Josie Cunningham. Photo: @JosieCOnline
Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

There are two sides to the Muslim segregation story

White families must also be prepared to have Muslim neighbours. 

Dame Louise Casey finally published her review on social integration in Britain. Although it mentions all communities, there is a clear focus on Muslim communities. However, the issues she raises - religious conservatism, segregation in some areas and Muslim women experiencing inequalities -  are not new. In this case, they have been placed in one report and discussed in the context of hindering integration. If we are truly committed to addressing these issues, though, we have a duty of care to discuss the findings with nuance, not take them out of context, as some tabloids have already done.

The review, for example, highlights that in some areas Muslims make up 85 per cent of the local population. This should not be interpreted to mean that Muslims are choosing to isolate themselves and not integrate. For a start, the review makes it clear that there are also certain areas in Britain that are predominantly Sikh, Hindu or Jewish.

Secondly, when migrants arrive in the UK, it is not unreasonable for them to gravitate towards people from similar cultural and faith backgrounds.  Later, they may choose to remain in these same areas due to convenience, such as being able to buy their own food, accessing their place of worship or being near elderly relatives.

However, very little, if any, attention is given to the role played by white families in creating segregated communities. These families moved out of such areas after the arrival of ethnic minorities. This isn't necessarily due to racism, but because such families are able to afford to move up the housing ladder. And when they do move, perhaps they feel more comfortable living with people of a similar background to themselves. Again, this is understandable, but it highlights that segregation is a two-way street. Such a phenomenon cannot be prevented or reversed unless white families are also willing to have Muslim neighbours. Is the government also prepared to have these difficult conversations?

Casey also mentions inequalities that are holding some Muslim women back, inequalities driven by misogyny, cultural abuses, not being able to speak English and the high numbers of Muslim women who are economically inactive. It’s true that the English language is a strong enabler of integration. It can help women engage better with their children, have access to services and the jobs market, and be better informed about their rights.

Nevertheless, we should remember that first-generation Pakistani and Bangladeshi women, who could not speak English, have proved perfectly able to bring up children now employed in a vast range of professions including politics, medicine, and the law. The cultural abuses mentioned in the review such as forced marriage, honour-based violence and female genital mutilation, are already being tackled by government. It would be more valuable to see the government challenge the hate crimes and discrimination regularly faced by Muslim women when trying to access public services and the jobs market. 

The review recommends an "Oath of Integration with British Values and Society" for immigrants on arrival. This raises the perennial question of what "British Values" are. The Casey review uses the list from the government’s counter-extremism strategy. In reality, the vast majority of individuals, regardless of faith or ethnic background, would agree to sign up to them.  The key challenge for any integration strategy is to persuade all groups to practice these values every day, rather than just getting immigrants to read them out once. 

Shaista Gohir is the chair of Muslim Women's Network UK, and Sophie Garner is the general secretary and a barrister.