Interview with Marieme Helie Lucas
In 1984, she founded the international solidarity network Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) and served as its international coordinator for 18 years. WLUML linked women fighting for their rights in Muslim contexts, throughout Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. WLUML focused on research and grassroots solidarity work aimed at reinforcing local struggles. In 2004, she founded the international Secularism Is A Women’s Issue (SIAWI) network, and serves at its international coordinator. She is currently based in India.
Earlier this year she spoke to the AWL’s paper, Solidarity, about the struggles of women, workers, and other democratic and progressive forces against the Muslim far-right in Algeria and elsewhere.
Solidarity: For many years, large parts of the global left have regarded political Islam as essentially progressive against the dominant (US) imperialism; what do you think about this analysis? What are its roots?
We can incriminate several factors. The left’s traditional focus on the state impeded its ability to decode in time the warning signs of supposedly religious non-state forces rising as powerful extreme-right political actors. Human rights organisations – sorry, comrades, for this unholy comparison but I must make it – also have trouble delinking from an exclusive focus on the state and considering these new players for what they really are. I situate this difficulty at the same level as that of re-identifying and re-defining classes today. One badly feels the need for innovative, intellectually fearless, communist thinkers and theorists to account for the many changes in the world in the last century.
Allow me a digression about the state. The question of “less state” or “more state” is at the heart of the dealings with the Muslim far-right in Europe. Interestingly, in France, the once-grassroots organisation Ni Putes Ni Soumises (NPNS, Neither Whores Nor Submissives), led by women from Muslim migrant descent, was the first one to call on the state to fulfill its obligations vis a vis citizens. The suburbs of big cities had slowly been abandoned by French authorities (police patrols, which were stoned as soon as they set foot in it, did not dare enter these locations, but neither did the fire brigade, or emergency doctors, not to mention garbage collectors or postmen). As a result, these areas were governed by Muslim fundamentalist groups and organisations who did the social work the state was not doing any more; in the process, among other things, they imposed dress codes and behaviours on the girls. NPNS was set up in response to one of these odious crimes, in which a girl aged 17, whose behaviour was not considered “proper” enough, was burnt alive in the garbage dump of the building where she lived.
In Algeria, we witnessed a similar approach, with Muslim fundamentalist groups taking over and politicising social work: they slowly replaced the state when it abandoned areas to their fate – and, in the process, were imposing their rules, laws, and “justice”, terrorising the population, which subsequently also wished for the state to be back in their areas.
Not that the state was ever seen as any good – people loathe our successive governments – but fundamentalists’ rule was much worse. After the slaughtering of the population by non-state, far-right armed groups in the 1990s, this reaction increased: people despise President Bouteflika [Algerian president since 1999] (who, in order to stay in power, made all sorts of compromises with the religious far-right and traded with corrupt politicians), but they vote for him in order, they hope, to keep direct far-right theocratic rule at bay.
The terms “political Islam” or “Islamists” are misleading: both suggest religious movements, while they should in fact be characterised in political terms. The left (and far-left) in Europe did not take the trouble of going through a thorough analysis of the political nature of Muslim fundamentalist movements; it mostly saw them as popular movements (which indeed they are, and populist too, but that did not ring any bells, it seems) opposing… you name it: colonisation, capitalism, imperialism, undemocratic governments, etc. The European left only looked at what it thought (often mistakenly, for example when it presumes the Muslim right is anti-capitalist) fundamentalist movements stood against, never at what they wanted to promote. Yes, they stood against our undemocratic governments, but from a far-right perspective. In Algeria, since the nineties, we have been calling them “green-fascists” (green being here the colour of Islam) or “Islamo-fascists”.
Many historians in Europe dismiss us when we use the term “fascism”. However, their ideologies (if not their historical and economic circumstances) are scarily comparable: it is not the superior Aryan race, but the superior Islamic creed that is the pillar on which they base their superiority, a superiority they infer from a mythical past (the glorious past of Ancient Rome, the Golden Age of Islam, etc.), a superiority which grants them the right and duty to physically eliminate the untermensch (on the one hand: Jews, communists, Gypsies, gays, physically and/or mentally disabled, on the other: kafir, communists, Jews, gays, etc.). Nazis, fascists, and the Muslim far-right all want women in their place, “church/mosque, kitchen, and cradle”, and all of them are pro-capitalists: the Muslim right calls on the rich to performing the Islamic duty of zakkat (charity), which leaves untouched the power structure, and the “poor” in their place too, which is god’s will.
Overlooking the political nature of the armed Muslim far-right had terrible consequences for us, anti-fundamentalists from Muslim countries. What Cheikh Anta Diop, the famous Senegalese historian, used to call, in another context, “leftist laziness”, needs to be blamed and exposed.
