Notes and Comment Blog

Woman’s Hour

Oct 1st, 2015 11:07 am | By

Woman’s Hour (BBC Radio 4) tomorrow is going to talk about free speech and feminism; Caroline Criado-Perez and Jane Fae will be on. It’s on at 10 a.m. in London but also archived for listening later so we can all hear it.

Two speakers have pulled out of a feminist conference in protest after campaigner Jane Fae withdrew saying she was effectively being silenced because she had written about pornography. Is this evidence of increasing intolerance and efforts to actively censor views which might offend?

It’s more complicated than that, but they didn’t have room for the complication. Jane Fae withdrew because people were “concerned” about her presence, and she didn’t want there to be a stink that would interfere with the conference, so she withdrew.

It has been claimed

Oct 1st, 2015 10:27 am | By

Barney Henderson at The Telegraph reports on an item about Iran’s women’s football team, in that typically passive, agent-free language that journalists use when they’re not sure, or want to obfuscate, what’s going on.

Eight of Iran’s women’s football team are actually men awaiting sex change operations, it has been claimed.

The country’s football association was accused of being “unethical” for knowingly fielding eight men in its women’s team.

“It has been claimed”; “was accused”; by whom? What are you talking about? If I were a newspaper editor I would make that against the rules. It could mean some drunk on the bus said it. It could mean anything. It’s crap journalism.

In the third paragraph he finally specifies an agent.

Mojtabi Sharifi, an official close to the Iranian league, told an Iranian news website: “[Eight players] have been playing with Iran’s female team without completing sex change operations.”

We still don’t know what that means. An official of what? What kind of official? What is “the Iranian league”? We know what Iran is, but we don’t know what the reporter means by “the Iranian league.” What news website, and how reliable is it? What kind of news website? One like the Associated Press, say, or one like Breitbart?

Anyway. If the claim is true…what should we think? Should we think that’s a great thing for the rights of trans women? Or should we think it’s an underhanded way for Iran to pretend to allow women to play football without actually allowing women to play football?

Gender change operations are legal in Iran according to a fatwa – or religious ruling – pronounced by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The law contrasts with the strict rules governing sexual morality under the country’s Sharia legal code, which forbids homosexuality and pre-marital sex.

No it doesn’t, not really. Or it does if you look at it one way but not if you look at it another way. Allowing people to change gender is entirely compatible with forbidding homosexuality.

Football is highly popular among many Iranian women, despite religious rules that bar them from entering stadiums to watch matches between male teams.

Earlier this month the women’s national team captain was unable to fly with the squad to Malaysia because her husband refused her permission to fly.

Well just because she can play football doesn’t mean she can travel without a man’s permission. Get real.


Is the tide turning?

Sep 30th, 2015 6:05 pm | By

Ian Dunt says the censors are on the back foot at last.

Efforts to ban secular campaigner Maryam Namazie from speaking at Warwick University have been reversed. Then yesterday, feminist campaigners Caroline Criado Perez and Julie Bindel pulled out of the Feminism in London conference in protest at efforts to no-platform fellow panellist Jane Fae. We are seeing the first signs that the tide is turning in the free speech debate. Event organisers are finally coming under as much pressure from free speech defenders as they are censors.

(Quick declaration of interest: I went to Warwick for my MA, I’m close friends with Perez[,] and Fae regularly writes for this website. None of that has any bearing really, but it’s worth mentioning because online censors – from the Corbynistas to the safe spaces lot – struggle to accept that anyone holds opinions for any reason other than self-interest. I might as well beat them to it.)

He runs through what happened with Warwick and Maryam, and is brought up short at the same place I was.

When Warwick Student Union looked into the writing of Namazie, who had been invited to speak to the local secular society, they found that “a number of articles written both by the speaker and by others about the speaker indicate that she is highly inflammatory, and could incite hatred on campus”. They added: “This is in contravention of our external speaker policy”.

It’s worth interrogating that sentence. It suggests that any idea which raises passions must be banned on campus.

Which would ban most ideas that are of any value.

The campaign against the ban exploded overnight, helped by the high-profile support of people like Richard Dawkins, Nick Cohen and Ben Goldacre. This online response is crucial. The armies of censors online can be terrifying. There are thousands of them and they are extremely aggressive. They scare individuals and they scare institutions. People, naturally, don’t want to spend days under an avalanche of abusive tweets and Facebook messages. They also don’t want the blogs and social media accounts of their friends and loved ones to be trawled over by these strange online armies for material to be used against them. Most normal people back down in the face of this type of attack. It’s partly why institutions have proved such easy targets.

And that’s exactly why I made as much noise as I could, and did in earlier examples too, such as when Trinity College Dublin went all weird on Maryam.

A similar situation played out yesterday, when it emerged that Fae was stepping down from the Feminism in London (FiL) conference. Fae is a moderate, articulate and very well-read commentator on a range of issues, including pornography, obscenity law, efforts at online filtering and a range of other matters. She is also transgender. Some radical feminists took issue with her supposedly because of her views on pornography and sex work, although the vitriol aimed her way afterwards suggests there is a significant element of transphobia at work too.

“The problem is that certain peeps had created a situation via a whispering campaign in which backing became irrelevant,” Fae wrote to me in an email. “We were damned if we went ahead, damned if we didn’t…so I attempted to tiptoe away quietly…which was sort of working until yesterday, when it all went nasty. I am now at the centre of a shit storm, as are some of my nearest and dearest. My ex, for instance, has had to take her old blog offline because people appeared to be mining it for dirt to use against me.”

Were they going through her Twitter and Facebook too? It’s always fun when people do that. “Oh look – here’s a joke from six months ago that we can take out of context to use against her.”

This is the standard tactic adopted by the online censors: demands that organisers remove someone from an event followed by an intimidation campaign against them online. In this case the organisers did not remove Fae from the event. Everyone involved praises them for their intentions and their good nature. But they did not necessarily support her either. They told her of the situation and tried to manage it, but Fae, keen to avoid it costing them the conference, stepped down. This is how free speech is destroyed in modern Britain – not by laws, but by taking the easy route in the face of organised campaigns.

And that’s why Caroline Criado-Perez and Julie Bindel withdrew, with regret and sorrow. Hunt quotes Bindel:

“It is particularly difficult for me to do so because FiL is one of the few feminist conferences that dare include me on their programme (in case of disruption from anti-feminists claiming I am transphobic, biphobic, Islamophobic and whorephobic). In fact, FiL had, in previous years, left me off the programme (but had me speak) in case the smooth-running of the conference suffered as a result. This year I told the organisers that I would only agree to speak at the event if my name were included in the programme, to which they agreed. It therefore feels particularly upsetting to find that the organisers are once again being bullied about one of their speakers, Jane Fae, this time on the grounds that she has expressed and still holds some pro-pornography views.”

Respect to both of them.

It is sad to imagine the organisers, who clearly support broad inclusive debate, seeing their event fall apart around them as these warring factions challenge the other side’s right to speak.

But applying this sort of pressure to organisers is the only way to ensure free speech is no longer degraded in this country. Until this week, all the pressure came from one end, with just a handful of commentators raising the alarm about it. Now we are seeing social media being utilised to support free speech.

We’ve seen that before, too, but this time it worked.

This smugness is unwarranted

Sep 30th, 2015 5:06 pm | By

Helen Lewis reminds us what a novelty in the world women’s rights really are.

Consider Switzerland for instance, where women didn’t get the vote until – wait for it – 1971.

Audiences are surprised because Switzerland is supposedly full of People Like Us: it’s an affluent western European nation, not a sand-blasted theocracy or a dirt-poor African dictatorship. And People Like Us believe in women’s equality. Don’t we?

This posture of racially tinged complacency underlies most of the frequent backlashes endured by western feminists. It’s a version of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, which hailed western liberal democracy as the final form of human government: “Come on, ladies. You’ve got the vote. You’ve got the ability to own property. Some of you are even wearing trousers. Why are you so uptight? No one is taking those away from you!”

That’s Christina Hoff Sommers’s whole shtick, and it’s avowedly Richard Dawkins’s reason for being so angry with American feminists. Feminism won, women have all the rights and equality, move on.

But this smugness is unwarranted, as a quick glance around the world – or five minutes with a history book – will show you. The advances in women’s rights that we enjoy today are incredibly recent. Chiswick Women’s Aid, the landmark shelter in west London, was only opened in 1971, the same year women were getting the vote in Switzerland. Rape in marriage became a crime here only in 1991 – the assault that prompted the defining court case happened the same the week that All Around the World by Lisa Stansfield topped the charts.

For a more extreme example, take foot-binding. When I first read Jung Chang’s family history, Wild Swans, I was amazed to learn that the author’s grandmother had had bound feet. It was disorienting to realise that someone alive today could know a woman whose feet had been deliberately bent and broken as a child in order to stuff them into 3in shoes.

Yes, I thought before reading further, and we still deliberately mutilate women’s feet, in a milder form. Lewis goes on to say that.

round the world, equally gruesome practices which stem from the same motive – inscribing subjugation on the female body – persist, from female genital mutilation to breast ironing. Even among People Like Us, in liberal western democracies, only one half of humanity is routinely encouraged to wear shoes that restrict our movement and damage our tendons and ligaments. We can’t see the strangeness of that because it’s woven into the fabric of our culture.

[I think that “only” is a typo, because it doesn’t make sense; hence the line through it.]

I can see the strangeness of it. I see it when I see couples in party clothes, the men walking freely and the women mincing and teetering as if…well as if their feet had been mutilated.

In her BBC documentary The Ascent of Woman, Amanda Foreman met 84-year-old Wang Huiyuan, one of the few surviving women whose feet hads been bound. She explored why the practice persisted for so long: it was perpetuated by women, because they believed it was a way to gain an advantage in a male-controlled marriage market; and it functioned as a class signifier, because peasant women working in the fields could not afford to cripple themselves.

Those two forces still underpin the pressure towards femininity today, however much we in the west congratulate ourselves on the softer, more palatable way it is expressed. We must also remember that the fact that women participate in their own oppression does not mean it is “natural” or inevitable. Instead, it shows that divide and rule is an endlessly useful tactic for maintaining the status quo.

That’s why choosy choice feminism is not the best feminism has to offer.

If you ever want to know why feminists are so bloody angry, this is why. All our triumphs are provisional, contested. The ground must be constantly defended and patrolled.

Still don’t believe me? Look across the Atlantic, where 42 years after Roe v Wade rightwing lawmakers want to deprive Planned Parenthood of federal funds used to give poor women breast cancer screenings because the organisation also provides abortions (even though these are not paid for by tax dollars). Or look closer to home, where women’s refuges are struggling because of cuts to council budgets, and a succession of high-profile men are given acres of newsprint to demand anonymity for those accused of rape, even though the evidence shows false allegations are rare and anonymity would make serial offenders far harder to catch.

Take care of your feet.

The meat in the fridge was mutton

Sep 30th, 2015 11:31 am | By

So speaking of blasphemy laws, and India, and violence…the Washington Post also reports on a news item from India: a mob dragged a Muslim man out of bed and beat him to death for eating beef.

The attack on Monday night in the northern Indian city of Dadri has shocked the country, but it wasn’t exactly a surprise. For the past six months, meat has been a matter of major debate in India.

Eighty percent of the country’s of 1.3 billion inhabitants are Hindu — who avoid beef for religious reasons. Roughly 250 million Indians are not. That tally includes almost 25 million Christians and up to 140 million Muslims, like Akhlaq.

Such incidents have increased since Modi came to power, Michael Miller says.

Modi is a Hindu nationalist who, as governor of Gujarat state, presided during religious riots in 2002 in which more than 1,000 people — most of them Muslims — were killed. For years afterwards, Modi was blocked from visiting the United States because of his role in the riots.

All that changed last year, however, when Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power. Modi campaigned on a vision of India finally fulfilling its economic potential — a promise highlighted by his recent tour of Silicon Valley.

But that doesn’t make him any less a Hindu nationalist and it doesn’t make the BJP any less a Hindu nationalist party.

Since Modi’s election, Muslims have grown worried about a string of inflammatory statements and actions by Hindu nationalist leaders. Accused Islamist terrorists have been executed ahead of non-Muslims, stirring anger. Meanwhile, BJP lawmakers have openly called for Hindus to out breed Muslims to “protect Hindu religion.” That same politician, Sakshi Maharaj, invited outrage when he called Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin a “patriot.” (Nathuram Godse was a militant Hindu activist who killed Gandhi for “appeasing” Muslims.) Finally, India’s foreign minister has called for the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture, to be declared a “national scripture.”

Theocracy hates people.

Last March a bill was passed in Maharashtra banning the sale of beef.

Despite legal challenges to the ban, the new law immediately brought results. Just days after the law’s implementation, two people were arrested for allegedly slaughtering two calves, the BBC reported. Last month, four more people were accused of smuggling beef into Mumbai, according to the Indian Express.

The crackdown on cow-eating is driven by a desire for religious/national purity, but critics point out that it’s already creating political and practical problems.

Oh that desire for religious/national purity (and political, doctrinal, attitudinal, verbal purity) – what a curse it is.

“Some Hindu hard-liners insist the idea of eating beef was introduced by Muslim invaders, despite references to its consumption in ancient texts like the Vedas, written more than a millennium before the time of Muhammad. By eradicating this ‘alien’ practice, they hope to return the country to values they hold dear as Hindus,” wrote novelist Manil Suri in a New York Times op-ed.

Suri said it was part and parcel of a broader conservative cultural shift under Modi and the BJP.

“With the recent re-criminalization of gay sex, bans on controversial books and films and even an injunction against the use of the colonial-era name ‘Bombay’ instead of ‘Mumbai’ in a Bollywood song, the new laws join a growing list of restrictions on personal freedom in India,” he warned.

That’s how theocracy is. It’s the worst.

Beef again became a pretext for violence during Monday’s mob attack in Dadri, a city of roughly 60,000 near New Delhi in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where a near-total ban on beef is in effect.

The attack allegedly came moments after an announcement at a nearby Hindu temple that Mohammad Akhlaq had slaughtered a calf. The calf had gone missing several weeks earlier, according to the Indian Express. Rumors quickly spread around the neighborhood that Akhlaq was the culprit.

Incited by the announcement, the mob broke down Akhlaq’s door and dragged him into the street, where 100 men beat him to death with bricks, his family members told the Express. The invaders also dragged Akhlaq’s 22-year-old son, Danish, outside, beating him until he was close to death as well.

All for the sake of religious and nationalist “purity.”

Blasphemy around the world

Sep 30th, 2015 10:58 am | By

The Washington Post notes that it’s International Blasphemy Day via Brandon G. Withrow at Religion News Service.

“God is a lie.”

In some countries, uttering, scribbling or texting that statement will get you thrown in jail, beaten with a rod or possibly killed. The “crime” is blasphemy and Wednesday (Sept. 30) is “International Blasphemy Rights Day,” set aside by human rights activists to highlight the blasphemy laws on the books in 22 percent of the world’s nations, according to the Pew Research Center.

Withrow mentions China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. It could also have mentioned India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Sudan…

“Freedom of conscience is a fundamental right, and it must be valued, protected and advanced everywhere in the world,” says Michael De Dora, director of the Center for Inquiry’s Office of Public Policy — the organization behind Blasphemy Rights Day — and the center’s representative to the United Nations. The Center for Inquiry is a humanistic and First Amendment watchdog group based in Buffalo, N.Y.

In response to foreign policies suppressing free expression, U.S. Reps. Joseph Pitts of Pennsylvania and Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas have proposed House Resolution 290, which calls for making the repeal of blasphemy laws a condition of U.S. cooperation. They urge that the label “country of particular concern” be applied to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

“Fortunately, many governments have been strong in publicly condemning blasphemy laws, whether at the U.N., in public statements or in their softer diplomacy,” CFI’s De Dora said. “The problem is many of these condemnations are just words. What we could really use is more governments using the possibility of changing or pulling out of trade and other agreements to put some force behind these words.”

But of course so many US legislators would themselves love to have laws against blasphemy on the books.

Shut up and answer

Sep 30th, 2015 10:03 am | By

Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, testified before a Congressional committee yesterday. NPR describes the hearing as contentious, which puts it with typical NPR mildness. NPR provides five audio clips from the five hours of testimony. The first and longest is a remarkable, and all too familiar, example of shouty bullying and interrupting and demanding simple answers to complicated questions. I’ve always loathed demands for simple answers to complicated questions, and after this past summer, I loathe them even more.

The more than five-hour hearing was oftentimes contentious. Richards defended her organization on several fronts. She said the videos released by the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress were misleading and she said her organization does not receive federal funding for most abortions.

Republican lawmakers for their part questioned why Planned Parenthood should continue to receive federal funding if many Americans don’t agree with abortions.

That’s a fatuous question. Federal funding isn’t contingent on the agreement of all Americans. It doesn’t work that way; it can’t work that way.

Tomorrow is International Blasphemy Rights Day

Sep 29th, 2015 5:27 pm | By

In some parts of the world it’s already International Blasphemy Rights Day right now.

CFI sent out a press release today: –

Tomorrow, September 30, is International Blasphemy Rights Day, created by the Center for Inquiry to celebrate and defend the fundamental human right to free expression around the world — especially when that expression is critical of religion. To mark IRBD this year, CFI is launching a new website for its Campaign for Free Expression, supporting a landmark blasphemy resolution in Congress, speaking against religious extremism at the UN, and releasing a special blasphemy-rights edition of its magazine Free Inquiry.

At a time when secularist bloggers are being murdered in the streets of Bangladesh, when Raif Badawi endures prison and floggings in Saudi Arabia for encouraging people to question the authority of Islam, and when Asia Bibi — a Christian woman in Pakistan — faces the death penalty for charges of blasphemy, a day that focuses on the global assault on free expression is needed now more than ever.

International Blasphemy Rights Day was established by the Center for Inquiry in 2009 as a bold response to the worldwide crackdown on the right to criticize and satirize religion, to be held each September 30, the anniversary of the publication of the controversial “Danish cartoons” of Muhammad in the newspaper Jyllands-Posten that sparked international outrage and violence. In 2012, CFI launched the Campaign for Free Expression to rally grassroots and diplomatic support of free speech rights and to highlight the cases of those who are being persecuted, jailed, and threatened for their dissent.

The new Campaign for Free Expression website, launched today, spotlights the struggles of courageous individuals who face both punishment from their governments and mortal peril at the hands of radicals. It also provides avenues for activism, with tools and resources for those who want to have an impact in global efforts to protect free expression. As part of this campaign, CFI is working to assist secularist writers and activists under violent threat in countries such as Bangladesh with the Freethought Emergency Fund.

CFI is also putting its weight behind a U.S. House resolution, introduced by Rep. Joe Pitts, which calls for the repeal of blasphemy laws worldwide. H.Res. 290 urges countries with blasphemy laws to embrace their obligations under international agreements and repeal those laws. It also calls upon the Obama Administration and the State Department to put a greater emphasis on countries’ records on free expression rights in its international relations. Its passage would send a powerful message across the globe, and CFI is rallying its supporters to contact their representatives to sign on to the resolution.

Recently appearing on newsstands is the latest special issue of CFI’s magazine Free Inquiry, which focuses on the free expression crisis and boldly defends blasphemy rights with a series of provocative reports and essays, as well as the publication of the winning “draw Muhammad” cartoon from the controversial conference in Garland, Texas earlier this year, the site of a shooting attack by two jihadists. (An important note: CFI in no way endorses the American Freedom Defense Initiative, and deplores its intolerant statements regarding Islam, but supports its right to express its position.)

And last week, CFI representatives delivered statements at the UN Human Rights Council on the attacks against atheist and secularist writers in Bangladesh, as well as violence and judicial discrimination against women. Video of these statements being delivered to the Council are available here. At past sessions, CFI has spoken out against government suppression of online speech.

“The fundamental human right to free expression endows each of us with the power to raise questions, persuade others, and affect change, and for that reason it has often been fiercely policed and suppressed,” said Michael De Dora, CFI’s chief UN representative. “For this International Blasphemy Day and beyond, let’s show our support for the right to question and dissent, and speak up for those who have been silenced.”

Yes let’s.

Guest post: How to defend the squicky things

Sep 29th, 2015 10:58 am | By

Guest post by Josh Spokes.

If we talked about LGBT rights the way we “defend” Planned Parenthood, it would sound like this:

1. “Did you know that 98 percent of equal rights used by LGBT people are used by normal, monogamous families?”

2. “Protecting gender-deviant radical people is only 2 percent of the the entire equal rights budget we’re proposing. If you can hold your nose at them, think of all the deserving people you’d be helping.”

3. “If you want to prevent non-standard living and family arrangements, our equal rights project is the best way to do that. When everyone can marry, fringe LGBT people won’t have any desire to live non-conventionally or in ways that you don’t approve of. Equal rights prevents more non-standard sexuality expressions than any other government effort!”

4. “No federal funds are spent protecting the rights of deviant, non-standard individuals!”

Enact that law

Sep 29th, 2015 10:47 am | By

American Atheists announced a new campaign today – a desperately needed one.

American Atheists today announced a campaign to enact legislation that would require health care providers to inform patients, insurance companies, and government agencies about any medical procedures and services the provider chooses not to perform because of the provider’s religious beliefs.

Wouldn’t you think they already had to do that? But they don’t.

“Patients must be able to make fully informed decisions about their health care,” said Amanda Knief, National Legal and Public Policy Director for American Atheists, and author of the bill. “This legislation would help patients get the information they need to navigate the increasingly complicated—and increasingly religious—health care marketplace.”

I’ve blogged about this issue a lot, especially in light of the Below the Radar report by the National Women’s Law Center in 2011. It’s about the way Catholic hospitals – just like the ones in Ireland! – deny even lifesaving abortions, and don’t inform their patients that that’s what they’re doing.

Back to the AA press release:

There are no state or federal laws or regulations that require health care providers to inform patients of services or treatments a provider will not provide because of the provider’s religious beliefs. Religious hospitals account for more than 17 percent of all hospital beds in the United States, and religiously based hospitals, physicians, and other health care entities treat more than 1 in 6 Americans each year.

“This is about disclosure, not about forcing providers to do anything they have a religious objection to. If a religiously affiliated hospital or health care provider has some objection to providing birth control, access to cancer therapies that could result in sterilization, mental health services, or blood transfusions, they can continue to opt out of providing those services. What they can’t do is pull a bait and switch on patients and potential patients,” added Knief.

I blanched at the words “or blood transfusions.” What? They can refuse blood transfusions?

They can refuse anything, Amanda told me; there’s no law requiring providers to provide all treatments.

Well that needs to change. The first step will have to be informing the public, and this bill looks like a good first step.

The proposed legislation would require health care providers to simply provide a list of services they will not perform for religious reason to patients, potential patients, health insurers, and state and federal grant or subsidy programs. The health care providers and insurance issuers would then be required to make that information available online for potential patients.

American Atheists will work with its 170+ local affiliates and coalition partners to build support for this legislation in both Congress and the 50 states.

I’m in! Spread the word.

We need to talk about women as a class

Sep 29th, 2015 10:03 am | By

Glosswitch on The problem with talking about “pregnant people” – she starts the way I did, with “if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” It is very much the point, after all.

The problem, we see, is not what pregnancy is, but where women are situated within a social, cultural and economic hierarchy.

And that’s why it’s a mistake to stop talking about women as the targets of efforts to eliminate freedom of reproduction.

Occasionally this tension comes to a head. For instance, last year the Midwives Alliance of North America (MANA) changed some of the language in its core competencies document to refer to “pregnant people” as opposed to “women” (although there is still one reference to the latter). In August this year an organisation calling themselves Woman-Centred Midwifery delivered an Open Letter to MANA in protest at the changes, arguing that they constituted “the erasure of women from the language of birth”. The signatories include Ina May Gaskin, one of the most well-known advocates for natural birthing choices. Her involvement has shocked and disappointed many, to the extent that some have petitioned for her to be removed from the Birth and Beyond Conference speakers’ list. After all, why should language that is more neutral be seen as politically objectionable?

Because reproduction isn’t neutral. Because reproduction is central to why women are an oppressed class. Because women already get erased and ignored and shoved aside everywhere you look, so it’s not “progressive” to do even more of that.

It is very easy to dismiss Women-Centred Midwifery as the bad guys in all this. First of all, they’ve called themselves “woman-centred”. Nobody calls themselves “woman-centred” unless they’re a 1970s throwback, belonging to an age when feminism was drab, unenlightened and too busy eating its own afterbirth to get anything done.

Um. I can’t tell if glosswitch is being ironic there or not, but if she’s not…yikes. Is that really how 1970s feminism is seen now? Has anybody thought to compare it with feminism circa 1964? 1970s feminism got quite a lot more done than placenta-munching.

