Icons of Feminism

I recently stumbled across this incredible series of portraits capturing the rare sight of women fighters in the Syrian civil war:

Syrian Woman Turned Revolutionary

Fadwa, 20 years old, widow with 3 children: “My husband died on the front lines, I will die on the front lines, may God help us.”

Amal, 30 years old, married, housewife with 3 children: “I’m sincere to God, that is all I need and want, the rest will come with time.”

White middle-class wankers of Marxist cliques have this tacit presumption – that they can be revolutionary at work and then go home to a Waitrose ready meal and Britain’s Got Talent. Hypocrisy is as old as it is everywhere pervasive.

This is, in fringe Western language, no less true of the orthodox communities in the Arab Spring. Aristotle saw the political community as the macrocosm of the household; he would have despaired to see far right Muslims protest for change on the street and then return to a family as stoic as footsteps on the surface of the moon. Or perhaps not. Anyway – what we can be certain of is that hunger for the vote is a far cry from cultural revolution. As we’re seeing in Egypt, and even more so in Iraq, those who were once oppressed are using their votes to settle sectarian scores and force others to live their nightmares. The activists – or whatever we wish to call them – are disproportionately male. They crave power in worlds public and private. For all the irritant definitions of any “patriarchy”, these political upheavals have left the fabric of masculinity unapologetically content.

In such a context I’m not entirely sure what the most enlightened response to these all-women fighting forces ought to be. No one is pleased with perpetual warfare, or for the disintegrated communities from which these women have formed new lives.

What these women represent is that no “patriarchy” is inevitable, I think. 20 year-old Fadwa tells us, “My husband died on the front lines, I will die on the front lines, may God help us.” Women are able to protect their families just as men can, and it emerges from the social wreckage that fascists have traditionally been best-equipped to exploit. We shouldn’t find this remarkable, but I suspect most would. The union of gun and child is so utterly disturbing that it smashes any conventions of effeminacy.

In one of Max Weber’s rare moments of concision he quipped that “the person who attempted to walk by constantly applying anatomical knowledge would be in danger of stumbling”. The nuance of ideology bows before the primacy of instinct. It’s why, whenever we race to term someone an “icon” to a movement, we should do only if they exemplify that to which his or her followers aspire. Veneration, after all, implies emulation; and to emulate an ideologue is to emulate their arguments. It’s ideological constipation. Not only does this abandon our critical reasoning of their deficiencies, leading to the most conformism of dogma, but it also assumes the perpetuity of resistance, and thereby a defeatism in which the individual strives for struggle rather than victory. An icon, in other words, should embody a movement’s dreams – not the movement itself.

Nelson Mandela is justly iconic for civil rights figures, black and white and every other gradient. Some Western liberals in the 20th century who considered themselves anti-racist did – much like those today who affirm that “Arab democrat” is a primitive paradox – argue that Mandela was a black man in a white man’s game. For them, anti-imperialism also meant anti-democracy in the most absurd phrases of cultural relativism. Obviously, that was a racist belief even if its conviction in opposition to colonial rule. The reason for Mandela’s iconic status, in other words, is that he represented democratic politics in promoting an equal share in this philosophy. If you think that’s self-evident then you’ve just proved my point – that an icon should be no more, and no less, than a tautology: a black man is born equal to a white person. The truest of truisms.

No less true of women, is it not? What the women in the women’s militia represent is that when the old rules fragment, socially as well as politically, sex is entirely irrelevant to a person’s potential. Inevitable biological differences aside, we’re left with that other obvious tautology that women are people like men and neither anything more nor less. Just as these women represent some of the most utterly desolate communities of Syria, so should an icon also be found from above. But who could possibly serve such a purpose?

I think it a lovely irony that in rejecting feminism Thatcher should have set in stone her legacy as a feminist icon – but before you send an armed guard to castrate this patronising male blogger, hear me out. Thatcher should have been thoroughly ashamed of her refusal to aid female Parliamentarians. Even today, only a quarter of our MPs are women. Now it’s in my humble opinion that you shouldn’t promote equality – and cut down sexism – by superficial politics like all-women short-lists. That will not solve gender gaps in salaries and leaves lad cultures unscathed, unabashed and altogether uncaring in their ignorant trance.