If we agree that Muslim fundamentalism is a far-right movement, the question then becomes: can the left support far-right, fascist-type movements in the name of anti-imperialism? And an additional question is: is there still, in this day and age, only one imperialism (i.e., US imperialism)? Or are there emerging imperialisms, for example in oil-rich countries, which should now be taken into account? Is the promotion of the religious far-right, in various forms, one of the elements in the global strategy of these emerging powers?
A simplistic approach, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, supplemented the old dichotomy between the “main” enemy and the “secondary” enemy that so very few thinkers on the left and far-left have questioned in relation to Muslim fundamentalist movements. As women, we experienced the “main enemy” theory being been used against movements for women’s rights: it was never the right time to demand these rights; they should be postponed until after decolonisation; until after the liberation struggle; until after the reconstruction of the country; until we gain some political stability…
Let me pay tribute here to Daniel Bensaïd, one of the lone voices on the left with a better perspective on this issue. In La Republique Imaginaire (2005), he writes (my own translation from French): “The control of capital over bodies, its strong will to reveal their market value, does not at all reduce their control by religious law and the theological will to make them disappear…The poor dialectic of main and secondary contradictions, forever revolving, already played too many bad tricks. And the ‘secondary enemy’, too often underestimated, because the fight against the main enemy was claimed to be a priority, has sometimes been deadly”.
Bensaïd goes on to quote Erich Fried’s poem: “Totally caught into my struggle against the main enemy / I was shot by my secondary enemy / Not from the back, treacherously, as his main enemies claim / But directly, from the position it has long been occupying / And in keeping with his declared intentions that I did not bother about, thinking they were insignificant”.
So-called “political Islam” is treated by the left in a way which is very different from its treatment of any other popular far-right movement working under the guise of religion. In fact, I should say that “Islam” is treated differently from any other religion. Jewish fundamentalism or Christian fundamentalism, even in oppressed groups, would not be met with such patronising benignity; they would be analysed, in terms of class for instance, and of ideology, of political program. Nothing of the sort is even attempted for supposedly Muslim groups: no research is done on those who plant bombs and organise attacks in Europe or North America, for instance – it is assumed that they are lumpen, while the evidence is that they are from lower-middle-class and educated backgrounds, mostly middle-range engineers or technicians. “Leftist laziness” again…
Imagine for one second what would be the reaction of the left if even working-class or lower-middle-class Jews in France had been attacking Muslim schools and killing pupils, or the customers of “Arab” groceries; how come that when it is “Muslims” doing it to “Jews”, the left starts looking for good reasons they may have had for doing so? I cannot help feeling there is hidden racism at work here, against “Muslims” who are seen as such inferior people that barbaric behaviour is naturally to be expected from them.
To a situation of oppression there is no “automatic” response: there are several possible responses: one from the far-right, but – also ! – one from the left, a revolutionary one. Accepting – even implicitly – the idea that joining fascist groups is the only possible response to a situation of oppression, or to racism, exclusion, and economic hardship, etc., seems like an incredible twist of fate coming from the left!
Here’s a sober rebuttal of the nonsensical and totally irresponsible remarks George Galloway made about forced marriage.
It’s from the Muslim Women Network.
Muslim Women’s Network UK (MWNUK) is a charitable organisation with the aims of promoting equality, diversity, social inclusion and racial/religious harmony, and does not support, nor is affiliated to any political party. However in order to defend and strengthen women’s rights and in particular to promote the empowerment of Muslim women and girls, we regularly engage with, and if required challenge, politicians, political candidates, public servants and any other body or organisation where considered necessary.
It is for this reason that MWNUK deems it necessary to challenge certain insinuations made about forced marriage and domestic violence victims by George Galloway, currently the Respect Party’s PPC for Bradford West, when he commented on Labour candidate Naz Shah’s forced marriage and domestic violence experience. Given his influence, we consider Mr. Galloway’s insinuations to be irresponsible and which will have a wider, counter productive impact on victims of forced marriage and domestic violence or those at risk.
When Ms. Shah shared her story publicly, she explained that she was married at the age of 15 and suffered from domestic violence. Many women tend to remain in abusive relationships and suffer in silence. Cultural concepts of honour and shame often prevent women from articulating their experiences openly even when they have escaped their situations. We therefore commend Ms. Shah’s courage in sharing her very personal experiences. It is important that when survivors share their stories, which is often very difficult, that they are heard. Only with open discussion will more victims or those at risk come forward and ask for help.
