What’s Been On My Mind This Week

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1. There was a brief moment of celebration this week, as the No More Page 3 campaign appeared to have won its victory against the Sun newspaper, when for two days there were no pictures of half-naked women on its pages. Then, on Thursday, under the heading ‘Clarification and Correction’, there appeared a young blonde woman baring her breasts and winking. It’s difficult to know what’s going on, given that the paper isn’t responding to requests for clarification. Was the whole affair an elaborate publicity stunt, or had the Sun really decided to stop running the feature, only to perform a U-turn? But it’s futile to waste time trying to divine the paper’s motives, which ultimately will no doubt come down to the question of money and circulation figures. It’s more important to note that the number of signatories to the No More Page 3 campaign has dramatically increased this week, and that many of its supporters come from a younger generation of women, which is heartening for the feminist movement. However, it’s also important to note that Page 3 was just one small aspect of the media’s continued sexualisation of women, in porn, in newspapers, in advertising. If the movement to consign Page 3 to the bin, where it belongs, is ever truly successful, that will only be a small step on the road to equality: there is still so much more to do in this country to change the perception of women as bodies, as less than people, in contrast to men, and this is not to mention what it’s like to be a woman in other countries and societies, where a few topless photographs can seem like nothing in comparison to FGM and other brutal forms of subjugation.

2. A report in the Financial Times this week declared that ‘London’s financial district has a problem with senior women’. Women interviewed by the paper claim there remains a huge ‘institutional barrier’ to women rising up the ranks. Furthermore, despite the overall workforce being almost equally divided across gender lines, less than 20% of senior management positions are occupied by women, and most of the women holding senior positions in banks in London aren’t British. The report doesn’t hide the fact that there are many programmes in place in the City to employ women, with some institutions even putting recruitment targets in place, but it also highlights the persistent sexist culture which, in conjunction with a lack of willingness of employers to be flexible when it comes to motherhood, and an unwillingness on the part of female employees to make such demands and not to feel like they will be committing ‘career suicide’ if they do so. Some believe that mandatory targets are the answer – as have been put in place in many European countries – but there seems little point in putting women in positions where they aren’t going to feel comfortable, or that they’ve earned it on merit. To continue to work to combat gender stereotyping so that women and girls know that they are just as capable as men of studying maths or science, of holding down a high-flying job and having a family, is vital, as is eroding sexual harassment and conscious or unconscious bias against women in the workplace.

3. It’s hard to believe that Pegida, the German far-right movement which currently sees rallies of over 20,000 people marching through the country’s major cities, started out three months ago as a Facebook group with just a few hundred members. Pegida stands for Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West, and the group’s core demands are for immigration reform, a duty on foreigners to integrate and a ban on returning jihadists. It’s the first time since the 1930s, when the Nazi Party ruled, that Germany has seen an organised protest movement against foreigners. Counter demonstrations in support of Germany’s current liberal immigration policies have sprung up in response, apparently attracting larger numbers, but the number of those attending Pegida rallies appears to be growing, particularly in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. They also appear to be taking a more sinister turn, as last week an Eritrean refugee was murdered in Dresden on the same night one of the largest rallies took place. Germany currently welcomes many more asylum seekers than any other European country. This, in conjunction with a declining birth rate, places the country in a difficult position; Chancellor Angela Merkel sees immigration as a way to counteract this demographic problem, but it is clear that many German citizens do not share her view. While Pegida claims to draw a distinction between Germany’s Muslim population and radical Islamists, but it is worrying that a recent poll showed that 60% of Germany’s non-Muslim population feel threatened by Islam.

4. Anti-Muslim feeling is also being attributed to the surge in popularity for Marine Le Pen’s far right Front National party in France. Interestingly, there has also been a dramatic increase in support for the FN among France’s homosexual and bisexual population, some of whom blame Muslims for increased attacks on their community. Under Marine Le Pen, the Front National is no longer as openly homophobic as it was under her father, Jean Marie, and her speeches about the importance of French nationalism, and defending France’s traditions against radical Islam, are beginning to have broad appeal, even among the communities where you would least expect to find it. 

5. President Obama made history this week when he used the words ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender’ in his State of the Union address. The first time the word ‘gay’ appeared was when President Clinton used it in his State of the Union address in 2000. Obama also used the word ‘gay’ in 2010, but 2014 is the first time the words ‘lesbian’, ‘bisexual’ and ‘transgender’ have also appeared. The bisexual and transgender communities have struggled in their fight for visibility and recognition, and Obama’s words have been seen as a victory, and an important step in that fight. Obama’s speech is particularly important for those who identify as transgender, for whom legitimacy of their notions of gender and identity is harder to find. An explicit acknowledgement of transgender identity on such a stage is a pivotal and historic moment, but this is still a long way from protecting the trans community against violence, discrimination and harassment. More than 40% of Americans who identify as transgender will attempt to commit suicide at some point in their lives, and are far more likely to lose their jobs and live in poverty than their fellow citizens.

6. This week I’ve read two incredibly different yet equally gripping novels. The first has been made into a film, which is due to be released in April. I’m talking about Child 44, Tom Rob Smith’s astonishingly accomplished debut novel that was longlisted for the Booker Prize (and picked up a whole host of other awards and nominations) when it was published back in 2008. Child 44 is brilliantly written and compulsively page-turning. It’s what I would call a literary thriller. Leo Demidov is a member of the secret police, tasked with spying on citizens, interrogating them, torturing them, assuming they are always guilty. But when Leo is embroiled in a brutal spate of child killings, he starts to have doubts about the communist vision he has so blindly believed in, a vision which means there can be no criminality, and therefore no murderer. What makes Child 44 so good is that Smith exposes the brutal realities of Stalinist state (the hunger, the corruption, the fear, what it was like to live under the constant threat of suspicion), posing interesting questions about morality and human instincts in doing so, while at the same time writing a propulsive and addictive serial killer thriller; one of the best thrillers I’ve read in a long time.

The other novel read this week is The Night Guest, the first novel by Australian author Fiona McFarlane. It, too, won or was nominated for some major literary awards last year. Inspired by the author’s own experiences as she watched both her grandmothers’ struggles with dementia, The Night Guest is the story of Ruth, a septuagenarian who lives alone by the sea on Australia’s south coast. For company she has her cats and her memories of her childhood as the daughter of missionaries in Fiji, which was where she met Richard, with whom she fell in love. There’s also the tiger which Ruth believes she hears prowling around her house at night. One day, Frida turns up, claiming to be a carer sent by the government to look after Ruth. The Night Guest offers a different sort of compulsive reading from Child 44, but shares similar themes of deception and delusion, and how we choose to remember and construct (or reconstruct) events. How reliable is Ruth, and – more importantly – Frida? Is she really who she claims to be, or is she trying to take advantage of the elderly Ruth? The relationship between Ruth and Frida is brilliantly observed, as it lurches from affection to resentment to dependence and back again. The Night Guest is a compassionate and nuanced portrait of old age, and important reading at a time when care for the elderly in this country has too-long been at the point of crisis.

7. This week I’ve been listening to the new album by the American punk-rock group, Sleater-Kinney. Called No Cities To Love, it’s the band’s eighth album, and the first since they broke up almost ten years ago. The band said they didn’t want to get back together unless they could produce something new for 2015, and, while all the hallmarks of what made them so great are still there – Carrie Brownstein’s brilliant, virtuoso guitar playing, Corin Tucker’s voice, Weiss’ superlative drumming – and while it’s still their own brand of raw, urgent punk-rock combined with politically-charged lyrics, it does feel like a more grown-up and accessible album, though still as complicated and singular as they ever were. It’s good to have them back.

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