A woman huddles close to the heater in her London flat, in a picture taken in 1934. Photo: Harry Todd/Fox Photos/Getty Images
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My rented house is not my home

There’s only so much twenty quid and a trip to Ikea can do.

I’ve lived in my rented houseshare for seven years. I’d previously rented a room nearby from a friend, who moved abroad. For various reasons, I had to find somewhere to live in a hurry. I’d just graduated from the London College of Fashion, was writing freelance for the Independent on Sunday, I’d been on Woman’s Hour, I was, by some definition, “successful”. But without a regular income my housing choices were limited. I looked at one place where the furniture was all on its side and a tree was growing through the wall. My dad helped move me to the best place I could afford, with fairly hands-off letting agents who wouldn’t check if I had a proper job. I knew I could pay the rent, I just couldn’t prove I could pay the rent.

My house, shared with four others, was fine at first. My dad pulled a face and the shelves off my bedroom walls (DIY tip: rawl plugs are your friend; stuffing holes with tissue paper is not) and called it “a student hovel”. I called it “faded grandeur” and focused on the Victorian fireplaces, pretended the black-and-white check of the peeling laminate flooring was tile, ignored the hole in the hearth in my bedroom and the bellowing noise of the toilet’s Medieval plumbing. According to the contract, it was rented to us as furnished. Hmmm. The ‘coffee table’ in the sitting room was two wooden construction pallets topped with a dusty piece of hessian. There was a dining room; it contained nothing but a hideous Freecycled bamboo picnic table. The beds in each room comprised more wooden pallets – of slightly fancier construction; varnished, even! – and a mattress. If you don’t look too closely at stains you can pretend they’re not there!

I mopped my wooden floors. Bought my own curtains. You can do a lot with twenty quid and a trip to Ikea. In the back yard, I dug up the dead tree and the cat shit and the beer kegs and the rusty bicycle wheel; got a compost bin from the council, planted climbing roses and jasmine and two hydrangeas. My housemates and I joined the local Residents’ Association and volunteered at the street parties, painted walls at events to rejuvenate the neighbourhood, wrote letters to the council when late-night bars sprung up and men began following us home along the street, cat-calling. We threw out the sitting room’s wooden pallets and bought a coffee table from Oxfam, a dining table too. Our neighbours in the Residents’ Association gave us a vintage sideboard that we filled with fancy-on-a-budget wine and we had people round to dinner. I made tacos!

In the first couple of years, our shower broke. In the winter. ‘It’s always something with you lot,’ the letting agent complained when we rang with the news. We washed our hair in buckets filled from the kettle while we waited for them to get round to it. The first plumber didn’t bother grouting the tiles; our dining room below sprang a leak. The second plumber didn’t bother with a tile cutter to get around the shelf, he just smashed a tile and mosaiced it to the wall. The dining room leak returned. The third plumber stopped the leak; his grouting was OK. (He also installed our shower upside-down and said things like, ‘Say what you like about that Hitler, but…’.) The boiler broke: it’s always something…

We couldn’t afford anywhere else to live, and we had a garden, bus routes to work, a life, friends nearby. The rent went up.

Almost two years ago, January 2013. I woke to a gentle, rhythmic “thwunk thwunk” noise in my bedroom ceiling. I was living on the first floor now, the big but freezing front bedroom, single-glazed to the noise of a street that now filled with fights every Friday night. But it had that lovely, gorgeous fireplace (fill your hot water bottle, ignore the draught), and was warmer and quieter once I bought my own curtains. And London was expensive – it feels like my Oyster fares have doubled in the ten years I’ve lived here, but maybe I’m imagining that. Back to the “thwunk thwunk” noise: the roof, or maybe the gutters, or the radiator upstairs, was leaking into my bedroom ceiling. But the water hadn’t fallen through the ceiling yet, my room was dry. It was a reprieve! There was time to stop this!

