t’s time once again to mark May Day, the international holiday for workers. And given that this decade is seeing the centenaries of many events that had a major impact on 20th century life, perhaps it’s also a good time to reflect on why the Worker’s Holiday was considered necessary. A century ago, manual labourers were expendable. Worksites were dangerous places, and an injury or illness meant no income. Company owners and managers cared little about their staff. It was the time that moved W. B. Yeats to pen the scathing lines:
What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone.
The workers’ rights movements, and the establishment of unions, saw the end of child labour, the initiation of a two-day weekend, a 40-hour work week, minimum wage, holiday pay, paid sick leave, maternity leave. A host of things we take for granted now, to the extent that many no longer see the need for unions.
But now a draft report by the World Bank is suggesting that all these measures be abandoned if they hinder a company from maximising its profits. It says “High minimum wages, undue restrictions on hiring and firing, strict contract forms, all make workers more expensive vis-à-vis technology.” The recommendations are part of the World Bank’s Development Report for 2019, which will focus on how automation and technology are impacting on jobs.
We’ve been here before. Revelations emerge about a famous figure’s misdeeds and public condemnation and discussion about our misogynistic society grows, building up hopes that things will finally change. And maybe for a while it does. But soon the furore fades away and the status quo returns. Next month, Harvey Weinstein will be forgotten, only to be raised in end-of-year round-ups and when the Oscars roll around again.
I suspect there’s a man behind this excoriation of Weinstein. The producer’s projects have not had the same impact in recent years as before. His last Best Picture Oscar was in 2012 for The Artist. His crown was slipping. And some man hoping to grab it for himself decided to bury Weinstein in all those tales of rape and abuse known try everyone in the industry.
The complaints of a handful of women were publicised first, with the glorious Rose McGowan being perhaps the most active on social media. But the accusations had to be banded together to gain credence. McGowan’s account of how she was punished by the industry for speaking out led to a few other abuse perpetrators being outed. More and more of the big female names began to tell their experiences too. They knew it was now safe as they no longer had to fear the same reprisals McGowan did.
The stories started to spread outside the movie industry, as women across the workforce instantly recognised the scenario and matched it up with their own memories and realities. A hashtag was born. But are men listening any more or has the sheer number of corroborating accounts forced them back on the defensive? Are women by now just talking to themselves again, if out loud instead of sotte voce this time? Will everyone else who comes forward be accused of jumping on a bandwagon?
Of course I can say #metoo. I can say I know how a company lets its senior males stick their hands and tongue wherever they want, while the women are expected to learn ways to avoid him. I know how long-term staff watch to see whether the new intern will fall into the sleazebag’s trap. I’ve argued with other women that they don’t need to put up with behaviour like that, or on whether it’s really necessary to have so many rape scenes in our movies and our TV programmes. Most of which are written, created and produced by the same men that are abusing women like Rose McGowan.
I don’t expect things to change much. We are not on the cusp of the Age of Equality. The White House is occupied by a man who boasted of the exact same behaviours as Weinstein. Advertising firms will still use female bodies to sell everything under the sun. And women will continue to dodge the perverts. As for equal pay, equal opportunities, or just not having to see your work passed on to your male colleagues to sign off on, don’t hold your breath.
A seemingly innocuous word. Yet, like all utterances, it depends on how it’s said.
When men bellow it across the street, it’s not so welcoming. When they whisper it at you in a dark street or corridor, it’s the verbal equivalent of an opportunistic grope.
As a foreign female, the word is thrown at you like a javelin. It tells you that you have been seen, your otherness will not go unnoticed, unremarked here. It slices through the air at you, dragging the attention of everyone around with it. It punctures any daydream you may have been having, any illusion that you can have a normal life here, be an ordinary person.
Then there’s the mothers/grandmothers who point their toddler at you and tell it over and over: “Say ‘Hello’”. Teaching the child from a young age that people with different skin colours are something to stare at, to point out, to treat as exotic spectacles. So the concept will prevail for yet another generation that people of other ethnicities are tourist attractions, so it’s okay to gawp slack jawed at them and discuss their appearance like you would an exhibit in a museum. That a photograph of them is a prize to show off on social media. Or a sneaky selfie beside them on a plane or in the metro. Ignore their discomfort, their annoyance; sure, it’s not like they’re human beings like yourself, is it?
