Saturday, 11 October 2014


I am a girl (or at least a young woman),
I have my own history, I'm living my own life.
Which is strange because if you ask me what it means to be a girl
I will answer you in statistics and stereotypes.

I will talk about things that have never happened to me
In an attempt to educate and open your eyes.
If you feel privileged,
I hope that these things will be easier to grasp.
So at least something will make a difference in your mind.
Even if you can't see any discrimination in your own life.

I hope that at least you will listen when I speak
About female infanticide and a baby girl being left to die
In the scorching heat.
When I speak of FGM
And only getting one meal a day when her brother gets three.
I hope you will understand the injustice when I explain
That girls drop out of school to collect water,
Or because their period's come and the shame is too much,
Never mind the lack of cloths.
Or because their teacher touches them and they have no choice
But to use the same toilet as the boys.
Or because a natural disaster comes and their parents only have enough
To send one child to the new hut
That constitutes a school,
Which once contained all a girl's dreams, but nothing now,
Because she is not the one child,
That privilege belongs to a boy.

I hope the reality will sink in when I talk about
Child marriage
And incest, by her father or brother or uncle
Taking away any safe space she ever had
And anyone to whom she could come for cover.

And rape.
And being forced to marry her rapist because of her family's shame.

Or choosing to run and being caught at her most vulnerable by a man offering 'easy money' which seems like a good idea at the time because she knows she is worthless anyway and she needs an escape, but she ends up being sex trafficked across the border.

One of the many types of slavery she could have been sold into in her lifetime.

A forced marriage that leads to an unwanted pregnancy,
A labour she almost dies in.
A contraction of HIV from her husband who is three times her age and has had women before her.
Another rape,
Another pregnancy,
Another girl, who she doesn't want, because girls are less valuable than goats, and how will she pay her daughter's dowry?

And the cycle begins again.

Is that easier to grasp?
Easier to accept than me trying to explain
That we all live in a male-dominated world
It just doesn't manifest itself the same
Across all of the globe.

That you have been a victim too.
And while I care about boys and men,
They just don't have it the same.

Yes, the gender stereotypes and roles affect them.
Yes, they are expected to conform.
But the point is, they have all the power
They have all the control.
We live in a male-dominated world.

And this patriarchy, it intersects
with poverty and conflict and climate change
To create a losing game
And it's girls who suffer.

Except it's still easy to say that these are just individual lives, isn't it?
Individual acts carried out to individual girls,
Who were unfortunate in where they were born,
Or who their parents were,
Or the school they went to,
Or the 'choices' they made.

They must have provoked it, right?
They must have led their perpetrators on.
Despite what you say,
This doesn't happen very often.

You're joking, right?

We live in a world of naked women selling perfume and page 3,
Where I am told that my value lies in my body,
And not in my brain.
Or in the things I achieve.

We live in a world where it is assumed I will have children -
And it is everyone's 'right' to ask.
Where my value lies in my ability to reproduce,
As if that is my life's only task.

We live in a world where phrases like 'throw like a girl'
Are used as an insult,
To condemn and scoff.
And where 'boys will be boys' is used as an excuse,
To let boys off.

We live in a world where girls are blamed for their rape,
Because their skirts were too short,
Or they drank too much,
Or "you shouldn't have gone home with him"
Like the rights to my own body do not belong to me,
But to whichever man wants me on my knees.
Like they can't help themselves
For the pain and suffering they release.

I am a girl (or at least a young woman),
I have my own history, I'm living my own life.
Which is strange because if you ask me what it means to be a girl
I will answer you in statistics and stereotypes.

By Amy Graham, for International Day of the Girl 2014.

Monday, 7 July 2014

"Take it like a man"

Let me start with a scenario and you can do your best to imagine it. Imagine you are me.

You're at a BBQ with some friends. You haven't been part of their community for very long so you're still very self-conscious and aware that they are all quite different from you, in a good way. Most of them have kids - a mix of boys and girls - and the kids are currently running around the house entertaining themselves. The boys are playing with toy guns. One of the Mums manages to get hold of one of the guns and is shooting her son. It's funny and sweet because you can see the dynamics of their relationship, see the love between them. In many ways it's lovely that a Mum and son are playing together it that way, rather than it being a father and son. Another boy gets caught in the crossfire and he squeals. One of the adults laughs, "you squeal like a girl." The other boy is managing to get away from his Mum's bullets and someone shouts, "come on, take it like a man."

