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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage