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Witch hunts

Witch hunts

THE BURNING is the debut YA novel of LAURA BATES, who has spent her adult years campaigning for women's rights. In The BURNING, she follows two young women whose lives are devastated by the accusations they face.

In THE BURNING, a witch trial from the 17th century is juxtaposed with a contemporary story about a student being abused through social media. The novel is both profound and shocking in its reflections of how little has changed in the way that male patriarchy perceives and treats women, especially young women who are victims of sexual offences.

Through her Everyday Sexism project, LAURA BATES is a regular visitor to schools and the contemporary thread of her novel was informed by what she learned from listening to students. So while adult readers will undoubtedly be shocked by the unfolding story, what happens will be sadly familiar to many teenaged girls - and this is what makes it a book not just for young people, but for any adult with a teenage girl, or boy, in their care.

We asked LAURA BATES to tell us more about her work for Everyday Sexism and what drove her to write THE BURNING:

Q: Why did you found the Everyday Sexism project, and how has that inspired you to write The Burning?

A: I started the project because people kept telling me sexism didn't exist any more, as women were equal now! But I knew from the girls and women I spoke to that that wasn't the case - the problem was still there, it was just invisible. So I started the project to make the invisible visible.

In many ways, The Burning had the same aim - in this case I wanted to make visible the everyday realities of young women, who are facing an absolute bombardment of harassment, sexism and abuse, yet whose voices are rarely heard.

Q: You have already published books for adults, why did you want to write this one for teenagers?

A: My work has increasingly focused on young women because of the sheer number of stories I receive from them about their experiences. Over the past seven years I've visited hundreds of schools up and down the country and heard from tens of thousands of pupils.

The realities they revealed to me about their daily lives were shocking. I wanted to give those girls a voice, to let them know they are not alone, and to draw attention to their stories.

Q: Through the lives of two women, Anna and Maggie (who is accused of witchcraft), The Burning traces the parallels between the persecution of women in the 17th century as witches, and today through social media. Why did you decide to draw that comparison?

A: When I talk about the issues girls are facing today, it's common for people to shake their heads sadly and comment on how terrible social media is! They often refer to the internet as if it has caused a lot of new problems for young women.

But the more I researched Maggie's story, the more I realised that the persecution, harassment, double standards and abuse she faced in 1650 were almost identical to the treatment of the young women I was speaking to today. I wanted to tell these two stories side by side to show that the way we treat women has not changed in centuries.

Of course, some great strides have been made, and brilliant feminist activists and campaigners have won great legal gains. But at the grassroots, cultural level, our ideas and attitudes towards women remain shockingly similar. The idea that women's bodies are inherently dangerous and alluring and distracting to men. The idea that a woman who is assaulted must have done something to deserve it. The idea that a woman who speaks up about sexual violence might have a hidden agenda. These notions have not changed in hundreds of years.

Q: In The Burning, Anna struggles to find details about Maggie's life, the young woman accused of witchcraft by her community in the 1600's. How much research into witchcraft trials of the time did you need to do to build her story, and what surprised you the most about what you discovered?

A: I did a lot of research both into the witch trials of the period more widely and the local church records more specifically. I was shocked by the sheer brutality of some of the common methods used to persecute and punish women, from the scold's bridle to the 'pricking' of witches and the practice of "waking the witch", which involved keeping her awake for days on end, until she began to babble deliriously, and then taking down her incoherent ramblings and using them as 'evidence' to convict her.

Q: How much of what you write about social media and the revenge porn that Anna faces is drawn from what you have heard from teenagers themselves? Are these problems more common than we like to think?

A: There is almost nothing that happens to Anna in the book that isn't drawn from a real-life example. Some of it is drawn from my own experiences of online abuse, rape and death threats. Much is from the young women and girls I have worked with.

For adults, I think reading this book is a shocking eye-opener into the reality of young women's lives. But for many of the girls I've spoken to who have read the book, they can relate to almost every page. These problems are far more common than we'd like to think.

Q: What steps would you like schools - and social media companies - to take to ensure this kind of activity doesn't happen? Do schools need to step up in dealing with sexism?

A: While some schools are doing fantastic work in this area, many are still very unsure of how to deal with it, so responses are extremely patchy. I've heard from a huge number of young people who have been sexually harassed or assaulted at school, only to be blamed by grown ups or teachers for what they were wearing, told 'boys will be boys' or 'he just likes you', or forced back into a classroom with their abuser.

I think schools need much clearer guidance, training and funding to support them to tackle these issues. Schools need to ensure that all young people receive good quality education about issues like sexual consent and healthy relationships, and a whole-school approach is vital so that issues like sexual harassment are tackled consistently and effectively.

Q: What would you like your readers to take away from The Burning?

A: An awareness that this is an age-old problem, not a new-fangled phase. That young women are bold, courageous and innovative, and are finding new and brilliant ways to stand up to sexism, far from the wilting, victimised snowflakes they're often made out to be.

And that this is a problem that can only be solved if everybody pitches in together to shift societal norms - the reactions of other pupils and bystanders in the book are absolutely crucial in influencing what happens.

Q: Are you writing more novels or non-fiction for teenaged readers?

A: Yes! I'm very excited to say that I am. I can't say too much about my next project just yet, but watch this space!

Q: How does your day as a writer go, and how do you fit in writing within your Everyday Sexism Project work?

A: I tend to fit writing around my Project work, so I'll write whenever I'm not visiting schools, working with politicians or police forces or doing the daily running of the project itself. This means my creative process can be a little bit haphazard, but I find inspiration often strikes when I'm on a train or a plane, so I tend to take a notebook with me wherever I go and my chaotic scribbles eventually come together into a book!

Q: Can you update us on the Everyday Sexism Project and its progress? What are your ultimate goals for this work?

A: The project has now amassed over 150,000 stories from people of all genders, all over the world. It has been used to support young people in schools and universities to start conversations about sexual violence, to train people in organisations and businesses all over the country to tackle workplace sexual harassment, and to help convince the government to make sex and relationships education compulsory in all schools.

We used the entries from people on public transport to retrain 2000 British Transport Police officers, which led to a rise of over 30% in reports of sexual offences on the transport network. As the project continues to expand, we're setting up new branches in different countries, focusing on working with as many schools as possible, and hoping to continue lobbying for policy change around issues like the detention of refugee women who are often survivors of sexual violence.

Q: What are your favourite escapes from writing and the office?

A: I love getting out for wintery walks in the woods, having games and quiz nights with friends and hotly debating new reads with my book club!


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