Under the Red Umbrella

It is Friday 19th July 2013. Imagine you are out in a capital city somewhere in Europe. You see two women walking purposefully towards you. They are dressed in black despite the heat, they carry red umbrellas even though it isn’t raining.  As they get closer you notice that one of them is wearing a mask so that she cannot be identified. The other is carrying a placard.

Who are they? What do these things mean? The red umbrella tells you that they are campaigning for sex workers rights. The black is for mourning. The lady in the mask is a sex worker who cannot be identified in public. Her family do not know what she does. She may be a part-time sex worker with an ordinary job which she would lose if her employer found out. Because she is a sex worker she is stigmatised.

Then you see what is written on the placard. It says ‘Stigma Kills.’  You stop them and ask what they are doing and they tell you that they are on the way to a demonstration outside the Swedish Embassy in memory of Jasmine and Dora, sex workers from Sweden and Turkey who were murdered the previous week. They explain how Jasmine had her children taken off her because she was a sex worker, how her violent partner  was deemed a better parent and how his continued involvement in the children’s life led to her murder. They tell you how ‘feminist’ Sweden has criminalised the purchase of sex but not its sale but how, in practice, sex workers are treated as outcasts. Stigma kills.

You perhaps knew little about sex workers and are surprised that the women are friendly, articulate and highly intelligent. You Google the names Jasmine and Dora when you get home and find that, in a matter of days, demonstrations of sex workers and allies were organised across the world, from Hobart to Toronto, from Chicago to Warsaw. They are organised, determined and articulate.

There is a type of feminist discourse about sex work that holds that all women involved in sex work are helpless victims of male violence who need rescuing, that these women cannot possibly know their own minds. Those who propagate these views frequently make common cause with religious groups with a moral agenda against sex work. One such group is Ruhama in Ireland which is actively supporting proposals in that country to criminalise the purchase of sex but which will provide for the confiscation of telephones and for sex workers to be thrown onto the street. There are those in Ireland who think it is a good thing that women will be made homeless as they can then be helped. This may strike you as cynical or callous, maybe both, but it is what they say.

Ruhama have form when it comes to ‘helping’ women. A number of their trustees were linked to the infamous Magadalene Laundries where for decades ‘immoral’ girls performed forced labour under the watch of often sadistic nuns. What sort of help do Ruhama propose for homeless sex workers? We can be sure I think that it will be conditional on them agreeing to change their lives, to accept Ruhama policing their sex lives. Is this something any feminist can support?

Having spoken to the two articulate intelligent women on the way to the demo you might think a different narrative better fits the facts, that most sex workers choose to do what they do, that they are strong and assertive, and that it is no business of the state’s who they sleep with and whether they get paid for it.

And here a links to a few blogs which illustrate the points made here.







Football Ruins the Summer – Again

Just when you thought we were having another wonderful sporting summer football has come along to spoil things. I like women’s football. It has come on a long long way in the last ten years, in terms of fitness, tactics, and technique.  Louisa Necib’s sublime finish for France’s second goal against England is testimony to that.

The problem is that is mainly other countries that have come on a long way. England were expected to do well in the Women’s European Championship. They were runners up four years ago and, prior to the final warm up game against Sweden were unbeaten in eleven games. Apart from France they were drawn in a weak group. Seen in this light their performances and their record of one point from three games are embarrassing. The one point came as a result of a last minute equaliser against Russia. They were within thirty seconds of going home pointless.


The final match against Frances’s second eleven laid bare the inadequacies, the errors, the inability to retain possession, the naive tactics, the lack of fluidity, the slow crablike build up that reminded me  too much of the men’s team. If England’s ladies were the second best team in Europe four years ago they are not now in the top ten.

The knives are now out for Hope Powell because of her selections and her allegedly abrasive personality that has led to conflict with senior players, indeed the refusal of a couple of top players to play for England. What will the FA do?  No doubt Powell will be hung out to dry but do the suits at FA Headquarters  have an idea of who to replace her with? have they considered how the FA Women’s Super League can, or will, further the development of the England team. Early signs are that they are really only concerned about making money.and that the long term development of the game is not the overriding priority.

Before long England will not even be the best team in Britain. Scotland, who lost narrowly to Spain in a qualifying play-off, are closing quickly, this despite the suffocating dominance of Glasgow City in the domestic game, and have talented players developing their game abroad. For example Lisa Evans and Emma Mitchell play in the Bundesliga, for Turbine Potsdam and SGS Essen respectively. Kim Little runs the midfield for English champions Arsenal.

