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Archive for the ‘International’ Category

I’m all for positive discrimination when it’s merited and, let’s face it, it very often is. Having witnessed the progress of women in Irish politics being systematically thwarted over the decades I fully support the proposed introduction of candidate quotas – many of the most enlightened and progressive democracies in the world have used them very effectively to introduce some much-needed gender balance into their parliaments.

However, I’ve always struggled with the notion of women only prizes in the arts, such as the Orange Prize for Fiction - due to be announced later today - or the MaxMara Art Prize for Women. To me the establishment of such closed competitions is tantamount to admitting “we can’t play with the big boys in the park so we’re taking our ball home to kick it around in the safety of our own back garden”. That sporting analogy prompts me to mention those sporting competitions where women are unable to compete directly against men but where they refuse to let this hold them back. For years women who competed at Wimbledon grudgingly accepted less prize money than their male counterparts despite thrilling fans with edge-of-the-seat showdowns time and time again. Finally in 2007 reasonableness prevailed and Wimbledon joined the United States and Australia in paying equal money across the board, from the champions down to the first-round losers in all events.

We can sing, draw, sculpt and write just as well as the next man.

It’s different in the arts. We can sing, draw, sculpt and write just as well as the next man. Any handicap we have suffered from in the past has been a lack of access to the funding and critical evaluation long taken for granted by men. For that reason I’m all for supporting women in the arts and introducing their work to the widest possible audience. I hate to see fiction trivialised when it happens to be written by a women while at the same time the latest considered and weighty tome gestated by some male, white middle-aged sage is fawned over and lavished with praise by the predominantly male reviewers writing in the quality press.

Loath though I am to give them the oxygen of even more publicity the recent musings of Nobel laureat and highly acclaimed author, VA Naipaul are relevant in this context. The venerable old gent is certain that there is no woman writer he could possibly consider his equal and that we are held back by our “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. This, he feels perhaps, cannot be helped. As Naipaul helpfully points out,”inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.” Do we really want to live in a society that encourages highly respected and accomplished men like Naipaul to believe that remarks like these are acceptable? Although patently and painfully antediluvian it is the existance of such distain that makes me believe that we should focus all of our attention on getting our work out there and beating them at their own game. For men who remain convinced that wimmin’s books are not for them Joylandmagazine.com has helpfully compiled a list of 250 gems that are worthy of their attention (and this is just for starters – there are many, many more).

We can undoubtedly kick ass. Whilst more men have carried off the prestigious Man Booker prize the women that have triumphed to date are undoubted stars – women like Anne Enright, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Attwood, Pat Barker and Iris Murdoch. The shortlisted authors for the 2011 Orange prize includes books that are arguably deserving of a place on any Man Booker shortlist - Room was in fact included – or international equivalent:  Emma Donoghue’s Room, Aminatta Forna’s  The Memory of Love, Emma Henderson’s Grace Williams Says it Loud, Nicole Krauss’s Great House, Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife and Kathleen Winter’s Annabel.

I’m far less ambivalent when it comes to the showcasing of women’s talent. Women have historically been denied the power, influence, resources and encouragement to produce and display our work to the widest audience possible and that imbalance needs to be redressed. Our art galleries are still stuffed to the gills with work produced, promoted and prized by men. Events like the inaugural Women of the World festival at London’s Southbank Centre provided the head-and-gallery space to allow a wide audience to view, critique and comment on the work of many hundreds of talented, imaginative, creative women who were all too often pushed into the shadows in the past.

These event and others like the Birds Eye View Film festival seem like a good idea to me. They are undoubtedly a valuable vehicle facilitating the promotion of oft neglected work. Feminist commentator Bidisha recently wrote in the Guardian, “people who loath women’s events do so because they loath women and cannot stand to be around them”. She adds that these events help to shatter the myth that women are in some way unworthy of hanging their work alongside that produced by man, saying, “women are not too shy, too talentless, too scarce, too petty, too this or that…or not enough of something else”.