If one looks at how gender functions, not as a means of self-definition, but as a class system, the gender-neutral pregnancy starts to feel akin to John Major’s “classless society”. It’s a way of using language to create the illusion of dismantling a hierarchy when what you really end up doing is ignoring it. Pregnancy is a gendered experience, not because pregnant individuals necessarily feel like women, but because the pregnant body is externally managed within the context of its subordinate sex class status. Because if it had a different status, “abortion [and free birthing choices, epidurals and caesareans on demand, investment into more and better pregnancy care etc.] would be a sacrament.” We need a way of talking about this which is permitted to prioritise the sex-class reading of gender over the identity-based one, not as way of excluding people, but as a way of naming what happens to them and others in the context of class-based oppression.

In Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, Katrine Marçal describes our tendency to discuss humanity as though it were “created outside class, gender, race, age, background and experience – rather than through class, gender, race, age, background and experience”:

“Instead we see circumstances, the body and context as layers that have to be peeled away. They cloud the vision. If we want to talk about how things really are, we must abstract how things really are, we think.

But being human is experienced precisely through a gender, a body, a social position, and the backgrounds and experiences we have. There is no other way.”

I wrote my next Free Inquiry column about that – about the fact that “identity” isn’t just internal, it’s social, it’s shaped by how the world sees us. There is no other way.

One can argue over whether or not gender exists as an apolitical entity; whether to be a woman is to identify or be identified as one. Our most immediate challenge, however, concerns whether all pregnant individuals are seen as people, not whether all pregnant people are seen as women. In order to address this we need to talk about women as a class. Gender-neutral terms limit our ability to do this. Whatever our intentions, neutralising language is not a neutral act.

Neutral isn’t neutral.

About the situation brewing

Sep 29th, 2015 8:07 am | By

The Feminism in London conference is in a few weeks, October 24-25.

Caroline Criado-Perez has just withdrawn from the conference. She explains why.

She starts with the ridiculous no-platforming of Kate Smurthwaite by Goldsmith’s in February.

The reality was, as we all knew, that Kate had become the latest victim of the no-platforming rash sweeping contemporary leftist and feminist circles. The kicker? Her stand-up show had not been about prostitution (her views on which had resulted in the objection to her appearance), but about, wait for it, free speech. Yeah. Ironic, huh?

Many of us felt that this was the final straw. The censorship and no platforming debate had been rumbling on for a while, but this was such a ridiculous example, that some of us felt the time had come to speak up against it. I was one of the signatories of a letter printed in The Observer, calling on student unions to stand up to factions of malcontents who would rather silence speech they disagreed with than to debate with it (and presumably defeat it if it is so self-evidently wrong that we don’t even need to hear it).

Well you see it’s a kind of alchemy. If you keep straining and then straining again, reducing all the impurities until finally there is no impurity left at all – Total Social Justice will have arrived at last. There won’t be any humans to enjoy it, but they’re too imperfect to survive all the strainings.

Now Jane Fae has withdrawn from the Feminism in London conference. As with Kate, it’s her views on prostitution that are the problem, but for opposite reasons – libertarians versus a radical in Kate’s case, radicals versus a libertarian in Jane Fae’s.

Having spoken to both Jane and the organisers of Feminism in London, my understanding of what took place is that a few people complained about Jane’s inclusion, the organisers informed Jane about the situation brewing, and Jane decided to pull out. I think Jane’s decision is an honourable one — she didn’t want the discussion to be derailed and to become about her. And it was her decision — but it would be dishonest not to acknowledge that her hand was forced to a certain extent, even though I believe that this was not the organisers’ intention. But, as we are so often informed, “intention isn’t magic”. The effect has been that Jane has been put in a position where she felt unable to speak.

That’s an uncomfortable position, and you know what? People don’t have to put up with that. People will walk, and the bullies will be left in possession of the battlefield, but they’ll be alone there. You can’t get to Social Justice from there.

I am dismayed by the path feminism has taken over the past year or so. None of us has all the answers. None of us has the key to ending patriarchy. Some of us are right about some things; others are right about others. We all have different life experiences and this leads to different perspectives. The only way forward is to create respectful spaces where all opinions can be heard and debated.

There will be fewer rewards handed out for Achievements in Purity, but more for collaboration and thoughtful engagement.


Sep 28th, 2015 4:55 pm | By

I wrote my column for The Freethinker this month about the pope.

Greetings from happy-clappy popey-cuddly land, where it’s all pope all the time and we just can’t say enough about what a wonderful, warm, caring, new, different, thrilling, compassionate pontiff the dear man is.

The New York Times for instance, gushing like a Beyoncé fan:

Pope Francis swept across Manhattan on Friday from the center of global diplomacy to a worn classroom in East Harlem, challenging world leaders to protect the planet, warning against the dangers of fanaticism at the site where terrorists took thousands of lives and reaching out to those at the margins of society.

Curing diseases, restoring vision, leaping tall buildings at a single bound.

But not, of course, treating women as equals. Good god no – Jesus was a man, dammit, therefore women are The Wrong Sex and must be kept down.


Sep 28th, 2015 4:09 pm | By

Two views:


Felon Evans's photo.

More than 60,000 women

Sep 28th, 2015 3:39 pm | By

The background on #ShoutYourAbortion, from last week.

Campaigners Lindy West, Amelia Bonow and Kimberly Morrison started the hashtag “#ShoutYourAbortion” on Twitter on Friday [September 18].

The phrase exploded over the weekend around the world, trending across the US, Australia and Europe. More than 60,000 women explained their decision to get an abortion.

Here are a few tweets:

Feminist Wire ‏@thefeministwire 3 hours ago
A Love Note to Women Who’ve Had Voluntary Abortions … #ShoutYourAbortion

Katha Pollitt ‏@KathaPollitt Sep 25
Abortion haters, pls read this woman’s story of choosing to end catastrophic wanted pregnancy. #shoutyourabortion

Victoria Brownworth ‏@VABVOX Sep 22
Men have no voice in a woman’s bodily autonomy.
So all the men tweeting me?
Stay in your lane.

The Independent continues:

The campaigners were motivated to start the campaign after the US House of Representatives controversially voted to remove federal funding for Planned Parenthood (an American medical institution dispensing free contraceptive advice).

The Facebook group has attracted more than 3,000 likes so far but as the hasttag took off, many anti-abortion and pro-life supporters attempted to derail the tag, with many social media users condemning the women for their tweets and posts.

Of course they did. Women don’t matter, it’s only their pregnancies that matter.

Ms Bonow told Buzzfeed she first posted on Facebook about her experience of receiving an abortion “on a whim” but also in order to “vocally align myself with Planned Parenthood”.

What is needed is some honesty

Sep 28th, 2015 10:26 am | By

Maajid Nawaz has a public Facebook post on Islam and denial. It’s related to this CNN video in which Sam Harris  and Dean Obeidallah talk to Don Lemon:

Denial Helps No One

This debate between Sam Harris and my fellow Muslim Dean Obeidallah sums up the problem we liberal, reforming Muslims face.

Dear Dean, chopping off hands for theft (5:38) whipping ‘fornicators’ (24:2) and crucifixion as political punishment (5:33) as ISIS, Saudi Arabia and Iran do, are all passages found in the Qur’an.

What Sam mentioned, killing gays, is ostensibly commanded in numerous Hadith (a secondary holy source for the overwhelming majority of Muslims) including “Kill the doer and the receiver” (Tirmidhi).

In the age of the Internet, we cannot simply deny all of this on national television, and then wonder why people do not trust Muslims.

No, what is needed is some honesty. Honesty that we Muslims today have a disproportionate problem with vacuous literalism. Honesty that the scripture itself can be – and is – used to justify medieval barbarism. And honesty that those scriptures must be looked at by our theologians for the purpose of fundamental, systematic reform.

Ideas, holy texts and what’s written in them matter.

He’s right. The same is true of reactionary Christianity, and there’s no point denying that either. Books declared “holy” matter, because many people believe they really are holy and must be obeyed.

Meta Warwick

Sep 28th, 2015 10:10 am | By

The Coventry Telegraph reports on reactions to Warwick’s reversal yesterday. (Warwick and Coventry are next door to each other, and Coventry is a city while Warwick isn’t.)

High-profile public figures have welcomed news that Maryam Namazie’s ban from Warwick University has been overturned.

The students’ union indicated the initial decision had been made was made “in deference to the right of Muslim students not to feel intimidated or discriminated against on their University campus.”

But, after 48 hours of intense public pressure – including an online petition, the union released a statement to apologise to Ms Namazie and confirm it would back down over the ban.

Ms Namazie said: “I am really excited that I will be able to speak to students there and am grateful for all the brilliant support from Warwick Atheists and from so many wonderful people.”

High-profile figures such as Prof Brian Cox, Salman Rushdie, Richard Dawkins and Dr Ben Goldacre had all rushed to blast the initial decision. But they have since welcomed the latest development.

Not “but” but “and” – they (and we) blasted the no and welcomed the yes.

At the end they quote UKIP MP Douglas Carswell, which I wish they’d skipped.

Warwick welcomes Maryam to speak

Sep 27th, 2015 3:55 pm | By

A win!

Warwick says procedures weren’t followed, and apologizes, and says hell yes Maryam can speak.

In the last few days we have all seen much debate, and considerable concern, expressed about an application to Warwick Students’ Union made by the Warwick Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society, that an SU society host the campaigner and blogger Maryam Namazie as an external speaker.

Warwick SU has a process for assessing any potential risks or legal issues associated with any external speaker, and it is now very clear to us that in this case that process has not been followed.  Speaker invitations that may involve such issues are routinely considered by the SU President, who will also take advice from senior SU staff. This did not happen on this occasion. Neither the SU President, nor senior SU staff, were consulted as they should have been. This is a significant error for which there can be no excuse.  There is a great deal that we now must put right, and these are the first steps that we are putting into place:

1) The proper process has now been followed, as it should have been in the first place. The application by the Warwick Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society for Warwick Students’ Union to host Maryam Namazie as an external speaker has now been considered and approved.

2) The SU is now seeking to meet promptly with the leadership of the Warwick Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society to make the necessary arrangements for the event to take place in the format they have requested.

3) Warwick SU will issue an unequivocal apology to Maryam Namazie for this egregious and highly regrettable error.

And they’ll look at what went wrong and fix it.

Making a fuss worked this time!

It’s possible that the fuss wasn’t necessary, but nothing had happened until the fuss got going, so it’s possible that nothing would have gone on happening without a fuss.

Anyway – a win!

Isis Threaten Sylvania

Sep 27th, 2015 12:38 pm | By

London. Exhibition. Celebrating freedom of expression.

Visitors to a London exhibition celebrating freedom of expression this week found plenty of familiar taboo-busting work, from Jamie McCartney’s The Great Wall of Vagina, an eight-foot long cast featuring the genitals of 400 women, to Kubra Khademi’s video of an eight-minute walk she made through Kabul in Afganistan, dressed in lushly contoured body armour.

You know what the next word is.



But they will have looked in vain for one work detailed in the catalogue by an artist known only as Mimsy.

Last name Borogoves? Sorry, sorry.

Isis Threaten Sylvania is a series of seven satirical light box tableaux featuring the children’s toys Sylvanian Families. It was removed from the Passion for Freedom exhibition at the Mall galleries after police raised concerns about the “potentially inflammatory content” of the work, informing the organisers that, if they went ahead with their plans to display it, they would have to pay £36,000 for security for the six-day show.

That’s the world we live in now. Hooray for free expression – but – if your free expression is at all capable of chafing the mood of Islamist murderers, either shut up or pay for an army to defend it. But hey hooray for free expression all the same yeah?

The decision to remove the work from Passion for Freedom came after the Mall Galleries consulted the police, who raised “a number of serious concerns regarding the potentially inflammatory content of Mimsy’s work”. The gallery cited a clause in the exhibition contract which allowed it the right to request removal of an artwork.

The organisers of the not-for-profit organisation said: “To our shock the highlighted work was humorously mocking the despised terrorist organisation that causes suffering to many, not only in the Middle East, but also here, in Europe and the America,” adding that, in view of the decision, the word “uncensored” had been removed from all their publicity for the show.

Mimsy isn’t best pleased. Mimsy has good reason.

Mimsy said she had adopted a pseudonym because, as the daughter of a Syrian father whose Jewish family had to go into exile in Lebanon when he was a child, she was acutely aware of the potential risk of speaking out.

“I love my freedom,” she said. “I’m aware of the very real threat to that freedom from Islamic fascism and I’m not going to pander to them or justify it like many people on the left are doing.”

She made these rather sweet, silly, whimsical-looking tableaux of animal characters doing pleasant things while the black-clad Islamists lurk nearby, but her tableaux turned out to be not so whimsical at all.

She added that the idea of using Sylvanian Families “just popped into my head” as a way of demonstrating that fanaticism was not a question of race. Though the jihadis in the work are called “MICE-IS”, some are clearly cats or koalas and others have rabbits’ ears popping out of their masks. “I’m sick and tired of people calling criticism of fanatical Islam racist, because racism is about your skin colour and radical Islam is nothing to do with that. There are millions of Muslims who are shocked by it too,” said Mimsy.

She added that she had made the tableaux between December 2014 and May 2015 and had looked on in horror as, one by one, her imagined scenarios came true. In one scene, jihadis lurk outside a schoolroom, while a class of girls sit at their desks; in another, gunmen bristle on the horizon as holidaymakers sunbathe on a beach. “It was creepy, because each time I imagined a scene it happened in reality. I made the beach scene before the Tunisian massacre and the schoolroom scene before Boko Haram abducted the schoolgirls in Nigeria,” she said.

No wonder the police shut it down.

Busted for condemning the stampede

Sep 27th, 2015 11:43 am | By

Prepare to be disgusted.

Newsnext Bangladesh reports:

Dhaka  – Police on Saturday arrested an NGO executive for his reported social media comments condemning Saudi Arab stampede that left more than 700 pilgrims killed during hajj Thursday.

Police officer Inamul Haque said they picked up Mohan Kumar Mondal in south-western Satkhira district for the reported comment. They also arrested one of the friends of Mondal as he tried to prevent police from arresting him at Munshiganj of Shymnagar sub-district.

Another story linked in the margin of this one reports that three people from Bangladesh were killed in the stampede.

Police detained Mondal after a local leader of the ruling Awami League party lodged complaint that the accused hurt Muslims’ religious sentiments by posting derogatory comments on Facebook over the hajj.

Mondal, director of a local non-governmental organisation called Leader, had deleted the comments 24 minutes after he posted on his Facebook timeline, one of his social media friends said.

But many others were seen sharing screenshot of his comments saying they uphold Mondal’s views over the deaths during Muslims’ pilgrimage at Mina of Saudi Arabia.

Ugh ugh ugh. Grunts of disgust are all I can muster for this.

I suppose next we’ll hear that both of them were killed by a mob.