In an extract from her recent book Lean Out, Dawn Foster explores the limits of self-proclaimed feminist Theresa May’s solidarity with women.
The notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre was opened in 2001, under the last Labour government, and management was outsourced to private company Serco in 2007. Poor conditions in the centre and protests against the 400-capacity facility have intensified in recent years, coming to a head in 2015. Reports of sexual abuse and mistreatment in the compound became increasingly common, and self-harm was rife among the women, who comprised of failed asylum seekers awaiting deportation, imprisoned despite committing no crime. A Channel 4 investigation obtained footage of the systemic mistreatment of women detained in the centre, included a guard shouting “Headbutt the bitch. I’d beat her up.”
Rashida Manjoo, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on violence against women, was barred from Yarl’s Wood by the Home Office in April 2014 when she tried to investigate complaints as part of her fact-finding mission into violence against women in the UK. Cameras have never been allowed in. In April 2015, in the same week as a woman died in Yarl’s Wood and a guard with a history of sexually inappropriate behaviour was￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼ suspended pending investigation for a revenge assault, Cristel Amiss, of the Black Women’s Rape Action Project, told The Guardian: “We’ve been supporting women in Yarl’s Wood for over a decade and have heard consistent reports from brave whistleblowers exposing abusive treatment and sexually predatory behaviour by guards.”
After the Channel 4 investigation, Theresa May refused to come to the House of Commons to answer an urgent question from the Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, on the treatment of detainees, called amongst other abusive names “black bitch”, “animals”, “beasties”, and “evil”. Cooper said, “There is no point in ministers pretending to be shocked at news of abuse. This is not news. Even now, the ministers have not set up an independent inquiry. This is state-sanctioned abuse of women on the Home Secretary’s watch and it needs to end now.”
Despite May’s assertions that she believes in women’s empowerment, there is a distinct limit to her solidarity, which depends on how your race, country of birth, and economic wealth intersect. As Home Secretary, May is in a position rarely occupied by women, and rarely occupied by anyone for so long. Home Secretaries tend to be hit by scandals and forced to resign with wearying regularity. But whilst in office, May has overseen some of the most draconian immigration legislation for decades, defending immigration detention, renewing contracts with Serco despite sexual violence reports, and introducing rules that mean low income families are split up and British people split up from their partners and children if they don’t earn over a soon-to-be-raised income threshold.
May sits in a cabinet with many other powerful women, especially after criticism of Cameron’s disproportionately male and Etonian cabinet refused to die down until a reshuffle. The policies that trickle down from that cabinet harm women disproportionately. Despite launching a campaign titled “Theresa May for Equal Pay” in 2008, May has endorsed an austerity regime ￼￼￼￼that saw the gender pay-gap increase, and been a stalwart of a government that introduced cuts that affected four times as many women as men.
Meanwhile, there is a burgeoning crisis in the women’s sector: provision of domestic violence services and rape crisis centres and helplines has been reduced due to austerity cuts. Headline figures on cuts to UK domestic violence services often mask the full impact of government cuts on people fleeing abuse at home. Women across the UK have been hardest hit by austerity and attendant spending cuts. Charities in the sector speak out about the problems they’re seeing: Women’s Aid has warned that services are “at breaking point”, with a third of women turned away from refuges due to lack of space, and the total number of refuges falling from 187 to 155 between 2010 and 2014. But for many of the women escaping violence, moving to a refuge is only the first step on the journey to safe, independent living.
The housing crisis, especially in the south east and London, is one of the biggest factors affecting women trying to move on. Most women spend between six to nine months in refuges, where they’re assigned a support worker who offers counselling, signposts services and advocates for the women, helping them build independent living skills, and getting them into education and training. The move to independence after surviving violence is crucial, as without support and safeguards put in place, the risk of returning home to violence and abuse is heightened.
At one refuge in London last year, run by the charity Hestia, the service manager Louise Dickerson told me: “It’s really difficult in the climate now. Because social housing is pretty much abolished, local authorities discharge their duty through private rented accommodation now most often, which is maybe on a yearly license or tenancy.” Housing waiting lists in the UK’s local councils, who have a legal duty to help homeless and vulnerable people, are at an all-time high. With so much pressure on counc￼￼￼￼￼ils, domestic violence survivors can struggle to convince council employees they are a priority. Women have even spoken of being disbelieved when they disclose their need to flee because of violence. Moving to privately rented flats means the women and families are offered less security and are liable for far higher rents: most private housing offers tenancy agreements of no longer than a year, and Hestia report more women are being asked to have a financial guarantor, who agrees to be financially liable for rent arrears. For women fleeing violence, who’ve often cut all ties to their wider family and friendship groups, this is an impossibility and an insult after their ordeal.
