International Women’s Day

Today, on International Women’s Day, it seems appropriate to re-post this piece I put up several years ago. It seems that nothing has changed.

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It would be impossible to document all of the humiliations, injustices and degradations that women throughout the centuries have had to put up with in almost every part of the world. That they should continue to do so, even in the 21st century, is an absolute disgrace. The way the Taliban treat and regard women is well documented and needs little further comment. They routinely deny women education, healthcare or any freedoms. They can be bought and sold and married against their will. They have no legal rights. They can be killed with impunity. It is difficult to imagine how a society in which women are actually treated worse could ever be constructed.

However, the so-called Islamic State go one step further than this, and are happy to buy and sell captured women in slave markets as sex slaves, surely the ultimate degradation.

Yet, over a huge part of the globe, women are subject to treatment little better than this, and there is probably no country where they can be said to be genuinely equal to men. Certainly in the west, we like to think of ourselves as modern, liberal, forward looking and fair, so how can it be that such a situation still exists?

There are three basic reasons why men have always been able to regard and treat women as inferiors:

1) They have controlled and governed communities and societies through their greater physical strength. This, in turn, has led to their creation and codifying of the rules surrounding and governing these societies, and, in turn, the creation of their religious books that gave an even greater authority for the subjugation of women. This strength also effectively prevents any ‘rebellion’ by women.

2) Men’s stronger sexual urges. This (the ‘testosterone effect’ in male teenagers, for example), coupled with their greater strength, has allowed men to both physically dominate women and also to subject them to almost constant pregnancy and motherhood.

3) Women bear children. Neither pregnancy nor motherhood are helpful in resisting men’s dominance.

In the west, centuries of brainwashing have led to a situation where, although women no longer daily face a physically perilous existence, inequality lives on in other, often demeaning, ways. Although no longer in danger of being burnt as witches, being sold into servitude or (generally) forced into marriage, they are still way behind men when it comes to the labour market. It is comparatively recently that they have been allowed to train as front line troops in the army or join the clergy in the Church of England, and still encounter stiff resistance if they wish to do so. The Catholic Church still forbids them to hold any post and so we see an exodus of many ‘traditional’ members of the Church of England to the Catholic fold, which has enterprisingly created a ‘special’ niche for those who cannot bear to see women treated as equals.

There are still comparatively few women in high-powered jobs, and those who are still struggle to earn pay similar to a man in a comparable job. Interestingly, the reason often given for that is that ‘market forces’ dictate these pay scales. This is, naturally, a male-dominated market. Women are vastly over-represented, however, in low-paid and part time jobs.

Centuries of brainwashing have also trained them for a role as mannequins, or Barbie dolls; putting on make-up is essential before they go to work, attend meetings, go on a date or almost anything else. Their natural selves are not fit to show men. And if there is anyone who might be in any doubt about this, they need only take a glance at the blizzard of adverts on television or in magazines. And high heels are the obvious descendants of oriental foot-binding; a painful, dangerous and degrading practice designed solely to appeal to men and make running away impossible. I do not understand why any woman still falls for it. And those magazines; the ones aimed at women still manage to create the impression that life is all about make-up and home-making.

In many other parts of the world, though, life as a woman is not only demeaning but can still be ‘nasty, brutish and short’. One of the most common ways to control women, is to deny them the right to work. This might be justified as being degrading for the woman and her husband, or that she must be kept away from other men (because she will ‘stray’), or that she needs to be at home to raise children. This effectively means that she is then working full-time at home, but obviously without any financial reward or freedom. Along with refusing females education, this is another way to force them to remain at home in a state of virtual slavery. Commonly, they will have to work on any land that the family have – weeding and planting, looking after animals, etc – yet will be denied the chance to earn a wage.

This segregation is invariably justified on the grounds that women are sexually provocative and evil. They are temptresses that must be kept away from the eyes of all men except the husband. Hence they are dressed from head to toe in all-enveloping clothing, they are not allowed to speak to any males except close relatives, they are locked up in Zenana – women’s quarters, where they have to peer out at the world through heavily carved screens, whilst men are free to go around at will. Even in more humble dwellings, they are largely confined to the house, having to hide when male visitors come. Hence they cannot go out and work within the society. And this attitude, that women are naturally evil, tempting men against their will, is reflected in the punishments that many societies mete out to those that break their taboos.

