Rosamund Urwin, London Evening Standard, October 3, 2013
The image won’t leave my mind. Beautiful, smiling young women — aged about 18 — with butchered breasts: scarred, sagging, singed. These women, from the Cameroon, had suffered breast-ironing: at the onset of puberty, their chests were repeatedly pounded by a scorchingly hot pestle, stone or spatula to try to stop buds developing.
I saw that picture last Friday at a conference in Northolt. It was led by Margaret Nyuydzewira, who runs CAME Women’s and Girl’s Development Organisation. She is adamant that breast-ironing is not just an African issue, that it is happening here too, in the diaspora community. The police consider it a form of child abuse, and reportedly arrested a woman in London two years ago for performing it on her daughter. There are no estimates of victim numbers here, but the UN believes that 3.8 million teenagers have endured it worldwide.
Breast-ironing is the equally ugly cousin of female genital mutilation. It too gets passed down from one generation to the next, an abhorrent heirloom, an ancestral necklace made of scars. Both are encouraged and even carried out by female family members — mothers, grandmothers, aunts. Both have their roots in culture and tradition, not religion. And both are considered to be in the best interests of the girl.
For breast-ironing is intended to deter male attention, to reduce the risk of rape, sexual harassment and teen pregnancy. To “protect” her, a mother takes ownership of her daughter’s body. And that body is viewed as a traitor to the girl, sending off signals to men that she is now “fair game”. So it is a barbaric manifestation of an attitude that spans many cultures, one that asks of a victim of sexual assault: “Why were you wearing such a short skirt?”, or “Why were you walking there on your own at night?”
Nyuydzewira quoted one mother: “If you have a son, you only need to worry about one penis. If you have a daughter, you have to worry about every penis in the world.” But this view insults men too: they are not Pavlov’s dogs, salivating at the sight of female flesh.
Breast-ironing takes a heavy toll on women. There are the physical problems (abscesses, infection, difficulties breast-feeding), the psychological (trauma) and the social (building relationships, not wanting to undress). And it remains a hidden crime, protected by a cloak of filial loyalty. It has been shrugged off too as a cultural practice.
But customs can be challenged. The horrors of FGM, once largely stomached out of a desire to be “culturally sensitive”, are finally being openly discussed. Breast-ironing is another crime against women — and it should no longer be forgotten.
Spare us butt-kicking beauties
Natalie Portman, interviewed in the latest edition of Elle, has criticised celluloid’s attempt to address sexism. “The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a ‘feminist’ story, the woman kicks ass and wins,” says Portman. “That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathise with.”
She’s right that the feminist fight isn’t much helped by “butt-kicking beauty” joining the list of female stereotypes. But despite a surfeit of superhero films recently (Batman! Superman! Batman and Superman together!), there haven’t been enough women in Lycra leading the charge against villains. What’s more, we don’t have to empathise with a character for a film to be feminist — we just need the screen female to be as complex as the male.
Our law of the pavement needs refining
For a nation so obsessed with etiquette that we’re never more than five days away from a new Debrett’s guide being published, one area has been oddly neglected: pavement protocol. Currently, chaos reigns. Whenever you need to be somewhere swiftly, you get stuck on a narrow path behind a threesome sauntering side-by-side, while when you find yourself walking towards someone you end up trying to dodge each other by moving in the same direction, thus engaging in an unwanted game of pavement chicken.
An American friend tells me that New Yorkers do it differently. Apparently, there is an unofficial rule that — like a car — you overtake on the left, something we could easily borrow and reverse for our right-hand drive island.
There’s also a (possibly apocryphal) story that could inspire us to speed up the pavement pace. One man — tired of lingering behind meanderers — is said to have demarcated a fast lane with chalk. He marked the slow side “tourists”, the swift side “people with shit to do”.
Sheer pain of buying a flat
After a month of hoping to move into a flat that still isn’t quite mine, I have finally started to understand the British obsession with house prices. Buying a property is such a miserable, spirit-sapping affair that the only possible comfort can be when you take the keys and calculate that you are £2 richer with every passing hour. Well, except that the bank owns 90 per cent of your asset, and you’re bogged down in debt.
If I ever get in, I don’t think I’ll be able to face moving ever again. I’ll probably only leave when I’m swapping my tiny one-bedder for an even tinier one-bedder in the ground.