This afternoon Germany will play Italy and the position of German coach Silvia Neid will also come under scrutiny if the holders lose having been disappointing so far. After their exit from the 2011 World Cup against Japan, a couple of German coaches. particularly  Potsdam coach Bernd Schroder, were withering in their criticism.  He is not a man to mince his words and will surely have something to say. This time, though, the DFB might not be so quick to leap to her defence.

Remembering Wołyn

In 2010 I visited the Polish city of Szczecin for the first time. While I was there I read a curious story in the local newspaper. It concerned a village near Szczecin whose inhabitants were unhappy at the state of their roads and the apparent unwillingness of the local authority to spend any money improving them. They wrote to the local mayor who replied that the villagers, largely people of Ukrainian origin, were UPA terrorists and didn’t deserve good roads. In answering the question what was the UPA and why Ukrainians were living in a former German village in Pomerania I discovered a tragedy that is largely unknown outside Poland and the Ukraine, a series of events that may be little more than a footnote in the unfathomable catalogue of human suffering that was the Second World War but which have left lasting scars. President Komorowski was in the Ukraine this week to participate in a number of events, including a deeply moving Requiem Mass for the victims, that were meant to promote reconciliation between Poles and Ukrainians. Sadly, even seventy years on, not everyone is ready to extend the olive branch as the attack on Komorowski by a nationalist armed with an egg demonstrates. The events that have been commemorated are known as the Volyhnia Butchery or in Polish the Rzeź Wołyńska.

The nineteenth century was the age of the nation builders and it was intellectuals such as the writer and poet Ivan Franko (after whom the city of Ivano-Frankivsk formerly Stanisławów is named, who forged a Ukrainian nation from a people previously known as Ruthenians. A nation, from the perspective of the romantic nationalists needs a homeland and this was where the problems started. All of the territories inhabited by Ukrainians had historically formed part of other states and had significant non-Ukrainian populations. Many of them lived in Eastern Galicia, a territory that belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire . Galicia was largely rural, grindingly poor and inhabited by a bewildering array of nationalities, including largely non-assimilated Jews, Germans, Magyars, Czechs and, the largest group, Poles. These territories had formed part of the Polish state that had disappeared from the map in 1795 and it was fairly clear that, if Poland ever regained its independence, they would have a claim to this territory. The same applied to Volynhia which before 1914 was part of the Russian Empire. It was here that conflict was to reach a tragic peak in 1943.

Open conflict between Poles and Ukrainians began after the collapse of Austria-Hungary when both Poland and the Ukraine emerged as independent states. The Ukrainian state was destined not to last long and the outcome of the Polish-Soviet War which ended with the Riga Armistice of 1921 was a division of the lands may Ukrainians regarded as theirs between Poland and the Soviet Union.

Relations between Poles and Ukrainians in the new state were unhappy. The policy of the Polish government was less than enlightened , particularly after 1935 when ham-fisted attempts were made to ban the Ukrainian language and close Orthodox churches, while the policy of polonising the eastern borderlands with Poles resettled from elsewhere in the country was widely resented. The Soviet Union wasted no opportunity to cause trouble posing as the defenders of the rights of the oppressed Ukrainians against the Polish landlords. This was totally hypocritical. The Ukrainians in the Soviet Union suffered one of the twentieth century’s greatest peacetime tragedies, the great famine or holodomor as Ukrainians call it, which followed Stalin’s collectivisation of agriculture and led to the deaths of millions of Ukrainians. Several countries have recognised this as genocide. It sealed the hatred of many Ukrainians for their Soviet rulers and explains the willingness of many to side with Nazi Germany.

Unsurprisingly these events led to a significant radicalisation of Ukrainian nationalism. There had been Ukrainian terrorist activity in Poland before the warm including political assassinations. After the outbreak of war in 1939 and the dismemberment of Poland radical Ukrainian nationalists, under the leadership of Stepan Bandera  saw an opportunity. The aim was to cleanse the area of Poles prior to creating an ethnically pure Ukrainian state after the war.

