Monday 28 June 2010

Exploring the sea and identity.

It's a really interesting question. How/why does being at sea enable people to explore new identities - both passengers and crew?

I'll be giving a paper about how this worked for British merchant seafarers who explored sexual orientation and enjoyed an often outrageously gay life at sea, but were married or closeted at home. As they proclaimed with glee 'Nothing's "queer" once you've left that pier!"

This paper is They thought they were normal - and queens too: gay seafarers on British liners 1955-1985. The chance to hear it and think widely about identity - can be enjoyed at Who Did They Think They Were?:The Sea and the making of Identities, 44th Exeter Maritime History Conference, University of Exeter, 18-19 September, 2010.

Go to

The draft programme is now out. Provisionally I'll be speaking at 11.30 on Saturday Sept 18.

The blurb says it's 'A conference focusing on the relationship between the sea and identity in widest possible sense, naval or maritime; local,regional, national or international; gender and sexuality; fact, film or fiction.

'It will look beyond the usual nationalistic rhetoric to explore how identity has been moulded by attitude to and relationships with the sea. The conference will interrogate the idea of identity in its various manifestations in order to examine the importance of the sea to different audiences.'

Papers include:
• Identifying ‘seagoing races’: Britain’s colonial naval volunteers and the forging ofidentity during the Second World War.
• The Navy at Home: The creation of British identity in the domestic sphere 1793-1815.
• The identity of RN submarine commanders in the Second World War.
• Regional voices: national causes 1930-1945.
• Defying Conformity: Using tattoos to express individuality in the Victorian Navy.

Thursday 10 June 2010

Cocaine-smuggling Navy woman in court today.

Scandal about 'Wrens' (yes, they were disbanded ten years ago; women are part of the Royal Navy now, but the term lingers on)is always welcomed by the tabloids.

All the better if there's an added bit of spice about crimes such as smuggling. All the better if (nasty) foreign boyfriends are involved. And perhaps better still if she's 'not one of us'- not a nice white gel - indeed a refugee.

So the red tops will be having a field day later today over Teresa Matos (36) the Angola-born steward, who is in court to be sentenced for smuggling £2m of cocaine on HMS Manchester. She has already pleaded guilty.

I have no time for drug dealers. But I do believe in justice. And this woman is not being treated as simply a naval worker.

Gender and race are playing far too big a part in how the case is being reported, and commented upon by bloggers. And it's appalling that this extraordinary one-off case is being used as yet another attack on refugees and their rights.

For background see today's Daily Mail story;, and initial reports of the trial on August 18 2009.

Women in New Zealand Navy ship hit 20%

This is a really interesting new story about women in the NZ navy, contrasting them to the Australian and UK navies.As someone who for 30 years has been watching equal opps changes on ships, I find it fascinating, especially in the light of US women being finally trained for submarine duty (see my earlier post.)

'Navy says ships could not go to sea without women, NZPA May 11, 2010, 3:16 pm

The navy frigate HMNZS Te Kaha arrives in China next week with women comprising 20 percent of its crew.

The Anzac-class frigate left Auckland five weeks ago on a four-month deployment with the supply ship HMNZS Endeavour to Asia, Canada and North America and both ships were due to arrive in China on Thursday.

Women have been in the navy since the Women's Royal New Zealand Naval Service (WRNZNS) was established during the war in 1942.They served on shore posts and on harbour launches only, freeing up men for active service at sea.

The WRNZNS was disbanded in 1977 but in 1986 the navy allowed women to go to sea, initially in the non-combat ship, HMNZS Monowai. By 1994 all navy ships were open to sea service by women.The navy now says without women in the crews, many of its ships would not be able to go to sea.

The New Zealand navy has higher ratios of women than the navies of Australia or Britain, with 23.4 percent overall compared with 17.5 percent and 9.3 percent respectively.

The New Zealand army (14 percent women) and air force (17.5 percent) also has more women in the ranks than Australia (9.7 percent for the army and 16.6 percent for the air force) and Britain (8.2 percent army and 12.3 percent air force).

