• Mara rO

To all my women friends past, present and future. And to all the women feeling lonely.

As a birth educator I could tell you that it is because we produce oxytocin when we get together. Oxytocin is the hormone I used to refer to in my classes as the “hippy hormone”, you know? Peace and love. Yes, the one you feel when you hug someone for at least 7 seconds and the one we produce when we listen to a story that has a beginning, a sort of climax and a resolution. The one in orgasms.

We all produce oxytocin, but we women seem to produce it just by being with each other.

But as a 47 year old woman and mother I can tell you reasons that go beyond the physical.

In my particular case I grew up in the company of only girls in a catholic nun school in Spain (there weren’t that many alternatives back then), at home my family wasn’t religious so I became quite a strong atheist at an early age, I also didn’t see any positives of being amongst just girls when the world was educating me to want to be admired and pursued by the men I should be decorating myself for. Being an atheist and with no boys or men my life had no purpose in that place. So I was glad when I left to go to high school, where I embraced the idea of being admired as an object, I became a dancer in discos, a waitress in the most popular trendy venues and followed (partially as a result of personal trauma), any guy who will merely acknowledge me, I was finally a desirable object.

The little decisions I made were based on the so-called romantic songs, stories and movies consumed from an early age. Never thought for a second about what I wanted, the train of thought was more along the lines of “who I wanted to want me”

I came to London following a guy, but he abused me and I left him. The tragedy was that I didn’t leave him for the abuse, I left because he had been with other women. Then came a period of being pretty lost in which I learned the hard way that I was indeed an object and that hurting me was something acceptable to men. I was raped by my flat mates.

What I realise now is that I had no women friends through all those years, and I never even thought about it. I was alone because I was a victim, I was a victim because I was alone. For a woman, alone in patriarchy means without a man, have you ever noticed that guys will tell us that: “where are you two going on your own?” When you are with your friend on a night out.

But the unspoken reality is that we women are dangerously alone when we are separated from women, from our networks, our comadres, and I didn’t know how dangerously alone I was then.

Obviously in the preprogramming that happens in the captivity of patriarchy, I had learned through plenty of propaganda that women can’t truly be friends, we are always in competition for the male, who rules, decides and chooses.

And the only women friends I ever had from school I then took for granted and parked them somewhere with the memories from my childhood days. I was in London, I was cool, independent and free or so I thought.

Many highs and lows later I’m still struggling trying to come down from the full speed rollercoaster traumatic journey that I have learned to dress up as life.

I could tell you many stories that might resemble an ordinary existence, I met my husband 25 years ago, had 3 children, we relocated to Scotland during lockdown…But the reality is that now that I have moved to Glasgow in both society’s and personal difficult times, I feel extremely lonely, I realise that I miss my women, my friends in London, with who I will go to the local pub every now and again and talk about everything. I still miss my friends from school who were kind and wise enough to know that eventually I will one day come back with my ego packed away and feeling extremely lucky to have them in my life when I run out of laughter, something that, as I get older, seems to happen more and more often.

When I laugh with them I feel as if I’m eight again. And we laugh so much my head hurts.

It is only with age that I have come to realise that the most democratic space I know is the group of the four middle aged women we have created in over forty years of friendship. We couldn’t be more different or love each other any more.

It was women I needed when I became pregnant twenty years ago. I wanted the women from my genealogical tree to come back from the dead and tell me how I was supposed to birth.

And I needed women, and didn’t even know it, when I suffered from postnatal depression twice. Later on, professionally I discovered that there are statistics about how women who live in strong communities don’t suffer from postnatal depression.

It was probably while becoming an activist and campaigning online that without thinking I started creating communities of women, with some of them I have campaigned in various cases and now we are around forty thousand of us in all my social media accounts.

And again, when I taught pregnancy classes, I created networks of women. Occasionally I might meet one of them in the street and they invariably tell me: “you know? we still meet up, I saw them last week, I wouldn’t have done it without them”.

I started my job as a birth educator feeling offended that with all my knowledge people will see me as a woman leading some baby group, I ended up thinking that all that mattered to me after eight sessions was that the group bonded so the women had a non judgemental network to support themselves.

People see me as strong and confident. They think I speak of what I know and have in abundance. But I promote what I need. I speak of what I lack.

I have been seeking my own kind for so long without realising the obvious thing that was staring at me in the face, we women are never truly alone we are told that we are.

I love a viral picture that said “women let’s support each other as we do in the toilets of a disco” We should!

Recently I decided to try something different to cheer me up, and I went to a cardio dance type of class, when I lived in London I used to go to one where a young attractive guy with a body sculpted by dancing, moved in a way most of us mere mortals will never do while he jumped amongst the women in a sexual way triggering all sorts of reactions that now I realised were learned behaviours we use as a defence mechanism in the assumed hierarchy in which we exist.

One guy and about 20 women and yet, it was a male dominated space, and after every single class I felt miserable because I was never good enough. And I complained a million times about the reaggeton misogynistic lyrics that were in Spanish and I had to endure. I was no longer the old attractive object but I was in a space that wanted me to be that, I was transitioning to the other stereotype “the grumpy old woman”.

So while feeling insecure I went to a new class in suburban Glasgow and they were all women, mostly my age or older and it was such a lovely space, bodies like mine, women like me, a teacher who didn’t put up a show. And every penny goes to support cancer patients. And it was so nice I just giggled throughout purely by the safety and comfort of being with other middle aged women doing what we could and want.

I felt immediately better about my mood. Which reminded me of something that happened with my school friends, last time we saw each other in Spain, we talked about various ailments, some of us awaiting medical appointments. Few weeks later we checked on each other and we were fine. One of us said: “I think we needed that gathering and laughter more than we knew”(picture of the event here).

Women scientists, we need more research about the impact of women's networks on women's health please! And on women's pleasure since we are at it, I learned from my friend Elaine Miller last night in her stand up show that the knowledge of the clitoris having 8,000 nerve endings hasn't even been researched on women! It was something a psychiatrist found out after directing the clitoris of sheep!!

And now that I am mostly amongst women, that I actively seek women’s company and spaces, I’ve joined FiLiA a feminist organisation that is totally female. I could tell you that I joined them because I want Women’s liberation, because I’m a feminist, because I admire their work. I could tell you that I joined them because I was tired or impatient, or both, of fighting patriarchy on my own.

But I was reminded the other day of why I joined FiLiA, my sisters there don’t know this but recently I hit a personal low when I punched myself in the face. I had to come to terms with the fact that I self harmed.

I have been really struggling lately due to trauma and personal circumstances, I’m in therapy but also very tired of being a survivor.

That awful day last week, I was crying my eyes out so much that I didn’t even know why I was crying. I cried in an office to someone, I cried to the administrator at my GP surgery, I cried to someone in Marks & Spencer and to a volunteer in a helpline for people who are struggling with anxiety. And then at 4 o’clock in the afternoon I wiped my tears and got ready for a meeting with a small team part of FiLiA with whom I’m working on a specific project.

I felt responsible, I didn’t want to cancel (that week I have already done that). The video conference opened up on my screen and the audio wasn’t working but I could see the three women laughing, I wasn’t. I started crying and apologising. They made me feel ok about crying and said that they will listen to whatever I needed to share. And they did what the brilliant women in my life have always done, they just acknowledged me and my pain, they gave me ideas, they made me laugh, they shared what is equal to us, our struggle and joy.

And eventually we all laughed. I dried my tears and we naturally and without a fuss moved on to our work topics and I was fine. They took me out of my despair and I can’t tell you exactly how they did that, but I guess being there and showing me the mirror of sorority that we all hold for each other, so I could remember who I am.

For example, thanks to Lisa-Marie (co-founder and CEO) I have been reminded that I don’t need to say “sorry” so much. And despite my theoretical knowledge of horizontal and collective feminist organisations, in FiLiA, I quickly realised I still had some learning to do, when I was looking everywhere for one source of power who told me what needed to be done.

