Perhaps gender segregation’s a non-issue; Universities UK has withdrawn its endorsement. But it seems to me as though the most common liberal reaction to it has by its immediate feminist knee-jerk – however laudable – generally underplayed the damage it poses to men.
Take Yvonne Ridley, whose conversion to Islam is indebted to a promise that she made to her Taliban captors a decade back to read the Koran – or the “magna carta for women“, as she calls it. (One imagines why she is so keen to jump for a Medieval metaphor.)
Yesterday evening she posted the following to Twitter:
I think #LondonTransport should offer a female-only carriage on buses and Underground during an evening. Pilot 1st to see how successful
— yvonneridley (@yvonneridley) December 26, 2013
Just some typical misogyny from the conservative choir, you might say; and let them wallow in their masochism. A number of Muslim women do not seem to worry that leaving their “spiritual” authority to the guardianship of male scholars and imams might have leave them some dangerous consequences.
But do not let me stand accused of misrepresenting her position. Ridley states that her position is purely a discussion in the interests of public safety; an additional female-only service on buses or the tube late at night, she suggests, might reduce the number of sexual offences committed against women.
— yvonneridley (@yvonneridley) December 26, 2013
I followed the discussion for a bit, and by the end of the evening Ridley was showcasing her good multi-faith credentials by praising such alternative suggestions as well-lit platforms, conductors and better security. To this, she constantly stressed that even if women were to receive their own, segregated public transport it would be voluntary; how, after all, could a reasonable fellow turn down the request of elderly women to travel alone, if it gives them safety?
Does Ridley seriously believe that segregated seating is a matter for the secular authorities, and those looking to control violence against women? Maybe; I don’t know. It is why she so instinctively considered the idea as a solution that bothers me when, to my mind, no Hindu, atheist or Christian woman would be so likely to suggest it. Ridley’s statement that “all rapists are men” might just have been to say that all men are rapists: men cannot be trusted. They are prone to sexual desires egregious to the sanctified woman, who gains in spirit what she lacks in muscle, or in legal rights:
The Prophet said, “Isn’t the witness of a woman equal to half of that of a man?” The women said, “Yes.” He said, “This is because of the deficiency of a woman’s mind.”
(—Sahih al-Bukhari, 3:48:826)
Gender segregation as a woman’s oasis immediately occurs to Ridley, in other words, because she has taught herself to believe that one can build a society from its chromosomes. Instead of looking to cross-gender solutions, she jumps to misandry.
If violence is disproportionately aimed at women, then it is important to bring as many of both genders into the support of campaigns against it; to question the roles of schools, and ask why alpha-males still think they matter; to encourage people to travel where it is busy; to attack binge drinking; and to promote a sense of equality between men and women. Whatever the case, it could never be healthy for one half of a society to be constantly subject to the wicked prejudice of the other.
I recently cited Milton to show can people can reach the right answers from the wrong origins; a belief in liberty of conscience so that the soul can reveal its true intentions. Ridley could learn from how the Victorian suffragists fought for equality from the deflated utopianism of the middle-class and its “separate spheres”; as Millicent Fawcett, leader the NUWSS, wrote in 1898:
To women as mothers is given the charge of the home and the care of children. Women are therefore, by nature as well as by training and occupation, more accustomed than men to concentrate their minds on the home and the domestic side of things. But this difference between men and women, instead of being a reason against their disenfranchisement , seems to me to be the strongest possible reason in favour of it; we want to see the home and the domestic side of things to count for more in politics and in the administration of public affairs than they do at present.
(—Home and Politics)
It’s a little unsatisfying that the rough-and-ready suffragettes would be the most serious blow to the pace of feminism’s first wave; that said, it would be rather encouraging if conservative Muslims could, like Britain’s tame Christian forebears, promote the integration of women rather than opine on a world from which it has taken many women rights activists a century to escape.
They’d still be wrong, though.
What better way to celebrate this week’s Thanksgiving than with a dose of liberating puritanism:
The Sun newspaper has been banned from sale at the Union, following a student vote.
Politics student, Niall MacLaughlin submitted the idea for the Union to support the No More Page 3 campaign by refusing to sell The Sun.
MacLaughlin told LS: “it is my belief, shared by many other students here, that Page 3 is damaging and completely out of place in a newspaper.”
The first year student has since been targeted by internet trolls.
