74. #HearHer

This week, the BBC have a series of programmes called Hear Her, of which I am proud to have contributed towards. My programme brief was tight, and I had more to say on this theme, so wrote this post.

Please note that the following contains descriptions of violence against women.

She doesn’t know why they locked eyes and she held his gaze. She refused to look away or lower her eyes. The camera sought her out. A good-looking, young woman. Probably a third-generation immigrant. Student, most likely.

He caught her expression at the exact point between curiosity, defiance and contempt: the man’s words spitting venom full on in her face. A second later, the moment had gone. The next pictures were of the man punching her once in the side of her head. Her body recoiled. Face contorted in horror. Immediately, two police officers pushed past her and grabbed the frenzied man.

But people didn’t need to see those pictures. He had his money shot. It doesn’t really matter who she was, why she was there or what happened to her. Tomorrow, his name would be known for taking the defining picture of the march.

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Mum and I were sat sipping tea in the conservatory of my parent’s house. I spotted a pile of newspapers in the corner, ready for the recycling bin. I picked up the latest issue of the local paper and scanned the front page.

“Oh my god, I went to school with her.” My heart started to race. “I can’t believe it.”

As the story unfolded, it transpired that the girl I knew at school had her father’s child, and continued to live with him on the family farm. Once she found out he was abusing her daughter, she killed him. She’d served her sentence and was out on parole. The abuse only ever came to light when one of the grandchildren died and the DNA tests showed some unusual and disturbing results. My old school friend and her daughter waived their right to anonymity to finally speak out.

“And she never said anything? That whole time she was in prison?” For all of those years as a child, she was brave enough to take the beatings and repeated assaults but never found the courage to ask for help.

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My friend is a seriously talented musician. I remember once she told me it took her only four hours to learn to play the mandolin. She found it difficult to get a record deal – not because her music is bad. Far from it. It’s because she doesn’t play the game. She won’t lose the extra 10lb for the photos, show off her assets and court the media. She’s got a ‘bad attitude’ because she’s been known to pour a drink over a music journalist’s head for assuming that she had help with writing her songs. There is only one name on the album’s credits for songwriting. Hers. She composed the music and played all of the instruments bar one. The only musician she employed for the recordings was a drummer. She’s been very vocal about how, at 26, her music career is considered over before it has barely begun, but older, baldy, fat, beardy men can get still record contracts. No-one cares what they look like, how they behave, what they say or ask if anyone wrote their songs for them. It’s only about the music.

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“All that work I did and he took the credit! He could have at least said it was a team effort. I can’t fucking believe it. It was my idea in the first place. I was the one who suggested it in the meeting, but no-one heard me, and then he repeated what I’d just said, then made out it that he’d thought of it! The bloody cheek. Well It’s too late to do anything about it now, but I tell you what. The next time one of my female colleagues comes up with an idea, I am gonna repeat what she just said loudly, and make sure everyone knows what a great idea she just had, so there’s no mistaking it in future.”

Women deserve to be listened to, their voices amplified and messages heard.

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37. This is No Fairy Tale

This is a special post for International Women’s Day.

Once upon a time, not that long ago, in a land not far from this one, there lived a girl called Rose. She was the oldest daughter of a farming family and was a beautiful bud on the verge of blossoming into a vibrant young woman. We would say she was a teenager, and nowadays she would enjoy years of delicious freedom, finish her education and discover her own world between childhood and womanhood.

Alas, not then. She was not educated at school, for that would be a waste of time and money. She spent her days cleaning, cooking and helping her mother to look after her brothers and sisters. Any free time she might have had, was taken up with making and mending clothes, baking bread or helping with the running of the farm.

One day, a very average man, rode into the village on a white horse. Once he saw how hard-working Rose was, he decided she would make a very suitable wife for him to replace the one who had recently died in childbirth. He asked her father for her hand in marriage and a good price was agreed. It was all arranged and would make good business sense to have another farmer in the family. Plus those eight poor children would have a mother. Rose did not care for this man for she had never even spoken to him. Aside from him being nearly as old as her own father, he was not at all appealing to look at and she knew nothing about him. However, she was not consulted, and would have had no choice in the matter in any case.

The next day Rose was to be married. As she was her father’s property, she was given away by him to the man, who was to own her from that day forward. She wore a white dress to prove she was a virgin, and at the ceremony she had to promise to do whatever her new husband wanted her to do and obey his every command.

From working on the farm, Rose had some idea what her husband was going to do to her on their wedding night, but she was not looking forward to it. Her mother had told her that it would be painful and that she might bleed. She was not even allowed to ever touch herself there because she was unclean. But she was one of the lucky girls who had not had a knife taken to that part of her body when she was a child and no man had ever forced himself on her. Even if a man had used his power and strength to overcome her and take what he wanted, it would always have been entirely her fault. That was the way things were. Her choice was not an option.

Rose knew that if she did what she was told, worked hard, knew her place and kept her mouth shut, she would have as life as good as every other woman she had ever heard of. She knew that to be seen as a good wife, there would be lots of babies and although having them would hurt like hell, she would fulfil the reason she was here for. Women who talked or knew too much were often possessed by the devil and needed to be punished.