Even when women do find a home to move on to, the cuts mean they face even more hardship. In the raft of public-spending cuts in the last few years, many of the financial assistance schemes councils offered have been slashed. The crisis loan fund, which provided a total of £180m in hardship loans to people in extreme financial need, has now been scrapped. Economic control is a commonly used tool of domestic violence perpetrators when preventing women from leaving: removing financial help for such vulnerable women and children puts lives at risk. This money was previously a lifeline for people in extreme distress and very vulnerable situations, and losing it puts even more pressure on domestic violence services. As Dickerson explains:
They’ve taken away the crisis loan, and women relied on that for resettlement. So women will leave without a mattress to sleep on, and some of them have young families. One woman was self-harming recently, living in a shelter that was not homely. It’s very challenging for our workers. We work really hard just to make sure the women can survive.
Other lifelines of financial support are also being slowly eroded. The Discretionary Housing Payment funding, which provide payments of up to a year for people facing difficulty paying their accommodation costs, is to be slashed by 24% from 2015.
In a speech to Women’s Aid’s annual conference in 2010 in the early days of the coalition, May told the audience that both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats would reverse the decline in rape crisis centres, but tentatively refused to make any funding commitments to the women’s sector in the face of looming local authority cuts. “Your problem is my problem”, May said, adding, “Success for us will not mean we’ve spent more of the money we don’t have. It will mean more women have been helped, more abusers have been brought to justice and more attitudes have been changed.”
It’s not precisely clear how May and the government expect rape crisis centres to continue to provide an identical service with less money, which perhaps explains why she is not chancellor, but does little to comfort the women in need who find their service threatened with closure. Violence against women is a problem for all of society, and without accepting that all services must be welcoming and accessible for women fleeing violence and crucially that they must be adequately funded, more women will find their lives in danger.
The benefit of having women in the cabinet remains to be seen for migrant, low-paid, or abused women. For now, it seems as though there is no difference: the powerful look after the powerful, with gender as an afterthought, or a bargaining chip when trying to deflect criticism for cuts that harm women.
“There’s no such thing as the voiceless, only the deliberately silenced and the preferably unheard.”—Arundhati Roy
Post-crash, countless studies have shown that the impact of cuts and austerity has been borne predominately by women. A Fawcett Society study on the impact of cuts doled out by the coalition government in the UK stated that 75% of all cuts hit women. Women with disabilities, black women, working-class women, and single mothers were the hardest hit.
The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission warn that 2010–2020 will be the first decade since records began that sees a rise in absolute poverty in the UK, with the gulf between the rich and poor as irreparable. When the economy tanks, it is predictably women who suffer. The fight for women’s rights is less a long, slow march, and more like a climbing wall: it is possible to climb as well as fall, so vigilance is essential at all times. The clawing back of the welfare state is a direct attack on women’s rights, but boardroom quotas make a tidier headline, based on the assumption that certain rights have already been won.
In reaction to the argument that “there is no alternative” to cuts and austerity, with Labour and the Conservatives in the UK singing from the same hymn sheets, women’s grassroots groups have started to fight back. The Focus E15 campaign grew in Newham in response initially to Newham’s “social cleansing” of the poorest households in the borough, targeting single mothers and forcing them to relocate to cities and towns hundreds of miles away from their children’s schools, families and support networks. In 2013, a group of 29 young single mothers, many of whom were teenagers, were served with eviction notices from their specialist hostel in east London. The Focus E15 foyer provided one-bedroom apartments for the women to live in with their children, or whilst pregnant, after being made homeless, and provided targeted skills training, literacy teaching, and specialist support to help the women back into work or training. Many of the women in the £125-a-week rooms were studying, or in part-time work in the area, and one mother said she was applying for universities in London.
The funding of Supporting People, designed to help vulnerable people live independently, was slashed in England and the foyer said that without funding for specialist support, the hostel would cease to be an appropriate environment for young mothers and children. Newham Council, tasked with rehousing the women, told them they should expect to be placed outside the borough and city. A change to Newham’s housing policy meant working families and people who had served in the armed forces received priority over single mothers like the Focus E15 residents.