And that’s when, for you, everything stops. Suddenly you can feel the lump rising in your chest. You feel really uncomfortable but you are fairly new here and you don’t feel you are in any position to express your feelings without it sounding like you are telling someone off. You feel like you're betraying yourself and everything you believe in by being quiet but you know you will sound judgemental if you open your mouth. The Mum with the gun comments to one of the other Mums, "I thought you didn't like your kids playing with guns." And there you have it perhaps, an opening. It comes out before you've even had a chance to think it through, "I'm never letting my children play with guns, it's something I feel really strongly about." And there's a pause, a kind of awkward silence. And you realise that you've sounded exactly like you didn't want to - judgemental. Especially as you don't have children and they do. So you try and make it better because what you actually wanted to say wasn’t anything to do with the toy guns but that seemed like it might be a more acceptable thing to say. It seemed, in that split second, like it might open up the conversation and you could manage to squeeze out your actual point without it sounded too forced or contrived or outright rude. So you try and get there, try and develop the conversation by gabbling something about gender neutral toys and how you don’t want your kids to have specific 'girls' and 'boys' toys. However what you’re saying doesn't really make any sense and you actually wish you'd never bothered opening your mouth in the first place, because really, what good did you do? What good could you do? But inside, you're screaming. Inside your head you’re desperately trying to explain your actual point – that the phrase "take it like a man" is dangerous, and the phrase “squeal like a girl” is deeply insulting and upsetting.

Let me just cut in here with a disclaimer – I want it to be clear that I am not passing judgement on anyone's parenting skills and choices AT ALL. And I am talking about people I have come to care about a lot very quickly. This post is a social commentary, my frustrated internal scream at the things that we are taught to do and say throughout our lives that we no longer think about the consequences of, because it’s so normal, so engrained. This post is me channelling my upset and asking myself how I could act differently in the future. Because I do have a point, and actually, I think it’s worth hearing.

“Take it like a man” perpetuates a stereotype, a stereotype that dictates that men are strong and can take anything. A stereotype that says that men are always able to protect and effectively attack. “Take it like a man” creates a mindset in boys (and girls), an understanding of what a 'real' man is. And so when puberty hits the boy is waiting for that change in himself, the one where he feels untouchable, powerful, strong, like all the men he’s seen on TV. But it doesn't come. Because things happen and he still gets scared, he still wants to cry for his Mum. But he knows that's not acceptable because that would be showing weakness, and men aren't weak, girls are. Men are powerful, and they can do whatever they want. He learns that he is the most important person and that his needs come first because that's what it's like for all the men in the films he watches. He learns that women are just there to look pretty in the background while he goes out and fights for them, and protects them. He learns that to scream is to be “like a girl”, which makes him look stupid. He learns that to cry is to be “like a girl”, which makes him pathetic. He learns that to squeal is to be “like a girl”, which makes him a joke. He learns that being “like a girl” is a BAD thing.

So he pretends. He gets a girlfriend and when they break up he pretends it doesn't hurt by pretending he never loved her in the first place. He proves it by saying terrible things about her behind her back, by spreading horrible rumours. She was a ‘terrible kisser'. She was ‘frigid'. She was a ‘slut'. And when the girl decides enough is enough and she will say something back, his friends laugh at him because he was insulted by a girl. He feels embarrassed but he has learnt to channel this through aggression. He confronts her but his feelings of inadequacy get too much, so when she pushes him away, when she taunts him for not being able to take her insults, he snaps. He doesn’t even recognise himself anymore. He knows, from everything he’s learnt, that he’s an exception to the rule because he’s hurting and real men DON'T HURT. So he decides to do something that will prove that he’s a real man, that he's not pathetic or stupid or a joke. So when she says “no” he doesn’t stop. When she screams “no” he doesn’t stop. When she’s crying and fighting him he doesn’t stop, he laughs, because she’s fighting and crying and screaming like a girl and there is nothing she can do to stop him. Because he comes first. He matters more. He is stronger and tougher and more important than her.

I know, it’s a lot to deal with, and you probably think I’ve gone too far. I’ve gone from speaking about a real life situation with kids laughing and squealing and fighting in a fun way with their Mums to speaking about the horrific act of rape. As if all men are like this, as if all men are rapists deep down, as if these situations happen all the time... You probably feel my point is too extreme and you’re glad I didn’t say anything at the time. You’re glad I didn’t interrupt that lovely day of family fun with my dark thoughts and scary conclusions and assumptions.

But you see, for me there is no other way. When I hear the words “take it like a man” I see a whole lifetime stretching out in front of that boy where he will constantly struggle with his inability to live up to the stereotypes and expectations of “being a man”. I see him learning slowly that to do anything “like a girl” is a bad thing. I see the statistics that I have worked with too often that link gender stereotypes to “6 out of 10 girls and women around the world will be victims of violence in their lifetimes”. I see the news stories of the American jocks who commit rape and get let off because the girls are slut-shamed into believing they are less, that they don’t have a right to decide what does and doesn’t happen to their bodies, that the men’s needs are in fact more important than their’s and they probably provoked them because they laughed at them or didn’t appreciate being approached by a ‘real’ man. I see the member of parliament in India who recently spoke out on rape and said, “well, boys will be boys.”

Some men and boys will be lucky. Some girls and women will be lucky. Other good values they are taught will override these feelings and they will be less affected by the stereotypes, or their reactions will be less extreme. A girl will have a teacher, for example, who is a fantastic role model and teaches her that actually to do anything “like a girl” is a wonderful thing, because she is wonderful and can do anything she likes. In fact, last week I saw for the first time Always’ “like a girl” campaign, which has shaped this post a little. I was originally just going to focus on the dangerous stereotypes of being a man but I found I couldn't avoid the fact that “squeal like a girl” is just as bad as “take it like a man” in another way. Because to squeal like a girl is used as an insult, which implies that being a girl is an insult. Being a girl is a bad thing. (Watch the video, it brings tears to my eyes.)

