More than a number: Benjamin argues that we can't escape the facts of ageing. Photo: Muir Vidler
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Marina Benjamin: what it means to be a woman aged 50

As she prepares for her 50th birthday, the author and journalist reflects on what it means to be “middle-aged” – and on a journey she knows never ends well.

Life’s defining moments do not always announce themselves with the fanfare of celebration (big birthdays, weddings) or trauma (puberty, divorce). Sometimes they’re like stealth bombers; they come out of nowhere and blow up things soundlessly. Two years ago I experienced just such a moment in the middle of the night. I woke up wanting to go to the bathroom and swung out of bed to stand up. I took a single step in the right direction, then fell to the floor like a plank.

There was the blunt thud of skull hitting wood and the slap of impact that split open the skin on my brow bone. My husband leapt out of bed to put the light on, alert as if the crash had been an intruder. By this time I’d managed to sit up. Blood was dripping from my eye on to my hand and I could feel the throb of nascent swellings at my ankle, hip and shoulder. I remember thinking: “This is the kind of game-changing fall that happens to old people” – bone-breaking, concussion-inducing – not to women in their late forties. I swallowed a couple of painkillers, cleaned myself up and went back to sleep. The following day my eye-socket was a reddish-purple golf ball, lids glued into a slit, and my whole body ached.

In itself, the fall was banal. A clear-cut case of somnambulism; my mind had been awake enough to formulate a conscious intention but the neural pathways of my motor system still slumbered. That day and the next I stayed home, unwilling to suffer people staring. I nursed some angry bruises; but thereafter I got on with things as if nothing had happened.

Looking back, I recognise that the fall registered much deeper. It was sloppy and uncontrolled, as if I were a marionette and someone else, someone malicious, the string-puller. I was a mere player, a pawn, a flimsy vessel bobbing on choppy seas. Worse, like some bizarre prefiguring of my future life, my fall seemed to contain within it every other fall I would henceforth suffer.

From that instant on, I’ve never regained an absolute trust that my body will automatically fall into line with my will: from now on it will falter and fail. I can no longer depend on it to function properly. This, it seems to me, is solid indication that my youth has ended and middle age begun.

These days, when we are persistently told that age is all in the mind, that 40 is the new 30, and 50 the new 40; when entire wings of the cosmetics and medical industries are dedicated to rolling back the effects of passing time; when women are giving birth to first children in their late forties and fifties; when we are all, men and women alike, living healthily for longer, working later and shunning the putting out to pasture we once happily greeted as “retirement”; why, when such things are the new norms, would anyone elect themselves to membership of that most undesirable of clubs, the middle-aged? Shouldn’t I just dismiss my fall as an accident? I still run five kilometres three or four times a week. I work and I parent. I switch and click between being a wife, daughter, mother and friend. I am nowhere near the end of my productive life, as a writer or anything else. And yet I know as surely as day is not night that one season of my life has ended and another begun.

You might ask how I know, indeed, how anyone knows when they’ve arrived at middle age. I’ll admit that it remains fuzzy as to whether middle age qualifies as a biologically distinct phase of life (one that comes with its own neurological and biochemical map) or is just a label we give to a period of mental adjustment that helps us accommodate vague feelings of loss. Then again, perhaps it is merely a socio-cultural construction, no more trustworthy than any marketing category: a shorthand way of dividing people up by their attitudes and lifestyle choices?

When the term “middle age” came into general use in the late 19th century, it was principally in a socio-economic setting. Empire and industrialisation had expanded and enriched the middle classes, and women who had finished raising children could enjoy another decade or two of vigour and relevance. Middle age was actually admired: these women were mature, worldly creatures who had, as the modern saying goes, “freedom to” as well as “freedom from”. The negative tarnish came with the mass production of the 1920s and the theories of scientific management that underpinned it, sharpening our association of youth with productivity and middle age with decreasing efficiency.

