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A gendered reading of the UK riots


Asiya Islam
WVoN Co-Editor

It’s the first calm day in London today after five nights of rioting and I have yet to make up my mind how I feel about it.

On the one hand I want to say to the prime minister: ‘Cameron – take that!. On the other, the loss of lives and damage to property and local shops (I don’t really care about Debenhams and JD Sports and Poundland) makes me cringe.

But there’s another question that has been lurking in my mind about these riots – what are the gendered dimensions of this show of violence?

In hundreds of photographs of the riots floating around on the internet, it is obvious that the majority of rioters are young men. That doesn’t come as a surprise given the inherent ‘masculinity’ of gang culture and violence.

But is personal safety and security the only reason that women have largely kept out of this storm?

With the dust settling yesterday afternoon, there were quite a few write ups discussing the riots as a consequence of the socio-economic disparity that has been growing recently.

Though Cameron and co have been quick to dismiss them as ‘sheer criminality’, the view that these riots are not a random incident is growing. Surely there are cultural, social and economic aspects behind the onset of violence?

As part of that discussion, we need to consider whether men feel more disaffected than women in the economic downturn.

Though studies show that women (especially single mothers) are hit harder by spending cuts in a recession, it’s also possible that  joblessness (impending or current) is more of a threat to masculinity than femininity because of the expectation that men should be the primary breadwinners.

The social pressure of being able to feed a family makes men’s lives more vulnerable in the current situation and these riots (though some might disagree), are to a certain extent an ironic expression of that vulnerability and looming emasculation.

At the other end of the spectrum, the riots have also seen men playing that very role – as breadwinners and protectors.

There has been plenty of praise for the Turkish and Asian men who defended their communities from violence and rioters.

As defenders of their communities, these men have provided the alpha male model – men who defend their ‘properties’ and women from the enemy. They are the true epitomes of masculinity.

Here again, the visibility of women has been minimal demonstrating how ownership and guardianship of properties, businesses and communities is still in the hands of men.

But there is one narrative in these riots that speaks exclusively about women – the narrative of moral responsibility for these rights.

Who to blame for these riots? Yes, you guessed it – mothers.

It’s mothers who have failed to bring up their children decently who are to blame because it’s these children who are causing mayhem out there.

Twitter is full of ‘momma’ tweets and jokes, here’s a sample –

Discussion of the riots on Mumsnet drew similar comments –

So, let me get this straight – though women have been mostly invisible (both physically and vocally) throughout the riots, when it comes to assigning moral responsibility, women become hypervisible.

The synonymity of parenting with mothering in this narrative is only half as disturbing as the view that it’s single mothers who have ruined our society.

To add to that, I have yet to come across articles on the gendered dimensions of these riots in the mainstream media.

There have been plenty talking about the cultural, racial and socio-economic aspects of the UK riots, which is good, but it needs to be recognised that gender, just like class, race and culture, has a bearing which needs to be taken into account when analysing these riots.

So let’s start talking about it.

Originally published on my blog

  1. I’ve just had a thought: the Photoshop a Looter website that’s been doing the rounds on twitter over the past few days also fits the narrative of rioting as a response to emasculation. Most of the photoshopping infantilises the rioters, but in a specifically feminine way – Barbie dolls, men in makeup, rainbows, and My Little Ponys.

    As usual, one of the most powerful ways of making fun of men and ‘putting them in their place’ – especially ones who’ve been asserting their masculinity in the context of a denied male role – is by calling them a girl.

    • Good article, Asiya, food for thought, and a good point Hannah. Hadn’t though of that one.

      I saw two women in all the rioting – two who were highlighted anyway. The one who was pictured running out of Poundland with packets of crisps or something and was ridiculed for it and the video of the woman who had a go at rioters and was highlighted as being really brave because of that.

