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Annie Lennox Discusses Feminism & HIV
David Peschek , March 12th, 2012 12:07

David Peschek spends ten minutes with Annie Lennox and discusses HIV, Africa, International Women's Day, celebrity culture and why an Evening Standard columnist "should be ashamed of herself"

There's a wonderful moment just after Annie Lennox is whisked away after a brief but impassioned chat: I hear her asking a web-TV presenter, on camera, whether she'd call herself a feminist, and the younger woman makes the usual vascillations, to which Lennox responds with incredible grace. It's boggling actually: to disavow feminism in this company must take an epic level of denial, or confusion, or both. Lennox has created Equals, a partnership of several charities brought together to celebrate the centenary of International Women's Day, and in that capacity is hosting an evening of female talent as part of the Women of the World Festival at Southbank Centre: Katy B, the ubiquitous Emeli Sande and sometime Leftfield collaborator Jess Mills (nope, I didn't realise Shadow Minister Tessa Jowell's daughter was a raver either).

Lennox is wearing a shirt made by the SING campaign she began in 2007 – a feminist initiative to give HIV+ women and children around the world support, and a voice. Blazened across her chest in block capitals it says: HIV POSITIVE. This is one of the things I love about Lennox: she doesn't do AIDS in the way other 'celebrities' do (indeed, she'd probably baulk at being called a 'celebrity'), bravely pushing the issue into people's faces when she really doesn't have to. We talk about AIDS in Africa – quoting Mandela, she rightly calls it "a genocide," and I say it's often rare to see African men in British HIV clinics – certainly in the numbers you see African women and children.

Annie Lennox: It's a deep, deep stigma. To ask a person to disclose their status is very challenging. You go to a country where people are falling like flies and no one's prepared to acknowledge their status. But with the work that people have done – and I've seen it myself, when I went to Malawi earlier this year – that people are able to talk about it, in groups, in villages: the men, the women, the children – they're all there talking about it.

I pull out a copy of the Evening Standard from the previous day, March 8, and ask her if she's read Anne McElvoy's confused, contradictory, blinkered dismissal of IWD as 'sentimental waffle'.

AL: Oh! I don't even want to read it. I can't be bothered. Bizarre. Thanks a lot for the kick in the teeth, for everybody who needs that issue to be brought onto the table, how bizarre. Twisted. Snobbish.

So, as one feminist to another, tell me why we still need International Women's Day?

AL: There's a huge gender disparity. We have made huge steps in Western countries, but we live in a bubble, and we don't realise. My experience is in developing countries, I've seen that women are living in the Middle Ages when it comes to legislative rights, human rights, to protection, reproductive rights, gender violence; every step of the way women are challenged. I worry about the generations of young girls. I did this interview with Sky News – they'd done a beautiful piece, and when I say beautiful, I mean harrowing – they'd gone to Swaziland which has high, high, high rates of HIV, one of the highest in the world; life expectation is about 30. They went into a classroom, and there's a young woman teaching, and she says 'Now here are the kids living with granny (meaning orphaned),' and it's every child, and most of the children have been abused, and keep it as a secret, and then she herself opens up and says she was raped by her father. It's just horrific. And who's talking for these women? That woman there [McElvoy] is doing them a disservice. How disgraceful. She should be ashamed of herself.

And course the answer to the question you ask in the Equals material – why are women so much more at risk from HIV – is that there is an unequal power relationship.

AL: Totally, totally.

Just to talk about music briefly – what are you listening to?

AL: I don't listen to anybody. I don't listen to music really.

Do you read?

AL: Yes. And I surf the internet a lot. I'm one of those people [laughs]. I just like peace and quiet I think it's an age thing. I've got all this music in my head, anyway, and I play a lot. I play the piano. I have a baby grand and an upright. [What] I'm very very passionate about is the advocacy – creating some advocacy for women's rights. It's just how I've evolved, I've a chance to use my voice – not my singing voice, my speaking voice, my singing voice has given me a platform. People don't have to agree with me; I'm just trying to stimulate discussion. We have so many resources and we waste them! The other things I'm offended by are our obsession with celebrity culture; the crap, the downgrading of our intellect really...

...the ridiculous hyper-sexualisation of everything...

AL: We're living in an extremely consumerist society. Even in the downturn – I'm not stupid, I realise people are going through a hard time. I've lived through hard times as a child, I know how it was when my father had to go on strike in the shipyards. It's really tough. But on the other hand we spend three times more on bottled water than we do on aid. So let's get some of this in perspective!