Rather than accept their fate, the women took action. Starting from a weekly street stall in Stratford city centre, the women explained their predicament and soon rallied around supporters and other activists. This culminated in September 2014 with an attention-grabbing protest a few minutes’ walk away next to Stratford station. Coinciding with London’s Open House weekend, where iconic and listed buildings are opened to public tours, the Focus E15 campaigners, now comprising the mothers, locals, and seasoned campaigners, broke into two empty flats.
The flats, in the Carpenters Estate, had lain empty for years. Walking around the estate, it was remarkable how many windows were boarded up, so close to the 2012 Olympic site, which had promised regeneration and wealth for a poor area. Members of the Tenant Management Organisation, responsible for managing the site, told me Newham Council had refused to allow them to let properties that became empty if families moved out, slowly turning the red-brick estate into a ghost town.
Once in, the campaigners decorated the properties with toys, soft furnishings, banners and posters and declared their own Open House. Outside, green fabric banners decorated with the slogans “These Homes Need People: These People Need Homes” were unfurled, a simple message underlining the absurdity of the situation the mothers and other homeless families in the borough were faced with. On a sunny Saturday, the flats were thronged with visitors. One room I went into was being used as an impromptu crèche: babies were happily being entertained by two locals in a former bedroom. The living room was a campaign centre, with media phone numbers tacked to the wall, alongside lists of what was needed to make the occupation work.
What was striking about the flats was their state of repair. Curious visitors who popped in after hearing of the occupation via social media and news coverage were genuinely shocked at how immaculate the decor and fittings were. Wandering around, I noticed the wallpaper looked as good as new, and the kitchen was far better than many I had seen in my own rented flats over the years. The TMO said most flats were the same: perfectly liveable, but empty by command of the council. The campaigners pointed out that it would be far easier to move women into these small family homes than ship them miles from their own families, disrupting young children’s lives.
The campaign garnered a huge amount of media and local attention, initially through social media, before being picked up by The Guardian and The Financial Times. In The Guardian, one of the mothers, Jasmin Stone, wrote:
“We wanted to participate in Open House to show how many houses sit empty in London and what an easy solution there is to the housing crisis. This crisis, as it is usually covered in the newspapers, is one experienced by the middle classes, whose steady march from private renting to home ownership has been stopped in its tracks by the hugely inflated market. For members of the working class, however, the crisis is much more virulent. It involves not only the prospect of annual rent increases, the impossibility of home ownership and poor-quality housing, but also removal and displacement from the place in which you were born, leading to isolation in a place where you know nobody and opportunities for jobs are non-existent.”
The campaign, built up over years and still fighting homelessness and gentrification in Newham, meant that a process that usually happens to women silently was brought to public attention. Individually, families facing homelessness, often single mothers because they comprise the lowest-paid and most vulnerable households, are turned away from council housing offices and left to fend for themselves, or placed in unsuitable hostels miles away from their home. Focus E15 challenged this silencing and directly linked it to the rapid development of London due to unsustainably fast house-price growth tempting investors in to make a quick buck. Councils, with slashed budgets from central government, abdicate responsibility to vulnerable residents in lieu of making some quick cash from land sales, in the process (they hope) tempting in more financially flush tenants.
This exact scenario was relayed to me in 2010, when a Newham councillor asked me what I thought the biggest problem facing Newham was (I worked as a student welfare advisor in a university in the Borough). With students, predominantly women, coming in every day complaining about homelessness, poor conditions, or that they were experiencing domes- tic violence but couldn’t afford to move out, I replied that the biggest issue was the need for more social housing. “Oh no”, he said. “That just encourages undesirables.” Instead, they needed to build more new, metropolitan flats, the kind springing up around Stratford Station and the under-development Westfield Shopping Centre. The kind that attracted bankers from nearby Canary Wharf, not the sort of people who lived and worked in Newham already.
But “undesirables” have to live somewhere, and it sticks in the craw of the rich when these “undesirables” live in an area deemed desirable by the wealthy. The New Era estate in Hoxton was bought out in May 2014 by American property develop- ment company Westbrook Partners. Letters sent following the takeover informed the 93 families living on the estate that they faced a four-fold increase in rent. For the majority of the residents, this amounted to an eviction notice: few residents, some who had lived on the estate for as many as 70 years, could afford to pay those sums even if their only outgoing was rent.
