Anna Politkovskaya – A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya

UnknownIt feels like I have read this book a thousand times. This is just another war with another brave woman crossing into hell to report on genocide, mass rape and the real consequence of capitalism. I have read it a thousand times reading testimonies of Holocaust survivors – Odette Abadi, Eva Brewster, Ruth Elias. I’ve read it when the countries named were Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Bangladesh. I’ve read Linda Polman’s catalogue of failures of UN peacekeeping forces in Somalia and Haiti. I have read it in Beverly Allen’s Rape Warfare: The Hidden Genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia  and Anne Llewellyn Barstow’s War’s Dirty Secret: Rape, Prostitution, and Other Crimes against Women. I have read Judith Zur’s research into memories of violence among Mayan Indian war widows. I have read about the Rape of Nanking and the slaughter of civilians at Mai Lai. And, I read every blog posted on Women Under Siege about BurmaNorth KoreaLibyaSri Lanka Darfur and countless other war zones where sexual violence is an intrinsic part of genocide. I have read feminist texts like Beatrix Campbell’s End of Equality  which demonstrate the direct link between capitalism and the oppression of civilian populations through sexual violence and war.

The names of the perpetrators change. The name of the conflict zone changes. The civilian populations targeted change. The names of the reporters changes. The names of those murdered grows longer. But, still the Twentieth Century remains one where genocide, mass rape and torture were normal – a  century where more people lived in abject poverty without access to clean water, sanitation and even food in order to perpetuate a capitalist economy that privileges very few.

Anna Politkovskaya’s text is powerful, distressing and enraging. It is a catalogue of torture, murder, rape and the acceptability of concentration camps all whilst the rest of the world looks on and does nothing. It is about men’s desire to exert control and power: to control natural resources, including people. We allow children to starve to death and grandmothers to perish from preventable diseases despite having the ability to prevent them because it would interfere with men’s desire for power.

We upgrade to an iPhone 5 when our iPhone 3 would work just as well because we must have the newest toy; never mind that this desire continues the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We see thousands of boys conscripted into armies to fight other boys and taught to rape to build bonds of brotherhood so that a few men can control a mine. We buy from Tetley, despite their perpetuation of the modern slave trade. We buy new clothes ever 3 months even though we know that there are women and children working in subhuman factories making them. We fight a “War on Drugs” which serves only to make weapons manufacturers richer.

After the Holocaust, the world swore “Never Again”. And, it’s happened over and over and over and over again. We owe the millions of people who have been brutally tortured, raped and murdered in wars across the world to, at the very least, acknowledge their experiences. We owe it to them to make sure their lives are heard. Politkovskaya’s text is essential reading because we cannot continue to pretend that civilian casualties and male violence are normal behaviour. We cannot turn our backs any longer to human rights abuses that we support financially through our purchase of laptops and tea.

Politkovskaya documented genocide and was murdered for her work.

Two weeks ago, 200 young girls were kidnapped in Nigeria whilst the world looked away. Some have escaped but many remain missing. And, the media does not cover the story.

Our planet is dying from abuse and our most precious resource, people, are being slaughtered in the name of the capitalist-patriarchy.

A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya is a must read because we cannot live like this.

 

 

Radical Feminism and the Accusation of Gender Essentialism

(This is an early draft of an article that was published in the Feminist Times)

 

The most common criticism of radical feminist theory is that we are gender essentialist because we believe that women’s oppression, as a class, is because of the biological realities of our bodies. The assumption that radical feminists are essentialist is based on a misunderstanding of radical feminist theory, which starts from the definition of “radical” itself. The term “radical” refers to the root or the origin. It is radical insofar as it contextualises the root of women’s oppression in the biological realities of our bodies (sex) and seeks the liberation of women through the eradication of social structures, cultural practises and laws that are predicated on women’s inferiority to men. Radical feminism challenges all relationships of power that exist within the Patriarchy including capitalism, imperialism, racism, classism, homophobia and even the fashion-beauty complex.

Radical feminists do not believe that there are characteristics that are uniquely male or uniquely female. Women are not naturally more nurturing than men and men are not better at math. Gender is not a function of our biology. It is a social construct created to maintain unequal power hierarchies. The conflation of sex with gender is another common misunderstanding of radical feminist theory. Sex is the reality of your body with no negative or positive characteristics attached to it. Gender is a social construct that privileges men/ masculinity above women/ femininity. Radical feminism is accused of gender essentialism because we recognise these power hierarchies and seek to destroy them. We do not, as frequently suggested, believe these are natural. It is a silencing tactic.

Women’s oppression as a class is built on two interconnected constructs: reproductive capability and sexual capability. Gender is created to grant men control over women’s reproductive and sexual labour in order for men to profit from this labour: whether this be unpaid labour within the house, in public spaces and childbearing/ rearing. Or, in the words of Gerda Lerner in The Creation of Patriarchy, the commodification of women’s sexual and reproductive capacities is the foundation of the creation of private property and a class-based society. Without the commodification of women’s labour, there would be no unequal hierarchy of power between men and women fundamental to the creation and continuation of the Capitalist-Patriarchy.

When radical feminists use this language of reproductive and sexual capability, we are derided for failing to include women who cannot get pregnant or who do/ do not experience sexual violence. Radical feminism is not about the individual but rather the oppression of women as a class in the Marxist sense of the term. Rape is used as a weapon to silence women as a class. It does not require every woman to be raped to function as a punishment. The threat therein is enough. Equally, the infertility of an individual woman does not negate the fact that her oppression is based on the assumed potential (and desire) for pregnancy, which is best seen in discussions of women’s employment.

There are countless studies that discuss men’s refusal to hire women during “child-bearing” years despite not knowing whether or not that individual woman can conceive or carry a foetus to term (or the fact that it’s illegal to discriminate against women for pregnancy in the first place). It is the potential for pregnancy, which is used as a way of controlling women’s labour: keeping women in low-paying jobs and maintaining the glass ceiling. Constructing women as “nurturers” maintains the systemic oppression of women and retains wealth and power within men as a class.

Just this week, New Hampshire state Rep. Will Infantine (R) has stated that women deserve to be paid less than men because men work harder. The Equal Pay has existed since 1970 and yet women are still consistently paid less than men based on gendered assumptions about the value of women’s work. This is without investigating the intersections of racism, classism and misogyny, which result in women of colour being paid substantially less than white women for similar work.

Even something as basic as a company dress code is gendered to mark women as otherHarrods requires women staff members to wear make-up – a fact that became public when former employee Melanie Starkcomplained to the press about being hounded out of her job. British Airways requires all new recruits to wear skirts because women cannot be expected to look professional whilst handing out meals and pillows in trousers. High heels are frequently required as part of a ‘professional’appearance for women despite the fact that they cause permanent damage to women’s feet and lower limbs.

Women working in the service industry are frequently required to wear clothing that accentuates external markers of sex, particularly their breasts. On the other hand, breasts displayed for the purpose of feeding an infant are considered a disgrace to basic human decency. Sexual harassment is endemic, particularly in the workplace, yet women are punished if they do not attend work in clothing that is considered “acceptable” for the male gaze. The use of women’s bodies to sell products further institutionalises the construction of women as object.

In the UK, two women a week are murdered by former or current partners. Male violence is a major cause of substance misuse, self-harm, and homelessness in women. We know that women are the vast majority of victims of domestic and sexual violence and abuse. And, we know that men are the majority of perpetrators, yet we talk about “gender-based violence” as if men and women were equally perpetrators and victims. Radical feminist theory requires naming the perpetrator because it requires understanding and challenging hyper-masculinity within our culture which results in violence against women, children and other men.

If radical feminists were truly gender essentialists, we would believe that women deserve to be paid less than men. We would support hiring policies that privilege men. We would believe that women’s value is based entirely on their fuckability and childbearing/rearing. If radical feminists were gender essentialists, we would believe that men commit violence because they are born that way. Radical feminists are accused of gender essentialism because we recognise the oppressive structures of our world and seek to dismantle them. It is our direct challenge to hegemonic masculinity and control of the world’s resources (including human) that makes us a target of accusations like gender essentialism, which have no bearing in reality.

Radical feminism does not believe there are male/ female brains or that there are characteristics and behaviours that are innately male/ female. We believe that socialisation creates gender with the express purpose of maintaining current power structures. And, this is why radical feminism is so dangerous to the Capitalist-Patriarchy: we seek to destroy rather fiddle with the margins.

