The Deadly Right to Self-Expression

“I think you’d look bloody lovely in a miniskirt” says a man off camera, with a dirty chuckle. The usually feisty young woman it’s directed to, Sabbiyah, smiles to keep the peace but I’m repulsed even before another man’s hand gropes her knee, turning her expression very hostile. The scene annoys me because I can relate to it – I can see how the men might consider themselves fairly innocent as they haven’t really done very much other than be mildly provocative. But being objectified and sexualized in this way is unpleasant and uncomfortable and I’m sure there’s not a woman alive who’s not experienced similar at some point or other.

What’s particularly offensive in this instance however is that the men’s provocative comments are directed at an Islamic woman, who’s just told them that she wears what she does to protect her modesty. The scene is from episode 2 of UK’s Make Bradford British and you can watch it here: (this links to the whole episode but it will start at the scene I’ve just described)

There are so many issues that this could springboard onto, but what’s interested me the most is the importance that so many people put on what you wear. I thought that I came from a culture where dressing differently / bizarrely / however you like was at least tolerated…  I remember my head of year standing at one side of the long busy corridor looking me up and down in some form of intimidation technique as I walked past her defiantly. My nearly waist length hair had been plaited into nearly 150 braids, each with little beads on the end, and she didn’t approve.

She tried all manner of things to get me to look ‘normal’, including complaining that I was a walking health and safety hazard as I could have someone’s eye out if I turned round too quickly. “What, even if I tie it back in a bun?!” I sarcastically protested. But this was twenty years ago, and even then, I had enough supporters of my right to self-expression – particularly my form tutor who I suspect wouldn’t have let me back down even if I’d chosen to – that she didn’t get her way.

Part of being a teenager is about exploring identity through the clothes you wear, trying out new looks as you work out who you are. Most of my friends wore the Doc-Martin-boots-and-long-black-hair uniform of individuality. What we didn’t realise though was that even if I wore red laces and she wore green, we still looked rather much the same to everyone else. But whatever names we were called, we knew we were harmless and so did most other people.

So it’s particularly saddening to read a couple of stories lately that demonstrate the dire importance of looking like everyone else. Firstly back in December, 65 Indonesian youngsters were rounded up following a rock concert, and made to conform  - their piercings were taken off them, their mohicans and dreadlocks shaved off, and their ‘disgusting’ clothes replaced. Then, with their heads shaved, they were paraded around like criminals and forced to undergo 10 days of detention while they were morally re-coded. 
Such treatment is obviously rather horrible, degrading and humiliating but the officials protested “We’re not torturing anyone. We’re not violating human rights.” That’s arguable given that some of the young people were apparently held in cages, but at least they were returned to their parents after a week and a half.

What’s far more disturbing is what’s been happening to young Iraqis recently. Nobody’s entirely certain who’s behind it, although the country’s Interior Ministry has been denouncing emo sub-culture as satanic, but in the last month or so around 100 young Iraqis have been stoned to death because of the way they dress. This article describes the situation, but warning: it includes some graphic descriptions and a photo that I intentionally scrolled right past, so I’m not sure how bad they are.

Perhaps in the UK, nothing’s changed, perhaps there will always be people who are against those who dare to dress differently. But I’m very thankful that despite the odd jibe or comment, I never felt threatened, just confident knowing that the way I dressed was what made me, me. As Sabbiyah explains “It’s part of my identity, why can’t I dress like this?” In her case, issues of racism, culture and immigration all play a part in the comments she received but the issue of identity is universal.

Haitian Aid, Indian Changemakers and British Housework

The Aftermath of Aid

When a natural disaster happens, images are broadcast around the world, and rightfully aid pours in, enabling programmes to be set up to deal with the immediate, and longer term aftermath of the disaster. But what happens after a couple of years, when the aid organizations have completed their initial phase programmes and inevitably leave the country? This post on Haiti Grassroots Watch looks at this question in terms of what is happening now in Haiti.

Gender Equality in the UK? Apparently Not.

Only 1 in 10 British married men does an equal amount of housework as his wife! This does appear to be changing though…albeit rather slowly – more than eight out of ten women born in 1958 said that they do more laundry and ironing than their husband, but of those born in 1970, this figure reduced to 7 in ten, according to this article.

How Video Volunteers have been empowering local changemakers

Video Volunteers believes that every community, no matter how small or remote, should be able to have at least one local changemaker within it – someone who can broadcast their issues to the world. But despite the vast numbers of mobile phone connections in the world, many of which now have video capabilities, this is not happening as much as they think it should.  This article on their website is the first in a series of four, which talks about how they’ve been tackling this problem for the last year.

Racism and Political Correctness as we “Make Bradford British”

UK’s Channel 4 last night aired the first in a two part documentary entitled “Make Bradford British”. The show aims to understand what it means to be British by putting 8 diverse characters in a house together to try to come to a unified definition. In fairness to the show, they never explicitly refer to the colour, race, religion or attitude of any of the participants, leaving them to comment themselves. But nevertheless, each of the characters is clearly chosen specifically for their diversity of attitudes, with the final group including a couple of middle class whites, two Muslims, a Black man, a young man portrayed as a racist and another two who have not yet outwardly declared religion or race.

It’s not hard to see why Bradford was chosen for this experiment – it has a huge Asian population and has a long history of racial tension. In 2001, following decades of racial segregation, the city not only suffered massive race riots but was also declared by an independent report as a city “gripped by fear”. Since then, whenever racial issues have featured in the UK’s news, you can be sure that reports have streamed in from Bradford.

