Beyonce, Contradiction & Progress

This is an article I wrote in January 2013 for The Independent about loving Beyonce, before her two secret albums and before I was taught that only Black women should be writing about Beyonce.

Beyoncé, in a high profile interview, has said that men and women are not equal and that simply, that fact is “ridiculous”:

“You know, equality is a myth, and for some reason, everyone accepts the fact that women don’t make as much money as men do. I don’t understand that. Why do we have to take a backseat? I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.”

It is both tragic and hilarious that the most radical thing Beyoncé has said in her 16-year career is accompanied by a photo-shoot in which she’s posing in her knickers for money. Let’s face it, on a website that simultaneously features “The Best Breasts of 2012”, her musings probably won’t even be read. This irony, one that is assumed lost on the pathetic puppet of the patriarchy that is Beyoncé, has been laboured so hard we have forgotten to be constructive. And that is the most dangerous thing of all.

Is this what western feminism has come to? Asks the amazing Hadley Freedman in her damning column. No. It isn’t. This is that cheeky duo, capitalism and patriarchy, doing what they do – and they have been doing it a lot longer than Beyoncé has been providing the beats. Western feminism is amorphous, innovative, and becoming more receptive to individual experience, and more understanding of intersectionality (the radical notion that not all women are not the same). Despite austerity, George Galloway and drinks called Pussy, there is so much out there.  We mustn’t waste time or energy picking each other to pieces. We must support and congratulate each other at every opportunity.

Beyoncé has been working, relentlessly, since she was 15, in a universe that is alien to ours. Anyone who has spent that long under the world’s hungry spotlight will contradict themselves, and that she has. On the much-loved track ‘Nasty Girl’ from the huge 2001 ‘Survivor’ album she sings, “You’s a nasty, nasty, trashy, nasty, sleazy, nasty, classless, nasty… Nasty put some clothes on, I told ya. Don’t walk out your house without your clothes on, I told ya”. Fairly horrific. Beyoncé has spoken openly about her Christian beliefs in interviews and songs, “I’m not gon’ compromise my Christianity (I’m better than that)”, while performing in scantily-clad outfits designed by her devout mother; an unforgivable contradiction in my Muslim mother’s eyes. However, on the same album we find ‘The Story of Beauty’, written in response to a letter from a young victim of abuse, “please dry your eyes, young girl, don’t cry, you’re beautiful. It’s not your fault, young girl, don’t cry, you’re beautiful. You’re not the one to blame, soon it will be okay, one day you’ll realize your beauty”. We see what we want to see.

If a superpower of a woman, who has never been known for feminist discourse and has no need to engage with it as long as she lives, chooses to, and is met with scepticism and harshness, why bother? Who are we, to hold it against Beyoncé, that she was not an unwavering feminist in 1996 and make it an inhospitable environment to her in 2013? Who are white middle class feminists to condemn Beyonce’s discussion of the pay gap (bigger for ethnic minority women I might add), to tell her she isn’t feminist enough? She contradicts herself because she is a woman, on a journey, living in a system designed to make women feel that they mustn’t question, that they have to be either, or; Madonna or whore, Angela Davis or Rihanna. There is a middle-ground full of uncertainty and I congratulate Beyoncé for stepping into it.

I contradict myself. You do too. But we get to do it in private. Thinking we have to be all or nothing is another tool of the patriarchy, used to discredit women’s experience and scare them from feminism. I don’t shave my legs but I pluck my eyebrows. That’s a contradiction of sorts, and one I’m happy to live with for now. But it is used to dismiss me. “Unless you’re doing The Kahlo, you’re not doing anything”. I don’t know what’s in my future, how far I will be comfortable challenging the confines of what is acceptable in our society. And neither does Beyoncé. But what I do know is that we need to be kind, open and non-judgemental if we want the message to spread.

Sometimes we contradict ourselves publicly too. Recently, Anne Hathaway has been lauded for her feminism, and rightly so! Her recent takedown of a talk-show host who tried to open an interview about her latest film with a question about her vagina is impeccable: “it kinda made me sad, on two accounts… I was very sad that we live in an age where someone takes a picture of another person in a vulnerable moment and rather than delete it, and do the decent thing, sells it. And I’m sorry that we live in a culture that commodifies sexuality of unwilling participants, which brings us back to Les Mis”.