 

Amber E. Kinser’s Motherhood and Feminism

History of motherhood starting at industrial revolution. In many ways, it is a ‘basic’ history of motherhood in the US. Or, at least, it should be a basic history but Kinser traces more than the usual history of white middle class women with its focus on Victorian values, Betty Friedan and the myth of suburbia. Instead, Kinser traces the real history of motherhood looking at how issues of class, race and homophobia/lesbophobia challenge the dominant discourses of motherhood.

Her inclusion of the history of reproductive rights and mothering of Chicana and African-American women is a much needed addition to the feminist movements understanding of history and the complexities of real reproductive justice in a culture where racism and classism create categories of good and bad mothers; which punishes women of colour for becoming mothers.

Kinser also examines radical feminist texts on motherhood and labels them as radical feminist. Usually these texts on women’s history and feminist theory try to erase the term radical feminist and situate women like Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde out with their theoretical heritage. Shulamith Firestone is simply dismissed. Kinser writes about the history of motherhood as a patriarchal institutional and the challenges to it through an intersectional lens actually addressing issues of race, class, gender, and identities.

What about the women: The existence of brothels in Nazi Concentration Camps

This is a response to a post at Everyday Whorephobia called “When the State Traffics Women“. I posted a brief response on the blog itself [which is currently in moderation]* but I wanted to write a longer response. Women’s history is something I am very passionate about and this particular topic is something I am quite familiar with. Whilst I am glad more women are writing about this topic, I do have some reservations about some of the conclusions within this piece.

Sexual violence and rape were common during the Holocaust. The fact that these experiences are not common knowledge is because of sexist constructions of a specific Holocaust narrative which privileged testimonies of male survivors like Elie Wiesel over women, Gay men, people with disabilities, and children, to name a few. Partly, this was because of the historical context in which Holocaust narratives became well-known as very little academic research was done until the 1960s. Testimonies published in the immediate post-war era, of which there are many, had very small publishing runs as many people were simply not interested in analysing the full spectrum of violence perpetrated during World War Two. Holocaust history was written during, and is historically situated by, the Cold War. The political desires of the US and the USSR impact how Holocaust history was written and who it was being written for. Racism was a motivating factor of the crimes against humanity during the war as much as it was a motivating factor for how the history of the war was written.

As with all history, the Holocaust was complicated. Mass genocide does not simply occur because a few men in one nation order it. The Holocaust required the participation, active and passive, of much of Europe. That is a fact which very few are willing to acknowledge but it is something we need to remind ourselves of daily.

“When the State traffics women” does raise awareness of just how prolific sexual violence was during the Holocaust. This point cannot be emphasised enough; sexual violence was ignored by mainstream historians until well into the 1990s. Feminist historians were writing about in the early 1970s but this researched was dismissed, as women’s history frequently is. Since the 1990s, there have been numerous collections of essays on the experience of women published as well as numerous conferences which dealt specifically with the gendered experiences of women. There also been an explosion in the sheer number of women’s testimonies being (re)published. In 2010, an anthology specifically about sexual violence against Jewish women was published. As I write this, there are a multitude of PhDs, essays and books being written about sexual violence during the Holocaust. Women’s experiences are being written back into the history of the Holocaust and the extant of sexual violence against all peoples is finally being questioned.

My personal belief is that there cannot be enough research and writing on the Holocaust. The Soviet archives, which were only recently opened, have demonstrated just how much we did not know. 10 years ago, a group of scholarsdecided to establish the official number of slave labour and concentration camps. It was double what was previously believed and includes at least 500 brothels. So many records still need to be archived. What we thought we knew has turned out to be only a brief snapshot of what actually happened.

This piece had the potential to increase public awareness of the existence of brothels and the treatment of prostituted women. Unfortunately, there are several problems with the essay. First, it occasionally  conflates the experience of prostituted women within Nazi Germany with the experience of all women within the concentration, death and slave labour camps. This conflation is not helpful when researching sexual violence. The treatment of individuals within the camp system depended on their nationality, race, age, sex, sexuality, criminal activity, disability and skill. During the 1930s, the Nazis deliberately targeted prostituted women under the category of ‘asocial’** for incarceration, however we do not know how many women incarcerated as ‘asocials’ were prostituted women as the category included convicted criminals, women with disabilities, and those who are still othered in the UK now. The category of ‘asocial’ included anyone accused of moral degeneracy. It is also included women who were Lesbians. Lesbianism, unlike homosexuality, was not illegal under the Nazi regime. Lesbian women were still incarcerated but they were charged as ‘asocials’ rather than for the crime of homosexuality. This category was specifically about women living within Nazi Germany before the outbreak of war and at the beginning.

Secondly, the number of prostituted women who were incarcerated in concentration, slave-labour and death camps which had brothels is open to debate because of this issue of identification. We know, for the camps where records were not destroyed, how many women were incarcerated as ‘asocials’ but that does not give us an accurate record of women incarcerated for prostitution. This is a very important point when addressing the issue of brothels and which women were required to “work” in them because women incarcerated for the crime of prostitution were by no means the only women forced to “work” in the brothels.

The establishment of the brothels, as the piece correctly points out, were in direct response to two issues: Heinrich Himmler’s “incentivisation” program for male inmates working within the armaments factories in the slave-labour camps and homosexuality within the camps. Brothels were obviously the answer to both problems. I have some personal reservations about the brothels being developed to combat homosexuality within the camp system since the men who were incarcerated for the crime of homosexuality were subjected to sexual violence and medical experimentation. Being a known homosexual was much more likely to result in death than a pass to the brothel. The problem within the camps was sexual relationships between men who were not homosexuals and the rape of teenage boys by adult men. Both issues need far more research.

The women who were raped in the brothels included lesbian women as punishment for being lesbians and Jewish women; the laws of Rassenschade were generally ignored in the camps. “Working” in the brothel did involve better food rations. The women were also allowed to bathe and had access to better clothes. They also got to work inside which was an important consideration for many women. Women’s testimonies vary on how women were “chosen” to work in the brothels but most involve the women themselves “volunteering” to be raped in the brothel and women being forced to parade naked in front of SS guards and the most beautiful being chosen. Stories of women “volunteering” to work in the brothel include women who made the “choice” in order to access extra rations to smuggle to their sisters, which may or may not have included biological sisters as the benefits of sisterhood and the importance of women’s relationships are a common theme in women’s testimonies. There are also stories of women who were incarcerated for prostitution “volunteering” for the brothels in order to spare other women the degradation of being raped.

The women “working” in brothels generally represented in women’s testimonies in two ways: as debased women or as true sisters helping other women. Much more research needs to be done into the experience of women who worked in the brothels: who they were and, for those who “volunteered”, why did they make the “choice”.

The third, and in my opinion, the biggest problem with ”When the State traffics women” is that it focuses on men and their feelings, effectively erasing the humanity of the women “working” within the brothels. Men were given tokens for ‘good behaviour’. The tokens were bartered around the camp for food and other extras. Women’s bodies were bartered as objects and then the women were raped but not just by male inmates, and certainly not Jewish men. SS guards also raped the women within the brothels, as they did with women in all the slave-labour, concentration and death camps. Jewish women were allowed to be raped by men but Jewish men were not allowed in the brothels.

As the piece states, the men were given tokens to the brothels were subject to ”humiliating genital examination and a prophylactic injection before being taken to the room”. The piece fails to mention that the women within the brothels were also subject to humiliating genital examinations. SS guards certainly did watch in some camps but not in others. In some camps, SS guards were the only people allowed to rape the women in the brothels.  The women were also raped by dozens of men every day but no mention is made of the effect of this on the women’s bodies. The article also suggests that women who were infected with STIs were sent back to the main camps. It does not mention that this was frequently followed by a death sentence. It is also important to note that the campaign against STIs, as with the campaign against lice, was actually about the “safety” of the SS officers within the camps rather than concern about the male prisoners. The women, obviously, did not count. And, yes, the pregnancies which followed mass rapes were frequently aborted. Depending on the camp, this abortion could simply involve the murder of the women or the women dying from the abortion. It is certainly not quite as easy as the article implies.

This is the piece of text with which I have the most reservations:

What motivated the men who used the service? The need to relieve sexual frustration was one motivation but survivor testimonies also refer to many men wanting to talk or simply feel the physical closeness of a woman. In the pitiless world of the concentration camp they simply sought a few minutes of tenderness. They were as much victims as the women.

