Some kind of tune

For a while, it seemed my pen was running dry. But recent reports about how women have been affected by Ireland’s financial crisis triggered this response. An attempt at a protest song and homage to Dylan… minus the mouth organ:

Tune 1

 

Subterranean Home Truth Blues

Have babies too young,

Get priced outta town,

Big suit sellin’

Houses on commuter belt,

Laughs with his banker friends,

You sign – thinkin’,

‘Roof over children’s heads’.

But the ink’s permanent.

Look out girl

Read the small print.

Guys in the government

Gamble with the balance sheet.

You work hard, puttin’ food on the table,

And it appears

That things are

Tickin’ over –

Just raisin’ kids, upskillin’,

When the crash hits.

Tune 3

Bailout – you’re screwed,

Equity is negative,

Banks make phone-threats

To families in debt.

Meanwhile the troika – the trinity,

The new church, the state’s

Right hand – is absolvin’

The filthy rich.

Look out girl

You’re livin’ in sin

If you don’t believe

The neoliberal creed

That money’s morality

And virtue lies in greed…

You’re to blame –

Should be ashamed.

‘Well, bless me patriarchs,

For I’ve been ripped off.’

Tune 5

Qualify, diversify,

Enquire, apply,

Pick up precarious,

Temporary projects –

Never mind no pay,

Must keep in the fray…

Embargo on recruitment –

What to do? Emigrate?

Look out girl

It’s grim for you,

Chief losers are women –

Bearing the brunt of

Austerity’s burden.

Impact on wages,

High cost of childcare –

Hey, what employer’s

Gonna hire a mother?

Tune 8

‘Got sick, gettin’ well,’

Politicians tell us.

But the ‘recovery’

Seems a bit chimerical.

Outside the quarters

Of power and privilege,

Still tough for people –

And it’s becomin’ more and more unequal.

Look out girl

Even though it hurts,

Better stop ‘em stealin’

Our verve, hope and love.

Wanna be a success?

Rise like a lioness…

From each knock-down.

Yeah, teach your children –

‘Don’t follow leaders

And watch the water meters.’

Links:

The peerless Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues: 

Articles from 3/10/14 on ESRI study regarding women and austerity in Ireland: http://www.irishtimes.com/business/economy/married-or-co-habiting-women-hit-harder-by-austerity-1.1950132

http://www.independent.ie/business/personal-finance/latest-news/the-working-mothers-and-families-who-paid-the-bill-for-austerity-30634349.html

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Let them eat well-mixed cake!

A chilly afternoon, we’d be coming home from school raw-cheeked with the cold. Pushing the back door open, into our tiny kitchen… and the smell of Christmas cooking! My mother, in a flitter, would hoosh us out of the way. She’d look flushed, exhausted from vigorous stirring – you must ‘get plenty of air in, keeps it from sinking’. Better again if the mixture hadn’t already gone into the oven. We could lick the wooden spoon before the wash-up. Or scrape leftovers from the bowl. My mother would write a note on a tab torn off a cornflakes box: a list of times from start to expected finish, with reminders of regular checks in between. She’d tape this across the cooker switch, lest my father turn it off in a fit of safety consciousness. If it was windy, she’d worry a power-cut might sabotage her baking. She needn’t have fretted, her cakes were always perfect. They still are.

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I’m not a fan of tradition. It’s often laden with nostalgia, heavy as lardy pudding. A whiff of conservatism hangs around it, coated in an oversweet ideal of the past. Much as I love my mother’s Christmas cake, I couldn’t imagine myself as an heiress to her recipe. Apart from the fact that the culinary arts aren’t my strongest suit, the concept of perpetuating a ‘typical Irish Christmas’ has never appealed to me. Especially since I entered into an intercultural relationship, not long after leaving the nest. My husband and I would’ve felt awkward, foisting ourselves annually on my parents for the big event. Plus my mother had enough hassle, trying to put up with my younger siblings. So, although the drift towards the homestead (in the hope of decent food and freebie lodgings) has become quite a phenomenon in Ireland, I couldn’t act the ‘kidult’. Instead, I knew I’d have to create my own version of Christmas. And that meant learning how to cook.

