Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Final Solution

"Arbeit macht frei" - Work makes you free.
            Recently I spent an evening reading ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’, by Irish novelist John Boyne.  I can honestly admit that I don’t think I have ever cried so much in my life.  You may have read it yourself, or perhaps it might be more likely that you have seen the film adaptation.  Maybe you cried too.  It’s a short read, I would recommend it to anyone who falls under the category of ‘reader’ as it goes above and beyond any literary genre that I have come across (don’t let my crying put you off!).  Even if you have seen the film, go out and find the book! 

The remaining barracks.
Boyne writes in such a simplistic way, yet he grasps your attention on every single page.  His language captures the tragedy that was the Holocaust through the innocent eyes of a nine-year-old boy, replacing the expected horrendous descriptions with subtle images from an unknowing perspective, making more powerful the sheer horror of the cruel situation.  There are moments of laughter, of confrontation, of hopes and disappointments, as Boyne beckons readers to chase the development of an unbreakable friendship before hitting us with an ending that would penetrate even the hardest of hearts.

The guards walkway between two parts of the camp.
The barbed wire fences had an electric current running
through to keep the prison from attempting escape.
As well as being such a fantastic read, this fable addresses one of the most important events in history; a moment in history that people still deny today.  As far as I know this is a topic rarely discussed, and one that is not often taught in schools in great detail.  However, during the year before I came to university, I became involved in an incredible organisation called the Holocaust Education Trust.  Travelling to Aston University, I attended lectures and seminars on various topics and ethical issues, where I met a Jewish woman called Kitty Hart-Moxon who spoke on how she survived the concentration camp.  This was followed by a day trip to Auschwitz in Poland (the concentration camp mentioned in ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ and where Kitty and her mother were imprisoned).

Family photographs found in the suitcases of those who
were killed. A memorial room contained walls covered
from top to bottom with the only memories left of
these families.
Throughout my day in Auschwitz I did not cry, not once, not like I did at the writings of John Boyne.  My pre-visit expectations were that I would feel an overwhelming sense of anger and despair; but I felt neither.  I wanted to feel such things; but I just felt numb.  It was incredibly difficult to take it all in; how could I comprehend the fact that almost 3 million people had been brutally massacred in such a small, eerie and now desolate space?  As dusk fell, I remember walking through the black dead trees, as a kind of half-light hovered still in the air and the rain fell lightly on a world in greyscale.  The birds sang melodically, almost as a mockery of the place, impounding a strange sense of guilt upon my heart.  Birdsong and footsteps of the free were not welcome within the confines of this death camp.

The entrance gate and the train track which was built
for the special purpose of bringing people from the cities
straight into the camp, either to the famous crossroads for a
selection process or right up to the gas chambers for
immediate execution.
As the hovering dusk dropped into a thick darkness, the group gathered together alongside the remains of a gas chamber, and a remembrance service was held by the Rabbi that accompanied us on our daytrip.  From underneath the canopy of umbrellas we sang hymns and the Rabbi recited Jewish prayers.  We each lit a candle and as we made our leave, we laid them along the train track on which cattle-carts full of people were shipped in to be killed.  At the end of the day, I walked through the gates from which 3 million people came in and never went out again.  To this day I remain fascinated, my heart lacerated, completely devastated, at the brutality that was conducted as Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’.  Such human capability perhaps shall never be understood.

- All photographs by Annie Davies -

Friday, 13 May 2011

Sound Check

- As published in the Spring 2011 issue of Artemis, the Women's Network magazine. -

Photograph: http://www.testmeat.co.uk/photos/index.php?id=698

Doesn’t it just sound awful when you’re at a gig and the bass is ridiculously loud and the lyrics are incomprehensible?  Or when the guitar riff is so distorted that the melody is completely lost?  Or maybe I’ve just been to too many bad gigs…  The same problem rings true in our day-to-day lives and the music we make.  How loud are we projecting our voices as women?  And in comparison, how do we fit this together with the other instruments in our lives?  It’s time we had our own sound check.

Myself, and others I have spoken to, have found that slapping the ‘feminist’ sticker onto yourself isn’t an easy task to undertake.  It comes with baggage.  Our lives, and identities for that matter, are made up of various different things, and it can often be difficult to fit our feminism into this overall picture.  Our race, our class, our sexuality, our politics, our faith and even our minute personal interests, can conflict with our gender issues.  So which do we prioritise?

When we use our voices for change, we tend to concentrate too much or too little on the fact that we are women.  It is a distinguishing factor of life that needs to be addressed, but our gender isn’t our ‘everything’.  Take this into account: there is more than one type of woman.  As postmodern feminist Bell Hooks puts it; ‘since men are not equal in white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal class structure, which men do women want to be equal to?’  What about black women, working class women, lesbian women, liberal women, women of faith?  We all face different kinds of discrimination and we need to accommodate for each aspect of our identities. 

I myself am a Christian.  I often face criticisms from both sides.  Some feminists accuse that ‘surely religion is a patriarchal tool of oppression’, and some Christians accuse that ‘feminism is a radical turn away from biblical teaching’.  Both are wrong.  As difficult as it may be to create a balance, it is certainly possible to integrate my faith and my feminism, fighting for gender equality whilst sharing my faith with others.

So how loud do I sing of my faith? How loud do I sing as a woman looking for change? And how exactly do we balance these voices without breaking the sound barrier?  Sing too loudly about one and the other easily fades into the background.  Break this sound barrier and your identity is broken, consumed entirely by this single aspect.  For me my faith is central to my life, the very essence of my truth and being, but born from this faith comes the search for liberation, and that includes the liberation of women.  I have a biblical base upon which I can build my case for equality.  But from this base I also build my politics, my philosophy, my identity, my relationships, and my lifestyle.  The echoing voice of feminism may be an important aspect to life, but we need the rest of the band to bring body to the music that is our being.  A perfect balance is impossible, but it’s time we stepped back and evaluated the value we slap on with our ‘feminist stickers’.  So keep one hand on the sound desk, but let the show go on…