Category Archives: WOMEN

A life of silence: Carmelite nuns

The silence was peaceful, not eerie, around the grounds of the Quidenham Carmel.

This group of dedicated nuns follow the Rule of Carmel, a pledge of silent prayer, which was actually written by a man, for a group of men on Mount Carmel, in the early 13th century.

Quidenham Carmel Window“The stamp of a woman”

“Then in 16th century Spain, Sister Teresa of Avila, who had been a Carmelite nun for about 20 years, reformed the order to become the Discalced Carmelite Order and that’s what we belong to”, explained Sister Shelagh as she broke the silent rule to tell me about her experiences as a nun.

“So in fact our order was founded by a woman based on the original male tradition, but it’s got the stamp of a woman on it.”

Sister Shelagh was 33 when she entered the convent and had lead a colourful life prior to making her vows.

“I had done various different jobs, I was teaching for the first four or five years before I entered. I was active in the peace movement, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, and I did a lot of music, but there was a hunger that wouldn’t go away.

“Whatever I did never felt as though it was quite enough and I was constantly searching for more.”

From the bridal veil to the habit

Shelagh was married before she became a nun, but after about ten years both her and her husband chose lives of monasticism over their relationship.

“In the end I found that when I came here, that deep hunger was satisfied and I had a contentment which I had never managed to achieve before.”

“Deep bond of unity”

While living in such a closed community, Sister Shelagh says she still feels like an individual.

“There is a deep bond of unity between us and it’s very supportive, living in a community. I know I couldn’t live this life on my own so I am grateful for the support.

“But it is also a constant challenge to live with people from all kinds of different backgrounds.”

Quidenham PuesSacrifice

Sister Stephanie spoke to me about how tensions sometimes arise and are resolved through trust and silence within the convent.

“I think a hard part about community like ours where so much of our time is actually lived in silence apart from necessary work talk, if you know you’ve really made a boob, you’ve really mucked something up, even your opportunities to apologise and say ‘I’m so sorry’ are limited.

“I think, for a lot of the women here, and certainly for women coming in today, so much is out in the open, is talked about. There’s a lot of ‘we’ve got to sit down and discuss this’, or ‘lets talk this one through’, and I think that is something particularly feminine.

“So in a sense, we’re actually being asked to sacrifice that by living in silence and allow that to happen on a deeper level.”

While there are still arguments and disagreements, like in any community, in this convent, during my time there I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of calm contentment among all of the women.


Tracy Edwards MBE: around the world with 11 women

Tracy Edwards MBEWhen you’ve got the ocean trying to kill you and other teams trying to beat you to the finish, being an all female crew can’t be plain sailing… Can it?

In the 1985 Whitbread Round the World yacht race, Tracy Edwards MBE took up the challenge of being the first person to skipper an all-female crew for nine months and 27,000 miles.

After previously doing the race with 17 men, Tracy fancied a change:

“I realised that, of the 150 people on the Whitbread Round the World race, there were only five of us girls.”

After posing the question to a few fellow sailors, none of whom had sailed around the world before, her all-female project took off. They spent the next few years preparing and training for the race, winning tournaments and overcoming any hurdles that popped up along the way.

The final barrier

“The final barrier for us was the assumption that a bunch of women could never get on for that long, that we’d all kill each other before the finish line. We didn’t know the answer to that, maybe we would!

“But we got on so well. I mean, we got on incredibly well. And yes we had arguments, we’re not sheep, we had very strong ideas about how the boat would be sailed so we did have some rows, but at the end of the day, the enemy was out there, the enemy was the ocean which is trying to kill you, and it’s the other teams you’re trying to beat.”

Contrary to what most might believe, Tracy says sailing with an all-female crew was actually easier than sailing with all men.

“I loved sailing with the guys, but lack of communication leads to really violent and quite aggressive blow outs, where as when us girls had our arguments it was very much more about the technical side of sailing and very little about the personalities.

“I think at the end of the race, none of us wanted it to finish, the last few days were just awful… we cried we spent a lot of time talking about all the experiences we’d had what we’d learned, what we’d felt about the whole thing, and none of us wanted to get off the boat.”

No men allowed

“I think theres a real empowerment that comes from working alongside all women, and I think we all felt it as we were racing around the world… Something really very special was happening and I think boyfriends and husbands felt quite excluded.”

Call of Duty: WRAC Ops


The WRAC was once the all-female branch of the Army

For a room where the average age was most likely over sixty, they were a rowdy bunch at the Britannia Birmingham Hotel on this chilly Wednesday afternoon.

The Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) Association’s Christmas celebration was dubbed the liveliest of the month so far by the catering staff – a title the ladies fought to keep throughout the afternoon.

The WRAC was the female branch of the Army since the early 20th century but was later disbanded in the 90’s and the women were forced to integrate with the men.

During the life of the WRAC there were all-female units across the country. Trudi Banning joined the WRAC in 1991 and had a short-lived career in one of these all-female army environments.

Best career move

Despite her brief encounter, however, she still described it as the best career move she ever made.

“It was like family and friends and a job all in one.”

Trudi Banning, went through the transition period as the WRAC was disbanded

Trudi Banning, went through the transition period as the WRAC was disbanded

When Trudi began serving in the WRAC, recruitment was all women. As she put it herself: there were “no men allowed”.