And yet – in many respects Maggie represented a lot to which the female feminist ought to aspire. By breaking their every convention she denied the existence of the ideal woman. She does not have to be liberal; she does not have to be working class; she does not have to be sympathetic to the vulnerable or pass maternalist charity to whomever beggar she greets. All of these are desirable, but they are just as desirable for a man as for a woman. Maggie neglected feminism because of her own success; with triumph ends ideology. Thatcher was a bitch – but so are an awful lot of men.

Mandela was not a black man in a white man’s game; Thatcher was no woman struggling through a man’s world; and the Syrian women do not believe in a conscious battle against any conceptual patriarchy. Take this final image:

On her head, in the place of the traditional woman’s headscarf, Em Joseph dons the keffiyeh of the Arab man. When Thatcher used her curious propensity to sexuality to navigate her way through her colleagues’ stubborn attitudes, she was accused of cheapening women’s activism and accepting male instincts. But was she? Or was she not, like Em, reminding people that conventions can be twisted by women just as much as they can be by men?

Whatever happens to these few Syrian women, I can only wish them the best of luck. Great icons – better than the self-indulgent paranoia of some radical feminists whose minds are like Shakespearean theatrics on steroids.


Why Liberals Should Oppose Academic Boycotts

The Teachers Union of Ireland has unanimously passed a resolution endorsing the boycott of Israeli academia. Heartened though I was by the hostility towards Galloway’s walkout at the Christ Church debate (his opponent, as he discovered, was – gasp! – born in Israel), it’s not an attitude matched in a lot of left-wing circles.

The much-quoted precedent was that of the anti-apartheid boycott in the 60s, one which was never as widely supported as pseudo-historians would have us believe. Whatever the case it would be ridiculous and illiberal to apply it to Israel:

  • No matter what the soundbites splutter, Israel is not an apartheid state. Arabs can vote for the Knesset. Gaza and the West Bank are excluded from the political process because they are not part of Israel, and that is the injustice here. A people without a state have created another: in Edward Said’s phrase, the Palestinians are the “the victims of the victims”.
  • The inevitable boycott is therefore indiscriminate towards political outlook: its characterisation of everyone in Israel as pro-occupation and anti-arab is itself a form of racism.
  • The result of this is counterproductive: it equates academics who are critical of the government’s policies – like Gideon Levy or Avi Shlaim – with Eretz Israel racists like Habayit Hayehudi. Israeli academics in Britain would lose their security based simply on the nation of their birth.
  • Even if these motivations were somehow purified, and the boycott became unambiguously anti-expansionist and anti-racist, it would still be a battle for censorship. Freedom of expression is the most liberal principle any society has ever had: it is the starting point of all intellectual progress. If you cannot beat a Zionist in debate then step aside and let someone else. Silencing them achieves nothing.
  • And it doesn’t work. It’s easily avoided and had virtually no impact on ending South African apartheid. Much like the frivolity that is the Gaza flotilla, it can only be understood as a symbol. And, as I say, a racist one at that.

The opposition to racism, to censorship and to the marketplace of ideas – chief emblems of liberalism – is made a mockery of. There are far better ways to express solidarity with the Palestinian people, one which achieves more and abandons less.


The Times They Are a-Changin’ (In The Arab Spring)

When you worn to exhaustion by the vampiric presence of Jeremy Kyle or that perpetual newsreel on poor Maggie’s demise, the mind drifts. And it drifts towards one final tool for procrastination. Well – should I? You’re faced with a Socratic challenge. It will demand the evasion of judgmental family members. An easily concealed TV set is obligatory; an already stained conscience helps. In spite of the inevitable guilt that threatens to mute any pleasure you might dare to enjoy, you continue.

And I did it: I watched Loose Women.

It all seemed somehow vindicated by the story which the ladies shared with us – about a 104 year-old gentlemen whose gardening abilities have been maturing for nearly a century:

But it is the roses that fill Ralph with most pride. At the rear of his garden are some 200 floribunda and hybrid-tea bushes which in summer will produce flowers of many shades and a glorious scent.

Despite his age and a creaky left knee, Ralph still does most of the work himself. He can still, with difficulty, plant potatoes, although he now uses a tall hoe for weeding and a grabbing tool for picking things up. His great-grandchildren help with dead-heading the roses and weeding, but only under his close supervision.

This year it’s been too cold to get out much. He is waiting until the end of the month to sow his onions and potatoes but doesn’t mind the delay.

‘Gardening is all about having something to look forward to,’ he says. ‘It gets me through the winter. If I’m ever depressed or lonely, I think to myself “never mind, the roses will be along soon”. It gives me the willpower to keep going.’