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Fortunately, I discovered that while it sounds – and tastes – impressive, the making of a Christmas cake is well within the capability of domestic dummies. The skills it involves are fairly basic. All you do is weigh out copious quantities of dried fruit, throw in chopped almonds and glacé cherries, then steep these ingredients overnight in brandy. The next day add butter, sugar, flour etc., whisk a couple of eggs and apply brute force in the mixing. Be generous with the booze and you can’t go wrong. The tipsier the cake, the happier the guests – though it mightn’t be advisable to drive immediately after a slice of mine! Top with marzipan, white icing and some cute decorations, et voilà…

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Novelty can also whet the appetite. My seasonal cuisine has gone down a treat as far away as Bosnia and Japan. Changes of location can lead to improvisation. Dates, now a trendy addition recommended by TV chefs, served as a substitute for sultanas in Sarajevo. My notion of nutmeg was confined to the ground contents of a spice jar until I had to buy a ‘real’ one in Baščaršija. Milling it myself, using a contraption borrowed from my mother-in-law, its piquancy was memorable.

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As were many other aspects of Christmas in Bosnia. Going to midnight mass with my Muslim brother-in-law in the hush of feathery snowfall was soul-searing. Less mainstream than in Ireland, Sarajevo’s Yuletide was stripped of commercial glitz. Perhaps that allowed its pure magic to seep through. Trees draped in fairy lights can transcend divisions based on ethnicity and creed. Whether for Christmas or New Year, or both, a jelka brightens the bleakness of winter. And Deda Mraz / Santa Claus is a cross-cultural kind of bloke. Our kids are among the luckiest in the world because he calls twice to our house! Not only does the sleigh stop here on Christmas Eve but, following a garbled rendition of Auld Lang Syne, ‘Grandfather Frost’ drops back from Bosnia with more gifts.

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Celebrations bring out the best in cultures. They capture the joy that unites human beings. But such harmony isn’t easy to sustain. Differences don’t vanish, nor does the need for negotiation. Thoughts of the holiday season are soon obscured by clouds of everyday problems. Yet I wish the spirit of our Irish-Bosnian Christmas could somehow last. After the turkey-and-no-ham dinner (with vegetarian options) has been devoured. When the chocolates at the bottom of the tin have disappeared and there’s not a crumb of cake left…

In a few short weeks our jelka will lie discarded, shedding needles, on the porch. How to hold on to its zest? Maybe that’s a personal challenge for 2014. Until then, as my daughters are writing in cards to their friends:

Sretan Božić / Merry Christmas!

And, as this is probably my final blog of 2013:

Sretna Nova Godina / Happy New Year!

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Don’t ever have children!

That’s my advice to my daughters. I look forward to the day when they can tell me I was wrong. I hope they’ll be able to say that being a female parent doesn’t leave them at a disadvantage. But between now and then, I fear they’ll face a struggle.

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I wish I could sound more optimistic. As a born feminist, I’ve always believed women could rule the world. In primary school, the principal dubbed me a ‘right wee women’s libber’. I took it as a compliment, years before I fully understood what it meant. But Mary Wollstonecraft, the grande dame of feminism, would’ve been proud of me. I used to turn the dullest classroom tasks into chances for vindication. My spelling-practice sentences forever started with ‘the woman…’ instead of the default ‘man’. And this Amazon drove bulldozers and scaled the highest peaks. For, although I knew things weren’t exactly equal, growing up in the ‘80s I didn’t see any obstacles. Girls were achieving academically, there were laws against discrimination. Yet, through the twenty-first century, I’ve gone sceptical…

What happened in those intervening years? Did feminism get hijacked by the capitalist myth of ‘meritocracy’ sometime during the reign of Maggie Thatcher? Or was it the cosmetics industry conjuring, with its mascara wand, a new paragon of femininity – one who’s ‘worth it’? In all likelihood, it was a combination of these highly compatible forces. We girls apparently fell for it. Sexism was dead. Women could be prominent. If they used their brains wisely, never questioning the tilted playing field of male-oriented workplaces. It also helped, of course, if they had perfect figures and flawless faces.