You could argue that middle age is thoroughly overdetermined, as Simone de Beau­voir seemed to suggest in The Coming of Age. Writing in 1970, when she was 62, de Beauvoir pushed back against a quiescent society that expected people to grow more “serene” as they grew older. With measured eloquence, she wheeled in whole bodies of literature and philosophy to swat down this idea of resigned acceptance. Instead, she argued, we should accommodate old age through a process of continual, consciously engaged modification. “Life is an unstable system in which balance is continually lost and continually recovered,” she wrote.

This chimes with my sense that we shift this way and that – sometimes literally, as with my fall – before correcting for overzealousness or caution. Though de Beauvoir was writing more about old age than middle age, her labelling of bodily decline, economic redundancy and social marginalisation as important parameters in defining how we age fits with the idea that entering middle age is a kind of subjective reckoning. I’m picturing a Venn diagram that captures the intersection of de Beauvoir’s three factors: middle age is that shady area where the circles overlap. It’s a dappled spot, where the light is fading and the chill of winter starts to set in. The specific age at which we enter this penumbra is different for each of us, but the common quality is a profound sense of alteration and a dawning understanding, dim at first, that there is no point of re-entry to the bright terrain of youth.

In the past year, Penelope Lively, Julia Twigg, Lynne Segal, Anne Karpf, Angela Neustatter and a clutch of their American peers all published books on ageing, attempting to pick up where de Beauvoir left off. These women are a generation older than I am. They’ve been through the wars – menopause, middle age – and emerged unscathed. Now they claim to be wiser, happier, bolder, calmer, more flexible, open and, in some cases, more in touch with youth than before. They offer a relentless good cheer, as if it were permissible to write about late life only by becoming your own superheroine. And they appear to have signed up, one and all, to the delusional idea that you are only as old as you feel.

And it really is delusional. My own mother, youthful in mind as she ever was, would guffaw if, in the face of her ongoing problems with mobility, memory loss and regular if episodic bereavement, I attempted to console her by announcing that 80 was the new 70. In most countries, average life expectancy continues to hover around the late-seventies mark (not far off the Psalmist’s three score and ten) but in developing countries it is much lower. At 82, my mother acknowledges that she’s into borrowed time, like those statistical outliers who live beyond 90 and 100 and skew popular perceptions of this ultimate numbers game. Yes, medicine has increased life expectancy – but not as much, or as broadly, as one might think.

As I gear up to turn 50 this summer what has lodged in my mind is this: that it is a mathematical near-certainty that, with my next birthday, I will have passed the halfway mark. That from now on growing older will be less about marking the age I’ve arrived at than about counting down what is left. At 50 I will quite literally be over the hill; ahead of me, the incline runs downwards. And it doesn’t end well.

Last autumn, some 18 months after my fall, I had a hysterectomy. To be precise, it was a sub-total hysterectomy with bilateral salpingo-oophrectomy. All that’s left is my cervix and I kept that for sentimental reasons. It took weeks to recover from the surgery, during which time I experienced a full-bodied plunge into instant menopause. Joints were popping and bones aching. It was impossible to sleep. Every hour and a half, like clockwork, I’d wake up drenched in sweat, throw off my covers and run to the bathroom window to salute the moon – at least that’s how I now think of my stripped-down attempts at rapid cooling.

A kindly friend put a book called The Wisdom of Menopause into my hands, and I gratefully scurried away to prise out its time-trawled pearls. Sadly, this bestselling book by Christiane Northrup, MD turned out to be an embittered tirade against marriage and family – as if our ties were good only for holding us back, rather than up – and, in the worst tradition of US self-help literature, it was lecturing and strident. More edifying was Jane Shilling’s melancholy and poetic memoir of midlife The Stranger in the Mirror, a book honest enough to acknowledge the effrontery of ageing.

On top of affront, of course, there is grief, bewilderment, alienation, frustration – everything you might associate with being forced to cross a border into a foreign land only to be informed that you can never go back; that your passport has been torn up and your old home ransacked. As a new arrival in this strange nation, I wish to parse the experience before its lessons evaporate or transform. To that end, I have pressed into service oestrogen, my new drug of choice.

