Monday 26 November 2007

Giving Feminism a bad name.

More on Saturday's Reclaim The Night protest, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this week. It seems some opportunistic young sort snapped a photo of yours truly, looking bespectacled and cheery after my placard had detatched itself from the stick. NB: no revolution will carry through without liberal amounts of gaffa tape.

Elsewhere around the country, though, tie-in demonstrations were less well attended, with barely 50 women gathering for the usually activist-friendly Oxford's Reclaim The Night on Sunday. And with the current attitude to direct action - particularly feminist direct action - who can blame them?

In February 2003, everything changed. More than a million people marched through the streets of London to protest against the Iraq war. A very British protest: carnivalesque samba-bands were trailed by gore-tex wearing middle-aged couples eating sandwiches wrapped in foil. We carried placards bearing slogans like 'Not in My Name', 'Make Tea, Not War', and, memorably, a girl behind me carried a poster bearing the legend 'The Only Bush I'd Trust is My Own!', decorated with a stuck-on muff of genuine hair donated, she claimed, from her boyfriend's underarms. It being my first big demo at the tender age of sixteen, I spent most of the time shinning up traffic lights trying to get pictures of the crowd, which moved under the bridges of London like a breaking dam, slow and ominous and unstoppable. This wasn't a smattering of direct action from a small, frothing Left minority: men, women and children of all ages, races and backgrounds from everywhere in the country had come to London to make themselves heard. We did not want a war.

We wanted to be heard. And we were heard. We were heard, and we were utterly ignored: weeks later, amid waves of popular protest, Britain went to rattle Bush's rusty sabre in the Gulf anyway. That day, New Labour Democracy lifted its skirts to reveal its skeleton, and we stumbled blinkingly into the realisation that our politicians were not listening to us anymore.

The kids reading those headlines back in 2003 are now 19, 20, 21, votable, marriageable, arrestable, old enough and ugly enough to make decisions for themselves. What good does direct action do anymore? Far better, as F Word editor Jess McCabe said recently in conversation with the Guardian, to stay home, blog and answer emails.

The nail in the coffin of Women's direct activism has been struck, however, by the fact that the most outspoken of feminist activists are still spitting misandrist vitriol over the pages of respectable broadsheets and big-name rallies. Julie Bindel, the headline speaker at this year's anniversary event, spokesperson for the spirit of feminist direct action, genuinely hates men. Her speech at the Reclaim The Night rally is eminently summarised in the accompanying article in the previous day's Guardian, which can hardly have done anything to boost attendance.

Now, I am achingly aware that male violence - yes, male violence, thank you Julie - is one of the biggest problems faced by this, and indeed any, society. But the problem isn't who is perpetrating the violence, it's the violence itself: and women are equally capable of physical violence when the occasion arises. Domestic violence in lesbian relationships is a well-documented phenomenon, as is the terrifically under-acknowledged number of husband-beaters in the country. Furthermore, male violence is also perpetrated, with equal if often differently applied savagery, against other men. Men, too, are the victims of rape; I'm currently in a relationship with a male rape victim who is still on a brave and draining journey of recovery from the experience. Take a survey of your closest male friends and you're more than likely to find one or two who've been seriously traumatised by physical violence from a young age, at the hands of other boys. The fact that there remains a culture of male violence in the Western world does not mean that men as a species are ripe for helicopter culling, any more than the existence of racism against ethnic minorities means that all white people are incurable, detestable bigots. The existence of this culture of violence means that attitudes need to change, and tolerance of violent behaviour in society needs to change likewise. Blaming men - all men - for endemic societal violence purely because of their sex is tantamount to saying 'it's not their fault - they're just like that. Bar extermination, there's nothing we can do but take it'

Garbage; tooth-aching, frankly upsetting garbage. Men are not born monsters, just as women are not born innocent, wilting madonnas. Men are, like all of us, raised in a society that is deeply disturbed when it comes to gender roles, and men, like women, suffer deeply from the culture of male violence under which the Western world still labours. Men suffer from this culture of violence, rage and emotional constipation far more than misandrist radical feminists like Bindel will ever be able to understand. Our fucked-up cultural attitudes to gender demean and hurt not just women, but all of us.

Shouting for 'men off the streets!' is going to get us nowhere. Uniting to end violence in society is. I want to see a march that unites all victims of street violence against sexual and physical assault - not just women, but men too, and also transpeople -who are equally if not more vulnerable on the streets of London and Oxford at night, and whom radical feminists like Bindel would see excluded from the cause.

I can see where Bindel is coming from: like many radical and reactionist feminists, she's angry. She's probably been victimised in her time. But anger, hatred and violence are not the appropriate response to anger, hatred and violence, not once you're out of training bras (flaming or otherwise). The feminist movement needs to welcome as many men as possible into its ranks. To do otherwise is plain hypocrisy.

Sunday 25 November 2007

Friday 23 November 2007

I like the leather, I like the whips and chains...

Some people think
Little girls should be seen and not heard

But I think -

Oh, bondage! Up yours!
X-Ray Specs.

This weekend, London goes fetish-mad. Following the opening of Club Antichrist (link NSFW) tonight, it's the 10th annual Erotica show, a huge retail extravaganza with tie-in events headlined by none other than Dita Von Teese. Being a kinky little fuck doctor of journalism, I of course have my best shiny pvc mini-dress and party bondage gear ready for action.

Fetish. Erotica. What does it mean? Any sex-act is subversive, reminding us as it does of an essential humanity that can't be charged to a credit card; any sex-act that deviates substantially from standard heterosexual, heteronormative social models of normal shagging is that much more subversive. The UK fetish scene plays into all of these deviances, so it attracts - and influences - many who find themselves outside the 'hetero-normal' bracket, whether gay, straight, bi, trans, gender-queer, teenage or middle-aged. It's a subculture that's intensely, gorgeously performative, with many clubs and events blurring the boundaries between sex and theatre. Fetish is fun.

Playing with power.

It's also a subculture that's intensely respectful - almost definitively so, since power-play and BDSM are amongst the main thrusts (sic.) of the scene. The feminism - or feminisms - of BDSM are a minefield of fascinating cultural specificity, since by their very nature power-play fetishes operate beyond the sphere of existing power agendas, and are worked out for themselves, between consenting adults both of whom are gaining from the power transaction. That's not to say that some people - both male and female fetishists - take other, personal socio-political agendas into the bedroom, but it's very far from the norm. You'll find men who are sociopathically domineering at home or at work begging to be straight-jacketed, chained and flogged by tiny women in ridiculous shoes; you'll find women who love to be laced into corsets and spanked until they scream on the boards of companies or on the frontlines of feminist rallies. In fact, the mere act of playing with power in the bedroom can change one's response to the imposition of power in other, more clothed arenas of life.

Cash for Kinks.

The only problem I have with the scene - and it's a big problem - is the high cost of entry. Sexual subversion is a powerful force for social change; one of the only ways to defuse it is to twist its emphasis into line with the dominant status quo. In Western domestic society, capitalist participation and acquisition- shopping - is the dominant status quo, so it's hardly surprising that one of the main activities of the fetish crowd seems to be buying stuff. That shopping is a central part of the fetish experience is less surprising still in the light of the intense performativity of the scene - in which both voyeurism and exhibitionism are major parts of the participatory experience. The scene is partly about showing off; showing off one's eccentricities, kinks and physical assets, however, becomes less playfully shallow when it necessarily also involves a display of one's disposable income. The lifestyle is expensive, from bondage gear, toys, equipment and outfits to tie-in objects d'art, all of which need to be specially and carefully made, and all of which are costly. Unfortunately, although members of the scene are generally co-operative types, the nature of many of the toys means that sharing isn't an option. What all of this means is that vulnerable members of society - the young, those on lower incomes or without the disposable cash required - find themselves excluded from the very sexual underworld that could do most to expand the horizons of the naive and under-privileged. In a very Marxist sense, the fetishism of the scene extends to the commodity as well as to the sex-act.