Although we cannot comment on the details of Ms. Shah’s personal experiences, we are very concerned about the misleading information regarding forced marriage and domestic violence being alluded to in the statements made by Mr. Galloway and his officials. MWNUK challenges the assertions that have been made as follows:
¥ It has been alleged that Ms. Shah could not have been married as a minor at the age of 15 because her official marriage certificate registered with the authorities in Pakistan states her age as 16 and a half.
It is not uncommon for victims of child marriage to have an unregistered Islamic (nikah) ceremony while they are under age and to later register the marriage officially once the child is over 16 especially if documents are needed to make an application for a spousal visa. It is important to recognise this can happen to children. In fact we have come across victim stories where this has indeed happened.
¥ It has been alleged that Ms. Shah’s marriage could not have been forced because her mother was present at the marriage.
Parents are often the instigators of forced marriage, coercing their children to marry against their will and therefore present at the marriage ceremony. In fact parents themselves can be pressured by members of the extended family to accept marriage proposals for their children and feel they cannot back out due to dishonor.
¥ Ms Shah has been questioned as to why she did not (as a British citizen) simply get on a plane and come back to the UK if she had been forced into marriage.
Girls are more aware of their rights now due to forced marriage campaigns, yet the crime continues to be under reported. Twenty-five years ago victims faced even greater barriers to disclosing. The Forced Marriage Unit did not exist then and there were far fewer women’s rights organisations. To imply that it is easy to escape a forced marriage suggests that victims are at fault for not leaving abusive situations.
¥ Ms. Shah has been questioned about why she had not gone to the police, social services or an imam if her husband had subjected her to violence.
This indirectly suggests that women who do not report their abuse cannot be suffering from domestic violence. Such assertions are very dangerous. Women from all communities find it difficult to come forward and report abuse and the reasons can vary such as: fear of consequences; women blaming themselves; women not realizing they are victims; lack of awareness of the help available; being isolated from family and friends and not being able to reach help; being worried about finances; and hoping the partner may change. Asian women face additional cultural barriers that prevent them from seeking help such as, fear of dishonouring family, shame, stigma, taboo and being rejected by the community. Also women in these communities are expected to suffer in silence. They are also usually blamed for any problem within the family including the violence and abuse to which they are subjected. This fear of blame can also prevent women from coming forward and getting the help they need. Not surprisingly domestic violence is therefore under reported in Asian / Muslim communities.
¥ Ms. Shah was questioned about her domestic violence and child marriage because her first husband has denied the abuse. [WELL HE WOULD, WOULDN’T HE?]
Denial by the alleged perpetrator should never be used as evidence to determine whether abuse has occurred or not.
Socialist Resistance takes down article on feminism and transgender issues: where is this madness going to stop?
Dave Osland wrote:
The website of Socialist Resistance – a organisation of which I was once a member – is currently running two articles on the transphobia debate [JD adds: Dave wrote this before SR took down the article by ‘Author A’]
Author A, a radical feminist, sets out her position. Author B, a trans woman, subjects it to critique.
The first writer does not stoop to Julie Burchill-style cheap shot invective aimed at ‘chicks with dicks’ but simply sets out her stall in entirely reasonable terms.
This is what most people would consider a rational exchange of opinion, a process whereby both camps can potentially gain, if only by better understanding their opponent’s case.
But for its pains, SR is now subject to an online petition, in which dozens of activists – including some big names in the bubble politics of the far left – have signed up in protest against ‘the hosting of transphobes’.
In its small way, this affair encapsulates much of the mindset that relegates revolutionary socialism to the margins of the margins.
It is as if to say: “We have the correct line, comrades; no other line can even be permitted the ephemeral existence of a posting on a small readership website.”
This is an attempt at petty cyber-Stalinist bullying on the part of people who believe that they are in the business of politics to work towards a fundamentally more democratic society.
If they cannot handle debate now, at this level, than how would they handle it in the event that they actually exercised some degree of real influence in society?
By all means take on Bugs Brennan and her ilk. But freedom of speech is as vital on the radical left as it is within society as a whole.
As far as I know, this is something of first. But now the precedent has been set, I wonder where this madness is going to stop.
Here is the ‘offending’ article, with an introduction, written by the author (Victoria Smith, aka ‘Author A’) since the piece was taken down; it comes from Victoria’s blog glosswatch – a feminist blog. We reproduce it here at Shiraz not because we necessarily agree with it, but because we think it is a serious contribution to a serious debate, and should not have been suppressed:
I originally wrote this piece for Socialist Resistance – in response to an idea that came from them, not me – but asked to have it withdrawn in light of this editorial announcement. I think it’s important for women’s work to be represented fairly and I don’t consent to my work being presented in contexts which don’t reflect the actual commission. The insistence that women’s voices in particular – particularly when women are describing their lives and needs – require “trigger warnings” is patriarchal to the core. When people are offended by women speaking or writing, it’s rarely women who are the problem.