I told the letting agent straight away. About a month later, a plumber came round to fix it. He couldn’t find an internal leak, so he told the letting agent to get a roofer. He left my bedroom ceiling open to the joists, to the winter air: no sense in closing it up, replastering, when the roof needed repairing. They didn’t schedule a roofer for weeks; I kept calling. It was winter. Eventually a man came, peered out of the attic window, concluded there was no problem, then leant over me in our dark hallway while we were alone in the house and told me to ditch my boyfriend and go out with him. I bared my teeth in the polite smile of the uncomfortable. He suggested I hadn’t understood what he’d said, repeated himself. When I finally got him to leave, he called the letting agent to say the roof was fine; they rang me and asked, ‘Why did you ask for a roofer? It’s expensive, why did you do that?’ It took several weeks of phone calls and emails before they closed up the hole in my ceiling, replastered.

Seven months later, October 2013 now. Thwunk thwunk thwunk. The leak was back. It had to be the roof, or the gutters. The gutters that leaked into the neighbour’s flat so that they complained about us. I was given a number for a roofer and I rang him twice a week all winter, and he forgot, or he couldn’t come, or he could come round but right then, that minute; except right then, that minute, I was at work. I also rang the letting agent regularly, asking for a different roofer, one who could make an appointment maybe; and could they also fix the fence that had blown down on Christmas Eve in the storms? Eventually would be OK, sometime this century, even.

We did minor repairs ourselves. Bought new toilet seats, fixed the flush when it rusted clean away, stripped the moulding wallpaper in the dining room, cleaned the mould with some kind of industrial strength spray, used anti-damp paint, repainted the whole wall. Filled the house with furniture and books. Kept throwing dinner parties, but bought extra blankets and advised everyone to drink a lot of red wine, it gets kind of cold in here. The roses and jasmine in the garden were joined by tomatoes, honeysuckle, clematis. We bought curtains for the sitting room. We didn’t throw all-night ragers. We were in the freaking neighbourhood book club! Most importantly, from a legal rather than whimsical standing: we always paid our rent on time.

Eventually, March 2013, I gave up ringing the roofer. The letting agent never responded when I emailed them about finding a new one. Spring came, the rain stopped, so did the thwunk thwunk noise, for a while. I had a full-time job and a book to write and a bunch of intense personal issues that are not entirely my business to write about here. But anyway besides, I was tired of ringing the fucking roofer every week. And the leak hadn’t actually come through my ceiling.

On 15 October this year, the leak came through my ceiling. I put a bucket (actually, a large Tupperware, previously home to chocolate parkin) on my floor, surrounded it with the thick plastic sheeting my new bed quilt had come packaged in. The leak was kind of messy and didn’t always hit the Tupperware. I needed the plastic, too. I called the letting agent that day, followed it up with an email. Mentioned that, sure, we’d agree to the rent increase they had recently suggested – if they’d fix the major repairs. The leak in my front bedroom ceiling; the damp in the back bedroom. We agreed, even though the notice of increase came on the wrong form, with the wrong names, and the house was much, much worse than the student hovel my dad had moved me into nearly seven years ago. There’s only so much twenty quid and a trip to Ikea can do.

There was no reply, except another letter – again, with the wrong tenants’ names on it – explaining they’d got the rent increase wrong and it was actually this much more. Not that other amount. LOL, soz. My housemate emailed to repeat that, yes, we would agree to pay it: when the repairs were done. About a week later we were told a roofer would ring my housemate. We asked that he ring me, instead, so I could arrange the appointment. My ceiling, my time off work. He rang a completely different housemate and asked to come round right then, that minute. It wasn’t possible. We all work full time, to pay these rent increases, keep our stock of Tupperware for leaks intact. He didn’t ring back. We asked the letting agent again, could someone ring us and make an appointment. If I took a day off and let them know, would someone come round? I had a day off, as it happened, and told them so. I rang them again. And again. And again. And again.

Eventually I sent a brief email (brevity is a thing I am capable of, despite this blogpost), with a much less colourful timeline of these events, to the letting agent. It had now been three weeks. The Tupperware had to be emptied of its yellowing contents pretty regularly. (In rereading that sentence, as part of the whole, I feel I ought to mention: the Medieval plumbing works fine, I use the Tupperware for only its intended purpose as a leak-collector; I assume the yellow is the result of charming London smog. Or maybe there’s asbestos on the roof!) The heating had broken down at this point, and it was raining pretty much always. They finally agreed that yes, this was urgent, and the handyman would ring. Could he come round right this minute? I sighed, explained that whole pesky job thing, and he came round two days later at balls o’clock a.m.. I gave him a key, went to stay at my boyfriend’s house for the weekend, where – Hallelujah! – there was a roof without a hole. I came back on Monday. There was still a fucking hole in my ceiling.