I was really upset after the BBQ. I came home pretty restless and so ashamed of myself for not speaking up. I realised that I am so used to discussing these issues with those who also work in the area or have the basic knowledge of the links between gender stereotypes, power dynamics in relationships and, ultimately, gender-based violence, that I don’t know how to talk to people in my everyday life about it in a way that will get people thinking and not sound judgemental. I was so agitated last week that I had to sit down and just write. I had to let it out. Because really, what could I do? What would you have done?

I would like to think that when I have children I will speak to them about the things that people say and things that people do that perpetuate these stereotypes and contribute to a belief that one gender must act in a certain way. I will ask them why they insult each other by saying things like "you squeal like a girl!" and what they think about men and women when they see them on TV and in films. I hope to have a dialogue about stereotypes, in a language they will understand. Maybe I am too optimistic, but I would rather be that than any alternative. I hope that my daughter will know that when she runs “like a girl” she is running like herself, and that is beautiful, and I hope that my son will know that when he squeals, it’s funny, but only because of the high-pitched sound, not because it makes him sound "like a girl". I hope that people will not become fed up of me for going on and on about these things, will not feel that I am questioning their lives or parenting decisions or criticising all the words that come out of their mouths. Because I have realised that if I’m going to do this properly, if I’m going to really challenge these stereotypes and do absolutely everything in my power to tear them down and rebuild what it means to be a boy or a girl, I am going to have to learn to speak up, especially now as I get older and will be around more and more people with children. I’m going to have to learn to be able to talk about things on a basic level which people understand and which is relevant to them. I’m going to have to be brave and stop being scared about being boring or too serious or sounding like a broken record. Because if I can change the way one boy understands “taking it like a man” or stop one person using “squealing like a girl” as an insult, then it’s been worth it. It’ll have been worth every single second.

I recently got a new job, the one I've wanted since I stepped into the UN building for the first time in March 2013. I will now be responsible for our 'Stop the Violence: speak out for girls' rights' campaign. It's huge and I feel a lot of pressure, but it also feels right. I feels right to be finally able to position myself as an expert on gender-based violence, right from the formation of gender stereotypes to the double discrimination faced by being a girl. So it feels apt that I am writing this now. That I am deciding that I can no longer stick to conversations with my colleagues or my partner, who already agree with me and understand and are standing with me as we fight. So this is a call to action. This is me reaching out and asking you if you will have an awkward conversation or ask the question no-one bothers asking – “why is that ok?”. This is a call to action for you to step outside of your comfort zone and challenge what it means to be a boy or a girl. To think twice before you laugh at someone because they're running "like a girl" or before you sigh and tell someone in a frustrated way to "man up" or "take it like a man". This is a call to action to join me, to join all of us who can't deal with it anymore. Who want their sons and daughters to grow up free from the confines of the stereotypes of their gender and to know that it is magnificent that they are strong and powerful and beautiful and loving and kind, regardless of whether they're a boy or a girl. And to let them know that they have the power to stand up and demand the right to not only be 'different' but to change the whole landscape of 'normal'. I hope you can find some way to join me. I know many many people and organisations who already are. :)


As I said, there are many fantastic organisations already working on this, and many resources all over the internet.
- I will take the opportunity to promote White Ribbon Campaign again – men working to end violence against women: Michael Kaufman gives fantastic talks to high school students about the realities of growing up as a teenage boy and the immense pressure by many to 'be a real man'.
- Men Engage: - men and boys working to promote gender equality
- "And He Learned…" This is a BRILLIANT blog post on a similar theme:

Monday, 31 March 2014

Growing, as a woman of faith

It’s taking a lot of courage for me to write this post. But it’s something that I feel I have to do, to at least get my thoughts and feelings out of my head.

I have spent the last two weeks in New York at the 58th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). This is, essentially, the United Nations gender equality conference. However, I have also spent the last three weeks grappling with some of the biggest issues I have ever had to deal with. I want to tell my story as I believe it will set the scene for future posts, but it has also hugely affected the way I have experienced this year’s CSW and my feelings about being a woman. Please bear with me, and I promise this will be related to gender equality eventually, I just need to set the scene first.

At the end of 2013 I came up with lots of New Year’s resolutions, many of which I shared with those around me. However there was one I didn’t share, and that was my determination to start going back to church.
I grew up in a Christian family and was confirmed when I was 13, but somewhere in my teens I lost my way. Trying to deal with my increasing levels of self-hatred and desperate desire to have a boyfriend – to be accepted – I guess I didn’t understand how Christianity fitted into my life. I didn’t want to have to tell people I was a Christian as I could imagine the scorn on their faces and I didn’t see a God who loved me, let alone feel His presence.

As I grew up I met more and more amazing Christians but I ignored the placement of every single one of them in my life. Occasionally I would pray (and lie in bed at night panicking that if the world ended tomorrow I would go to Hell) but it wasn’t enough to sustain any sort of real change.

Then I hit a turning point.