Whilst the men were as much victims of the women, it wasn’t for the reasons stated above. After all, the women weren’t exactly in a position to decide whether or not they wanted to talk or just feel the physical closeness of a male body. The women were being raped dozens of times a day by dozens of men. The men had a choice. The women did not and to ignore this point is to ignore the experience and trauma of the women. This failure to acknowledge the very gendered nature of the Holocaust has led to women’s lives being written out of history.The issue of brothels within the camps is complicated because it does “challenge prevailing orthodoxies about the nature of Nazi oppression”, but, and this is very important, race was a key factor in the privilege to access to the brothels. Polish resistance fighters, German criminals and western POWs were allowed access to the brothels. Jewish men were banned and Soviet POWs were considered suspect. For the women, race was generally irrelevant. Once women were incarcerated in the camp systems, they were victims of sexual violence from all men*** without the added factor of being incarcerated in the brothel. For women out with the camp system, race also impacted on their experience of sexual violence. German soldiers raped whomever they wanted and the rape and murder of Jewish women in the ghettos guarded by regular German troops. The mass rapes by the Soviet army as the moved west is well-known, less so is the mass rapes committed by Allied forces. The stories of rape of women in Western Europe have not been fully explored.I do agree that the story of sexual violence needs to be historically situated within the wider context of Nazism, however the article refers to a now questionable construction of womanhood in Nazi Germany that was based on Nazi propaganda rather than the reality of the lives of Aryan women [and the conflation of *all* women with Aryan women here is telling]. This, however, is another essay for another time.Sexual violence was an integral experience of the Holocaust for many women and I will write further about the experience of Jewish women in the camps. What I will say is that current research into sexual violence in the Holocaust has shown just how integral sexual violence is to genocide and human rights violations. The fact that rape was not mentioned once during the Nuremberg trials is disgraceful. The fact that neither “forced prostitution” nor rape were considered war crimes until 2002 is a crime in and of itself. When writing women’s histories we need to be careful that we do not use their life-stories to reinforce a narrative based on our political leanings. The experience of women during the Holocaust has already been erased from history once to met a male political narrative. This cannot happen again.

*And, before anyone assumes anything. I only posted the comment yesterday. I’m sure they have a moderation policy which is run by volunteers. Moderating is a time consuming process and not one that anyone should have to do on a Saturday night.

** I have placed a number of terms in quotation marks because they are deeply problematic and outlining why they are problematic is an essay for another day.

***Clearly, not all men in the camps were involved in the rape of women and teenage boys but the threat was there for women.

There is more research on the experience of women available here:

The Holocaust at Women Under Siege
New Holocaust findings highlight larger gap in conflict and rape research at Women Under Siege
Remember the Women Institute

(Re)Creating and (Re)Defining Sisterhood Online: The Mumsnet Phenomenon

This is the extended version of a conference paper I gave at the FWSA (UK & Northern Ireland) conference: Rethinking Sisterhood: The Affective Politics of Women’s Relationships’

 

Mumsnet – we’ve all heard the name. It pops up frequently in the press as either an object of derision as that place full middle class Yummy Mummies who once harassed Gordon Brown about his favourite biscuit brand during a political webchat[i] or that “nest of vipers”[ii] who viciously bully any woman who doesn’t meet their “standards”.

Yet neither of these stereotypes addresses the popularity of Mumsnet with women across the UK and the world. Why is Mumsnet so popular with women across all classes, ethnicities, faith, sexuality and gendered identities if it is a space full of ‘bullies’? What draws women – a significant number of whom do not have children – to what is ostensibly a parenting site? How does Mumsnet get 60 million page hits a month if only women who care about biscuits or are bullies populate it?

The founding of Mumsnet [iii] is a well-told story across the media. Justine Roberts and Carrie Longton created it in 2000 after Roberts had a disastrous holiday abroad with infant twins. It was conceived as a way for mothers to share information about everything from holidays to infant feeding, car seats, and fashion. Since then the business has grown from a small organisation to a staff of 80[iv] with Talk boards which cover everything from current events, to domestic and sexual violence and abuse, feminism, caring for children with disabilities, purchasing a car and caring for fish. The webchats hosted by Mumsnet have involved everyone from Gordon Brown and the infamous biscuit question to Jamie Oliver, Nigel Farage, William Hague, Dawn French and Gok Wan.[v]

Mumsnet’s popularity is not because of the quality of information on the site but rather the members themselves who have registered for the free chat boards – a feature only added to the website by chance. It is the relationships developed amongst the women and how this has changed both the brand of Mumsnet but also how the women involved have (re)developed the theory of sisterhood, particularly outwith feminist discourse that I will discuss. This “sisterhood” is contested and challenged from a variety of sources – the members themselves, men’s rights extremists and trolls. Equally, many members would not recognise Mumsnet as a place of sisterhood – many would also not define themselves as feminists, further contesting the boundaries. The construction of sisterhood is both intersectional, as defined by Kimberle Crenshawe,[vi] but also anti-intersectional in that racism, disablism, classism, homophobia and misogyny are common across the boards. Mumsnet is certainly not unusual as a true cross-section of women will always involve both the negative and positive.

This paper is based on my personal experiences as a member of Mumsnet. I joined in 2007 following the birth of my second child. I had several interviews with a number of current and former Mumsnetters, whom I have chosen to keep anonymous in this paper. I then posted a request on my public Facebook account, in which I am friends with numerous Mumsnetters, asking for their responses to the issue of trolling. This self-selecting response is the first stage in a much larger piece of research which will include further interviews, as well as a large-scale survey of members of Mumsnet – as well as other online parenting websites.

Mumsnet both (re)creates and (re)defines 21st century constructions of the term “sisterhood”. The power of relationships developed by women whose only contact is online and through pseudonyms is surprising only to those who have never been isolated from their extended family and wider community. It complicates the division between “real life” and “online life” and how this division is based on fallacious assumptions of how women construct support networks, friendships, and the longevity of these relationships. We live in a culture where women are taught that other women are their worst enemy and one where competing with each other is considered normal. This is designed to erases male responsibility for violence but also ensures that women’s energy and work is directed at supporting men, rather than other women.

The very basis of Mumsnet’s success is women supporting other women and the power of women’s friendships online. This is why the media backlash to Mumsnet is both so obvious and so vicious. Denigrating Mumsnet as that place where women talk about shoes and biscuits erases the very conversations which make it a radical space. These conversations include pregnancy, miscarriage, infertility, bereavement, domestic violence, rape and sexual violence, child-rearing, caring for children or other family members with disabilities, education, healthcare and current events. These conversations – the sharing of information and support – give women a power denied to them by a culture that privileges men’s needs and desires above all else. It also develops women’s confidences in their own skills, as well as encouraging women to move outwith their comfort zones learning new skills, teaching these skills to other women and entering the public sphere.

There is a multitude of ways in which the women of Mumsnet support one another. One of the most powerful sections is the relationships board which features long-term support threads for women with a history of substance misuse, those who were raised by toxic parents, women currently living with domestic violence and survivors, and women surviving rape and other forms of sexual violence. This unconditional support offered by women contrasts with women who are apologists for male behaviour – those who are currently living with violence and not in a position to label it and those who believe in anti-woman myths propagated by men’s rights extremists. In order to offer unconditional support, women must start from the radical basis that women do not lie about male violence. As those working in the field of violence against women and girls are aware, believing women is a radical step towards sisterhood. It is a feminist position and there are contested spaces on the relationships boards where women who do not take the label feminist come into conflict with those who do even when offering similar advice. There are numerous occasions when women who believe feminism is bad for women define radical feminist positions on male violence as “common sense”. What is interesting is the ways in which these contested definitions of feminism, domestic violence and perpetrator responsibility have given women previously denied a voice a space where there words are considered worthy of response. For many women, this is a privilege denied daily.

This contested space is best demonstrated by threads about access and violent fathers – the feminist position on Mumsnet is that children do not need violent fathers. On the relationships board, children are classed as needing fathers but their mothers deserve protection from further control and coercion. Debates wage on whose needs should be prioritised: the mother or the children. Fragile relationships fall apart as participants tend to be in a place where personal experiences trump theoretical knowledge. Building sisterhood in such a contested space is difficult but women manage it – despite fears of their own situation, fears over giving another woman advice or support that might hurt her. Women on these threads are so very vulnerable and yet they reach outwith the limited time and energy they have to help women they have never met and likely never will.

The first thread I read on the relationships board involved a woman driving two hours in the middle of the night to collect another woman – a complete stranger – who need the space away from her abusive husband. This is not as uncommon a situation as you would think. We can all think of a million things which could have gone wrong here but the very success of the relationships board is that type of help: a woman dropping everything to help a complete stranger. More commonly, we see women sitting up all night with other women who are in fear of a violent partner, or whose child is missing, women who are miscarrying much wanted babies and women who have taken a pill to induce abortion. Historically, this type of support was common in many communities and it was a fundamental part of the second wave of feminism, but it is very different to online communities of women where the creation of a “perfect feminism” has created very rigid communities – some of which engage in abusive behaviour to other women as a way of defining themselves as “better” feminists. Online feminism is often hierarchical erasing the possibility of a sisterhood.