It needs a roofer, the letting agent told us, CC’ing my granny with some rudimentary egg-sucking instructions. Told us, not unprompted: we had to beg over two or three emails for some update to the saga. We know, we replied. Check the timeline. A few centuries passed and no roofer or updates materialised. I sent a further email, still polite but slightly less full of peace and goodwill to all men than the time of year warrants, but, y’know. My duvet was, by this time, moist. My books are crinkling. I moved to my parents’ house. The train is only 50 minutes to London, but factor in the walk to the station, getting to work at the other end, the train times, and my daily round trip is four hours. I bought a seven-day ticket: £92.50. Surely this would be fixed in a week!!!!

The letting agent emails my housemate to ask why we haven’t signed the new contracts? We have to pay the rent increase NOW, this CANNOT wait.

I reply with another, even less humorous, email. They agree: a roofer would come, on the Saturday. I’m supposed to be editing a book, but I can give up my Saturday if this guy will fix my ceiling. If this guy turns up. (He turned up. He even found the hole in the roof! I want to call the gross roofer from two years ago and say, See! See! If you spent your time actually looking at roofs instead of creeping out tenants, this problem might be fixed! I also don’t want to call that guy ever.) On Monday I hear nothing from the letting agent, but get a call at 6pm from an entirely different roofer. By the time I sort out what’s going on, I’ve missed the train to my parents’ house. I get home late; this second roofer is scheduled for the next day. He showed up, too, and found the hole, too. He quotes my letting agent too. That was a week ago.

~~~~~~~Silence~~~~~~~~~

The council comes round to inspect the damp and they don’t even bother sticking the little dampometer machine into my bedroom walls. Elsewhere in the house it shrieks like the Ghostbusters have found Slimer, but in my room the Tupperware O’ Suspiciously Yellow Roof Water speaks for itself. The brown stain creeps towards the light fitting. I’m freelance and staying home for this inspection costs me half a day’s pay and holiday pay. The council will write to the landlord asking them for their response to ‘the issues’ in ten days. Also, we have woodworm, did we know?

I buy my third seven-day ticket. I email the agent: hey, heads up, I’ve now spent £319 on train travel (there was another ticket on top of the three season tickets, my maths is sound). Happy seven-week anniversary to the hole in my ceiling! Bon anniversaire to the mould on my windows! My duvet is like a sea sponge! My lovely new quilt is pretty much done for, but thank goodness for its handy plastic sheet packaging, eh? I don’t tell them I have bronchitis, and a whole bunch of stuff going on, and I cannot travel for 20 hours a week and pay £92 a week AND pay the rent and stay sane. Somewhat sane. Chronic stress-induced insomnia, albeit caused by more than just the fucking hole in my fucking ceiling, is not helping. (And I’m one of the lucky ones. My parents live near enough; I have money enough.) I keep it brief. I keep it to: When. Is. The. Roofer. Coming. Please.

“We apologise for the inconvenience,” they reply. “The landlord is making a decision.”

A friend of mine challenged her rent increase this month; she received an eviction notice yesterday. Her description of her rented house on the Guardian makes it sound a lot like mine (hers is more succinct, btw). The Tenancies Reform Bill, aimed at preventing retaliatory evictions, failed last week. I can’t withhold rent without risking my housemates being evicted; I can’t move out because who would they rent the room to? A sewer mermaid? A really rich frog?

I have a job. I have my parents’ house, and my boyfriend’s house, and I can pay rent on a room I can’t live in and train fares, for a while. I am hugely privileged. I am one of the lucky ones. My landlord is making a decision.

This article first appeared on harrietreuterhapgood.com and is crossposted with permission. Follow Harriet on Twitter: @hapgoodness

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

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