I don’t want to go into too much detail here as it’s very private and you don’t have all day to read about me, but I did something that forced me to re-evaluate the self-hatred and destructiveness that was still engrained in me, and look at the sort of person I was being. I destroyed one of the most precious parts of my life.

At that time I prayed to God more than I ever had before. I promised him that if He gave me back that precious part of my life then, in return, I would follow Him. Not really a smart move, as you should never test the Lord, but it created a shift in me. I didn’t start following God as I should have been, but I suddenly knew that I wanted to be a better person.
And gradually, I became one. I became kinder, more loving, I developed an enormous passion for the empowerment of girls and women and I suddenly desperately wanted a job which did some good in the world. In hindsight, if God wasn’t making those changes then I honestly don’t know who was, because it wasn’t me alone!

Moving forward to 2014 then, I’m not completely sure what made me decide to start going back to Church. I had never particularly enjoyed the Church we went to in Hastings for a variety of reasons so it wasn’t like I had fond memories that I missed.

However a few months previously I had attended one of my best friend’s baptisms and I fell in love with his Church. It was the most welcoming, relaxed and accepting Church I had ever been in. It had a huge youth presence that I actually felt I could relate to and, for the first time, the sermon meant something to me. I felt God’s presence around me. Unfortunately that was a visit back to Hastings, and not an option for somewhere I could start attending permanently.

Anyway… so I found a Church, took a deep breath, and went. All the while my boyfriend assured me I had his full support, even if he didn’t quite understand what I was going through. I liked it, but it left me feeling guilty. Mainly guilty about the way I was playing out my relationship, but also defensive. I couldn’t deal with everyone’s friendliness and bombardment of questions about me. I wanted to quietly reflect and go through the process alone, not feel I had to answer questions and reveal bits about myself. I was also (and still am) terrified of their judgment.

So I didn’t go for a couple of weeks and tried to suppress the feeling that kept pulling at the back of my mind. But finally, I couldn’t ignore it anymore.

I sat my boyfriend down and for the first time in my whole life I explained to someone, through tears, what I felt and what I believed. I explained that God had created the world and He loved every single one of us more than we’d ever understand or imagine. I explained that we’d turned away from Him but instead of Him cutting us off, He sent His only son, Jesus Christ, down to earth to pay for our sins through a horrific and agonizing death. I explained that through a personal relationship with Jesus, and by putting our trust in Him, we could reach God and live our life without the burden of worry or fear, instead knowing that with Him we never walked alone.

So the hard part was over, right? No, not quite…
It had been so long since I’d ever really thought about any of what it meant to be a Christian that I have spent the last few weeks utterly confused.
Thankfully I have some incredible friends who have really supported me with the best advice I could have wished for, and I also have an amazing Dad (not God this time, but my earthly Dad) whose understanding of the Bible, its complexity and context has really helped me. I look back to my earlier acknowledgement of the people who God had placed in my life and am incredibly thankful that they are here now, when I need them the most.

Growing, as a woman of faith
Illustration by Gary Hunt -

But that’s probably enough about me right now. What’s most important for this space is how this links in to gender equality and being a woman. What does God say and feel about women?

To say I’d been dropped in the deep end is an understatement really. I wasn’t only dealing with questions about my personal life; suddenly I was also having to deal with HUGE global issues on an international stage.
I was surrounded by everyone from the Holy See (the Vatican’s representation in the UN) who was telling me that a woman’s true calling is in the home, raising a family, to women (and men) of faith holding events on how it is the responsibility of faith leaders in communities to stop the instances of gendered-based violence that are so often carried out under the guise of ‘religion’ and to stand up for women’s human rights.
On one hand I had a Bible with the words “the wife is the weaker vessel” written in it and on the other hand I was reading posts from one of my most inspirational Facebook friends, who does a great deal of work for the empowerment of girls and young women, about how thankful she is to God for her life and how much she trusts in Him.
I’ve spent over two weeks stuck between the ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ pickets, feeling inferior because I don’t think it’s as simple as that, and not really having anyone to talk to.

So I don’t know a lot at the moment, as you can probably tell, but I do know this…

God loves us all equally and wants the best for us all. I’m not supposed to know all the answers – my job is to love and never judge. Today, women of faith lead worship and Churches, go to work and some choose not to get married or have children. Religion should never be used as an excuse to justify the patriarchal society we live in; which often leads to child and forced marriage, widow inheritance, female genital mutilation/cutting, rape outside and inside of marriage and other horrific discrimination. While the Bible continues to intrigue, confuse and upset me, I trust that God would not have created us if we were meant to be an inferior sex.
Religion should also never be used to discriminate against anyone or take away anyone’s human rights. We, as humans, do not have the right to do this. But at the same time, society must be willing to let go of their assumptions about people of faith and be willing to work together for a fairer and more just world where everyone is equal. As we advocate for freedom of speech, we must also remember freedom of faith.

A long time ago, one of my friends said something to me which has stuck with me every day since:
“Religion means to be bound, and in Christ you are set free.”

This is not an excuse to live your life however you want but more to highlight that Christianity is about having a faith and relationship with Jesus, not about following a set of rules in the hope it will make you a good enough person for heaven. It is our job to trust in Him and to consult Him in all our decisions.