In this particular instance I think Socialist Resistance need to be honest about their editorial policies and their political principles. There is a word for people for whom discussions of female bodies, female labour and male violence cause “offence and distress.” That word is not “trans”, “queer”, “marginalised” or “oppressed,” but “misogynist” (it’s been around for quite some time). If that is a publication’s desired readership, fine, but it is frankly bizarre for it to then use the term “socialist” when any analysis of the means of production expressly excludes the exploitation of female bodies and the experiences of female people as a labour class.
Moreover, if an editor believes it is contentious to claim that the exploitation of women is something which benefits a more powerful group (as opposed to something based on a random, free-floating “phobia”); if he or she thinks it is triggering to suggest male violence should be named; if he or she is unconcerned about the age-old exclusion of female bodies from understandings of what human bodies are, then that editor should say so. It’s not okay to make glib statements about not “supporting the exclusion of transwomen from women’s spaces” when that is not what is being debated. If you’re going to slap a trigger warning on someone’s writing and make dog-whistle references to phobias, you need to give precise reasons why. And if your “socialism” is actually “redistribution amongst male people while female people carry on cleaning up everyone’s shit,” you need to be clear about this. Because selling your publication on the back of moral principles you don’t have simply isn’t fair.
I am wondering if an alternative title for this piece should be “why are some feminists so mean?” After all, this is the assumption made by many upon hearing that when it comes to trans inclusion, many feminists still want to talk about difference. “But trans women are women!” we are told, as though this will make everything alright. But it doesn’t. The impression is that we are cruel. Surely what is at stake matters a great deal to trans women but very little to us? Why can’t we just loosen up and let everyone join the “being oppressed as a woman” party on the same terms? Shouldn’t the excluding be left to the men?
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that, at least not if feminism is to mean anything as a political theory which analyses how and why women are oppressed, with a view to dismantling the structures which dehumanise, objectify and exploit. This is no more an abstract discussion for feminists than it is for trans people. It is not a matter of discomfort with particular words. It’s about real, flesh-and-blood suffering. If we cannot talk about how patriarchy arises, how it functions and who benefits from it, then we cannot help ourselves, let alone each other. We might as well go home.
In a 2014 piece for the Guardian, the trans journalist Fred McConnell describes gender as “one’s innate sense of self.” This is not a definition that many feminists would use. To us, gender is a hierarchical system aimed at enforcing women’s subservience. It is neither natural nor innate. As the philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards writes, “much of what is believed about women stems from what is wanted of women.” If you decide that woman = innately predisposed to meet the needs of men (and dress it up in fancy wording which suggests womanhood is actually to do with being pretty, nurturing, communicative etc.), you have a ready-made justification for abuses which have endured for millennia and are going on to this day. That is what gender means to us.
I am conscious the feminist definition of gender sounds a little depressing compared to the trans one. Maybe so, but it is a description of what is. Forced marriage, unpaid wifework, reproductive coercion, sexual slavery, educational exclusion … all of these things continue to be justified by the insistence that women are “naturally” subservient, caring, decorative etc. Moreover, the women to whom these things happen do not have the opportunity to identify out of their oppression because this oppression remains material in basis. Saying “I’m not a woman – my innate sense of self tells me I’m not THAT!” does not work (I write this as a pregnant woman and believe me, no amount of insisting “I’m a pregnant PERSON!” grants me an exemption from laws which were written on the assumption that women, as a reproductive class, should not have full bodily autonomy at all times in the same way that men do).
So what is the solution? Feminists propose that we abolish gender and accept that both male and female people are human, free to express themselves however they choose regardless of their sex. Trans activists propose that we abolish sex difference (as if one could) and accept that whether one is male or female depends upon how one identifies, using gender as a guide. Quite how the latter option deals with the material exploitation of sexed bodies under patriarchy – beyond making it unmentionable – isn’t very clear. Nor does it tell us how we might confront male violence (over 90% of all violent crime is committed by male people, regardless of how they identify). Are we therefore to assume that a predisposition to violence is merely a part of someone’s innate sense of self? And is it now up to perpetrators to say whether their violence really counts as “male violence,” dependent on how “male” they feel? Indeed, under the rules of trans politics, can we identify any forms of material oppression and dominance at all?
When feminists point out that trans women are not biologically female, we are not, as some would have it, behaving like “knuckle-dragging bigots.” We’re saying our bodies exist and matter, too. This isn’t a minor point. The idea that male bodies are the default bodies is patriarchy 101. Eve is constructed from Adam’s rib; Freud clocks our lack of penis and comments drily that “a hole is a hole”; modern medical research is still biased towards using male bodies. Denying sex difference by making male bodies the only “real” bodies is not some modern stroke of genius; it is conservative to the core. Moreover, it is directly contrary to the feminist objective of ensuring that biology is not destiny.
