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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?

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.