The most extreme example is that where, in one or two societies, if a man is accused of rape, the woman is commonly held to be culpable since she must have tempted the man concerned, otherwise the incident would not have happened. The woman then is sometimes executed, although being the victim, whilst the perpetrator is either set free or given a minimal sentence. Rape, also, is frequently used in war situations to ‘control’ a population. Another medieval survival is the practice of confining women to their quarters during menstruation, on the grounds that they are ‘unclean’. Although the ‘punishment’ is not particularly onerous, the insult is that it further demeans women for simply being women. And then, while it tends to be perfectly permissible for men to walk around with bare arms and head, and frequently torso and legs, women that do not cover up from head to foot will feel the full rigour of society’s displeasure – usually physical punishments such as lashing or incarceration.

Suttee – who would still believe that the practice still exists? Yet there have been cases comparatively recently of women being forced onto the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands, possibly due more to the family not wanting an inconvenient daughter in law in the house, than to any religious urges. There are also still cases of bride murders, when the dowry has not been up to the expectations of the groom’s family. That the dowry system still exists at all is an insult; the bride’s family having to pay the groom’s family for taking an ‘unproductive’ woman into the household.

Then there is the lack of healthcare, education or voting rights, the forced marriages, the child brides purchased by the old men, the genital mutilation, the sexual trafficking…the list seems depressingly endless. 1975 was designated International Women’s Year by the United Nations – 44 years ago. Not much seems to have changed since then.

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Refugees

I posted this poem a year or so ago, and I think it bears re-posting again now. In fact, I think I should post it repeatedly every year until everybody understands the situation most of these people find themselves in through no fault of their own.

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The first time she ever set eyes on the sea,

She was forty seven.

 

It was a long road there.

She set off with little enough,

And arrived with much less.

 

She had a home, once.

A house,

In a well-to-do area of the city.

Life was good.

 

But fear came,

In the form of bullets, shells and bombs.

Once, gas.

Then everyone lived in fear.

 

Her house is rubble, now.

Memories and possessions buried,

Alongside her husband.

 

Alongside her daughter.

 

Alongside her middle son.

 

Her hands are scarred from the digging.

For weeks,

Her palms were raw and bloody,

from blocks of masonry,

Too large to move.

 

Dust and tears.

 

It was bad enough to lose everything,

But when you’re caught in the cross-fire,

And the food runs out,

What else can you do?

 

Her eldest son paid for the crossing,

With borrowed money.

 

Somewhere,

He is ‘paying off’ the loan.

A bonded labourer.

A slave.

 

She fears for him.

 

Her youngest son was washed away.

The dinghy was too small,

The passengers too many.

Fear.

You could smell it,

Alongside the despair.

The panic.

There were fewer of them when the sun rose.

 

There is shelter here,

Of a sort.

But when the wind blows she shivers,

Drawing near to the oil drum blaze.

 

There is food,

Once a day.

Of a sort.

 

There was a welcome.

She soon learns what sort.

 

Now, she walks down to the sea.

 

She wonders whether she should,

Whether she should just,

Just, slip under,

The waves.

 

Refuge

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The first time she ever set eyes on the sea,

She was forty seven.

 

It was a long road there.

She set off with little enough,

And arrived with much less.

 

She had a home, once.

A house,

In a well-to-do area of the city.

Life was good.

 

But fear came,

In the form of bullets, shells and bombs.

Once, gas.

 

Her house is rubble, now.

Memories and possessions buried,

Alongside her husband.

 

Alongside her daughter.

 

Alongside her middle son.

 

Her hands are scarred from the digging.

For weeks,

Her palms were raw and bloody,

from blocks of masonry,

Too large to move.

 

Dust and tears.

The pain came later.

 

It was bad enough to lose her home,

But when you’re caught in the cross-fire,

And the food runs out,

What else can you do?

