Here, in a nutshell, is the problem with feminism. Young women ‘of good character’ losing their heads and wishing they hadn’t. You feel so sorry for them, but can’t you sense what they tasted in the air as they were doing it: freedom, fury, the power – for once – of being young and strong and agile and a homegirl, the flat-out joy of getting your hands on some free stuff. ‘This is the best day ever,’ Chelsea said, while looting the T-Mobile store. ‘Trainers, clothes, mobiles, iPods, Macs – possession of these things is tantamount to human rights,’ a writer called Charmaine Elliot posted on Blackfeminists.blog, remembering her own youth in London. ‘I took a trip to Selfridges one afternoon to visit a friend and was struck by advertising slogans that said, à la Barbara Kruger, I shop, therefore I am. And I couldn’t help but wonder that as I couldn’t actually shop, ergo what?’
At the UK Feminista summer school in Birmingham meanwhile, Emily Birkenshaw, 24, a teaching assistant from York, was learning how to ‘go floppy’ when arrested. ‘You’re heavier then, so you can’t be carried,’ she told the Observer. ‘It just felt really empowering.’ UK Feminista was launched last year by 29-year-old Kat Banyard, whose first book, The Equality Illusion, came out at much the same time. ‘The event is set to harness the recent upsurge in interest in this previously unfashionable social movement,’ a press release for the summer school said. In June UK Feminista had joined forces with Object (the stress goes on the second syllable, ‘I ob-ject’), another newish bright-young-feminists organisation, to campaign against the recent opening of a Playboy nightclub in London. ‘Eff off Heff, stop degrading women!’ protesters chanted. ‘No more sexist men, Playboy empire has to end!’
Look at them on YouTube, having their genteel shout and waving their Ban the Bunny placards: ‘Ob-ject, women not sex objects.’ ‘That’s not what empowerment looks like/This is what empowerment looks like!’ Idealistic, well organised, compassionate and let-them-eat-cakey, these young women have no place on their neat clipboards for disturbance, unintended consequences, humour or even humility when faced with the pressures and precariousness of most people’s lives.
More from YouTube, late September. Object and UK Feminista have been busy, dressing up in white overalls with red ink on their faces, waving cleavers outside the XBiz pornography trade show in Bloomsbury: ‘Just a bunch of pimps and butchers/ Who trade in women’s lives!’ A small bearded man shouts at them bitterly, an XBiz ID card round his neck, a bottle of Stella in his hand. ‘You’re a bunch of whores!’ he snarls. ‘I’m gonna fuck you all up the arse!’
‘Pornography today is increasingly violent, body-punishing, degrading and woman-hating,’ it says on Object’s press release, which is both true and completely beside the point. It’s a free-market economy out there, so of course there’s going to be violent pornography as long as there are people fucked up enough to want it. And of course there are people prepared to make it for them. The American writer Laura Kipnis warns against getting ‘teary-eyed about exploited pornography workers’ when you ‘haven’t thought much about international garment workers, or poultry workers – to name just two’. Which is funny, because the girls from UK Feminista were wearing the hats you wear to gut chickens and pull their claws off. It’s even funnier if you remember that two of porn’s most successful crossover stars both front animal-rights projects that attack the poultry industry in particular: the Playboy model and actress Pamela Anderson (Baywatch, Borat) and the hardcore queen Jenna Jameson, for Peta’s Kentucky Fried Cruelty and McCruelty (I’m hatin’ it) campaigns.
