To pierce or not to pierce?

Is it wrong to pierce a babies ears? In this piece, I write about my experience of having my ears as a small child and the impact this had. 

As a small child,  I emigrated to Mexico and I lived there for a number of years, masquerading as a proper little Catholic school girl, attending nursery and then moving up into the school proper. I stood out like a English sore thumb when I arrived: I was pale and subdued with bone-blonde hair, blue eyes and un-pierced ears and wore a Ladybird dress and neat patent Mary Janes, neither of which coped very well with the dust and sand of the Chihuahuan Desert. My naked earlobes caused the local people the most concern though: they marked me out as a gringa far more than my blonde ringlets did.

The culture in Mexico both then and now is to pierce the ears of newborn girl babies, performed as soon as possible after birth because presumably it is easier than trying to catch and pin down an older, more mobile, and less compliant child. In most cases, babies actually leave the maternity clinic with pierced ears, the procedure carried out just days after their birth because a newborn will not tug at her sore ears nor interfere with the earrings. Once done and with screams quietened- sometimes after sucking on a honey-dipped finger- these baby girl children received their first gold in the form of tiny sleepers or gold studs and the giving of these in the months leading up to the birth is a common gift.

I was four when my parents decided to pierce my lobes, roping in a nun from my school to do it and I was understandably reluctant to have this nun grab me by the tender flesh of my ear and pin me face-down onto her black serge lap so she might push an ice-cold needle through my lobes. A cork from the freezer was held against the back of my ear, providing the necessary resistance for the needle to push against. The nun then threaded each hole with a length of black cotton and tied the ends of the threads into two small loops to keep them open. A few days later, the threads were replaced by plain gold studs because my parents probably  thought that earrings engraved with an image of the Virgin de Guadalupe were a bit too ‘Catholic’,  although these were a popular choice among my friends who called upon the saints to see them through the most unremarkable of life events.

This dour nun was far removed from the gentle Brides of Christ you might have watched in The Sound of Music and she demonstrated a firm grip and an even firmer countenance as she trapped me deftly between her knees to examine the shape of my ears whilst my parents held onto my thrashing arms. I briefly contemplated biting her plump little kneecap as she bent my head forwards then decided that the risk of Hell On Earth- as opposed to going to the real hell afterwards- was too much of a risk. I had already spent too much time locked in the dark and chalky art supplies cupboard for various minor classroom insubordinations (like being, um, four) and I wasn’t planning on spending more time in there with sore throbbing ears to boot.

Post-piercing, all I was allowed to wear was a tiny, uptight gold stud whilst my Mexican friends wore dramatic, passionate, ear jewelry that afforded them a bigger and more decorative space in the world. I was envious of my friend Susie’s black curls, brown skin and the chunky pair of carved gold arracadas hoops that danced in her ears: standing alongside her, I felt like a half-erased drawing. My discreet British-style studs rendered me a half-hearted participant in a rite much bigger than me and as a child, I squirmed over my competing cultural definition. My envy confused me, wrapped up as it was with resentment at my parents. I had failed to separate my feelings about the frightening method used to pierce my ears from the longer-term consequences and cultural significance of remaining the only un-pierced girl in my school. At times I hated my parents for forcing me to go through such an ordeal, I disliked the hassle of caring for my pierced ears yet I longed too, for something a little less waspy. Alone in my room at night, I would remove the studs and ‘lose’ the small gold ball that screwed onto the sharp post which threaded through my ear. The next morning, my mother, or Maria our housekeeper, would triumphantly produce one of many ‘spares’ and reinsert the earring, accompanied by scolding slaps and harsh words. It became a daily and unpleasant ritual until Maria sat me down and explained that when I was older it would be up to me but for now, I had to submit. She was sure that an extra cup of atole might be in line for little girls who weren’t put on earth to turn her waist-length black hair prematurely grey. Maria was just eighteen. 


Arracadas do “Tesouro Bedoya”, expostas no Museo de Pontevedra.

My early teenage years were marked by a nascent feminism and I began to consider the psychological implications of having ones pain rewarded by jewelry and a sugary finger.  I thought about the fact that I underwent the same procedure without ‘enjoying’ the benefit of being too young to consciously recall it: it was very hard to forget my feelings of terror at being held down without real explanation of what was to happen. I found it hard to shake off the fear I felt when I realised that I had absolutely no say in it. The fact that ear piercing was performed by a nun made it even odder.

I lost interest in my earrings in adulthood, refusing to wear them as I started to regain jurisdiction over my body and began to reject everything that reminded me of my powerlessness in the face of my parents’ actions. It was in defiance of all that came after the parental neglect and abuse; the ongoing disregard of me as a person separate from themselves which was heralded by their turning a deaf ear against my pleas to leave my own ears alone. Eventually, I let the holes close up until all that remained was a thickened piece of tissue, a minute bulls-eye in the centre of my lobes. Slightly darker in colour than the rest of my ear, these were a reminder of things done and it became apparent that they would not fade and the damage would never be completely invisible. I had my own daughter and left her ears alone although when she was twelve she went through her own push-me pull -me as she tried to decide of her own accord whether to pierce. Six years later I had my son and left his ears alone too.


Decades later, I’m attracted by the thought of the flash-trash clink of Creole gilt hoops as I shake my head. I imagine white-gold stars thickly clustered along the outer and upper part of my ear or Halston-fabulous slim needles made from silver and platinum which I imagine swinging and catching the light. The mysterious language of the ear piercer intrigues me too. There are piercings called the tragus and the anti-tragus which sound like a Greek myth on the scale of Perseus versus the Gorgon. The conch and the rook are embedded into the shell-like curves of the inner ear lobe whilst the daith sounds like something a nun might whisper in the stillness of her cell-like bedroom. I’m drawn to what some call the Chola style, from first- and second-generation Mexican and Mexican-American girls who wear gold chains, large hoops and stop-the-traffic red lipstick with an attitude that both reclaims and flips this formerly abusive term on its head. I like the Chola blend of strong femininity and toughness which spits in the face of the fact that these girls probably had little choice as to whether their ears were pierced or not. But I’m not Mexican or Mexican-American, no matter that I once lived there for a while and despite the fact that the Chola has evolved from a culture I am familiar with. There’s a line of authenticity to be drawn in the sand somewhere, probably starting with the fact that Chola abuelas (grandmothers) seem to be quite thin on the ground and I am nearer the abuela than I am her daughter or granddaughter.

I’m ready now. I am eyeing up the anatomy of my little ears and wondering what they can take. As I get older, I can see that a jeweled ear (or nose!) can defy time in unexpected ways, allowing me to retrace old paths with bigger, more sure-footed steps. This time it will be my decision.


Olive Mudie- Cooke: a candidate for our twenty pound note?

In an Ambulance : a VAD lighting a cigarette for a patient, by Olive Mudie- Cooke
In an Ambulance : a VAD lighting a cigarette for a patient, by Olive Mudie- Cooke © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3051)

A recent pledge by the Bank of England to put a British female visual artist on the new twenty pound note may run into sand according to historical scholars who cite the relatively low number of qualifying women as a reason. This follows criticism of the bank after the 2013 selection process which replaced Elizabeth Fry with Winston Churchill. A petition of more than 35 thousand signatures was received by the bank in protest, prompting a  volte face decision by the banks governor, Mark Carney to put Jane Austen on ten pound notes from 2017.

Recently. Professor Lynda Nead, Pevsner chair of history of art at Birbeck said in an interview with The Guardian that “Visual arts seem to particularly lag behind when it comes to women, compared with other cultural pursuits like writing” and with the rule that no living artist may be nominated, presumably to avoid taking precedence over the very much alive Queen, this, in her opinion, limits the field even further with the resulting disqualification of artists such as Tracey Emin, Sam Taylor Wood and Barbara Hepworth.

In the past, female authors were able to publish under male pseudonyms which helped to overcome some of the gender prohibitions to gaining an audience in the first place. Historically, female artists in other creative fields such as visual arts have been less able to take advantage of anonymity because it would have been necessary to exhibit publically and in ones own name in order to access patrons and acquire a reputation which would positively enhance sales.

There have been calls for the Bank of England to drop its specification that the person must be dead which would open up the field hugely, giving access to such artists as painter Cecily Brown, the taxidermist Polly Morgan, the mixed media artist Zarina Bhimji or Suffolk’s ‘own’ Maggie Hambling. However  I believe that should the selection committee think a little, they will find a wealth of British women working across art and often in ways that surprisingly chime very much with modern digital media despite their having been long dead.

2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, a sobering thought for many of us and especially a late baby boomer like me, born to parents who clearly remembered it but the artist who I have nominated for commemoration on the twenty pound note lived and worked during the Great War- the First World War. The terrifyingly brave and gender atypical work that artist Olive Mudie-Cooke produced should be more widely celebrated.

The Great War marked a sea change in the way that women artists were regarded. Although only four of the 51 artists commissioned for the official war art scheme by the British government in 1916 were female (and one dropped out and three had their work rejected), the then brand new Imperial War Museum stepped in with its own commission. The museum engaged nine women artists in recording war work as it applied to women and, although they were not given access to the battlefields and theatre of war as men were, Olive Mudie-Cooke ended up extremely close to the frontline. Although the scheme was initially started for propaganda purposes, it soon grew beyond this, exploring many aspects of the Great War and offering an alternative narrative that provided a useful counterpoint to the sanitised and jingoistic governmental utterances.

