I am every woman

As we mark 100 years of International Women’s Day, Natasha Walter argues that British feminism is sh

A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting in a café in Camden Town, lost for words. I was with Saron, a woman who arrived in the UK seeking asylum some years ago. When she spoke of her youth in her home country, you could catch a spark of the woman she had once been - ambitious, talented and fearless. When she talked of her life now, it was as if a cloud had blocked out the sun.

Afraid, hopeless and with no sense of self-worth, Saron spoke dully about the feeling she had that she was living a life - at the age of 33 - that had come to an end. What silenced me was the way she summed up how she had reached the end of the road. "It wasn't what happened to me at home that broke my spirit. It was what happened to me here."

When she said this, it was shame that stopped my voice. Yes, many men who flee their countries are also treated badly. In the current political climate, we cannot offer a home to everyone who crosses our borders. But the manner in which women are treated when they journey to the west in search of safety shames us all. If you believe that women deserve a voice, you have to listen to their stories. If you believe that they should be entitled to human rights, you must act in response to these stories.

To understand what I mean, listen a little more to Saron's story. She lived a free life in Ethiopia until her early twenties, when, as a young journalist, she went out to report on a student demonstration. Police attacked the protesters, leaving many dead. "Horrible to see," she says succinctly. Because she reported the facts in a newspaper, she was sent to prison. She was naive. "I thought that problems of that kind wouldn't happen to me," she says, explaining why she spoke out.

She got through one episode of imprisonment but, the second time she was jailed, she was raped violently by a police officer. When she was released, her family decided that enough was enough and paid for an escort to get her out of the country. She didn't know where she was going. At first, there was a long journey on foot through the hot, forbidding desert to Sudan; then an aeroplane ride to a cold, forbidding airport in England. She claimed asylum on arrival but was refused.

Saron is articulate about her experiences, yet even now she finds it hard to speak about what happened next. She has, however, been working with a London-based project called Write to Life, run by the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, which has helped her to express herself again through writing.

Her accounts of her life as a refused asylum-seeker in the UK make for chilling reading. Without the right to work, earn money or claim benefits, she was forced for a long time to sleep rough on the streets around King's Cross train station, where, she says: "Men offer you a safe place and then it is like what the policeman did to me in prison."

When she came back into the asylum process for another attempt to secure leave to remain in the country, she was imprisoned, on three separate occasions, in Yarl's Wood, the huge detention centre in Bedfordshire where hundreds of women like Saron are locked up. "I felt nobody was safe in that place," she says. "I thought I'd rather die there than fight. I felt that they had all the power."

During one episode of detention, she stopped eating until she was taken to the hospital. During the third episode, she was placed on suicide watch for a few days before being bundled into a van and driven to the airport. She would be in an Ethiopian jail right now, she tells me, had her lawyer not managed to get her a last-minute reprieve as the van was waiting on the tarmac at Heathrow.

As I walked away from our meeting, what made my heart feel heaviest was not just the thought that this young woman had lived through so much injustice, both in this country and Ethiopia, but also my growing understanding that Saron was not alone. The sad truth is that there are many other Sarons enduring the kind of persecution she suffered as a woman in her own country and the ordeal she went through in the UK when she tried to find refuge here. There are hundreds, even thousands, of other Sarons.

Yet we rarely hear about them, let alone from them. It is as though we edit out the plight of refugee women whenever we talk about equality for women or our desire to help women resist violence. They become the unheard, the voiceless, living among us but invisible. I wonder about the women - perhaps I was one of them - who walked past Saron when she was sleeping rough at King's Cross.

Histories of violence

Many experts are now speaking out about what is happening to women refugees. One of the foremost organisations working for the rights of these women, Asylum Aid, published a telling report in January entitled Unsustainable: the Quality of Initial Decision-Making in Women's Asylum Claims.

The document is not an easy read, but some of the conclusions jump off the page. Many of the decisions that the Home Office makes every day on whether or not to grant women asylum in the UK are badly thought through: "The research found that women were too often refused asylum on grounds that were arbitrary [and] subjective, and demonstrated limited awareness of the UK's legal obligations under the Refugee Convention" - in other words, one could argue that they were illegal.

There is something quite calm and forensic about this sort of language. It's when you meet a woman such as Saron, however, that you
understand what these arbitrary, subjective decisions of dubious legality mean for the women seeking refuge.

“We all know that awful things happen in Africa," Saron says to me. "Nobody claims otherwise. But then you come to a country where there are supposed to be human rights and you find out that they do not apply to you. That is so hard. That's when you realise that you will never be safe. You feel so alone."

The two books I have written, The New Feminism and Living Dolls: the Return of Sexism, have mapped women's experiences of a certain kind - the inequalities that western women come up against every day, from assumptions about our appearance to pressures on our working lives. These things matter; I wouldn't choose to write about them if I didn't care that I, and all women in the west, live in a world that still stifles meaningful equality. But my recent work has brought me up against issues that overshadow many of those experiences.

Five years ago, I co-founded the charity Women for Refugee Women, which works in partnership with other organisations to increase awareness of the experiences of women seeking asylum in the UK. We work with women who are seeking asylum for any reason, but we have discovered that sexual violence is the thread that runs through their stories.

They have been raped or threatened with rape to punish them for speaking out. They have been raped or threatened with rape for being born into the wrong ethnic group or for worshipping the wrong god. Many of them have fled from other experiences that are very specific to women, such as honour crimes, forced prostitution, female genital mutilation and forced marriage.