This I applaud. My problem is with the prizes; the artificial pat on the back for the woman who sees off fifty percent of her peers without troubling the other lot. By all means push us forward, give us a platform, review our work on an equal basis, give us the gravitas and the column inches but when it comes to the prizes let us compete with the boys and not just amongst ourselves. I’d be genuinely interested to hear the counter argument or any comments as this is something that  has always caused me a degree of discomfort.

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Naked in Berlin

Display on nudism in the former East Germany. DDR Museum Berlin, by Karl Gunnarsson

It’s ladies day at the sauna in my local gym in East Berlin and I’m almost mesmerized by the amount of flesh on show. I’ve found myself sharing the small wooden enclosure with three elderly East German ladies all of whom are blessed with ham-like thighs and the most impressively enormous pendulous breasts.

The women are nattering away as I slink in and soon draw me into their conversation. They tell me about growing up in the area and how much it has changed. They all worked as nurses and in their day they had no time for hanging out in cafes with their strollers like all the current trendy mums in the hood. I nod and smile and sweat, all the time slightly mortified because I am Irish and NAKED IN FRONT OF STRANGERS.

It’s something I’ve had get used to in a city where people whip off their clothes willy-nilly. In saunas, at the gym, badminton courts, the parks, a friend even reported seeing someone wearing just a purse and flip-flops in a shop, the Germans are happy to let it all hang out, no matter what the size or shape. In the summer you can barely go a week without encountering a bronzed-to- within-an inch- of-leather figure coming at you.

Coming from a nation that should get a prize for the ability to put on swimsuits with one hand while clinging for dear life to the corners of a towel with the other, this can be a traumatic encounter. And eventually there is little choice but to join in. Never mind the bratwurst and the biergartens, the sign of true integration is being able to get naked with the Germans.

And far from being some kind of army of extras in a Leni Riefenstahl film, they are not really that dissimilar from us. A bit taller, a bit less pear-shaped, not quite so pasty, but they have scar tissue, purple veins and knobbly knees too and the weight of gravity works as much on their breasts and buttocks as on the rest of us.

It’s just something they have no absolutely no self-consciousness about. Nudism has been something of a cause in Germany since the 19th century and in the 20s became associated with all kinds of utopian ideals. FKK, Freiekörperkulutur (free body culture) is as ingrained as having mayonnaise with your chips or a strange obsession with white asparagus.  In the former East it was particularly popular, a sort of escape from the preponderance of uniforms, pins and badges that declared one’s loyalty to the communist regime. In nudity everyone truly was equal.

Public disrobing has become easier over time. It is simply quicker and easier to perform a clean strip at the swimming pool or sauna than all that rigmarole of hiding the bits that everyone else is displaying so nonchalantly. And the city is also full of great Turkish baths where you hang about semi naked for hours, popping in and out of the saunas and steam rooms and sipping mint tea. No one is batting an eyelid so in the end you don’t too much yourself, at least not too much. Somewhere the Catholic schoolgirl within is still uncomfortable with so much brazenness.

My first real plunge was back in the mid 90s. I shared a ramshackle flat with two other Irish lasses in the former East. The toilet was out on the landing and there was no bathroom but for a few blessed months the contraption of a shower that had been erected in our kitchen worked fine. It took half an hour to heat up the water in the tank per shower, and we often had another 3 or 4 people sleeping on our floor, but that was what mornings were for, to sit around drinking tea and coffee and talking about maybe looking for a job as a cleaner that afternoon… or tomorrow… or next week.

Then the shower broke and our neighbour downstairs came to the rescue. Martin, an East Berliner, had the luxury of a bachelor pad all to himself, though this consisted of one room, with open plan kitchen and shower. I didn’t know Martin that well, I had arrived to the city later than the other two and had managed to avoid this exhibitionist cleansing ritual by having a boyfriend not too far away with a tremendously fabulous bathroom. Then me and the fella sort of split up and it was perhaps the white tiles, the gleaming taps and the shower nozzle that I missed the most.

So off I trudged to Martins with my towel and shampoo and not a little trepidation. He flung back the door, wearing his tie-dyed t-shirt and a bleary-eyed look from too much of something, and pottered back to his armchair to listen to dub music; Martin only ever listened to dub music. Here goes, I thought. I quickly shed my clothes on the floor, hopped into the shower unit and had the fastest soap and scrub known to womanhood, before shoving on my clothes again, grunting Danke and running back upstairs.