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Feminism became a dirty word, reserved for bitchy losers. Apart from when it was sanitised and deconstructed in university courses. By the noughties, it’d already gained the prefix ‘post’. And, though women knew their trials were far from over, calling yourself a feminist seemed a bit passé in that era of bling and booty. Women’s concerns were more material, judging by the media space accorded to ‘It Bags’ and Botox. TV schedules bulged with celebrity chefs and programmes devoted to lavish home improvement. Not that I ever watched them. I was occupied with babies, studying and trying to hold onto whatever work I could get. Without the designer buggies and infant monitors suddenly deemed essential items in the business of modern motherhood. Somehow I never joined the cult of ‘yummy mummy’. Mental note to my less-than-dutiful daughters… don’t be duped by Gwyneth Paltrow’s gooped-up version of maternity!

Times, though, are a-changin’ and feminism is enjoying quite a comeback. During an economic melt-down. Well, perhaps that’s more than mere coincidence. Women are realising that there is such thing as society and that it’s rife with injustice and inequality. But is this latest wave of feminism as radical or as significant as its predecessors? Can it bring real reform, like the Suffragettes or the women’s movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s? Or is it just successful, still mostly ‘Western’, women striving to out-perform their male counterparts? To have as much stuff, dosh, sex, prestige… as the guys of the upper echelons. What has it got to offer the wider sisterhood? Those of us who may not be in a position to ‘lean in’ as Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, recommends.

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And dare I say the c-word? Yes, let’s talk about children. Do feminists skirt too lightly around the delivery suite? After three painful visits, I’ll admit it’s not the prettiest of places. But childbirth is an experience that, at some point in our lives, most women share. It has a massive impact on our identities. Shaping new roles we assume… and boxes into which we’re often shoved. Motherhood is a very complex construct. And it’s one with which feminism must constantly engage. The challenges faced, for instance, by the frazzled mum who’s juggling job and child-rearing or the pregnant teenager trying to cope on social welfare are familiar. But does that mean they’ve ever been addressed? Even the aspiring graduate is likely to find her options slashed if a ‘Clearblue’ pee-stick turns positive before she’s established her career path. Qualifications quickly devalue when the stork arrives in your biological prime. Instead, childcare serves as the litmus test of a mother’s employability. Whenever it’s too expensive or difficult to schedule around working hours, kids become a distinct liability. This Catch-22 scenario is typical of recessionary Ireland. Personally, I’m au fait with its bitter reality.

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So where’s the feminist clamour for a pro-women work-life balance? Beyond occasional voices that tend to fade too fast. In Ireland’s recent abortion debate, a question rarely heard was ‘why do women not want children?’ It’s no longer about the risk of stigma within a quasi-theocracy. Frequently, it’s that another ‘hungry mouth’ could push a family into poverty or that, in the work-sphere, an unplanned baby-bump equates to professional suicide. Such reasons call for reflection on the social structures behind them. How much ‘choice’ do women really have in a chauvinistic world? How woman-friendly are even the most ‘developed’ of nations?

And what about the larger part of the planet, countries in which women’s role in society is critically defined by reproduction? Where this can be a death sentence – every day, according to the WHO, 800 women die of preventable causes during pregnancy and childbirth, with 99% of these fatalities in developing countries. Places where women labour under harsh conditions simply to feed their children… sometimes at the expense of their own lives. The majority of the victims of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh were female. What does feminism have to say about women slaving in dangerous sweat-shops to make clothes for their Western sisters? About girls deprived of schooling, married off at an early age? The tragedy of the child-bride who died last week in Yemen, highlighted the horrors of a practice often associated with dowry customs and their consequences for poor families. Young Malala Yousafzai, who defied the bullets of misogynistic extremists and who continues her fight for girls’ right to education, sets us an extraordinary example. We feminists from affluent states have a lot to learn.

malala

Surely these are issues more important than the ‘politics’ of body hair – a popular theme in current feminist argument. Or women’s need for porn, despite Germaine Greer’s description of it as a ‘huge wart’ that’s inherently anti-feminist. I’m not denying there are different pressures on girls growing up in Ireland to those felt by their peers in Pakistan. And on the subject of pornography, its internet ubiquity is something that scares me stiff – especially as my daughters reach adolescence. It’s a frightening thought that teenagers now have a cyber-skewed concept of what constitutes a relationship. Feminists rightly condemn this sinister influence which exposes girls to new forms of abuse. Yet they’re more ambivalent about ‘erotic’ novels, featuring female characters in archaic roles of submission, when these are written and gobbled up by middle-aged, middle-class women. Double standards?

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I recently read a collection of essays called ‘Fifty Shades of Feminism’, its title subverting that of the bestselling ‘raunchy’ trilogy. The volume compiled the views of fifty women – many with a background in either the arts or journalism. Its purpose was to look at ‘what being a woman means to them and to those around them today’. I found some of its entries rather self-pleasuring. Orgasmic paeans to feminism, albeit slightly more nuanced than Caitlin Moran’s riff on how to be a person with a vagina.

Other contributions were, however, powerful. Sayantani DasGupta probed how Western narratives on gender oppression can often ‘reinforce racist/imperialist assumptions’ by portraying it as being ‘worse’ in non-Western countries. International coverage of gang-rape and murder in India can indeed mask attention from grim statistics much closer to home. In the UK and Ireland rape convictions are in the abysmal region of 6 to 7% and British figures indicate that 90% of cases go unreported. At the same time, rape as a weapon of war – now widespread in Syria – attracts little media interest. So who decides which woman’s story needs to be told… and why? As feminists, we have to ask ourselves if we’re guilty of issue selectivity. Do we just jump on certain bandwagons?

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Even in relation to less serious matters, does feminism represent all the shades along its spectrum? Where, for example, is the Irish campaign for greater parental equality? When surveys on the topic repeatedly confirm that mothers in Ireland do the lion’s share of housework and raising children. From the outset of our marriage, my husband and I have divided domestic chores. Initially this came as shock to a guy from the Balkans, but he managed to get the hang of it. After our kids were born, though, I had to adjust my life to function as ‘always-on’ parent while he continued with his, relatively unaffected. This paradigm – reliant on the multi-tasking superwoman – is perpetuated by the state’s lip service to paternity. Ireland lacks an equitable system which grants adequate leave to both mothers and fathers, as is the norm in Scandinavian countries. And, socially, we’re still a long way from ‘fifty-fifty’ parenting.

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So my message to my girls is… hold off on the children! Freeze your eggs and wait until there’s genuine liberation. Or you’re earning a salary sufficient to pay other women to look after your offspring – such are the (male-devised) principles of supply and demand. Don’t be deceived into thinking the world’s your oyster. It can shut on you clam-tight with the burgeoning pearl of an embryo. For feminists, this mother of all battles is yet to be won. Be careful then, my dears. Don’t fall in love too soon. And never, when you’re twenty-one, let your heart be charmed by a Bosnian!

My daughters just roll their eyes. They’ve heard this kind of spiel a trillion times. Headstrong like their father and as rebellious as their mother, it’s most unlikely they’ll listen. Though, at least, I’m sure of one thing – they’ll belong to the next generation of feminists.

Read more…

Fifty Shades of Feminism – Edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach, Virago 2013