A section of the talk board for mothers caring for children with has similar stories of women supporting women. In many ways, we expect this of women living in these situations – the selflessness of the mother with a severely disabled child is a trope the mainstream media adores. We don’t consider the emotional involvement and time commitments these women put in to supporting other women. Women who are carers are far more likely to live in poverty than other women and have far more demands on their time, due to systemic failures to support them appropriately. Yet, these women give their time freely to support other women through a diagnosis of disability and then to negotiate the welfare system – a task which even professionals find difficult. These stories are replicated in sections for women who have had miscarriages, are dealing with infertility or suffered other bereavements.

Again, this idea of women supporting women is something we expect of women. Our welfare state is built on the unpaid labour of women caring for family members, volunteering in schools and hospitals, campaigning and fundraising for play parks and after school clubs. But, this labour is assumed to be done by ‘good’ women (that is to say white, heterosexual, middle class women) and there exists a hierarchy of women who do the labour and those women who are recipients of this labour. What makes the support offered by women of Mumsnet different is that there is no hierarchy: there are no women who do “good works” and women who must be “helped”. There are women who help women not because it is expected of them but because they want to.

This idea of a collective of women who have political power is very radical. Mumsnet The Business has built on the unpaid labour of its members to create an ethical, pro-woman brand. Mumsnet has successfully extended their brand beyond reviewing products to building a well-respected blogging network, a Mumsnet academy (although the classes are mostly London-based and expensive) and holding an annual award for family-friendly business nominated by its members.

Mumsnet has also given its members a political platform. The success of the brand and the support of the women for other women increased their membership dramatically. This mostly women-only space full of women supporting other women has radicalised large numbers who otherwise felt disenfranchised. These members have started the political campaigns for which Mumsnet has become famous: the Let Girls be Girlscampaign[vii] which targeted shops selling a sexualised vision of girlhood which included Tesco’ selling a pole dancing kit for 7 year olds.[viii] Mumsnet has also campaigned for a miscarriage code of practise to be implemented across the NHS because of serious failures in the care of women (and in one rather frightening story, a member on Mumsnet diagnosing an ectopic pregnancy in a woman who had been to A&E twice with bleeding and serious abdominal pain).

The success of these campaigns is built on the relationships among the women on the talk boards. This is best exemplified in the “We Believe You” campaign. This campaign started on the feminism/ woman’s rights board following numerous discussions of what constituted sexual assault. Women were invited to post their stories of “small scale sexual assaults” that they had not reported. This very quickly turned into a thread full of women talking about being raped, sexually assaulted as children and groomed. Many of the women had never shared their experiences before and some did not know that their experience met the legal definition of rape. This mass testimony of sexual violence was only possible because of the way in which women’s relationships exist on Mumsnet. In the end, there were thousands of testimonies made and one member made an informal survey to show the breadth of women’s experiences. At the behest of members, Mumsnet started the “We Believe You”[ix] campaign challenging rape myths in the media. They took professional advice from Rape Crisis and built a formal survey. The campaign coincided with the arrest of footballer Ched Evans for rape and the hashtag #ibelieveher followed. This campaign could not have started nor succeeded without the relationship between members, which was essential after the media started reporting on the campaign using women’s testimonies without permission. Mumsnet HQ came into conflict with members with the business brand of Mumsnet leaving members who had shared stories feeling misused. We Believe You brought a lot of publicity to Mumsnet, something that was not a positive experience for some women.

There are a number of campaigns started by members, which are not associated with the brand of Mumsnet. The Let Toys be Toys[x] campaign challenges gendered stereotyping of toys and has had success in forcing companies to remove gendered labels and the “pink/ blue” divide of toys commonly seen in places like Toys R Us. There is now a spin-off campaign called Let Books be Books[xi]. There are annual charity runs raising money for numerous causes. There is even a Christmas secret santa which started as a way of helping out members in financial difficulties but was extended to members who helped others. This was originally run by members but grew so large that Mumsnet HQ was forced to take over. The financial generosity of Mumsnetters rivals the emotional support and time they donate to other women.

By far, the most colourful example of the way in which sisterhood is created within the space of Mumsnet is Woolly Hugs.[xii] Woolly Hugs started out as a group of women knitting a blanket for a recently bereaved Mumsnetter. It has expanded rapidly to include knitted blankets for children in hospital, children and parents who are recently bereaved, and has links with a charity working with children with cancer overseas. Some of these women learned to knit, crochet and sew in order to participate in this piece of collective feminist sisterhood. This transmission of skills builds on a long history of women’s sewing circles and communal quilting as a way of building friendships outwith the male gaze.

The above does not mean that Mumsnet is a completely safe space for women. The open registration policy of the Talk Board means anyone can join and Mumsnet has endured numerous invasions of male rights extremists – Fathers 4 Justice being a repeat offender going as far as attempting to publish a libellous advertisement because of Mumsnet’s “gender bias”. The fact that women still do a disproportionate amount of childcare and housework[xiii] and that many of the members of Fathers 4 Justice have histories of domestic violence isn’t something their membership was willing to discuss. The male rights extremists tend to stick to certain topics: feminism/woman’s rights, parenting, and the relationships board where the revel in telling women living in violent relationships that they are over-reacting – the team of Edd and Bob being rather infamous in their anti-woman propaganda. Mumsnet’s hands-off approach to moderating the Talk Boards resulted in these anti-women posters being allowed to remain far longer than they should.

Larrygrills, a male member who remains despite his constant misogyny and gaslighting, does so because he posts just within the guidelines for the Talk Board. This allows Larry to suggest that women who have suffered birth trauma are over-reacting because he’s seen his wife give birth twice and she was fine. It is classed as “opinion” rather than gaslighting. Larry’s full posting history contains numerous statements minimising domestic and sexual violence and abuse and suggesting women are over-reacting to all manner of trauma. His posts do not include personal attacks and are viewed as fine. Larry is not by any means the only male poster to use Mumsnet to voice his anti-women rhetoric but he does appear to be the most dedicated. Conversations occur over and around Larry as women seek to minimise the harm he causes others but, again, this puts the onus on women to expend valuable energy pointing out the misogyny and gaslighting.

There is also the issue of what is commonly called “emotional vampires”, which are people who literally drain the energy out of you by coercing you to focus solely on their needs at the expense of your own.[xiv] Mumsnet’s reputation as a source of support for women – regardless of whether or not they are mothers – makes it a very visible target for people who engage in this behaviour. Due to the demographics of Mumsnet, the majority of “emotional vampires” are female.

The poster who used the pseudonym EthanChristopher claimed to be a teenage single parent who was trying to graduate in order to attend university. Many posters, including myself, gave up hours of our time helping EthanChristopher negotiate the welfare system, childcare, and student loans. She turned out be a woman in her mid 40s who was “bored”.

Dizzymare was a woman who claimed to be pregnant with twins with a young toddler. Much of her posting was about money with one of the more widely read threads on the subject of her “silly brother” only buying her a double stroller rather than a triple stroller. There was a clear demand for money and suggestions of how to manage 3 small children with only a double buggy were ignored. Dizzymare’s postings became more emotionally charged with stories of the miscarriage of both twins. Many bereaved mothers supported Dizzymare through her bereavement but she too turned out not to be real. Dizzymare has used the similar story across a number of other parenting platforms, including Bliss, leaving very distressed women in her wake; women who had literally sat up all night with Dizzy when she claimed to be miscarrying. The time and the emotional involvement in supporting Dizzymare was done by women who believed that sisterhood was essential – even if they would not have used that word.

You cannot tell if the person you are supporting is real or trolling and sometimes it is necessary to write a post for those reading it without commenting rather than the original poster – ensuring that accurate information about domestic violence, victim blaming or legal matters is posted. This is an easy statement to say but difficult in practise due to the emotional responses women have to other women in distress. SassySusan, who also trolled under alternative pseudonyms like WashWithCare, was a fairly vitriolic emotional vampire. She attacked women directly rather than the more passive-aggressive posts of Dizzymare. Perhaps the best example is a thread SassySusan started which, among other issues, suggested that women who don’t breastfeed deserve to get breast cancer and die. Infant feeding is a source of great stress for new mothers with both breast and bottle feeders feeling judged and unsupported. As such, it is an excellent source of entertainment for emotional vampires and other trolls. Yet, SassySusan was different to other emotional vampires as she had lost her only child to chicken pox. It is difficult to tell if SassySusan started trolling before or after the loss of her child but the simple fact is she was both a woman in need of support and a woman deliberately and maliciously harming others.