I am a woman. And now I am growing into a woman of faith. I am a human being and I deserve to live in a world where men and women have equal opportunities and support each other with love and understanding. I deserve to live in a world where men are allowed to cry and look after the children and where women can lead a debate in a board room.
And I believe that a world of equality, love and kindness is what God wants.

I will leave you with my favourite Bible verse:
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”
Proverbs 3:5

P.S. I would love any support or advice anyone has to offer. If you have criticisms, please be gentle!

Friday, 28 February 2014

What right do I have?

I've been trying to write this blog for quite a while now. I started it almost three weeks ago and aside from being crazy busy at work, something just hasn't felt right. Despite feeling like I've known exactly what I've wanted to say I just haven't been able to get my words out right…until, perhaps, today. Last week I attended a networking meeting in preparation for the UN Commission on the Status of Women hosted by the National Association of Women's Organisations (NAWO) in the UK and I met a woman who works for the Orchid Project. The Orchid Project are a fantastic organisation in the UK who work to end FGC (Female Genital Cutting) and after spending some time chatting about preparations for the upcoming conference I blurted out the question that had been sitting on my lips since the conversation began. Why did she refer to Female Genital Cutting in that way (FGC), rather than FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) as it is more commonly known? Her response articulated a lot of what I have spent the last three weeks not being able to say.

Let me take you back to the beginning.

The 6th of this month saw the International Day of Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). I first became really aware of this form of gender based violence when I was working for a theatre company in Northampton. I was at a training for local individuals and groups who were applying for funding for new projects that would tackle a growing social problem and across the table from me was an incredibly passionate woman who wanted to start a project to educate midwives in Northampton on what to do when they were faced with a woman in labour who had been 'cut'. One of Northampton's largest ethnic minority groups is Somalian and Somalia has one of the more severe forms of FGM where a girl not only has all of her external genitals cut out but she is then sewn back up to a leave a hole the size of a tiny pinprick. As you can imagine, she would not be able to give birth naturally. I remember leaving the training horrified but really really interested. I literally couldn't stop talking about FGM and I wanted to have a conversation about it with everyone.
I have since expanded my knowledge on the subject and been educated by survivors of FGM on some of the myths surrounding the practice; such as the reasons that some girls are given for why they need to be cut. I also remember being told by my boyfriend while I was in New York last year that the free London newspaper, the Evening Standard, had published a double page spread featuring a British 11 year old who had written a letter to the paper begging not to be cut like her sister had. Some very revealing statistics followed that showed how prominent FGM is in London, and the UK.

So naturally, when the 6th February came around I was right there on social media letting my views on the ‘horrific’ practice be known and encouraging people to change the perception that this is something that happens elsewhere and isn't our problem. I argued passionately, as I always do, that 'culture' is not an excuse. Neither is religion or tradition. It is a form of violence that destroys girls’ lives and has life-long consequences and effects. Lots of my Facebook friends liked my post. I was retweeted on Twitter. I got people who I didn't expect to sign the petition I was promoting. Everywhere I looked everyone was condemning the was a no-brainer, right?
It wasn't until a conversation at work the next day that I even considered the implications of what I had done...

What happens when you start talking about ‘culture’? What happens when you start highlighting that something happens in one area of society and not another? What happens when you start pointing the finger of blame at particular people, and what happens when you are not one of those directly affected?
Let me be clear... I DO NOT condone FGM. It is a breach of a girl's basic human rights. But, maybe, we have to be careful about how we approach this...

My favourite thing about living in London is that it is a wonderful boiling pot of so many different cultures, religions and ethnicities. There are, however, already so many divides within this massive 'community'. Immigration is a tricky subject for many people – there are a great deal of myths that are perpetuated by politicians desperately trying to grasp a win in the next election and there are phrases such as, “they come over and take our jobs” and “I’m sick of walking down my street and hearing every language but English spoken” that even in London I still unfortunately hear. As a practice that is hugely rooted in culture and tradition surely we have to be careful about the way we speak about and label FGM as otherwise I’m scared we are creating another excuse for people to condemn our multi-cultural society. Doesn’t a subject as delicate and upsetting as FGM/C – as it is referred to by many UN entities and bodies – need understanding (and by that I do NOT mean 'excuse') and a community that is willing and able to work together to be at the heart of a solution? Surely we need conversation and discussion to be able to tackle it effectively, otherwise are we not just in danger of pushing the practice back into the shadows?

This brings me back to the feeling that led to me starting this blog in the first place. I have not been affected, directly or indirectly, by FGM/C or its effects. Aside from girls I have met, I do not have any friends who have been cut or are at risk of being cut. I have no idea how a girl who has been cut, or is going to be cut, feels at any point. As a white Caucasian British woman, what right do I have to be even talking about this issue? I’m scared that by me standing up and raising my voice I am perpetuating the cultural divide; condemning it from my perch of assumed authority as a member of an ethnic group that believes it doesn’t have any violence as terrible as that going on. I’m scared that I am leading others to ignore the fact that 1 in 4 women in this country are victims of domestic violence[1] or the fact that 1 in 5 women aged 16 – 59 will experience sexual assault in this country in their lifetime[2] or the fact that girls and women contact in hoards every single day to report their personal suffering, and these have no ‘culture’, religion or ethnic background directly attached to them.

