October 2008


Just Quickly

Reclaim The Night is on in London on November 22nd. We’re looking at having at least a few of the Sheffield Fems go down together, and of course, anybody who wants to come along is more than welcome. It’s been a great evening in the past, not only because of the exhilaration involved in scaring the Met police, but also because the speakers who appear after the march are always interesting.


Sexism and Education

Due to a little confusion in the ranks, no one person had prepared any one thing to talk about. However, we soldiered on regardless, and had a more general discussion instead, which was nice.

A few points we talked about follow (condensed for the sake of brevity):

  • Do teachers favour male students?
  • Is it harder for girls/women to talk once the boys/ men start conversations?
  • The gender of lectures/ teachers might contribute to the way in which any discussion develops
  • Germaine Greer has spoken of always taken the first question/ comment from women when she speaks, since she believes that this encourages a more even rate of participation between the genders
  • Feminism often isn’t taught, and especially is not taught explicity, unless a teacher can ‘slip’ it in
  • It sometimes seems that Feminism isn’t considered a real topic
  • It can be a real effort to be the one always talking about gender/ feminist issues

In some of my Statistics lectures this week, we had a quick revision session on the subject of bias – the problem of inadvertantly (or, if you’re a very bad scientist, deliberately) influencing a study in some way.

Clearly, I am a terrible scientist, because my weekend news-surfing only features what happens to interest me at the time. On the other hand, what has caught my eye this week ties in rather nicely to the meeting last Tuesday. Minutes of meetings will now be published the following week, so details of what was said will have to wait a couple more days, but the main ground covered was a discussion about Sexism (and thence to Sex) in Education. Fascinating stuff, and all the more so since the recent news about the UK sex education shake up.

In varying degrees of hysteria, the press has been dissecting the news that Key Stage 1 children are to be taught age-appropriate material on sex and relationships. In order of panic-inducing, we have:

Relationship lessons from age 5” from the BBC

Sex education to begin at 5 in all schools” from the Guardian

Children aged 5 to get sex education” from the Telegraph

Pupils as young as 5 to be given sex education” from the Times

Compulsory sex education for pupils as young as five could become law” from the Daily Mail.


Look at the difference – at the top of the scale, not a mention of the word “sex”. At the other extreme, not only is it now ‘sex’ education, it is ‘compulsory’, and it is for ‘pupils as young as 5’.

Interesting.

Putting all of the sources together, a picture begins to emerge. It would seem that the government has now realised that sex education for UK children is not brilliant, to say the least. And so, rather commendably, they are trying to do something about this. I am impressed, even if I do feel it could have come a little earlier.

Now, although I have said that I am not a good statistician, I know that there are some lows you should not stoop to. In consequence, I am not going to relate any of my various anecdotes on the subject and claim that this “proves” anything about our sex education as it is at the moment – although I would dearly love to.

What I will say is that pretending that relationships, sexuality and sex don’t exist is clearly foolish. We’re talking about children who have just started school. Yes, I know – as young as five! These children as young as five will see pregnant women, probably fairly often. If they have little siblings, they might have an inkling of where they came from. If they don’t, one of their classmates will. There are going to be some answers to the question “where do babies come from” – and if teachers aren’t allowed to provide it, that won’t stop the kids talking.

Also, as an aside, the Daily Mail article quotes a news story about a leaflet produced for six year olds by the Family Planning Association. Their concern? That children “would be asked to name genitalia”. What on earth is wrong with that? Genitalia are the external parts of the sexual organs – you know, the bits we can see. It’s frankly ridiculous to think that children won’t want to know what to call them. However, I’m going to stop there, because attempting to argue seriously with what the Daily Mail spouts is about as much use as arguing with a man who blindly insists that it’s a Tuesday when it is, in fact, Thursday.


And, on that note, I leave you with news (a little belated, admittedly) that the 67th Carnival of Feminists is now up at Jump Off The Bridge.

The 68th carnival will be held at Fourth Wave Feminism, which I’ve mentioned before and is certainly worth a read.

First of all, thank you to Thefems, who have kindly allowed me free rein over their shiny new website. They are awesome.

Writing here has its own issues, though. On my own site, I can talk about the things that interest me in any way that I choose, secure in the knowledge that it is my own space. On a collaborative website, though, things get a little tricky.