How should Mumsnet HQ respond to a deeply traumatized woman who viciously attacks other vulnerable women? Where is the line between troll and trauma? Do organisations like Mumsnet, whose reputation is based entirely on the women of the Talk Board sharing and supporting one another, have a duty of care to women like SassySusan despite their extremely abusive behaviour? Mumsnet made the difficult decision to ban SassySusan after she stalked and publicly doxxed another member off-board. Whether her behaviour was a response to trauma or a psychological condition is impossible to say but SassySusan remains one of many women who have joined Mumsnet with a view to causing trouble and who have revelled in the pain of other women.

Mumsnet may be an important place online for women but it can never be a completely safe space – and this is without discussing issues of racism, homophobia, misogyny, classism, and disablism of the members themselves. No site with open membership can ever be free of these harmful constructs. Where Mumsnet fails is that it depends on its members to educate others. At what point does a mother with a child with autism no longer need to defend her child to a poster insisting that children with disabilities do not belong in mainstream schools. How often do posts about golliwogs appear with people insisting they are harmless fun? How many times are there threads about applying for schools which completely ignore the fact that women living in poverty in estates with only one school have no choice. How often should lesbian mothers be expected to tolerate homophobia (the answer for one member of Mumsnet was several years of lesbophobic abuse before the other woman was finally banned).

The reality is that Mumsnetters who invest the time and emotional support for other women are dependent on Mumsnet being a safe space even though this safe space can never actually exist. The women who have used and built the virtual space and made friends within that space may not be representative of the women reading the posts on the site. It is also very easy to fall into friendship groups that feel exclusionary to newcomers. Mumsnet suffers the same problems with other women-only spaces not founded on feminist principles (and even then these are not always safe).

Equally, the way in which Mumsnetters have used this accidental space has changed the definition of sisterhood from women who meet in real life and have similar political goals – as seen in second wave feminism’s consciousness raising groups. – to a much broader definition. This definition is predicated on support for other women – with contested theories of friendship and sisterhood coming into conflict. In many ways Mumsnet has become a consciousness raising group, particularly for those women who cannot do “real life”. Coming together for campaigning does not necessarily result in the same friendships developed by women with small children. Both can be temporary friendships based on need at the point in the women’s lives but there is also a questioning of what sisterhood fundamentally means: is it unconditional support or passionate support as espoused by Liz Kelly. How do women negotiate online friendships, many using pseudonyms where it is possible to share everything without worrying about your next door neightbour finding out, when we are taught that women’s friendships aren’t “real” and that they are predicated on competition and hierarchies? How can we protect these safe spaces from trolls and men’s rights extremists without making it difficult for other women to find the support? How do we protect that sisterhood when it is under constant attack due to a patriarchal backlash? After all, much of the media stories on Mumsnet are about how horrible the women are – even the women knitting those beautiful blankets for children at York hospital with terminal illnesses.

 

[i]Brown takes break in biscuit quiz, BBC News Online. 17.10.2009(http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8312215.stm) Acc. 10.9.14

[ii] Nick Duerden, “Why has Mumsnet developed such an awkward reputation?” The Independent 12.5.2013 (http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/features/why-has-mumsnet-developed-such-an-awkward-reputation-8607914.html)

[iii] Mumsnet: About Us. http://www.mumsnet.com/info/aboutus. Acc. 10.9.14

[iv] Lucy, Kellaway, Justine Roberts of Mumsnet. 20.12.2013. FT Magazine(http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/aa1f78ea-66af-11e3-8675-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3DQ1ADIK7) Acc. 10.9.14

[v]Mumsnet Webchats (http://www.mumsnet.com/onlinechats)

[vi]Kimberle Crenshaw, Mapping the Margins, Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence against Women of Colour, Stanford Law Review, (http://socialdifference.columbia.edu/files/socialdiff/projects/Article__Mapping_the_Margins_by_Kimblere_Crenshaw.pdf)

[vii]Let Girls be Girls Campaign. (http://www.mumsnet.com/campaigns/let-girls-be-girls ) Launched 2010.

[viii] Tesco’s “Toy” Pole Dancing Kit. Mirror. 23.10.2006 (http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/tescos-toy-pole-dance-kit-646625)

[ix]We Believe You Rape Awareness Campaign (http://www.mumsnet.com/campaigns/we-believe-you-mumsnet-rape-awareness-campaign)

[x]Let Toys be Toys campaign (http://www.lettoysbetoys.org.uk/)

[xi] Let Books be Books (http://www.lettoysbetoys.org.uk/letbooksbebooks/)

[xii] Woolly Hugs (http://beta.woollyhugs.com)

[xiii] Susan Maushart,Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women, (Bloomsbury, 2003)

Arlie Russell Hochschild with Anne Machung, The Second Shift, (Penguin Books, 1989)

[xiv] http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/emotional-freedom/201101/whos-the-emotional-vampire-in-your-life

Reclaim the Night must remain women-only

(originally published in the Morning Star)

The Leeds Revolutionary Feminist group organised the first Reclaim the Night march in Britain in response to victim-blaming and poor practice by police officers in Yorkshire following the serial murders committed by Peter Sutcliffe.

The Byford Report into the investigation, released in 2006, made clear the serious failings of West Yorkshire Police which had actually interviewed Sutcliffe nine times during the investigation.

Very little has changed since 1977.

Only this week, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary has released a damning report on serious failings by the police to report crimes appropriately.

This includes under recording 26 per cent of rapes and sexual assaults reported to them. Considering less than 10 per cent of sexualised violence is reported to the police, this figure is an utter disgrace.

The West Yorkshire Police response to the brutal murders committed by Sutcliffe was to tell women to remain inside at night. This same “safety” advice is repeated by police forces across Britain to this day. Curtailing women’s freedom is a tried and trusted method of blaming women for being victims of a crime.

After all, no safety campaign ever suggests that violent men — and the vast majority of violent crimes are committed by men — remain inside in case they are overcome by the urge to commit violence.

Instead, we tell women what to wear, where they can go, and what they are allowed to drink.

If only women stayed inside at night (and if you work shift work, well, that’s your fault too) or wore longer skirts or were more polite to men, then men wouldn’t feel obligated to harm them.

Reclaim the Night is about women standing together and reclaiming public spaces. It is about women supporting women and raising awareness of the reality of male violence and the consequences of it on the bodies of women and children.

They were a reaction to police failures but also about a community of women.

Today is the 10th anniversary of the new Reclaim the Night marches in London. It is the largest march in Britain but also one of the few that remains women-only.

The trend now is to allow men to attend. Supposedly this inclusion is to ensure that men feel involved in the campaign. In reality, the inclusion of men makes a mockery of the spirit of Reclaim the Night.

Reclaim the Night is meant to be a safe space for survivors of male violence. Many of the women marching will have experienced rape, 90 per cent by a man known to them, and then were blamed for that rape.

Focus on male inclusion is at the expense of survivors of sexual violence. The concerns of these women are dismissed by the prioritisation of men’s feelings — and it is very clear that male inclusion is about men’s feelings.

I have attended numerous Reclaim the Night marches over the years. So many have been forced into including men. These men show up at planning meetings demanding the right to attend and silence any woman who objects by insinuating they are hysterical or silly.

They replicate the same male entitlement that results in rape culture and this is without addressing the men who see Reclaim the Night as their own personal dating pool. Nothing quite says sexism like a man propositioning women on a march about sexual violence.

One concession has been the creation of women-only sections at the front of marches. Women are forced to ask permission to walk in public with other women which rather negates the point of women reclaiming the street.

These sections mark survivors out as “other.” If you walk in one, you are the problem — not the men insisting on their right to access all women’s spaces.

At one Edinburgh march, a man following the women’s block kept banging into the women in the “safe space” in the march. He couldn’t understand why women were so angry at being touched, repeatedly, by a man in a march about sexual violence. He clearly thought he was a “feminist ally.”

The women he was touching without permission saw him as the problem. Women had come to march to end male violence but even in this safe space they could not prevent a man from touching them without permission.

Reclaim the Night marches must remain women-only — anything else is the capitulation of the fight for the liberation of women and the continuing violation of women’s boundaries.

Rape as Genocide: Understanding sexual vulnerability, abuse and rape in the context of the Holocaust

This is a conference paper I wrote in 2006. I am sharing it today as part of Holocaust Memorial Day. Since I wrote this paper, more research into rape and the sexual exploitation and violence perpetrated against women and children has been undertaken. Women Under Siege is an excellent source of information as is the book Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women during the Holocaust. My own research in feminist theory has changed my understanding of sexual violence and genocide.

