argument goes, “chill out”.  However, it’s strange to see these men rely on a defence of youthful irresponsibility, and in the same breath expect to be trusted with billion-pound budgets.

Will Scudamore be disciplined by the Premier League for his comments?  Few seem to think so. Unfortunately, the institution of British football has achieved what you might call “the triumph of low expectation”.  People expect so little in the way of progressive attitudes within the sport that emails such as Scudamore’s are met with a frustrated shrug.  Yet this helplessness is something that women cannot afford.  As Anna Kessel, the Guardian/Observer journalist and co-founder of Women in Football, noted this morning on Twitter, “the impetus lies with everyone else to force [the Premier League] into action”.

Gloria de Piero, the Shadow Equalities Minister, has observed in the Mirror that “Richard Scudamore has let down women supporters, players, referees and coaches.”  I agree with that, and I would go further: he has let down men supporters, players, referees and coaches too, since his emails do not reflect the attitudes of those many men who support the women’s game and the advance of female professionals within the sport as a whole.  The Premier League should make all of this clear in whatever action it now takes.

For Brown Girls: on Karyn Washington, and Sara Baartman

This weekend I was saddened to read of the death of Karyn Washington, the founder of the website “For Brown Girls”.  The reports that she had taken her own life at the age of just twenty-two, following her struggle with depression, were the first that I had heard of her excellent work. If I had known of it sooner, I would have forwarded it to my friends and relatives long ago. The aim of her website is a wonderful one: it was, in her own words, “created to celebrate the beauty of dark skin while combatting colorism and promoting self love! FBG was created to celebrate darker shades of brown- to encourage those struggling with accepting having a darker skin complexion to love and embrace the skin they are in. However, women of all shades may take away from FBG the universal and essential message of self love and acceptance.”

Washington’s mission was as beautiful as the skin of the girls whom she sought to celebrate. I have long wondered and worried about the difficulty that black girls and women face in everyday life, and through the lives of my family and friends I have seen this problem with uncomfortable clarity and frequency. As any one of them can tell you, it’s not that they merely experience racism and sexism separately: it’s that the two prejudices seem to have some sort of strange multiplier effect, intensifying the discrimination that they receive. There’s one person I know who was hounded out of a job because her colleagues couldn’t stand to take orders from her; another whose peers felt so threatened by her progress that she, too, was shown the door; and yet another, who was made to feel as unwanted as an old piece of office furniture before dispatched by her company of several years. The ample sums that they quietly received via their employment tribunals told its own story.

The objectification of black women for the amusement or revulsion of others has been going on for centuries, both before and after the most lurid example of Sara Bartmaan, the “Hottentot Venus”.  Baartman, for those who don’t know the story, was a black woman who was taken from South Africa in the early nineteenth century and paraded around Europe, often in a cage, for the entertainment of the public. Those who came to see her gawped at and mocked her dark skin and large buttocks, which were both supposedly signs of racial inferiority. After her death at the age of 26, her dehumanisation continued, her genitals being pickled and displayed in a French museum.

If Baartman’s suffering was the tale of a racist attempt to destroy the black woman, then Washington’s life can be seen as one more necessary and successful effort to reassert her worth. Indeed, the legacy of the “Hottentot Venus” affair is firmly with us: it can be still be seen in the pages of our fashion magazines and on our catwalks, with insidious effects elsewhere. In October 2009, the online dating site OKCupid revealed from an extensive analysis of its data that: “men don’t write black women back. Or rather, they write them back far less often than they should. Black women reply the most, yet get by far the fewest replies. Essentially every race—including other blacks—singles them out for the cold shoulder.”

I asked a good friend about these findings and she nodded wryly in recognition: after all, what could you do? What can you do when people are conditioned to call you bossy or aggressive or intimidating?  What can you do, as the writer Bridget Minamore has noted, when people have so often been told that you are strong or “fierce” that they have forgotten or never realised that you can be tender?

Well, if you can, you find strength in yourself, in solidarity and the love of those who truly value you, and if you’re truly lucky you’ll stumble across lives like that of Karyn Washington.  Judging by the experiences of several people whom I know well, I think that being a black woman can at times be emotionally exhausting, given the assaults that are frequently launched on their self-esteem. I am therefore grateful to Karyn Washington for making the lives of countless girls and women of all colours so much happier.  I also hope that her legacy is a world where black girls don’t have to be brave, or tough, or any of the rest of it; a world where, quite simply, they can just live.

#OneBillionRising to end violence against women: right campaign, wrong leader?