This would be a relevant moment, if somewhat arbitrary in its timing, at which to kick off a new blog series about Stupid Students. Being a student myself, with absolutely no viable ambitions in campus politics, the most I’ll ever contribute is with embittered hissing noises from under the dust of this blog; I might as well make them honest.
So to begin with Leeds. At the risk of some whataboutery, I’m genuinely puzzled by these people’s mindsets:
- Replace “internet trolls” with “counter-revolutionary saboteurs”. Feels a tad Stalinist, don’t you think?
- The niqab, much like prostitution and Page 3, justifies itself under the illusion – however real – of resulting from a woman’s “choice” when external compulsion is usually a far more powerful cause. Will the veil be banned? I suppose not.
- Will it be banning any other potential outlets of women’s objectification? Porn websites? Sexist jokes? Pink aprons? Men with overbearing and over-enchanting charisma?
- More tangibly, where is the outrage at UUK’s acquiescence to sexual apartheid?
- What will happen if the rules are broken?
- And, finally, perspective. The visceral climate of British feminism could do with re-evaluating itself from time to time.
Remember the Laurence Krauss debate at University College London last year? He refused to cooperate with the organisers once he realised that the audience in front of him was segregated by sex. Fortunately, that story concluded with the Islamic group responsible being banned from hosting any further events at UCL; the university staff seem to have come down on the right side.
But apparently it’s much more widespread than we thought:
Student Rights event monitoring programme enables an in-depth analysis of this issue, with 180 events logged in the period March 2012 to March 2013 investigated for evidence of segregation;
46 of these events (25.5%) at 21 separate institutions were found to have either explicitly promoted segregation by gender, or implied that this would be the case, with six of these cancelled before taking place;
So what is this bullshit?
Universities UK (UUK) has issued guidance on external speakers saying that the segregation of the sexes at universities is not discriminatory as long as “both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way.”
UUK add that universities should bear in mind that “concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system” and that if “imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely-held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.”
We, the undersigned, condemn the endorsement of gender apartheid by Universities UK. Any form of segregation, whether by race, sex or otherwise is discriminatory. Separate is never equal and segregation is never applied to those who are considered equal. By justifying segregation, Universities UK sides with Islamist values at the expense of the many Muslims and others who oppose sex apartheid and demand equality between women and men.
The guidance must be immediately rescinded and sex segregation at universities must come to an end.
Separate but equal? I mean, wasn’t Rosa Parks just as comfortable at the back of the bus?
Universities UK can’t even be spat out for being a group of poseur anti-establishment lefty sorts allying themselves with the Islamist far right. No, this is a sordid collection of university officials, most of whom old and unelected with a constant urge to remind us continually of both of those facts. It has no actual authority; but its “guidance” makes for a useful template for perturbed managerial staff (the current President is the Vice-Chancellor at Bristol) concerned about their “multicultural” reputation. Never mind the fact that most Muslims wouldn’t approve of this.
Sign the petition!
When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only: what are the facts, and what does the truth of the facts bear out?
Bertrand Russell’s advice to the future.
While the Iranian regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini was murdering those in whose name he had stolen the revolution, there were some Westerners who could think only of praise. The labour councils that had rallied against the Shah had been newly subsumed into the state machinery under the principle of velayat-e faqih – the “guardianship of the jurisprudent” – which in this case meant a capitalist system minded by religious medievalists; under a banner of “separate but equal” had been erected sexual apartheid; homosexuals were simply executed. Corpses hung from cranes.
To my knowledge, Michel Foucault never retracted a single word of the article with which he had heralded in the looming regime’s “political spirituality” in 1978, perhaps the most mundane covenant ever to have graced the halls of revolutionary history:
When Iranians speak of Islamic government; when, under the threat of bullets, they transform it into a slogan of the streets; when they reject in its name, perhaps at the risk of a bloodbath, deals arranged by parties and politicians, they have other things on their minds than these formulas from everywhere and nowhere. They also have other things in their hearts. I believe that they are thinking about a reality that is very near to them, since they themselves are its active agents.
It is first and foremost about a movement that aims to give a permanent role in political life to the traditional structures of Islamic society. An Islamic government is what will allow the continuing activity of the thousands of political centers that have been spawned in mosques and religious communities in order to resist the shah’s regime. I was given an example. Ten years ago, an earthquake hit Ferdows. The entire city had to be reconstructed, but since the plan that had been selected was not to the satisfaction of most of the peasants and the small artisans, they seceded. Under the guidance of a religious leader, they went on to found their city a little further away. They had collected funds in the entire region. They had collectively chosen places to settle, arranged a water supply, and organized cooperatives. They had called their city Islamiyeh. The earthquake had been an opportunity to use religious structures not only as centers of resistance, but also as sources for political creation. This is what one dreams about [songe] when one speaks of Islamic government.
In response, Claudie and Jacques Broyelle
called upon Foucault to admit that his thinking on Iran had been “in error.” Foucault’s response, published two days later, was in fact a non-response. He would not respond, he wrote, “because throughout ‘my life’ I have never taken part in polemics. I have no intention of beginning now.” He wrote further, “I am ‘summoned to acknowledge my errors’.” He hinted that it was the Broyelles who were engaging in thought control by the manner in which they had called him to account.
For some academics, it may indeed be a valorous pursuit to avoid the emotive charges of their opponents. Polemics can misrepresent hard-won and valuable intellectual approaches as sloppy scholarship, for some simply not worth the ephemeral visit into the public sphere. But this is not at all the case for Foucault; his post-structuralism, and its fantastical pretensions, lay behind both his political conclusions and the aloof posterity with which he met his rivals. A perfect method to explore this is through the state of intellectual decadence into which he sent the otherwise entirely innocuous discipline of “gender history”.
Gender history appeared to be a terribly useful innovation for feminism; its horizons were broadened and its subject was nuanced, favourable to the realisation that it was nonsensical and ahistorical to consider the oppression of women without their relationship to men, and to the societies in which they lived and died. Yet its prospects faced an early trauma: Joan Scott, enamoured by the size of Foucault’s vocabulary, delighted in the chaotic wordplay she inaugurated into the discipline in 1986. For post-structuralists, cultural discourse takes priority in our understanding of gender, modelled on Foucault’s concept of “power” as dispersed and thereby subjective in every instance; and since every interpretation is inevitably different, the experiences of individual women are inherently unknowable. The central point, therefore, is that in order to emancipate women, society’s common language of oppression must be identified and transformed. There was even a hint at solidarity implicit in the curious suggestion that democratic and authoritarian regimes share “flawed master narratives”.
But Scott’s feminist objective to “emancipate” women had absolutely nothing grounded in the real world. Her reaction to “essentialised” women’s consciousness took the other extreme. Foucault’s denial of objective truth abandoned empiricism with a flick of the hand; and if no historical writing can support itself in material evidence, then everything may have an equally legitimate claim to pseudo-truth if the odd decontextualized line from a diary or speech can be thrown to its defence. This is why Foucault considered the murderous and misogynistic Iranian Counter-Revolution so laudable; the dilute methodology of post-structuralism is far more likely to degrade women than it is to uncover the roots of their oppression. Certainly, there is no way of knowing when they do.
This utter frivolity – being the randomness of thought that grips the intellect once material reality is said to be illusory to it – saturated many “histories” that proclaimed grand narratives of sexuality and the body. No text can fully subsume an experience. It ignores, after all, the individual’s social geographical variances and, of especial note here, their personal reactions to sexual biology, while condemning the illiterate to historical silence. Illustrations to comprehend the transformation of “the body” ameliorate only the last of these deficiencies. Fletcher’s Gender, Sex & Subordation in England, 1500-1800 (1990), unlike Olwen Hufton’s The Prospect Before Her (1996) of the same period, entirely dismisses any consideration of the empirical analysis of ordinary lives made of such fruitful use by Hufton in order to make sense of the accompanying religious discourse. Indeed, a source frequently cited by Fletcher is Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex, a tale of the gendered perception of sex which ends with a rather telling paradox: “But basically the content of talk about sexual difference is unfettered by fact, and is as free as mind’s play.”
In complete tune with this, Scott asserts that the welfare state reinforces “paternalistic” masculinity – in spite of such “facts” that both men and women have equal access and that women can be elected to exercise responsibility over it. For comparison’s sake, the second volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, in which he analysed Greek practice, was an ambitious venture given the author did not speak even the ancient language on which he played so much stress in cultural formation; indeed, in the process of writing he elected to remedy his ignorance of Roman and Greek culture by travelling to California. Post-structural gender theory is the flipside of crude Marxism. “Symbols” alone, although indeed experienced in the eye of the subject can only, when studied independent of circumstance, reflect the eye of the historian. Such authorial pretensions to feminist politics were, in other words, the culmination of many years of wasted scholarship.