  2. The Met’s Flickr photostream seems to suggest there were actually quite a lot of women involved in the civil unrest, as do a lot of the videos on YouTube. There are certainly quite a few with arm-fuls of shoes and clothes…

    Perhaps this suggests that women tended to be involved in looting more than violence, but that’s hardly surprising – mindless violence isn’t really an en masse female response.

    Well, unless you’re the suffragettes, that is.

    But the violence committed against places and people by the suffragettes was organised and co-ordinated. The riots aren’t.

    Maybe women just like to plan their political subversion in advance – again, no surprises there: has anyone here ever been to a feminist planning meeting?! 🙂

    • Why is violence not a female response, I wonder? Is it something innate or something we’ve learned – a result of being told almost from birth that we have to be more physically careful than males?

      Not that I’m lamenting that women aren’t more violent, I’m just wondering why. 😉

  3. Great article Asiya, definitely something we should be thinking about. I’d like to share a few thoughts on it.

    Firstly, I did see a number of female rioters during the news coverage (I mainly watched BBC News and Sky News channels). In one article the reporter, filming on his phone, went up to a group of girls and asked “Is this fun? Do you think this is fun?” they were laughing and shouting, once they realised he wasn’t part of their crowd they ran off. I also saw coverage of the women who defended her hairdressing shop and another elderly women shaking a walking stick and berating the crowd. But I agree, the numbers seemed very much tipped in favour of men. If we look around the world at recent similar public uprisings. It is almost always men in the maority, often in their twenties, rioting, protesting, flag burning, statue toppling etc. I wonder how much of it is the media coverage, how much is that the younger men are normally involved in the more violent aspects, and thus creating more ‘newsworthy’ pictures? I studied the media coverage of the 1980 miner strikes and there is significant evidence to show that news coverage claimed ‘riots’ when the majority of the protests were peaceful. It is harder for the media to do that these days with camera phones and social networks tracking events real time from many sources, but I don’t believe for one minute that coverage isn’t often biased in one way or other.

    One thought I have is if the women are not out rioting for their many and varied reasons then they are at home (or somewhere else!), but the men who are out are someone’s son/husband/boyfriend/brother/father. There are women connected to every single one of these men, so, the question should not be “where were the mothers?” but actually “where are the women?”. I’d be interested to know if more women than men where involved in the anti-riot and clean-up gatherings or if it was again, mostly men? And does that say that women are less disaffected in society than men or perhaps that women feel more powerless? Or could it simply be that women care less?

    I would say however, that In the coverage I saw, the fingers were pointed at ‘parents’ and not ‘mothers’ specifically. I don’t know what’s happened since in the socialsphere’s on line, but certainly ‘official’ coverage seemed not to be laying the blame at the feet of mothers, single or otherwise but rather at parents, as is correct.

    Finally, on the comment about Photoshop a Looter, I can see the gender issue there, but I felt it was more about adding childlike things than specifically ‘little girl’ things. Spongebob Squarepants and Mallet’s Mallet made regular appearances. Pink unicorns cropped up a fair bit, but that could be more about the fantastical than the feminine. I would argue that it was more about disempowerment through childlike imagery than making them look like a girl. But perhaps I’m too hopeful…

    • Jem, a clarification please: do you mean that it is correct to blame parents for the actions of their offspring or that it is correct, when attempting to apportion blame, to say ‘parents’ instead of ‘mother’?

      Which other elderly woman was this? If it’s the woman we mentioned before she is not elderly.

      I imagine that women who are mothers would be in their homes, hoping the riots didn’t get to their address, trying to keep their children indoors and safe. I don’t know that, it’s a feeling. I suppose we’d need to ask women local to the riots why they weren’t out throwing stones and setting fire to things. I think I agree with you that the Photoshopping is more about the childlike, I don’t believe anyone consciously thought ‘I’ll mock this man by giving him a girl’s toy’ (or at least, not everyone). I’m hoping the choice of toys was more about what fit into the pictures.

      • Halla, yes, it was a bit ambiguous, sorry. I meant that if people are going to point the finger at families, then it should be “parents” and not “mothers” or “fathers”. And ‘parents’ to my mind includes step parents or whoever are the legal guardians (to be clear). To take it further, I’d probably say it should be families.