 

In the light of the stories of sexual vulnerability, abuse and rape that are a part of the larger narratives of genocide in Darfur, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, it is almost becoming a truism to suggest that sexual violence is an intrinsic feature of genocide. In the realms of Holocaust history and studies, however, it is still a subject that has not attracted a great deal of attention. Certainly, scholars who are working on the ambit of female experience, such as Myrna Goldenberg and Joan Ringelheim, have always acknowledged the existence of these stories in Holocaust testimonies, but they have focused on the specific sexual vulnerability of women due to pregnancy, motherhood, and amenorrhea and so mention only small numbers of testimonies of women who claimed to have been sexually assaulted or raped, or even having witnessed these. Furthermore, they have also tended not to look at male testimonies concerning the sexual vulnerability, abuse or rape of female prisoners and even fewer have looked at stories of male sexual vulnerability, abuse or rape.[1]

My own (feminist) readings of the testimonies of witnesses Lucille Eichengreen, Sarah Magyar Isaacson, Thaddeus Stabholz, Weislaw Kieler and Fania Fénelon[2], however, led me to believe that there were more stories of sexual violence than have been acknowledged. Furthermore, if one accepts that sexual violence is not only a common part of genocide but can also be a genocidal act, then it is one that needs to be explored within the context of the Holocaust and the murder of Soviet POWs, the Sinti and the Roma, the mentally ill and differently-abled, and the exploitation of ‘Slavic’ slave-labour during the course of Nazi Germany. This includes not only the sexual violence perpetrated by the German SS, the Wehrmacht, and other Aryan administrators, but also that of the Soviet mass rapes of women at the end of the war and during liberation, as well as the sexual violence by all other militaries, Allied or Axis, and that perpetrated by ‘victims’ of Nazism against other victims of Nazism.

In fact, stories of sexual violence are more common than early feminist Holocaust scholarship has previously acknowledged, which is not to say that it was widespread, although this is likely, but simply that there are more stories than first recognized. There has also been an expansion in the number of stories of sexual violence in testimonies, partly due to new feminist research into rape, pornography, prostitution, and sexual trafficking,[3] which casts some testimonies in a new light, partly also due to the fact that the number of Holocaust testimonies published has increased exponentially since the genocides in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. These new testimonies include more stories of sexual violence and interpret more events as having a sexual component rather than simply an act of violence of humiliation.

But while the increase in the numbers of stories of sexual violence is partly simply because witnesses now understand and write about specific events in this manner it is also because current feminist reading of testimonies includes a greater knowledge and awareness of sexual violence and reading my/contemporary definitions of sexual assault against the definitions given by witnesses is also essential to my thesis. Furthermore, it is the tension between my reading and what is written/not written that makes this a fascinating area of exploration. It also acknowledges, as Anna Hardman has previously noted, “the difficult interpretative questions as to the relationship between actuality and representation.”[4]

I believe, therefore, that the most significant reason for the expansion in the number of stories are the evolving definitions of the terms rape, sexual abuse, prostitution, humiliation, and choice by scholars, witnesses, and readers of these stories. There are numerous stories now interpreted as sexual violence. These include but are not limited to forced sterilizations of Mischlinge Jews, the Roma and the Sinti and the ‘asocials’, (that is the undesirable elements of society); forced abortions due to race; refused abortions due to race; forced pregnancies; viewing the abuse of others; forced stripping and performance; forced ‘prostitution’; brothels in the concentration camps; and the fear of rape. As a feminist, I feel that these stories needed to be placed in the centre of Holocaust studies along with the stories of abuse, humiliation, torture, starvation, deportation, murder and mass murder, ghettos and gas chambers.

What I consider to be the one of the more common forms of sexual violence during the Holocaust is what Myrna Goldenberg has termed ‘sex for survival.’[5] That is to say, stories of women, men, and children being exploited sexually in exchange for food, clothing, accommodation, work permits in the ghettos, or ‘good’ jobs in the slave-labour and concentration camps. Stories of ‘sex for survival’ exist in diaries written during the war and post-war biographies and oral testimonies.[6]

One such story may be found in one of the most well-known Holocaust testimonies: Fania Fénelon’s published testimony Playing for Time, also published as The Musicians of Auschwitz. Fénelon’s text is one of the most [in]famous memoirs of women written about Auschwitz-Birkenau and, more specifically, about the women’s orchestra in that camp. Fénelon was arrested as a member of the French resistance but was also half-Jewish. She spent nine months in the transit camp of Drancy, where she was tortured, before being deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in January 1944. She remained in Birkenau until November 1944 when the Jewish members of the orchestra were deported to Bergen-Belsen, where they were eventually liberated in April 1945. Upon arrival in Birkenau, a member of the orchestra recognized Fénelon as a cabaret singer and her ability to sing Madame Butterfly placed her in the privileged orchestra protecting Fénelon from the severe abuse and torture of the ‘normal jobs’ in the main camp.

Before discussing in depth the stories of ‘sex for survival’ in Fénelon’s testimony one must acknowledge the controversy surrounding it and the subsequent Arthur Miller play and film adaptations based on the text, particularly in relation to the issue of lesbianism and Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and her testimony Inherit the Truth 1939-1945: The Documented Experiences of a Survivor of Auschwitz and Belsen.[7] The debate is worth mentioning because of its discussion of identity, the use of survivor interpretations of the behaviours of others, the labels they attribute to other inmates, and the differences in the types of witness testimony, (literary texts, memoirs, poems). Succinctly, the debate concerns Fénelon’s description of the other members of the female orchestra in Auschwitz-Birkenau and the boundary between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, particularly of the characters ‘Marta’ and ‘Clara’. Fénelon devotes a section of the text to the relationships between the other prisoners in the privileged orchestra which includes a reference to a lesbian relationship. One of the women involved in the lesbian relationship was a cello player. Lasker-Wallfisch has been very clear that she was the only cello player in the orchestra and that she was not involved in any lesbian relationship and that Fénelon was well aware of this.[8]

There are a number of stories of ‘sex for survival’ in Fénelon’s text but the ones I want to discuss centre around Fénelon’s relationship with the character ‘Clara’ who she meets on the train to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I am engaged in a ‘literal’ reading of the text here in order to demonstrate some of the difficulties inherent in [re]-reading and [re]-writing representations of memory and identity. The problematic status of this particular text is does not lessen its value as a document, rather it is another instance of the problematic use of memory and representation to write a ‘history’ of  the Holocaust. The character of Clara is described as “a girl about twenty with a ravishing head set upon an enormous, deformed body”[9]; a body deformed in the transit camp by starvation, a well-brought up girl who was engaged to a boy she loved. Clara is apparently still a virgin; we do not know about Fénelon. The two young women become friends during the journey and pledge to help one another in the camps.

Fénelon and Clara’s first encounter with the concept of ‘sex for survival’ happened quite quickly after arrival in Auschwitz:

A soldier was walking next to Clara. He had a totally unremarkable face, something between animal and mineral. Suddenly he addressed her in French, in a voice as devoid of expression as he was himself: “I’ll get you coffee if you’ll let me make love to you.[10]

The two girls ignore him and the subject is not brought up again. But the soldier’s statement, so early after arrival, after several days trapped in a cattle car, is a lesson about Birkenau. As Fénelon comments:

Coffee? Either a woman wasn’t worth much around here, or else coffee was priceless. She said nothing and he let it drop.[11]

We do not know if either girl has some prior experience with this in Drancy; both were there for an extended period. It is quite likely that they did but this is assumption rather than factual knowledge. The other, more experienced, girls in the orchestra are quick to point out how cheap a woman’s body, and, by extension, a man’s and a child’s, were in the camps. Jenny, another girl is the orchestra tells them: “All you need to do is find yourself a man; here sausage replaces flowers.”[12]

We can interpret this as a story of prostitution but, while, there is a tremendous amount of feminist research into the coercive aspects of ‘prostitution’ in ‘normal’ society, exchanging sex for food in the midst of a centre for genocide changes and questions the terms we use to define the activity. Not all women who were given the option to engage in sexual activities in exchange for food ‘chose’ to do so, but, some did. Obviously, the term ‘choice’ is also questionable. The terms prostitution, sexual vulnerability, and sexual slavery are debated in feminist scholarship, but once we are within a situation where the intent to commit genocide is evident, trading sex for food, moves outside of common definitions of prostitution. Yet, the term ‘sex for survival’ also seems insufficient to describe the situations that many people found themselves during the Holocaust; indeed, the terms we use to describe these stories seem almost irrelevant in their inability to demonstrate depth of meaning.