In the latest issue of the navy magazine Navy Today, warrant officer of the navy Warrant Officer Dean Bloor said before women were introduced, the navy had several concerns, including the mental and physical differences between men and women.

He said there was also the "traditional view of only men at sea. Fortunately over time these concerns have been overwhelmingly dispelled." Most people in the navy had joined since 1986 and had never served in a navy where women were not allowed to go to sea.

During the deployment the two ships would exercise with Singaporean, Malaysian and Australian forces in the South China Sea. Te Kaha would berth at Shanghai to support the New Zealand exhibition at the Shanghai Expo, and Endeavour would visit South Korea.

Both ships would sail to Canada to mark the centenary celebrations of the Canadian navy before heading down the west coast of America, across the Pacific to Hawaii and back to New Zealand.During the deployment the ships would visit ports at Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego and Honolulu but the navy said they would not be involved in exercises with American military forces.'

This acceptance is a good example of what is happening in the British navy too - that now there is a new generation who have never known single-sex ships. So it is easier for men to see women as simply shipmates, not exceptional creatures from Dumb Bimboland or China Dollsville.

But how telling that the HMNZS Te Kaha is still only 20 per cent, not 50 per cent - or even 70 per cent! - crewed by women.

I wonder what percentage of the Russian Navy, who were such pioneers in allowing women such as Valentino Orlikova (see pic) to work in the Soviet Merchant Navy, is now female? And what are the obstacles, still, to having a gender-balanced ship's complement? In the past women have been deterred by a hostile culture, sexual harassment, discriminatory promotion procedures and conditions that just don't fit with what modern women want of life - such as motherhood AND a career.

If you - like me - want to read Dean Bloor's full article you'll find The Navy Today June issue is not yet posted on the web. But when it is you can find it at

Monday 7 June 2010

Women in 'Free Gaza' flotilla

The more I read about this flotilla and the Israeli attack on it, the more I see it as a terrible collision between well-meaning (and unsophisticated) human beings and an over-reacting officious military, with an added layer of gender-based misunderstandings.

Today there's more information from two Turkish-speaking Israeli women volunteers - Medi Nahmyaz (30) and Nathalie Alyon (26) - who helped translate for the passengers on the Marmara. It's in yesterday's Haaretz article by Amira Hass: They came from the villages to aid the orphans.

'They came from villages and small towns, not from the big cities, and had responded to calls by various charitable organizations, not necessarily the IHH [Isani Yardim Vakfi, the Turkish charity credited with organizing the flotilla]. Their degree of religious piety varied, say the interpreters. About a quarter of them were women. Only two, including one of the female journalists, were not wearing headscarves.

'Many of the activists were in their fifties, others were over 60. "But even someone who is 45-years-old looks 60, that's how it is in Turkey, especially in the villages," says Alyon.

'Many passengers spoke of coming "to help children in Gaza, orphans, hungry children," or "to bring humanitarian assistance." Alyon and Nahmyaz got the impression that many of them believed before they left Turkey that everything had been arranged and they would reach Gaza. They also did not seem to have broad political knowledge or a distinct ideology.

This picture of elderly, naive, non-bellicose civilians doesn't fit at all with the culture of military questioners. 'The injured were told: "You are suspected of participating in attacking soldiers with cold and hot weapons, participation in a flotilla destined for Gaza, disorderly conduct, endangering soldiers, using a knife, disobeying orders, throwing Molotov cocktails and a hand grenade." And they were asked: How much money did they pay you?

'People were terribly distressed: 'One woman, wearing a black head covering that reached to her knees, put her hand on Alyon's hand and said: "Tell them that 16 of my friends were killed today, so how do they expect me to feel?"

'One woman, in jeans but with a black head scarf, boarded the Marmara with her husband. An academician, she works at a university in a small town in southern Turkey, and participates in taekwondo competitions on behalf of the country. Soldiers who saw her hiding a mobile phone in her bra held her and called Nahmyaz to translate. "My husband is dead," the woman said. Puzzled, Nahmyaz repeated: "Your husband is dead?" "Yes," she replied. "This morning he was shot dead by an Israeli soldier." If she was angry, says Nahmyaz, she didn't show it. That was already late Monday night. Nahmyaz couldn't ask any more questions; she understood the woman wanted to keep her husband's cell phone as a memento.