Oestrogen is the soft end of age-reversing remedies. It is marketed as “natural” – even though much of it is engineered in the laboratory using horse hormone primers. More slyly, it is billed as a “replacement” therapy not a “supplement”. It replenishes depleted stores, topping up your parched system with nothing more than you already had. Like a debt repaid; you’re entitled to it.

And yet oestrogen’s effects are little short of miraculous. It strengthens nails and bones, boosts energy, lifts libido, makes your skin glow and your hair shine. After taking it for a month, I felt as though I’d been holidaying in Thailand. After two, as if I’d just passed my MOT. And I’ve been evangelising about oestrogen ever since, shamelessly pushing it on friends overcome by fatigue, hot flashes, mood swings and insomnia – friends who, like me, are aghast that instead of gently drifting into midlife, midlife has rudely flung itself at them, exploding like a bag of flour.

Using oestrogen is, however, hallucino­genic. Like taking morphine during labour, it insinuates a languorous pause into an otherwise relentless process. Oestrogen heightens my sense of being at a threshold that demands I make conscious decisions about how to tackle ageing. It is in my power now (for as long as I take the stuff) to call the shots on how rapidly I’m willing to let go of my youth. But what exactly should I do? And where should I draw the line? Choice, however illusory, has entered the equation – and with choice comes temptation.

I can see, for example, how easy it might be to do just a little something. A tiny nip and tuck here, a harmless injection there; a barely noticeable lift, suction or augmentation. These reveries of self-improvement taunt me periodically, though they are quickly checked whenever I come across monstrous images of, say, Madonna, her face distorted by prosthetics or fillers, and the fine line between surgery and butchery is brought home with the thumping finality of a cleaver hitting the block.

Although I can see through such determined resistance to ageing into the inner weakness it betrays, I don’t believe for a minute that the smugness that comes with self-denial is any better – all those go-grey campaigners getting off on feeling superior to women who faff around with hair dye. It’s such a Pyrrhic victory. Unless they ditch their granny-like pieties for the unruly witchiness championed by the likes of Germaine Greer, then I feel they’ve nothing to teach me.

Besides, when I journey down that path of imaginative projection, promising myself I will stop hurling spokes into the spinning dials of my body clock, I find that I’m still far from happy about ageing. I feel unprepared for it. Caught on the hop. Exposed. Most of the time I pretend it isn’t happening, only to be pulled up short by that terrible sense of dissonance occasioned: a) by a chance encounter with a mirror, and b) by friends I haven’t seen in a while, when the unchanging, inner me (source of identity, stability, comfort) is forced to confront a visible exterior that’s been subjected to a Dorian Gray-style makeover.

“You look exactly the same,” a friend I’d not seen in a decade told me recently. “Only fuller.” What stung most was that he did look exactly the same. He didn’t even have the graying temples that supposedly confer “dignity” on middle-aged men. Of course men, accustomed in their prime to greater social and economic power than women, often fall very hard in midlife, not least because there are fewer routes to self-reinvention open to them as they age than reveal themselves to women by way of grandmothering, voluntary work, or the Women’s Institute and its modern analogues of baking, knitting, music or gossip circles. (My mother has developed a whole new eightysomething network through playing bridge, which is a 90 per cent female pursuit, as far as I can tell.)

Lonesome or not, men still manage to remain visible as they age, while women are quietly removed from view, especially in high-visibility professions such as the stage and media. Last year the actress Kristin Scott Thomas was widely reported complaining that in midlife she is no longer seen. “Somehow, you just vanish,” she said. You talk and people affect not to hear you. Or they bump into you in the street. Her disclosure struck terror into the heart of every middle-aged woman I know: if someone as blindingly gorgeous and talented as Scott Thomas could disappear, what hope was there for the rest of us?

The serious point about being invisible is the poverty of viable alternatives. You might think, on the plus side, that if you are beneath regard there is no pressure to conform, or even behave. You can thumb your nose at convention and no one will chide you for it. Like the mischievous old woman in Jenny Joseph’s poem, who promises to rattle her stick along the railings and blow her pension on brandy and fancy gloves, you can make up in midlife for the sobriety of your youth.