Hathaway is a heroine. Case closed. No mention of the fact that she has posed nude to advertise her films. No umming and erring. Is this snobbery? She works in film, serious, lasting, dignified film – not the judge-central world of pop music of which everyone feels entitled to a piece. And let’s face it. She knows her shit. She’s also a beautiful white woman. An acceptable, non-threatening, white woman.

The race dimension of the disparity in the way these events have been interpreted is another article, but the fact Beyoncé is a black woman must not be side-stepped. In their criticism of Beyoncé, people have assumed she has brought nothing to feminism. But it is clearer than day that she brings something important to the lives of millions of women, millions of black women.  She might not quote Bell Hooks in interviews, but as one of the biggest icons of the 21st century, she sure has some stuff to say. She has long been a champion of The Independent Woman, especially where finances are concerned, and if that’s how she understands and practices feminism it is not our place to outright condemn her. Remember, this interview comes shortly after she ended her business relationship with her father and gave birth to a daughter.

If we are so intent on building an accessible, inclusive feminism, why don’t we focus on what Beyoncé has to offer, rather than her all-too-obvious failings? For the sake of feminism? And all the women who have been inspired by her? I am one of those women.

When I look at the GQ spread, I do not see tits and arse. I see a formidable singer, performer and athlete who nursed me through my teens, inspired me to sing and dance, strut and survive. I see a woman who belonged to me and the black and Asian girls I went to school with, a woman with skin our colour and thighs we could relate to. I see a club where white people were the guests – a precious space in our homogenous media. I see the first woman in 20 years to headline Glastonbury. In Beyonce’s contradiction I see hope and progress. In the backlash I see negativity and narrow-mindedness. Next time, let’s look a little deeper.

Armpits 4 August Isn't Movember

This, on armpits, for The Independent.

tabita rezaire

tabita rezaire

It’s here! That time of year! Summer cheer! Parks and beer! And acute self-loathing of body hair, as cardigans and tights come off, beauty rituals increase in frequency and cost and women’s minds are cluttered with meaningless bullshit.

As a loyal champion of body hair growth and experimentation, I am overjoyed to see Armpits4August (A4A), the month long charity event that encourages women to grow out their armpit hair, exploding onto the scene in its second year, with a healthy amount of global press. This event won’t just support women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) – a symptom of which is ‘excessive’ hair growth – it will slowly but surely change the lives and perceptions of many, many people. It will change everyday decisions and actions, thoughts and brain chemistry, because it will remind people that women have a choice.

When I stopped shaving four years ago, apart from a circle of dear feminist friends who explored the possibilities of body hair with me, I felt quite alone. Quite freakish. I still thought twice, no, 400 times before stepping out the house hairy, and there are some places I still wouldn’t go today. But things are changing, and in part, thanks to the beautiful, beautiful internet (I love the internet so much). Communities and support networks are forming, and allowing women to feel so much more comfortable in their own skin, hairy or not.

For me, it started when as a young girl. I stumbled upon The Great Wall of Vagina, a work of art that documents the many varieties of vagina by a man who wanted to do something about the anxiety so many women feel about their genitals. I remember looking, fascinated, at how different they all were, side-by-side, and I felt something lift – a fear I didn’t even know I had yet. And this gift continues, with The Belly Project, F*ck! Shaving, Hairy Pits Club, Hairy Legs and Pubes, and fellow charity efforts, Julyna (cervical cancer) and No Shave November aka ‘Movember’ (testicular and prostate cancer).

However, may I take this opportunity to say: Armpits4August isn’t Movember. Throwing no shade to Movember, it's fine, but while the comparisons are obvious, they have been relied upon too heavily in the media. A part of me has been overjoyed at this coverage. Men do the moustache thing for a penis charity and women do the armpit thing for pum-pum charity. Case closed. Sure, it’s a step towards the nonchalance that women with hairy armpits dream of, but we’re not quite there yet, and it’s important to remember why.

A4A has a whole other bit. A bit about the freedom of women to do as they please with their bodies, or at least to have the opportunity to experiment enough with their bodies to work out what they want to do with them. Essentially, if a man decides to keep his new moustache till say, January or March, he might be thought of by a passing stranger as zany, or creative. A character even. Or maybe there will be no thoughts at all.  Men are allowed to be funny and outrageous, to look stupid.  Men are allowed to be ugly. Women, as we know, are not.

It’s not only the confines of acceptable appearance that are incredibly rigid for women, it’s the way we challenge those confines, and the many other barriers to equality.  We are controlled, even in our dissent. (And yes, women who grow their body hair are dissenting – they are activists, campaigners, freedom fighters. They shouldn’t be, but they are.) There’s good dissent and bad dissent. Good dissent is when, like Malala, you get a hole in your head because you want to go to school and you get saved by a white man. Bad dissent is when you take control of your body and do experiments with it that hurt or effect absolutely no-one. When you partake in bad dissent you are considered sub-human. You are shamed and shouted at, told to sit down and know your place. That’s what women who don’t shave, and those joining them this August will be facing.

I have polycystic ovary syndrome, which I discovered when I went to the doctor because my spots had got out of control. Acne was my prominent symptom. I probably have more hair than the average woman too, but considering I don’t shave, and my hair is black, I might as well be an ape as far as society is concerned so I don’t give it much thought.  That’s a flippant remark right there. Actually I do. I give it lots of thought. I think about it all the time because for me, body hair has come to symbolise the oppression of women – for as long as we can remember, across cultures and religions, invisible and insidious, perpetuated by women, patriarchy, and its old and trusty friend capitalism.

That’s why women need to actually DO THIS. Thanks to A4A, the set-up is there and waiting. I want it to be bigger and hairier than Movember because there is so, so much to be gained from it. I believe growing your body hair out is one of the most eye-opening and freeing things you can do as a woman, even if you only do it once. Just like you don’t have to stop eating meat altogether to positively impact the environment, you don’t have to throw your razors away to remember you have a choice. It’s just about remembering you have a choice. That’s it. This August, Woman 1 will see Woman 2 and remember she has a choice. End.

No-one says it better than singer India Arie: “Sometimes I shave my legs and sometimes I don’t” – I want to live in a world where more women live by that mantra, and A4A are helping to make that possible. Good luck! And, if you want me, I’ll be organising Fannies 4 February.

Body Hair As Direct Action

This is the first time I tried to explain my thoughts on body hair, published by The Independent.

Body hair is everywhere! At least it will be soon. In the two years since I stopped shaving, we have seen a feminist movement build and, frankly, mock the idea that it isn’t needed any more. Women today are told to be afraid of our legs and feel guilty for eating on the way to work, to hate our vaginas and our skin colour at the same time, and are even made to deal with anti-abortion protests outside of clinics because the men with power choose to regulate women’s bodies instead of the climate or, erm, the banks. We have voices. We have bodies too, and body hair is fast becoming our war paint.

A few days ago I was invited to the facebook group, “Women Against Non-Essential Grooming”. After some initial confusion as to the meaning of “grooming” in this context, I saw it was a forum for women to discuss and support each other in the trials and tribulations of growing their hair. Last week, Dr Emily Gibson made the headlines with her plea for women to leave their pubic hair alone. This sort of chat is no longer a product of my entrenchment in feminist circles. This is becoming a Thing. A Thing that’s no longer confined to postgraduate reading groups or homophobic/European stereotypes. It’s breaking out of the exuberant feminism that is emerging – onto talk shows and into parks, bars and public transport.

This month has seen the Armpits4August campaign encourage women to get sponsored to grow their underarm hair to raise money and awareness for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), symptoms of which can include obesity, acne and excessive hair growth. But this campaign is not a charity gimmick. The aim to challenge beauty norms is stated unapologetically – not whispered, or inferred:

“Armpits4August believe that we should be deeply concerned that we live in society where hair on adult women is seen as shocking and disgusting, to say nothing of the pressure this places on women to uphold this idealised image of beauty, and the time and money it takes to maintain this illusion…”

The sponsorship aspect is not being used to equate the act of growing body hair to a unicycle ride to Bournemouth dressed as one of the power puff girls. It is being used as a hook, to build a safe and supportive space for women who may not have ever considered letting their hair grow, or considered themselves feminists, to experiment. This campaign, unlike much of the feminism before us, acknowledges the differences between women, and works against the activist trap of preaching to the converted. It understands that the experience of body hair for a white, blonde woman in an office is a very different one from that of a Middle-Eastern woman on a university campus. We are individuals, but we can be united in this joint experiment – the blessing of social media.

More and more women are seeing what it feels like to save that money, pain and time. And that’s not just the time it takes to remove hair, but the time spent thinking about it. Planning it so you’re freshly hairless for your date on Tuesday, but that it has grown back enough to be waxed before your holiday the following week.

This stuff is so deeply internalised, that for many women, feminism and activism begin alone, looking in your bathroom mirror. It comes in that moment when you gasp – you realise how weird, how completely nuts it is that every single woman you know scrapes and pulls out her body hair, unquestioningly and forever. Like robots. Like sexy little fembots; the greatest marketing success in history.

Direct action is not just the forte of groups like UK Uncut. When a woman stops completing the routine that all of the women she sees and knows have been completing diligently since puberty, it is direct action. A private rewiring of her brain, or a public protest, a declaration to everyone who is watching (and at rush hour on the Central Line, that’s quite a few people, trust me) that so many of women’s choices have been buried by heavy expectation and societal norms. This is Everyday Feminism. This is the personal becoming political. This action has a ripple effect. It’s a war cry for a critical eye. And that eye is contagious, as we have seen from the consistent gender critique of the Olympics, and the incredulous coverage of waxing kits for under fifteen-year-olds being described as natural and ‘PLEASANT’.

This is not about condemning other women. We must be kind to each other and easy on ourselves as we draw our battle lines. When I say I’m having a bad hair day, I’m usually referring to my moustache and on the way to remove it, with some sort of cream that burns and smells like eggs or threading, that pulls it out in little clumps. That’s my personal limit and that’s OK.

As the government cuts come into full swing, it looks like more women will leave work to look after their children and girls will be deterred from pursuing higher education and enjoying the privilege that the creators of Armpits4August and I have had. But as our choices continue to be limited by the Government, we will find choices we never even knew we had. Body hair begins to cut through the privilege that has caged feminism. It is simple. We all have it. It says: you have the freedom to make a choice. And what’s feminism if not that?

Where Are The Suffragettes

I wrote this in 2011, before Sisters Uncut had formed and made all my dreams come true. For Liberal Conspiracy.

Funny how some numbers get preferential treatment. Tucked away on the business pages of newspapers this week was a big one: the number of unemployed women in the UK is now the highest since 1988. This is business alright. This should be EVERYONE’S business, and ought to inspire shame, outrage, and a serious fight.

Last weekend at the UK Feminista Summer School people from across the country discussed the ways in which women, particularly single mothers and black and minority ethnic women, will be forced to the edge of survival by the spending cuts.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of organizations like the Fawcett Society, the statistics couldn’t be clearer – or more devastating. So what do we do about it?

Feminist activists are spoilt for choice in terms of where to direct their action. The battle-lines of feminism today are less defined, and in some ways trickier to navigate, than those that kept our great-grandmothers in the kitchen and our grandmothers out of university.

We are the frontline of feminism every day: when we politely but firmly tell our colleagues not to substitute our name with “gorgeous;” when we remove the scales from our bathrooms, wear what we want to and encourage others to do the same; when we take pride and feel supported in childcare whether we have a vagina or not.

But where is the feminist frontline of the anti-cuts movement?

The cuts are an opportunity to talk about feminism in concrete terms, in terms that don’t for a second entertain the done-to-death conservative mythology of bra-burning and man-hating. This is about women deciding between feeding their kids and buying petrol so they can get to work. This is about women trying to manage financially unmanageable households when their partners lose their jobs.

We realise now, as we fight for basic childcare that allowed our mothers the choice to build lives outside of the home, and for the legal aid and safe houses that have lifted abused women from danger, how lucky we are to be able to debate nuances of modern feminism.

