Misogyny in the NHS stopped me getting help for vulval pain

10 months after being diagnosed with unprovoked vulvodynia and being told emphatically that there was nothing visibly wrong with my vulva, I’ve just come out of my referral with a consultant gynaecologist.

After introducing herself and getting a brief history from me, she got straight to examining me. Prodding around my vulva with a cotton bud, she asked where I could feel pain. I explained (for what must be the 50th time) where the pain is and gritted my teeth through the rest of the examination.

The consultant told me to get dressed and when I sat down she said immediately: “You have an abnormal vulva.”

Hearing those words was honestly the best piece of news I could possibly have hoped for. I have been convinced when I have looked at my vulva with a mirror that things did not look normal. I could clearly see inflammation in the most painful areas, but every time I went to the hospital for my appointments at the sexual health clinic, I would be told that there was nothing there.

The gynaecologist went on to explain that she has been looking at vulvas for 25 years and that mine does not look normal. She said doctors who do not look at vulvas everyday tend not to actually know or understand what normal is, hence the diagnosis of vulvodynia. She explained that the skin condition I have could well end up also causing vulvodynia, and experiencing painful sex definitely contributes to the vaginismus (which I also have).

I don’t think I can really put into words the the anger that exploded in my body at that moment. I have been through doctors telling me anxiety and mental health issues are tricking my body into being in pain. I have been prescribed pain medication that sent me into a state of depression for months. I have been made to feel like I am going clinically insane for examining myself and seeing red raw inflammation that doctors later tell me is how vulvas are supposed to look.

To hear that after 15 months my pain and suffering is most likely vulval eczema which can hopefully be treated in a matter of months with strong steroid cream…is almost more than I have the emotional capacity to cope with.

I have been unable to have sex pretty much full stop for the last 5 months, not taking into consideration the difficulties I was having before and forcing myself to endure. I have been walking around in agony in the wild hope that my “vulvodynia” would eventually disappear.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that had I been a cis man, my condition would not have gone undiagnosed for this amount of time. I am disgusted by the way that I have been treated by doctors, who refused to listen to me. I have been passed around professionals who are clearly unqualified to deal with gynaecological issues, many of whom have often had the bedside manner of a square of soiled toilet paper.

Of course the NHS crisis is a major contributor to this and I do acknowledge the immense pressure and stress that staff are under. I will not, however, excuse the misogyny evident in the contempt many medical professionals have had for the pain I have described and how they have examined me, what must be dozens of times, only to repeatedly misdiagnose me.

I feel such a sense of relief that I am crying as I write this: they are tears of fury. Fury at the misogyny that has put me through this, at the austerity that is destroying our NHS and for my own fucked up sex life and hatred for my vulva and vagina that has developed over the course of my ordeal.

I am writing this for anyone who has a vulva: demand to be listened to, trust your instincts and do not let male doctors pass off your pain as hysteria brought on by some phantom female anxiety.

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Vulvodynia Update: What am I Supposed to Do?

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Since my diagnosis of vulvodynia (which I wrote about in April) my situation has unfortunately continued to deteriorate. Each time it has felt like there has been some progress my positive feelings are swiftly shattered. The initial gratitude I felt for getting a diagnosis wore thin very quickly as I came to terms with the mammoth struggle I was up against, particularly at a time when the NHS is as under-resourced as it is.

After having seen the two consultants at the psycho-sexual unit, I started taking my daily 10mgs of amitriptyline. Even at this very low dosage, I immediately started feeling very tired. I decided to stop drinking for the first month or so of taking this medication having read about the extreme tiredness that alcohol brings on in many people who take amitriptyline – this left me feeling quite socially isolated and depressed at first but I thought it was best to allow my body to get used to the medication. Over the next few months the doctor gradually increased my daily dosage until I was taking 50mg per day. Once the dosage had hit 40mg, I noticed that the pain in my vulva had definitely dulled. I was no longer feeling pain when I sat down and the burning sensation was far less severe. The vaginal pain on penetration, however, was exactly the same – I still could not have sex. Despite the dulled vulval pain, I realised that this medication was really not working for me because every time I went on a night out it would get to the point where I physically could not keep my eyes open because I was so tired: I did not feel safe trying to get home at night by myself.