That said, though, at one point, whilst living with a Domme and her sub, I made them a present of a washed length of black inner-tubing from a car engine that had been abandoned in the road near my college. Bondage games, and sex-fetish play in its broader sense, need not be prohibitively expensive.Moreover, the fetish subculture is one of the closest things to an anarchic, self-perpetuating mini-economy that the UK, along with other states, can boast: most fetish products are made by small, independent businesses and craftspeople for a dedicated market. Few people become multi-millionaires through fetish business, and those who participate do so for love of the craft and love of the scene, since profit margins for bespoke items and products made from, for example, rubber and worked leather, are so low - 'an average of 5% across the industry', according to one insider. Finally, most of those involved in selling to the scene are scene members themselves; there's a certain, elegant simplicity in the economic lives of a group who make a living selling chic couture sex-play gear only to finance the purchase of more of the stuff for their own play.

The key difference with the sexual-fiscal economy of the fetish subculture is this: the sex is the point. The sex is the point and the shopping is subsidiary to it, whereas in mainstream, heteronormative advertising culture, the shopping is the point, and sex just a means of upping sales.

So, tonight I'm putting a leash on an obliging boy, packing some whips and bondage tape and heading to a club for some investigative journalism. The fetish culture negotiates a minefield of capitalist moral quicksand and power-games; I want to know if it's retained its subversive soul. Goshdamn, but I hope so. ;)

Tuesday 20 November 2007

Fucking like a Feminist

Stop the press, hold everything! Recent studies have found that feminists do it better: that, contrary to traditional stereotypes, feminism and romance are not incompatible, and that both women and men have healthier relationships with feminist partners. Thank you, Rudman and Phelan: we knew this already, but it's nice to have an official seal of U.S academic approval, nonetheless.

The study worked on the hypothesis that 'if feminist stereotypes are accurate, then feminist women should be more likely to report themselves as being single, lesbian, or sexually unattractive, compared with non-feminist women.'

Not only was this proved categorically untrue, but 'healthier relationships' and better sex lives were reported all round by feminists and those who loved them.

So: Feminism in Being Good For Everyone Shocker. The reasoning behind the Rudman/Phelan report's findings isn't too taxing to get our flexible little heads around: sex between two partners who see each other as human beings, and not as 'means to an end', is going to be better sex than any encounter in which one or both partners are made to feel guilty, ashamed, incomplete, or in which one person's pleasure is privileged over the other. Men who see women as the rounded, complete people we are - not as little-girls, as baby-makers, porn stars, fragile domestic goddesses, two-dimensional helpmeets, as property, as status symbols or as 'compliments' to male dominion - are going to be much more fun to be around, and are going to enjoy our company much more when we eventually demonstrate that we have hearts and brains as well as tits and cunts.

What's truly shocking is that an article on the study which came out this week on the Guardian's Comment is Free page - a netspace that hardly springs to mind as a hang-out for right-wing shit-stirrers - prompted hundreds of righteously indignant comments from men, and some women, who did not concur that fucking like a feminist is good for the nation's sexual and emotional wellbeing. This is just one more indictment of how far we have to go before we get our sexual attitudes sorted out in this messed-up consumer society. Even on this blog, I've had comments telling me that the idea of men giving to women in bed is ridiculous, that I should learn to give better head and plug my outsized feminist gob with something useful whilst I'm about it.

So, let me tell you a few things about feminism, sex and socialism.

Fucking like a Feminist

1) The concept is not all that different from Screwing Like a Socialist, the basic principle being that the other person is not there to be consumed, except possibly with whipped cream. The person or persons in your bed are not products, and you're there for their pleasure as well as for your own. Even in bondage/kink/role-play situations, the agreement is the same: respect my desires and I'll respect yours. Treat me like a human being and I'll treat you like a human being. Get me off and I'll get you off. Sex negotiated on terms other than these, sex which is abusive, destructive or lacking in mutual respect, isn't good sex, except for very sad people with serious self-esteem problems.

2)Sex is not a bodily transaction with orgasm for one or both partners as the desired end product. Sex is a physical and mental exploration of pleasure and its possibilities. The mainstream model of heteronormative, heterosexual sex -whereby penile penetration is the main event, with the man eventually achieving orgasm and, ideally, bringing the woman/girl to orgasm as well by thrusting into her with his penis - is limited and outdated. Challenging received gender roles in the bedroom means more experimentation, more emotional risk-taking, and more fun for everyone.

