Reflections – Sarajevo to Cavtat

I’m not much of a photographer. I lack the skill and patience to capture telling moments in an artful way. Phone-snapping is no substitute. I simply prefer to remember and, if time permits, scribble some notes afterwards. Most of the detail is lost. But the feelings sparked by these memories – whether written or unrecorded – retain their colour. And Bosnia and Croatia are very vivid places. A few fragments from the summer…

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Bajram
We arrived at the end of Ramadan. Despite the heatwave and the fasting, Sarajevo throbbed with joyous energy. After sundown, fairy lights twinkled across the main street. Folk dancers performed their kolo in Baščaršija. The bakeries sold fresh somun and the char-grilled air was balmy.

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Bajram, as Eid is known here, fell on a Friday. For the kids, in particular, it was a memorable experience. Apart from our eldest, who’d lived in Sarajevo when she was a baby, this was the first time they’d been in Bosnia for the festival. They were happy to get involved in the family celebrations. As far as they were concerned, the occasion meant dressing nicely, eating plenty and receiving gifts. Across the world, irrespective of cultural background, the protocol for feast-days seems pretty similar. Although, I have to admit, the gathering of clans they often entail freaks me out a bit. Even in Ireland I’ve always recoiled from what’s considered a ‘traditional Christmas’. Bajram with my in-laws is along those, rather hierarchical, lines.

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Or perhaps it’s just me – the vegetarian foreign feminist who’s been bringing strange ideas to Sarajevo since 1996. An outsider, she makes weird observations. Like noticing how the men do all the sitting while the women serve the food. Or questioning, albeit furtively, who ‘entertains’ the children. Listening to the differences between ‘male’ and ‘female’ topics of conversation… lamenting, under her breath, those poor calves whose destiny is teletina.

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Maybe she’s hyper-sensitive, maybe she over-interprets. This is purely a personal, filtered snapshot. Still, from talking to Bosnian women, it’s clear they face many challenges relating to gendered expectations. These issues are by no means exclusive to Bosnia. They’re globally relevant. Rigid concepts of culture and strict social institutions breed injustice. Women and men must, together, create fairer alternatives.

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Above the city
Temperatures are in the high thirties. The tinderbox motif is more than mere historical cliché. Wildfires have broken out in Herzegovina. Sarajevo is a hothouse. We hit the hills. Jahorina. Walking along the mountain track, there’s no shelter from the sun. Shadowy valleys simmer under a diaphanous veil of haze. Insect-buzz – bumble bees, wasps, hoverflies, green bottles. Flitting among a riot of flowers, butterflies… speckled, white, brimstone and meadow brown. Nervous grasshoppers spring from our tread as we step off the path. A stunted fir tree offers minimal shade. Beside it, a lonely rose.

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The woodland way is cooler. We go as far as the wishing well. Under the creaking cables of the ski-lift which – to the kids’ delight and my dismay – seems to be functioning.

‘Can we? Please!’

Overhead, pulleys strain.

‘Are you totally insane?’

The children don’t give up. Soon I’m outnumbered, four to one. Even their father, who usually claims he suffers from vertigo, joins their campaign. He wants to relive his youth.

‘There was loads of snow when you went on it. At least that’d break your fall…’

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The scree slope looks merciless. But no-one heeds my muttering. The ‘safety bar’ descends. The gondola rises. Swaying… The distribution of our weight is skewed. What genius came up with these seating arrangements? The younger two are screaming with excitement. The little one is skinny enough to slide out underneath the transparent hood. Cold feet swing in the breeze. Each time we pass the supporting poles the whole contraption rumbles.

‘This is a horror movie!’

Ovo je super!

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At the top, the scenery is phenomenal. But there’s only one thing scarier than going up. It’s the downward lurch. This where the allegedly ‘responsible’ parent resorts to expletives and prayer… So much for Zdravo Marijo – the last line is too ominous, ‘at hour of our death’ etc.. Not appropriate. Better to stick to daily bread and temptation – hoping that we might survive to get some.

‘OH SHIT!’