It is now up to us to remind people that the public sector workers we mention when we talk about job losses are mostly women. That the charities losing, in some cases, 100% of their funding, provide services that literally save women’s lives.

UK Uncut
The first half of this year has seen some action, including a group of women blocking George Osborne from delivering his budget and a feminist bank “bail-in”. Watching mothers, fathers, women and men who would usually be doing their Saturday shopping file into a branch of Natwest to sing songs, read books, and share snacks was a moment of hope. The presence of children did not merely make for an irresistible photo opportunity and decrease the likelihood of arrest. It signified that this is a fight for our future, not a fringe issue.

No union, well-meaning NGO or politician will fight this for us. George Osborne didn’t even seem particularly perturbed by the fact that he broke the law in failing to carry out a gender impact assessment of the spending budget. The government isn’t running scared – as it should be – because, frankly, we haven’t given it any reason to.

There are no holdout hippies standing naked in front of Parliament. There are no furious mothers breastfeeding their children in the middle of Oxford Street. There are no "carried-away" separatists hurling bricks through the windows of patriarchal (read: all) institutions. There are no misguided rioters to publically condemn but privately thank for finally, FINALLY, putting this issue squarely on the front pages of every newspaper in the country. There are no suffragettes.

UK Feminista
The ideas and energy at the UK Feminista weekend allowed us to feel fired up rather than helpless in the face of impending social crisis. Fear of arrest was voiced frequently and understandably. As Fortnum and Masons defendants, we can attest to the fact that we need to be vigilant of political policing and the treatment of women in police stations as they are refused tampons and targeted for verbal abuse by female and male officers alike. We must look after each other, but we must not be stopped.

When we are told to shut up and be thankful we are not in Libya, we will say we refuse to let our daughters fight for rights we took for granted. When we are told we are naïve, we will say we are not fighting for privilege, but for common-sense human entitlements.

When we are told that our issue is not an important one, we will ask how society can be expected to survive when those who create, nurture, and sustain it are forgotten. And when all is said, we’ll let our action do the talking.

Women, Austerity & UK Uncut

I wrote in the Guardian about direct action group, UK Uncut’s ‘bail-ins’. If you cut our childcare, your banks will be full of babies.

I am in the process of organising a UK Uncut action, set for this weekend, against the unnecessary austerity cuts that will push women’s rights back a generation. I stand with women who have been betrayed by our government.

Women will bear the brunt of these cuts. As the Fawcett Society points out, they make up 65% of the public sector workforce and will therefore be hit hardest by job cuts. They disproportionately rely on public services such as the NHS, for reasons such as pregnancy and longer life expectancy. They will also be expected to bridge the gap where childcare and services for the elderly are removed, directly affecting their right to work. The repercussions of these cuts can be seen already, with recent figures showing that the number of women aged 25-49 on jobseeker’s allowance is now at its highest since records began in 1997. Women of colour are the worst affected. It is time to take to the streets.

This Saturday, I will help transform a high street bank into a creche. This will be just one of scores of UK Uncut actions hitting RBS branches across the country, days after the bailed-out bank announced the size of this year’s bonus pot. UK Uncut have called for a second day of “bail-ins” – creative protests in which bank branches are occupied and transformed into a service threatened by cuts. Expect to see libraries, aerobics classes and laundry services for the elderly set up inside the banks that contributed to this crisis.

The first time I participated in a UK Uncut action, I was blown away by the enthusiasm of people walking past. It felt fresh and, dare I say it, hopeful. I spoke to one woman who explained what the welfare state meant to her and the role it played in supporting her single mother in the 1950s. I watched as she joined the protesters, enthused by their creativity and enraged that Cameron’s “big society” is clearly a viciously unjust one. His is not a necessity, it is a political choice, and it got me thinking.

The UK Uncut model empowered me to create an action that was particularly important to me, with the help of the like-minded people I got in touch with. But how do you tell the tale of the countless women whose lives will be damaged by these cuts? We settled on childcare as a theme, following the outrageous closure of 250 Sure Start centres and cuts to child benefit, tax credits and the health in pregnancy grant. These are services that give women the confidence and independence to seek worlds beyond child bearing and motherhood.