Significantly, 'The word "friend" turned out to be a translation challenge. "Did you board the ship with friends?" asked the interrogators, and the answer was usually "no," that people didn't know each other. One of the injured who was questioned in hospital mentioned "our friends," and the investigator raised an eyebrow: But he said earlier that he didn't know anyone. Nahmyaz explains. In Turkey people address each other as "friend" - even a stranger, as in Israel we say "my brother," even when not really referring to a brother.

'Nahmyaz says she has a friend who considered joining the flotilla. But as a secular woman the friend was deterred when the flotilla was adopted by the Islamic IHH.'

See the whole article at

Tuesday 1 June 2010

Gendering the Gaza Aid flotilla

Yes, there were women aboard the six ships carrying 700 activists who were attacked in such bloody fashion by Israeli commandos on Monday. Why not? Peace seeking is not an exclusively male business.

But how often their presence is subject to gendered attitudes.

Picking my way through Elena Becatoros' report for Canadian Press I found German lawmaker Inge Hoeger (see pic) said 'the women aboard the Marmara were locked into a big room below deck during the raid — but it was not clear if Israeli soldiers or activists had locked them away.'

What a horrific disabling that is, to be locked away and prevented from full participation.

Even worse, how undermining it is to not even know if your own side locked you in. If they did,it was for protective reasons, no doubt. But really such a move designates all women as vulnerable liabilities, instead of recognising that the world contains some people who are frail in some areas, some strong and competent. Gender is not the point.

And Turkish activist Nilufer Cetin - whose husband is the ship's engineer — told reporters in Istanbul that she was 'returned home after Israeli officials warned her that jail would be too harsh for her baby. ..

'She also defended her decision to bring a baby into such a volatile situation."We were aware of the possible danger" in joining the trip. But there are thousands of babies in Gaza. If we had reached Gaza, we would have played with them and taken them food."'

See the entire article at

Pirate hunters - artistes - do it in saunas

I became interested in pirate hunters because of having researched and written about women pirates. (By the way, my book on them - Bold in her Breeches: Women Pirates Across the Ages - is still in print as a hardback. It's just that the paperback has now gone out of print).

Associated Press has just posted a fascinating article by Katherine Houreld about the pirate hunters now on the Swedish ship Carlskrona,at

Yes, there are women aboard: twenty per cent of the crew are women, and they live in non-segregated quarters. But the thing I love is the luxury in which they all live. In between sorties to find Somali pirates they enjoy saunas, massage, and four types of freshly baked bread each day, with wholegrains and syrup (see pic). And among the DVDs they watch is Pirates of the Caribbean. Of course!

On his blog Alexander Martin of La Jolla names this as his all-time favourite article on piracy. He's skipper of the US Force Platoon attached to a MEU that is just about to go pirate hunting to Africa. And he gives a really good picture of his reality.

As part of the Marine Expeditionary Force’s Force Reconnaissance Company he's one of 'a small band of sharply trained professionals who see their trade as an art form. They see their work as special, not themselves.

'The first thing that everyone should know about hunting pirates is that it is not as sexy as it sounds. ...we have been training to kill pirates for an entire year. Which is also not as sexy as it sounds. It's plain hard.'

See his witty blog War & Women (note that order of words) at

What appeals to me about all this? It's the contrast with silly myths about piracy.

It's not a sexy business for pirates, nor for their hunters.

And modern pirate hunters are not pompous aristocratic gents in frilly shirts and gold braid as in Errol Flynn movies. They're women (and men)workers with high-level skills, who sometimes get to enjoy a bit of pampering ...that feels ironic in the circumstances.

And the odds are that some of these piracy hunters - and the catering workers who suppor them - are LGBT people too, as they were in piracy's golden age 300 years ago. What an enjoyable contrast it all is to the macho and heterosexual myths.