3) Choice, variety, equality, respect. Feminists - by which I mean male and female feminists - sleep with men, with, women, or with both. Feminists have sex both within and outside of long term relationships. Some feminists are kinky, or polyamorous, or have rare fetishes; some aren't, and don't, and that's alright too. Some feminists are dominant in bed; equally, some feminists like nothing more than to be bent over an armchair and spanked silly, and that's alright, too. Some feminists love cock to distraction; some feminists are rampant, unstoppable lesbians with a string of satisfied girlfriends; and some feminists really don't like to have sex at all. And that's alright, too; any sexual proclivity is feminist, in fact, if it is approached with equal respect for both partners' needs and desires and rights as human beings.

4) Feminists see their sexuality - however it may manifest - as an important facet of their personality, but only one facet nonetheless. Sex is important. Sex is delicious. Sex can't be ignored or evaded or made irrelevant, especially in a capitalist society which uses it to sell products on every billboard and street corner. Sex is also only one factor in the myriad concerns which make up women's complex lives, and men's, for that matter: reducing your partner, or yourself, to the level of a purely sexual animal, is degrading, sexist and ultimately demeaning to both partners.

5) Feminists have fun and respect each other. Feminists are sexually brave, which is not incompatible with sexual shyness. Feminists are not afraid to ask for what they want in bed - or to accomodate their partners' desires. Feminists are gay, straight, bisexual, transsexual, genderqueer, kinky, vanillla, radically romantic, in myriad changing combinations. Feminists are fun, in and out of bed : period.

6) What feminists don't do, however, is sleep with men (or women) with entitlement complexes; men who think of women as lesser creatures, accessories, there to provide sexual satisfaction for men and to be used and dominated without their consent. It's not that feminists think men are the enemy: it's that feminists have enough self-resepect, generally speaking, not to sleep with bigoted arseholes. Let me leap to conclusions here, but I think we may have found the basis for objection of many blog-trolls, bullies and boors with an inflated sense of their own Right to Rut: hot, self-aware feminists simply won't sleep with them.
And doesn't that just make them hopping mad?

What the volume of opposition to the findings of the Rudman/Phelan study (and to what enlightened women have known all along) demonstrates is simply the impotent, cross-patch flailing of bigots and bullies who realise that they might not be able carry on using treating their partners as sex-toys and expect to get laid anymore. It's the frustration of men, usually young men or the privileged, moneyed middle-aged, encountering the fallacy that women aren't sex-objects, whores, or pneumatic blank-slates, that good sex involves an encounter with a partner's heart, mind and soul as well as their tits, cunt and arse. It's the rage that heralds the stripping of unearned sexual privilege, and we must not give it space. Once they've shaped up enough to get a taste of feminist fucking, they'll never look back

Friday 16 November 2007

Behave? No, no, no!

Even considering that she's been splashed over the front pages of 'Metro' and 'London Lite' pretty much constantly since January, it's been quite the week for Amy Winehouse. The Wino party bus rolled into Birmingham amid the aftermath of husband Blake Fielder Civil's imprisonment for trial-fixing; that the subsequent tour dates have been 'shambolic' is hardly surprising. What is surprising is the fact that Amy's crowds are still surprised by her on-stage breakdowns, fits of tears and shouting, drugged-up mania and stagey strops such as, lately, hurling away the microphone and walking out in the middle of a cover of the Zutons' 'Valerie'. Guys -it's Amy Winehouse. You pays your money, you makes your choice.

Let me make a confession: I'm a huge fan. Never mind her bizarre hairdo and manic, self-destructive fits. Never mind her drug-use, her obvious eating disorders, her boozy, floozy, shambolic nicotine-diva behaviour. Never mind the fact that she's a glorious trainwreck. I think Amy's great.

The simple fact is that Amy Winehouse is breaking new ground. Never before has a female rock star -and Amy is unmistakeably a rock star, despite her sultry jazz-pop numbers - been so badly behaved, so publicly. From Jagger to the Doors to Nirvana to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers to the Libertines, male stars and groups have used drugs, turned up on-stage drunk or not at all, got into fights, trashed hotel rooms, had ill-considered, public love-affairs, and made a great deal of mess for their well-paid managers to sort out. This trend has rarely extended to female stars - in fact, 'messiness' of this sort has routinely spelt career death for any starlet with an eye on her own perfume label. Not so with Amy's, whose lifestyle and cleverly constructed lyrical manifesto are all about hard-drinking, drugs, crazy men and glorious emotional anarchy, served up on a platter of ice-cold cynicism with a vodka chaser. I hardly dare to imagine what an Amy Winehouse perfume would smell like, but I, for one, wouldn't let it anywhere near my pressure-points.

Stunts like, say, stepping out in blood-soaked ballet slippers are perfectly pitched to subvert the 'sweet and innocent' paradigm perpetuated by singers like Britney Spears in the late nineties. Alright, so Amy's not exactly taking care of herself. She's openly admitted to having 'a bit of bulimia, a bit of anorexia', and seems to be living on a diet of booze, fags and attention. Her car-crash of a marriage, up to and including the latest jail debacle, hasn't exactly struck punches for female independence; the extravagant, passionate way Winehouse and Fielder-Civil have conducted their love-affair, however, is framed on more than an equal footing: Amy very much wears the trousers (or should that be the ballet slippers?) in this relationship.

She's clever, non-conformist, and has a wonderful, cynical sense of self-deprecation. I can't help it. I think she's fantastic. Winehouse's summer anthem, 'Rehab,' was a rallying-call against the forces of conformity and behavioural pathologisation. 'They tried to make me go to rehab,' she belts out with the force and passion of a woman three times her physical size, 'but I said, no, no, no.' Strange, then, that 'go to rehab' is exactly what newspapers and feedsites across the world seem to be suggesting that Amy do - the press have leapt, drooling, upon every drugged-up appearance, every instance of diva-like behaviour, as a sign that the singer should lie down and line up for institutionalisation like a good little girl.

Catastrophe Princess?

Funnily enough, noone has yet tried to suggest that Mick Jagger - or any other male musical icon you care to mention - is clinically insane and should be institutionalised for his own good. Amy's self-destructive non-conformity is much more threatening to a social paradigm that has always been able to cope with wild young men, but still can't quite handle wild young women, except as charity cases or warning stories. Across the pond, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Lindsey Lohan have jumped on the Catastrophe Princess bandwagon, falling out of nightclubs without their knickers on and being locked up for drunk driving. Winehouse, though, refuses to fit neatly into the box the media have drawn up for female stars gone feral.

For one thing, she's still very much on her feet. For another, she's a phenomenal talent: Back To Black, her latest album, was this week confirmed as the top-selling record of 2007. Her music has even made me - me! - hum along to blue-eyed soul, and I normally like my noise with three chords and a man from Belfast shouting. Her lyrics are powerfully raw, emotionally honest; her compositions demonstrate a musical range and a depth of feeling remarkable for a 24-year old from Enfield. 'Rehab' ends with a confession that brings an unanticipated lump to the throat of anyone who's ever tried to self-medicate for depression:

They said, I just think you're depressed
I said, yeah, baby, and the rest...
It's not just my pride
It's just till these tears have dried.

She's been justifiably lauded as the most important British musical talent to emerge in the past few years. Alright - so Amy Winehouse isn't a good girl. She's probably mad, certainly bad and quite possibly dangerous to know. She's emotionally anarchic, self-destructive and an unashamedly bad role model for clean-knickered young people everywhere. And I, for one, hope that she never starts to behave.

Monday 12 November 2007

Thoughts on Lyrical Terrorism.

I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

There are many things wrong with me, the top three being that I'm young, foolish and not as clever as I think I am. I have not posted for two days because I spent all of Saturday on a balcony somewhere in the depths of Haringey, being pumped full of dubious substances and ranting to anyone who would listen about how George Eliot was a disgrace to the revolution. I then spent all of Sunday sipping weak tea, watching Doctor Who, nursing a thoroughly deserved hangover and trying not to move my hands, as the sound of skin on blankets was upsetting me.

I am 21-and-almost-a-quarter years old. This sort of behaviour might not be clever, nor might it be setting me up for a glittering career in industry; it is, however, allowed, even expected, that young people in their early twenties do do thoroughly silly things from time to time. Drink too much, say, or take too many drugs; hurt themselves and other people through ignorance or cowardice or naivety or panic or sudden lust. In a fit of pique, one or two errant young things have even been known to vote Tory, although I've heard that you can now get pills for that on the NHS.