And also when I was feeling bad for trying to do too much and not hearing the line they all say in FiLiA: “if you can’t do it just bounce it back!” I didn’t bounce anything back. I realise now I didn't know how.

I had been everywhere on my own, trying to prove something. I wanted to do it, I wanted to impress, to be able and available, like I have learned, to be liked…

Being part of a collective of women has taught me invaluable lessons about myself.

I’m now letting another guard down yet again, learning to be vulnerable and be seen for who I am in the safety of those who are like me. The paradox is “me” doesn’t matter in the “we” that makes each of us matter.

Each of the women in FiLiA are simply amazingly inspiring. It is like a league of supersheroes, only better because they are real. I am so proud and so excited to know that I will be finally meeting them at the conference! While I confess that despite the incredible array of topics that I consider unmissable, it is the women only party that I’m most looking forward to.

I understand now that when I was a child we were in an all female space because of men. Now I’m in an all female space because of women.

And that is why I joined FiLiA because I don’t want to ever forget again who I am.

I am a woman and I’m powerful because of me and because of them.

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Things I thought of recently when I was in hospital with an anxiety attack as a survivor of multiple violences and rape.

every woman is different and so are their experiences, the triggers are not always sexually related, they can be related to a million things, and particularly to do with power and control.

a male nurse closes the door and says to me (a woman):

-I need you to take your top off, are you wearing a bra?-"No" I reply

I am already obeying because I tend to do.

-Do you want me to get someone else.

Despite that most people will not understand, at this point I say "no" . Because despite my survivor story or maybe because of it, I struggle to have confidence when I am scared and vulnerable, me not having the courage to express when I am alone in a room with a man, feeling vulnerable, that I will prefer a female, is not me complying and being ok about it.

I feel the question should have been asked the minute I arrived in triage, I know it is difficult, I know you are over stretched...But we need to stop seeing this as a capricious choice, this is care and mental health.

I know that many professionals work already with protocols to detect domestic violence, I was asked by my midwives during pregnancy in different ways when my husband wasn't there if "things were ok at home" but reflecting on my experiences on Sunday it was alarming that not one professional asked me anything remotely about it when I turned up with a major anxiety attack, sobbing non stop, and talking about being suffocating, feeling I couldn't leave the house, not wanting to go back to my home, struggling to see an exit and so on. My situation is not related to domestic violence and it is to do with a complex family situation we are living at the moment and I am better now, but it really shocked me that they asked no questions whatsoever.

When one of the nurses took some interest in my circumstances and I explained some serious issues, she told me she didn't have a magic wand and to try to get some "me" time and go for walks, at which point I said, in order to relieve us both of further responsibilities that I will speak to a mental health professional. So there are at least two things that I feel we should be able to do better by now, one is a better understanding of common mental health issues and two women as survivors of male violence. And yes I am grateful to the NHS, and yes I know they are overworked and underpaid when I say this things.

But I can't now replicate victim behaviour with the institution and assume that my abuse or my lack of care is needed to favour other's comfort, my care matters it is the care of half of the human population, it is the care of those who birth the other half. And it is precisely because I believe in the work of the NHS and the high standards we require and the need to protect them fiercely that I say all this, I said it to a father who despaired in emergencies telling me about his teenage daughter not being properly diagnose and having kidney failure, he told me that they were looking for private care, I suggested that he complained, because I believe in demanding better joining the bodies that will put pressure on the governments, not abandoning a model of free care as a lost cause.

And it is because I believe we deserve better and the reality that globally 1 in 3 women are survivors of some kind of violence. That I need the world and the healthcare systems everywhere to know that this needs to be acknowledge and that as a 48 year old woman and a survivor and I am still waiting for a note in the leaflets that remind me to have a smear

test saying that they understand the suffering of women, that the test will be conducted b female practitioners and that I can discuss in confidence my survivor story and speak to a counsellor if I require assistance during the procedure. (Or something like that) Instead the latest modification to those leaflets in Scotland is around the fact that I am no longer a woman but one of those people with a cervix.

Well, in the reality where I am still a woman, one of those 1 in 3 who gets assaulted, abused or raped, 1 in 3 women who are still going through hell, not only because we are survivors but because we remain, and now are further, invisible, and because it is expected of us once again to put up with suffering, to be quiet, to ignore your trauma, to don't talk to much or just whisper that men are the violent majority and women the survivors of that violence. Pretend without any further questions or demands that not even you, the one with the experience, sees the scandal of 1 in 3 women suffering abuse.

Any time I have been asked how to improve this: In healthcare and many other situations with women, just treat every woman as if she could be a survivor. Everywhere else, stop silencing women.

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Updated: Nov 10, 2021

In these days of heavy politics and confusion with the most basic terminology, when patriarchy has somehow managed yet again to dismiss, silence and mock us feminists.

I find myself concerned with concepts that challenge not only logic and coherence but the very core of the topics that have been my work, my life and my activism for the past decade.

I have been a birth educator, an activist and an author campaigning for the rights of women urging childbirth.

I have came to define my work as matriactivism. A word which is now used by other activists.

It was this work what led me unavoidable to feminism in general and more specifically to radical feminism. Which refers to going to the root of our oppression which is based in the division of the sexes mostly scientifically binary. Nothing to do with gender which to me and many others us the social construct that patriarchy promotes to oppress us and we want to abolish not choose, or play with.

So now after seeing some worrying developments that to me are going backward, I feel that is urgent to say that the only way to fight gynaeco-obstetric violence and reclaim reproductive justice for women must be within the frame of feminism, and that is not the neoliberalism that wants to dilute our movement while claiming they are part of it.

The new way of dismissing and silencing centuries of our struggle by suggesting that “pregnant people” is inclusive while women, more than 50% of the population and the political subject in feminism have no place to claim our rights, called themselves by definition or even fight back when our sex is abused, it’s a conundrum.

I wouldn’t even entertain the idea to demand of any rights movement to change their prerogatives to talk about all people.

The fight for the rights of Gay, Transexual, Lesbian, Black people and many other oppressed groups…Matter, and their definitions and specifics matter, they are at the root of their discrimination and so does feminism as the women’s rights movement, which has spent centuries seeking dignity, equality and justice for more than half of the population.

Worryingly some researchers and academics affected by new trends with little depth or factual information are embracing neologisms and have come sideways to talk about things such obstetric violence, feminism and gender in a way that suppresses and undermines women’s rights and our historical struggle.

And as an activist, feminist and specialist in obstetric violence I feel that this must be addressed.

In the 11 years that I have worked with women (and their partners in my classes) around the world, specially after we founded The Roses Revolution movement against obstetric violence, the two common denominators globally were that all the victims were women and all the violence was misogynistic. Of course midwives, partners and even grandmothers have reported been affected by witnessing or even perpetrated obstetric violence but the victims were always women.

We also realised that it was another level or cruelty with a component of racism or xenophobia and we coined the term etno -obstetric violence.

But even sentences were common to various countries beyond cultures and languages.

The misogyny during labour was in the repeated sentence to women with contractions:

“Now you complain but you didn’t when you were making it”

And immediately after while suturing (often unnecessary, therefor physical aggression) episiotomies they will say:

“I’m going to leave you even better than before, brand new, or as this student wrote beside his selfie with a woman in stirrups: “I’m going to leave your pussy at 0 Km“

I actually wrote a petition against the student and he wrote to me with the arrogance and macho attitude that I know so well as a woman in this patriarchal world.