A few hours later my flatmate came back from her own shower hooting with laughter. “You stripped in front of bloody Martin!”  “Er, yes isn’t that what you guys have been doing?” She snorted in disbelief. Oh no, like the demure well-brought up ladies they were, they always brought an extra towel to hang over the side of the shower, shielding them from their host’s gaze

From then on Martin was a lot friendlier to me, not in a creepy way, just in a way that implied acceptance and respect. That said: Hey, Mädel, you are one of us now.

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Fresh from having to buy his own Guinness in Moneygall (didn’t we learn from Primary Colours that elected officials never carry their money?), the Obamas have now been subjected to the Great British Barbecue. The name in itself is bothersome because to an American, a ‘barbecue’ is a deep South tradition involving whole chickens, racks of ribs bigger than the average Corgi, and heaps of ‘special recipe’ barbecue sauce with lashings of Jack Daniels.  It’s a very different meal from the array of charred processed meats that we Europeans might indulge in; that’s ‘grilling’, a softy Yankee art form.

Now *that’s* what I call a barbie

(image c/o Wikipedia’s ‘Southern Barbecue’ entry)

Still, semantics aside, the men were  jockeying for position over the burgers (cue much giggling about Nick Clegg being relegated to coal-prodding duty) whilst Michelle Obama and Sam Cam served the salads.

The obvious political photo-ops aside, this was bound to provoke yelps of ‘but why can’t the women be on sausage duty?’ (perhaps more tastefully put than that, and ignoring the obvious point that the real work will be done by a bunch of Secret Service guys dressed up as caterers).

The whole idea of the barbecue as the last bastion of testosterone makes me giggle. In my ‘mixed marriage’, my vegetarian husband is firmly in charge of any kind of ‘green shit’, whereas the position of Meat Mistress is equally firmly mine. Every year, when the weather gets good, my thoughts turn to firestarting in the proximity of gas canisters, to finding the best short ribs known to (wo)man and to experimenting with the marinades to see which bring the best flames (what’s a barbie without a blaze atop it?).  After ten years with my husband, I’ve learned to love the green stuff, and all winter long, we generally eat the same veggie food. But at the first glimpse of sunshine, the carnivore in me rises up from the core and my thoughts turn to juicy steak, to salmon with soy sauce, to prawns with roasted garlic. OK, so we’re pretty good at figs and balsamic, at grilled asparagus, at Portobello mushrooms in Hawaiian spices. But there’s nothing masculine about THIS grill queen. If I were the President’s wife (one can dream), I’d be barging in there, apron akimbo, desperate to get at the good stuff.

And it does beg the question; what would have happened if Hillary Clinton had won the Democratic primaries? Would she have been allowed her time with the tongs whilst Bubba, a Southern-barbecue aficionado, tossed salads and discussed Erdem with Sam? Perish the thought.

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As a sport, and as an abstract concept, badminton has always seemed pretty inoffensive. Professional badminton players do not take out super-injunctions. Badminton fans are never accused of starting riots that tarnish their country’s image abroad. For many years, badminton was the non-sporty person’s sport of choice. It was the type of Tuesday evening activity to which a man brought his wife along for a spot of mixed doubles against an equally married couple, who would argue furiously about the best way to hold a shuttlecock, and then win.

So it’s kind of surprising that the root of almost all evil appears to be lurking within the Badminton World Federation.

On June 1st, its all-male executive board is scheduled to implement new clothing regulations that force women players to wear skirts or dresses as “part of an overall campaign to raise the profile of women in badminton and the profile of the sport”.

Acceptable attire for female competitors, according to guidelines issued by badminton's governing body. The lucky ladies will also be allowed wear "skorts" or skirts over tracksuits/leggings.

It is sexy time on the back alley. (That’s a badminton term.)

