Friday, 13 April 2012

Divine Women: In praise of historian Bettany Hughes

I first became aware of historian Bettany Hughes, who’s not a personal friend but here’s hoping, when I read her book Helen of Troy. The book, the many reviews it attracted and indeed its charismatic subject were alive with detail, fascination, vividness, momentum and intelligence. Here was a brilliant woman putting another brilliant woman back into society and history as an agent, not a victim; a personality, not a symbol or cipher; a person, not an object. Not only that but she gave life and depth to the social, political, cultural and practical workings of the society in which Helen of Troy lived. Hughes did it all with respect, great clarity and insight, delight and an awesome breadth of scholarship... which fuelled her even more acclaimed second book, The Hemlock Cup, about Socrates and classical-era Athens.

The reviews this time were positively frothing.

Having noticed her name I suddenly saw it everywhere and realised that Hughes is an accomplished, erudite and riveting broadcaster, a genially globetrotting polymath brain. This month, she has excelled herself with Divine Women, a three part BBC series that began last Wednesday, 11th April.

The series resurrects the long-erased story of women and religion, demonstrating that we were not always unheard, unseen, powerless, marginal, unimportant or uninteresting. The story begins in 9000 BC and, as Hughes writes in the series press release,

The female of the species has always formed 50% of the population but has never occupied 50% of human history. Yet the connection between women and the divine has been so strong in all societies that when we follow the stories of 'divine women' we uncover new evidence for the character of humanity and a fuller, truer history of the world.
The first instalment, When God Was A Girl, looked at the evolution of the goddess in Turkey, Greece, Rome and India. The second programme, on April 18th, promises to be even edgier. Entitled The Handmaids of God, it investigates the story of the priestess: from the poet Sappho on the island of Lesbos and her censored writing to Vestal Virgins in Rome, the role of women in the early Christian church and persecuted Christian priestesses.

Hughes saves the best (and most devastating) material for last, eschewing triumphalism for a sober, exceedingly well-researched and culturally diverse examination of the lives of incredible women who have simply been ignored, erased and written out of history. There is 7th Century Empress Wu Zetien, who called herself Emperor and saved Buddhism by establishing it in China; Empress Theodora in Byzantium, the subject of Stella Duffy's brilliant recent novel; the early women of Islam; and Anglo-Saxon Hilda of Whitby, who used the power of ancient traditions and new ideas about religion and philosophy to introduce sophisticated concepts of reform, education and the word to the intensely macho society in which she lived. This last instalment airs on Wednesday 25th April and will leave viewers filled with despair, inspiration and zeal: whether we are talking about religion, politics, culture or any other area, we can’t let this erasure from public record, acknowledgement and respect be perpetrated against the great (and indeed the ordinary) women of the future and the present as they have been against countless women in the past.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Highlights from the upcoming Fringe film festival

Fringe, “London’s alternative gay film festival” is back in art and cinema venues across east London and will be running from Thursday 12th April to Sunday 15th April.  I’ve had a look at the programme and am impressed by its diversity in discipline and subject matter: the festival comprises art exhibitions, panel discussions, outreach and community initiatives, exercise and dance events, the screening of classic films as well as UK premieres and a theoretical approach which covers everything including pop, porn, popcorn and politics in one way or another. Visit the official festival site for a full rundown of things to do and see, dates and times.

I’ve picked out some of the films that particularly caught my eye:

- Hackney Picturehouse, 270 Mare Street, London E8 1HE
- Dir. Veronica Keder, Israel, 2011, 80 min
A dark indie comedy about two girls who fall in love with their country and with each other en route from Tel Aviv to Sderot. Israels lesbian answer to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid. Described by AfterEllen as "Totally off-kilter, sexy and stylish in a distinctly grungy, almost '90s sort of way, Joe + Belle is the story of two young women who meet and fall in love under bizarre, darkly hilarious circumstances. If you like your comedy offbeat, and your leading ladies slightly crazy, you really can’t go wrong here."

- Rich Mix, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road, London E1 6LA
- Dir. Dr Dagmar Schultz, Germany, 2012, 84min
‘I am a black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,’ begins Audre Lorde addressing a small group in Berlin, where she led the way to defining the Afro-German movement and left a legacy of strength, constructive difference and the genuine urgent warmth of her personality. This documentary incorporates archive material and interviews with Dagmar Schultz’s previously unreleased personal video archive, creating a portrait fortified by activism and stunning in its insight into her private world. Lorde’s own voice shines through this inspiring film, filling us with her poetry and conviction.

- Rio Cinema, 103-107 Kingsland Road, London E8 2PB
- Dir. Angela Tucker, USA, 2011, 75 mins
(A)sexual follows the growth of a community that experiences no sexual attraction. Studies show that 1% of the population is asexual. But in a society obsessed with sex, how do you deal with life as an outsider? In 2000, David Jay came out to his parents. He was asexual and was fine with it. And he was not alone. Combining intimate interviews, verite footage, and animation with fearless humor and pop culture imagery, David and our four other characters grapple with this universal question and the outcomes might surprise you. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Michael J Dore and members of AVEN UK (Asexuality Visibility and Education Network).

And, last but hardly least....
- XOYO, 32-37 Cowper Street, London EC2A 4AW
Short film screening and a discussion on the theme of lesbian generations hosted by international art magazine Girls Like Us. The afternoon will bring together films from around the world along with a discussion between GLU editor Jessica Gysel and Lisa Gornick - artist, filmmaker and star of inter-generational lesbian drama "The Owls." Girls Like Us paraphernalia will be on sale throughout the day along with a sneak peak of the new issue! This event is curated by Nicole Emmenegger and Sandra Le.

Lecture: multiple perpetrator rape

On the 2nd May 2012 at 6.30pm Professor Rachel Jewkes, Director of the South African Medical Research Council Gender and Health Unit, will be giving a free public lecture about multiple perpetrator rape hosted by Middlesex University Forensic Psychological Services.  The event is free to anyone who wishes to attend however there is limited space so if you plan on attending, please RSVP by the 27th April 2012 by emailing

Once you have reserved your place, the organisers will send you directions to the event.

Professor Rachel Jewkes is the Director of the South African Medical Research Council Gender & Health Unit and is based in Pretoria. She trained as a medical doctor and is a specialist in Public Health Medicine. Rachel has spent the last 12 years researching genderbased violence, particularly intimate partner violence and sexual violence in South Africa. She has authored over one hundred and fifty publications in peer-reviewed journals, book chapters and reports. She has worked closely with the South African Government over many years on sexual violence policy in the health sector. She is the Secretary of the Sexual Violence
Research Initiative, an initiative of the Global Forum for Health Research, and was a member of the steering committee of the WHO multi-country study on Violence against Women.
The invite states:
Group rape in South Africa is commonly known as streamlining and is often seen as a game, performed as part of male peer group bonding or an act of punishment of a girlfriend. Thus it is presented by men as alternately deserved, or harmless fun. This lecture will explore the question of how South African men who disclose having engaged in multiple perpetrator rape (with or without having raped alone) differ from those have raped alone and from men who have not raped.

Tender: acting (and training) to end abuse

Tender are a charity working to counteract abusive, unhealthy and controlling releationships through training, consciousness raising, outreach work and widespread educational initiatives. I admire their work immensely, especially their focus upon working with young people in schools and their drive to create an overall youth culture which is healthy, mutually respectful, self-respecting and supportive. They have sent me details of three of their upcoming one-day training events. The days are usually attended by professionals already working in this field, but I thought I'd share the details because they highlight some of the major psychological, physical and social issues surrounding violent, abusive and controlling relationships and seek to address the dynamics of abusive relationships, the pressures on victims and survivors, perpetrators' own excuses and dynamics, the wider social tolerance - even expectancy - surrounding abuse, bystander apathy, perpetrators' non/acceptance of responsibility, risks and routes out of abusive relationships and much more.

1. Awareness and Good Practice when working with women experiencing violence and abuse in relationships
Thursday 14th June 2012
Central London
This one day training event will equip participants with an understanding of the issues for women experiencing violence from men they know. The day will give attendees an appreciation of the barriers faced by women seeking help to leave an abusive relationship.

The training will enable participants to:
  • Define the different types of abuse
  • Understand the pressures on women to stay in violent relationships and what might prevent them from seeking and securing the help they need
  • Explore the additional issues for women from marginalised groups
  • Examine the responsibility for violence using the power and control model
  • Address the impact on children witnessing and experiencing domestic abuse
The day is aimed at staff in any agency who may be called upon to support, advise, treat, or otherwise assist a woman experiencing violence from a man she knows.

2.  Working with young people to address violence in teenage relationships
Thursday 21st June 2012
Central London
This very practical day will equip participants with a clear understanding of the key issues of abuse and violence in relationships and practically examine how drama techniques can be used to engage young people in these issues. These exercises have been tried and tested in a range of youth settings including schools, youth centres and pupil referral units and the training will be delivered by facilitators with a wealth of experience in delivering issue based projects.

This training will:
  • Give participants a theoretical understanding of issues such as different types of abuse, the excuses perpetrators give and the pressures on victims to stay in abusive relationships through our gendered model
  • Practically explore exercises that can be used to engage young people
  • Explore how the activities can be applied in a variety of youth settings, and learn effective techniques for engaging and encouraging young people to participate
  • Trouble shoot particular barriers participants have encountered when carrying out this kind of violence prevention work
  • The day is aimed at professionals working directly with young people. Participants do not need to have previous experience of drama or theatre to take part in the day
3. Working effectively in and with schools: a practical approach to successful partnerships with schools
Thursday 28th June 2012
Central London
This one day training event will help participants to create robust and mutually beneficial links with schools to deliver high impact work with students and teachers. Working in schools is often a big challenge for organisations. Tender has experience of identifying ways to work successfully with a school’s administration, schedules and ethos to build a strong relationship. Attendees will increase their understanding of the needs and challenges faced by teachers and will develop methods of adapting their approaches to appeal to schools in light of these.

This training will address:
  • Making initial contact with schools – strategies and methods
  • Working with key teachers
  • Maintaining relationships once a project is underway
  • Secondary, Primary, Special, Pupil Referral Units – identifying their differing needs
  • School-speak: becoming familiar with the language that schools and teachers use
  • Developing and delivering teacher training
The day is aimed at staff in any organisation that may be starting to work directly in primary, secondary, special schools and pupil referral units.

Further notes for interested parties:
  • Tender say they can always respond to individual training needs of organisations and develop tailor made packages of training; they provide on-site consulting for agencies and organisations.
  • To find out more please contact Susie McDonald on 020 7428 7313 or email
  • To request a booking form or some more information please contact Jake Tily on 0207 431 7278 or email