After the War : a VAD ambulance bringing in French peasants wounded by shells left
After the War : a VAD ambulance bringing in French peasants wounded by shells © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3087)

 Olive Mudie-Cooke was a Londoner, born to a carpet merchant father and was one of only a handful of official war artists. The younger of two daughters born to Henry Cooke and his wife Beatrice, Olive created a series of watercolour images that depicted the Great War in all its banal, terrible and hidden glory. Mudie-Cooke served as an ambulance driver, visiting battlefields whose names are burned into our brain: the Somme, Polekappelle, and worked for the Red Cross as a Voluntary Aid Detachment Driver (VAD), steering ambulances across France and Italy aged just twenty six. She was no slouch in the educational stakes either: fluent in French, Italian and German, she sometimes worked as an interpreter for the Red Cross too although, at that time, female artists tended to come from socially and economically advantaged backgrounds, hence the language education and private income that funded her adventures.

In 1919,  the Women’s Work Sub-Committee of the newly formed Imperial War Museum noticed Mudie-Cooke’s work and acquired a number of her paintings for its own collection, still in its early stages. This purchase included her most famous picture, In an Ambulance: a VAD lighting a cigarette for a patient  (seen aboveand in 1920 the British Red Cross commissioned her to return to France. Once there Mudie-Cooke documented the activities of the Voluntary Aid Detachment units who were still providing care and relief and produced work which spoke of the damage war inflicted upon communities, the smashed buildings and shattered lives, the latter made explicit by her haunting depictions of women tending the graves of their dead.
Vad convoy unloading an ambulance train at night
Vad convoy unloading an ambulance train at night © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3089)

Before her official commission, Olive produced much of her work between 1916-18. She first went to France as a Red Cross ambulance driver in 1916 and through her chalky drawings and, at times, murky watercolours, we saw the shadow side of war: the injured man desperate for a cigarette and the woman helping him. There’s a halo of light as she cups her hands around the flame and they lean towards each other and  we are drawn into an intimate moment of connection between two strangers that harks back to the Lady with the Lamp of another time, another war.

Similar pools of light falls on the ground between two ambulances drawn up alongside a barracks as injured soldiers await evacuation- they are men stripped of identity as they lie in serried ranks, painted into the canvas border. We aren’t meant to know who they are and the crepuscular tones preserve their facelessness.  Olive is a master of this, the contrasts between light and dark, between what we know and are allowed to know and in ‘A VAD Convoy Unloading an Ambulance Train at Night After the Battle of the Somme’ the murky browns of the watercolour bear the aesthetic hallmarks of an old sepia photograph, found hidden in an attic and brought into the light of the day as opposed to the painting it actually is.

Large tank burn out.
Burnt out tank -Art.IWM ART 5398

Her work comes complete with a psychological zoom lens: an ambulance skids and founders on an icy Italian mountain side and the rescuers are now in need of assistance. She isolates barbed wire on the canvas, coldly silvered and metallic in dimmed light as it encircles a battlefield which contains its own subterranean dangers. There are scenes that haunt: two tanks injured in battle themselves after engaging the enemy on the Western Front in 1917, part of a war action near Poelkapelle which left these armoured behamoths helpless and worse than useless and a blot on a landscape which once contained only silky shifting fields of corn.

Two Tanks, Polcapelle, by Olive Mudie-Cooke
Two Tanks, Polcapelle, by Olive Mudie-Cooke © IWM (Art.IWM ART 5395)

Mudie-Cooke and women like her also helped paved the way for others to follow a similar career path: those women health professionals who work across war zones and regions experiencing humanitarian crisis and women who are soldiers are there in no small part because Mudie-Cooke showed it could be done. Most importantly though, Mudie-Cooke’s art was one of the forerunners to modern war photography and in its style and content, predicted the era of citizen photo journalism as millions of people become recorders of their own narrative, armed with smartphones instead of a sketchpad although artists are still commissioned to record war via the paintbrush as once did Mudie-Cooke.

Etaples British Military Cemetery a view through a few trees across the large field of crosses of the British military cemetery at Etaples
Etaples British Military Cemetery a view through a few trees across the large field of crosses of the British military cemetery at Etaples

To discern and edit is where true artistry resides though and unlike most, Olive knew what to leave out; many of her most admired works are master classes in composition. Although her work was essentially documental- and there was pressure to succumb to the propaganda machine- she adhered to a professional ethos that still exists among photo journalism despite the craze for gonzo journalism which at its worst, becomes a clumsy ego driven exercise. Olive became a silent storyteller but a not altogether passive one- she alone chose what to portray and her emotional presence pushes up through the layers of water colour and charcoal.

Mudie-Cooke returned to England for a short period before returning to France in 1925 where she took her life. Was she another casualty of war like so many before and after her? If so, in this respect she is also of her time and ours too which has seen wave after wave of psychologically harmed men and women return from conflict. Mudie-Cooke deserves to be honoured.