The new rules have already caused uproar among Muslim players, prompting the Islamic party in Malaysia, where the BWF is based, to call for a boycott of top tournaments. Perhaps sensing that Islam has the greater experience when it comes to dress code enforcement, the BWF delayed the introduction of “Rule 19.2” by a month and “clarified” its stance: “[The new regulations] will not in any way discriminate against any religious or other beliefs, and respects women. Players will continue to wear shorts if they wish but simply wear a skirt over the top of the shorts.”

But what reason could there possibly be for making female athletes – people whose success depends on the strength of their smashes and the delicacy of their drop shots – wear a superfluous piece of fabric? I’m stumped. Could it be that the unnamed “external international marketing agency” that advised the BWF on its policy are closet Kournikova-ites?

BWF deputy president Paisan Rangsikitpho believes the new skirt rules will “enhance the presentation of the game in general” and help the sport attract “a wider target group amongst both younger and older people, and amongst both women and men, where an aesthetic and stylish presentation of the players is certainly an important factor”. The guidelines do not “push any women to wear clothing they are not comfortable with” and the BWF is certainly not portraying women as “sexual objects”, he insists.

“However, they have to wear a skirt.”

There are no double faults in badminton. Doublethink, on the other hand…

Lady shuttlers! What are you thinking wearing these hideously unfeminine items?! You'll empty the arenas in no time.

If the BWF wants to talk about style rather than sexism, allow me to examine its statement on those grounds for a moment. Its stance is that having a piece of material flouncing against their thighs (but not joining up between them) makes women athletes aesthetically pleasing enough to pull in hordes of hypothetical spectators – even though if there’s one female fashion trend that reliably infuriates the men I know, it’s skirts-over-trousers.

One of the hallmarks of the “stylish” is that their clothes are some kind of twist, with varying degrees of rebelliousness, on the norms of the context in which they are worn – usually by borrowing from the style tradition of another context. It’s a subtle negotiation. I would no more wear my high-waisted black tulip skirt to a badminton session than I would sport one of Sue Sylvester’s Adidas tracksuits to a tango class.

Badminton bosses have their sensitive eyes on the sponsor-friendly style showcase that is the ladies’ tennis tour. That’s their context. But they’ve forgotten that style, by definition, is personal. Take away the element of choice and there is no style, only a uniform. And what players and spectators alike will recognise is that this uniform is crafted from unpleasant, exploitative motivations. Come see our cuties perform!

Objections from Australia, China, Indonesia, India and the Scandinavian countries mean the BWF’s plans for world domination via the swish of a few A-lines may yet be thwarted. Worryingly though, it seems badminton isn’t the only sport where the governing bodies are seeking to glamorize and feminise women athletes in accordance with male, corporate ideas of glamour and femininity.

Even more bizarrely, the International Boxing Association is reportedly quite keen that women boxers wear skirts at the London 2012 Olympics. This has spurred Peter Taylor, father and coach of Irish boxer Katie Taylor, to put in a pre-emptive strike by telling The Examiner that his daughter simply won’t box in a skirt: “We’ve got morals that go above marketing. It’s discrimination. It’s obviously men making these decisions and it’s wrong.”

There may be alternative ways to resist, other than refusing to compete. “I have an idea for how I am going to combat it, but I’ll keep it secret for now,” the Scottish badminton player Imogen Bankier has tantalisingly said of her sport’s “silly” and “unnecessary” clothing regulations.

Perhaps all the women players could show up to the next high-ranking tournament in fishtailed maxi dresses and make a mockery of the BWF with every hobble and lurch.

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By releasing his birth certificate last month, Barack Obama was hoping to silence the ‘birthers’ who’ve been blabbing on about his place of birth for years. The image of his live birth certificate was instantly picked up by the media and bloggers. I happened upon it on some website and wanted to take a closer look. My eyes scanned down the page – yes, he was born on American soil. Case closed. But then I spotted a detail about his mother. I probably knew this before but I either forgot or never really took it in at the time. Barack Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham (Anna), was 18 when he was born.

I suppose I was struck first by the fact that Anna was so young when she had him and she went on to create a stable environment for her son and herself. You could say this mother did good – to have her son go on to become the President of the United States, be such a role model to millions of people and become a good father to his two daughters.