The tragedy of Volhynia or Wolyn unfolded in 1943 as armed bands of Ukrainian nationalists, members of the UPA or Ukrainian Insurrectionary Army, murdered some 70,000 Polish civilians. The wave of killings spread west through Galicia with isolated incidents within the post-war frontiers of Poland.  Accounts of the savagery make difficult reading. The victims were unarmed civilians with women and children disproportionately represented. The killing reached a peak in July 1943, which is why President Komorowski was in the Ukraine this week.

At Yalta the westward shift of Poland was agreed about this still left some 750,000 Ukrainians within Poland, mainly in the Bieszczady mountains of the South East. UPA units remained active, resisting Communist rule. Early in 1947 they assassinated the Polish general Karol Świerczewski in an ambush. This was the cue for the final act of the tragedy as the Polish government launched Akcja Wisła or Operation Vistula, the burning of Ukrainian villages and the forced resettlement of Ukrainians across Poland but mainly in the so-called recovered territories. So it was that a Pomeranian village became a little Ukraine with terrible roads.

I visited the Ukraine three years ago, Czernowitz, Kamieniec Podolski .and Chocim, places with a great historical resonance. My Polish wife had always been very wary of going, fearing that Poles could not expect a warm welcome. She was pleasantly surprised  at the friendliness and warmth of many of the people we meet. And there are plenty of Ukrainians in Poland, many of them admittedly working illegally. Many middle class households in Warsaw could barely function without their Ukrainian cleaning ladies. The two nations are neighbours and will be for some time yet. It is time for reconciliation even if some nationalists still don’t understand. If President Komorowski’s visit has furthered the process his dry cleaning bill is a price worth paying.


Who Are the Poles? OR Jestesmy Polakami – Ja Wir Auch

I was once witness to an argument I regarded and regard as pointless and anachronistic. Was Copernicus a German or a Pole? The argument generated quite a bit of heat but not much light. As I say it was pointless. Here’s why.

I remember an elderly aunt once showing me an old atlas. It was a fascinating book, a Newnes School Atlas from 1935, a glimpse into a vanished past.  She still used it as her everyday reference atlas, not having realised the extent of the frontier shifts in eastern and Central Europe that followed the Second World War.

One of the historical curios in this atlas was the Free City of Danzig. My aunt knew of Danzig as the place where the War had started with the shelling of the Westerplatte Fort. She had also heard of the Polish city of Gdansk with the Lenin Shipyards, birthplace of Solidarity. For many years she didn’t realise that Danzig and Gdansk were the same place.

That so many Polish cities have more than one name is a testimony to the multi-cultural nature of Poland, in all it incarnations until 1945. In 1945 nationalism, Communism and geography came together in Poland in a way that was most fortuitous for the regime and which has left marks on the politics of the country that remain to this day. Poland in 2013 has borders that are close to those of the Piast kingdom of the early Middle Ages. It is largely ethnically homogeneous unlike the Piast kingdom which encouraged German speakers to settle in Silesia, most of whose towns were founded in accordance with German law, a fact that official histories published before 1989 tended to gloss over. 

There are, in today’s Poland, smallish minorities of Byelorussians and Ukrainians, smaller handfuls of Lithuanians,   Germans,  Armenians and Slovaks but these are practically invisible to the naked eye. In 2013 to be Polish is to speak Polish as a first language and, at least to some, to be a Roman Catholic.

This narrow view of Polishness, indeed of nationality in general, is not, however, a useful prism through which to view the world before 1800 and no use at all in grappling with the complexities of the pre Partition Polish state.

So what of Danzig? The city of Gdansk was for most of its history part of the Kingdom of Poland  a Hanseatic port city at the delta of the Vistula, the backbone of the country and its major export route. It was, for a century and a half after 1308, incorporated into the state of the Teutonic Knights, whose rule was actively resisted by the largely German speaking rulers of the city, (an inconvenient fact  ignored in Nazi textbooks) but returned to Poland in the Treaty of Thorn/Torun with the remainder of West Prussia in 1466. This followed a request to the Polish king to free Danzig from the oppressive rule of the Knights.  

The next three centuries were the Golden Age of Danzig. This ended with partition and incorporation into Prussia, a century later into a united Germany. This was a disaster for the city, as it was for Torun and Bydgoszcz. Having been  Poland’s main Baltic port it was reduced to a provincial backwater.  Poles continued to feel nostalgia for the days when Gdansk  was a Polish port. and it is mentioned in Book Four of Mickiewicz’s romantic epic Pan Tadeusz, in the context of a toast drunk in the famous Danziger Goldwasser.