British military cemetery in Etaples by Olive Mudie-Cooke

Nominate your choice of artist here

Olive Mudie- Cooke collections at The Imperial War Museum


The ‘This Girl Can’ campaign is still about our bodies


‘Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox‘ goes the latest Sport England campaign designed to encourage women to take more physical exercise and feel better for doing it. Did I say feel better? What I, or rather the ad appears to suggest is that even during sport and physical exercise, we women apparently never escape the confines of our sexuality and the (presumably) male gaze – even when we are sweaty and really really busy doing something else. Women may feel free in the gym but really we are still in chains.

Some of the words and images used suggest that a womans sense of self must incorporate an awareness of our sexual attractiveness as we participate in sport. This surely runs counter to an important goal of physical exercise-  transcending the limitations of body and psyche caused by our conscious and subconscious thoughts. I cannot see any other explanation for the use of the curious term ‘fox.’ Surely sports should allow us to walk away from the travail of worrying about how we appear to others and we should only be judged, if any judgement is required at all, on our sporting prowesss and achievements and nothing else?

This Girl Can, a campaign launched by Sport England aims to encourage more women to take up sport and physical exercise and is backed by celebrities including Clare Balding, Dame Kelly Holmes and Sally Gunnell. It kicks off with a TV commercial peopled by women of all shapes, sizes and ages participating in a raft of sports and physical activities. Created by the ad agency FCB Inferno, the 90 second ad only uses ‘normal’ women set to Missy Elliott’s Get Ur Freak On and is backed up by a nationwide poster campaign with said same women from all walks of life with banner slogans such as the aforementioned pig/fox and ‘I jiggle therefore I am.’

Back in the late eighties, even misogynistic anti semite Mel Gibson, or rather the character he played in ‘What Women Want’, working on a sporting ad campaign with costar Helen Hunt, came to the conclusion that sport should allow a woman the time to shrug off her self consciousness and psychological chains. We appear to have moved on very little from this (albeit imaginary) scenario.

Nobody is under any illusion that female athletes are judged solely on their sporting ability and we have only to look at the bile directed at Rebecca Addlington regarding her looks to see that. And the way they are spoken about in the press is still very much predicated upon their looks and sex appeal as are some of the endorsements and contracts they attract. Any pride in their physicality, hard work and the success it brings is marred by constant reminders that it is female physicality and therefore it must be appraised sexually and aesthetically.

This Girl Can continues our obsession with female flesh, encouraging us to disregard the fact that we wobble and jiggle, have cellulite and uncontrolled flesh spilling out of our clothing. The fact that we are depicted as casting off our shackles- our Spanx, control tights and body taming underpinnings, to let ourselves take up a bigger unfettered space in the universe is undermined by the drawing of attention to those perceived flaws, whether or not it is us that sees them as so, or a sexist society.

Jennie Price, chief executive of Sport England talked about some of the barriers to the participation of women in sport:  “One of the strongest themes was a fear of judgment. Worries about being judged for for being the wrong size, not fit enough and not skilled enough came up time and time again. We want to address that.” Yet the video, despite being beautifully shot, still worships at the cult of the body, objectifies the bodies of those filmed and makes those gazing upon them passively complicit with this. Whatever the intent was to redefine what kind of female body is acceptable, the campaign is still concerning itself with parameters and makes no attempts to defy convention.

If female flesh mattered not one jot in the gender scheme of things it would go unmentioned as it does in sports campaigns aimed at men which tend to highlight the skills, prowesss, work and effort required. A mans appearance is related very closely to utilty and functionality, ideas rarely associated in advertising about or aimed at women. They don’t use male flesh to tell men they want them to not focus on their flesh and they do not invoke an unwelcome gaze. Even more importantly, campaigns aimed at men do not tell them they need to disregard their physical flaws, either imagined or actual. By saying ‘disregard’ you are stating that there is something TO disregard and the psychology of self consciousness, of shyness and body unconfidence will hone in on that like a javelin.

Equally important is the worthiness and higher moral purpose that must come attached to many female activities, including what we’d imagine as something relatively uncomplicated- sport. Where is the argument for exercise for the sake of exercise? Exercise that is enjoyed purely for the simple pleasure in physicality it generates? Instead of a pure and uncomplicated relationship with their corporeal selves, women are encouraged to take part in order to strengthen friendships, manage and reduce the stress caused by work, parenthood and caring whilst improving our emotional and physical strength. There is no strong case made for pure unfettered, unintellectual and unanalytical pleasure, no case made for total abandonment to the testing of ones body against standards that have nothing to do with how it looks to others. There is no permission for women to exist solely for themselves nor are we permitted to exist in the moment purely for that moment, free from intrusion.

This campaign has good intentions but at the end of the day, it is still reminding us that we women have a mountain to climb when it comes to equality in sports and it is not handing us the best equipment with which to climb it.



#BackOff- why women seeking a termination need a safe space

Watch the clip below which shows a pregnant woman taking umbrage with anti-abortion activists standing outside a BPAS clinic in London. The activists are filming women as they attend consultations, and they wear recording equipment around their necks. Initially they denied filming when she challenges them but watch their capitulation. The clip by  helpfully illustrates the need for the BPAS recent #BackOff campaign which seeks to protect women from harassment and filming by anti abortion groups on British streets.


Aside from taking a moment to marvel at her general awesomeness, we need to stop and think about some of the wider ramifications of allowing people to harass women in public spaces and whether the law should indeed be amended to make this either a criminal act or more easily dealt with through a civil claim.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service have recently launched a campaign to address this issue:

“The government is being urged to take action to protect women attending pregnancy advice and abortion centres amid an escalation in anti-abortion activity. The Back Off campaign calls for the establishment of zones free from anti-abortion activists in the area directly around registered clinics and pregnancy advice bureaux. 

“Women attending these centres are now regularly exposed to groups of anti-abortion activists standing immediately outside. Many of these people bear large banners of dismembered foetuses, strew pathways with plastic foetuses and graphic images, distribute leaflets containing misleading information about abortion, and follow and question women as they enter or leave. Often, these people carry cameras strapped to their chests or positioned on a tripod. Women report feeling intimidated and distressed by this activity as they try to access a lawful healthcare service in confidence.”

The frustration of BPAS with the current laws on harassment and public order is apparent:

“The police have made clear that the legal options to counter this activity are limited, and attempts to use the Public Order Act to curtail their activities have not been successful. Appeals to the churches who support these people to reflect on the impact on women have failed. We echo the recent comments of the judge in the case of harassment outside the Marie Stopes centre in Belfast, who made it clear that it was entirely inappropriate “for anyone to be stopped outside this clinic in any form, shape or fashion and questioned either to their identity, why they are going in there and being forced to involve themselves in conversation at times when they are almost certainly going to be stressed and very possibly distressed”.

Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, commented further:

“One in three women will have an abortion. These activists don’t stop women needing abortions, they simply make what is already a difficult day that much harder. Women should feel confident that they can approach centres for pregnancy advice and abortion care without fear of intimidation, or anxious that their identity will be compromised by protesters filming outside. Establishing zones free from anti-abortion activists around clinics would provide the reassurance and security women need. There is absolutely no need for the space outside clinics to become a battleground. Wherever one stands on abortion – pregnant women deserve better than this.”

Whenever I butt heads with people claiming to be ‘pro-life’ (or anti-abortion as I prefer to refer to them) what I find most astonishing is their belief that their right to demonstrate trumps a woman’s right to obtain medical and nursing care, unmolested and with dignity maintained. Any supposed concern for the sacred vessel of the pregnant female form does not extend to caring about the effects their intimidation might have upon her and her pregnancy. As far as they are concerned (and I draw my conclusions about it from their actions) her rights will always come second to their right to challenge her.

People should be able to express their views but what anti-abortionists are doing in this case does not constitute an appeal to politicans or even a show of hands. It is not intended as an entreaty to those that make the law. What it actually is attempting to do is frighten, humiliate and bully a pregnant woman into doing what the protestors want her to do. Women attending the clinics cannot feel assured that these strong-arm tactics with their undercurrent of aggression won’t erupt into outright hostility and they run the gauntlet of these protesters in the knowledge that medical staff at American clinics have been murdered by anti-abortion activists.

The protesters intend to make accessing health care (which may or may not include a termination) such a perceived and actual risk to a womans privacy and dignity that she would rather not do it. And if she does, the emotional and psychological damage from this harassment may be far greater than any residual effects of the termination. The threat of public exposure is NO basis upon which to make a decision to have a child or not. It is a particularly vicious form of blackmail that says: use a clinic that offers terminations and we will put the film of you walking up its steps online.

Research into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has shown a positive correlation between severity of symptoms and the perception of threat during the trigger event(s). PTSD has also been diagnosed in the people who work in these clinics because of the threatening conditions they work in. The development of mental health problems may thus occur in women who eventually decide against a termination after using the clinic, flying in the face of the apparent concern these protestors claim they have for women and their unborn foetuses.

The anti-abortion protesters claim that they are not harassing women ( according to our current laws), because each individual episode does not constitute the course of harassing action required for successful prosecution. They claim that the freedom of speech is an inalienable right. and it is, but only if that speech is not seen as harassing, threatening, intimidating and a deterrent to seeking lawful treatment- an abortion. These individual ‘actions’- all the separate women approached and harangued over the course of the day by anti abortionists- should be cumulatively aggregated so the offenders could be prosecuted through the courts.