But although this – what to call it . . . freedom by omission? – holds out the promise of gay abandon, I’m not convinced that the solution to the painfulness of moving forward is a simple flip into reverse gear. Jenny Joseph’s idealisations of a second childhood (who else but children can be so irresponsible?) are ultimately infantilising. Yet the Loose Women nudge-and-wink alternative of turbocharging sexuality on the other side of fertility feels too much like parody.

The trouble with such attempts to reset the clock is that they play directly into societal pressures that keep women perpetually on the back foot. In our post-industrial society, which demands that we keep redundancy at bay by working ever longer hours for a greater number of years, it becomes imperative to prove that you’re still in the game. That you can keep up with younger colleagues, work nights and weekends. That you can innovate and adapt – else those new brooms will sweep you aside faster than you can say Rip Van Winkle.

I’m not sure how, in this brave new world, where economic efficiency is the true driver behind age-appropriate expectations of how to behave, middle-aged women are supposed to find their way. But I do know that falling is out of the question.

Marina Benjamin is the author of “Rocket Dreams” and “Last Days in Babylon” and is a senior editor on Aeon Magazine. She tweets as @marinab52

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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Inside the minds of the Isis murderers

As pressure on the terror group who claimed responsiblity for the Manchester attack intensifies, the threat to Britain will only become more acute.

The police and security services had consistently warned that a significant terrorist attack in Britain was inevitable. Yet no warning could have prepared us for the horror of the suicide attack on the Manchester Arena on Monday night. Twenty-two people were killed and at least 60 were wounded as they were leaving a concert by Ariana Grande in what was the most deadly attack in Britain since the London bombings of 7 July 2005, in which 56 people died.

Like the London bombers, the Manchester suicide attacker, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was British. He was 22, lived in Manchester and studied business management at Salford University before dropping out. He worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. The son of Libyans, Abedi is said to have returned recently from a visit to the North African country, where Islamic State has a foothold.

Ariana Grande is a former children’s TV star who made her name on channels such as Nickelodeon. Her fan base is overwhelmingly young and female, and many of those killed or wounded were children, including Saffie Rose Roussos, an eight-year-old girl from Leyland, Lancashire.

Islamic State inevitably claimed responsibility for the massacre, dismissing the victims as “crusaders”, “polytheists” and “worshippers of the cross”. This is not the first time Islamist terrorists have targeted children.

A Chechen jihadist group calling itself ­Riyad-us Saliheen (meaning “Gardens of the Righteous”) took more than 1,100 hostages, including 777 children, in a school siege in Beslan, Russia, in September 2004. In the event, more than 330 were massacred, including 186 children. Gunmen from the Pakistani Taliban also stormed a school in 2014, killing 148.

For terrorist actors, these are neither whimsical nor irrational acts. Contemporary jihadist movements have curated a broad and expansive intellectual ecosystem that rationalises and directs their actions. What they want is to create an asymmetry of fear by employing indiscriminate barbarism to intimidate and subdue their opponents into submission.

We have grown accustomed to a wave of terrorist attacks being carried out in the name of the self-styled Islamic State ever since the group’s official spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani began prioritising them in 2014. (He was killed in an American air strike on Aleppo province in Syria in August last year.)

The US-led coalition against Islamic State has weakened the terror group in its former strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. In response, IS has been forced to concentrate more on what it calls “external operations” – by which it means inspiring its sympathisers and operatives to carry out attacks on Western countries. Indeed, al-Adnani encouraged the group’s supporters not to migrate towards IS-held territory but rather to focus their efforts on attacks in their home countries.

“The tiniest action you do in the heart of their [Western] land is dearer to us than the biggest action by us,” he said in an audio statement released last year. “There are no innocents in the heart of the lands of the crusaders.”

