Show Hide image

Laurie Penny: If I can’t wear a short skirt, I don’t want your revolution

Advising women to avoid arousing potential rapists is a gross misunderstanding of the nature of sexual violence.

This time last year, a friendly handbook on what to do in case of riot or revolution would have been a joke, something you might buy in a gallery gift shop for the sort of friend who owns too many designer cardigans. This year, with various European cities still smoking and shops still boarded up across London after the August riots, the irony has rather faded.

Now, the prominent internet activist group Anonymous, which assisted dissidents in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and elsewhere, has published a Survival Guide for Citizens in a Revolution, intended, quite seriously, "for citizens who feel they are about to be caught up in a violent uprising". I don't know about you, but I'm starting to get that feeling every time I watch Question Time.

Some of the advice, presented with helpful illustrations of stylised anarchists being beaten bloody by cartoon lawmen, is indisputable. It shouldn't take a genius to work out that if there's chaos on the streets, it might be a good idea to pack essential documents and wear sensible shoes. After all, anyone who turns up to a revolution in Manolos is probably either dangerously stupid or the dictator everyone is trying to depose, both of which are great reasons to lie down in a dark, tunnel-like space until it's all over. A whole page of the guide, however, is dedicated to a ten-point plan for avoiding rape, and includes the following advice: "try to appear undesirable and unattractive", "never go out alone" and "do not wear skirts".

The people who wrote this guide mean well, as do most men who instruct women to live in fear for their own good. In normal circumstances, the imprecation to "never provoke" could be read as ugly, common-or-garden victim-blaming, of the type that the ITV presenter Eamonn Holmes employed this past week when he joked, after interviewing a female rape survivor: "I hope you take taxis now."

Victim-blaming is a part of rape culture that implies that sexual violence is women's fault for daring to walk in public spaces, use public transport or dress or behave in a way that might arouse or anger a potential assailant, rather than the fault - always and only - of the attackers themselves. The authors of the guide take pains to reassure us that these hypothetical circumstances are not normal: "what might be OK in a stable society" - wearing clothes that show your thighs, for instance - "will get you in deep trouble in times when there is no backed law enforcement".

In times of social unrest, it is implied, the usual rules do not apply. This is the explanation for doling out precisely the same warning to self-police that women have been given for centuries, in peacetime and in wartime.

“Provocation"

In a situation beyond law and order, it might be just as appropriate to counsel potential rape victims to grab the nearest sliver of burning government building and use it to skewer the rapist through his shrivelled, woman-hating heart. Either way, advising women to avoid arousing potential rapists is a gross misunderstanding of the nature of sexual violence, especially in conflict situations. For the half-million women raped by rival militias in the Democratic Republic of Congo over the past decade, sexual violence has little or nothing to do with physical attraction: rape is a weapon of war, a tool of humiliation, power and control.

Shortly after the revolution in Egypt, hundreds of women were assaulted in Tahrir Square by the same men they had stood beside only weeks earlier to overthrow a corrupt regime. Their only "provocation" was to dare to assemble in celebration of International Women's Day. It was the first inkling we got that there might be more to creating a free Egypt than ousting Hosni Mubarak. These things don't "just happen" in disorderly situations. These things happen because some men believe that they have the right to police and punish the bodies of women.

Until they stop doing so, any revolution will be incomplete, because women are not just afterthoughts in the global fight against tyranny and austerity. Any "revolution in favour of the people", of the sort that Anonymous anticipates in its guide, will not be worth having if it does not agitate for social, political and sexual liberation for every single one of its members. To paraphrase Emma Goldman: if I can't wear a short skirt, I don't want to be part of your revolution.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 31 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Young, angry...and right?

Getty
Show Hide image

Want to beat child poverty? End the freeze on working-age benefits

Freezing working-age benefits at a time of rising prices is both economically and morally unsound. 

We serve in politics to change lives. Yet for too long, many people and parts of Britain have felt ignored. Our response to Brexit must respond to their concerns and match their aspirations. By doing so, we can unite the country and build a fairer Britain.

Our future success as a country depends on making the most of all our talents. So we should begin with a simple goal – that child poverty must not be a feature of our country’s future.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies projects that relative child poverty will see the biggest increase in a generation in this Parliament. That is why it is so troubling that poverty has almost disappeared from the political agenda under David Cameron, and now Theresa May.

The last Labour Government’s record reminds us what can be achieved. Labour delivered the biggest improvement of any EU nation in lifting one million children out of poverty, transforming so many lives. Child poverty should scar our conscience as much as it does our children’s futures. So we have a duty to this generation to make progress once again.

In my Barnsley constituency, we have led a campaign bringing together Labour party members, community groups, and the local Labour Council to take action. My constituency party recently published its second child poverty report, which included contributions from across our community on addressing this challenge.

Ideas ranged from new requirements on developments for affordable housing, to expanding childcare, and the great example set by retired teachers lending their expertise to tutor local students. When more than 200 children in my constituency fall behind in language skills before they even start school, that local effort must be supported at the national level.

In order to build a consensus around renewed action, I will be introducing a private member’s bill in Parliament. It will set a new child poverty target, with requirements to regularly measure progress and report against the impact of policy choices.

I hope to work on a cross-party basis to share expertise and build pressure for action. In response, I hope that the Government will make this a priority in order to meet the Prime Minister’s commitment to make Britain a country that works for everyone.

The Autumn Statement in two months’ time is an opportunity to signal a new approach. Planned changes to tax and benefits over the next four years will take more than one pound in every ten pounds from the pockets of the poorest families. That is divisive and short-sighted, particularly with prices at the tills expected to rise.

Therefore the Chancellor should make a clear commitment to those who have been left behind by ending the freeze on working-age benefits. That would not only be morally right, but also sound economics.

It is estimated that one pound in every five pounds of public spending is associated with poverty. As well as redirecting public spending, poverty worsens the key economic challenges we face. It lowers productivity and limits spending power, which undermine the strong economy we need for the future.

Yet the human cost of child poverty is the greatest of all. When a Sure Start children’s centre is lost, it closes a door on opportunity. That is penny wise but pound foolish and it must end now.

The smarter approach is to recognise that a child’s earliest years are critical to their future life chances. The weight of expert opinion in favour of early intervention is overwhelming. So that must be our priority, because it is a smart investment for the future and it will change lives today.

This is the cause of our times. To end child poverty so that no-one is locked out of the opportunity for a better future. To stand in the way of a Government that seeks to pass by on the other side. Then to be in position to replace the Tories at the next election.

By doing so, we can answer that demand for change from people across our country. And we can provide security, opportunity, and hope to those who need it most.

That is how we can begin to build a fairer Britain.
 
 

Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central and a former Major in the Parachute Regiment.