UK Feminsta: voices that can't be ignored

Moving into the mainstream.

If you haven’t been paying attention to feminism recently, you’re missing out on one of the most committed, outspoken and energising social justice movements of modern times. On Wednesday, hundreds of campaigners headed to Westminster from across the country for UK Feminista’s mass lobby of Parliament. They came to rally, march and meet their MPS face-to-face with one demand: that women’s rights be placed firmly and finally on the mainstream political agenda, and not swept to the sidelines any longer.

And you couldn’t beat the timing. Only today, a Supreme Court ruling on unequal pay claims prompted doom-laden warnings of thousands more cases to follow. Among the reactions to the decision itself, it’s worth someone pointing out that if many employers are now vulnerable, it’s only because they weren’t paying women the same as men doing work of equal value in the first place.

Austerity has of course been shown repeatedly to have a disproportionate impact on women through cuts to public sector jobs, benefits and tax credits and vital services. But as the speakers at the rally repeatedly made clear, women’s inequality didn’t start with the financial crash. Progress on a welter of other issues has been circular, strangulated or almost non-existent for years, and the lack of public awareness of many of them is startling. Despite the recent return of abortion to the headlines, for example, it seems many people remain unaware that, far from being available on demand, abortion was never actually decriminalised in this country. If two doctors give their permission before 24 weeks that’s merely a defence – in Northern Ireland it’s up to nine weeks and even then only in the most extreme circumstances, forcing thousands of women to travel abroad for the procedure.

Despite huge advances in recognition and support for survivors of sexual and domestic violence, successful prosecution remains hampered by myths and stereotypes. There hasn’t even been a prosecution, let alone a conviction, for Forced Genital Mutilation in the 27 years it’s been a crime – nobody beyond the women’s support service sector seemed even to have heard of it before this year’s Newsnight exposé.

Even where the stories are spotted, the connections often aren’t. The new online campaign to end Page 3 hit the news just weeks before the Savile allegations, and still few commentators have made the link. A culture in which it’s normal to offer up very young women, including 16 and 17-year-olds until just 2003, as daily sexual fodder for strangers, is not likely to be a safe or respectful one for other young women, especially the vulnerable. And feminists have been saying as much for a generation.

But yesterday’s event was not simply about picking up where previous campaigns have left off. It’s not just renewed vigour that’s needed, but a significant shift in our ambition. Where political progress has been made on gender equality in the past, it has largely been through sympathetic and determined female MPs. In contrast, the point of a mass lobby is precisely that it isn’t targeted: participants come for answers from their own MP, whether that’s someone with a vast record of feminist engagement, or someone who thinks VAWG is a mispronounced item of cutlery.

We must now expect all our representatives to see understanding and promoting women’s equality as a fundamental part of their job – unless, of course, they can prove they don’t have any women in their constituencies. Short-term change that barely outlasts an individual pioneer’s Parliamentary career is not enough: it’s time for a democracy that works for women.

And between two and four o ‘clock yesterday afternoon, this actually began to look possible. MPs from all parties were dotted along the corridor with their constituents; the stewards were shouting themselves hoarse announcing a new MP arrival every few minutes. Labour MPs were of course out in force, but there was also a credible showing by their Conservative counterparts: Amber Rudd was squeezed into a corner with her constituents as Anne Milton popped in between votes for hers. The Bristol activist contingent, who had set up camp in the corner, swapped Dawn Primarolo for Charlotte Leslie with impressive efficiency. Robin Walker, who ducked out of his other meetings repeatedly to ensure he eventually found his constituents, stuck in the queue outside, must get a special mention, as must Sarah Teather’s extremely patient researcher, Frances.

Of course, some were no-shows. And one or two who did come might not have been missed in their absence– like the one who told a constituent, a student, that she wasn’t entitled to a view on refugee women or abortion because she didn’t pay taxes and hadn’t had a baby. But what was essential, in the end, is not that the MPs came, though so many did, nor that they pledged to take action, though so many did. It’s that their constituents came, and pledged – and made it clear they expect change.

Elsewhere in the media, you can see pictures of Dr Helen Pankhurst, Emmeline Pankhurst’s great-grand-daughter, and the Olympic Suffragettes, who brought both colour and context to an event that took place more than 80 years after women won the vote. But what was most noticeable on the day was actually the diversity of the lobby as a whole: women and men of all ages and races, from skinny jeans to sharp suits to sensible anoraks. This was an assembly that refused to be stereotyped, refused to be ignored and refused to be sidelined any longer. If I were an MP who’d shown little interest in women’s rights before, I’d be starting to pay attention right about now.

UK Feminista rally. Photograph: Getty Images

Ellie was a founding activist with UK Feminista, is a policy researcher working in crime, justice and ending violence against women, and is currently on the Executive Committee of the Young Fabians.

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle