FEATURED

Soapbox: Pants of Protest

               

Lorna Rees explains why, despite trolling including threats of death and rape she was amongst those protesting against Trump’s policies and treatment of women during his recent visit to the UK. 

The threats may be scary but stay silent and those supporting policies that disempower the disenfranchised will win, she warns.

 

In my late teens and early twenties uninvited sexual contact was almost normal to my friends and I. At 17, a man pushed me against a wall in a club and tried to touch my genitals whilst I struggled beneath him. I stopped going to straight clubs after that. I was groped countless times on tubes by strangers or aggressively cat-called on the street; one memorable time by men digging up the road just outside my home, who told me about the 'ways they'd like to forcibly take me.’ I remember shaking violently as I put the key in my front door, terrified to go out again. I didn’t do anything about these incidents, and the many others like them I felt like these assaults were something I had to just get on with, and I certainly didn’t feel empowered enough to do anything about them.

Fast-forward twenty or so years, and there has been progress in our society. I voted in my first election at the age of 18 in 1997 and the number of women MPs leaped from just 60 to 120. We have seen the legalisation of same-sex marriage, and far greater numbers of women are talking and writing about sexism and, of course, the phenomenon of ‘The Internet’ has happened so the communication and transmission of ideas can take place at whip-crack speed.

Often the pace of change for gender equality still feels glacial and frustrating in comparison to technological advances. Men still outnumber women 2:1 in Parliament. But, despite the challenges, I genuinely feel I have been living through progress. Part of this progress was evidenced when I heard writer and campaigner Gina Martin on Woman’s Hour in 2017,  talking about her proposed Upskirting Bill. She is articulate, angry and doing something about her own assault. I remember thinking how impressive and inspiring she was, how thrilling that more women were coming forward and (powerfully) addressing assault and sexual harassment. I remember wishing that I’d acted more loudly when I was younger.

How could anyone vote against a bill that would prosecute upskirters?

So, imagine my dismay when, six months later, in June 2018, my local MP Christopher Chope made headlines when he chose to block the Private Members Bill that the Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse had proposed. He objected to the bill - even though he hadn’t even heard of ‘upskirting’ before (in fact, he subsequently needed to have it explained to him). This one man, my parliamentary representative, objected to something on my behalf which could have produced a sensible bill allowing police to prosecute offenders who photograph the knickers of women and girls for their sexual gratification.

In all honesty, I’m frequently opposed to my Conservative MP’s stance on many things. He voted against legislation to prevent revenge evictions (he is a private landlord), has consistently voted against ANY kind of equal marriage or civil partnership rights for gay people and even voted against a bill to restrict hospital car parking charges for carers. But on this occasion I felt incandescent with anger – how could he block this brilliant woman’s work to stop this nasty, humiliating act? (And the kind of thing I’d been subjected to?). I felt that it demonstrated just how little women’s rights meant to him and the others who blocked this bill. My usual letter to him felt like it wouldn't cut it.

And so, on the day after the vote, I decided to make a very small protest. It was simple really – three clean, unused pants, sewn up on ribbon as bunting outside Christopher Chope’s constituency office with the words ‘No one should be able to photo my pants unless I want them to’. I'd been making bunting earlier in the week and I liked that I was using women’s underwear, reclaiming women’s pants for the action. I was inspired too by Sarah Corbett's lovely book on Craftivism (https://craftivist-collective.com). I posted the picture on Facebook and Twitter and didn’t really think much more of it. I thought it would make a few of my friends smile.

But the response was astonishing.

The photo of my pants was subsequently featured in print in the Times, The Metro, The Express, Page 2 of The Sun (with Chope’s head superimposed beside them), and online via the I Newspaper, The Mail Online, The Poke, The Sun, Sky News and American and Australian news outlets. I appeared on radio and TV, including a debate with a Spectator Columnist on BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show. The #knickerstochope protest was liked well over 30,000 times on Twitter, retweeted over 11,000 times and shared on Facebook and Instagram over 13,500 times (these are just the things I could track). The hashtag ‘knickerstochope’ was trending nationally. The action touched a raw nerve with constituents, neighbours and a far wider National audience. There were local protests and knicker bunting appeared on Adam Hill’s desk for The Last Leg on Channel 4. One of my favourite articles was in the Danish paper, Berlingsker, which was hard to understand – apart from this bit - “shitstorme, sociale medier”.

The vast majority of social media interactions were wildly positive, with people thrilled that I had reacted quickly and done something about it. Most people found the protest funny/appropriate/amusing. We talked a lot about the type of knickers I’d used, (my favourite comment being someone who called that kind of pants ‘harvest festivals’ because they ‘gather everything in’).

There were a few weird tweets about the smell of my gussets and the inappropriateness of my actions (my clean knickers were disgusting apparently) and a few questioning the political soundness of my arguments or my bossy voice which I happily tackled. Generally, these were fairly easy to deflect or put aside so I could get on with my job or look after my children. Coloumnists opined on Upskirting, and also, my knickers – the message made one of the ‘quotes of the week’ in the Mail on Sunday and Observer Columnist Eva Wiseman wrote this: ‘Some people hung knicker-bunting outside the Conservative MP Christopher Chope’s office…. It was the perfect (and perfectly British) response, and should be taken on in the future for all shows of contemptuous protest.’