My boyfriend says I’ve been thinking about this too much. Putting issues and people in boxes labelled ‘culture’ and ‘ethnicity’; after all, many of the girls in danger of being cut in London, and the UK, are British born and bred… But I know how things can be portrayed and I know how delicate both FGM/C and the issues of culture and ethnicity are.

I wasn’t sure I would have any sort of conclusion on this. I wasn’t sure if there would be any nice way to wrap this up and leave people, and myself, feeling hopeful and able to still make a difference. However, having had time to reflect, and after speaking to my new Orchid Project friend, I came to some sort of realisation.
I do have a right to speak out on this issue…it’s just how I speak out about it that matters. It doesn’t matter about my ethnicity or whether I have been affected by it myself, it matters what words I use and whether or not I am willing to listen, even if it makes me angry and upset. I honestly believe that change can't happen unless you engage the 'opposition' in the discussion, rather than just shouting at them and telling them they're wrong.

So I apologise to my friends in other parts of the world, and the UK, who deal with FGM/C on the ground all the time, who saw my Facebook status and were hurt by my harsh words condemning something in a way they knew would never create change. I apologise to any girls who have been cut but are fed up of being made to feel like victims. I apologise to the mothers or aunts or fathers or brothers or grandmothers who realise now that they made a mistake by bowing down to pressure and following their social norm, but now feel so outcast from society by people's anger and flippant words that they can’t see what choice they had.
But most of all, I’m sorry for not being more aware that my words could hurt in the first place.
Starting the conversation. Paving the way for change.
Illustration by Gary Hunt -

The reason that the Orchid Project refer to the practice as FGC rather than FGM is because mutilation is a horrible word laden with judgement. The woman I met last week told me a story of the first time a girl, living in the UK who had been cut, heard someone tell her that she had been a victim of ‘female genital mutilation’. This girl, who had already suffered enough, said that hearing the word ‘mutilation’ was like reliving the experience all over again. She didn’t see herself as mutilated. Yes, something bad had happened to her but she had to live with that, and being labelled as ‘mutilated’ – although that may be a powerful way for others to see themselves – was an incredibly traumatising experience for her.

So maybe, the next time you scream, shout or rant about an issue that makes you angry and upset, think about who may be affected by your words. Everyone has a right to an opinion, but I never want to upset anyone. All I want to do is make some sort of difference and I want to do that in the most understanding way that I can.

Helpful resources:
The Orchid Project – working to end FGC -
The Everyday Sexism project – sexism happens everyday, everywhere –


Friday, 31 January 2014

Put your hope in a hummingbird

It is with great sadness that I started writing this post.

Last week at work, I was asked to make a list of any VIPs or guests I thought should come to our three-yearly World Conference. I was thinking big. I was thinking inspiring. I was thinking of someone who has broken ground and made progress that no-one has ever made before. I went to write down the name of the person I find most inspiring in the world, and then, out of curiosity, even though I know almost everything about her already, I put her name into wikipedia. 

I’m talking about Fawzia Koofi. Don’t know the name? Well, I suppose there’s no reason for you to, unless, like me, you have an extensive interest in women’s rights activists or political figures in the Middle East. Christmas 2012 my dad bought me her autobiography. He said it might help me in my preparation for my upcoming trip to the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York. That book was the first book that I’ve ever read that really touched my heart.

Fawzia Koofi was the first ever female Second Deputy Speaker of Parliament in the history of Afghanistan and was, as far as I was aware, running for the 2014 Afghan Presidency. Imagine that. In a country dominated by terrorists where girls and women experience some of the worst oppression in the world… I struggle to imagine what that even looks like. But for the last year it has filled me with excitement and hope like I cannot describe.

And that is why I write with great sadness. Because last week I found out that she is no longer a Presidential candidate.

Let me give you some context.

Fawzia Koofi was the last child of an impoverished, and already fairly large, family in a rural area of Afghanistan, born before the Taliban rule began. As a baby girl, she was rejected, and left outside in the sun to die. The family couldn’t afford another child, least of all a girl who would amount to nothing. Because that’s all girls were considered to be. Worthless. Unfortunately this is still a regular occurrence in rural parts of the Middle East and India. But let’s not dwell on that too much now.
After hours and hours and hours of desertion, when this new born baby girl was close to death, for some miraculous reason, her mother changed her mind. She defied her husband which would likely incur beatings and physiological abuse, she defied the criticisms that were sure to come from her neighbours and community and she defied what she had been taught to believe about herself, her other daughters and anyone who is ‘unlucky’ enough to be born a girl. She saved her beautiful new baby girl.

This moment has stayed with me above many others in the book. It proves everything that myself and many others I know and work with spend our lives proclaiming. If you value your daughter, if you educate her, if you believe that she will amount to more than society tells you she will – she has the potential to change the world. She will educate her daughters who will educate their daughters and suddenly you have a world where whole families are being lifted out of poverty and, most importantly, you have hope.

