Archive for the ‘News’ Category
Five man today appear in court, charged with the rape and murder of a still unnamed medical student on a bus in Delhi at the end of last year. I know I am not alone in continuing to feel haunted by the deep sadism, and even deeper sadnesses, of the Delhi case.. It feels like an act from another moral or temporal world which in many ways it is.
At the same time, there is an uneasy sense of fear and familiarity, particularly as the mother of two independently minded teenage girls, used to monitoring their safety out and about in the streets of one of the world’s largest capitals.
Is mine the luxury of pointless, pampered worry? Not if we trust UK government estimates that an astonishing 80,000 women are raped and 400,000 sexually assaulted in this country every year. And as any parent anywhere knows – particularly at that heart stopping moment in the early hours when a mobile phone signal is temporarily unavailable – the consequences for girls of serious sexual assault is inevitably life changing.
But there is a fine line between what we might call maternal care and patriarchal control, as the Delhi atrocity has only highlighted. There, the political elite initially responded with alarms about ‘dented’ and ‘painted’ women and the risks of an ‘adventurous spirit’ or even, the possession of mobile phones by young women; that is, until a groundswell of anger has forced culture and country to re-examine the true burden of guilt in this and countless other similar cases.
Here, while we pride ourselves on our greater freedom, particularly for women, we talk less of our fears, restrictions or compromises. But our attitudes are often surprisingly similar to that we reject from distant patriarchs or mealy mouthed conformists.
Certainly, our ambiguous response to the dangers that exist for young women has led to a kind of informal policing – in more than one sense. The wealthy can grant their children the much prized freedom of movement through unlimited access to secure taxi services. Meanwhile, the slightly less affluent, offer themselves – frazzled middle aged people, with winter coats pulled over their crumpled pyjamas – as late night drivers of last resort.
But for those who lack material or psychological resources, or who actually believe that girls should not have the same freedom of boys, there is a vast amount of forbidding or covert guilt tripping going on. I have lost count of the stories of parents – particularly mothers – who give their teenage girls earlier curfews than their younger brothers or who simply beg their daughters not to go out or not too late, to stop the responsible adult ‘worrying themselves sick.’
And it is not just parents who take this view. Last summer, around the time of one of the Slut Walks in central London, I had a furious argument with with a very old friend, who is both child-free and feminist. While I celebrated the courageous refusal of younger women to alter their clothing when out in public, my friend, her face stiff with disapproval, countered that it was crass stupidity for today’s adolescent girls to believe that they could walk the streets in buttock-grazing shorts, unaware of what they might provoke.
Once the shouting had subsided, we came to an edgy understanding of the tricky terrain we were spatting over. Younger women are right to claim their freedom of movement but am I, as a parent, being irresponsible if I don’t point out the potential dangers? Should the frequent ( and often amused, it has to be said) mutterings of adults about revealed cleavage and cut-off shorts and all the rest of it be fashioned into some kind of parental guidance, if not command?
Well, of course, in real households, that happens ( ‘ Put on a coat’, ‘ Never walk home alone’, are two of the sane, if tame, favourites.) But it is surprising, and depressing, how often such ‘guidance’ feels as if one is simply teaching girls to conform.
Re-reading ‘The Female Eunuch’ recently, surely now best taken as a bit of social history, I was struck by the echoes between some of the comments I have heard from the mothers of teenagers and Greer’s typically stern analysis of the varying means of old fashioned gender control. Greer rages powerfully against parents who instil fear of the dangerous, dark stranger in their teenage girls, with often stark psychological consequences. In today’s parlance, parents are more likely to talk about ‘ all those bloody psychopaths out on the streets.’ Same difference huh?
I’d like to think we could do all this better in the early 21st century. While it is impossible to ensure our daughters’ absolute freedom and safety perhaps we think more about the trade off, the balancing point, than parents of old? Talking about our own experience is always helpful, including making the simple point that our daughters may be in the greatest danger from men that they know. Or that they think they know.
Equally important is public debate, and rebellion, of the kind we are now seeing in India. It is why I will be joining the protest against sexual violence to be held outside the Indian High Commission in London today, , and will urge my teenagers to come along too. Here is one way to honour the life and death of that unnamed 23 year old woman, but also to ensure that her unimaginable suffering might, in some small way, effect change.
At the same time, such collective action links us to the long and honourable heritage of feminism when it comes to combatting violence against women. It reminds us, too, that there is always greater safety in numbers, now more than ever with the increasing globalisation of dissent. Our collective daughters will , of course, come up with new ideas; they will find fresh ways to fight old battles. Anger, protest – and mobile phones – will be essential to that task.