This government would rather slash the already threadbare state protection for vulnerable women than tame the reckless machismo of our “too big to fail” banks. This is not a tragedy for women alone. It will affect all of us, except for that tiny ruling elite who are fuelled by greed and ego. This Saturday, people opposed to and hit by the cuts, from women to the disabled, public service workers and those on housing benefit will be taking the fight to the banks. Join us.

Campsfield House: Another Prison for the Innocent

As a student, I volunteered at Campsfield House Detention Center with lawyers from Bail for Immigration Detainees. I wrote this for the student newspaper, and later made a documentary about it which you can see here.

Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre is an imposing concrete building. Situated in Kidlington, just outside Oxford City, it is surrounded by electrified gates and rabbit-proof, 20-foot-high fences surmounted by barbed wire. The 216 men inside are victims of relentless UK legislation that is systematically stripping them of human rights, while hiding behind the facade of immigration control.

Campsfield House opened in 1993 and serves as a waiting room for persons who have been refused asylum in this country.  UK Border Control alleges that detention provides care for people while they wait to be deported or removed. Since its creation, however, the treatment of those inside Campsfield has led to numerous hunger strikes and suicide attempts – some successful.

Within 15 minutes of being inside Campsfield, after being photographed, fingerprinted and searched I am approached by an African man who lifts his shirt and takes off his shoes to show me a body which has been punctured many times. It is men like this who bear the scars and sometimes even the documents to prove that they are not safe in their homeland, and are still being dismissed as liars and criminals that pose a danger to British society. The Government plays a very manipulative game with these men; imprisoning them not only physically, but with inflammatory jargon which states that because a person made the mistake of coming to this country without the correct documents, or worked once they got here, they do not have the right to be listened to, or to be treated as human beings. I intend to explain what I have discovered since speaking to these men and those who have dedicated their lives to helping them.

The majority of the men in Campsfield and other detention centres have fled from persecution. Many are forced to travel to England without a passport, and come by the belief that the UK is a safe place for those in desperate need. The standard sentence for someone arriving in England without a passport or someone who is found to be working despite not being granted asylum or refugee status is 15 months. This is often not the case, however, and many men who have acknowledged their "crimes" and served their sentences find themselves incarcerated indefinitely.

‘Stateless’ is a term used to describe a person who has not been granted status in the UK and is also not recognised as a citizen of the country they have left, either through lack of documentation or for political reasons. Statelessness is a major reason for detention lasting increasingly long and it has devastating effects on the physical and mental well being of the afflicted. Essentially it means that people are subjected to a never-ending limbo, not knowing when they will be able to leave, where they will go, when they will see their families again or even if their families are managing to survive.

It costs the taxpayer on average, £1000 per person per week to detain these ‘foreign criminals’. Detention is a waste of money as well as being a waste of innocent life. Considering that the ‘crime’ most of these men have committed is that they have worked illegally, there is surely a cheaper more effective and less dehumanising way to deal with the problem at hand. Some detainees are allowed to work inside Campsfield. They are paid £5 for a 6 hour shift and the waiting list is huge, giving you an insight into how mind-numbing life at Campsfield is. Money which should be being spent on the men’s physical and mental needs isn’t, with it being commonplace for psychiatric reviews to be postponed countless times, until the detainee is moved to a different detention centre in a new city, where they must start from scratch again, building trust and relationships with people on the outside who are willing to help. This sets their chances back for weeks, sometimes months and hardly helps with the depression. This detention centre ethos of ‘if they get too needy, move them on’ demonstrates clearly the disregard for these peoples’ quality of life. Sickeningly it seems they have adopted the NHS scheme of shuffling equipment in order to combat the superbug so bacteria does not have the time to settle and flourish. Except these people are not bacteria and they are not hurting anybody.

Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) provides a light at the end of the tunnel for thousands of detainees. BID is an independent charity that exists to challenge immigration detention in the UK. They work with asylum seekers and migrants, in removal centers and prisons to secure their release from detention. This happens in the form of ‘bail applications’. If bail is granted to an individual, they are allowed to live outside of detention, having to report back to the Home Office and have their bail renewed regularly. However, they are not granted the right to work and live on food vouchers.  BID aids people in detention through the bail application process, helping them to understand the legal system and find legal representatives, though most represent themselves. They provide detainees with a life-line via their help in filling out bail related forms such as ‘Reasons for Leaving’, a paragraph sized box allocated to detainees as their only opportunity to appeal directly to the judge at the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal. Where most will feel inclined to appeal on a humanitarian level in this space, it is BID’s job to help detainees recognise where their rights have been abused and use the space to clarify where the law finds itself in contravention of its own rules.

It is not uncommon for detainees to be refused bail 10 times in a row despite fresh evidence from charities such as Medical Justice who work to expose and challenge medical abuse in immigration detention and will support immigrant claims of torture in their homeland. I spoke with Gill Baden, who has worked for BID since the opening of the Oxford office in 2001. She is 73 and has dedicated much of her retirement to helping immigrants abused by our system. It quickly became clear to me that not only does she provide information and advice for detainees, she provides them with support, care and hope that they will find nowhere else. When I ask her how much longer she will work for BID she says, “I don’t know how much longer I can do it. It’s difficult seeing things being made so much harder for these people. It’s getting worse.” To see a woman with Gill’s strength and determination to make life better for others still disappointed after so much work was overwhelming and terrifying. Who will carry on fighting for these forgotten people? And where will they find such strength to do so?

Student Action for Refugees (STAR) have geared their campaign towards raising awareness about Campsfield and visit, regularly conducting drama and poetry workshops. Eleanor Mortimer, president of STAR said, “the idea of detention without a trial is a threat to our human rights, too. It’s too close to home. That’s why I’m so passionate about star, we need to fight for these people who are from our generation, clever people who understand politics, who understand justice and have fought for those things. That’s why they’re going mad. They’re so far from being allowed to reach their potential.” STAR is planning poster and street-theatre campaigns as well as a rally planned outside the Sheldonian on 26th February to raise awareness about Campsfield among students and the local community. Unfortunately, raising awareness about Campsfield is not the only objective as they are also campaigning against the proposed building of a new detention centre in Bicester which will be the largest one in Europe.

The Campaign to Close Campsfield holds a protest outside Campsfield on the last Saturday of every month. The mood at the last one was focused towards targeting the Government and reversing the proposed building of Oxford’s second Immigration Removal Centre. Bill MacKeith, a loyal supporter of Close Campsfield said, “you never win a battle unless you fight it – and this one can be won. We are fighting against the barbaric anti-asylum policies manifested by the UK Government”.  The protesters sang ‘If I had a Hammer’ with faith and passion as they have done for many months. They peered through the fences surrounding the imprisoned immigrants, shouting ‘freedom’ and ‘migration is not a crime, close Campsfield’. A call of ‘SOS’ echoed across the tarmac in reply.

As a privileged person, I feel a duty to be aware of those who haven’t had my luck. I have spent so many hours trying to understand and empathise with the lonely desperation felt by those who aren’t allowed the most basic human rights. Still, during my visit to Campsfield I was unprepared when sitting opposite someone who had endured so much and was displaying all of the symptoms of being abused at the hands of the UK Government. “No talking can cure my problem” he said with depressed agitation, “my problem is freedom. What have I done that’s so wrong? These people are wasting my life. I’d rather take it myself then let it be wasted any more”. All this, and only a 30 minute bus ride away from my room.

I wish Campsfield was as bad as it gets but it’s just the tip of the only ice-berg that doesn’t seem to be melting. In other places, children are detained under exactly the same conditions, causing unimaginable trauma. But Guantanamo is closing and there we have hope. There is no time to breathe a sigh of relief for we have our own dirty secrets lurking literally in our back garden. It is only our continued pressure and refusal to forget these people that will instigate change. It’s nothing radical, just the prospect of treating all humans with dignity regardless of where they were born. As one detainee puts it “we are not asking you to love us like your children but we are simply asking you to give us at least half the care you give your dogs.”

A little documentary I made with the BBC, inspired by my time at Campsfield