ROBERT SOMYNNE: FEMINISM IN THE MALE GAZE
Journalist and ardent feminist, Robert Somynne talks to REEK perfume about equality in the media worldwide and what makes him a male feminist…
What makes you a feminist? And do you find people have a strange response to male feminists?
Coming to the realisation that if we aren’t all free and no one can be free. It seems obvious but there’s a lot of cowardice I had to get over to come to a place of being totally comfortable with saying out loud that I’m a feminist. It’s about being a good ally in the struggle and knowing that it’s not just equality on the face of things but the structural battles that we’ve still to win.
I don’t really mind what response I get from other people (men) nowadays. It perhaps mattered more in the past when I was younger and the brotherhood of chauvinism was stronger – forcing you to not admit things or dilute your commitment. It takes having women around you and yes – having a go and not letting up when you act the fool or fail in your solidarity. That’s the only way you get past gender as a barrier to proudly saying you believe not only in equality but in radical measures to achieve it.
Do you see gender and race equality issues in your own industry? What has been your personal experience of this?
The UK media is pretty piss-poor for both gender equality and ethnic diversity – the Scottish media is infinitely worse. My entry into journalism was helped by coming to Scotland and writing at a time when the constitutional debate was raging at its most fierce. But everyday it’s hard for women and anyone not white to get a decent look in – bar exceptions.
The structural power of the old boys’ set is firmly rooted and hasn’t been shaken despite advances for women in public life in our political parties. The culture of being in the crew to get a gig or story can leave women isolated if they’re not willing to be pliant. However, the group “Women in Journalism” and NUJ Scotland BME group are trying their hardest to fight back.
Some of the best journalists I know are women still shut out of permanent print journalism jobs. But considering how worn down Scottish journalism is, it’s maybe a case of not being allowed access to a morgue.
I’ve often written about issues relating to race, immigration, and other areas only to be rebuffed by editors and then go on to see weaker pieces by writers without the personal experience of being an ethnic minority or child of immigrants in print. That’s grating.
Another issue is how internships that are unpaid even by papers with editors on large salaries, hurt women and BME writers more as they are less likely to have the funds to support essentially free work.
What gender equality causes mean the most to you and why?
The pay gap, the bias women face following maternity leave regarding promotion, the safety of sex workers and migrant women and paternity leave.
Three of these issues are critical for men as much as women. I remember a protest in Germany with men demanding better paternity leave and pay and I found it inspiring. If women are denied their economic independence and power it impacts men as well.
Besides the obvious issue of basic justice, we are weakening our economy by failing to ensure equal pay for women for equal work and enforcing it in practice across industries. When women who end up denied the natural progression in promotion after having a child, we lose a captain of industry, a leader and a role model for men and women.
Cultural tendencies such as who looks after the children, does the bulk of emotional labour and domestic labour are important to me because of experiences with my father. He looked after me for much of my childhood and never exhibited any sense that it was odd, shameful or wrong. We think of ourselves as liberal but we still need to be a lot more fluid in what women and men can and should do.
As someone with a keen eye to foreign affairs what would you like to share with our readers about the different challenges facing women in the UK in comparison to across the world?
I focus a lot on the Gulf countries for my research and writing. Saudi Arabia, Iran, UAE, Bahrain and the wider Arab world including Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and more.
I’ve always resisted the notion that because women collectively face higher degree of physical violence and legal discrimination abroad women in the UK should be silent and “grateful”. There’s a worrying trend of some commentators on the Right using women’s suffering in the Middle East as a political crutch. We need to be vigilant against rape culture wherever it is and men need to get educated and fight the patriarchy everywhere.
In Saudi Arabia for example, the guardianship laws are the prime example of a suffocating regime of gender control that stymies the political and social development of the nation. But there’s some great work going on by Saudi women who are fighting back and who clearly possess their own agency.
Women in Iran possess the highest scientific qualifications in the whole region yet still face formal and informal barriers to technical jobs and management.
What separates women from those in these countries in time and legal status. We must never forget our past and never assume we cannot be taken there again. Neither can we accept that women are permanently doomed in other parts of the world. It’s vital for feminism to be internationalist as well as intersectional and know our actions and choices are connected to events thousands of miles away.
Tell us about some of the females who have inspired you in your personal life and career?
Marie Colvin, was a war journalist who inspired me greatly. Her fearless reporting signalled her out among her colleagues as someone not afraid to go where the story or conflict lead. She was blinded in eye by shrapnel from a Sri Lankan army shelling leaving her with the iconic eye patch associated with her work but she seemed to have great insight in the heart of any conflict she wrote about. She was killed by a shell in Syria at the beginning of the war, aged 56 after a career spanning 30 years. Hers was a clarity of writing rarely seen – it impacts on what I want to do in the future.
I’ve had the pleasure to also meet great writers and makers either at the start of their careers or well into their craft. Jen Sout is a great writer who I hope to see a lot more of in international and Scottish journalism. She’s covered a lot of work relating to Russia, surveillance, LGBT rights and offshore tax havens which is the real meat and bones of holding the powerful to account.
What significance do smells have in your life?
It’s most about memory and reaching back to times where I have felt safe and confident about the world and my immediate surroundings.
Also smells are about comfort so you don’t have to worry about what is supposedly manly or not. Fragrances can entwine you with memory or a relationship, bond you closer with a person or a moment in time.
I’m a history buff and love camping. An enduring smell is wild garlic. I know not something you’d rub on your neck for a night out but it reminds me of when I first moved to Scotland and went to camping to Arran, Kelso, Sutherland and along the forest walks and trails wild garlic was always in season. It’s strong and ever-present, an unrestrained smell of the outdoors.
What are your favourite smells and why?
This is rather nebulous. The smell of wet leaves on the ground because it reminds me of walks in London parks with my dad in the autumn as a kid.
Anything citrus reminds me of holidays in Sicily.
What makes you a Damn Rebel Bitch? Tell us what kind of bitch you are.
One of my favourite essays is an etymological piece by Clare Bayley: A History of the Word Bitch. http://clarebayley.com/2011/06/bitch-a-history/
I’d like to think that I’ve taken from my mother what Bayley describes as the “irritable” qualities which are actually just assertiveness in not letting go of a point you believe in. Especially when you should be quiet or grateful and not “uppity”.
An Alabama representative bemoaned suffragettes as destroyers of “domestic tranquility”. I think that’s a good kind to be.