Three women took charge of the fight to keep the residents in their homes: Lindsey Garrett, Danielle Molinari and Lynsay Spiteri rallied tenants and got word out about the conditions of the takeover. That the Benyon Estate, the family business of the country’s richest MP, Richard Benyon, had a 10% stake in the estate made it easier to argue their case. The women contacted The Daily Mirror, then other papers, organised a demonstration outside Westbrook Partners’ UK offices, and presented a 300,000-signature petition to Downing St.
After months of work, the campaign had won vocal and public support from politicians across the political divide, including the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and the Mayor of Hackney, the borough the estate resides in. For the investors, the level of attention and the volume of bad publicity made their plans untenable: shortly before Christmas, the Benyon Estate pulled out, quickly followed by Westbrook Partners. The estate was sold to Dolphin Square, a charity that is committed to providing low-cost homes to people on low incomes, and ten- ants were told not to expect rent increases.
Recovering from celebrations, Molinari told the BBC: “They underestimated us three women, but also all the residents on the estate, the community spirit and what Hoxton is all about”. Garrett, currently an NHS worker, is now planning to run for London Mayor in the 2016 elections, and has been elected chair of the New Era Tenants’ Association.
The 3Cosas campaign have campaigned for better rights for cleaners (predominantly women) and fought gender discrimination and unfair dismissal cases when Unite the Union refused to recognise casual staff.
In 2013, the Home Office introduced a billboard van that drove around with the message “Here illegally? GO HOME” with a number listed for undocumented migrants to call. What the government termed the “Immigration Enforcement Campaign” quickly gained a new, more commonly used name: the “racist van”. The glory of social media is that, as with the bedroom tax, you have little control over what people describe campaigns and policies as. Once the general public insists, by virtue of sheer wilful numbers, that they are going to use one term, your more strategic title is binned by most media outlets. One young woman, who writes pseudonymously as “Pukkah Punjabi”, called the number, left a voicemail, then toyed with the Home Office operator who called her back, saying she was just after a lift back to Willesden, as that was her home. Social-media agitators continued to deluge the hotline with similar calls, until the campaign looked less Judge Dredd, more Benny Hill. Southall Black Sisters have campaigned for women for years and again hit the headlines on August 1st 2013, when they were holding a women’s advice centre. Word reached the group of an immigration raid happening close by: the women gathered and drove the van away from their centre, before intercepting and surrounding the vans with supporters and megaphones as they attempted to carry out an immigration raid. “We were all so enraged by it that we emerged from our building and followed the vehicles around Southall
shouting ‘this is racist’,” Southall Black Sisters wrote on their site. “Many of the women have escaped domestic violence and have felt trapped by their immigration status to stay in abusive marriages.” Other groups have also worked to stop raids, notably the Anti-Raids Network, and often local communities act organically to attempt to stop raids, such as in south London in June 2015, when a UKBA van was surrounded, rocked, and had its tyres slashed by locals outraged at the attack on their community and neighbours.
These groups have secured victories and publicity, not by leaning in, behaving and striving individually, but by adopting very specific strategies. Direct action is key to each movement: while petitions and lobbying of local and national politicians have complemented each campaign, it is direct action that has put the cat amongst the pigeons, and allowed the women to fully expose the horror and unfairness of the causes they are highlighting and fighting for. If housing is your issue, why not occupy empty homes to show the claim there is nowhere for vulnerable women to go is a lie? If your community is being raided and your neighbours are being bundled into a van for deportation by state thugs, why let the UK Border Agency do so quietly? Show the world what is going on every day under their noses.
Social media has been a huge force in both mobilising and publicising campaigns and injustices. While a lot has been said about the abuse prominent women receive on the internet, the ability to get online and connect with potentially millions of people who would care about your cause if they heard about it is revolutionary. For women, the democratising potential of social media networks has helped bring attention to campaigns and causes that previously would have buckled without press attention. People speaking in real time, and consistently shar- ing information, has sustained and bolstered many campaigns. Politicians are still wary of social media: some have lost jobs over unwise outbursts, but there’s also a fear of the unpredict- able networks revealing actions (such as in Newham) that tradi- tionally would have passed without outside notice or comment.