We got lucky. The rush hour crowds were ebbing away as we reached Beijing’s metro Line 1. The platform was half-empty. There was no panicked crush to pour into the carriages when the train arrived, and inside our car, we could choose where we stood.
I slid into the corner beside the linking door to the next carriage, My Man beside me leaning against the overhead bar. In the other corner was a young couple, in their private fascination oblivious to the rest of the passengers, if not the world. Holding onto the central vertical pole directly in front of the doors were two teenage female BFFs, intensely aware of every male on board and every female worth competing against. Their style and confidence labelled them as privileged; whether the other members of their families were as pampered is another matter. Between ourselves and the door was an office worker in his early thirties, short, stocky and anonymous. He was also hunched protectively over the object of his absorption; this time a smartphone.
The train pulled into the notoriously-overcrowded Guomao station smack in the middle of the city’s Central Business District. People flowed out and flowed in. As they did so, we noticed a see-through plastic beverage cup in a plastic bag on the ground where the smartphone man had been standing. Whether it was his or not, I can’t say. I never saw him holding anything. My Man said, “Oh look, someone forgot their cup.” At that precise moment, a woman who had just entered also saw the cup. Her reaction was to throw her own rubbish — the core of an apple or pear in a plastic bag — down beside the cup, nudging it with her foot until they rested side-by-side.
What’s it like to strangle your own sister to death? Did you feel your honour grow as her strength ebbed away? How long were you planning it for? Was the idea geminating in your head even before she became ‘Qandeel’? What were her last words to you? Can you still hear them? Did you watch her face swell and discolour as she smother? Or did you have to turn her face away from you to be able to go through with it? Did you get second thoughts half-way through?
Was this the only way you could compete with her fame? Are you pissed off that you are still only known around the world as ‘the brother of Qandeel’?
Where did you learn that you were entitled to do this? Who else in the family supported you? Was she a bad sister? Eat the last mango perhaps? Where did her courage to be different come from? Why don’t you have it? What do you see when you look into your mother’s eyes now? Your father’s?
Will you put it on your CV? Have you any friends? Genuine friends? A wife?
Were you confident of being excused by your family? Would you have had to guts to do it otherwise? What reward are you expecting in the afterlife for committing murder?
Do you remember anything in the Koran about love? Respect? Tolerance? The sanctity of human life? Are you sure you were reading the right book? Why couldn’t you have just let her leave the country?
Are you aware you have brought shame on your entire country, your culture? That the global media are now churning out figures of how many women are murdered every year in Pakistan? That you helped make your culture look mediaeval, backward, pathetic?
So who do you think should strangle you for bringing shame on your country?
RIP Qandeel Baloch
The bus-stop was just a yellow pole on the side of the pavement – no shelter, no real-time feed on bus arrivals, not even a printed timetable. It was already raining as I walked up to it, but as I reached it, the rain settled into a heavy downpour, with a nice helping of hail mixed in.
There are 7,000,000,000 human beings on this planet.
Each single individual is 0.0000000142857% of the total.
Our average lifespan of 50-80 years does not even register on the timescale of the universe.
We are made of dust.
Our bodies are weak and vulnerable. They need external protection from the heat and the cold, they break and sprain easily. Our intestines and neck are always exposed to a potential attack when we stand. Our young are completely helpless when born, and remain so afterwards for far longer than most other species.
We destroy our own environment.
And there’s more of us coming: in ten years’, the population will be 8m; in 30 years’, 9m; in 50 years’, 10m.
So get over yourself. Realise you are a speck on the surface of the planet. Move aside for others walking down the path. Your bag does not need a bus seat when others are standing. Stop taking your bad mood out on your colleagues. Because you are not important. Your colleagues are not important. Your little ego struggle with your boyfriend/parent/friend/flatmate is not important. If you disappear tomorrow, the world will keep turning and everybody that knew you will probably also be dust before Halley’s Comet comes around again.
Just enjoy the ride while it lasts.