And with this wise image I was left thinking about the Arab Spring. For roses we might replace the scent of Jasmine in Tunisia, whose democratic seeds may have been planted too close to the surface and now risk being uplifted in the rains. If it is true that the ousting of Ben Ali was the “encounter of the social and the democratic” then we would do well to remember that not all reunions have a happy ending. Some end in divorce, and others with the wife stabbing the unsuspecting husband with a screwdriver.

The inevitability of the seasons, if it does exist in the Arab Spring, is as likely to incubate fear as freedom – in part, I suppose, because many of its fanatics see the terrorising of others as a liberty. What if we reach winter when all the colours in the flowers are dead?

Ivy is a tenacious little bugger – it’ll survive winter’s chill. So will all the creepy insects just waiting to crawl out and infest the world again, like Camus’ La Peste, a dormant plague slowly bubbling its way to the surface where it readies to bring down another free city. I don’t know. Perhaps we can take comfort knowing that even if the tree sheds its leaves it doesn’t go anywhere. It can have them back soon enough.

Just don’t fall into that mellow optimism that the language of the seasons seems to tickle in us. It’s a simple tool used to absolve us of our rightful responsibility – because talk of nature implies a self-fulfilling ecosystem whose horrors will be purged from within. In reality, though, some of the people out there really need our help.

I never mixed so many metaphors with so little apology. Anyway, consider donating to the DEC’s Syria Crisis Appeal?


Like it or not, Margaret Thatcher was a democrat

Socialism is a weapon – the fiercest, I dare say, that humanism has. The friendship between people can be pretty strong but inequality fragments it; nothing cuts through a society’s common honesty and decency than the greed that shits at poverty. Without a fair playing-field good sportsmanship becomes hopelessly fantastic.

And it was Thatcher’s obsession with finance that dissipated whatever ghost of this we had. The economic power in Britain was robbed from working class communities, and it was fed to the city whose now unabashed bankers litter what seems like a perpetually recessive nation. Against this it would be not only inhuman but unhistorical not to be touched by the lost culture romanticised by Owen Jones:

The old industries were the beating hearts of the communities they sustained. Most local people had worked in similar jobs and had done so for generations. And of course the unions, whatever their faults and limitations, had given the workers in these communities strength, solidarity and a sense of power. All of this had sustained a feeling of belonging, of pride in a shared working-class experience.

The unionist chains Thatcher cast off were replaced with the prickly vines of neoliberalism – we musn’t forget it. I suspect that Hitchens was probably correct to point out that she will be remembered as “an episode in Britain’s decline rather than the answer to it”.  She chose to smother the unions rather than treat their corruption.

But Thatcherism replaced one conservatism with another, one whose authority was bolstered by its pleas to the individual and the family. This is not tyranny. The Iron Lady consistently won large majorities in Parliament, and it would be patronising – insulting – to pretend that her supporters were blind stooges spoken to in a language they couldn’t understand. Working class voters were no less likely to vote Conservative in ’83 and ’87 than anyone else; they saw, in her language, a chance to dismantle the chains with which old conservatism had suffocated their mobility. If we’re going to be intellectually serious and honest about the legacy of Thatcher then we have see her as a a democrat. No parliamentarian works alone for she never exists in a vacuum.

The denial of this is invitation of flippancy. Criticise the policies, certainly; but an elderly lady having a stroke is not something to celebrate. Nothing makes the humanist purpose of socialism so morally redundant. So these people disgust me:


On Only Living Once

When the believer argues with the atheist his fiercest weapon – soft though it remains – sprouts from defying innate morality. How will we know right from wrong without the non-negotiable directorship of the divine? There are some important – and brilliantly swift – answers to this.

But! Not a lot swells the arrogance of the scriptural literalist more than the impenetrable wave of hedonism that many of us seem to enjoy justifying. I am of course talking about “YOLO”.

It’s something of a necessary staple of secular humanism that we only live once. No after-life. Nothing. As Hitchens romanticised limping through stage-four esophageal cancer:

The offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can’t give way, is an offer of something not worth having. I want to live my life taking the risk all the time that I don’t know anything like enough yet; that I haven’t understood enough; that I can’t know enough; that I’m always hungrily operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

And here it is: carpe diem. Filled with the immediacy of mortality the individual is revitalised. He becomes a skydiver without a security of a parachute, dropping, falling; his death getting bigger and bigger until – splat.