The other aspect, of course, is that Anna was a white woman who had a child with a black Kenyan man. The year, in case you forget, was 1961. Mixed race relationships were heavily frowned upon at the time – it couldn’t have been the easiest of environments for Anna to raise her child (although the family did move to Indonesia for a while and Barack lived in the more multi-cultural Hawaii during his teenage years).

But then again, from all reports, Anna was always a woman who marched to her own beat. She was smart, did well in school, was interested in culture and hung out with a crowd of liberals who read Sartre and Marx. She started classes at the University of Hawaii, which is where she met graduate student Obama Senior – he was seven years older than her. When she fell pregnant, the two married but it wasn’t to last long. They divorced in early 1964 and Anna went on to re-marry the next year.

I suppose what is most admirable about Anna is the fact that as well as bringing up the young Barack, she completed her degree and went on to become a leading light in the field of anthropology. She also devoted a lot of her time to human rights, women’s rights and helped support small industries, particularly those in rural areas of Indonesia.

Sadly, she died at a young age – just 52. She died within a year of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1995. A film on her life is in the works and Barack Obama has expressed, on many occasions and through his writings, his profound respect and love for his mother. While the eyes of the world have been on that all-important birthplace on a birth certificate, Anna also has her presence on that document. The 18-year-old college student without a clue of what the rest of her life would be or what her son’s life would go on to be.

Lisa Jewell is a freelance journalist based in Dublin who writes mostly on health, lifestyle and human interest stories. Follow her on Twitter: @LisaJewelldub.

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Four weeks ago today, as a sunny Sunday came to a close, I sat in the restaurant of a hotel in Clare. Perched on a clifftop, the view was of huge Atlantic waves crashing on the beach, the surfers long gone as the last light drained from the sky. My husband was putting our children to bed in a family room two floors up. Our two-day break was nearly over. I say break, but as any parent with small children will tell you, ‘break’ is the most ill-conceived description of a holiday with young kids. Tons of fun, yes. A relaxing rest, no. After adventure parks and bouncy castles, beach strolls and round towers (where I managed to convince my son that Rapunzel lived), we decided to grab an hour or two to ourselves for dinner. The babysitter was booked, I ordered our main courses and although the view bordered on romantic cliché, it was insanely pretty. The minutes ticked by, other diners looked at me sympathetically. My wedding ring and the book of short stories I was reading did nothing to dispel she’s-been-stood-up glances of pity. I texted my husband. My normally well-behaved children, bitten by the holiday hyperactivity bug, were having none of it. After milk, umpteen stories and back-rubs, there was outright mutiny. Sleep? No way!

Kate and Gerry McCann

I mentally cancelled the crème brûlée I had seen on another diner’s table. After nearly an hour of wrangling, my husband gave up and sent the babysitter away. The kindly restaurant manager offered to send our food up to our room. My heart sank. I adore my children, and I thought of their impish faces as I wearily pushed the button for the lift – but everyone needs time out. At the time, I didn’t think of Kate and Gerry McCann. A harried doctor couple with three kids under four (including daughter Madeleine) attempting a family holiday, while stealing time for themselves; for the couple they were before they had children. I didn’t think of them, because at no point did my husband or I – as good as the view looked and the steak smelled – suggest to each other that we leave our children in the room alone. The McCanns stayed in an apartment a short distance (but completely separate from) the Tapas bar  where they spent that fateful night. Our room was two floors up in the same building, with key card access, 30 seconds from the restaurant, but still the thought was not there. It wasn’t even that it was unuttered – it never entered our collective brains to begin with. Watching the McCanns being interviewed on The Late Late Show recently, I had a flashback to that Clare hotel. How could they have left their children alone?

