Zahraa Ghandour and her mentor Hanaa Edwar have broken tradition to voice the struggles of women in their community.
London, June 2017. The sun was high in the sky and the temperature hovered around 30 degrees. Writer Gina Martin, then 25, and her sister, Stevie, headed to a day festival in Hyde Park, excited to see one of their favourite bands, The Killers, perform. But as they stood in the crowd waiting for the band to come on stage, Gina felt someone rub up against her, uncomfortably close. When she turned around, she saw two men laughing, looking down at a phone. When she stepped closer to look at the screen, her heart dropped.
There, on the man’s phone, was a photo of her crotch. The man hadn’t just rubbed up against her but had shoved his phone up her skirt and taken the picture, while surrounded by hundreds of people in broad daylight.
Horrified, Gina snatched the phone from the stranger’s hand and began to shout for help at the top of her voice. The man became aggressive, towering over her and screaming in her face to hand back his phone. “My first instinct was to run to the people who were there to keep me safe,” Gina wrote at the time. “I ran as fast as I possibly could and fell into the arms of festival security. They took the phone, calmed me down and called the police immediately.”
Security guards formed a protective ring around Gina as the furious man tried in vain to retrieve his phone. When the police arrived, they were sympathetic, with one officer commenting that Gina “should be able to go to a festival in 30-degree heat and wear a skirt without worrying about this happening”.
But Gina was appalled when they explained that because “upskirting” – the act of taking a clandestine photograph up a woman’s skirt – was not listed as a sexual offence, the case was unlikely to be taken further. After agreeing to delete the photo, the man was free to go.
Five days later, Gina was told the case had been closed. Horrified, she took to social media to write about her experience. When the post went viral, she started an online petition which quickly garnered more than 50,000 signatures. Determined to change the law to protect other women, she hired lawyer Ryan Whelan and began an 18-month legal battle that cast her into the midst of intense media scrutiny.
In February 2019, Gina won a victory for British women when the government introduced a new bill to make “upskirting” illegal. Within a year, 16 men had been convicted of “upskirting”, with four of them given prison sentences.
Gina has gone on to write a book about her campaign, grown an Instagram following of almost 100,000, and even been offered, and turned down, an OBE. But the campaign – and the vicious misogynistic abuse that accompanied it – came at a personal cost.
“It was actually quite a horrific period of my life,” says Gina. “I got rape threats for a year and a half during the campaign and I still worry about my safety a lot because of that. I was also being held up as something [a feminist hero and activist] that I have since become very uncomfortable with.”
Finding a safe place to land
During this time, Gina stumbled across the Instagram account of Virginia-born stylist and social justice activist, Aja Barber, whose work focuses on race, the environmental impact of fast fashion and the intersection of the two. Aja’s first book, Consumed: On Colonialism, Climate Change, Consumerism & the Need for Collective Change, will be out in September this year and focuses on Aja’s story of “how I found my way out of the cycle of overconsumption which not only made me feel pretty bad but also further funded a corrupt and unethical system”.
These are issues Aja explores almost daily in lengthy Instagram posts to her 230,000 followers, and Gina was instantly drawn in. “It didn’t feel like there was a soft place to land anywhere online, but Aja’s page felt like a place of slower learning, the antidote to all the other stuff I was consuming on the internet,” she says.
Aja, meanwhile, had read about Gina’s campaign. “I loved the notion that something had happened to Gina, and everybody had told her: ‘Oh well, there’s not much you could do about that,’ but Gina was like, ‘Yeah? We’ll see about that.’ I just thought she was a powerful, badass person.”
The two developed a virtual friendship which blossomed into a real-life one when Aja moved to the UK soon after. Now, the two of them support one another through the perils that come from their very particular type of fame as activists, authors and social media influencers.
Today, the two women are speaking together on a Zoom call from their respective London homes, with the UK in its third consecutive month of full COVID lockdown.
Aside from the pandemic, it has been a challenging 12 months for both Gina and Aja. In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white police officer in Minnesota, Aja, along with many other outspoken supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, found her Instagram account flooded with new followers. A video she posted entitled Why Performative Allyship is Triggering, was watched more than 1 million times and almost overnight, her following grew by 100,000.
“I found that really traumatising, to be honest – I don’t ever want my account to grow off the back of somebody dying,” she says. “I was flooded with messages from people basically saying, ‘I’m here to solve racism’ and I had to explain that a system which has been built in 300 years is not going to be unpacked in one DM [direct message].
“I’m not here to give step-by-step instructions to hundreds of individual people about how to be anti-racist. I’ve been speaking about Black Lives Matter since it began in 2013 – back then, I was demonised and lost friends. I had people tell me that I was isolating white people. Now, all of a sudden, the world just decides they are on board and essentially says, ‘We’re looking for you to lead us’?