As things stand now, should a woman decide to pursue a claim of intimidation against her, current legislation requires making a complaint to the police about each individual instance or episode by each individual harasser. So on top of the breach of privacy endured by a woman, further invasions of privacy is incurred through the necessary reporting and subsequent legal action. She will have to make a statement, identify those involved, engage legal representation, attend court, possibly be questioned and endure any media exposure that might result. And the activists know this.

Let me describe some of the harassment that women are exposed to as they try to access advice, support and possibly a termination through a clinic such as the ones run by the BPAS. These tactics also impact upon staff working there or in nearby clinical facilities:

  • Having leaflets and graphic images of dismembered foetuses thrust into their hands, pockets and bags. Or waved directly in their faces;
  • Pregnant staff require escorting into and out of the clinics by police, private security or other staff members;
  • Staff are verbally intimidated and harassed. They are identified to passers by in a pejorative manner;
  • Women are given incorrect information designed to frighten or trigger guilt;
  • Having bibles and religious tracts thrust into their faces;
  • Being screamed at, shouted at, asked intrusive loaded questions, asked about their pregnancies;
  • Having to find their path through a gauntlet of people all seeking to make it as hard as possible to find a way into the building.;
  • Being confronted with graphic large posters that line the street leading to the clinic, making it impossible for them to maintain a low profile;
  • Being filmed and recorded by cameras and video recording devices;
  • Having to fear the footage of their entrance to the clinic being put on a public viewing platform such as Youtube;
  • NHS staff on premises where a clinic is located have felt so intimidated by the protestors outside they have asked for the abortion service to be withdrawn from the facility where they work;
  • Losing their anonymity, something enshrined within NHS policy and the policy of private health care providers.

The anti-abortion protestors will again maintain that they operate within the law. Claiming that it is ‘legal’ and therefore permissible is a facile argument because the law is fluid and changes all the time. It used to be legal to send ten year old children to work in cotton mills but that does not mean that it was right and fair at that time. The rules and legal conventions of a society may be created in a post-hoc kind of way because, (as is often the case), they are preceded by the acts that make them necessary.  Amazingly enough, there is no definitive legislation that stops people filming members of the public as they use health-care (with or without their knowledge), even if it might be an offence to publish those images without their consent. Filming under these circumstances needs to be stopped and women (and the men who respect them) are demanding change as a direct result of their own lived experience.

Many of the British based anti abortion activists are supported by the even more virulent American organisations who have the right to free speech enshrined within the First Amendment, which has no literal legal equivalent in the UK. Unfortunately the protestors appear, at times, to conflate free speech with hate speech, and the latter is something the UK does legislate against. It is up to the law to clarify this in relation to what is said to women by protesters in the public spaces outside clinics. As it stands now, a woman can pursue individual claims of harassment under the Public Order Act but these would have to be multiple named claims (same as before) against each individual which (again) further reduces her right to privacy and anonymity. Anti-abortion organisations must not make the mistake of believing a lack of pursuance under harassment laws means that women do not feel harassed by them. Claiming that women aren’t that ‘bothered’ about their protests and using this as basis to justify their continuance is disingenuous. Women are not going to use an equally troublesome and archaic legal system that makes is near impossible to gain adequate sanctions. The same limitations apply to the clinics themselves. Each one has the option of taking out restraining orders against individuals or a group, but this is costly, time consuming and the protestors merely circumvent this by reorganising themselves under a new organisational name.

The right to protest is a legal right, enshrined in UK law by the European Convention on Human Rights. The European Convention on Human Rights recognises a right to peaceful assembly in its article 11. It also recognises a right to freedom of expression, allowing individuals to express their opinions. In the UK, by law an organiser of a demonstration must inform the local police of their intentions, six days prior to the event and the police have the right to make any changes to that demonstration that they deem necessary. However, anti abortion activists circumvent the law on protests by organising themselves as a gathering (legally called ‘an assembly’) in a single location and they do not move from this location. In addition, they organise multiple single gatherings at every clinic in a region that offers termination of pregnancy.

These protest assemblies are different from marches because the organisers do not have to notify the police but the police retain the right to impose conditions on an assembly, if they feel they are necessary to prevent serious public disorder from taking place, or if they feel that the purpose of the gathering is to intimidate others. As with the law on protests, the police have the right to amend the location of an assembly, limit the number of attendees and shorten the length of time any protest runs for. It is this part of legislation which could be made more appropriate for anti abortion protests outside clinics.

Adopting a ‘buffer-zone’ will not fully protect pregnant women from people seeking to impose their views upon them and it will not stop those people from demonstrating in the street or in the vicinity of the clinics. But what it will protect against is pregnant women having their actual personal space invaded: it will protect them from being filmed and photographed and the subsequent placing of the film online; from having literature pushed upon them; from having people questioning them at a distance of less than several feet, jostling and acting as a barrier between the woman and the care she seeks out. It may be feasible to enshrine new legislation in a similar fashion to that which exists for research facilities where animal experimentation takes place: clauses were included in the Serious Organised Crime Act and Police Act 2005. These did not ban all protests or free speech but provided a corridor of protection where women and employees could move in and out of the vicinity free from harassment and infringements of personal space. It also made it easier to protect their cars from attack from people placing incendiary or other devices underneath them, an act of issue- terrorism. (These attacks have also happened in other nations where abortion is illegal.)