Wódka to gdańska, napój miły dla Polaka.
„Niech żyje!” krzyknął Sędzia w górę wznosząc flaszę.
Miasto Gdańsk, niegdyś nasze, będzie znowu nasze.
I lał srebrzysty likwor w kolej, aż na końcu
zaczęło złoto kapać i błyskać na słońcu

When Poland reappeared on the map of Europe in 1918 it seemed logical that Gdansk /Danzig would be included within its frontiers. But this was an era of national tensions and the treaty makers baulked at including an overwhelmingly German city in Poland and it became  a Free City under the League of Nations. This accelerated the city’s decline as the Poles developed the small fishing village of Gdingen, on the small strip of coast they were granted at Versailles, into the modern port of Gdynia, these days the least visited but arguably the most interesting of the three cities (with Gdansk and Sopot/Zoppot that make up the Tri-City (Trojmiasto). When Gdansk returned to Poland in 1945 it was effectively a new city, its German population having been expelled to make way for settlers from other parts of Poland.

So what does all this mean? Essentially this. Being part of Poland was good for Danzig (and Thorn and Bromberg), good for their German populations. The Germans were good for Poland, whose middle class was mainly German and Jewish, the Poles being either nobles, often impoverished by inheritance  laws that saw estates broken up into smaller and smaller parcels, or peasants. The German (and the Jewish) contribution to the development of Poland was significant and they were loyal subjects of the Polish King. This is why the father of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer,a wealthy Danzig merchant, left the city in disgust after the second partition of 1793 that saw the city become part of Prussia. Such an action  is inexplicable in terms of the nationalist categories that dominated much twentieth century.thinking.

So when the question is asked, was Copernicus a German or a Pole we can answer of him as of many others – he was a German speaker and loyal subject of the Polish king. In other words he was both – and what’s wrong with that?

Women Beware Women Revisited

I wrote about proposals to criminalise the purchase of sex and why they are a bad thing nine months ago: https://theviewfromlightwoodspark.wordpress.com/2012/09/25/women-beware-women/

There is good news on this issue. Rhoda Grant failed to get the cross party support she needed to proceed with her Bill to criminalise the clients of sex workers which I discussed last September. She has, unfortunately, learnt nothing from the experience and continues to lash out at opponents of her proposals who are, apparently, members of ‘the sex industry lobby.’

The consultation in the proposals closed in December and the responses were published at the end of May together with a summary report. The consultation was marred by a series of highly questionable assumptions underlying the loaded questions, the main ones being a conflation of sexwork and trafficking and  a view that all sex workers were in some way coerced.  Nearly 1,000 responses were received.

In presenting her report Rhoda Grant claimed that 80% of respondents supported her proposals. This was true on one level but ignored the evidence that evangelical Christian groups had mounted a concerted campaign to back the Bill. The number of cut and paste responses from churches was evidence of this, all of them quoting the same methodologically flawed research that Grant relied on. I have difficulty in believing that, for example, the good people of Bearsden Baptist Church have read the work of Melissa Farley. I do not question their sincerity and  have no doubt that they genuinely believe prostitution to be a moral evil. But that is the difficulty. Their viewpoint is ideological, as is that of the radical feminists who see prostitution as violence against women, stretching the word violence to a point where it is emptied of meaning. Ideology is not a good basis for making public policy.

On a more practical level, the responses from sexworkers setting out their experiences and those from several outreach groups who work with sexworkers on matters like sexual health and physical safety, were largely ignored.

This was Rhoda’s problem. The more people who knew more than she did told her she  was wrong, the more stubbornly she clung to her beliefs. In the end she failed to get the support she needed because she could not convince enough MSPs to back her. It is her arguments that are at fault, not the machinations of a mythical sex industry lobby.

Most serious academic studies show that paid sex is, in most cases, consensual. Where it is not there are already laws to deal with it, laws that have been used in a number of recent cases to put traffickers behind bars for a very long time. Whether you approve of sex work or not, it is surely not the business of the state to police sexual activity between consenting adults. Fortunately most MSPs see it that way too. The battle now moves to Ireland, North and South. The recently published proposals in the Irish Republic are seriously nasty .as they include provision to confiscate sex workers’ mobile phones, a proposal which gives the lie to the claim that clients and not sex workers are being criminalised.