Women’s lives matter

What is the consequence of giving Woman to Man?

What is the consequence of placing an individual at the head of a closed family, of giving him authority to rule and guide his family, the family that is his?

What is the consequence of giving Woman in submission to Man? Of placing children, his children under his absolute care and control as the head of his household?

What is the consequence of empowering Man and, as a corollary, disempowering his family, his woman, his children? Allowing him to rule and guide through the mechanisms of submission, obedience – control.

Is it, sometime, abuse? Could we, perhaps, expect that abuse will happen almost inevitably as a result of such a family structure?

So should we be surprised if, sometimes, the consequence is that a man in control of his disempowered family can lock up a daughter in a place where nobody can hear her scream or see her bleed? That he can keep her there, utterly dependent on him for survival, a prisoner for twenty-four years, twenty-four years, as he rapes her and rapes her and rapes her. Repeated sexual abuse my arse. He raped and raped and raped his own daughter. Should we be surprised that he could impregnate her repeatedly, and keep her imprisoned, alone through her pregnancies and labours, imprisoning her children with her, the children of his rapes and rapes and rapes – should we be surprised that this happened? Horrified, yes, of course horrified. But can we really be surprised that this happens?

Should we be surprised that a man capable of such systematic, long term abuse, such cleverly designed, coldly planned cruelty can keep his abuse a secret? From neighbours, friends, associates. From his own family, his own wife, the people living in his house, with him and his imprisoned daughter and his imprisoned (grand)children, the fruit of his shocking, incestuous rapes… is it really so surprising that a man who can do this to his daughter and his (grand)children can control his other family members to the extent that they also knew nothing of what he did in the basement.

How he did it we can only speculate. Perhaps he ruled them with terror, perhaps with violence, perhaps with drugs or alcohol, perhaps he wore them away until they lost themselves and didn’t know even so much as the day of the week. We can only guess.

Why he did it is not guessable – we can say no more than that he did it because he could.
Why is it that he could?
See above.

Or, to put it another way: what about the wife, eh? The mother! How could she not have known what was going on in her own house? You can’t keep something like that secret from your wife! She must have known. It just seems so terrible, her own daughter. Mm. Hey, did you see O’Sullivan’s 147 last night?

Such things hollow a person out.


[Cross posted at white noise]

in the 1970s, Grunwick photo processing factory in Willesden, London employed mainly Asian women – their workforce was 80-90% Asian and mainly female. This was a deliberate policy on the part of owner George Ward and his management. They preferred female Asian workers because they were cheap, docile, and easily bullied.

In Finding a Voice (see reference below), Amrit Wilson quotes Jayaben Desai’s description of working conditions at Grunwick in 1976:

On two sides there are glass cabins for the management so that they can watch you as well. He is English. He moves around and keeps an eye. You have to put up your hand and ask even to go to the toilet. If someone is sick, say a woman has a period or something, they wouldn’t allow her home without a doctor’s certificate, and if someone’s child was sick and they had to take it to the clinic or hospital they would say “Why are you going, ask someone else from your family to go”…

Even pregnant women who wanted to go to the clinic were told “you must arrange to go at the weekend.” On the rare occasions when a woman did go during working hours she would be warned that that was the last time. Everyone would be paid a different wage so no one knew what anyone else was getting. And to force people to work they would make them fill in a job sheet saying how many films they had booked in. If someone did a large number they would bring the job sheet around and show the others and say “She has done so many, you also must.” Not that they were paid more!

The mail order room at the factory, where orders were processed and prepared for dispatch, was particularly bad: this is where Desai worked. There were no windows there or air conditioning, and Desai described the place as a zoo. The workers earned from as little as £28 a week, for 40 hours work, at a time when the average national wage was £72 and the average full time wage for a female manual worker in London was £44 a week. Although wages varied, so as to keep the workforce divided, white people were consistently paid more than nonwhites. Overtime was compulsory, even at a moment’s notice and regardless of whether the worker had children to collect. Sackings were commonplace, and indeed staff turnover was 100% (i.e. on average, employees stayed for a year at most).

In 1976, a busy time for the photo processing factory with everyone (else) enjoying the long hot summer, things reached breaking point. One man was summarily sacked for failing to complete his allotted work. He and three others walked out. Mrs Desai was told to stay and work overtime. She refused and walked out with her son.