Urgency should electrify the individual into progress, not trip him – in both literal and metaphorical senses. It’s not good. What YOLO legitimises for its frivolity it abandons in scope. Yeah, I know: hedonism can be useful. But without a hangover the only result is moral decay.

The hypocritical irony, of course, is that I’m slumped over a laptop with a tab open for BBC Four programme on ruins. Seizing the fucking day.


Scholarship for Gazans

I’m very proud to have been one of the students offering a small contribution to this scholarship, which aims to help fund the travels and tuition fees for a Gaza student each year:

Rawan Yaghi is a bookish 19 year old who, appropriately for a student of literature, arrives to meet me in Gaza with a text tucked under her arm.

It is a well-thumbed copy of Catch 22, Joseph Heller’s classic satirical novel on the absurdities of war; not an inappropriate choice for somebody who’s spent her entire life amid one of the Middle East’s most intractable conflicts.

But Rawan’s life is about to take a different direction. Currently a student at Gaza’s Islamic University, she has just won a scholarship to Oxford University to study linguistics and Italian.

She is looking forward to moving from the minarets of Gaza to the city of “dreaming spires”.

“I’m very excited. I can’t wait,” she smiles. “It’s going to be different but it’s going to be fun.”

Unusual scholarship
Few have made such a journey.

But what is even more unusual is that all the other students at Oxford’s Jesus College will pay some of the cost of Rawan’s studies.

As part of the recently established Jesus College Junior Members Scholarship most of the other students have each agreed to pay £3.90 ($5.90) per term towards Rawan’s fees.

The scholarship was set up by Oxford graduate Emily Dreyfus after she realised that few Gazans had ever had the chance to study at one of Britain’s most prestigious universities.

I think this is great: it’s not about taking any “side” in some binary Arab-Israeli conflict. It simply recognises the limited – especially so for women – opportunities for education in Palestinian territories, made worse in recent years by the Israeli blockade. I wonder if other colleges will follow suit and offer scholarships for similarly under-funded regions.

It’s strange – Jesus College was set up by Elizabeth I to educate clergymen from Wales. As lovely as that part of the world is, Palestine is, I think, just a little more exotic.

Jesus College


“Sextremism”: Supporting FEMEN and its Critics

It’s an obvious truth that women shouldn’t have do what men want them to do. But it’s surely also a staple of feminism that women listen to the views of men as they would fellow women – on account of their merits, and nothing more. So I don’t intend any post I write on feminism, or women in general, to read like condescending trite. Anyway.

Today (April 5th) there were protests across the world in Europe and North America organised by the Ukrainian-based feminist group FEMEN. It began in Ukraine in support of the Tunisian Amina, a woman who after posting partially nude photographs of herself on Facebook received death threats and the most visceral abuse. Women activists call their movement a “topless jihad” fighting against the oppression of Islamism; their choice of protest is nudity, and nudity clothed in politics:

Source. (Be honest – you only came here because of the photo.)

Not all Muslim women are happy about this. A counter-protest, “Muslimah Pride Day”, was organised in response as part of the “Muslim Women against Femen” in order to support all Muslim women “whether we choose to wear hijaabs or not” because it “is nobodies business but ours”. Central to the reaction was the view that nudity is not liberation; that objectification is not feminism.

The counter-protest is understandable enough. Despite rhetoric against “Islamism”, radicals appeared far from the only target by the “sextreminist” FEMEN. Some took place outside the Tunisian Embassy in Paris – good. The character of Amina represents the central struggle of the movement. But less clear is why various mosques were targeted – in Berlin and Paris for example. What does that achieve? Nothing does more to undermine the attack on the misogyny in fanatical Islam than to conflate the moderates with the fascists. If I were a Muslim woman – which I’m rather far from – I too would be unhappy with the bland and generic characterisation of us as helpless infidels.

But I think the “counter” is less of a counter than it claims. I don’t think that one or the other is right; in fact they resonate quite powerfully in unison. If we say that Islamism needs to be countered for feminism’s sake – and Nick Cohen, as usual, also posits the case brilliantly – then we do so in the view that women should be allowed to choose what they where. Nudity is hardly necessary. This is also the position of the counter-protesters who would do well to remember that many women are forced into being the sexual objects of their husbands.

We have to stop pretending Islam is a monolith – secularists would do well to ally themselves with the moderates.