During these long months I slowly lost my sex drive almost completely. The fear of pain and the build up that I would have to go through mentally each time made any sexual interaction incredibly unappealing. What’s more, the vulval pain is unfortunately concentrated most around my clitoris and so I did not even want to touch myself, let alone let my partner. There obviously were some good days when I was able to have a sexual encounter but I generally found it easier to just avoid sex.

The effect that this has had on my mental state is difficult to describe, but I think the best I can do is to say that I feel like the vulvodynia has taken the old me hostage. I used to be sexually confident and happy where I now feel a deep sense of insecurity and anxiety. Even though I obviously have good days (because it would be too physically exhausting to feel how I do on my bad days everyday) I feel like most days I must numbly accept my unhappiness and pain, which I mostly do by filling my days with stuff – lots and lots of reading, talking (probably quite maniacally), doing work, writing, volunteering, going to meetings. I find small talk incredibly difficult in a way that I never used to. I often find myself sitting with people wishing I wasn’t there. I don’t want to make out that I have become some kind of social recluse, I haven’t, but I have become more socially anxious and find talking to certain people hard.

What really does not help is that lots of doctors like to tell me that being stressed can make the vulvodynia worse whilst they simultaneously do not offer me mental health support and say stuff like: “Ohhh poor you, it must be very frustrating. We’ll get there in the end”. After I burst into tears at my last appointment with the doctor at the sexual health unit (I am still confused as to why my doctor is here when vulvodynia is not a sexual health issue but a gynaecological one), he decided that I should start taking new medication, as the amitriptyline was not doing the trick. He prescribed me an anti-convulsant drug (Gabapentin) that is generally used to treat epilepsy.  He told me that some women find that this can help because vulvodynia can make your vaginal muscles spasm and therefore your vagina tightens making penetration difficult. The downside to this medication is I now have to take it three times a day, as opposed to once as I had done with the amitriptyline, and thus far I can report no improvements. On the plus side, I no longer experience extreme tiredness or in fact any other negative side effects. Because of my crying fit, this doctor confusingly told me that I should go back to my GP to be referred for pelvic floor physiotherapy.

I went to said GP appointment this morning and was told to stop reading up on vulvodynia online or in books because overthinking it will make the situation worse. She did not seem to really understand what vulvodynia is (no surprises there) and was making all of the worst assumptions about vulvodynia being a result of my mental health. This made me want to fly out of my chair and punch her in the face but instead I just cried again and tried to calmly explain that the vulval pain has nothing to do with my anxiety, my anxiety is there because of the vulval pain. I managed to get her to refer me for physiotherapy but really she seemed like she wanted to bundle me out of the room.

What am I supposed to do? Wait the 3 months in between my appointments twiddling my thumbs, taking medication that does not help me? Of course I seek out help online because talking to other sufferers of vulvodynia has enabled me to find some respite and some useful information and advice. I feel like I am being passed around between medical professionals in the NHS who are too overworked to care about what I have been going through because I am not dying. It is getting to the point where I feel like I should seek out a specialist privately because this year and a half long process is dragging me further and further from the happy person I want to be.

Something surely has got to change – how can so many women be suffering in the same way with so little support? Waiting lists are at least 3 months long for most services and in between, I am left flailing around unable to speak to most people I know and crying intermittently to my mum or boyfriend. The sad truth though is that without serious funding for the health service, vulvodynia is going to be so far down the list of priorities that all health professionals can possibly do is chuck some medication at you and hope for the best.

I was sexually harassed and touched at work and nothing was done

TW: Sexual assault and harassment

It has been 8 months since I was sexually assaulted and harassed at work and nothing has been done.