Those six had no idea about how to start a trade union or conduct an employment dispute, but they knew that this is what they wanted to do, realising that it was the only way to change conditions. They organised a petition which many other workers signed, saying that they wanted to join a trade union. Between them, they found out what to do and who to contact and what began was a two year strike that hit the headlines time and again. There were mass pickets, violence in which both policemen and picketers were injured, sympathetic action elsewhere (including at the post office where workers refused to carry Grunwick mail, and at Kodak where workers blacked photo supplies delivered to Grunwick). Ministers joined the picket line; other ministers decried the strike action; labour prime minister James Callaghan wanted to warn off Arthur Scargill from supporting the strikers.

Although much of the violence that got reported was violence by the picketers, about 3 times as many picketers were injured as police officers. A local doctor was reported as saying “Two types of injury are particularly common: the first is a result of testicles being grabbed by the police. The second is a result of women having their breasts grabbed.” Equally there were many false arrests. Desai herself was arrested for assault: which was particularly incredible since she (a tiny woman) was accused of assaulting two men who were standing on the opposite side of a high fence. The charges were dropped for, ahem, lack of evidence.

Eventually, the strikers gave in.

They had only ambiguous support from conflicted union bosses, despite much popular support from members of other unions. For example, when legal action was threatened against the UPW (Union of Postal Workers) in respect of the post office strike, they ordered their members back to work immediately, and then failed to take further action when a promised ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) resolution did not materialise. Desai and her colleagues even resorted to hunger strike in protest at the TUC’s (Trades Union Congress) lack of helps, which only resulted in their being disciplined by APEX, their own union. At the same time, NAFF (National Association for Freedom, now The Freedom Association) was providing a high level of support to the completely intransigent George Wood, even to the extent of helping him to circumvent the postal workers’ action, and the letter of the law was used against the strikers and their supporters.

Nevertheless, this long and militant action which was led by an Asian woman on behalf of a workforce of primarily Asian women remains an important part of trade union history, and the history of British race relations.

It was the first major strike action in which unions gave any real support to Asian workers, never mind female Asian workers. And it made the exploiting employers wake up to the fact that not all Asian women can be relied upon to provide docile, submissive labour regardless of working conditions.

I’d like to finish with another quotation (again, via Wilson) of Jayaben Desai. This one is about her encounters with George Ward.

He would come to the picket line and try to mock us and insult us. One day he said “Mrs Desai, you can’t win in a sari, I want to see you in a mini.” I said “Mrs Gandhi, she wears a sari and she is ruling a vast country.”… On my second encounter with Ward he said “Mrs Desai, I’ll tell the whole Patel community that you are a loose woman.” I said “I am here with this placard! Look! I am showing all England that you are a bad man. You are going to tell only the Patel community but I am going to tell all of England.”


Sources / further reading:

[Cross posted on white noise]

Mary Seacole was born in 1805, in Jamaica, the daughter of a white Scottish man, and army officer, and a black African woman, a freed slave.

The family were by no means poor, although they had few civil rights as black people in a slave society. Mary’s mother was a healer, and made her living running a boarding house for invalid soldiers – using her traditional knowledge of healing and medicinal plants and passing it on to her daughter. Mary also learned to care for and about soldiers. She worked with her mother and later travelled and worked within and around the Caribbean, most notably in Panama and Cuba where she was widely recognised for her skill in treating, among other illnesses and injuries, cholera. She had advanced ideas about cleanliness, nourishment and contagion that made many of the European-trained doctors she encountered uncomfortable.

Mary also travelled to Britain twice, spending three years here in total.

Then, in 1854, when she heard of the Crimean war and the many soldiers who were dying of cholera, she went back to London asked to be sent to Crimea as an army nurse, offering her credentials and expertise: she was very experienced, as well qualified as anyone, and more so than most. She was turned down – at least four times. Of her rejection, she later wrote:

In my country, where people know our use, it would have been different; but here (England) it was natural enough that they should laugh, good-naturedly enough, at my offer… Once again I tried, and had an interview this time with one of Miss Nightingale’s companions. She gave me the same reply, and I read in her face the fact, that had there been a vacancy, I should not have been chosen to fill it… Was it possible that American* prejudices against colour had some root here? Did these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs? (*She was much dismayed by American racism which she had encountered in Panama.)

