Archives for the month of: February, 2013

This blog also appears on http://womenforrefugeewomen.wordpress.com Do you dress well? I try to. It’s London Fashion Week and the whole of the UK media celebrates fashion as an economic driver and determinant of British individuality. The Prime Minister’s wife always supports the men and women of fashion because it is ‘in’ to stand out and equates with our most treasured democratic value of freedom.

We are all clothed in labels and not just on our backs. Who we are as individuals in society, and what makes us stand out is language too – “I am a mother” or “I am a doctor”.  Immediately we associate status and bring opinion to bear on the clothes of identity.

So we all strive to stand out. Social media has made peacocks of us all, from Government to Vogue, from celebrities to nonentities, we all tweet and preen and strut our identity around.

Well, except some. If you are a person arriving here seeking asylum then, well, you don’t stand out at all. You might as well not exist. Try saying “I am an Asylum Seeker” the next time someone turns to you at a conference or a dinner party and asks, appraising your clothes, hair or husband “what do you do”?

The answer, if you seek asylum, is nothing. You might in fact have worked in recruitment or law or engineering or media in your own country. A country which might even be celebrated in a Hollywood movie your dining companions would see and enjoy. But now you are not a name, you are a number. And no-one wants to know you.

But you might be locked up anyway in a detention centre. And if not, locked out. Locked out of any kind of system that allows you to work, to contribute or to live. To seek asylum in Britain is to exchange whatever identity you once had for the cloth of opprobrium, suspicion, and destitution.

My heart, I should say, does not bleed liberally or blindly. I do not believe the UK can or should let unlimited numbers of migrants,  émigrés or even asylum seekers in. I do not believe that having large numbers of pressure on particular communities or community services is without stress or social consequence.

But I do believe this: the British cloth themselves in a fantasy suit of kindness, of compassion, and of political management which is revealed as naked as the Emperor’s New Clothes when it comes to doing the right thing: treating refugees with respect and as names, not numbers.

We weasel around international law protecting the right of people seeking asylum to enter the UK, but envelop most in a cloak of disbelief when they do. We then, literally, bundle them out on planes at the earliest opportunity, unless the handful of men and women who report stories turn a spotlight on what is happening.

No, Asylum Seekers and refugees are definitely not in fashion. But thanks to awards like the ‘Speaking Together’ Media Award for which I was a judge , a spotlight is thrown, albeit briefly, on a catwalk. A catwalk of shameful behaviour by a nation which pretends it is wearing silken threads of distinction.

 

 

 

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Soon the BBC’s flagship radio programme ‘Woman’s Hour’ will publish for the first time its Power List. All I can say is thank god it’s on the radio. If it was on TV  then how the 100 women selected and the judges look would be the main story. And women like me, possibly like you, accept this fact with more of a shrug than anything else.  Six years ago I faced a bit of a battering in the British media. Having left the PR business I started a networking business. But I did bad PR for myself and my new company (oh, physician: heal thyself) and as a result had headlines such as ‘Sun Sets on Queen of Spin’. One thing bothered me and it wasn’t the bad press. One newspaper, the London Evening Standard, which had run the above headline, did so with a photo which made me look, well, ugly. And I wrote to the Editor, Veronica Wadley, saying that I fully supported a free press being as mean or indeed wrong as it liked, but asking if she minded sparing my vanity in any future stories. I meant it. Bad press yes, ugly photo, Shudder. She helped me out. The photo is no more. Perhaps she appreciated I was not trying to meddle with journalism’s right to be horrible about me but I think she just got it: Of course, how hurtful! Ugly photo. Thats Too Much.

I made sure after this that I always bought the rights to use any professional photos of myself which I liked whilst noticing that it represents rather a large failure, both personally and of my Generation Feminist who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. We take it as a given that to be a woman is to feel equal to men and to feel as comfortable with the notion of freedom and power as men do, albeit with the complexity of the ‘Having it All’ generation and motherhood in particular. Now women are much more ‘visible’ in positions of power and public life. I have just agreed to be a judge this year of the First Women Awards, having won the Media Woman of the Yearcategory myself last year. Women engineers as well as CEOs are celebrated as never before. relatively powerful in our professional lives, with voices we use in the boardroom and on Twitter, with faces which increasingly pop up in the media, we all still want to look good and the majority of us work very hard indeed to look good. Very few of us risk the horrible ire the gifted Cambridge University academic Mary Beard has done by appearing in the media with hair which is not dyed, and a look which says she has opinions rather than manicures. I know I don’t. Brave I am not: Perhaps this is why I am charmed and encouraged by Lena Durham and her explosively successful TV series Girls

But my generation of ‘successful’ women in our 40s and 50s are stuck in a looks timewarp. I look at debates about women and attend women only corporate networking events run by some of the world’s biggest companies and every woman representing ‘success’ is dressed for it, in a kind of expensive uniform. I probably spend a good ten hours a week on my appearance. That’s just shy of 10% of the time available which is not spent sleeping. Yes on one level looking good and feeling good and exuding confidence is not a bad thing and I’m not advocating a ‘Duvet Day’ dress code. I know that the men’s fashion and ‘grooming’ business is now big business. But it is not the same. Men like to look good. Women still need to. But perhaps ‘success’ for my daughter’s generation – she is twelve years old – will be less how we take power by looking good and more by….being fully ourselves. And of course, authenticity is powerful and a Good Look.

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