It’s a question that every armchair critic and news corporation has been demanding of Kate and Gerry McCann. It’s probably the one they ask themselves every night as they go to bed without their daughter.  On the last night of their stay in Portugal, they did what they had done every other night. They gambled. They made what they thought (must have thought, as I still don’t understand their rationale) what seemed like an innocuous choice. Food and drinks with friends versus leaving their young children untended. Not only was their decision as catastrophic as it gets, it has made them parental pariahs accused of everything from wife-swapping to sedating their child and much worse. They told Ryan Tubridy the story they’ve told a thousand times to Spanish police, to newspapers, to everyone they know. Clearly, it never gets easier. Kate’s face, as she talked of the horrific moment of realising her daughter was gone, was taut with pain. Online reactions to the interview were harsh. Too harsh. Because they have paid the ultimate price, and will have to live with unquantifiable levels of regret and guilt. I understand their lives were stressful, that they were tired parents, that they were eking out some downtime together in the evenings. That’s where I understand Kate and Gerry McCann. But that’s where my comprehension ends, because of the unfathomable decision they made that night.

In a Clare hotel, the food arrived to our room and we drank a glass of wine. My son and daughter wanted to taste the potatoes, in between bouncing on the beds and giggling. My heart nearly burst looking at them. Half an hour earlier, I could have screamed at them. Tired, I lay down and my daughter cuddled up beside me, her curls tickling my cheek. Her gorgeous face, all big-eyed and cheeky staring at me. Of all the memories we made that weekend, that was the one etched in my mind during the McCann’s interview, thankful that I can feel my daughter’s skin and smell her hair every day of my lucky life. And I feel nothing but pity for the McCanns because they cannot do the same thing.

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I can now confirm from personal experience that Her Majesty is a pretty nice girl, but she didn’t have a lot to say.

Well, that’s not entirely fair. She didn’t say a lot to me individually, but the fact that she took time to stop to talk at all was remarkable.  I was lucky enough to be among approximately 200 academics from Irish universities who were invited to meet the Queen of England in the Long Room of Trinity College Dublin.  We were told to expect that she would be briefly introduced to each of us but would continue on without stopping. In fact, she stopped to shake hands and exchange a few words with most of us.

The Queen of England and the Provost of Trinity College Dublin

We were lined up along the sides of the beautiful old library, and when the queen entered there was a genuine sense of her presence.  The time she was taking to interact with the different guests present meant that it was almost half an hour before she arrived at the group of biologists that I was standing with. As I felt my legs tiring, I was already feeling impressed by the stamina and energy of this 85-year-old lady.

The Queen in the Long Room, Trinity College Dublin

I wasn’t one of those who was in awe of the queen.  I would consider myself to have been rather neutral.  However, when she got close I was struck by her genuine smile, the life in her eyes, and the fresh glow of her skin.  However, this was nothing compared to how impressed I was by her sharp mind.  As she chatted to each of us in turn it was clear that she was doing more than nodding and smiling.  When Dr. Emmeline Hill, who was standing beside me, told the queen of her research into the genetics of thoroughbred horses and how it relates to racing performance, she was clearly interested and quickly replied that the work was very useful considering how up until now they have only had pedigrees to go on.  [Spoiler: she was spot on.]  Frankly, I would have forgiven her if she had zoned-out after half an hour of introductions, but she was listening attentively, with her eyes focused on the person she was talking to.  I liked her.

When she started her speech on Wednesday night in the Irish language there was palpable surprise and admiration in the audience. She then went on to give a carefully and well crafted speech which delicately acknowledged the past yet looked to the future.  I was surprised by how powerful and moving the speech was. This visit has been so masterfully done. What could have been at worst a flash point for violent protest, or, more blandly, a tourist trip, has, I believe, become a significant political and public event. I believe she went much further in her speech than anyone had reasonably expected.

I acknowledge that I’m a chronic optimist, but it does feel like the simple gesture of this lady coming to visit has actually caused us to achieve something, and to (hopefully) finally leave the past behind. I’m surprised even by my own reaction. I never had a problem with her visit, but I was mostly indifferent. It has actually been wonderful, and she has genuinely gone up in my estimation.

I think that in some ways this visit was a test of the maturity and self-confidence of this country. Could we welcome the Queen of England as a respected guest and head of state? or would we wallow in the past? Most people I have spoken to seemed genuinely pleased at her visit and the symbolism for the relationship between the two countries (which in political terms, is already incredibly close). Overall the response I have witnessed has been warm and mature.

I see her now as an impressive and professional stateswoman, even if I’m not in favour of the system by which she was granted her position. I am very happy that I got the chance to shake her hand.

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