Just like her mother, Fawzia Koofi defied odds as she grew up. The chapters about when the Taliban rule first came into Afghanistan have opened my eyes in many ways. She affirmed for me the fact that women in Afghanistan weren’t expected to wear burkas before the Taliban came in. The Afghan people have suffered more than anyone else in the world from the Taliban, but especially Afghan women.

Since becoming involved in politics she has survived very many assassinations on her life…

I think, in my heart, I knew, and have always known, that Afghanistan is not ‘ready’ for a female President. If Fawzia was receiving countless, and regular, death threats and attempts on her life as a Speaker in Parliament, what would her chances be of surviving as President? She said herself in her book that maybe it would be best if she didn’t win.

I don’t know. It leaves a knot in my stomach. Surely we cannot bow down to the obstacles we face? Surely we should always aim for the very top? When so many girls and women out there are suffering from violence and discrimination every single day, surely the bigger our voices, the stronger we are?

But then, maybe hope doesn’t always look like we think it will.

Fawzia Koofi has inspired me in ways I can’t even describe. She’s become my role model. She has touched my life and made me believe I have the ability to change the world. She holds my hope of change in Afghanistan, and all over the world, in her hands.

So maybe it is better for her to continue as she is. Maybe she is never meant to be President because maybe, actually, this would deaden, rather than strengthen, her voice. With the weight of a whole country on her shoulders, would she still have room to fight for girls?

Maybe her progress is meant to be in smaller steps. Maybe it will take longer but maybe when she does rise up Afghanistan will be ready for her. The men who surround her in her parliament will have worked alongside her for years and have faith in her voice and leadership. They won’t feel threatened anymore. They won’t want her dead anymore. Maybe, for now, or even forever, she will influence the small people, like the father who sits next to her and sees, in her, a women’s potential for the first time. Maybe he then goes home and allows his daughter to go to school. Maybe being president is not the most powerful position she can be in.

Each and every one of us has the power to change the world, one small step at a time. Sometimes the way we can do this is not so obvious. Last week I saw a play about protesting and one of the biggest things I took away from it was that protesting is not the only way you can stand up for a cause. Maybe having a chat in the pub is more effective than standing in your town centre collecting signatures.

Real, long-lasting, sustainable change and progress is a journey. And it can be a long one. But often it needs to be if it’s going to last.
All we can do is keep fighting, in our own small ways.

Fawzia Koofi holds my hope in her hands, but so do so many other brilliant girls and women (and men!) that I am lucky to know. I see hope all around me.

Wangari Maathai tells a story of a group of animals watching their jungle burn down. They feel helpless, they don’t know what to do. They see a tiny hummingbird flying backwards and forwards dropping one small droplet of water onto the fire at a time. They tell the hummingbird that its effort is wasted, it will never be able to carry enough water to put out the fire, it should give up.
The hummingbird turns, and without stopping for even a moment, it says “I am doing the best I can.”

And now I’m not so sad anymore. Yes, being the first female president of Afghanistan would have been an amazing breakthrough, but, for now, it’s not to be. And, more importantly, I know that no matter who’s elected and no matter what happens in the future… Fawzia is never giving up. She is, just as so many of us are, doing the best she can.

"We can all be hummingbirds"

Illustration by Gary Hunt -

Helpful resources:
Wangari Maathai telling the hummingbird story much better than I ever will:
The book that touched my heart: 'The Favored Daughter: One Woman's Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future' - Fawzia Koofi

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Dressing for the occasion

Clothing policies are everywhere. Whether they are rooted in tradition, are for practical purposes or to give off a particular impression, many workplaces have a specific uniform, you are expected to not wear white to a wedding (unless you’re the bride), black is for funerals and you shouldn’t turn up to an important meeting with your CEO in trainers.

However, what happens when a clothing policy becomes oppressive and offensive?

I recently discovered that the sixth form my sister attends have introduced a new ‘clothing policy’. The sixth form is situated in an all boy’s secondary school and it turns out there had been repeated instances of boys making lewd and suggestive sexual remarks towards the sixth form girls. As a result, the headteacher informed the girls that they were no longer allowed to wear shorts as, presumably, he believed this would decrease the comments and solve the problem. The girls were not happy, a petition was started and, alongside highlighting other issues the students had with the sixth form, this was ignored.

I honestly didn’t even know where to start. My initial reaction was anger that an educational institute were choosing to ‘blame the victim’ instead of educating (I know, I’m not missing the irony either) the boys to view girls as more than just sexual objects that it was ok to shout lewd and suggestive remarks at. I am almost certain I can guess the headteacher’s thought process… “Well, boys will be boys.” And this is where I got stuck. This is why I haven’t yet written an angry letter to either the headteacher or the local paper. This is why I’ve been mulling this around in my head for the last couple of months not exactly knowing how to proceed.

For this is a much bigger issue.

Let me explain.