Protest Against Sexual Violence in India – 7th January 2013, 4-6pm outside the Indian High Commission, London, WC2B 4NA
Posted January 31, 2012on:
How depressing that the debate on smacking children, like that of a woman’s right to choose and sex education ( which never seems to go away ) has reared its head once more. I was astonished, and somewhat appalled, to hear a discussion on the Today programme recently about whether poor children were becoming too ‘dependent’ on breakfast clubs. Jill Kirby, a commentator on Conservative Home, argued that schools should find out why families were not providing breakfast for their children and if so, what were they spending their money on/they should be called in to school to account for themselves and so on. But these are the Tory times we live in.
It makes for some odd alliances, as Zoe Williams cannily identified in today’s G2. Liberals – who take a clear position against smacking children, on the grounds that it is ..er wrong, and violent, and a poor role model for human behaviour etc – find themselves caught in a pincer movement between some black and working class parents who advocate stern discipline and an upper class tendency to advocate corporal punishment. So the liberal looks stupid and ineffectual and soft and not understanding of poverty and its implications and a threat to authority…all of that, rolled into one, while the working class/upper class alliance seem to stand united in defence of stern authority and high standards.
This strange, and often disingenuous, class collaboration has resonance for the schools debate as well. Here, too, we see the odd conflation of different positions/perspective. So, the current government – here, representing upper middle class support of the striking inequality in our school system – encouraging families with absolutely no access to the expensive schools to which they send their own offspring, to abandon the idea of high quality universal education, in favour of quasi private schools that will either benefit largely the affluent – Bristol Free School is probably the clearest current example – or will provide such a diluted version of ‘an education’ that no upper middle class family would ever dream of setting foot in them, let alone using them for their own child.
In the middle, the ‘liberal’ or social democratic position, which argues for a coherent tax payer funded system for quality, universal education – ensuring equal access for the poorest as well as the children from the richest homes – is relentlessly mis represented and traduced as a soft option, deliberately designed to foster low educational standards and poor discipline/boundaries despite the contrary evidence of those countries that have consistently and intelligently invested in universal state education. No matter. This is Tory England. So Michael Gove and co continously stoke dissatisfaction with our state education system, apparently in the name of the poorest families, while, much more quietly, ensuring superior educational options for the better off and new profit making possibilities for their better off mates.
As Steve Richards suggest, in his excellent three part Radio 4 series on The Big Society, there’s still no better word for this than Thatcherism.
Is it time to set up a movement to save our state schools from the many changes proposed by government? Read my latest post on the LSN website…..
Some of my recent articles, largely debating the issues that arise out of School Wars.
New Statesman: round up of left thinkers’ views on the riots and family values
Prospect magazine: debate with Rachel Wolf, director of the New Schools Network, on the merits or otherwise of free schools.
Financial Times: commentary on Toby Young piece on the free school he has set up in West London.
Just a note to all my loyal blog readers to say that I am currently ( early 2011) immersed in writing a book – provisionally entitled: School Wars; the Battle for Britain’s Education - to be published by Verso later this year, and so will not be posting until the first draft is finished in early/mid February. At this critical stage of creation, working on my blog, or indeed any other kind of writing, amounts to a serious case of draft dodging, so I cannot do it!
I was sad to hear of the premature death of Rozsika Parker, the writer and psychotherapist, author of the important feminist book, ‘Torn in two: the experience of maternal ambivalence’ published by Virago. I first spied Rosie when I was a rather serious young student revising for my finals and swimming very early every morning in the local swimming pool. There was Rosie, across the lanes from me, gliding back and forth, as graceful as a swan, in a pristine white swimming hat. I knew nothing about her except that she worked for Spare Rib ( to me, then, the most honourable, interesting and exciting of jobs) and that she was film star beautiful. My boyfriend of the time, who came swimming with me most days, knew of my admiration – and no doubt shared it himself! – so he rather bravely struck up a conversation with Rosie in the shallow end one morning. She was friendly and approachable and very kind to me about my ambitions and wish – maybe one far off day! – to contribute to Spare Rib, become a writer etc
I got to know Rosie a little better later on, although never well, but I knew she had trained as an analytic psychotherapist ( by this time, I was living with one myself ) and I knew of her book on motherhood which I devoured once my own children were born.
I was pleased to be able to interview her for Guardian Family in 2006 – was it really that long ago? – about her work on maternal ambivalence. The interview and the things she said still strike a chord and move me, even more so now. It was clear that her children meant so much to her ( she had been resigned to childlessness, and then had two children at 40 and 41) but also that she had the bravery and intelligence to talk about the many difficult emotions that children arouse in even the most loving mother and to use the word ‘ hate’ about some of those most difficult feelings, rather than pussyfooting around with labels like ‘irritation’ or ‘negativity’ etc.
Anyway, here is the interview with Rosie for anyone who wants to read it. I remain very sad that she is no longer here.
Below, an amended version of Melissa Benn’s latest blog on the Public Finance website
So it looks like only a handful of Free Schools will be opening in 2011, and some high profile projects like Toby Young’s West London Free School might be delayed for a year or two. Following on from the PR disasters of the BSF funding announcements and the widespread criticism of the way that the Academies Bill was pushed through the Commons in late July, it looks as if the Coalition’s flagship education policy is in trouble.
Not a bit of it. Gove got off to an unsteady start and the summer break will surely lead him to reflect on his department’s manner of policy presentation, if not its substance. This autumn, I suspect we will see a rather more sober Gove, emphasising caution and caring at every turn.
Clever politician that he is, he might even argue that the slow start to the Free Schools project is actually a good thing, indicating that government is playing it by the book and that the new schools are subject to the same financial and planning strictures as the maintained sector.
And yesterday’s Institute for Fiscal Studies report showing that the government’s austerity drive is going to hit the poor the hardest will only confirm to Gove and co the need to keep arguing that their education policy is there to help the disadvantaged.
The pupil premium will be introduced in the coming months; who knows, perhaps around the time of the potentially restive Lib Dem conference? But whatever the timing, expect much to be made of it, even though many hard-pressed headteachers I’ve spoken to say that even in their schools, with high numbers of students on free school meals, its introduction is unlikely to make up even a fraction of the shortfall left by other cuts.
But for all this, there will be no change of heart or direction from government on the schools front. The so called Free Schools and the new ‘outstanding’ academies are at the heart of the Coalition’s determination to break up state provision and introduce private initiative and finance at all levels of the welfare state.
Of course, a few schools will flourish; backed by corporate capital, powered forward by influential figures, drawing on the most talented pool of pupils, how can they fail? And of course, they will include in their ranks some of the country’s poorest but most talented pupils whom you can be sure, come results day, like yesterday, will be pushed to the front of all publicity photographs.
But what about the schools in those areas decimated by economic changes of the last few decades, struggling with polarised and deeply pessimistic communities? Will they be able to generate the same sparkling transforming institutions?
Slashes to the mainstream education budget will hit local schools in poor areas, and the increasingly marginalised local authorities, losing central finance to the new academies and free schools, will be hard pushed to offer them the support they need.
This is the real story of this government’s education policy. It’s got nothing to do with Latin in state schools or celebrity journalists turned wise old pedagogues. It concerns the right to a decent education for the poorest citizens of our nation.
We should judge the Coalition and the success of their education policy by the future and fate and of these citizens and these communities. Whether the Free Schools fling open their doors next September or the September afterwards matters very little to that central question.
Melissa Benn is a writer and journalist. Her latest book on education in the modern age, The New Class Wars, will be published next autumn by Verso.
Read Melissa Benn’s latest pieces on the web. Further comment on ‘bigotgate’ in Public Finance, and a piece on one of Burma’s most celebrated activists, the poet and comedian Zarganar, recently sentenced to thirty five years for criticising the government’s handling of cyclone Nargis in 2008, on the Guardian’s Liberty Central section of Comment is Free.
Two excellent pieces today on separate aspects of the election campaign. Francis Gilbert has written a cogent piece on Comment is Free on why Tory policies for schools will spell disaster for our education system. In the main paper Natasha Walter analyses the deeper reasons for the absence of women from the front line of politics.
There are many reasons, of course, for the shift in modern politics, away from a collegiate/cabinet emphasis to a more Presidential style of party leadership but the set piece TV debates have only accelerated this trend. 2010′s election campaign has been structured entirely around the Thursday debates, and associated briefings and endless analysis. This means, as many have observed during this singularly depressing campaign, that the only women who seem to count are the glamorous loyal wives whom, it is hinted, will be able moderate their husband’s excesses and weaknesses in traditional medieval court style. The power beyond the throne: yes indeed; nothing to do with democracy. As for the elected women, they are nowhere to be seen. Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the Labour Party, is occasionally glimpsed in her bright red coat ( much good it does her) standing at the edge of some media scrum or apparently pushed to the edge of a platform.I have glimpsed the top of her head at least three times on television in the last week; they don’t even bother to show her face. Of course, the main media players are only interested in the main political players. There’s a few women in there, but not many.
As for Tory policies on education, they will be an unmitigated disaster. If schools can select their own pupils, secure their own funding and float away from struggling schools in their neighbourhood – the independent school model, unwritten by the state this time – inequality will only intensify. The Tory claim to want to tackle poverty and inequality is disingenuous; if anything proves it, it is their education policy.
Listen to Melissa Benn, one of several contributors to Mark Lawson’s recent Radio Four programme on the representation of politics in fiction and the arts.