Clara, quite quickly, makes the ‘decision’ that food is so important that sex can be traded for it. Furthermore, according to Fénelon, she hoards the food for herself and she is not particular in who the partner is. Several of the other girls have ‘lovers’ whom they sleep with for food, some even sleep with the SS but Fénelon does not describe these other women in the same manner that she describes Clara or her ‘choice’. In fact, Fénelon is extremely dismissive of it, claiming Clara was more interested in food than remaining ‘female.’ Thus it is unclear whether Fénelon is disgusted with Clara because of the sexual act, claiming Clara had lost her ‘womanly dignity’, or that she is disgusted with Clara because Clara is actually transgressing sex or gender boundaries, by refusing to engage in communal survival and share the extra food received. As Fénelon says:

Clara had changed quickly, very quickly. A month after our arrival in the music block, one evening at six o’clock, she’d said to me … I won’t share with anyone anymore.” The next day, at dinnertime, I opened her box by mistake and saw a pot of jam. Clara rushed at me. “Leave that; I told you to keep your hands off it.”

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking. All our boxes look alike. I certainly wouldn’t touch that nobly earned jam of yours!”

There were tears of rage in her eyes, perhaps a last glimmer of a former morality, a remnant of dignity. The donor was probably a kapofrom the men’s camp. Only the kapos, the blockowas, all Poles, Slovaks, or Germans, could come to our block.

Had she been a virgin? It was possible, it wouldn’t have been a decisive factor. Besides, the risk of pregnancy for internees was virtually nonexistent.

I felt sorry for Clara when I saw her twitching her large behind, … She had been an innocent young girl who loved her boyfriend and who still nourished childlike dreams. Living in a sheltered milieu she was innocent of life, like the adorable and naïve Big Irene, who remained so, while Clara changed so quickly and so totally. She had become frighteningly selfish; she would do anything to get food. In the middle of all these painfully thin girls, her obesity was a wonder, a most effective lure for men, who paid court to her in butter and sugar.[13]

But what is ‘womanly dignity’ inside a concentration camp? Can we not interpret part of Clara’s behaviour as an attempt for semblance of human contact or even love?  It is easier to interpret it in this fashion when Clara is engaged in relations with other male prisoners in privileged positions, but it is more difficult to do so when the boyfriend is a particularly brutal (German) kapo who, apparently, voluntarily worked as an executioner for the S.S. guards in the camp, apparently for pleasure rather than requirement. Fénelon posits Clara’s relationships against her own relationships with Leon, her ‘lover’ from Drancy who volunteered for the transport to Auschwitz in order to be with Fénelon.[14] Clara’s ‘boyfriends’ gave her food in exchange for sex, Leon gave Fénelon poetry and letters for, apparently, nothing. Love exists but Clara does not know what it is and is confused.

What is particularly interesting is Fénelon’s construction of Clara’s changing identity, and the way in which she contrasts her transformation from a good virginal girl to a prostitute with her understanding of the behaviour of ‘real’ prostitutes in France. While Fénelon defends the behaviour of French prostitutes who engaged in sexual acts with German soldiers to gather information for the French Resistance in terms of heroism, Clara’s attempt to survive through sex is viewed with disgust, a contrast that is highlighted in Fénelon’s description of Clara’s outrage at her participation in cabarets where German officers were the major clientele:

“I couldn’t have heard you sing,” said Clara rather primly. “We’d stopped going out at night. We didn’t mix with the Germans, and no one went to nightclubs except Germans and collaborators.”

I fell silent, slightly ashamed; it had been very good business. How would Clara have judged the proprietress of Melody’s, who looked like a madam – indeed, perhaps she was – but who protected us? How she would have despised those tarts that hung from the necks of German officers and gave us papers, photographs, and information.[15]

But, why is Clara’s transformation into a ‘prostitute’ to save her own life so negative? Partly, it is because Clara does behave increasingly violently towards the others. Certainly, when Clara is given the job as a kapo, (an inmate barracks supervisor), Fénelon claims she behaves with ruthless and vicious violence, beating the block inmates sadistically for various rule infractions. But this did not happen until after the girls were transferred to Bergen-Belsen; Clara’s ‘prostitution’ occurred in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.[16]

This story of ‘sex for survival’ is not uncommon. What is different is the way in which it is contrasted with ‘good’ stories of using sex for resistance. But how is resistance different from survival? Obviously Clara’s brutal behaviour as a kapo in Bergen-Belsen is part of the story and can partly explain Fénelon’s construction of Clara, but we do need to separate Clara’s behaviour in Bergen-Belsen from that in Birkenau to understand how Clara’s ‘choice’ was choiceless and thus to recognise her experience as one of sexual assault. More generally I think this story reveals the complexity of sexual vulnerability, abuse and rape in the Holocaust in that at a certain point Fénelon forgets Clara’s identity as ‘victim’ and recasts her as a ‘perpetrator’ and in so doing, makes the sexual exploitation of Clara a footnote to the dehumanising effects of their situation. In order to rehumanise her (and many other victims of the Holocaust) we must therefore acknowledge and recognise the way in which sexual vulnerability is accentuated by and essential to genocide.

 

 



[1] This is not a criticism of their research but an acknowledgment of the research required. See Myrna Goldenberg, “Different Horrors, Same Hell: Women Remembering the Holocaust”, in Roger Gottlieb (ed.), Thinking the Unthinkable: Meanings of the Holocaust, (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), pp.150-166; Joan Ringelheim, “Women and the Holocaust: A Reconsideration of Research”, in Signs: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 10, no. 4, (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1984-1985), pp. 741-761. Other examples of this sort of scholarship include Judith Tydor Baumel, Double Jeopardy: Gender and the Holocaust, (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1998). Renate Bridenthal et al., (eds.) When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984); Anna Hardman, Women and Holocaust, (U.K: Holocaust Educational Trust Papers, 1999–2000); Marlene E. Heinemann, Gender and Destiny: Women Writers and the Holocaust, (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986); Sara R. Horowitz, “Memory and Testimony of Women Survivors of Nazi Genocide” in Judith R. Baskin (ed.), Women of the Word: Jewish Women and Jewish Writing, (Detroit: Wayne University Press, 1994), pp.258-282.

[2] Lucille Eichengreen with Harriet Hyman Chamberlain, From Ashes to Life: My Memories of the Holocaust, (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1994); Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, translated from the French by Judith Landry, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997, 1976); Judith Magyar Isaacson, Seed of Sarah: Memoirs of a Survivor, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Illinois  Press, 1991); Wieslaw Kielar, Anus Mundi: Five Years in Auschwitz, translated from the German by Susanne Flatauer, (London: Penguin Books, 1982 [1972]); Thaddeus Stabholz, Seven Hells, translated from the Polish by Jacques Grunblatt & Hilda R. Grunblatt, (New York: Holocaust Library, 1990)

[3] Much of this research has grown in relation to the wars in the former Yugoslavia. See: Beverly Allen, Rape Warfare: The Hidden Genocide in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Croatia (Minnesota: The University of Minnesota Press, 1986); Alexandra Stiglmayer, Mass Rape: The War against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina (Bison Books, 1984); Anne Llewellyn Barstow, War’s Dirty Secret: Rape, Prostitution, and Other Crimes against Women (Ohio: The Cleveland Press, 2000).

[4] Anna Hardman, Women and Holocaust, (U.K: Holocaust Educational Trust Papers, 1999–2000), p. [check notes]

[5] Myrna Goldenberg, “Rape and the Holocaust”, paper presented at Legacies of the Holocaust: Women and the Holocaust Conference, (Krakow, Poland: May 2005)

[6] Mary Berg, Warsaw Ghetto: A Diary, (New York: LB Fischer, 1945); Trudi Birger with Jeffrey M. Green, A Daughter’s Gift of Love: A Holocaust Memoir, (The Jewish Publication Society: Philadelphia, 1992); Lucille Eichengreen with Harriet Hyman Chamberlain, From Ashes to Life: My Memories of the Holocaust, (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1994); Hedi Fried, The Road to Auschwitz: Fragments of a Life, edited and translated from the Swedish by Michael Meyer, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990); Gisella Perl, I was a Doctor in Auschwitz, (New Hampshire: Ayer Co., 1992, 1948).