It is an incontrovertible truth that the abortion rate remains pretty stable and similar whether abortion is protected by a countries laws or not. It is an incontrovertible truth that making abortion illegal correlates with a high maternal morbidity and mortality rate. Making abortion illegal will NOT result in more women choosing to give birth or hand over their newborns for adoption. Instead they will seek out an illegal abortion and they will seek it with the same determination, courage and strength that sees them successfully negotiating the threatening hordes of demonstrators outside clinics in order that they retain reproductive autonomy and body agency. What DOES reduce the rates of abortion is excellent and early access to education in contraception, in relationships, sexuality and autonomy alongside easy (and inexpensive) access to contraception. It is not a coincidence that many of the groups opposing lawful access to termination of pregnancy also oppose sex education in schools and the provision of contraception to teenagers.

What I find especially arrogant about the act of foisting anti abortion literature on women whilst they attend clinics is the presumption that the women actually need that information at that moment in time or are receptive to it. The act of gaining permission for a termination under British law involves plenty of opportunities to inform oneself as one goes through the legal and clinical protocols. Women talk of the hours of thought expended in coming to a decision to terminate their pregnancy or not to. Behind the anti abortion lobby lies a profoundly anti women rhetoric, built upon paternalistic ideas of women being undeserving of full agency; of displaced jealousy over their ability to conceive and gestate children; of needing male input and control of their decisions. This rhetoric is usually underpinned by a religious justification- religion being the ultimate in patriarchal systems. Women are NOT coming to these clinics to engage in a debate and if they had doubts in their mind then this is a conversation to be had, not in the street with a total stranger, but with trained professionals or  with family in a protected and confidential space.

One in three women will choose to have a termination of pregnancy and I feel a measure of quiet pride that I live in a country that is still supportive of that right. I also value the right to protest but this must NEVER take precedence over a woman’s right to obtain advice, support and the treatment of her choice in an anonymous, discreet and protected manner. The right to protest is not harmed by the womens right to not be protested at directly outside a medical facility. There are plenty of opportunities for those against abortion to make their feelings known, both online and in the larger world. We must not become a society where decisions are fueled by fear of exposure and approbation by those who do not have to stay and face the consequences of those decisions.

For more information and support, contact the British Pregnancy Advisory Service


Guardian newspaper infographic

Eyes without a face – Lagerfeld’s new Barbie

Photo from Karl.com

In the ultimate expression of narcissism + materialism + sexism, Karl Lagerfeld has teamed up with American toy brand Mattel Inc. to create an ultra fashionable incarnation of the most famous doll in the world, Barbie – in his own image. Due for release on the 29th September during Paris Fashion Week, the doll will be limited edition and sold at $200 each in select outlets including Net A Porter, more normally a bastion for the selling of fashion apparel to clothe living, sentient women. However the match is superficially a good one for what is Barbie if not an entity that buys, has and sells things, including whole lifestyles and attitudes to a (mainly) female audience apparently eager to lap it up?

WWD have released a promotional image of Barbie looking up to Herr Lagerfeld who is blissfully unaware of the fact that Barbie would be unable to hold up her own head let alone gaze adoringly at him, should her body shape and measurements be scaled up into actual, um, real human woman size. Her neck would be totally unable to support the weight of her head. In an earlier study, Finland’s University Central Hospital in Helsinksi even found Barbie lacking the appropriate percentage of body fat required for menstruation and if Barbie were a real woman, her measurements would be 36-18-38. Maybe Herr Lagerfeld could design a nice line of Chanel pearl and camellia encrusted neck braces and surgical appliances for this anatomically challenged doll?

In Barbie, Lagerfeld has found his perfect fashion female- voiceless, unable to hold any bothersome opinions, devoid of messy bodily functions (especially having to eat, something Lagerfeld has in the past expressed his own distaste for) and never ever at risk of gaining an extra pound of weight on her improbable frame. To add insult to injury, this latest incarnation of Barbie cannot even express herself through her clothing. She is dressed as doppelganger of the sartorially predictable Karl who applies none of his admittedly stellar creativity to his own Chrome Heart encrusted, leather gloved perma tanned self.

“Fashion is about dreams and illusion” he said back in 2009 in an interview with Focus magazine. It is also about selling those dreams and illusions to the emerging lucrative markets in China and Taiwan, Japan, Middle East and Russia, playing off of their love of the kitsch and playful. This is marketing kitsch and archness to adults but sadly losing some of their original, achievable appeal at the same time, for make no mistake, these dolls are not to be played with and nor are they everyday acquistions. They possess even less of the hopes and dreams and displaced aspirations of the millions of little children who once played with them.