I work for a fantastic organisation that empowers girls and young women through non-formal education and a rights-based approach. One particular campaign we have is called ‘Stop the Violence: speak out for girl’s rights’. In March 2013 I attended the UN Gender Equality conference (UN Commission on the Status of Women) and the focus theme was ‘the prevention and elimination of violence against girls and women’. As you can see, our campaign fitted right in.
I was very lucky that I got to hear some amazing speakers and attend some truly inspiring events however the person whose words have stayed with me the most is Michael Kaufman. Yes, a man. A brilliant man. The fight to end, and ultimately prevent, violence from happening to girls and women, and for true gender equality, can often be a lonely fight for one particular gender. It can be seen as a woman’s issue. It can be seen as a load of angry lesbians screaming about how much they hate men. It can be seen as an opportunity to blame men. It can divide and it can create an ideology that women think they’re better than men. It can raise the question: “Violence happens to boys and men as well, why are you focusing on just one gender?”

Obviously I don’t believe any of the above, and the last comment is for another post, I don’t want to detract from the original point of writing this. But I do understand and I will explain later.

Michael Kaufman tore all of this apart. I wish every boy and man on this planet could hear him speak as I honestly believe he could create a shared understanding between every girl, boy, woman and man.
Michael Kaufman co-founded a charity called the ‘White Ribbon campaign’. It is an organisation of men fighting for the prevention and elimination of violence against girls and women. It is founded on the belief that gender stereotypes, gender roles and expectations and, ultimately, gender inequality are the root cause of violence against girls and women. Gender stereotypes and gender roles and expectations fuel gender inequality. In other words, the roles BOTH genders are expected to play, the specific qualities society has attached to BOTH genders and the limited expectations that exist for BOTH genders are the reason we live in a society that is not yet equal. A society where gender-based violence takes place.

However, how has this post gone from a ‘clothing policy’ in a sixth form to gender stereotypes?

Because – and this is really important – this ‘clothing policy’ is not just destructive, offensive and oppressive to the girls involved, it is also destructive, offensive and oppressive to all of those boys.

By creating this ‘clothing policy’ the headteacher is objectifying the girls. He is saying that they are only objects to be viewed in a sexual nature and by covering up the ‘temptation’ he believes he is limiting the amount of sexual object that will be viewed and therefore decrease the sexual remarks which are directed at this sexual object.
He is assuming the boys will only see these girls as sexual objects and therefore he is fuelling the gender stereotype that boys are only interested in sex and are incapable of interacting with the opposite sex in a respectful fashion, as another human being. He is creating an expectation that real men view girls, first and foremost, in a sexual manner and if they don’t, they’re not ‘real men’ or ‘lads’ (a disgusting phrase and stereotype I HATE but will save for another post). He is creating an entirely destructive environment for these boys which fuels disrespect of girls and, ultimately (and yes, this is a big statement), the belief that if a girl is bearing flesh she is ‘up for it’ and ‘deserves whatever she gets’.
And then we enter a horrible, but very real situation. The situation that says 83% of girls in the USA aged between 12 and 16 experience some form of sexual harassment at public school[1]; the situation that says that at least 1 in 4 girls and women in the UK will be victims of domestic abuse in their lifetime[2]; and the situation that says only 3% of rapists will spend a day in prison[3], often because the girl is reluctant to even report it in the first place. We don’t need a survey to tell us that society judges those harshly who report a sexual assault and had been drinking or wearing suggestive clothing.

We cannot allow this cycle to continue!

Objectification is all around us. Anyone of any age can walk into a newsagents, open a Sun newspaper and be greeted by a woman bearing her naked breasts, thereby fuelling the belief that women are just objects to be viewed in a sexual nature. This sixth form is an educational institute and it has the responsibility to be educating the girls and boys of today to be the responsible and accepting adults of tomorrow. This sixth form should be providing guidance to both the boys and girls that smashes away the limitations of society and teaches them that it’s ok to be themselves. It should be creating a society that refuses to support these stereotypes any longer and accepts everyone for who they are, regardless of how they act and what role they want to play. It should be empowering the girls to know they have the right to wear whatever they want and it NEVER gives a boy or man the right to rape or hurt them or view them as just a sexual object. And it should be empowering the boys every day to believe that they are capable of real relationships, that to be accepted as a ‘real man’ they don’t have to view girls as just sexual objects and that it’s a form of violence and abuse to shout unwanted remarks at girls. Or, in fact, at anyone.

Real men don’t hurt girls and women, they respect them as equals. Real men can have true meaningful relationships – I know, I’m with an amazing man (and a great feminist). Real men don’t have to sleep with lots of different girls and never call them back, especially if this is not consensual. Real men don’t honk their car horns at a girl and real men give girls the opportunity to say ‘no’, every step of the way. And real women allow boys and men to break out of these stereotypes without judgement or assumption.

And that’s what we should be telling the boys as they grow up, regardless of what clothes a girl is wearing. Otherwise we are already limiting them and destroying their chances of being the best men they can be and reaching their full potential.

Related links:
WAGGGS’ Stop the Violence: speak out for girl’s rights campaign:
White Ribbon Campaign (UK branch):
Doc Brown on ‘No More Page 3’, a fantastic campaign to end the objectification of women in the Sun newspaper:
Extended trailer to ‘Miss Representation’ documentary (how the media influences the way young people in the USA view men and women):