Islamic State refers to its strategy as “just terror”. Its framing places culpability for attacks on Western states on these nations themselves by claiming that IS actions are a response to aggression or assault. That much has been outlined in the group’s literature. “When will the crusaders end their hostilities towards Islam and the Muslims? . . . When will they recognise that the solution to their pathetic turmoil is right before their blinded eyes?” the militants ask in the IS magazine Dabiq. “Until then, the just terror will continue to strike them to the core of their deadened hearts.”

IS offered a rationale of this sort as justification for its bombing of a Russian commercial aircraft – Metrojet Flight 9268, travelling from Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt to St Petersburg. That attack in October 2015 killed 224. Similar reasoning was offered for the attacks in Paris the following month in which 137 people were killed, in a series of co-ordinated, commando-style gun and bomb outrages across the city.

“Revenge was exacted upon those who felt safe,” IS declared in Dabiq. “Let the world know that we are living today in a new era. Whoever was heedless must now be alert. Whoever was sleeping must now awaken . . . The [caliphate] will take revenge for any aggression against its religion and people, sooner rather than later. Let the ­arrogant know that the skies and the lands are Allah’s.”

***

Through my academic research at King’s College London, I have ­interviewed scores of Westerners who became foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq to quiz them about their motives. Last year, one man from High Wycombe who had joined IS told me that it wanted to attack British targets in response to the vote in the House of Commons to extend British air strikes against IS targets to include sites in Syria (the British had only been targeting the group in Iraq until that point). “Do they [the British government] expect us to sit back and do nothing? ­Idiots,” he said.

In this respect, IS frames its attacks as acts of “revenge” and predicates its response on the Islamic principle of qisas, which is comparable to lex talionis or the doctrine of “an eye for an eye”. Qisas was always intended to be a tool of private redress for an individual or his/her family to seek justice in matters relating to bodily harm. Typically, it relates to cases of murder and manslaughter, or acts involving physical mutilation (say, leading to loss of limbs). The principle creates a framework for retributive justice.

The contemporary Salafi-jihadi movement has adopted a particularly innovative approach to the concept of qisas in two ways. First, groups such as IS have taken the idea and construed it in a way that justifies indiscriminate terrorism, such as the attack in Manchester. They argue that qisas has a political dimension and that it can be applied to international affairs in a way that holds civilians responsible for the perceived crimes of their governments.

Second, qisas is normally applied only in cases where the aggressor is known. IS, by contrast, holds every citizen-stranger of an enemy state responsible for the actions of his or her government. Thus, when it released its statement claiming responsibility for the Manchester attack, it said that it had struck against a “gathering of the crusaders . . . in response to their transgressions against the lands of the Muslims”.

It is this militaristic construction of qisas that allows IS to rationalise the bombing of a venue where large numbers of young girls had gathered to watch a pop concert, dismissing them as “crusaders”.

This is not new. In 1997, Osama Bin Laden told CBS News that “all Americans are our enemies, not just the ones who fight us directly, but also the ones who pay their ­taxes”. His rationale was that all Americans, by virtue of citizenship alone, are vicariously liable for the actions of their government.

Just a few years later, Bin Laden used the same idea to justify the 11 September 2001 attacks and also invoked it in reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The blood pouring out of Palestine must be equally revenged,” he wrote. “You must know that the Palestinians do not cry alone; their women are not widowed alone; their sons are not orphaned alone.”

IS used the concept most dramatically in January 2015, when it burned alive a Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot, Muath al-Kasasbeh, whose plane had crashed in its territory. A video of the killing was circulated on the internet and social media. The group claimed his bombing raids had killed civilians and that it wanted to punish him with “equal retaliation”, in keeping with qisas.

What is well known about al-Kasasbeh’s murder is that he was burned alive inside a cage – but that is not the whole story. To understand how IS tethered this to the principle of qisas, it is the end of the gruesome video that is invested with most significance. After al-Kasasbeh has died, a truck emerges and dumps rubble over the cage. It was claimed this was debris from a site he had bombed, thus completing the “equal retaliation” of returning like for like. The idea was that IS had retaliated using the two principal forms in which a missile attack kills – by fire or debris.