Many people find this hard to understand, thinking that to associate being female with having a female reproductive system is akin to “reducing women to their genitalia.” It’s a non-argument that’s rather akin to saying anti-capitalists “reduce people to their earnings” or anti-racism campaigners are “obsessed with skin colour.” If we don’t talk about biology – and hence never demand the structural changes which ensure the world is built to suit the needs of all bodies – then for female people, biology always will be destiny. For instance, it’s highly unlikely that company bosses ever sat down and decided to actively discriminate against people who look like they might have the potential to get pregnant; they just built the rules on the assumption that the default employee is someone who definitely can’t. This then leads to enormous inequalities, forcing women into lower-paid, part-time work or excluding them from employment altogether (while allowing male people to continue to benefit from the disproportionate share of unpaid caring work undertaken by female people; unfortunately males who see “woman” as an identity rarely seem to identify with the floor scrubbing and arse-wiping aspect of the whole experience).
In all this it’s worth asking who really gains the most from trans politics in its current anti-feminist guise. Female people don’t and if we’re honest, neither do most gender non-conforming males. Whereas feminism seeks to dismantle male dominance, trans politics reinforces traditional masculinity by insisting that any quality that is considered insufficiently manly is shoved into the “woman/not man/other” box. Not only does this offer no challenge whatsoever to the global epidemic of male violence, but it ensures that women can continue to be blamed for it (If women were only more accommodating, men wouldn’t have to beat anyone up, as said by every single misogynist since the beginning of time). Moreover, this is entirely in keeping with a feminist analysis of gender as a hierarchy. When self-styled cis men order feminists to accept that “trans women are women,” what they’re really saying is “accept that my dominance is natural” (any admission that male people might freely identify with so-called feminine qualities without having to declare themselves female would be far too unsettling; it might show that patriarchy is a house built on sand after all).
A recent poster campaign asking feminists to be “more inclusive” showed a trans person trying to decide which toilets to use. On the door of the ladies’ were the words “get yelled at”; on the men’s, “get beaten up.” That’s patriarchy for you; men learn violence, the most women can do is seek to raise our voices. The trans solution? Demand entry into the “get yelled at” space, even if this also means granting entry to potential beaters as well as yellers. Accept male violence, but not female dissent, as a fact of life. The feminist solution? The opposite: no to male violence, yes to raising our voices. Confront the system that enables the beaters. Do so even if it means you get yelled at and called a TERF and told to die on a daily basis. Do it because you know male violence is wrong, that no one deserves to be beaten and that all people should be free to express themselves how they wish, regardless of sex.
I know which option I’d choose. Other people can make their own choices, but let’s be honest: this is not about identity and inclusion. It’s about power. Think about who and what you’re propping up.
A wonderful, short (less than ten minutes) documentary about women in jazz, starting with the fabulous ‘International Sweethearts Of Rhythm’, who in 1940’s America, were not only an all-female big band, but also racially integrated. The interviews with (then) surviving members (the film’s about 20 years old) are tremendously uplifting and moving. The late Marian McPartland also features:
While much of the media is entranced by Nigel Farage (The Times even naming him “Briton of the Year”), it seems that young people in the UK have seen through his unpleasant charlatan and his ultra-reactionary party.
According to a poll by ‘Opinium’, commissioned by The Observer, Farage is the least popular political leader among those who will be able to vote for the first time in the forthcoming general election.
Young people aged between 17 and 23 are overwhelmingly pro-European, socially liberal (eg in favour of gay marriage and retaining the Human Rights Act), and much more likely to call themselves “feminist” (40% of both genders) than older voters (25%). Nearly half (48%) regard immigration as a good thing. Only 3% would vote for Ukip, with the Lib Dems on 6%, the Greens on 19%, the Tories on 26% and Labour in a clear lead at 41%.
Sadly, 65% would retain the monarchy, but us old lefties can’t have everything our own way, can we? Hopefully, the youngsters will learn on that one.
And, it must be noted, things look much less encouraging in Scotland, where Labour’s election of the craven Blairite Jim Murphy has proved to be the gift to the SNP that many of us warned it would be: as things stand (according to a Guardian/ICM online poll) Sturgeon’s nationalist fake-leftists stand to take 45 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster constituencies reducing Scottish Labour to a parliamentary rump of just 10 MPs (presently it’s 41). With Murphy at the helm, it’s difficult to work up much enthusiasm for a Labour vote in Scotland, and we’re reduced to making the (true, but uninspiring) point that every seat won by the SNP will make it less likely that Labour will win a majority, and more likely that the Tories will be able to hang on in there.
