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
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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

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