So she began her new life with her new name. She missed her family dreadfully at first and began to wonder what it would be like to go out every day and see the world like her brothers did. If she did not keep the house and increasing brood of children clean, and her husband well fed and satisfied, he might beat her, leave her or throw her into the asylum. If she was disowned or shunned, she had no way of earning a living, and what would be the point anyway? Even if she worked harder than any man she could not earn as much as they did. How could she provide for her family when she could not have a bank account or rent anywhere for them to live? A man could easily earn enough to provide for a wife to look after his children whilst he was out at work. A fallen or spoiled woman could barely earn enough to feed herself, let alone pay for anyone else she cared for. She could not own property and she was not allowed to vote to change the law so she could buy. No, she was better off staying where she was to try and make the best of things. Even if she hated her husband and he was cruel, the law would not permit her to take her children with her if she left. She had responsibilities now.

Her husband was too old to go to the war, and she had far too many children to leave at home to fend for themselves for even a moment, so Rose was not one of the fortunate ones who was permitted to take a man’s job whilst he was away fighting for his country. Of the men who did return, some were disfigured, gave their wives diseases or had nightmares and dark moods.

It occurred to Rose whether any woman had ever achieved in life anything other than wife and mother, but she had never heard anyone ever tell her tales of the past from something called HIS STORY. She could not read and had no other way of finding anything out other than what other people told her. She wanted her own daughters to have more than she had. As they were not allowed to inherit money or property, then they should have more knowledge to make their way in the world. Rose would make sure they knew about all the things she wished she had known before she was married.

She did as much farming as her husband, but he was known as the farmer and she was the farmer’s wife. She had contributed easily as much to the family as her husband did, as well but he owned all the money. She knew how to run the farm and manage on whatever money he gave her, so when he suddenly died, Rose decided that there would be some changes around the place. With the upheaval of the war, she decided not to tell the authorities that her husband was dead, for they may interfere. Instead, if anyone asked, she would say he was away. Later on, she would say he died in the war and no-one ever pressed her further. Few people ever came to the farm and the sheer number of children meant that they did not need any extra paid labour. Hardly anyone ever asked where the master was, and over time, he was forgotten.

Working on a farm, having ten of her own babies as well as the eight she inherited  plus a couple of waifs and strays that had found their way to her, had prepared her well. Rose decided that she and all of her children would learn to read and write. Her daughters could become midwives or nurses, if they were so inclined. They could help other women to have babies and provide support for them before and after the birth. She knew men would not interfere in this idea or try to take over, as it was seen as woman’s work.

Her sons were capable of running the farm and their future wives could decide for themselves what they wanted to do with their time.

This made Rose feel both free and in control for the first time in her life. No man would want to take her on as her youthful bloom had long since faded and her body was weary. Her spirit shone on. She invited her elderly parents to live at the farm and rest out their days watching their grandchildren grow. The work was shared; this village raised the children, and there was plenty of love and food for all.

As the wise, gentle matriarch of this flourishing community, Rose lived happily ever after.

The End.

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35. Orange Girls

We’re watching one of those BBC historical programmes about where some professor talks about the role of women in theatres in London in the 1900s. It’s fascinating. You call the presenter ‘Absolutely Spiffing’ because of her posh voice.

The next day we’re at a car show, looking at fancy bodywork waxes with hilarious names like ‘Brazilian’ or ‘Hollywood’, strawberry-scented shampoo that costs more than my weekly bus ticket and watching demos of men deftly covering a Lotus in vinyl with what looks like credit cards. There are loads of tanned, impossibly gorgeous young women, handing out free promotional items and putting flower wreaths around everyone’s neck. Some vendors have got signs saying things like, “my car is like my misses. You can look, but don’t touch” while his wife, scantily clad in fishnets and a french maids outfit, poses next to the car with customers buying the waxes and chamois. Her expression is always the same. Raised eyebrows and mouth in an “ooh” shape for each photograph. Her feather duster as a prop. I saw her in the ladies loos and asked her what her day job was. She’s in insurance.

I overhear a conversation between a couple standing in the coffee van queue.

He says. “Would you agree that being an orange girl hasn’t changed much over the years then?”

I’m a little bit shocked by this casual sexism. “You’re awful you are.” She replies. ” I can’t fault them. If I looked like them, I might do it. I bet it’s not easy money though. Wearing those heels, smiling and posing for selfies all day”

“Are we talking about the same thing here?” He says.

“What are you talking about?” She asks.

“Theatre girls who sold oranges and other things.”

They clearly watched the same programme as we did.

“Other things? Oh right. I thought you meant ‘cos they were orange. Fake tan and all that TOWIE stuff.”

I turn to ask the boyfriend if he wants a chocolate chip cookie with his coffee.

The next thing I hear her say is,

“You don’t have to DO 30 before 30! It does not mean that!”

What on earth did I miss?!