To him I was a woman, inferior, an activist exposing him in anger. Me and the 11.000 signatures thought he should be fired but he wasn’t and instead he emailed me to mansplain how all women liked him and want him there. He loved women, he said…

When a male doctor in the U.S.A was cutting 12 times the vulva of a woman in labour while she was begging and crying for him not to do so, the doctor used all the power and talk that men have over women in society and tragically the mother of the labouring woman was telling her to listen to the doctor. The doctor knows best.

And yes the doctor (male) than the midwife (always female back then) and of course the woman, he knows best about our births since the end of 1700s when the knowledge of women over their bodies, the oldest profession in the world, which contrary to misogynistic belief is not prostitution but midwifery, our science, was appropriated, reinvented and regurgitated back to us, in a way that concluded that we were ignorant of our bodies, our abortions, our miscarriages, we lost our physical autonomy. We were the sufferers of our bodies, the sinners and the ones carrying the responsibility of them for othes, the men. And they will tell us how to birth for starters on the back the most uncomfortable and illogical position.

But while discussing physiological positions, an outraged male obstetrician told me once: What do you want?! Do you want me to go on my knees and look up to do my work? He left offended so I couldn’t reply: “well yes, that’s what my midwives did in my three labours and they were so lovely”.

But of course positions in labour are also a feminist issue because we women are subservient to the comfort of men. That happens from the bus ride to politics.

And the comfort or pleasure of men is what many professionals still joke about while suturing women’s genitals, and also in a trial for obstetric violence in the 21st century (Spain )

when the judge was addressing questions around the physical trauma on the genitals and sex performance of the woman to her husband. That’s also a feminist issue because our bodies and our sex as women is for the enjoyment of others. Our consent is the patriarchal discussion, our pleasure our feminist fight.

Because birth, breastfeeding and abortion was actually ours, even when we have no rights it did belong to women, now it doesn’t.

I always tell my classes about something I’ve learned from Sheila Kitzinger, how the word gossip in English comes from birth, comes from us women being sisters and networking, which originally were named godsibs (sisters in god) we were there in sisterhood supporting each other and using scientific evidence in its purest form, out of practice and observation.

I tell the story to remind us of our collective power, our sisterhood and our culture. The concept of being with women, comadres, and midwives.

Obstetrics was created from a complete lack of knowledge as men had no place in the birth room, and a total lack of physical empathy. And they had to infiltrate the births, they did that quite often dressing up as women and imposing themselves to women who didn’t trust them or didn’t want them there.

So they had to discredit midwives accusing them of being ignorant and drunk, and ultimately disempowering them.

And they still are in more sutil ways, suffering this disempowerment, some of them enduring trials, some of them as the Hungarian Ágnes Gerèb expending 3 years of house arrest, some of them giving up their independent practice due to unaffordable insurances, and some of them by not being looked after by the institutions.

Midwives have always been some sort of feminist mirror for women’s bodies.

The first thing Spanish midwives had to do when regulations were imposed in their profession was to swear not to practice abortions. Which they used to do of course, prior to that.

And this is also why birth is a feminist issue, because we women have lost our alliance with our sisters, our midwives.

Mary Wollstonecraft was writing about a community of women in her book Mary, she didn’t finish it because she also died after the birth of Mary Shelley* but what is perhaps less known about her death is how relevant it is to understand why some of us claim that birth is indeed a feminist issue.

Mary was against the new fashion of having a male doctor attending the birth and insisted on having a midwife, after the labour the placenta became retained and according to the new rules already created by the imposing obstetricians, the midwife was forced to call an obstetrician for that event.

An obstetrician, which at the time dealt with corpses and disease, put his hands inside Mary to remove the placenta introducing the fatal sepsis, which produced Puerperal Fever, something that went on to become the most common new cause of death after the introduction of male obstetricians and hospital birth for the next 80 years until the Hungarian doctor, Semmelweis discovered that the lack of hygiene was to blame.

Until then they blame us women of course, they even thought that the pus was perhaps the breast milk. And of course they blamed Mary Wollstonecraft for her decisions, for being a “difficult woman” a feminist, herself.