My offspring snigger at maternal meltdown as the gradient steepens. And this is the radio edit of our tale. To be honest, I’d enjoy the ride if I didn’t have to hang on to the youngest. By sheer miracle, we make it back alive.

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Mount Igman a few days later. Malo Polje – the venue for the ski jump competition in the Winter Olympics of 1984. The commentary box now looks upon an overgrown piste, rusting equipment, a small playground. The sports reporters have long gone. Sadly, they missed my gymnastic debut on a trampoline for kids. A picnic on the fringes of newly cut pasture. The fragrance of haystacks wafts into the forest. Birdsong blends with the rasping of grey-backed crows. The clearing echoes, it prompts reminiscences. The middle child decides that having two parents from troubled places is ‘so awesome’. Or so messed up. These are mountains of dry thunder and grim memories – warring peaks. Still beautiful… still scarred. The mind wanders through the uplands.

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Cavtat
I first swam in the Adriatic with kids displaced by the conflict in the Balkans. Coming from Ireland, it was a thrill to be submerged without the risk of hypothermia. Returning over the years to the Dalmatian coast, I mastered a frog-like version of the breaststroke. Neither athletic nor elegant, but it lets me glide with my head above the surface. A retired couple chat in deeper water, talking about how glorious it is here. How peaceful… ‘nema galame’. The sea absorbs thoughts. Its warmth soothes.

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The children become amphibious. The older two plunge to the seabed. The youngest learns to swim without armbands. Ecstatic, she splashes unaided, stays afloat. Swimming into the sunset until the burnished swell slowly turns to twilight. Climbing rocks into the stars, the trail of a blue moon tapers, shimmering, towards the shore. On the last day, the seascape is four-dimensional. The glittering panorama of the bay gives perspective. Cloudless heights flow into fluid depths. Two decades of hopes and promises are refracted. Tears drown in salty slap-kisses of waves.

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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

The lady doth…

Glancing over my recent outpourings, 2014 is emerging as a year of protest. Real life is more mundane than an odd bit of blogging might suggest but, since my previous post, we’ve been on the streets again. Our venue on 22 February was the Russian Embassy in Dublin or, to be precise, the pavement outside its gate. Secluded in the valley of the River Dodder, finding this fine dacha amid its affluent environs was a navigational feat. I suspected cyber-espionage as its location flummoxed my phone’s omniscient ‘maps’ app. Being born without a Southsider’s silver spoon in my mouth may have further contributed to my disorientation…

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So why our Russian rendez-vous? At the close of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, we wanted to highlight how Vladimir Putin’s support for the Assad regime has fuelled killing in Syria. Our demonstration was appropriately timed. Later that day, news broke that Russia and China had finally lifted their veto on a UN Security Council Resolution to allow the passage of humanitarian aid to besieged Syrian civilians. A positive coincidence… However, the UN’s decision came after three unsuccessful attempts at agreement and its enforceability is dubious. Also any ‘victory’ in ensuring the safe delivery of vital supplies may prove Pyrrhic if the war in Syria doesn’t end quickly.

This month, the conflict enters its fourth year. And, whether or not their stomachs are lined with rations, children will continue to die unless the bombing of their towns and villages stops, unless all combatants observe a genuine ceasefire. Then efforts must begin to forge a sustainable peace. It seems an impossible task, given the scale of the conflagration and the fact that the world’s become inured to it. A handful of people displaying posters in Dublin can do little more than amuse or infuriate the Russian ambassador’s CCTV operators. Though, by now, our ex-KGB monitors have bigger worries – the likelihood of Irish Ukrainian sympathisers (or whatever the Kremlin might call them) on their doorstep.

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The planet indeed turns at dizzying speed. Or the fickle gaze of the media switches fast. From demonstrations and their repercussions in Kiev, cameras have honed in upon Crimea. And everyone’s an expert on Ukraine. Gung-ho hawks are virtually summoning the Light Brigade, mixing martial metaphors, blending Balaclava with the Balkans of 1914. Tinderboxes and ancient ethnic whatsits are back in fashion… the cliché machine is churning at full steam. Meanwhile, the ‘great powers’ do their utmost to sound imperious, mumbling and braying about ‘concerns’ and ‘costs’.