Then, when the corps was disbanded in 1992, she had to undergo the transition period.

“Women had to conform to what the men had to do”, she explained to me as we escaped the mayhem of the party.

“Not only were there to be mixed sex units, but all the training had to change. The women were expected to run as fast as the men in the basic fitness tests.”

While some members of the WRAC were pleased with the transition and introduction of gender equality, others were dubious about the change.

“I think if it had been down to us, our decision and our choice, we’d never had got rid of the WRAC but again, that decision was taken out of our hands.

”It was a shame. Personally deep down, I think they should never have disbanded the WRAC because of the structure that it stands for. The WRAC will never die.”

In fact, at the age of 39, Trudi is one of the youngest members of the WRAC and she could eventually be one of the last surviving members too.

“It is sad because we will lose our identity and eventually we will die out and people will forget all about us” mused Babs Blay as the party dispersed.

A sisterhood

Babs Blay is one of the more active members of the WRAC

Babs Blay is one of the more active members of the WRAC

She explained to me that the last generation of WRAC ladies is already 38 years old, as 1992 was the last year women would be assigned to all-female units.

Nonetheless, she ensured me her enthusiasm for the association is certainly not dying – nor is anyone else’s.

While she had never served with any of the women at the Birmingham branch of the association, she said it didn’t matter.

“It’s like a language that we have, we understand each other. If anyone, even now, is in trouble then everybody comes together.”

“Where would we go for this camaraderie? That’s what it’s about really, the camaraderie and the sisterhood, knowing there’s always somebody there for you.”

Jillian Lauren: life in a harem

Jillian Lauren

Photograph courtesy of Jillian Lauren

PICASSOS in every room, gold-woven carpets and servants that wait on your every need: this may be the stuff of modern day fairy tales, but it was the life of American girl Jillian Lauren at the age of 18.

Only just an adult, Jillian spent her days in Asia locked inside an opulent royal palace, competing with a handful of the other chosen women, for the attention of one man: the Prince of Brunei.

After dropping out of theatre school in New York, Jillian was told she could make $20,000 for entertaining at the parties of a rich businessman in Singapore. Little did she know, it would lead her to 18 months in a harem belonging to Prince Jefri Bolkiah.

World of women

“It was essentially a world of women”, Jillian explained to me over our crackly Skype conversation.

“There was this one man who sort of came into our lives for just a few hours of the day so there was a lot of competition among the girls. Everyone wanted to catch his eye, really everyone wanted to be his favourite.

“It was always very surreptitious and there were shifting alliances amongst the girls.

“I had a kind of arch rival there who had been in my position before I arrived. She used to be his second favourite girlfriend and then I bumped her without really knowing it.

“She’d get the girls on her side, have little margarita parties by the pool and not invite me. She would just sort of wear at my happiness and self esteem in the hope that I would leave by myself.”

While they would entertain the Prince and his entourage at late night parties, Jillian and the girls were confined to the gold-clad palace during the day, where all they could do was workout, watch films and eat.

Not only did they strive for Prince Jefri’s attention but also his lavish gifts. Rolex watches, money, clothes and jewellery were also at stake.

Real friendships

In this surreal world of women, however, it wasn’t always a mean girls act.

“It was a really competitive environment in terms of the relationships between us girls, but there were some real friendships that arose out of it and I do think that women will take care of each other and that we did on some level.”

Jillian is now a writer, a mother and a wife but does not regret a single day she spent in that palace.

“My time in the harem in Brunei was a really great learning experience, it gave me a lot of great stories to tell and was a great teacher about human nature.

“It really helped me figure out who I wasn’t more than it helped me to figure out who I was. So I was able to then go away and find out who I was.”


A woman of unity

Under the equatorial scalding sun there is a buzz of conversation, productivity and gossip among the women of Umoja, Kenya.

This small, extraordinary village is a simple yet beautiful arrangement of mud huts and acacia trees, with only one rule: no men allowed.

The women gather in what little shade the sparse foliage can provide and get to work on their livelihood: bead making.

The Umoja (meaning unity) Women’s Village has residents from all over Kenya who have remarkable stories to tell. They have come here because family members or husbands have forced them to run away.

Nagusi, who had to leave her family after she was allegedly raped by a British Soldier, was one of the founders of the village.

“We started building this village in 1990 because we had so many problems with our families that we had to run away.

“We asked ourselves ‘how can we build a home and provide for our children?’ So we decided to build this village for us, no men allowed.”

“Then we started making the beads and selling them to passing tourists. Thanks to them we had enough money and energy to build a preshool for our children.”

After escaping forced marriage to a HIV positive old man, Judy (pictured above) arrived in Archer’s Post, to find the women of Umoja.

“My father wanted me to marry an old man, so I said no, because that man had HIV Aids and he was 60 years old. So I said no and I ran away.

“When I came to Archer’s Post I heard of this village called Umoja. The women took me in and treated me as their child, so I started making the beads, and now I’m ok. I am happy now.”

Since joining the women of Umoja Judy has been to school, learnt English, and even had a daughter.

Learn more about their stories and see the Women of Umoja web video here.