And yes, dying of sepsis out of ignorance disguised as dogmatic male knowledge was one thing women died in huge numbers back then. But today women can still die of sepsis as the recent tragic death in Poland of a woman named Izabela (her surname has not been made public) a death that has remind many of us activist, of Savita Halappanavar in Ireland, both of them let to die of sepsis because of religion and patriarchy hating women, controlling women and seeing us as mere vessels, sacrificeable, expendable, redundant. For believing that un unviable unborn fetus is more important than a woman. And that’s also why birth is a feminist issue.

The many women I have talked to through the years have also commonly talked about feeling raped in labour, and the term birth rape has even been coined.

Of course the discussions, as it happens with rape, are always what we activists call “tone policing”, lengthy debates about how offensive the term is to the medical professionals, how inappropriate to call it that, and how we should look for another word…Never mind what the experiences must be like for women to talk about them in such way,

And that is without taking into consideration the fact that 1 out of 3 of us women are survivors of violence (including rape) while suffering gynaeco-obstetric violence.

In fact perhaps is the other way around, when us women are told with our first menstruation that our bodies are dirty, that we should hide it, and to be careful in that classic euphemistic way of passing the responsibility for avoiding predators as if we were talking about I don’t know…potholes while driving.

Perhaps it is because we learn to hate our bodies, while harassed the minute we have breasts, and to observe the oppression in our mothers and other women, while we comprehend through ads, movies and songs that our body is for the enjoyment of others, the judgement of others and the decisions of others.

And because we get to finally figure it out, and then we see that we still have to debate our rights, when we are insulted, threaten and misjudged because we can’t even claim that our movement is about the oppresion of women, we can’t even define what women are despite us being them…Maybe it’s actually thanks to all of that, that violence can be perpetuated also in the ultimate battle for conquering our bodies in the labour room, and that is not because is a male or female professional in charge. that is because history, gender ideology, the protocols, the institutions, the instruments, the language, attitudes and the whole approach to our birth experiences came from the same patriarchy that works from the premise of the sex class man being superior thanks to the oppression of the sex class woman.

Patriarchy establishes itself with the control of women’s reproductive powers based on our sex.

As Grace Atkinson wrote in her foundational piece "Radical Feminism" (1969):[12]

“The first dichotomous division of this mass [mankind] is said to have been on the grounds of sex: male and female ... it was because half the human race bears the burden of the reproductive process and because man, the ‘rational’ animal, had the wit to take advantage of that, that the childbearers, or the 'beasts of burden,' were corralled into a political class: equivocating the biologically contingent burden into a political (or necessary) penalty, thereby modifying these individuals’ definition from the human to the functional, or animal. “

I will go further and my personal take on it is that the promotion of our reproductive power as a burden is also patriarchal propaganda out of ignorance and fear. And it is because we lost the autonomy to decide over our reproductive powers that they became a burden of course.

They still are, to many women in countries such as Ucraine, when disguised as modernity and progress we promote that surrogacy is an example of sacrifice and generosity and not the objectification and exploitation of women and the objectification and selling/“gifting” of humans (babies). That is possible because we are women and that is also a feminist issue.

It took us years to be able to say obstetric violence without being accused of being crazy, and it is still refuted. It has been recently refuted by the College of Doctors in my country Spain, a country sentenced by the UN because of its obstetric violence.

And because of all of this and much more, I ensure through a global movement that we will talk about obstetric violence on the feminist date of the 25th of November and as part of the many violences towards women. And now 10 years later that fight can’t go backwards at least not with me being silenced by the so called inclusivity that invisibilises women yet again.

As I have always said, birth is a feminist issue because we women want to

decide not because of what we decide.

Birth and reproductive justice to me is at the core of our oppression as women.

And there is only one way to fight the oppression of women and that is feminism.

Mattiactivista (Mara a.k.a. Jesusa Ricoy Olariaga)

*Mary was known as Mary Shelley after marriage, obviously not at birth. But she was know with her married name, our surnames another feminist issue

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