Partly this is because the Sheffield Fems as a group don’t have one single collective opinion on anything. I cannot and will not ever claim to be writing on behalf of the whole group, because we always see things differently. Which makes us almost like a little model of what feminism is about, I suppose.

With that in mind, anything written by me as an individual will be just that – an individual response. And so, to business.


Islam

The BBC and the Guardian both reported yesterday on Professor Amina Wadud’s leading the Friday prayers to mark the start of a conference on Islam and feminism in Oxford. (The Guardian also has an interesting Comment Is Free article on the issue. Since it is in the CIF section, I’m issuing a Risk of Rage warning – you do always get the good, the bad and the ugly commenting there.)

It’s an intriguing situation all round, with the kind of quotes you might expect; on the one hand,

“This is something divine not human. We have to do it in the way it has been ordained by God to do it. Women can lead prayers before other women but for this very specific point, in this situation before a congregation of men and women, a man must lead.” – Mokhtar Badri, vice-president of the Muslim Association of Britain.

and on the other,

“We believe Islam is a gender-equal religion” – Dr. Taj Hargey, Chairman of the Muslim Educational Centre Oxford (MECO).

Dr. Hargey also cites an example in which the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) allowed a woman to lead a mixed-gender service.

Perhaps the most interesting point that was made was the reference to Catholicism made by Mokhtar Badri:

“I also don’t think this is a subject confined to Islam. Even in Christianity Catholics still don’t accept female priests”

Frankly, I’ve always had higher hopes for Islam than for Christianity. Although there is always room in religion for patriarchal norms to take over, at least Islam has a better starting point. You’d never find Catholics claiming that theirs was ‘a gender-equal religion’.


Abortion

Moving away from religion a little, and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill is raising its head again. As mentioned in a recent meeting, now is the time to try to make a difference.

It’s interesting to note the different approaches to the story given by the Guardian and the Telegraph – not surprising, but interesting nonetheless. I was told recently that the USA doesn’t have newspapers that are so openly affiliated to one political leaning or another, but that they all seek to maintain a conservative status quo – and present this as being unbiased. Of course, this only makes me appreciate British newspapers more – how better to practice freedom of speech than to have a system whereby you can read whatever version of reality suits you best?!

I don’t really want to go into the minutiae of what each paper has said and why. Suffice it to say that where the Guardian categorises its article under Health, Politics and Women, the Telegraph categorises it under Religion.


USA

And lastly, a few days late but still worth noticing, given the topic above, is the American news on abortion, and other women’s rights, with pre-election dramas being played out everywhere you go online, and some pretty angry bloggers. I don’t want to try to regurgitate what’s been said, because there’s a hell of a lot of it, but have links:

From Hoyden About Town: Third Debate Thoughts, and Video of McCain’s air-scarequotes “health of the mother”

From Alternet: McCain Mocks Women’s Health

From Fourth Wave Feminism: Debate Summary

This last post wasn’t made in the context of the recent debate, but instead talks about two form letters that a woman recieved after writing to each of the candidates in turn. Although not strictly on-topic, it’s well worth a read (and indeed, I recommend Fannie’s Room in general for her “political, social and homo writings for which the first amendment may or may not have been intended”).

From Fannie’s Room: Maybe My Definition of Straight Talk is Different

We were fortunate to be able to talk to Jillian Creasy and Kathy Aston from the Sheffield Green Party (see their national site here) about the way the party works and what its policies are. Jillian is a councilor and Kathy a member of the local party.

As you might expect, from the name, the reputation or just a quick look around their websites, the Green Party is very much for women’s rights – and equality in general.
They have an equalities officer elected within the the national party, and women’s committees in the party include:

Women By Name – a strictly women-only group

Green Women – a group that allows men to participate in discussions, although they cannot vote on issues.

However, it is mostly men at the national conference, mostly men speaking and only one woman as an executive.
There is also an issue over the number of women participating at a local level. It was suggested that one of the reasons for this may be that women are more likely to be involved in active capaigning instead of the day-to-day business of the party, particularly as it is an electoral party and as such is contrained by the same rules as all political parties. A general impression of political parties being governed mainly by old, white, straight men may contribute to women staying away from this aspect of the party.
We also discussed how much of a role childcare might be playing in putting women off being more active, as the meetings of the local party are in the evening, meaning that some women may be constrained by the need for someone to look after their children. Evidently, this would also be a constraining factor for single-parenting men.

The city council currently has about 1/3 female members, but there are also many other unrepresented groups, because the average age is about 60. The council allowance is only around £10,000 P/A and it is very time-consuming work which can prevent anybody on a lower income, or with a less flexible work environment, from standing as councilors. And the structures of the council are very traditional and adverserial with often puts people off.

The is concern that the Liberal Democrats are going to try to remove the equality department from the council soon. We intend to keep an eye on the situation and try and get involved to help save it if needs be. It has been billed as a spending cut, but seems counter-intuitive considering that in order to consider equality issues without the help of a specific department, the onus would then be on the council to provide every individual manager with suitable training.

In November there is a one day conference of the Green Women group in Huddersfield that is open to others, there will be discussions, training and work shops.

We also talked briefly about some of the Green Party’s policies, such as those towards prostitution and sex education. Their stance on sex education in particular feeds into equality issues; in their own words:

“The Green Party would… Ensure all schools provide sex education including on the diversity of sexualities and gender identities and create supportive environments for LGBT staff and students.”

Clearly, the Green Party are far from being a one-issue party, and seem to be actively trying to constantly improve.

A huge thanks to Jillian and Kathy for coming to talk to us, it was incredibly interesting and informative. We hope to see you both soon!

News from the meeting:

We need to keep an eye on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill as it goes to the report stage in the House of Commons.

Certain MPs are likely to try to tack on more anti-abortion amendments. Now is a very good time to be emailing and writing to MPs – every letter counts. The Abortion Rights website has a model letter available to download.
At the same time, it is worth contacting MPs regarding the issue of legalising abortion in Northern Ireland. It is currently not legal to have an abortion in Northern Ireland, and soon the power to decide on this matter will be devolved to the NI assembly. Since it is very unlikely that they would ever legalise abortion, now really is the time to make a fuss.

The Family Planning Association has more information, and a link on their website to a petition on the Downing Street website that everybody can sign.

We are thinking about making Abortion Rights our next charity to fundraise for, but this will be formally decided soon.

Discussing the Playboy campaign:

The issue for the moment is the prevalance of Playboy branded merchandise available for young children; specifically, stationary and bedlinen.
This is available most prominently in two large chains in the UK, WH Smiths and Argos.
Our campaign will therfore be focussing on these two stores, although for obvious reasons details will not be posted here as yet. For further information, to submit any ideas for the campaign or to get involved, please contact us. The Bin The Bunny website also has some useful links and information.

Other issues:

As ever, we are looking to develop better links with other feminist groups. If you’re part of one, or know of any that might be interested, drop us a line at the usual address!

An RAF poster has been brought to our attention that specifically mentions equality whilst simultaneously saying that regiments are open only to men. It sounds like a wonderful example of double-think, and we’d like to check this out.

Freshers’ Week at the University of Sheffield has come and gone, and there have been a startling number of posters advertising club nights that feature pornstars, schoolgirls, semi-naked women and other such lovely images! Yet another thing to keep an eye on and try and try and think of a good course of action for.

Our first meeting of the new University term started earlier than usual, in order to give the speaker from the Northern Refugee Centre time to chat to us. Their own website is of course the best place to go for information, but summarised below is an outline of what we discussed.

For clarification, an asylum seeker is just that – a person seeking asylum. A refugee is a person who has sought, and then been granted, asylum – they have the right to remain in the country in which they have sought asylum.

  • In general, displaced women are at increased risk of harm compared to displaced men; this is due to- but not limited to – rape, trafficking, harmful and constraining traditional practices, abuses by persons in positions of authority, torture and abandonment.
  • Women coming to the UK are often unaware, or are not advised, that they can make their own claim of asylum. Many are instead considered to be a “dependant” of their husband, which can set up power imbalances.
  • Childcare is not provided at asylum determination interviews. It is at these interviews that the asylum seeker is expected to provide evidence as to their need for asylum – and mothers who have been forced to bring their children with them to the interview will often not want to reveal abuses that they have suffered.

The Northern Refugee Centre currently provides women-only conversation clubs around Sheffield. In their own words,

“Women’s Conversation Clubs are weekly groups for Refugee and Asylum Seeking women to come together with English-speaking volunteers in a safe, relaxed, women-only environment”

Although Sheffield Fems is not currently campaigning with the Northern Refugee Centre, we urge anybody with free time to take part in these clubs, as an easy way to make a difference.