Women around the world are suffering such abuses. Most of them have no option but to stay within their own communities. A very few manage to cross over to the west, hoping that the commitments that western Europe, the United States and Canada have made to human rights extend to them, too.

Another woman who talked to Women for Refugee Women recently is Alicia. She lived in a society in Cameroon where it was customary for a widow to be married off to the brother of her dead husband. Most women in that situation consent but Alicia refused to do so. She was raped and beaten by her brother-in-law every day while the community stood aside, until a friend took pity on her, took her out of the house and brought her on a plane to the UK.

Once here, she learned that her uncle, in an act of retribution, had killed one of the sons she left behind. "I know that this is the tradition of my country - that a woman must become the wife of her dead husband's brother. But this is
a bad tradition," she says.

Like Saron, Alicia was refused asylum. Like Saron, she was repeatedly imprisoned in Yarl's Wood, and even taken to the airport for attempted deportation.

Tipping points

Even though I have worked in this field for years, I am still shocked by how casually women are refused asylum here. In its report, Asylum Aid noted that Home Office decision-makers often doubted the credibility of applicants' accounts for no good reason.

Indeed, one of the reasons Saron was given for refusal was that, if she had already been imprisoned for so long and had been treated so badly in Ethiopia but had refused to give the police any information, she would no longer be of interest to the government even if she returned, as they would have given up on her. Alicia, meanwhile, was told that her asylum request had been refused because the Home Office believed that her young children would stop their uncle from attacking her.

By using such spurious grounds to refuse these women's applications, the Home Office is trivialising their experiences. It often compounds a women's trauma to have her asylum claim refused. As in Saron's case, refugee women can become destitute, leaving them open to further abuse and exploitation. Many are detained for long periods, as Saron and Alicia were, and this arbitrary loss of liberty can drive them to despair.

We can't call ourselves feminists or supporters of women's rights unless we listen to these women and learn from them. In many ways,
it does not feel like the right time to try to speak up for migrant women - the cuts and the recession have made it harder to shift people's attention away from the problems that we are all dealing with in protecting our jobs and public services.

And yet, in one important way, this is the right moment to bring the experiences of refu­gee women into the foreground. On 8 March, supporters of women's rights and equality between the sexes will be celebrating 100 years of International Women's Day. Film screenings, festivals, marches and parties will take place across the UK. In these celebrations, links will be made between the interests of women in the west and those of women all other parts of the world. Equals - the coalition celebrating Women's Day - includes both organisations that work in the UK, such as the Fawcett Society and UK Feminista, and those that work internationally, such as Women for Women and the White Ribbon Alliance.

In all its campaign messages, the Equals coalition is drawing connections between the experiences of women in the UK and those of women elsewhere. "Why do women feel forced into having sex?" asks its brochure, backing the question up with statistics drawn from life in the UK. But then it asks, "Is being a woman in a warzone more risky than being a soldier?" - referring to statistics from international surveys. One of the coalition's leaders, Annie Lennox, notes: "From India to Illinois, women face violence just for being female."

Only connect

As a feminist, I am excited to see these links being made so clearly. It is essential to raise our eyes from our own experiences from time to time to see what is happening among our neighbours. We cannot talk about the ways in which women who experience violence are disbelieved in our criminal justice system without also listening to the experiences of the women fleeing violence who are being disbelieved in our asylum system.

We cannot talk about how we want equality in our families unless we listen to those who have been forced to flee their own families. And we cannot talk about the need for economic equality without acknowledging the women who are sleeping on the streets of our capital cities, lacking the papers they need to work or claim benefits.

We cannot talk with a superior air about how women are being oppressed in other countries such as Afghanistan or the Democratic Republic of Congo unless we can understand that, even after women have fled from those places to seek refuge in our countries, they may be treated brutally.
If we want a feminism that rests on true solidarity between women of west and east, north and south, the voices of refugee women must play their part. These women are not just victims: many have an important role in increasing our understanding of what women are experiencing throughout the world.

Female refugees can teach us so much. I would not have any notion of how governments all over the planet use sexual violence against women as a tool of ethnic, religious and political persecution if I had not been working, over the past few years, alongside women from countries where this has become a common experience. I would not know about the ways in which women who resist the norms of femininity are punished so violently in some parts of the world if I had not worked with women who had dared to take this path. Nor would I understand how, despite suffering so much in political or domestic conflicts, women who survive these abuses can come to our shores with the desire to rebuild their lives, learn and contribute. Despite the shocking stories they tell, I count myself lucky to have met these survivors of the international wars waged against women, who are determined to move on from their experiences and walk tall.

If you are talking about rights this International Women's Day, you may be talking about what still needs to be done in the UK. Or you may be talking about what needs to be done in far-flung places across the globe. But please understand that these are not separate issues. We are connected.

Saron lives among us, as do thousands like her. No woman is an island. Only when we recognise this will we be able to build a movement that can ensure safety for women such as Saron and others like her.

Some of the interviews were carried out by Sheila Hayman and Melanie McFadyean. Names have been changed “Journeys", readings by women refused asylum in the UK, will be at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, during the Women of the World Festival on 13 March. For more details visit: refugeewomen.com.

Natasha Walter is the founder of Women for Refugee Women, @4refugeewomen

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The great property swindle

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood