Hawking another cosmic myth

So Stephen Hawking doesn’t understand women, apparently. It’s a neat little PR hook, spun out ahead of the celebrations and mental machinations to be held in his honour to mark his 70th birthday, and the kind of thing press officers at the New Scientist must fantasise about in a desperate bid to make science speak for us all, even the most bone-headed.

His claim is a tragedy in two respects. First, it implies we cannot empathise with a man who finds the secrets of the universe as intellectually challenging as I find a 12 piece jigsaw puzzle, unless he is ruled by matters of the flesh. And second, it perpetuates the myth that women are so very different, so very other, that even the brainiest man on the planet cannot begin to fathom us.

It’s the second point which irritates me. Stephen Hawking, master of intergalactic and space-time thinking is being played into the sweaty palms of the people who kindly brought us the astronomical fallacy that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Are we saying that women are as alien to men as, well, aliens? Look! Space and planets and women! And bloody Stephen Hawking agrees! It MUST be true! Give me a break.

I don’t know the man, so I can’t speak for Hawking’s feminist credentials – he could be a Friedan-reading, pro-choice placard-waving sister – but my sense is that he falls foul of the same pitfall beholden by a worrying number of clever and influential men, the iron-cast belief that thought rules where action fails. Hawking admits that he spends most of the day thinking about women (Really? Doesn’t he have better things to do?) but despite these daily intellectual gymnastics, women remain “a complete mystery”. Given that we occupy more than half the world’s population, and he’s married two of them, he must go quite some way to deliberately avoid hearing what women actually have to say.

Let’s stop patronising each other, shall we? Let’s allow Hawking to live out the rest of his already impressive life doing what he does best – being a voice for cosmology, not for gender studies – and let the rest of us focus on practical changes in equality, rooted in the real world where we have real conversations and experiences with one another.

I would have hoped that the more we learn about life beyond our own tiny galactic experience, led in no small part by people like Hawking, the more we would realise we have in common with each other, here on Earth. So it’s a sad state of affairs when it appears we have achieved quite the opposite, and that star gazing has become an acceptable excuse for the failure to bring our minds back down to terra firma and answer questions about how we, as humans, can relate to one another – regardless of our gender.

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A thousand hills – on survival and women

During our trip to Rwanda, there were moments when words often failed us as we sank back in our chairs at the end of the day, too tired to process the jumble of images racing through our minds like a flickering silent movie. Perhaps it is mawkish, but being in a country where the violence of the genocide was so cruel and exacting, I was hyper aware of its legacy. The men clip their hair short, and from many that we met I would catch the glassy scars of clubs, machetes, sticks, on their scalps. You can’t help but think about what this person must have seen and heard just 17 years ago, how old they were, what life they would have been living, what life they lead now; and what nightmares must still play out when they go to sleep at night.

Rwanda presents a remarkable story of growth – (c) James Clasper

To explore Rwanda through the prism of genocide is both necessary and limiting. But it is where most visitors start, myself included. It is perhaps fitting then, that early in our trip we had the good fortune to spend an afternoon with a group of people who shattered my preconceptions of what the legacy of genocide really means. It made me open to the very real and exciting potential for modern Rwanda, which we then went on to see for ourselves. Continue reading

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One week in the land of a thousand hills

Last week, I went on an insight trip to Rwanda with The Social Investment Consultancy, led by Jake Hayman. With seven of us in the group, we brought together a mixture of backgrounds and professions including finance, communications, philanthropy and journalism – and we spent a busy five days meeting with a wide range of industry leaders and visiting projects across various districts in order to better understand the opportunity for potential partnerships and investment, be they commercial, social or philanthropic. Our interests ran from health, to gender equality, education, agriculture, commerce, social enterprise and beyond. I think I speak for the group when I say that Rwanda paints a remarkable picture of growth and ambition. It is not without its problems – those we witnessed, those which history makes plain, and those which were alluded to in confidence by the people we met. But problems can be overcome, and Rwanda has already demonstrated a staggering capacity for this.

Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills

Over the course of a few brief chapters, I will write about my experience of Rwanda in the short time I spent there. I plan to cover the issues which were absolutely standout for me: the legacy of genocide; gender equality; health and wellbeing; and employment and enterprise. These will be scratch thoughts – many more remarkable people who have lived and breathed in Rwanda have written exceptionally about the country, and I cannot hope to emulate. But I wish, in writing what I can, to try and convey the one thing I learned above all else – when all else is lost, there are very deep reserves of hope we little humans are capable of drawing from.

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Rape is cheaper than bullets

It is estimated that 14 women a day are raped in Eastern DRC

Rape is cheaper than bullets. And in countries where war has been the constant backdrop to life for decades, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are brutally raped, every minute of every day. The Congo is one of the most war-torn countries on earth; it is also therefore, by definition, the rape capital of the world. Up to 70% of all women have been raped, sometimes as many as four separate times, and this has been going on for so long that their children from rape are now being raped.

In Africa, minerals rule. Where once terror prized open the cracks between tribes, religions and beliefs, now it plays out in the crevices and sharp boundaries of land which holds untold riches – for the strongest leader, and for the cruellest militia. To safeguard these valuable natural resources, armed groups use violence and rape to control communities. And they use the money from the sale and export of the minerals to fund their wars. These are not Blood Diamonds, distastefully gifted to supermodels and discreetly removed from fingers and ears; these are Congolese tin, tungsten and tantalum. Never heard of them? You hold them every day: they are the most common minerals found in your mobile phone. These are Blood Minerals, and every time we send a text message or make a call, we are complicit in the monstrosities which fuel their extraction. Continue reading

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New York changes people – ten years on from 9/11

New Yorkers eat out, a lot. Partly because the restaurants are so good – a wild mix of cuisines from the affordable to the astronomical – and partly because most residents live in shoebox apartments with pokey, uninspiring kitchens. In the later afternoons and early evenings, New York’s restaurants and diners are buzzing with people driven from their homes into the welcoming throng of good food and good company. Back in London, when we first met, it was a trait I was both surprised and delighted by in my boyfriend. Four years a New Yorker, he had eaten out most days. Harder when you’re in London, where the restaurants are meaner, but we venture out nonetheless. Because New York changes people.

My boyfriend was living in Manhattan when the Twin Towers fell on 9/11. He would have been relatively new to the city, having just started his law degree, but the Towers were as familiar to him as the rising sun. A horizon which was never interrupted; the steady backdrop to the new chapter in his life. And then, suddenly, they weren’t there. Occasionally I catch glimpses from him of what happened then, and in the aftermath. They ate out; everyone did, he said. In bars, in diners and in restaurants, people all over New York came together. They clung to what they knew and loved, they talked and questioned and consoled, and they ate and drank whatever was on the menu, whatever the supply routes had allowed through. Continue reading

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The real Olympic legacy, where sex sells

In the Olympic weeks of 2012, London will witness almost 6 million new day visitors jamming themselves down our arcane and groaning roads, tubes, pavements and waterways in order to witness the modern Olympian marvel that is a load of lycra-clad maniacs letting rip. What London won’t tell you, is that a number of these new sightseers will also be here to sleep with prostitutes.

Sport and sex. One person’s sweaty, ball-aching gymnastics is another person’s, well… It’s not unsurprising that swathes of sports marketing and sports-related gambling includes scantily clad women – the crass use of Imogen Thomas by Paddy Power in the wake of one footballer’s unimaginative infidelities were a dull reminder that if you want to increase the likelihood of thick men walking into your sports joint with some of the folding stuff, you just need to stick a pair of fake tits on the façade and the sweaty whiff of naïve expectation that their keeper might actually bonk you.

But on this occasion, I’m not talking about Sports Marking 101. The Olympics is a part-taxpayer funded venture with a set of keystone, family-friendly sponsors who – unless someone has a total brain fart – will probably refrain from portraying frontal nudey women in their Olympic-sized advertising campaigns, or so help us God. No, this isn’t about ‘sex sells’, but rather ‘sells sex’. Continue reading

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Women in enterprise? Ain’t nothing new…

Ladies, get the bunting out! Praise be, for a new “ambassadors programme” is launching a search for female role models who can inspire women across Britain to get involved in enterprise. All this time, we fuzzy-headed little things weren’t lacking the finance, the backing, or a level playing field to start our own businesses. No, we were just totally uninspired by ourselves. I’m glad we’ve got to the bottom of it, because – hell – I don’t know about you, but I sure am tired of hanging out with all these vapid, unimaginative women, twiddling their thumbs in want of something to do when the baby goes to bed.

Women in enterprise is nothing new. From selling stocks to selling sex, women have known how to turn a profit since time began. There’s graffiti in Pompeii advertising the services of one particularly nubile young woman, for two donkeys. Nothing’s changed; we’ve just managed to expand our repetoir a bit. So I think it’s about time we quashed a couple of myths about women who choose to work for themselves. Continue reading

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