2018: Words from women

I challenged myself in 2018 to only read books by women*. It’s been  bloody fantastic. Here they are for your perusal (couple more to finish off before the end of the year and will add). Click on an image for a one sentence review.  I recommend giving the challenge a go!

*I did read the latest in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series to avoid spoilers 🙂

A quick post on #SmearforSmear

I won’t be doing #smearforsmear and not because I don’t think getting a smear is vitally important or that it isn’t important to increase the number of women who do but because once again I’m struggling with the damage that can be done by un-nuanced viral messaging.

If you don’t know, it is a campaign aimed at encouraging women to share photo and video selfies of themselves with their lipstick smeared. The idea is to draw attention to the fact that the number of women who aren’t getting regular tests is falling.

  • A smear isn’t just 5 minutes and easy for many women. As a sufferer of vaginismus it far from easy and pain free. I bled for 3 days after my last smear and had to return for a second attempt which I yelled and sobbed through. It wasn’t the GP’s fault but it is what it is – next time I may have to be drugged to get through it – fun eh! 2 in 1000 women suffer from vaginismus , probably more, but, ironically, they don’t report because of shame.
  • Any woman who has been assaulted or raped, doesn’t find it easy. I don’t think I need to elaborate
  • If a woman is embarrassed about going for a smear it is because the patriarchy teaches her to be ashamed of her body which, for X reason today, doesn’t conform to whatever is currently correct and attractive to men.
  • If a woman is embarrassed about being hairy in particular, it is recognised to be related to the prevalence of hair-free women in porn. Which is in no small way related to the attraction of some men to pre-pubescent. Shave, or don’t shave – but it is important to recognise why shaving is a thing.
  • The survey on which #smearforsmear is based (although I can’t get a copy of the original questions asked) also suggests not being able to, or wanting to, take time off of work is a significant barrier to accessing a smear. Are women in a position that they can’t look after their health without fearing reprisal or risking their employment? Why isn’t this the news?
  • The survey also suggests that 26% of women can’t get an appointment even if they want to. Surely a result of the defunding of the NHS. And that bit isn’t making the news either…
  • Also, mustn’t forget PSH-education is still dismissed as unnecessary and too embarrassing to teach (the irony), so of course women don’t understand their own bodies, the risks they face and how to stay healthy.
  • And, yeurgh, women and lipstick…. It is a bit like #nomakeupselfie isn’t it?  Let’s accept a stereotype while trying to fight something that is caused in no small part by stereotypes.

So yes, sharing a selfie might make a point to some women about how important detection is. But sadly can also trivialise the real reasons women don’t/can’t get smears by normalising the ‘they’re embarrassed because they’re vain’ or ‘lazy’ or ‘uneducated’.

There is so much good stuff in the work that has been done. I’m just once again disheartened that the messaging and ‘call to action’ is missing a huge opportunity, and could have focused more on the fact local heath services are not doing anything to improve access to smears, or educating women as to the reasons to have them.

So this all smacks of victim blaming.

Gaza: isolation

Family at Al Ahli hospital collecting food for their malnourished child

Family at Al Ahli hospital collecting food for their malnourished child

I’ve been in Gaza 36 hours but it feels like much longer and I am incredibly sad to be leaving tomorrow.

Yesterday I was numb I think, maybe even purposely. There are pieces of hope, but visiting families in their homes and seeing the squalor and lack was awful.

I’m not a development officer or a hardened photo journalist. I’ve not been doing this for years. I’ve never been anywhere like this before regardless of the fact there aren’t many places like this. I’m a woman who picked up a camera a few years ago, likes to mess around on the internet, likes to play with words and talk with people…and yet here I am. I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity I’ve been given to be here but I can’t shake that feeling someone is having me on.

But here I am. Today we visited Al Ahli hospital, run by Christians to serve all people, to see the Medical Mission project. The purpose of the project is to provide transport to bring people in from the refugee camps and other areas that were obliterated by the wars, especially the 2014 event and t give them a wide range of treatment and education. I haven’t been to their homes and won’t get to visit on this trip but I’ve seen pictures and spoken to people who live in what amount to shipping containers. They have no healthcare options at all in the area they live.

Again, I can’t really give away the stories of the people I met, but I am really, really proud of the difference Embrace supporters are making to these most vulnerable people.

Young teenage boy who came in to Al Ahli on the Medical Mission bus

Young teenage boy who came in to Al Ahli on the Medical Mission bus

I watched as a little boy had his burns bandages changed. I listened to a grandmother emotionally describe how her grandson really needs help because he isn’t growing; all they have to eat and drink is flatbread and tea. I listened to a mother being given advice as to how to feed one of her triplets whose health is waning. I talked to the head of the hospital about the hope they have to increase an oncology department bringing much needed education, diagnosis and treatment options to a population where breast cancer is still almost always a death sentence.

While I’m on the subject, my Embrace colleague and friend Su is running the Palestine half marathon in April to raise funds for Al Ahli. She has had treatment for breast cancer this past 12 months and is inspirational in her dedication to help others less fortunate when it comes to treatment options. Her Justgiving page is here.

After a few much needed hours of downtime, we visited Fr Mario at the Latin patriachate. Fr Mario is a Catholic priest in Gaza. We spoke at length about the Christian population in Gaza, what it is like to be a Christian here, what his job entails and much more. I will tell his story at length another time but I had to hold back tears repeatedly as he described the very real dangers he faces, the isolation he feels and the desperate situation the Christians he serves are in.

fr mario small

Father Mario da Silva

Embrace’s mission is to support Christians in the Middle East who are serving people here who are marginalised and vulnerable. Fr Mario provides a place and a ministry for those Christians to find support and solace with their brothers and sisters in Christ. With less than 1200 Christian in Gaza, which has a population of 1.8million (probably more), feeling part of the church, locally or more is almost impossible. I feel isolation tangibly as Fr Mario talks.

Fr Mario is originally from Brazil and has been via Rome (where he worked in the parish containing Mafiosa) and is in his 3rd year in Gaza. He talked of imprisonment, arson, having drugs planted in his car and what it was like to be heading back in to Gaza in 2014 as the war started while many others fled. I was floored by his humility and selflessness as he talks about himself and the people he serves. I was struggling to comprehend how he was still standing at all, when he described how he has asked to be transferred to Aleppo but didn’t expect to be allowed to go. He shrugged and said, “we must go to the places no one else wants to go.”

A lot of people didn’t want me to go to Gaza, they were understandably concerned. But I am very glad I came and I wish I could stay longer to see more, meet more people and talk with them. I haven’t felt unsafe, I haven’t felt threatened. Everyone looks at us because it’s relatively unusual to see a couple of pasty Brits walking around with notebook and cameras not blending in in the slightest, but they all say ‘hello, welcome, why are you here?’ When we explain we’re hoping to help people in the UK and beyond hear the stories of people in Gaza and the Middle East they start to talk and don’t stop.

Tomorrow we head back to Jerusalem for a few days to meet more partners. I’m excited about that too but I really do wish we could stay here a little more.

I promise: doubts, flaws and all


1st Booker Brownies on our teddy bear picnic

As the new Girl Guiding promise gets another slating in the press (must be a slow news day) I have had another few chats with people about why they don’t like it. Some think the wording is wishy washy, confused and doesn’t reflect the hard work done by Guiders and leaders throughout the organisation.

One major concern seems to be that the new wording shows the organisations is bowing to current pressure to be inclusive to the point of being amorphous. I believe that fear probably, understandably, fuels a lot of the concern from our members who have religious faith.

Indeed, when the changes were first announced, the majority of concerns I saw raised came from the Christian community, often finding the removal of the word God from the promise very difficult to accept. I understand that worry, and just saying Guiding is not, and never has been a Christian organisation isn’t really enough.

I went back again to the little book I found, published in 1996, not far off 20 years ago. The author is making points which are now being repeated in support of the changes to the promise, which gives me hope that the new wording wasn’t a knee jerk reaction, or made solely in deference to the changing nature of religion and spirituality in our society.

I have published bit of it before, craving forgiveness for any copyright breaches I might be making, but I hope the encouragement and clarity they offer is of use:

The job of an adult leader is to provide a sound base from which to question:

I would like to think that no one would repeat the guide Promise and Law without thinking about what she was saying, but young people need to feel confident about themselves before they will start to question their beliefs.

It is never easy for parents and leaders to stand back and allow those in our charge to query that which we have taught, but it is necessary to allow young people to develop as they go through phases of discovery about themselves.

I should have the confidence to question my own beliefs before I can accept questions from others.

I love this reflection because it reminds me as a leader, that I don’t have all the answers. It reminds me that I went through, and still go through, periods of doubt, about myself, my abilities, my career path, my friendships and loves.  And, something I’m not really meant to admit, my faith.

A comedic blog I read recently called 10 Things Christians Should Say More included this at number 3:

“I don’t know.” Some of us have been raised with the misapprehension that we always have to have an answer to every question having to do with our faith. But better than pat, rehearsed (or worse, pulled-out-of-our-asses-on-the-fly) answers is the humility of admitting we have no idea sometimes.

It takes a great deal of humility to admit we don’t know everything. It isn’t weak or a sign of unbelief. And even if it is unbelief, faith is a gift. We are meant to ask for help with our unbelief. Sweeping doubts under the carpet, or pretending we don’t ever wobble clearly causes damage.

We don’t, through our example, want to model what it is to be a citizen who has never thought about what we’ve been taught and inherited. Do we? We certainly don’t approach teaching in schools that way so why would we want Guiding to?


Me, my Brown Owl and young leader c.1986!

As an adult leader, and as a Christian, I want to love my girls as the gorgeous, flawed, grumpy, happy, worried children they are. I want them to know I am there when they want to show me what they made at school that day. I love to watch the dance routines they learned in Tap this week. I want to  to hear about how their little brothers broke their favourite toy. I want to hear their worries about the new baby on the way, how they are being bullied about their dad being in prison, their utter grief about Grandma passing away.

My Brownies are not abstractions and I’ve been there for girls as they’ve gone through those things. Our girls need consistent, unblinking support. I don’t want to turn them into little versions of me. I want to learn from them and yes, I want them to be ‘whoever they are’.

But of course, some of them are bullies and terrors. It has been suggested that if we say “be true to yourself” and the girl is a horror, then that will be supportive of them being badly behaved.  This argument against the promise wording smacks of desperation. Of course we don’t accept all behaviour, or say anything goes.  We may have a few true psychopaths in the movement, who knows, but most girls are just going through what girls have gone through forever!  So my hope is that my love for them will be unconditional and that by my example and leadership they will leave negative and undesirable behaviours behind.  That isn’t fundamentally interfering in ‘who they are’ but accompanying them on a journey they’d not necessarily have any company for otherwise.

I come back to the promise and its new wording about developing our own beliefs and being true to ourselves. Rather than wishy washy, there is solidarity in joint exploration.  There is comfort in knowing someone else has the same questions as you. There is empowerment in shared journeys of discovery.  There is love to be modeled and given to all girls, without condition. 

In 2014, Brownies are celebrating their 100th birthday.  I really hope this risky change, and it is risky, will strengthen and make the Guiding movement more inclusive and attractive.

Guiding has moulded my life for the better in so many ways and I hope, and pray, it will continue to for another 100 and more.