Mary Seacole was not the only black nurse applying to serve in the Crimea as army nurse. No other black nurses were accepted either.

Well, she went anyway, paying her own way and arriving in 1855 when she was 50 years old. There, she set up the British Hotel, a canteen hut and store, planning to finance her nursing effort through selling essentials like food, soap and boots to the soldiers. Florence Nightingale’s hospitals were a good safe distance from the battlefield, while Mary Seacole stationed herself just 2 miles from the action, took her medical supplies onto the battlefield and worked even in the midst of fighting. She fed, nursed and mothered injured soldiers, and concentrated her efforts on working with the enlisted men, the ordinary soldiers who feared the hospital (rightly, given the state of hygiene there!), and she earned a reputation as a skilled and effective medical professional, as well as a kind and indefatigable woman.

On her return, she was celebrated and given medals. She was at least as well known as Florence Nightingale, if less well-recognised in official terms. She was received cordially at Court and even tended the Prince of Wales in his illness, the eldest son of Queen Victoria. She was praised by soldiers, newspapers and the general public for her bravery and her medical skill. Since her war effort had bankrupted her (the war ended earlier than expected so that much of the money she had spent on supplies for her British Hotel shop were left unused and unsold), a Diana-style four-day benefit festival was held in her honour, attended by 40,000 people – unfortunately popularity did not translate into profit and she only benefited to the tune of £233. She wrote a book about her experiences which was very successful, which may at least in part be a result of her efforts to stress her “good Scottish blood” and to play down the part that slavery and racism played in her own life – not to mention, her mother’s.

William Russell wrote in The Times:

In the hour of their illness, these men have found a kind and successful physician, a Mrs Seacole. She is from Kingston (Jamaica) and she doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success. She is always in attendance near the battlefield to aid the wounded, and has earned many a poor fellow’s blessing.

… and he wrote in the preface to her book:

I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead.

And then, of course she laped into obscurity. She wanted to nurse in India but could not raise the funds. In 1881, aged 76, she died and was forgotten almost altogether: she did not fit the image of respectable heroine, and even her considerable achievements were not enough to secure her any enduring popular affection, not in the face of “the competition”, dear white Florence Nightingale. It was only a hundred years later, in the late twentieth century – thanks to efforts made by African and West Indian nurses – that our memory of her even began to be adequately revived.


Some sources / further reading:

BBC – Historic figures
100 Great Black Britons

I also recommend Tell me about Mary Seacole, by John Malam for children, which is also a great way to introduce the history of slavery and racism to young people (my girl is three and has just about enough understanding, with discussion/explanation, for this book although I think it is really aimed at somewhat older children).

Family of the Royal KumariThis is the family of the present Royal Kumari of Nepal, 9-year-old Preeti Shakya who has been cloistered in a temple since the age of four.

Her mother says:

“At first I didn’t want her to be the Kumari. I’d be sad without her. So I hid her upstairs, but they insisted and took her and said you shouldn’t talk like that. They told us her horoscope matched [the king’s] exactly so we couldn’t say no. My mother-in-law said something bad might happen if we didn’t let her go. And it was good for the family name – so although we were sad, we let her go.”

Priya, her 12-year-old sister, who would have been 7 when her sister was taken away, says:

“I used to cry. I miss her so much. If she was with me at home it would be so much fun. We would play together.” Priya would not like to be the Royal Kumari: “I would not like to be separated from my parents. And I wouldn’t have any friends in school. I can go to school and I can go outside as well.”

Source: BBC

Phoolan Devi, 1983 (surrender)I have just written a post here which is mainly a review of Mala Sen’s biography of Phoolan Devi but which also discusses, and includes some links to several very good articles about, the film that was made “of the book” and which purported to be a True Story of Devi’s life.

The film makes a good deal about the fact that Devi was (probably) raped on (probably) more than one occasion and that this contributed to her (possible) “revenge killings” of 22 Thakur men. It is not suggested that these men were her actual rapists, but only that they were of the same caste as her actual (probable) rapists.