[7] Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, Inherit the Truth 1939-1945: The Documented Experiences of a Survivor of Auschwitz and Belsen, (London: Giles de la Mare Pub., 1996)

[8] For an excellent discussion of this debate see Anna Hardman, Women and the Holocaust, (U.K.: Holocaust Educational Trust Research Papers, 1999 – 2000), pp. 20-27.

[9] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p.12

[10] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p.18

[11] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p.18

[12] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p.66: Jenny to Clara

[13] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p.105-106

[14] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p. 15

[15] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p. 15

[16] This post facto reconstruction of Clara may of course speak volumes about the nature of memory and memoir.

Family Annihilators: The Murder of Luke Batty and the Reality of Domestic Violence

This was first published at Ending Victimisation and Blame: Everyday Victim Blaming on 5.2.14.

Luke Batty was brutally murdered with a cricket bat by his father Greg Anderson in a cricket ground in the presence of his mother.

Greg Anderson was then shot by a police officer in what was apparently a “suicide by cop”.

For 3 days, the media has been reporting Anderson’s poor mental health and writing sympathetic articles about how we must empathise with Anderson for feeling upset at being denied contact with his son. Excuses were made as were demands for empathy with Anderson.

Yet, the evidence of Anderson’s history of domestic violence has been clear from the start. There is also no evidence of a formal diagnosis of mental illness. This line appears to have come from a quote from Luke’s mother Rosie Batty and has been picked up as fact by the media. As far as I have been able to ascertain Anderson had no formal diagnosis of mental illness which has been released to the media although he was homeless for many years; people who are homeless are statistically much more likely to have mental illnesses and ones which remain undiagnosed and untreated than the general population.

We know now that Anderson had been questioned by the police in January for assault and let go despite 5 outstanding arrest warrants. We know that Anderson had multiple interactions with various agencies because of his history of violent behaviour. We know he was only allowed contact with his son in public places because of his violent behaviour. We know that Rosie Batty had an AVO against him because of his violent behaviour. We also know that the murder was premeditated since Anderson took a knife to the cricket pitch.

Despite this, the media have been writing about how much Anderson “loved his son” and that it wasn’t known why Anderson “snapped”.

Anderson took a knife to his son’s cricket practise. He had a history of domestic violence. These are not the actions of a man who loved his son. They are the actions of a violent, controlling man.

As it stands, we do not know the exact nature of Anderson’s health but we do know that men who murder their children very rarely have mental illnesses and that people with mental illness are far more likely to harm themselves than to harm anyone else. This is one of the biggest myths about mental health: that those who have clinical diagnoses are violent.

Men who kill their children, themselves and/or (ex-)partners are referred to as family annihilators. These men have one thing in common: a history of domestic violence.They are controlling men who choose to harm their children and former partners to punish them. If Anderson did suffer from mental health problems, then he is an anomaly rather than representative of men who murder their families.

We need to contextualise the brutal murder of Luke within a pattern of male violence. It is not an isolated event nor is it one which could not have been predicted. Domestic violence does not happen in a vacuum. In the UK, two women a week are murdered by violent partners. 1 in 3 women in the world will experience domestic and/ or sexual violence. Children and women experience violence in the home on a daily basis.

Domestic violence costs the world economy billions every year yet we continue to pretend that family annihilators are “isolated events” and “tragic incidents”. The truth is the opposite: domestic violence is an everyday occurrence for many women and children.

We need to start addressing the issue of domestic violence properly. We need to stop pretending that domestic violence is an isolated, non-gendered crime. Men are the vast majority of perpetrators of domestic violence. These men do not have mental illnesses. They make the choice to be abusive.

I am waiting for the results from an official inquest into the murder of Luke because I do not trust the media to report accurately about the mental health of Anderson. The media is complicit in perpetuating male violence through inaccurate reporting and victim blaming. If it turns out that Anderson did suffer from mental illness that went untreated, then the agencies involved with him will need to be held accountable for their failures. If Anderson was not mentally ill and was a family annihilator, then the media needs to be held accountable for perpetuating damaging myths about mental illness and myths about male violence.

We need to the media to stop writing articles which make excuses for violent men. We need them to follow the guidelines set out by the National Union of Journalists on how to report domestic and sexual violence appropriately. We need the media to take responsibility for perpetuating the myths on domestic and sexual violence.

We need to prevent more children being murdered at the hands of their fathers and we can not do this without being clear what caused their death.

 

Update : Anderson had brought a knife with him to the cricket ground and threatened an officer with it which is what lead to his death by shooting. Reports now suggest that he also used the knife to harm Luke. Arriving with a knife suggests premeditation.

Five Wounds by @KatharineEdgar

I have had the absolute pleasure of reading various drafts of this book over the past two years. I started the first draft one evening and spent the following day half-asleep. The worst thing you can do when you have fibromyalgia is stay up late reading a book, but I simply couldn’t put it down as it melds all my favourite parts of literature: a brilliant, capable and feministy teenage heroine and historical accuracy.

5 Wounds is the comingof-age story of 15 year old Nan – a fiercely independent and headstrong young girl whose life changes drastically during a period of revolution and rebellion. Nan was sent sent to live in convent school following an unfortunate incident as a young child. This afforded her a level of freedom and education that many young girls of her class would never have experienced.

However, this is 1536 and the schism between Rome and Henry VIII has changed everything. Nan’s dreams of remaining in the convent and becoming a great Abbess are destroyed after Henry’s troops close the convent. Instead, Nan was bartered as a commodity and betrothed, rather unwillingly, to the much older and frequently married Lord Middleham. Nan’s father gains more land from this betrothal and Lord Middle ham a wife younger than his children. Nan’s Catholic faith, nurtured during her years living in a convent leads to her involvement in the Northern rebellion against Henry VIII during the Pilgrimage of Grace. Nan is forced to choose between her faith and her personal safety. Does she chose treason or eternal damnation?

The true strengths of Edgar’s writing are the character of Nan and the accuracy of the historical context of the Pilgrimage of Grace. Nan is alternately naive and brave, and her flawed choices reflect her optimism, faith and failure to understand the full consequences of rebellion. She is equally a child and an adult – limited by the constraints of her gender but freed by her desire to change the world.

Edgar’s love of history and the breadth of her research only adds to brilliance of the story. 5 Wounds precipitated one of my favourite historical discussion The Great Whether-Or-Not Noble Women Learned to Ride Normally Debate. I voted yes on the theory that noble daughters were valuable commodities and no sensible father would allow an expensive piece of property to remain incapable of escape from the numerous wars/ tantrums and general violence that defines European history.

I loved 5 Wounds. It was fast-paced, exciting and utterly brilliant. I can’t recommend it enough!

You can buy 5 Wounds from Amazon now.

Esther Freud’s Lucky Break

I have to admit here that I never heard of Esther Freud before getting a freecopy of this book from the Mumsnet [non-feminist] fiction book club. I have vague recollections of thinking that I might enjoy watching a Kate Winslet movie called Hideous Kinky but I don’t think I ever got around to actually watching it.

Clearly, this was a massive over-sight on my part since Lucky Break is fucking brilliant [and that’s not just because I’m still cranky about wasting my time reading the misogynist wankfest which was Paula McLean’s The Paris Wife last month]. It is well-written, funny, engaging with a host of characters that you might actually want to be friends with – as well as some men that should immediately put on the list of undateable wankers.Loved the fact that she left the ending open so I could choose their futures. It’s the only disappointing bit of Kris Radish’s The Elegant Gathering of White Snows. The epilogue was unnecessary and ruined my fun of deciding the happiness of the characters. I like the fact that Freud leaves us with an ending which isn’t really an ending. I like being able to believe that Jemma dumps the useless selfish narcissist Dan and waltzes off into her own successful career as a screen writer and actress with 4 children under ten in tow whilst he gets stuck playing a chicken in really bad ads which only air at 4 in the morning. Or, that Nell is actually the successful and incredible actress she deserves to be and finds a real partner and not the usual arsehat that successful actresses end up with in real life. I also hope she waltzes back to the “drama school” she attended and gets to make fun of the directors there who didn’t recognize the real talent when it was in front of them. I like the fact that I can believe that Charlie is finally happy with who she is instead of what she thinks should make her happy.
So, this is obviously an outstanding recommendation since it does deal with the issue of the “casting couch”; that lovely euphemism for the sexual exploitation of women within the industry and the total failure of the industry to take that exploitation seriously. It deals with being invisible for not being a “proper woman” and reading this in conjunction with Sheila Jeffries’ Beauty and Misogyny for FeMNist non-fiction book club this month was a real pleasure. They meshed so well with Freud demonstrating some of those very real harmful cultural practices outlined by Jeffries [and the suggestion of using spanx as rain gear is just genius].