It might be intended as humour, but it’s also a reflection of what we think of pregnancy and women. Photo: Iain Farrell on Flickr via Creative Commons
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How should we celebrate pregnant bodies? Not with twee maternity T-shirts, for a start

In a world where women are shamed for their bodies, we should recognise how empowering, and phenomenal, a wanted pregnancy can be.

Bad news for anyone wanting to purchase an annoying, objectifying maternity T-shirt: A Pea in a Pod have pulled their Wake Me Up When I’m Skinny shirt from sale, following complaints about how offensive it is. Not to worry, though. One can still buy the classics: Baby On Board, Under Construction and (worst of all) It Started With A Kiss. The choice is yours: reduce yourself to a dehumanised vessel or offer the world a twee reminder that you – yes, you! – have had at least one shag. Oh, and there’s also Pink or Blue, Either Will Do (so you can make sure everyone knows that you are going to stereotype the hell out of your kids, not that gender matters to you AT ALL).

It’s hard to convey just how depressing I find all this stuff. You’re pregnant – you are making a real, live human being inside your own body – and all you’re supposed to be thinking is “Christ, I’m fat” or “Way-hey! I’m like a Renault 5!” I know it’s humour but it’s also a reflection of what we think of pregnancy and women. Can’t we do a little better? I think of my pregnancies as a time when I felt immensely proud of my body and its capabilities. So I’m not the first woman to have a baby – so what? It’s still amazing. If I were to design my own maternity T-shirt, it would say “GOD-LIKE CREATOR OF HUMANS” (either that or “Pro-choice – wanna make something of it?”, depending on my mood).

There are few things that I would seriously describe as empowering but a healthy, wanted pregnancy has to be one of them. Despite the enormous physical toll (plus the minor annoyance of not being able to sleep on your stomach for months on end) you can have moments when you look in the mirror and think “Ha! I am a total genius”. Who cares if you’re only doing what humans and other primates have been doing since time immemorial? It is an actual person being made in your actual body. For me it brings to mind The Onion’s spoof moon landings headline: Holy Shit Man Walks On Fucking Moon. It is that ludicrous. A separate consciousness – someone who will have their own thoughts, feelings and passions – is being formed right under where you’re digesting your dinner. And yes, perhaps strictly speaking all you’ve had to do to get there is have unprotected sex but still: you rock. It’s just a pity the rest of the world doesn’t see it that way.

It seems to me tragic – but not coincidental – that the group of people most likely to gestate other human beings have constituted an oppressed class for millennia. Like many feminists, I do wonder if that is a large part of what’s behind misogyny: not just the desire to control reproduction, but sheer, naked jealousy at what most people with wombs are able to do. Forget penis envy, it’s womb envy we really should be talking about. To be able to conjure up another person from inside you may be mundane, but it’s also mind-blowing. There is nothing that any other human can make that measures up to that, but what do we get in return? A rigid gender hierarchy which rewards those at the bottom with low pay, pension poverty, domestic exploitation, hard-line resistance to individuals making their own reproductive choices, and last (and, to be fair, probably least) totally rubbish T-shirts.

This does not seem to me a decent recompense. Why can’t we be appreciating pregnancy, and the pregnant, a little more? I’m conscious this is easier said than done. Already we tread a fine line between ignoring pregnancy altogether and idealising it with the sole purpose of viewing women as walking wombs (and, post-menopause, as mere spent forces). The media is fond of treating wanted pregnancies as morality tales, in which women who behave virtuously get to take home their little bundles of joy, but as anyone who has struggled to conceive (or to not conceive) will know, a huge part of it comes down to luck. It would be unfair to heap praise on individual women for something which they may or may not have desired, and which may or may not have been due to any exceptional effort on their part. Nonetheless, broader recognition of pregnancy as both a social good and as something really bloody miraculous still wouldn’t come amiss.

Especially in a culture where women and girls are frequently made to feel ashamed of their bodies, shouldn’t we be trying to provide as much space as possible to appreciate their full potential? “Wake me up when I’m skinny” does the precise opposite. “Wake me up when the world fully appreciates just how utterly phenomenal I am” would be a step in the right direction.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.