Depressing eh? So let’s comfort ourselves, for now, with the knowledge that, on most issues at least, the nation’s youth are pro-European, socially liberal, have no time for Farage and are likely to vote Labour in May.
So there are some grounds for hope for 2015, and beyond, comrades!
This article is republished from the website of the American International Socialist Organisation, a group once associated with the British SWP, but who broke their links with them some years ago. I think it’s an important contribution to the debate around identity politics, ‘intersectionality’ postmodernism and the relationship between class and oppression. It’s a longish piece, but quite accessible and well worth taking the trouble to read – JD:
Sharon Smith is author of the forthcoming Women and Socialism: Marxism, Feminism and Women’s Liberation  and Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States . At the Socialism 2014 conference last June, she spoke at a session that took up the discussion about the politics of privilege theory and the practice of privilege-checking.
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I THINK it’s important to make clear at the outset of this presentation that recognizing and appreciating the degree of gross inequality in capitalist society–which is a necessary feature not only of exploitation, but also of oppression–is much more important than the term you use to describe it. That is, whether you call it “privilege,” or “benefits” or “advantages” is not the main issue.
The only way we can hope to build a movement that fights oppression in all its forms, and also includes all oppressed people within it, is not by minimizing the degree of oppression that exists, but by recognizing its many manifestations–no matter which oppressed group you are discussing.
It is also the case that a solid proportion of people, especially young people, who have become radicalized in recent years have done so precisely because of their recognition of and opposition to oppression–be it racism, sexism, LGBTQ oppression, disability oppression or any number of other forms of oppression that exist today.
This makes sense. On the one hand, the dramatic growth in class inequality since 2008 has led to a sharp rise in class-consciousness–most recently demonstrated by the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011. But this class-consciousness is mostly limited to anger at class and social inequality–without an obvious connection to a working-class strategy to transform society.
This is completely understandable, since anyone in the U.S. who became politically aware after the mid-1970s will have had little to no opportunity to experience firsthand the solidarity that is palpable among workers who are fighting shoulder to shoulder in an open-ended mass strike. So while the misery caused by the system is obvious to all those who are radicalizing today, the potential power of the working class is not.
Recent generations of young radicals have often gotten their first introduction to the issue of combatting oppression through reading the very influential Peggy McIntosh essay of 1989, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”
The best thing about this essay is that it forces its white readers to appreciate the many manifestations of racism in everyday life. But the essay itself primarily focuses on individual awareness, rather than putting forward a particular strategy for ending racism. I also find that it tends to conflate the meaning of “white” people with white middle-class people, without actually integrating a class analysis.
For its intended purposes, though, this essay raises awareness and does some good–mainly arguing that white people looking at themselves in the mirror should realize the many ways that people of color are victimized in ways that white people do not experience. And McIntosh certainly doesn’t call for privilege-checking as a strategy for social change. This strategy arrived to the radical left much later on. Read the rest of this entry »
I am a woman. I am a Kurd. And since I entered this world, this is the second time that my family and my people are experiencing a genocide and massacre. And this is the story of our life.
This is the second time in 23 years, because of the threat of a genocide, there has been a mass exodus of my people to the borders of a hostile state, only to be shot at and beaten as they sought refuge from a greater evil.
This is the second time, in 23 years, that our girls have been carried away, erased from history; left only in the memory of those who loved them, forever left wallowing in the pits of the darkness that the evil in the hearts of some men forced on them. Their lives, their hopes, the love that they carried in their young hearts blowing away in the wind like the barely written pages in the rarest books; and surely each and every one of them was as rare and as precious as the next.
There is a certain beauty in the fleeting nature of life. The meaning of life is in the nature of our experiences and what these experiences teach us. Some of us go through life never knowing any better, never questioning life or our value or place in the scheme of things. We know with certainty that the wheel of time spins a life of joy and immense privilege. We know that only good things come to us tomorrow, and we lay ourselves to sleep each night knowing the certainty of a blessed life.