        I do, however, believe that parents are responsible in part for the actions of their children. But I don’t think that’s all there is to it, or even a large part of it to be honest. I just didn’t want to drift too far off the topic of Asiya’s original article.

        I’m not sure if it’s the same women I’m afraid. The lady I saw looked well over sixty to me, but she could well be the same one you mentioned.

        • Jem, given ideal conditions where there is free access to good food, good living conditions, good education, good health, healthcare and lovely neighbours I’d agree that parents might be to blame if children do something bad. There’s too many variables though – something constantly mentioned in commentary on the riots (unless you’re called Starkey) – to decide that one factor is the only factor. Plus it is not helpful to blame parents – what exactly are they supposed to do if they don’t have most of the things on the above list?

          To stay with the topic of the post, I saw a fair few pictures of women looting and stealing, not any of them throwing things or setting fire to them. As I said before though I only recall two women being highlighted, and one of those was a looter. I have conflicting feelings about women being excluded from such a troubling space, I’m saddened that as usual we’re flung in with a feeble cry of ‘I blame the parents!’ and no further consideration than that.

  4. Jane Osmond says:

    In answer to Jem’s comment – the women and girls were probably not out because it is too dangerous to be out when men are going off their heads. Also, I find blaming the parents counterproductive when we are talking about contexts of extreme poverty, no employment and substandard education. Maybe a discourse about how we can help parents with their parenting skills under extreme conditions would be more productive? This is a view honed by 22 years of being a parent and knowing how hard it is to do in much better conditions than some of these parents – who are routinely demonised in the press – have to cope with.

    • Jane, I agree with your comments, as a relatively new parent myself, I am learning quite how much easier it is to get it ‘wrong’ than it is to get it ‘right’ and I have a lot of love and help. I feel very strongly that we need to be supporting families who are struggling and, for example, feel that recent decisions to reduce or remove funding from community support structures is at best, counter productive.

      I’ve never really been much into ‘revenge’ but all I’m seeing in the news at the moment is anger and blame and a search for people we can make pay. I agree that the productive way forward is to talk about what we can do to help, not what we can do to punish.

      • Bit of cross-comment thought here (and I am thinking out loud so apologies if I ramble or get stuck in a dead-end), I recall that Anders Breivik is reported to having an objection to the ‘feminisation’ of our culture and I’ve been wondering what that means. What exactly would ‘feminisation’ look like and how would it be bad? I know his words aren’t exactly the stepping-off point for reasoned debate but still, it’s been nagging at my mind.

        Then, your comment there Jem about revenge and punishment and so on. Whether for good or bad those sorts of words have associations with macho culture – your comment made me think of the whole slew of Hollywood films about revenge and never backing down and extreme punishment of transgressions, the songs and videos and stories about the same sorts of things. The teenagers who, when interviewed, speak really quite chilling verses about revenge and punishment and respect.

        I’m sure we’ve all read the stereotypical ‘women talk it over, men find solutions’ thing (may well be true in some cases but I know a lot of people who – shock! – are capable of both). Would this be where I’m getting this false impression of a gendered situation?

        In any case, the ‘I blame single mothers!’ reaction as well as Breivik’s stated objections to feminism/femininity (am I remembering wrong that he was raised solely by his mother?)read to me like convenient excuses for people who are uncomfortable with change to object to it. They don’t like the status quo changing or having to adjust, whether it’s women achieving a bit more equality or the range of cultures in their cities obviously increasing.

  5. Jane Osmond says:

    Hi Jem – yes, but the idea of helping parents to cope with extreme circumstances is not one that this government is interested in – witness the closure of the Sure Start Centres which was an noble attempt to help and give support to the poorest parents in our society. It is very frustrating, because as anybody with a brain can recognise, the cost of not helping will be double, triple – too much to quantify really – when the kids grow up.

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