Sadly, any damaging consequences of present tensions will be borne by the people of Ukraine, irrespective of their backgrounds. It might be naïve, but for their sake, let’s hope that Putin’s bravado is domestic propaganda – a revamping of his macho image for an audience which has grown disaffected. Nevertheless, the West is paying Ukraine more heed than other trouble spots. Perhaps because its population is over 45 million, its territory is expansive and it possesses valuable resources. Or arguably that it takes crisis in a large European state, whose citizens are white and (apart from those pesky Tatars) of nominally Christian heritage, to attract serious occidental interest. Victims from less ‘familiar’ cultures are easier to ignore, even though their lives – as nurses, farmers, engineers, grandparents or school-kids – aren’t far removed from ours. But, for now, the world gapes at a peninsula on the Black Sea.

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Still, unrest in Europe isn’t confined to Ukraine. While Bosnia’s short stint in the international limelight may be over, protests there go on. Throughout the last month, these daily demonstrations, and the ‘plenums’ or public gatherings that they’ve prompted, have sent out stirring messages. The articulation of popular demands doesn’t guarantee their fulfilment, but formulating ideas is a step towards actual change. For those of us watching from abroad, there’s inspiration to be gleaned from the spirit shown by the Bosnian people.

If only we could learn from it. Maybe my obsession with foreign affairs is just a diversion from home news I’d prefer to avoid because of its painful impact. I should be marching against austerity, saying ‘no’ to the banks that are still tormenting families, including mine. But in Ireland these are matters more of shame than solidarity. Although some groups and individuals have made courageous statements, the silent bulk of us won’t admit we’re floundering in Forbes’ ‘best small country’. Clearly, we don’t all fit the business model. Or is it that the needs of children, the elderly, the disabled and the long-term unemployed aren’t entirely compatible with the enterprise drive which our government views as Ireland’s salvation?

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Even ‘fortunate’ nations often have unfortunate priorities. And, while Irish woes pale beside those faced by the majority of Earth’s citizens, global problems seem to stem from similar sources – classism, sexism, racism, homophobia, discrimination of whatever form. They’re inextricably tied to the greed of the wealthy and to disconnects between leaders and the (mis)led. These inequalities spawn infinite configurations of misery. But how to fight against them? Alone, we’re powerless. Yet, by speaking out for justice, our weak voices may resonate with the calls of others. Challenges in our own lives can enhance our sense of empathy, forcing us to see beyond ourselves. This can help us notice links across a multitude of causes and enable us to act together, with human rights our common denominator.

It’s no fluke that there’s such female presence in grassroots movements. Women know from experience that prevailing social systems, even those claiming to be egalitarian, are never neutral. Personal awareness of gender-bias and the need to question patriarchal norms should sensitise us to all who are oppressed. Like on many occasions in the past, our small bunch of protestors for Syria was predominantly female. In contrast, despite a few exceptions, most of those controlling geopolitics are men. And when women ‘succeed’ in securing prominent roles, they tend to follow male-established protocol instead of hewing out fresh alternatives.

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Maybe that’s a quest for us – to seek to do things differently, to be creative and rewrite unjust rules. A thought, perhaps, for International Women’s Day… I first celebrated 8 March in Sarajevo, thirteen years ago. My students surprised me with bouquets of flowers, chocolates, soap, and a bottle of shampoo! I was overwhelmed, especially as – at that time – Irish knowledge of the event was pretty slim. Our calendar marked only Mother’s Day, a kitsch opportunity to extol maternal prowess. Thankfully, Ireland’s since caught up with Bosnia. But feminism is more than a one-day wonder. It’s a process of liberation through constantly defying hegemonies. And women are damn good at that – we have to be! So I’m proud of my placard-waving sisters and my feisty daughters who’d pass for junior members of Pussy Riot. Protest too much? Not possible! Until we make our world a better place, methinks.

Happy International Women’s Day / Sretan Međunarodni Dan Žena!

This post was published in the Bosnian weekly Novo Vrijeme on 14 March 2014, available online at:

http://novovrijeme.ba/the-lady-doth/

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.

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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