And then there are others who carry a load so heavy that the weight of their pain is enough to break a lessor person a million times over. And I think of the elderly Yazidi woman who had no one left but a son that she raised with the tears of her loneliness; only for him to be lost careless in the dozens of massacres by ISIL. As if his life was not worth every ache in the bones of this mother, whose hopeless weeping should have shamed a thousand men- if we lived in a better world. I think of the force of her despair as her tears burst from her broken heart, and I wonder, as my own heart bleeds in response, “how can she persevere?”. And I think of the five year old boy who carried his 18 month old sister across miles, in extreme heat, with no water or food with his little feet, so that he could escape from grown men meaning him harm his innocent mind could not fathom; and I think a child should never have to live such a terror- but I am only reminded of my own childhood, and I realize my heart is twisting because he reminds me of my older brother and how we grew up in war, in refugee camps, escaping another genocide, another massacre, in hunger and poverty and I KNOW that reality is different. And still, I think of the Yazidi girls, renowned for their beauty, being carried away for the pleasure of men who, surely if hell existed, deserve no better place. And I think of the mother whose six daughters and new bride had been carried away by this same evil, and I struggle to understand; and surely, “how can we ask them to bear such pain?”
And YET, today is Eid- the Festival of Sacrifices. And TODAY my people were meant to be sacrificed by ISIL as a gift to their people. And today is day 19 of the siege of Kobane. 19 days in which no support, food, aid and supplies have entered Kobane to the YPG AND YPJ forces simply because they are Kurds, and they are homeless, and because they dare to ask for the same right that so many people enjoy each and every single day. And, YET, against all odds, they persevere; because their brave hearts hope that one day they will leave this world a little bit better than when they entered it. One in which the Yazidi girls are safe and the little children are safe and in which Kurdish mothers do not celebrate their Eid in the graveyards of their sons and daughters, lost for a homeless nation.
And yet, we persevere. We persevere despite our tears. We persevere, because we must
NB: Coatesy’s coverage of the fight against IS (ISIS/ISIL), the need to stand with the Kurds, and the bankruptcy of the wretched ‘Stop The War Coalition’ (and its supporters at the Guardian) has been outstanding. He excelled himself today.
Kathy Stobart and her band in the early 1950s
Jazz can be proud of its anti-racist traditions and of how, from the early twentieth century, black and white musicians defied racism in order to work together to make great music. Jazz played a major role in the US civil rights movement and – long before the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson for the 1946 season – helped convince white America that black people were at least their equals, and had an awful lot to contribute to the American Way Of Life, if only given the chance.
Jazz’s record on sexism and women’s rights is less honourable. Until quite recently, women were scarcely tolerated in jazz, and even then only as fans, hangers-on and singers. The few female instrumentalists that there were in the 1930s, 40s and 50s on the US scene tended to be treated with condescension or (as with pianist Mary Lou Williams, whose talent could not be denied), as novelties if not downright freaks.
The situation for British women jazz musicians was just as bad until very recently, which makes it only right and proper that we now remember the tenor sax player Kathy Stobart, who died on 6 July aged 89. Kathy was a pioneer, having started professionally in the 1940s when she ran her own band and worked for top bandleaders like Vic Lewis and Ted Heath. In 1957 she caused a minor sensation when she stepped in for Jimmy Skidmore (who was ill) with the Humphrey Lyttelton Band and recorded a highly-regarded album, Kath Meets Humph.
Humph held Kathy in high regard, describing her sax playing as having “a huge booming sound, imbued with total originality and a commanding presence.” Kathy joined Humph’s band as a regular member between 1969 and 1978, and then re-joined for 12 years from 1992. She set a precedent: after Kathy left, Humph hired two other female sax players, Karen Sharpe and Jo Fooks, both of whom have spoken of Kathy as a major inspiration and role model.
Kathy’s second husband, the trumpeter Bert Courtley, died in 1969, leaving Kathy a single parent, and she took up music teaching to supplement her income. By all accounts she was a “natural” and in 2000 she tutored Judi Dench in the rudiments of sax playing for her role in Alan Plater’s TV play The Last of the Blonde Bombshells.
Kathy, like a lot of the best female jazz players, would frequently be described by critics and fans, as playing “like a man”. The description didn’t please Kathy, who once commented: “It’s supposed to be the ultimate compliment, but I wouldn’t apply it to myself. I’ve got a good pair of lungs on me and I’ve got well matured emotions. I play like me.”
Guardian obit here
In Australia, there is an event called the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, with some high-calibre contributors, like Salman Rushdie and Steven Pinker. One of the speakers they invited was one Uthman Badar, of Hizb ut-Tahrir. The title of the speech was Honour Killings are Morally Justified.
Badar says he did not choose the topic himself, but accepted it upon the urgings of the board. The festival’s co-curator Simon Longstaff said he had nominated the topic for six years in a row, because the point of the festival is to push boundaries ”to the point where you become extremely uncomfortable”.
Yet again, misogyny, racism and violence against minoritised women is considered edgy, rather than banal and conservative.
What’s more edgy and dangerous and uncomfortable than suggesting the world is a better place because a Tunisian father burned his 13 year old daughter alive? What’s more edgy and dangerous than saying certain women and girls don’t deserve to live?