Chicken pieces, iPods, A-level burb girls with jobs in Selfridges, unable to buy any of the stuff they sell: how often if ever are such things addressed by Object and UK Feminista? How important is being female to a young woman’s everyday life and future prospects, compared to being born in the 1990s, or being Somalian, or good-looking, or receiving EMA, or going to Oxbridge, or not getting a single GCSE? ‘To put it schematically: “women” is historically, discursively constructed, and always relative to other categories which themselves change.’ Thus the British poet-philosopher Denise Riley in Am I That Name? (1988), her short, playful, brilliant study of the many ways in which fixed identities never work. ‘That “women” is indeterminate and impossible … is what makes feminism,’ Riley concluded, so long as feminists are willing ‘to develop a speed, foxiness, versatility’. Can the members of Object and UK Feminista welcome such transformations, or is this what they are afraid of: that if they let themselves really look at the world around them, feminism as they think they know and need it might completely disappear?‘Enough ink has been spilled in quarrelling over feminism … perhaps we should say no more about it’: Simone de Beauvoir, at the very beginning of The Second Sex (1949). ‘The subject is irritating, especially to women.’ Long before they were shouting ‘Ban the Bunny’ and dressing up as butchers, feminists were annoying people, not just misogynists and sexists, but the very people you’d think would like them best. It was true in suffragette days, as it was during Women’s Liberation in the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s very much a problem for what boosters have been calling ‘the third wave’ since the early 1990s. We know the angry squiggles that signify this irritation – the hairy-legged Millie Tant man-hater, Mrs Banks in the Disney Mary Poppins, a suffragette too busy to care for her children. And it’s obvious how useful such stereotypes have been in neutralising the threat felt in the wider culture. But these caricatures obscure a real problem: a confusion between self and other, identity and difference, that you might charitably view as an unfortunate side-effect of being of and for and by women, all at once; or, less charitably, as narcissistic self-absorption.
It’s true that women, as a gender, have been systemically disadvantaged through history, but they aren’t the only ones: economic exploitation is also systemic and coercive, and so is race. And feminists need to engage with all of this, with class and race, land enclosure and industrialisation, colonialism and the slave trade, if only out of solidarity with the less privileged sisters. And yet, the strange thing is how often they haven’t: Elizabeth Cady Stanton opposed votes for freedmen; Betty Friedan made the epoch-defining suggestion that middle-class American women should dump the housework on ‘full-time help’. There are so many examples of this sort that it would be funny if it weren’t such a waste…
December 11, 2011
December 11, 2011
TWENTY years to the month since the Soviet Union fell apart, crowds of angry young people have taken to the streets of Moscow, protesting against the ruling United Russia Party (“the party of crooks and thieves”) and chanting “Russia without Putin!” Hundreds have been detained, and the army has been brought into the centre of Moscow “to provide security”. Although the numbers are a far cry from the half-million who thronged the streets to bury the USSR, these were the biggest protests in recent years. The immediate trigger for this crisis was the rigging of the parliamentary elections on December 4th (see article). But the causes lie far deeper.
The ruling regime started to lose its legitimacy just as Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, declared a final victory for “stability”, promised to return to the Kremlin as president and pledged to rebuild a Eurasian Union with former Soviet republics. The Soviet flavour of all this had been underscored at United Russia’s party congress at the end of November, where Mr Putin was nominated for the presidency. “We need a strong, brave and able leader …And we have such a man: it is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin,” enthused a film director. A steelworker told the congress how Mr Putin had “lifted our factory from its knees” and supported it “with his wise advice”. A single mother with 19 children thanked Mr Putin for a “bright future”.
Such parallels with the now idealised late Soviet era were supposed to be one of Mr Putin’s selling points. No tiresome political debate, fairly broad personal freedoms, shops full of food: wasn’t that what people wanted? Instead, unthinkably, Mr Putin has been booed: first by an audience at a martial-arts event on November 20th, then at many polling stations, and now on the streets. The Soviet rhetoric conjured an anti-Soviet response.
According to Lev Gudkov of the Levada Centre, an independent polling-research organisation, this reaction against the monopolistic, corrupt and authoritarian regime is itself part of a Soviet legacy. It is driven by the lack of alternatives rather than a common vision for change. For Russia is still a hybrid state. It is smaller, more consumerist and less collective than the Soviet Union. But while the ideology has gone, the mechanism for sustaining political power remains. Key institutions, including courts, police and security services, television and education, are used by bureaucrats to maintain their own power and wealth. The presidential administration, an unelected body, still occupies the building (and place) of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.
More important, the Soviet mental software has proved much more durable than the ideology itself. When, in 1989, a group of sociologists led by Yuri Levada began to study what they called Soviet Man, an artificial construct of doublethink, paternalism, suspicion and isolationism, they thought he was vanishing. Over the next 20 years they realised that Homo sovieticus had mutated and reproduced, acquiring, along the way, new characteristics such as cynicism and aggression. This is not some genetic legacy, but the result of institutional restrictions and the skewed economic and moral stimuli propagated by the Kremlin.
This mental software was not a generational feature, as the Levada group at first suspected. The elections were rigged in Moscow not only by middle-aged people with Soviet memories, but by thousands of pro-Kremlin younger folk gathered from across the country and dispatched to cast multiple ballots around the city. Symbolically, they made their camp in an empty pavilion of the Stalinist Exhibition of People’s Achievements. Most of them had no memories of the Soviet Union; they were born after it had ceased to exist.