I had been sexually assaulted by different men (once at a house party, 3 times in public) four times previously and had never reported it. I had always wanted to play down what had happened and did not want to re-traumatise myself by going through the process of a police investigation for what I knew were ultimately very minor sexual crimes. I did report an incident to the police once when a group of us were flashed on the way home by a drunk man who was out with his friends. I was so fed up and furious that I ran and asked for help and some lovely men tried to stop him leaving in a taxi while I called the police – it took them more than 40 minutes to arrive, by which point I had gone home and the man had escaped. When the police called me to follow up the next day, they said “he did not seem like a predator” and was “just drunk”. This was obviously a minor incident but it is my only personal experience of reporting a sexual crime to a higher power and it did not fill me with a great sense of optimism.

On starting work at a Secondary School in September, I naively thought that I would be safe from work place harassment. In my first week, however, I had already taken note of how creepy one of the PE teachers was. Every time he passed me in the corridor he would wink, and he inappropriately called my line manager “a two faced bitch” in one of the few conversations we had. He would leer at me in meetings, giving me those horrible looks that all women recognise. In short, he seemed like a creepy, sexist older man.

At the Christmas staff quiz he was sitting on my table. I had had a few glasses of wine and was chatting to various members of staff on my table. My memory is hazy due to the alcohol, but I remember him making some kind of comment along the lines of “you have a great figure” and as he said this, he put both his hands onto my thighs. It was over very quickly but it made my skin crawl. I tried to brush it off with nervous laughter and moved to a different seat. I attempted to forget about it, but had this nasty feeling that he was testing the waters to see how I would react, to see how far he could push his behaviour.

After the Christmas holidays I was at a year group briefing early before school in one of the classrooms. I was sitting at the back, the other members of staff were in front of me. He came into the room late and so people were joking about him being lazy – everyone was laughing about it. As the meeting started and the other members of staff were distracted, he walked close behind me, put his hand under my hair on the back of my neck and said confidently (but so nobody else could hear) “very pretty.” He then moved calmly across the room to sit on the other side from me.

I was so astounded that I actually started to say thank you before I fully realised what had happened and felt furiously sick. The meeting was only ten minutes, but it felt torturously long because I was hot with rage and so deeply disgusted. He was so much older than me, with a round head, sharky eyes and a terrible haircut – the hair was thinning, grey and crunchy. He always wore shorts which revealed his waxy legs. I was furious he thought he had any right to my body. How dare he leer at me, touch me. It brought back all of those memories of the times men had taken my body as their right, grabbing my vagina as I tried to turn off the smoke alarm at a party, undoing my bikini top on a beach where I was alone, living in a foreign country.

After the meeting finished, I immediately spoke to a woman teacher that I trusted and asked if she had heard him – she had not, but she agreed that I should report what had happened. I felt confident because his behaviour had been so inappropriate leading up to this (second) assault that I was sure they would deal with it – a string of incidents is surely more likely to show how calculated his actions were?

Unfortunately all that followed was a humiliating investigation, led by an older male member of the Senior Leadership Team who, frankly, did not have a clue. They followed procedure, they said, and told me they were carrying out a ‘formal investigation’ – an HR woman from the council came in to oversee the process. I was interviewed multiple times, crying openly in two of the meetings. This was humiliation enough as a young woman new to a job. I also had to drag one of my colleagues with me to the meetings as my support as  I was not in a union yet (I had only been working there for a month and, stupidly, had not got round to joining).

I was sure that there would be some outcome – all I wanted was for him to admit he had harassed and assaulted me. I wanted my work place to see that I had been a victim of age and gender discrimination and to acknowledge that I did not feel safe or comfortable. Instead, after a horrific process over the course of two weeks, they decided there was not enough evidence to support what I had said (despite the fact he had admitted to saying what I told them). They told me that the problem was that they could not prove that the “unwanted sexual touching” had happened.

I was confused because I did not understand what process I had just been through. They had said it was a formal investigation but they then played it down saying it had actually just been informally working out what had happened. I tried to say that I did not care about the formalities and I just wanted to be believed and for him to understand what he had done. They offered for him to write an apology letter but this only infuriated me – how could he apologise for something he was denying he had done?

What is so frustrating is that they did not have any internal procedures in place to deal with structural issues like sexism. I can guarantee that this man never went through any kind of training about gender inequality and discrimination – how is this not a safeguarding issue? The man works with vulnerable children everyday as part of his job, yet the school were entirely incapable of taking seriously his harassment of a new, young colleague and how that could have the potential to be a serious issue for the children in the school.

I tried to explain to the investigating team that, for me, this was not just about the incidents themselves, but about the inherent power imbalance that was at play in everything that had happened. He was able to treat me in the way that he did because I was new, because I was young and because I am a woman. He was a long-standing member of staff who I feel was testing the waters with me from the minute I arrived to see what behaviour he could get away with.

Unfortunately, my experience is not unique and on the scale of sexual crimes, it is very minor – if I had reported this to the police, I would have had no hope whatsoever of getting any kind of justice. A 2016 TUC survey of 1,500 women cited 52% as having stated that they had been sexually harassed at work, and a quarter of those women experienced unwanted touching. This is a systemic issue and it is to the shame of the local authority school where I work that they have absolutely no training in place around these issues for staff.

It is 8 months on from this and it has been totally brushed under the rug. I asked for a meeting with the investigating officer when I received a whole staff email from my harasser wishing all of us “ladies” a happy international women’s day – he had attached a photograph of a man holding a bouquet of flowers… Aside from wanting to gag, I was apoplectic with rage that he had had the audacity to include me in his stupid, sexist email after everything that I had had to go through.

When I complained about this email I explained, yet again, that he very clearly had no understanding of how to behave towards female members of staff and asked whether there would be any training provided so that he could understand the string of terrible things he had done, and be able to put together some kind of formal apology. The investigating officer attempted to appease me by claiming to understand but, since that meeting, absolutely nothing has happened and they claim that no such training course exists.

I flinch every single time I pass my harasser in the corridor. I feel embarrassed and anxious anytime a member of staff from the PE department is near me. I worry that the Senior Leadership Team think I overreacted and lied. In short, it has made my life at work extremely difficult. I was referred for CBT by my GP and in those sessions truly realised how much anxiety work was causing me. Thankfully I am leaving in 4 weeks time, but I must endure those weeks knowing that nothing has been done.

My experience is part of a vast picture of harassment, intimidation and violence against women, LGBTQI+ and non-binary people within the work place. It is no shock to me that work places get away with creating and nurturing these unsafe spaces for us, but it is really important that people are aware of how widespread this kind of behaviour is. I wish I had had the strength to shout out in that meeting for him to get his hands off me, but in the moment, I froze.

We need strengthened unions that stand up for workers and protect us from harassment and bullying and proper training and development for members of the workforce who are sexist – it is disgusting to allow this cycle of sexual assault and harassment to continue.  Thankfully, I am able to leave my workplace and move on to something else – although I suffered, ultimately, I have been able to keep living my life when, for others, this is not the case. Sexual harassment often causes women to be pushed out of work causing a devastating economic impact on the woman victim. It can cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other serious mental  health issues. It has a knock on effect to almost every part of the victim’s day to day life and a huge social impact within the workplace (if the woman has not felt like she has no other option but to leave).

We must continue to fight to kick sexual harassment out of the workplace and remember how many thousands of women, LGBTQI+ and non-binary people are impacted each year by the insidious sexist culture that pervades our work places.

 

5 Reasons Self-defining Women Should Vote For Corbyn’s Labour 

Amy Hills-Fletcher

Last week, as has been a daily occurrence since the announcement of the snap general election, I was having a conversation with a woman about our voting intentions. Some way into this discussion, she asked tentatively,  “But doesn’t Corbyn have a bit of a problem with women?”

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, commentators on both the right and the liberal left have thrown the accusation of sexism around, citing arguments such as, “But none of the key positions in the shadow cabinet are held by women,” or, “Wasn’t it supporters of Corbyn who  threw a brick through the window of Angela Eagle’s office?” These newspaper sound bite arguments have consistently been used to undermine Corbyn, with no real regard for the truth – a brick was not thrown through the window of Angela Eagle’s office, and quite clearly, many of Corbyn’s closest allies and most important voices in his shadow cabinet are prominent women MPs, such as Diane Abbott (Shadow Home Secretary) and Angela Rayner (Shadow Secretary of State for Education).

What has all too often been the case is that those who are ideologically opposed to Corbyn, whether this be people on the Labour right, liberal commentators in The Guardian, or right-wing journalists, have used allegations of sexism against Corbyn and his allies as a political weapon.

As well as rejecting the smears that have been aimed at Corbyn, there are 5 good reasons to vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour:

1) His voting record

Corbyn’s actions over the course of his career as an MP show emphatically that he is in fact a committed anti-sexist, who has stood alongside women in their struggle against sexism. He has consistently supported abortion rights, the rights of sex workers, LGBTQI+ rights and other issues that mainly affect self-defining women, and has voted accordingly in parliament throughout his career.

2) His support of the grassroots 

It is not just his voting record that is important, but also the way in which Corbyn and John McDonnell have supported women in grassroots campaigns throughout their careers, such as this meeting, which McDonnell hosted in the House of Commons last year.  If you are still in need of convincing, Corbyn was shown to literally be amplifying women’s voices when he did this during the election campaign:

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3) His gender is not inherently an issue

There are some who suggest that Corbyn’s cis male gender identity somehow inherently means that he cannot work alongside and support women in the struggle for gender equality in the same way that a self-identifying woman could. We need only look to Theresa “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” May to see how easy it is to co-opt a radical liberation movement, and claim a “feminism” that is based solely on gender identity and not on actions. Sometimes, being a woman is not enough. We must reject the faux feminism of right-wing women who are pro-life, pro-war and pro-austerity yet claim to be “on the side” of women.

4) His policies

The cruel austerity measures that the Conservatives have over seen have disproportionately affected women, particularly mothers, who are bearing 85 per cent of the cuts. The manifesto that Labour has put forward has promised to put a stop to austerity and to properly fund public services through higher taxation on the 5 per cent, as well as through measures such as reversing corporation tax cuts. There is no question that women in particular will benefit from the manifesto pledges that Labour have set out, such as (to name just a few), free childcare for 2-4 year olds, halting cuts to women’s refuges, reforming the Gender Recognition Act, making LGBT hate crimes aggravated offences, and appointing a Violence Against Women Commissioner.

5) A progressive alliance will do nothing for women

The calls for a progressive alliance appear to come from a good place, but the Liberal Democrats went into coalition with the Tories in 2010 after saying emphatically that they wouldn’t – what’s to stop them doing exactly the same this time around? The Liberal Democrats may appear to have socially liberal policies, but Tim Farron has made clearly offensive comments about homosexuality and has not supported abortion rights (shown by his voting record). Any alliance that involves the Lib Dems should not be called progressive. We have a Labour leader worth voting for, why vote Lib Dem?

In this election, women have the opportunity to vote for someone who is committed to fighting for justice for all, and for a person who feels genuine compassion for members of our community living in poverty through no fault of their own. Corbyn is passionate, dedicated and, shockingly, seems to be a genuinely nice man.

Corbyn is the only truly progressive, anti-war, anti-racist and anti-sexist potential Labour Prime Minister we have ever had the chance to vote for, and he can win.

Register to vote by this Monday, and then, #VoteLabour.

 

Amy Hills-Fletcher

 

 

An Open Letter to Theresa May

Artwork by Alice Skinner https://www.instagram.com/whothafuckisalice

Dear Prime Minister,

You are due to meet with Donald Trump at the White House tomorrow. As I’m sure you are aware, you are also due to meet with a man who, whilst talking about women, was recorded saying: ‘when you’re a star you can do anything… grab them by the pussy.’ You are also due to meet with a man who called for ‘a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.’ You are also due to meet with a man who in order to ‘fight fire with fire’ has justified the use of torture, such as waterboarding. You are meeting with A MAN who said that women who seek abortions should be subject to ‘some form of punishment.’

Whilst I, along with the millions of other people who took to the streets all over the world last Saturday for the Women’s Marches, continue to try and reconcile the fact that this man is the President of the United States, I urge you to consider the following:

We could waste our time talking about how the President has so admirably recanted and apologised for the comments mentioned above (never mind how they alone have helped legitimise islamophobia and misogyny), however, I think that employing an ‘actions speak louder than words’ approach may be more enlightening. I’m a great believer in everyone deserves a 522nd chance, so let’s delve into the President’s recent activity and see if these abhorrent comments were merely several slips of the same disgusting tongue.

1) The right to grab pussy.

(Once having been told that this is not actually an amendment on the Constitution) Donald Trump did issue a short statement saying ‘I said it, I was wrong, and I apologise… anyone who knows me, knows these words don’t reflect who I am’. The President’s attempts to dispel fears about his predatory behaviour have been undermined by at least 24 women who have accused the President of inappropriate sexual behaviour in multiple incidents spanning the last 30 years.

I think it is fair to argue, Prime Minister, that here is an example of (multiple) actions speaking louder than words.

2) The man said he wanted to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. To quote the President can we please figure out ‘what the hell is going on?’

Well, as you know, Prime Minister, the President is planning to sign an executive order that would indefinitely block Syrian refugees from entering the US, as well as suspending any immigration for at least 30 days from a number of predominantly Muslim countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.

Once again, despite the fact that Trump did later modify his planned Muslim ban to a slightly less inflammatory ‘extreme vetting’ of immigrants from certain countries, his racist intentions have been made clear only a week into his presidency.

3) Let’s take a minute to look at the moment Donald Trump was allowed to sign an anti-abortion executive order surrounded by men: image1

Never, as long as I live, will I see a photo of 6 women signing legislation which determines what men can do with their own reproductive organs. In this photo, the President is signing an executive order that prohibits international NGOs from funding abortion services and providing information about abortions if they receive US funding. As the United States is the single largest donor to global health efforts, this order will affect thousands of international healthcare services who will have to decide between critical funding and whether to continue to offer family planning care. The possible decrease in access to abortions will inevitably lead to an increase in unsafe abortions, which kill tens of thousands of women every year.

Prime Minister, at this point I need to quote you. On the Andrew Marr show you said ‘whenever there is something that I find unacceptable, I won’t be afraid to say it to Donald Trump’.

Please, Theresa, if you honestly can’t find anything in the points above that you personally find ‘unacceptable’, I urge you PLEASE to listen to and stand up for the millions of people who marched last Saturday who have shown that they do.

You being there as a female Prime Minister is simply not a big enough statement. Being a woman in power is not the same as standing up for women’s rights. Your faux feminism is no good to the millions of women facing systemic sexist injustices. Your party’s silence when it comes to women’s issues is deafening and your decision to prioritise finding common ground with a racist misogynist will only prove how shallow your feminist principles are. 

In the words of Desmond Tutu, if you are neutral (or in this case silent) in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. 

STAND UP TO TRUMP.

Yours (hopefully) in solidarity,

Lily West

The Burqini Ban exposes the hypocrisy of the “Secular” French State

Burkini

Photograph: Franck Pennant/AFP/Getty (The Guardian Online)

Sara Khan

This month – while the Scottish have officially allowed the hijab to be worn as part of police uniform – French politicians have given us a clear demonstration of what constitutes liberté, égalité, fraternité. In a nutshell, women are liberated only when armed white men patrol their beaches, dictating what they should and should not wear. Of course, it’s only oppression when brown men are doing it.

Never mind that an estimated 40% of burqini wearers are non-Muslim (see Nigella Lawson, who wears one in order to protect her skin). Never mind that white French women are allowed to wear full body wetsuits and swim caps – you know, covering exactly the same parts of their body as a burqini, save maybe a bit of neck – without being forced to strip. The important thing here is the word: burqini. Bring an Arabic word into it and suddenly it’s evil. By definition, the term burqa simply denotes a loose garment covering the body from head to foot; it is not mentioned in the Qu’ran even once. In several countries, such as Saudi Arabia, women are forced to wear these, and that is wrong – whether or not a woman wears a burqa should be her choice, her decision to express her modesty and her faith in a certain way – but it is equally wrong to prohibit them from doing so. Women can only reclaim their bodies when they are able to choose how to do it. Remember, while burqinis provoke terrorism, short skirts and tight dresses provoke rape. Either way, women’s clothing is inevitably the reason for appalling and immoral actions committed by men; it’s not like men have agency over themselves or should be held responsible for their own actions.

The French public have shown overwhelming support for the outright racism and sexism of these politicians. Mathilde Cousin, a witness to the incident at Nice, said that “the saddest thing was that people were shouting ‘go home’, and some were applauding the police.” According to an Ifop survey, 64% of French people are in favour of the burqini bans, while another 30% are indifferent. That’s 94% of French people suffering from either active or internalised racism, Islamophobia and sexism. And it is extremely important to note that this figure includes women. That’s an overwhelming number of white “feminists” supporting the bans (because the liberation of women only counts when in accordance with Western ideals).

French politicians keep saying that the burqini opposes secular French values. Since when did secularism translate into “the authoritarian imposition of atheism”? If secularism is about the separation of the state from the influence of religious organisations – which it is – then it does not entail the suppression of religious expression. Secularism is about taking an unbiased standpoint; it’s about protecting people from being imposed upon. When practiced correctly, it should entail the elimination of discrimination on the basis of religion, and it should protect the rights of religious minorities. Looks like it’s actually the French authorities whose actions are flying in the face of secular values.

Aheda Zanetti, who designed the burqini, recounts how when she was growing up, her hijab made it difficult to participate in sport. She remembers being afraid to go outside and to socialise because of rampant Islamophobic attitudes in the English-speaking world. She created the burqini – along with other sportswear for Muslim women – to give them the freedom to engage in a range of activities, to integrate and to be accepted. In denying the burqini, the French have shown that they are not interested in the rights of Muslim women, or of any women, really. The burqini ban defines Frenchness by whiteness, and it defines womanhood by sexuality. Consumer culture relentlessly commodifies women’s bodies, and women who choose to cover themselves are perhaps the most threatening of all, as they radically refuse to be defined by patriarchal, capitalist trajectories.

Unfortunately, these bans are only one manifestation of a terrifying trend. In France, Marie Le Pen and her racist Front National continues to rise, while in the lead up to next year’s election, Nicolas Sarkozy has announced that as president he would extend the ban on the hijab to universities, restrict access to benefits for women who repeatedly violate the burqa ban, and scrap laws authorising immigrants to be reunited with their families. Elsewhere, Donald Trump rallies vast numbers of white Americans against the immigrant population, and Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have successfully lead us towards Brexit, resulting in exponential rises in xenophobic abuse. Racism and fascism are spreading, and they are spreading fast.

The world that many French, American and British politicians would have us live in is steeped in hatred, bigotry and fear. In particular, the claim that the burqini bans have been made in the name of counter-terrorism is completely farcical. The Nice ban specifically references the Bastille Day attack last month, but completely fails to mention that 84 of its victims were Muslim; the mayor of Cannes has said that burqinis refer to an allegiance to terrorist groups (because Islamist organisations are known for encouraging women to bathe in form-fitting swimwear on mixed gender public beaches). By pitting us against each other, the people that spread these lies hope to divide and conquer.

As ever, it is wonderful to see that the French authorities have their priorities in order. Instead of focusing on resolving the socioeconomic issues that affect migrants and that may predispose them to harbour negative feelings towards the state, they choose to aggravate the situation by alienating them further and making them more vulnerable to recruitment by extremists. Today, the French High Court suspended the burqini ban in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet, and this does bode well; the ban may soon be suspended in other towns across the country. State-sanctioned Islamophobia, racism and sexism are still alive and well in France, however, and we have not heard the last of Sarkozy, Le Pen, or Manuel Valls. When Islamist organisations next strike, remember to blame the government.

Sara Khan