Lorna Rees

Suddenly, I was receiving online threats; including threats of death and rape

During this media frenzy, the Women’s March London got in touch – would I like to make some more knicker-bunting for their stage in Parliament Square? I agreed of course. Frances from the 50:50 Parliament Campaign also got in touch. I suggested to both organisations that I’d make them some more Pants of Protest (which seemed as good a name as any). I warmed to the theme and sent a couple of knickers-in-progress photos to the Women’s March London, which they retweeted.

And the next response was extraordinary. Suddenly, I was receiving threats. Online threats from a bunch of people who seemed to turn every single thing about three pairs of colourful pants into something about hating Islam, telling me I was pathetic, childish and/or a disgrace to my gender. Or that period poverty isn’t a problem to women because you can buy cheap sanitary towels in ASDA. Three days of relentless trolling was at first upsetting and then infuriating. There were insults, then goading and then death and rape threats. FOR THREE PAIRS OF PANTS. The best advice from everyone was to ignore it, but it’s hard when you’re used to debating and discussing. I sat on my hands for three days, desperately wanting to even just address the fact it’s pretty hard to access an ASDA to buy tampons when you live in rural Somalia for example.

The vast and comprehensive ‘whataboutery’ on my feed extended to many, many things, but the key complaint seemed to be that in deciding to write ‘end period poverty’ on my knickers, I was somehow condoning Female Genital Mutilation. I totally fail to see the correlation but, just to clear this up: The Women’s March London is working with two partner charities which directly address FGM. Action Aid works on this Internationally and, for those asking constantly what’s happening more locally, The Dhalia Project specifically works with women affected in the UK. People on the march will be showing solidarity by marching together to support these and other important charities. Period poverty is a big problem internationally, deeply affecting the education of girls across the globe. It is a big problem here in the UK too. Yet, apparently, this was a hugely controversial thing to highlight and if you do you will literally be sent tweets from people hoping that you will actually be killed for saying it.

One of the tweets, and its ilk made me really laugh. It was about the suffragettes. History shows us that the suffragettes did everything and anything to get the vote – which included blowing things up, going on hunger strike, hiding in cupboards, making lots of handmade banners of varying skill levels. They were thoroughly involved in making a total public nuisance of themselves, some of which was hardly dignified. Also, as a direct response, I don’t think we can actually have political equality without equal representation. Hence working with the 50:50 Parliament Campaign. I hope that clears that up.

I reported a few of the particularly vile tweets and threats which I've not re-posted, but they’re all still mainly on my feed if you'd like to look (although, it's not very nice). As I write this I find I'm still cross. Perhaps I should have been braver in my immediate responses.

Marching in solidarity with many organisations and people

Instead, however, I decided to take a slightly more Craftivist approach in response. I’ve made special pairs of knickers, which really spell out my standpoint. I’m marching with the Women's March London, which is working with the Anti-Trump protest. I'm marching against many things in solidarity with many people and organisations. I’m marching not against the office of the President of the United States, but against what Trump himself represents – a man who insults, assaults, uses misogynistic language, separates children from families, denies climate change and so much else besides.

I’ve made several strings of knicker-bunting for the Stage in Parliament Square. One pair says ‘Knickers to Trolls’, some say ‘Knickers to Sexism’, on some rather lovely Janet Regers I've spelt out 'consent' and ‘Love Not Hate’ on some Agent Provocateurs.

Caught Short, a London-based company which sells ethically made-knickers sent me some to use - they’re the ones I’ve mainly written about Parliamentary representation on – ‘Ask Her to Stand’, ’50:50 Parliament’, ‘Equal Seats, Equal Say’. A friend donated some shapewear to me (better known as Spanx) so I could write ‘Representation Shapes Policy’ on them. Others pants were donated by the Arts University Bournemouth, and I’ve written ‘Resistance’, ‘Nevertheless She Persisted’ and ‘Disruption and Joy’ on those.

I’ve also been invited to a meeting at the House of Lords, to talk about politics with two brilliant women who actually work in politics and who have been champions of women's rights, Wera Hobhouse MP and Baroness Maddock.

I remain incredibly inspired by the campaigner Gina Martin, and the way she has raised her voice, despite the desperate trolling she’s received for doing so. I’m actually even inspired by the internet trolls who want to shut down women with bullying tactics to make us afraid to speak loudly. I want to raise my voice loudly. I’m worried if we don’t, the people who consistently tell us that they want us to be raped or killed for doing so could actually win our silence. And we can’t let them do that. Let’s bring the noise. Let’s bring the love. Let’s bring the disruption and joy.

You can follow Lorna's twitter account @thegobbledegook

For more about the issues around up skirting, private members’ bills and Christchurch, read this beautifully written article (by Christine Dawson) here:

https://medium.com/@christine_2258/pants-petitions-and-protests-chopes-sleepy-town-just-got-loud-49330e84d7c.

For updates about Gina’s campaign for Upskirting Legislation, follow her on twitter @beaniegigi

Free speech is a right that is worth preserving. We give our SOAPBOX pages to others to tell us their view of the world. 

Comments (0)
0 Comments