Yet the election results also revealed the reluctance of a large part of Russian society to carry on with the present system. Thousands of indignant men and women, young and old, tried to stop the fraud and protect their rights. One election monitor, who was thrown out of the polling station, wrote in his blog that “I thought I would die of shame…I did not manage to save your votes…forgive me.” Such voices may still be a minority, but the clash between these two groups was essentially a clash of civilisations—and a sign that the process of dismantling the Soviet system, which started 20 years ago, is far from over.
A moral vacuum
When the Communist regime collapsed in 1991 there was an expectation, both in the West and in Russia, that the country would embrace Western values and join the civilised world. It took no account of a ruined economy, depleted and exhausted human capital and the mental and moral dent made by 70 years of Soviet rule. Nobody knew what kind of country would succeed the Soviet Union, or what being Russian really meant. The removal of ideological and geographical constraints did not add moral clarity.
In particular, the intelligentsia—the engine of Soviet collapse—was caught unprepared. When their “hopeless cause” became reality, it quickly transpired that the country lacked a responsible elite able and willing to create new institutions. The Soviet past and its institutions were never properly examined; instead, everything Soviet became a subject of ridicule. The very word “Soviet” was shortened to sovok, which in Russian means “dustpan”. In fact, says Mr Gudkov of Levada, this self-mockery was not a reasoned rejection of the Soviet system; it was playful and flippant. Sidelined by years of state paternalism and excluded from politics, most people did not want to take responsibility for the country’s affairs.
The flippancy ended when the government abolished price regulation, revealing the worthlessness of Soviet savings, and Boris Yeltsin, faced with an armed rebellion, fired on the Soviet parliament in 1993. Soon the hope of a miracle was replaced by disillusion and nostalgia. As Mr Levada’s polling showed, it did not mean that most people wished to return to the Soviet past. But they longed for order and stability, which they associated with the army and security services rather than with politicians…
December 11, 2011
IT IS A SUNNY July morning in a Kitchener-Waterloo courtroom, a bright space reminiscent of a non-denominational church. I am the only spectator, sitting at the edge of the front-row pew. A door opens, and two armed guards escort in a young woman, her small hands tightly bound and crossed at the wrist by plastic cuffs that pinch her skin. Her legs are shackled, so her gait is odd, slow. When she arrives at the prisoner’s box, her chains are padlocked to the floor. The guards position themselves tight to either side of the box.
The woman is dressed in white A-line pants and a long-sleeved white blouse over what appears to be an orange tank top. She looks like a young nurse. The room is cold; she fidgets, rubs her wrists, takes in her surroundings, glances briefly at me. We’ve spoken but never met. She is slim, fine boned, and taller than I had imagined, with a straight back and a heart-shaped, solemn face and bright brown eyes. She is very beautiful.
Her name is Renée Acoby, and she is considered by the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) to be one of the country’s most violent women. She rarely goes anywhere without her legs shackled, her hands cuffed, and between two and five armed guards beside her. She is in this sunny courtroom because the attorney general of Ontario has agreed to an application to have her classified as a dangerous offender, following a series of hostage takings at several different jails, particularly a 2005 incident at the nearby Grand Valley Institution for Women.
Born in 1979 in Manitoba, Acoby went to prison in 2000 on charges including trafficking in a scheduled substance and assault with a weapon. Her sentence was three and a half years. Since then, she has accumulated an additional eighteen years of time for offences committed within the corrections system, putting her in the tenth year of a twenty-one-and-a-half-year sentence. She has never been paroled, nor even applied for parole. The only time she leaves the segregation unit of one of the numerous Canadian prisons in which she has been incarcerated is for court appearances like this one.
On the phone with me, Acoby has revealed a mercurial disposition and a sweet, light voice and laugh. She has another voice, too, which I’ve never heard. I’ve heard her speak in desperation but not in anger. She admits to a volatile temper, though, and says she is “pigheaded.” She has spoken to me of having been “blinded by rage” in the past.
The judge takes note of her obvious discomfort and indignation in the prisoner’s box, and remarks that she need not be handcuffed. The prosecutor and the police officers hastily intervene. She could grab a weapon; she could grab a pen and turn that into a weapon. “She has a history of using improvised weapons,” one of them says. The judge orders that ordinary handcuffs be brought in instead. Eventually, they are.
