Josie Cunningham. Photo: @JosieCOnline
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Josie Cunningham and the Big Brother abortion: why do some women volunteer for a witch-burning?

Josie Cunningham became famous for revealing she had her breasts enlarged on the NHS. Now she says she wants an abortion to go on Big Brother. In her determination to incite outrage, Cunningham is basically Abu Hamza with a double-D cup. Why do it?

Because the Middle Ages in Europe were a long and tedious era to be alive in, and because humanity was not happy to just hang around waiting for gifs and Buzzfeed quizzes to be invented, we learned to make our own entertainment. One of our main sources of fun was charivari, which was when the village decided that someone had done something the village didn’t like – often, though not always, something involving being a woman and having sex – and would get together to show its disapproval by banging pots outside the miscreant’s house.

Now we have smartphones, which means that we can leave the stockpot in the cupboard. We barely have to take half an eye off the newest farting otter or skateboarding goat when it’s time for a bit of charivari: we can just type “LOL SLAG” into Twitter and then get on with what we were doing, knowing that communal justice has been served. Which is a long way round of saying that the internet pasting being given to Josie Cunningham, after the aspiring celeb told the Mirror that she would have an abortion in order to get into the Big Brother house, isn't much of a cultural novelty. What is remarkable is that she seems to have very deliberately set out to be loathed.

 

 

Everything we know about her, we know because she's volunteered it. Her privacy hasn't been invaded, her words haven't been twisted. She sat down, with a camera on, and said things like: “I’m not having the abortion for the money, because I could get more money for the baby pictures.” Whether Cunningham is likeable obviously doesn't have anything to do with her right to an abortion – although if you listened to some columnists, you'd think that foetal personhood existed in inverse proportion to the personableness of the pregnant woman, so the more they hate Cunningham, the more likely they are to talk about the "innocent baby" or "unborn child". But in her determination to incite outrage, Cunningham is basically Abu Hamza with a double-D cup.

And Cunningham's chest is further evidence that she knows what she's inciting, because her previous moment of greatest fame (and the reason she's even under consideration for Big Brother) involved having a breast enlargement on the NHS, then talking to the papers about it. On her website, you can find a picture of her posing with nothing but some NHS tape over her cannonball tits to conceal the nipples. Her public career, such as it is, consists of trolling through elective medical procedures. And the media loves it. The Mail, the Sun, the Mirror, now me in the New Statesman – Cunningham gives everyone something to talk about. She fits our purpose.

In the Mail, Jan Moir calls her "another silly, silly young woman who has been encouraged to believe in her own specialness and suffering". For the Mirror's Carole Malone, she's "the poster girl for all that's dirty, immoral and sick in our society". And maybe she is, though not exactly in the way these writers intend. Like Moir and Malone, who are paid to "say the unsayable" and take the consequences, Cunningham is evidence that "hate figure" is tantamount to a valid profession for a woman.

A montage of news coverage, from Cunningham's website.

There are obnoxious male journalists, of course, ones who revel in their own unpleasantness – the Liddles and the Littlejohns. But there's no male equivalent of, say, Samantha Brick. A man writing a column might intend to offend, but when it's a woman offering the outrage, her very existence becomes part of the affront. Men can make careers directing hate at other people; women find it easier to channel it towards themselves. Sometimes, as in the case of Katie Hopkins, they do it so well that they make the jump from reality show monster to tabloid monsterer. If Cunningham needed to refine the art of saying something appalling and then turning public revulsion into profit, Hopkins would be the perfect place to look.

The demand for these permanently burnable witches seems easy enough to explain: it's down to cultural misogyny. Less obvious is why women show such alacrity in taking on the role, but perhaps there's an answer in Cunningham's backstory. According to her account, she was ferociously bullied by boys at school for having small breasts. "I may not have been suffering in a visable [sic] manner, but mentally I was suffering for over a decade," she writes on her official site. Maybe once you've learned to be hated, and learned to be the best at hating yourself, it begins to make sense that you should get some benefit from it. #

Bring on the pots and pans; Josie Cunningham is apparently ready for all the noise you can make, as long as you pay her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Felipe Araujo
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Manchester's Muslim community under siege: "We are part of the fabric of this nation"

As the investigation into last week's bombing continues, familiar media narratives about Islam conflict with the city's support for its Muslim population.

“You guys only come when something like this happens,” said one of the worshippers at Manchester's Victoria Park Mosque, visibly annoyed at the unusual commotion. Four days after the attack that killed 22 people, this congregation, along with many others around the city, is under a microscope.

During Friday prayers, some of the world’s media came looking for answers. On the eve of Ramadan, the dark shadow of terrorism looms large over most mosques in Manchester and beyond.

“People who do this kind of thing are no Muslims,” one man tells me.

It’s a routine that has become all too familiar to mosque goers in the immediate aftermath of a major terror attack. In spite of reassurances from authorities and the government, Muslims in this city of 600,000 feel under siege. 

“The media likes to portray us as an add-on, an addition to society,” Imam Irfan Christi tells me. “I would like to remind people that in World War I and World War II Muslims fought for this nation. We are part of the fabric of this great nation that we are.”

On Wednesday, soon after it was revealed the perpetrator of last Monday’s attack, Salman Ramadan Abedi, worshipped at the Manchester Islamic Centre in the affluent area of Didsbury, the centre was under police guard, with very few people allowed in. Outside, with the media was impatiently waiting, a young man was giving interviews to whoever was interested.

“Tell me, what is the difference between a British plane dropping bombs on a school in Syria and a young man going into a concert and blowing himself up,” he asked rhetorically. “Do you support terrorists, then?” one female reporter retorted. 

When mosque officials finally came out, they read from a written statement. No questions were allowed. 

“Some media reports have reported that the bomber worked at the Manchester Islamic Centre. This is not true,” said the director of the centre’s trustees, Mohammad el-Khayat. “We express concern that a very small section of the media are manufacturing stories.”

Annoyed by the lack of information and under pressure from pushy editors, eager for a sexy headline, the desperation on the reporters’ faces was visible. They wanted something, from anyone, who had  even if a flimsy connection to the local Muslim community or the mosque. 

Two of them turned to me. With curly hair and black skin, in their heads I was the perfect fit for what a Muslim was supposed to look like.

"Excuse me, mate, are you from the mosque, can I ask you a couple of questions,” they asked. “What about?,” I said. "Well, you are a Muslim, right?" I laughed. The reporter walked away.

At the Victoria Park Mosque on Friday, Imam Christi dedicated a large portion of his sermon condemning last Monday’s tragedy. But he was also forced to once again defend his religion and its followers, saying Islam is about peace and that nowhere in the Koran it says Muslims should pursue jihad.

“The Koran has come to cure people. It has come to guide people. It has come to give harmony in society,” he said. “And yet that same Koran is being described as blood thirsty? Yet that same Koran is being abused to justify terror and violence. Who de we take our Islam from?”

In spite of opening its doors to the world’s media, mosques in Britain’s major cities know they can do very little to change a narrative they believe discriminates against Muslims. They seem to feel that the very presence of reporters in these places every time a terror attack happens reveals an agenda.

Despite this, on the streets of Manchester it has proved difficult to find anyone who had a bad thing to say about Islam and the city’s Muslim community. Messages of unity were visible all over town. One taxi driver, a white working-class British man, warned me to not believe anything I read in the media.

“Half of my friends are British Muslims,” he said even before asked. “ These people that say Islam is about terrorism have no idea what they are talking about.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.

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