“I was already holding the weight of George Floyd’s death as a Black person and I just wanted to be left alone to work through my own grief, not be a mouthpiece to 100,000 new followers.”
Girls come up to me and tell me they want to be an activist, but it’s not a job - it’s something you take on because you care deeply about something ... It's important to me that there’s a conversation around what an activist actually looks like. In some countries, even calling yourself an activist would mean immediate death.
An outpouring of grief
Gina has recently had a difficult experience in the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard, the 33-year-old marketing executive who disappeared on March 3 while walking home through a well-lit residential part of South London. Eight days later, her remains were discovered 80km (50 miles) away in woodland in Kent. A serving Metropolitan police officer has been charged with her murder and is currently awaiting trial.
The murder has caused an outpouring of grief from British women, many of whom took to social media to share their stories of fearing for their safety when walking home alone. A particular theme was frustration at the way safety measures – walking with keys clutched in fists; taking the longer, better-lit route; paying for expensive cabs – have been normalised for women, while men remain blissfully unaware. The collective grief soon turned to fury after a peaceful vigil to honour Sarah’s life ended with women being manhandled and arrested. An independent inquiry by the policing inspectorate has now been launched.
In the days after Sarah’s death, Gina was inundated with requests to discuss harassment, and her Instagram account grew by 10,000 followers. “There was a lot of pressure to speak but I just stepped back because I was struggling,” she says. “The themes are too familiar. It wasn’t a bad week to be a woman. It was another week to be a woman – one that was louder than the rest.”
Like Aja, Gina struggled with the weight of so many expectant new followers when she was still processing her own feelings.
“You know what?” Aja says, lifting the sombre mood and breaking into a smile. “Having an Instagram account where you’ve got 50,000 followers is like having a nice party, then suddenly a bunch of people just decide to storm your house party, and they’re all like screaming at once.”
Gina laughs and chips in: “It feels like your house has been invaded and they’re all yelling, ‘Where are your most precious items?’ and you just want to tell them to leave you alone.”
One of the most admirable qualities both women share is their unshakeable sense of right and wrong, sticking to their own moral compasses even when it means missing out on lucrative work that does not sit comfortably with their beliefs.
“Sometimes I’m biting my fist as I turn down work because I know the money would be helpful right now,” says Aja. “Gina and I hold each other accountable because we’re in a similar position. Would we each like to have more money or move into a bigger or better flat? Of course, but you have to make a point. I’ve made a list of stores I don’t want my book featured in because of the way they treat their garment workers. The one I can’t get around is the world’s biggest online bookseller though. That’s a tough one.”
‘Activism commodity hell’
Meanwhile, Gina was quick to refuse an OBE (Order of the British Empire, awarded for services to the country) last year. “Learning about white history, structural racism and colonialism is part of my life,” she says. “It would have been massively hypocritical of me to accept it. I just think the bare minimum I could do is not be an Order of the British Empire!”
Despite bringing discussions of race, gender, environmentalism, and colonialism to a wide audience via their popular platforms, both women struggle with modern connotations of the word “activist”.
“Activism has become an aesthetic and that makes me uncomfortable,” says Aja. “Before lockdown, I was on Oxford Street [in central London] and I spotted that a brand that is by far one of the biggest greenwashers [a marketing spin to make brands falsely appear eco friendly] who had done their windows up to make their mannequins look like they were activists with signs that just said random gibberish. I thought, ‘Oh my God, we’ve reached activism commodity hell.’”
This is a topic that Gina, whose 2019 book, Be The Change: A Toolkit for the Activist in You, has grappled with. “It’s a huge internal struggle for me, something I’m trying to unpack in therapy,” she says, letting out a long sigh. “I worry about how much I’ve contributed to this aesthetic without even realising it. Girls come up to me and tell me they want to be an activist, but it’s not a job – it’s something you take on because you care deeply about something. I’m aware that during the campaign, I was held up as this young fashionable white girl activist, but it’s important to me that there’s a conversation around what an activist actually looks like. In some countries, even calling yourself an activist would mean immediate death. I’m held up as a face of activism but I want young people to know I’m not how an activist looks, there are many different ways to do this.”
“There’s no prototype”, agrees Aja. “My grandfather worked on civil rights, but I don’t think he ever called himself an activist by any stretch of the imagination. He was a Black man who came home from World War II and decided he was not going to sit in the back of the bus and was tired of this BS.”
After such a tumultuous year with an international focus on key issues like race, gender and the environment, are Gina and Aja hopeful that there might be some level of post-traumatic growth? “My worry is that progress isn’t linear. It’s messy and it goes back and forth, some areas progress and others don’t,” says Gina.
Aja agrees. “People say that at times like this we always have amazing creative resurgences as humans but, for me, what we need most is for people to take these societal issues seriously. We’ve been given this opportunity for everyone to regroup and think about the systems we have in place, but I wonder what the world will do with that time that we’ve been given.”