 

Her eldest son paid for the crossing,

With borrowed money.

 

Somewhere,

He is ‘paying off’ the loan.

A bonded labourer.

A slave.

 

Her youngest son was washed away.

The dinghy was too small,

The passengers too many.

Fear.

You could smell it,

Alongside the despair.

The panic.

There were fewer of them when the sun rose.

 

There is shelter here,

Of a sort.

But when the wind blows she shivers,

Drawing near the oil drum blaze.

 

There is food,

Once a day.

Of a sort.

 

There was a welcome.

She soon learns what sort.

 

Now, she walks down to the sea.

 

She wonders whether she should,

Whether she should just,

Just, slip under,

The waves.

Responsible Travelling – Part 1

In a way, this could be titled ethical travelling, but I would like it to cover cultural issues as well as environmental and other ethical concerns. I don’t particularly like proselytising, but I think that we all need to be responsible for our actions: it makes for a happier world for all concerned.

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So, in no particular order…

Trekking

First of all, when arranging a trek, please try and have a look at the ethical policy of your chosen company. Nowadays, many have a policy of ensuring that porters are properly paid and treated, food is sourced wisely and money makes its way back into the local community. The guides / cooks / sherpas or what-have-yous should be trained to ensure that the environment is treated with respect during the trek. Personally, I feel that from a selfish point of view it makes sense to choose a company that follows these guidelines, because I feel that I will be treated better by them, too. It should not be much more expensive, either.

Secondly, it is not all up to them. One of the most important things we can all do is avoid littering villages and countryside as we trek. Apart from the unpleasantness of spectacular scenery ruined by plastic bags and used loo paper, we can hardly criticise local laxness in this area if we are guilty of the same ourselves.

Deforestation is a major problem in the mountains now, which can only get worse with the effects of global warming. Consequently, anything that we can do to minimise the burning of wood is important, so please do not insist on unnecessary fires to sit around or warm up. You should have brought sufficient clothing on the trek for that. And it seems a minor thing, but if a group of trekkers turn up at a tea house and insist on lots of different dishes, then that will involve a lot of extra firewood to cook them. Try and have the same dish, if possible.

Shopping

Ah, yes. Such an important part of our visit, really. The ultra-cheap clothes, the amazing antique statues, the cheap religious paintings…unbelievable bargains, compared to what we would pay in the west…

…and rather a minefield, unfortunately. Those cheap imitation brand names, as we should all know by now, are usually produced in sweatshop conditions, conditions that would often justify being described as ‘slavery’. As well as being, usually, rather inferior quality. Difficult to avoid them all; after all, who is to say we shouldn’t be buying those attractively embroidered ‘I did the Everest Trail 2017’ or suchlike t-shirts for the equivalent of a couple of dollars?

Well, there is a world of difference between the genuine sweatshop (if I can use such a phrase) and the family sitting around their sewing machines under a tarpaulin beside the stall producing their goods. The latter may be working hard for a poor return, but may be infinitely better off than those with no work and certainly better off than the sweatshop labourer who will earn far less, in conditions far worse. Even today, unfortunately, some of them are bonded labourers.

The antiques…if you go to the Kathmandu valley, you will in many places find the remains of religious statues that have been stolen from their sites beside roads or outside temples. These statues usually find their way to the west to ‘collectors’, or may be sold off to tourists who know no better. In many countries you will need an export licence from the authorities to take antiques over 100 years old out of the country simply to attempt to prevent this sort of desecration. Invariably it is possible to buy modern copies of these items – handcrafted and as beautiful as the originals. It is better for everybody if the traveller contents themselves with these, not least because the smuggler can be hit with a hefty fine or prison sentence. It is also worth mentioning that many of the ‘antiques’ are fakes, in any case.

And the religious paintings. Again, in Kathmandu, Thankas, the paintings that hang in temples, are frequently offered for sale. And again, if genuine, should not be sold. They have probably been stolen. Wherever they are offered for sale, however, there will be bright new paintings for sale – equally beautiful, well made and far cheaper. Spend your rupees on them and support the craftsmen that make a living that way.