***

The Manchester attack came on the fourth anniversary of the brutal murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south London. Rigby was killed by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale in the middle of the afternoon on a street outside a military barracks. That attack was in keeping with a pattern we have become increasingly accustomed to in Europe: an unsophisticated plot that employs ordinary, everyday items – a car, say, or a knife.

The consequences of such attacks have been seen across Europe, most notably in Nice on 14 July 2016, when 86 people were killed during Bastille Day celebrations after a jihadist drove a truck into crowds on the promenade. Similar attacks followed in Berlin, Westminster and Stockholm.

The security services find that these murderous attacks are extremely hard to disrupt because they typically involve lone actors who can mobilise quickly and with discretion. The Manchester attack was different. Explosives were used, which means the plot was inherently more sophisticated, requiring careful planning and preparation.

We know that two of the 7/7 bombers had previously trained in Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions, where they honed their skills. In other plots, such as the connected attacks in London and Glasgow Airport of 2007, the explosive devices failed mainly because the bomb-makers had found it difficult to travel abroad and develop their skills in safe environments. Whatever Abedi’s connections, the long war in Syria and Iraq has once again created a permissive environment for terrorist training and attack planning.

The devastating impact of this has already been felt across Europe. Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, more than 800 Britons are believed to have travelled there to fight. From Europe as a whole, the figure is over 5,000, of which a significant number are believed to have joined IS. Of the British contingent, the security services estimate that about half have returned or become disengaged from the conflict. Of those who remained, a hundred are believed to be active, the rest having been killed.

It is improbable that Abedi acted alone in Manchester or that this plot had no international component. Indeed, he was already known to the authorities (and had returned recently from Libya). As pressure on IS intensifies across Syria and Iraq, the threat to Britain will only become more acute as the group’s sympathisers prepare for what they consider to be a fightback.

This speaks to the scale of the threat facing Britain, and Europe more generally. Our police and security services have been stretched and continuously tested in recent years. Just recently, in March, the Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley told Radio 4’s Today programme that 13 plots had been thwarted since Lee Rigby’s murder in 2013. Put another way, the police have disrupted terrorist plots every four months for the past four years.

Naturally, Islamic State is not the only threat. On 13 May, one of Osama Bin Laden’s sons, Hamza, released a video, titled “Advice for martyrdom-seekers in the West”, on behalf of al-Qaeda. Hamza, 27, who was his father’s favoured successor to lead the group, called on its supporters to concentrate on attacks in the West rather than migrating to conflict zones in the Middle East and beyond. Scenes of previous ­terrorist attacks in Britain played throughout the video.

The central leadership of al-Qaeda is increasingly looking for opportunities to reassert itself after being eclipsed by Islamic State and losing control of its affiliates in Syria. It needs attacks and a cause in the West with which to revive itself. Hamza therefore cited the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris as a critical example, calling for the assassination of anyone deemed to have “insulted” Islam.

The Charlie Hebdo attack was especially important for al-Qaeda because it enabled the group to transcend the fratricidal conflicts that frequently define relations between the various jihadist groups. In Syria, for instance, al-Qaeda’s affiliates (when it had better control over them) and Islamic State have been in open war with each other.

Yet, the Charlie Hebdo attack brought warm praise from the group’s Islamist rivals because none of them wanted to appear ­unsupportive of an atrocity that had, as the terrorists proclaimed, “avenged” the Prophet Muhammad’s honour.

The British man from High Wycombe who joined IS told me the group had welcomed the attack for precisely those reasons. It was something that, in his view, had confirmed the “nobility” of the attackers, even if they had not been members of IS.

Is it too late for the West to save itself, I asked him. What if the West simply accepted all of Islamic State’s demands: would that provide respite?

The answer was as emphatic as it was stark: “We primarily fight wars due to ppl [sic] being disbelievers. Their drones against us are a secondary issue.”

He went on: “Their kufr [disbelief] against Allah is sufficient of a reason for us to invade and kill them. Only if they stop their kufr will they no longer be a target.”

In other words, we are all guilty, and we are all legitimate targets.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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