In being marketed as intended for fashions pedestal, Barbie has lost all of the qualities that her creator Ruth Handler, co-owner of Mattel, stated she saw in her when the doll debuted at the American Toy Fair in New York City in 1959.

“Barbie has always represented that a woman has choices. Even in her early years, Barbie did not have to settle for only being Ken’s girlfriend or an inveterate shopper. She had the clothes, for example, to launch a career as a nurse, a stewardess, a nightclub singer. I designed Barbie with a blank face so that the child could project her own dreams of the future onto Barbie,” Handler said in her book, “Dream Doll.” “I never wanted to play up the glamorous life of Barbie. I wanted the owner to create a personality for the doll.” “ she said.

Sadly, Lagerfelds Barbie has now been totally stripped of those sartorial choices, no longer even in possession of her own admittedly blank, face.
















“The Most Serious and Unaddressed Worldwide Challenge is the Deprivation and Abuse of Women and Girls” – Jimmy Carter

We review ‘A Call to Action – Women, religion, Violence and Power’ by Jimmy Carter


President Carter marches to the beat of third wave feminism and  intersectionality in this call to action. He believes that prostitution, the disparity in pay between the sexes, international human (and female) trafficking, oppression in the name of faith and female genital mutilation (FGM) are problems which affect us all, not just women and he does not differentiate between western, first world issues and those of the developing world either. All this, from what appears on paper to be the unlikeliest of sources- a peanut farming, Southern Baptist Nonegarian white man; a man of ninety who has visited over 145 countries as both politician and co- founder of the Carter Centre, set up with his wife Rosalyn to highlight and combat global poverty, inequality and ill-health.

In 2002, Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.” These travels inform his world view that when educational, political, social, economic and cultural structures are owned by men, then women can become trapped, along with their children, in cycles of poverty, war and violence. “There is a pretty good correlation between the overall economic well being of a country and how they treat their women with the right to education, for instance, or the right to jobs,” he stated.

In a A Call to Action, President Carter sets out 23 recommendations “that can help blaze the road to progress” and encourages people to visit The Carter Center web site and work alongside him and his wife to this end.

Yet Carter does not fall into the trap of defining Africa solely by images of disease, corruption and poverty, nor does he hold up the west (and the USA in particular) as shining beacons of How To Do Things. Rwanda has a parliament composed of nearly 2/3 women but in the West, the average is about 23%. We will let that comparison stand without further comment. The USA comes under severe criticism for the way in which the seriousness of rape and sexual assault are diminished by its military and educational establishments who are deemed to be lackadaisical in their efforts to tackle the rising tide of aggressive and overt misogyny that feeds and ‘permits’ such behaviours. The economic motives behind this, of not wanting to damage the reputation of their institutions in these times of aggressive educational marketing, are castigated and in his action plan Carter goes on to state that any right to obstruct the prosecution of an alleged rapist should be removed from commanding officers. Further highlighted is the US commitment to capital punishment and the Hawk like foreign policy which in his eyes, sets a moral example to everybody in the West. The example? That violence is the way to resolve problems.

Those of us who saw the way that AIDS rampaged through continents will also remember the inhumane way in which the christian right influenced foreign and domestic policy: they damaged initiatives aimed at tackling the HIV and AIDS crisis, hindering attempts to promote barrier contraception as a preventative measure and using a warped misinterpretation of the teachings of God to justify this. Countries such as Uganda were starting to make progress in reducing the rate of new infections until far-right American leaders influenced Nancy and Ronald Reagan to take a stand against condoms. These influential ‘Men of God’ (for they were usually men) obstructed further attempts to fund research- research that could have benefited people worldwide. These men who proselytised the love of God, bear direct responsibility for the deaths of many innocents, including children.

Carter is true to his strong faith but he is able to discriminate between it and a church that promulgates a hard-to-span gulf between the teachings of Christ and the interpretation thereof. His own resignation from the Southern Baptist Church as a result of its stricter reinterpretation of scripture which resulted in an edict that ‘wives should always be submissive and subjugated to their husbands’, denying them the right to seek out a chaplaincy, was the act of a courageous and unhypocritical man. Seen in the light of a childhood in the Bible Belt where life was permanently interpreted through that filter of faith, his decision is all the more admirable. He connects the rise in global violence and wilful, self-serving misinterpretation of religious scripture to justify the subjugation of women, to deeper issues of poverty and economic disparity. Where women serve and work at the highest levels, we see a corresponding rise in economic prosperity and social harmony.

It is not surprising that Carter has been seen by some of his countrymen and women as sanctimonious and reflective of the small town Southern Sunday School teacher and Pastor he was for many years. But there is nothing small town about President Jimmy Carter. His influence, thankfully, is global and his vision ahead of its time.