Mutual support and solidarity between neighbours and networks have been integral to many of these campaigns. Housing activists in different boroughs in London regularly disseminate email call-outs for more bodies and supplies for ongoing occupations around the capital. Actions against the UK Border Agency’s immigration raids are only made possible by communities fighting back and refusing to see someone who lives or works alongside them dragged into a van only to disappear once deported. Again, social media allows bedroom-tax campaigners to discuss tactics and loopholes nationally and provide emotional support throughout fights to keep their home.
Media attention is still integral to a successful campaign, but has changed tack in recent years. Social media now drives much news —I’ve sat in many commissioning meetings where editors have been unenthused by a story, but journalists have pointed out it’s all anyone is really discussing on social media, so choosing not to cover it looks politically motivated. A successful campaign thereby forces coverage, and coverage is the final stage in cementing victory. Politicians and forces will push not to recog- nise campaigns even when they’re attracting mass attention, but the esteem for traditional media is still far higher, and often once newspapers or TV channels get involved, victory is not far away, as the New Era Estate campaign showed.
Sisters Uncut, Southall Black Sisters, and the bulk of housing and bedroom-tax campaigners are now women, and usually working-class women, often on benefits. They are at the van- guard of anti-austerity campaigning, refusing to accept the cuts that affect women disproportionately. While austerity may be temporary (though the Conservatives and Labour seem happy to accept that it is now ideologically permanent), the effect of austerity on women and children lasts a lifetime.
In her book on class and music culture in the Nineties, Clampdown, Rhian E Jones notes that class is an endemic problem in contemporary feminism:
In mainstream politics and media, there remains a tendency for working-class women themselves to appear in feminist discourse as objects to be seen rather than heard, expected to rely on middle-class activists to articulate demands in their behalf but considered too inarticulate or otherwise “rough” to be directly engaged with.
Will that change? Who knows. But the drive towards direct action by many groups run by women should be recognised as a constructive feminist movement, and will be by anyone sensible who recognises that gender is but one part of oppression.
By occupying, withdrawing labour, and refusing to be complicit in the state’s violence against the most vulnerable in society, they show that “leaning out” of the capitalist model is far more effective at securing attention, provoking change, and ensuring demands are met than “leaning in”. Few people ever get anything radical accomplished by continuing to play the game. The women on the frontline of the new feminist campaigning accept that capitalism and the political and power elites are no friend of women, and that to have a stab at a life that can support you and your children, the answer isn’t to internalise the hatred society casts your way, but to fight to reveal injustice and refuse to participate.
Lean Out is out now, available from all good bookshops & online.
We’re cross-posting (with permission) this great piece by desiredxthings on the demise of Page 3 — T.S.
A FEW THOUGHTS ON THE DEMISE OF PAGE 3
Well, the tits are gone and now all of our lives are meaningless. Wherever will feminism go now the patriarchy is crushed?
The No More Page 3 campaign has been a mess from the beginning – it was the online milieu of the middle class, white feminists who have been stomping all over minorities for decades. Anti slut-shaming has become trendy, so rather than telling other women not to get their breasts out in the first place, mainstream feminism is dictating how and when to get your breasts out – and evidently getting your breasts out for payment is verboten. But this is okay, of course.
It initially came across as a fairly benign campaign, to keep boobs out of a family paper. We can’t have kiddies staring at norks, can we? But… to try and position The Sun as a family newspaper, a main argument of NMP3, is laughable. If you want your children to have access to misogyny, homophobia, racism, antagonism towards those on state welfare, ableism, xenophobia, whorephobia and a whole host of other oppressive bullshit, that’s your own bad parenting; but don’t call it a family newspaper.
Let’s get this straight, I don’t really care about the titillation of men and I’m not even going to trouble myself analysing this as a free speech issue – those aren’t what I’m concerned about. I’m concerned as a sex-worker in a time where the well-funded face of feminism sees us, at best, as an inconvenience on the journey to the gender equal utopia and, at worst, despicable gender traitors. No More Page 3 has tried to deny claims that they are opposed to sex workers or nudity; that’s all well and good, but why does what they do completely counteract that? Their claim is that other glamour modelling opportunities exist; but they either fail to grasp or completely ignore the importance of page 3 to a glamour model. The Sun is the most popular publication in the country and high circulation means higher exposure. One photo in The Sun can lead to countless other opportunities. NMP3 have removed a stepping stone for many glamour models (many of which do not have agents and have to navigate the industry alone) and hacked away at a career route.