With such diversity represented, I see the programme’s strengths as appealing to a huge segment of society, but whether or not the format will manage to change public perceptions (as some claim its goal is) is yet to be seen. As a piece of entertainment, its Big Brother style first part (and Wife Swap style sequel) fits the bill, and is rather thought provoking too; the first snippet of confrontation occurs when Rashid insists on leaving the house to go to the mosque. But where most of their comments are tempered by insinuation in the spirit of trying not to offend, the one person who speaks out most candidly in opposition to Rashid’s determined worship is fellow Muslim Sabbiyah; defying those who say that all Muslims are the same.

For me this programme is an interesting prospect – Bradford is only a 20 minute drive from my house, so I know the area well. But also personally, I was subject to quite a bit of racism as I grew up – which was always a bit peculiar given that neither of my parents has roots outside the UK, except for one French ancestor and the clandestine rumour of a pregnant Spanish maid…

Nevertheless, being spat at on the bus, being called ‘Paki‘ fairly frequently and a lifetime of being asked “no, where are you REALLY from?” has made me interested in how identity is constructed. This has become even stronger since I’ve lived outside the UK, generally being referred to as whatever the local derogatory term for ‘whitey’ is.

In essence I have always had a feeling that I didn’t quite belong (in any country – I blend in the most in Italy until my accent gives me away), but yet at the same time, that the UK is absolutely my home, and I certainly class myself as British (not English mind you; I’m half Welsh).

Before the programme aired, it was already facing criticism for its provocative title implying that Bradford is not actually British, but several local figureheads were rightfully waiting to see the show before condemning it. Now that time has come, you can read a balance of reviews at: The Daily Mail (Britishness and cultural identity matter), The Guardian (Failed to get beyond racial stereotypes), The Socialist Worker (lacks facts), The Metro (disappointingly controversy free) or The Independent (Obviously Rashid’s British – he says “snicket” and “job’s a good’un”)

Political Correctness

If the programme itself was aiming for lofty goals, perhaps it failed, but in terms of the subject matter it has evoked, I think it could be a huge success. Jens, a 71 year old former policeman starts out by saying that he’d better watch what he says, which betrays an all too common attitude towards political correctness – we know that we shouldn’t say certain things in British society today, but we don’t always really understand why. On top of that, a survey commissioned by Channel 4 revealed that 54% of Britons are sometimes confused about which words are acceptable to use describing people from ethnic minorities.

When the drink starts to flow, Jens thinks better of his own advice and jokingly calls Desmond a ‘Black Bastard’ after recalling jovially how he used to invite an Asian friend of his out for a spot of ‘Paki-bashing’. It’s okay, he justifies, because it was done with a smile. The next morning Jens is totally mystified at the reaction he caused – Audrey, who up until filming was a strong defender of using the word ‘Paki’ suddenly begins to equate it with the racist names she was called as she grew up and tearfully tells the camera how ashamed she now feels. Desmond questions his world-weary response of taking it on the chin – now that he’s on tv, is he not representing all those who are called similarly? and Sabbiyah realises what those words must have meant in reality for her own father years ago.

And that’s the issue with racist words such as these – their use is confused in the modern day. Some people use them derogatorily, some use them positively and many forget what they really mean, but regardless of intent, they still carry with them a heavy history of hate.

Political correctness should not be about being seen (and heard) to be acting appropriately, its purpose should be to understand why saying certain things isn’t such a good idea. But British society seems to have a phobia of debating these issues, leaving in its wake stilted public personas and an overflow of privately spoken, often misunderstood, prejudiced remarks.

It brings to mind a very thought-provoking (if verbally sexually graphic) clip from Louis CK’s 2010 Comedy LOUIE Episode 2, in which a group of friends, one of whom is gay, discuss the word ‘Faggot’ (the discussion comes after 4 minutes but it’s worth watching the whole clip for the full impact):

In LOUIE, the issue may not be racism, but the connotations and impact  of using such derogatory words are dealt with skilfully.

What this programme is potentially capable of doing though, is not finding a solution to racism as it seems to want to do, but of bringing to the surface all that misunderstood, unintentionally hurtful, unknowingly prejudiced joviality so that we can talk about it properly.

Twittering for Change

I have to admit that the frequent nonsensities of celebrity twittering may have put me off in the past, but wherever there is inanity, a good measure of sense surely hovers nearby. I know enough people who put Twitter to good use; updating followers with useful snippets of knowledge, well thought out ideas and opinions to at least balance them out. But what impresses me more is when Twitter becomes a tool for actual change.

The UK riots last year are one such example of this as they prompted a mass voluntary clean up operation mobilized almost entirely through twitter and facebook. Watching the hoards of rioters from here in Mexico, faces covered as they broke windows, looted shops, burned buildings, it seemed that civil war may have begun – far scarier images were beaming into my living room from the UK than I ever see in the streets of Mexico.

But then something happened; there were still a few intermittent images of lone looters causing havoc with the paper displays in the banks, but mostly the hostile imagery was replaced by rosy-cheeked groups of smiling volunteers with brooms.

According to internetworldstats, 82% of the population of the UK uses the internet, so it is fairly logical to conclude that if Twitter is going to take off anywhere as a catalyst for social change, then the UK is a strong contender. But what happens elsewhere? The same website says that only 25.5% of the population of Kenya use the internet, and it’s a fair bet to assume that the majority of these are in the wealthier quintiles.

Given these statistics, it’s refreshing to read that a Kenyan Chief has taken up Twitter as a means to prevent and solve violent crime in his village and those surrounding it. Chief Francis Kariuki from Nakuru County, Rift Valley Province has started sending crime alerts out through his twitter account to reach over half of his population. For those who aren’t able to receive the twitter feeds directly, the local phone provider allows them to receive the tweets through text message.

It’s a system that’s having a great effect on local crime, and bringing the community together at the same time. When a crime alert appears, the community comes out in great numbers to help, and missing things, whether stolen goods or even children, are found within hours.