Only two women have ever been labelled dangerous offenders in Canada. The first, Marlene Moore, committed suicide in the Prison for Women in Kingston in 1988. The second, Lisa Neve, had her sentence overturned in 1999. For Acoby, classification as a dangerous offender would mean an “indeterminate” sentence, and life on parole were she ever released. The fundamental questions being asked in her hearing are deceptively simple: Is this inmate likely to reoffend? And if released, could she control her violent tendencies?
These are difficult questions, in part because most of Acoby’s criminal history has unfolded deep within the country’s corrections system. She has lived almost entirely in solitary confinement for nearly six years, spending twenty-three hours each day alone in her cell. In 2004, she became one of the first to be placed on CSC’s Management Protocol, a special category of punishment designed for women prisoners who have been involved in a major incident causing serious harm or threat while in the system. This anodyne-sounding regime consists broadly of a three-step program of segregation, partial reintegration, and, finally, transition to a regular maximum-security cell for at least three months. Offenders must earn their way from phases one through three and then off the Protocol, largely by avoiding aggressive behaviour. Most fail to do so — too many snakes, not enough ladders.
As of fall 2009, Acoby was one of four women covered by the Management Protocol. All are aboriginal, from among the almost one-third of women in federal penitentiaries who are of aboriginal descent. Seven women have been on the Protocol since it was created — one was taken off it last fall, perhaps not coincidentally after threatening a Charter challenge.
In his 2008–09 annual report, federal corrections investigator Howard Sapers wrote of the Protocol, “I have very serious concerns about the impact of this form of harsh and punitive confinement on the mental health and emotional well-being of these women. They need intervention and treatment, not deprivation. I think most Canadians would agree that in the 21st century there must be safer and more humane ways for our correctional system to assist a handful of high-needs women offenders.”
But the debate over the Management Protocol comes at a time when Canada’s attitude toward crime and punishment is hardening, with the federal government engineering a hastily designed retrofit of our justice and penal legislation that will affect everything from sentencing to parole to segregation to judicial discretion. A Roadmap to Strengthening Public Safety, the Conservatives’ bible for their populist “transformation” of CSC, is described by academics Michael Jackson and Graham Stewart in their critique A Flawed Compass as “deeply regressive,” based on a vision that will have a “great detrimental impact on the protection of human rights and effective corrections.”
Indeed, the Roadmap never once mentions the human rights of prisoners, and deals only perfunctorily with the issue of segregation, or solitary confinement (a major component of the Management Protocol), which Michael Jackson calls “the litmus test of legitimacy for CSC, because it is the hardest thing to get right.” This superficiality is especially troubling because, in the fall of 2007, while the Roadmap was being finalized, nineteen-year-old inmate Ashley Smith committed suicide in a segregation cell at Grand Valley Institution, witnessed by several corrections staff. Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS) says, “The level of confinement in isolation is so dehumanizing it is a violation of the Charter, security of the person, and international human rights standards.”
Concerns about the human rights of Canada’s women prisoners in turn raise an important practical question: is it possible that the policies and practices of federal institutions for women might actually be helping to create the criminality they’re designed to prevent? In other words, has the system helped to create Renée Acoby?…
December 11, 2011
Young women, the state and public order in Britain, as seen in clippings from the newspapers, August 2011: Natasha Reid, 24, pleaded guilty to stealing a television from a Comet in North London during the riots of 7 August. Her mother said she was ‘baffled’ by her own behaviour – she had a much nicer TV set at home. Shonola Smith, 22, pleaded guilty, along with her sister and a friend, to ‘entering’ Argos in Croydon: ‘The tragedy is that you are all of previous good character,’ the judge said, as he sentenced them to six months each. Chelsea Ives, the 18-year-old ‘shamed former Olympic youth ambassador’ shopped by her mother, pleaded guilty to criminal damage and burglary on the Sunday, and to violent disorder (a Somerfield in Hackney) the following evening. ‘The public seem to automatically place me in an unnamed category for thick, low-life individuals, which is not me at all,’ Chelsea wrote ‘from behind bars’ in a letter intended for the novelist Gillian Slovo, but which the Evening Standard used as an occasion to run her big-hair camera-phone-in-the-mirror Facebook picture yet again. She began a two-year jail sentence this month.
December 11, 2011
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.