But there is more to Devi than rape and retribution, as both Sen’s book and the various articles I linked to make abundantly clear (by Arundhati Roy, Indira Jaisingh and Madhu Kishwar).

She was a young girl growing up poor because of an unforgivable wrong done to her father by his unrepentant elder brother. She was a young girl fired by the spirit of protest at this injustice. She was a young woman given in a bad marriage, with the gumption to escape and face (with the support of her family) the stigma of being separated from her husband. She was a woman who even then would not let rest the injustice her family had suffered. She was a woman who was punished for her protests and her refusal to give in. She was, on being reunited with the husband, a woman abused by his second wife. Escaping again, she found herself kidnapped by bandits.

She survived. She became one of them. She was good at it. She led her own gang, and made enough money to survive. She took her revenge where she could, but there is only limited evidence that she was actually a killer. Many times she suffered, in many different ways. In spite of all that, she was never a broken woman.

After the murder of 22 Thakur men (in which she may or may not have been involved) she and her fellow bandits became the object of a massive hunt, and even then she stayed on the run for two years and escaped capture many times. As a result, she was a woman in control of her destiny and she chose both to surrender and the terms on which she would agree to surrender.

Probably we will never know the Truth about Devi’s life, because there are too many reasons to doubt the accuracy of any one version.

(Even her “own” version as it appears in Sen’s book is based on notes that were written for her – she was unable to read or write – by people in prison who she did not entirely trust, knowing that many people would read those notes, in circumstances where the final disposal of all charges against her was still outstanding.)

But I wanted to write something more about her here, because her story matters and because the media version of her story is so deceptively shallow. Devi was not shallow. She was a woman who did what she did for complex reasons. It is easy to characterise her as a wicked criminal, or as a just avenger, or merely as an illiterate woman of no account. But such glib characterisations are wrong, even if in some respects and to some degree they may be accurate. Whatever else she was, she was a remarkable woman who had what it took to survive with integrity. For that, I admire her.

Mata hari

The very name Mata Hari evokes a thrill – siren, seductress, oriental beauty, famous spy, dangerous woman. But sometimes the truth may be a little bit different.

Mata Hari was born a Dutchwoman, named Margaretha Zelle, in 1876, to a prosperous family. Her father went bankrupt and left his four children with their mother who died shortly afterwards. Unwanted by any other relative, Zelle tried to train as a kindergarten teacher, but was not strict enough and had to leave the training school in disgrace anyway – when an older man became infatuated with her. Now of marriageable age, but too poor, too tall and too small-breasted to be considered especially marketable, she ended up with an army officer twice her age. She gave him two children, which did not stop him from raping and beating her, and openly taking a concubine whilst they were posted to Java. On the family’s return to Holland, he deserted her, taking their one surviving child, a daughter, and leaving her to her own resources. Which were few.

Eventually, not yet 30 years of age and desperate now, Zelle made her way to Paris and reinvented herself as “Mata Hari”, a temple dancer from South Asia who would perform an (invented) “sacred” dance for European audiences, stripping down to her skin-toned body stocking – but never showing her still inadequate breasts to anyone*.

[* She claimed that her brutal husband bit off her nipples. This has not been verified one way or the other as far as I know.]

She was a massive hit, if a controversial one, and people flocked to see her. Even as her career as a dancer began to wane, Mata Hari was successful as a “courtesan” and survived by cultivating relationships of patronage with wealthy and influential men.

At the start of the First World War, Mata Hari – who had had, among others, a German lover and had been in Germany immediately before war broke out – was suspected of spying for the Germans and may indeed have taken money from German officers just as she did from any man who offered it. In any event, the French asked her to spy for them, seducing key enemy figures and pumping them for information. In need of money, she agreed to do it. She tried, but – whether she really was working for the Germans, which seems unlikely to me, or whether she just wasn’t very good at it and got rumbled and duped by her first mark – she soon ended up in trouble with her already suspicious French spymasters. She was arrested, given what was pretty much a show trial (not much of a show, actually – it was held in secret), convicted and shot. She was 41.

Crime Library
Reviews of a new biography, ‘Femme Fatale’, by Pat Shipman – here and here.

Judy Somerville, The Old Woman and the Toad

Judy Somerville’s paintings of old women really, really rock.
See some here and here.

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