Violence against women and girls is one of the world’s gravest problems: what’s more, in the cruellest possible breach of trust, it is most often perpetrated by men under the same roof. As noted by the UN and the World Health Organisation, “the most common form of violence experienced by women globally is physical violence inflicted by an intimate partner. On average, at least one in three women is beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused by an intimate partner in the course of her lifetime.” Fortunately, there is a global movement which has arisen with the aim to end this state of affairs. Unfortunately, in order to achieve its vital goals, its leadership may need to change.

Early this morning, a series of tweets from @Karnythia appeared on my timeline, which she subsequently and helpfully compiled as a Storify.  One of those tweets contained an article by Eve Ensler, the founder of the One Billion Rising movement to end violence against women. I should note here that the article, “Congo Stigmata”, carries a trigger warning, as its content may be deeply distressing to any women who have suffered violence. The article, which you can read here, is worrying for several reasons: it is difficult to provide a summary without briefly being graphic, for which I apologise.

The facts are these. Ensler, in an extract from her new book, relates her discovery of a form of cancer, which leads to the appearance of a fistula, or a hole, between her vagina and her bowel. Ensler notes “the cancer had done exactly what rape had done to so many thousands of women in the Congo. I ended up having the same surgery as many of them.” The inference we are supposed to draw is that Ensler has spent so long campaigning on behalf of these women that she has somehow been both spiritually and physically raped in solidarity with them. As noted by of one of her friends, “It doesn’t surprise me, Eve, of course. All those stories of rape over all these years. The women have entered you.”

Ensler spends a paragraph describing her fixation with holes – “Black holes. Infinite holes. Impossible holes. Absences. Gaps, tears in membranes. Fistulas.” – which she concludes with the sentence “So many thousands of women in eastern Congo have suffered fistulas from rape that the injury is considered a crime of combat.” The suggestion that Ensler has, by proxy, become a victim of a crime of combat.

Ensler then goes to the Congo, where she asks to view an operation on a woman whose genitalia are being repaired after sustaining an act of sexual violence. She writes that “she needed to see a fistula”. It is unclear whether the woman herself, tied up in stirrups, consented to Ensler’s visit. What we do know is that Ensler has a “need to know the shape of this hole, the size of this hole. I needed to know what a woman’s insides looked like when her most essential cellular tissue had been punctured by a stick or penis or penises.” Ensler continues, moving towards a conclusion that feels alarmingly voyeuristic: “As I stood there in mask and gown, I realised I had stopped breathing. This woman’s vagina was a map of the future, and I could feel myself falling, falling through the hole in the world, the hole in myself, the hole that was made when my father invaded me and I lost my way. The hole that was made when the social membrane was torn by incest. Falling through the hole in this woman. I was falling. I have always been falling. But this time was different.”

It is clear from these closing quotes that Ensler has experienced and survived profound horror of her own. Unfortunately, she has overreached with her analogy: she has objectified a woman of colour in a fashion so gruesome as to conjure colonialist undertones. As @Karnythia states in her tweets, “Eve Ensler is displaying the kind of “progressive” racism that hurts so deeply because it is supposed to be helpful…”the sheer gall of Eve Ensler to describe staring into this woman’s body while she was restrained to satisfy her curiosity.”

Where does this leave #OneBillionRising? Well, the organisation has brought exceptional visibility to a range of issues, but three problems immediately present themselves. First, the movement has been previously been accused of trading upon the experiences of women of colour. Secondly, it must be said that #OneBillionRising shares one highly problematic feature with the ill-fated #Kony2012 campaign. As with #Kony2012, the organisation is led by a charismatic leader in pursuit of a socially beneficial aim – for the arrest of Joseph Kony, read the eradication of violence against women and girls – who has grossly oversimplified and appropriated the issues. Thirdly, having seen the appalled reaction from so many women on my Twitter timeline this morning, many of whom have significant and sympathetic followings, I wonder whether Ensler will increasingly be seen as lacking the legitimacy to lead this organisation. The danger is that her status as a figurehead may undermine or overshadow the movement’s essential mission. An even greater worry is how much of her objectification of women of colour affects the day-to-day strategy of the organisation.

We shall see. The next stage of #OneBillionRising takes place in January 2014, and many of its achievements to date have been highly impressive, as Ensler notes in the Guardian this week. For example, she writes that “in Guatemala, Marsha Lopez, part of the V-Day movement since 2001, says the most important result of OBR was the creation of a law for the criminalisation of perpetrators who impregnate girls under 14 years old. The law also includes penalties for forced marriage of girls under 18.” In 2014, the goals of #OneBillionRising are thankfully more ambitious than ever, given the UN’s description of violence against women as “a global pandemic”.  A pressing question is whether, in the pursuit of those goals, Ensler is better off not on the One Billion Rising podium, but cheering on its work from the nearby crowd.

NOTE: Thank you to @Karnythia@irevolt@dreamhampton@ChiefElk, and @babywasu for their excellent tweets on this subject.