For Aya, it was ‘dangerous’ to walk home from school with one of her classmates, and no doubt somewhat more than ‘extremely uncomfortable’ to die of burns a few days later.
It is a wonder that Longstaff didn’t realise that other speakers had balked the topic for six years in a row not because it was “uncomfortable”, but because it was morally repugnant: hate-speech as clickbait, where the names and faces of the victims are erased for the sake of a headline.
Enter Uthman Badar, the only man vainglorious enough to make the attempt. There are, of course, many experts in ‘honour’-based violence, people who have dedicated their careers to exploring its dynamics, conducting research, developing protection measures, supporting victims. Badar is not one of them. According to his Academia.edu page, he’s an economist (although apparently, he is not actually a student of the university that he claims to attend).
Even Badar doesn’t seem to have wanted to defend the murders of girls and women and young men: his preamble suggests he’s not even going to try and justify ‘honour’ killing. Let’s look at what he was going to say:
“Overwhelmingly, those who condemn honour killing are based in the liberal democracies of the West.”
This is untrue:
We in the West know about ‘honour’ killings only because they were brought to our attention by local activists: it was Asma Jahangir‘s decision to exceed her brief as Special Rapporteur into Extrajudicial Executions that brought the subject up; it was Rana Husseini‘s activism against the laws of Jordan that told us how embedded such crimes were in their societies, and it was Fadime Sahindal‘s prediction of her own death that raised the topic as something which occurred in the West.
Perhaps it is true that many of those who commit honour killings may not be based in the liberal democracies of the West but that doesn’t mean that they are accepted within their societies. Of all the Muslim countries surveyed by Pew, only in two did more respondents approve than disapprove of ‘honour’ crimes. Overwhelmingly, the scholars and activists who work against ‘honour’-based violence are people working in their own countries and communities, both within and outside the ‘West’. To ignore this fact demonstrates a strangely Eurocentric world view.
Aya’s father is taken as an exemplar of Tunisia: Aya herself is erased, the 300 Tunisian protesters are erased, Tunisian women’s rights activists are erased, the fact that ‘honour’ killings are vanishingly rare in Tunisia is erased. And this is all done in order that Badar can synechodically present ‘honour’ killers as the true representatives of ‘Eastern’ culture. This smacks of orientalism in itself: the presentation of a diverse culture and people as homogeneously violent, and obsessed with ‘honour’, against reams of evidence to the contrary.
And so, the next sentence:
“The accuser and moral judge is the secular (white) Westerner and the accused is the oriental other: the powerful condemn the powerless.”
The person at the actual nadir of powerlessness, the victim, is totally absent from Badar’s analysis. The actual situation — where the accuser and moral judge is the enculturated (brown) Easterner and the accused is the feminine other: where the powerful not only condemn, but slaughter the powerless – is erased. The victim is erased, and the murderer is granted victimhood in her stead.
“By taking a particular cultural view of honour, some killings are condemned, while others are celebrated: in turn, the act becomes a symbol of everything which is wrong with the other culture.”
Let’s ignore this strange position where we are led to believe that some killings are celebrated, which seems to be an attempt at whataboutery and decontextualisation too vague for me to parse. On the other hand, his point that the discourse of ‘honour’ is used to demonise the ‘other’ culture is unavoidably true. However, there are many more people who are far better qualified to argue this than Badar. Aisha Gill and Avtar Brah have done this excellently, and are feminists to boot.
Katherine Pratt Ewing, to give another example, has written an entire book on the topic, and a speech by her on how ‘honour’ crimes are used to stigmatise minorities would be informative, and moreover, informed by research. That is not what Longstaff wanted though: it wouldn’t have have got him in the headlines.
After the cancellation of the speech due to public outcry, Badar produced a petulant statement which attributes the outcry to Islamaphobia, as did Longstaff: ‘Have not the ‘Islamophobes’ already won the day when a person dare not speak on controversial matters because he is Muslim?’, he tweeted, rather pompously.
Let’s consider this charge for a second. Almost all Muslim organisations take pains to distance themselves from ‘honour’ killings. Almost all serious scholars address the issues of culture with caution, and with due attention to the worrying levels of xenophobia in the West. Training materials in use by professionals to help them respond to ‘honour’-related violence in the family stress the importance of not making cultural assumptions.
Just as a thought experiment, consider this: if you really hated Muslims and Islam, what would be the best way of overturning all this good work done in balancing the rights to life and freedom of young people (many, but not all, of whom are Muslim) with respect for the culture of their families? How about promoting a speech called ‘Honour Killings are Morally Justified’, and getting a speaker whose only qualification is being a Muslim to present it? Would that work? I think it would.
H/T: KB Player