Michel Foucault and his post-structuralist chums were more than fantastical zombies, a little too allured by the intellectual decadence of Western academia. More, even, than futile were their approaches: they were and remain today actively regressive in the study both of truth and the material realities upon which it depends. Neither women, nor homosexuals, nor the labouring people of Iran will be free for so long as their chains are denied and their words are suffocated by those pretending to care for them. This is the approach, in other words, that allies the far left to the extreme, murderous right.
In case the origins of Wadjda were found to be inspiring a little too much liberal wish-wash about the present situation in Saudi Arabia, here’s a brief reminder of how its authorities deal with actual dissent:
A Saudi court sentenced on Monday a rights activist to seven years in jail and 600 lashes for setting up a “liberal” network and alleged insults to Islam, activists said.
“Raef Badawi has been sentenced to seven years in jail and 600 lashes,” lawyer Waleed Abualkhair wrote on his Twitter account, adding that the judge ordered the closure of the website of the Saudi Liberal Network.
He said Badawi, a co-founder of the Saudi Liberal Network, was charged with criticizing the religious police, as well as calling for “religious liberalization.”
Change in Saudi Arabia is going to require more courageous activists – and international support for them – like Badawi if they are to succeed in remolding their society, as Al-Mansour implied in the post linked above. Although the process at the grassroots will take longer, an object of protest can very easily be found in the clerics and officials surrounding the monarchy.
Take Salwa al Mutairi, an ex-politician whose abhorrent obsequiousness to the Medieval traditions is fortunately anomalous in Kuwait; her call for men to be free to “purchase” female sex slaves – if necessary, from refugee camps – was, she says, verified by a number of Saudi clerics:
Mutairi said that during a recent visit to Mecca, she asked Saudi muftis – Muslim religious scholars – what the Islamic ruling was on owning sex slaves. They are said to have told her that it is not haram.
The ruling was confirmed by ‘specialized people of the faith’ in Kuwait, she claimed.
‘They said, that’s right, the only solution for a decent man who has the means, who is overpowered by desire and who does not want to commit fornication, is to acquire jawari.’ Jawari is the plural of the Arabic term jariya, meaning ‘concubine’ or ‘sex slave’.
One Saudi mufti supposedly told Mutairi: ‘The context must be that of a Muslim nation conquering a non-Muslim nation, so these jawari have to be prisoners of war.’
Concubines, she argued, would suit Muslim men who fear being ‘seduced or tempted into immoral behaviour by the beauty of their female servants’.
The most hideous evils are, to better eyes, as ludicrous as they are sterile.
Someone should invite King Abdullah in on the joke.
If you’re looking for insight into Saudi culture – optimism included – you might enjoy this interview with Haifaa Al-Mansour, the writer and director of Wadjda:
I am really looking forward to watching this film – about a Saudi girl’s determination to buy the bike of which her relatives deprive her. A few things stand out for me:
Al-Mansour states, explicitly, that her objectives were never intended to be political, or even polemical. Although she is conscious of the inevitable stirring she will cause in her home country – once it finally reaches the TV sets, cinemas being illegal – her central image is the innocence of childhood, not its corruption; by its nature it contends with something universal to the memories of all other Saudi women. Why is this significant?
It’s together with Al-Mansour’s rather warm appreciation of the ironic that I think justification for optimism might be found:
The post-9/11 Saudi government – suddenly conscious, as if surprised, that Wahhabi Islam might encourage jihadism – has introduced some token reforms to its systems to appease the White House, which though churned turgid by clerical conservatism might anticipate “giant steps” yet to come. Now, one wouldn’t expect subtle developments in how Saudi women view themselves to be recorded – not if, as she implies herself, women feel as invisible as they are.
But here we have a writer – of a comparatively “liberal” background, admittedly – who sees no real importance to a film exploring instances in which humour stands independent from the primitive, totalitarian background that produces it. Does this point to something wider, something shifting? Al-Mansour’s first film depicted a criminal who wore a burka to escape the law, for example, very much in contrast to the likes of Persepolis in which a girl comes of age under the regressing forces of the Islamic Revolution. Tragedy and satirical detachment arise from pessimism, decline; but comic irony is the signal fire of reformism and the nuance of cultural consciousness.
I recently stumbled across this incredible series of portraits capturing the rare sight of women fighters in the Syrian civil war:
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.