BIG or small?

Staying with the shop theme, it seems fairly obvious that by buying from the little shop rather than the supermarket you will be far more likely to be putting money back into the local community. All well and good. Inevitably, though, it is never quite as straightforward as that. Moving south across the border to India, we may find that in the market that we are searching for souvenirs, as well as local traders there may be traders from Tibet or Nepal, Kashmiris and dealers from the city. How you wish to spend your money may pose a dilemma that I cannot solve for you. But at least give it some thought!

The same situation can arise with hotels and trekking companies. I feel that in that situation, the small company or hotel is likely to get my rupees, since, unless I know otherwise, they are more likely to put money back into the local community.

Water, water everywhere…

…but most of it comes in plastic bottles which end up littering the environment, or refilled by unscrupulous rascals with what could be contaminated water, to be sold on again. Avoid this if you can (not always possible, I admit) by taking water purifying tablets and using the local water – read the instructions carefully to see exactly what is required – or using the boiled and filtered water available in some places (See info in places such as Lonely Planet guide books). If you buy plastic bottles, scrunch them up before disposal to prevent their re-use.

In some places, such as Ladakh, you can find environmentally minded laundry shops, where the soapy water is disposed of properly, rather than just poured into local streams. May they prosper and multiply!

 

We’re better than you are!

I don’t buy into this ‘My country is better than yours’ crap.

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Are we talking about the political systems? I suppose we are, because that’s what seems to be grabbing all the headlines.

Yet the countries that seem to be the subjects of this particular debate are all, on the surface, at least, democracies. So, no difference then?

Hmm…

It might be ‘Our country’s values’, of course, because that’s another hot one at the mo.

Hang on, though, what does that mean? People were banging on about that yesterday, but I’m more than a little uncertain whether such a basket of goodies actually exists. ‘We are against racism and misogyny!’ Sounds good to me, only that’s not true. Some of us are, certainly, but you only need to spend a reasonable amount of time in any pub on a Saturday night, to hear plenty of racist and misogynist talk. And not just pubs. In every walk of life, you can hear this talk: doctors’ waiting rooms, shops, offices, bus stops…

We’re hardly perfect.

If a country is the sum total of its citizens, then you will struggle to identify that country’s ‘values’.

Culture? Culture cuts across borders, it is not constrained by them. We read books and see films and plays that have been written and produced by artists worldwide. Frequently, we have no idea where they actually hail from in the first place.

‘But,’ I hear an angry shout, ‘it is our indigenous culture that makes us great!

Uh-huh? I am often bemused when a famous painting in a British collection is under threat of sale to a foreign buyer and there is a collective wail of ‘Our cultural inheritance is in danger!’ Bemused, because nine times out of ten the painting in question is by an Italian or French or German or artist of some other nationality.

If we only had British paintings in our gallery things would look rather different.

And the Elgin marbles? Ours, dammit! Our inheritance!

The treasures filling our museums from all the countries we colonised and asset-stripped…

Maybe it’s our religious inheritance. Christian, according to a lot of the stuff I hear.

In 2015, 42% of the British population identified themselves as Christian. (British Social Attitudes survey) Those who actually attend church regularly, however, number only 5-6% of the population.

The vast majority of the British population do not go to church, so how can we be a Christian country?

What about our history, then?

Well, good and bad, like most countries. We abolished slavery in the 1800’s – all well and good, but we had profited hugely from it in the years before. The lot of a slave in the British West Indies, for example was horrendously barbaric.

Empire? Pfft.

Votes for women? Eventually, and only after a concerted attempt to trample the movement underfoot, using a fair degree of violence in the process.

Everyone will have their own ideas of what we do well, of course. I am proud of the fact that we give our share of aid to projects designed to eradicate poverty and disease around the world, and disaster relief. I am grateful that despite the failings of the system (and they are many) we live in a country where our representatives can be thrown out and re-elected on a regular basis. We cannot, in theory, be held without trial, and we are not in constant danger of being mown down by gunfire in our streets and schools.

But, before we get too cocky about that, remember how things can change over time.

Vigilance, my friends, vigilance…