The point is that this sort of weird, destructive, fucked-up behaviour is not unexpected for bewildered, thrill-seeking young people in their early twenties. Really, deep down, most of us just want to look cool in front of our friends. Thankfully, most of us are also able to get away with a few indiscretions as we ramble our sticky, sordid way towards adulthood.

No such leniency for the Lyrical Terrorist, though. At the end of this week, Miss Samina Malik, 23, became the first woman to be convicted under the UK terrorism act. Malik had been working at a branch of WHSmiths at Heathrow airport, and spent her spare time writing really terrible poetry praising Osama Bin Laden, scribbling cryptic messages to herself on the backs of till receipts, and possessing a copy of the Al-Quaeda manual. At no point do any press releases give details of firm evidence that Malik is linked to any terrorist group whatsoever; she simply claims to have called herself 'The Lyrical Terrorist' because 'it sounded cool'.

Malik remains under house arrest until her sentencing on the 6th of December.

has pointed out, quite rightly, that Malik has been convicted for thoughtcrime, pure and simple. In the abscence of concrete underground activity or rebellion, merely the idea of such activities constitutes crime. Oh dear. Looking through my bookshelves, I possess the following seditious texts: The Scum Manifesto, by Valerie Solanas; Intercourse, by Andrea Dworkin; 1984, by George Orwell; The Female Man, by Janet Russ ...and many more, actually. I've written some really shocking poetry in my time, too, mostly to a boy called Ian Waples who was two years older and had dreadlocks. Moreover, whilst bimbling around the house cleaning things, I can often be heard singing punk songs alarmingly out of tune (one of the many reasons I like punk: it's forgiving to the anarchically passionate, yet musically average participant). Some of these songs even contain anti-establishment sentiment. I like folk music, my god - most folk songs are about rape, murder, rape-and-murder, or political insurrection. Do I have no shame? Does this mean that I, personally, am about to storm Dublin with a backpack full of nailbombs? Does owning 'The Scum Manifesto' make me a potential muderous man-killer, just drooling to aid and abet bio-terrorists in their ceasing struggle against our male overlords?

Of course it bloody well doesn't. Why, then, is a naive, rather stupid, politically curious, quite possibly mentally disturbed young woman - probably dissatisfied with a boring job and with her disenfranchised status as an Islamic young woman of colour in the UK - now under house arrest? Why is she being convicted for possessing material 'likely to be useful for a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism', when what's really useful to people preparing terrorists acts are not volumes of childish dogma but, say, phone-numbers. Any contacts at all. Weapons, or materials for making weapons. All of these would constitute potential evidence of planned terrorist activity: the ramblings of an addled young woman with delusions of grandeur, scribbling on the back of a stationary receipt, are not.

That Malik is being treated in this way because she is Muslim, of Middle-Eastern origin and female, is not up for debate. What this young woman needs is some compassion, and perhaps a few days off work and a decent therapist to listen to her problems. What she's got, however, is a slap-down conviction for nothing more than thoughtcrime, a conviction that will no doubt prevent her from securing decent employment for a significant period of her young life.

Something is deeply, deeply wrong here.

Wednesday 7 November 2007

And today, on Brown-o-vision: Gordon Goes for Gold!

The Queen's speech really does get on my tits. Not least because, this year, some of the most interesting policy-proposal in the past few months was dribbled out to a televised audience of ermine-clad, elderly peers in silent ranks - only half of whom have been elected since the Lords reform bills of the past decade - looking disturbingly like something from an Ursula LeGuin novel. Lords expert Meg Russell is damn right to point out that this 'anachronistic hoopla' does nothing to strengthen popular faith in politics. I sat through the whole thing half-expecting an exchange along the lines of: 'we're reviewing the 28-day terrorism suspect pre-trial bill'! 'Oh, no, you're not!' (They're not.)

This, however, is the right move. Or, at least, it looks like the right move. Rights to flexible hours for more working parents? Great. Great, because it brings working womens' issues back into the spotlight. Great, because it might help persuade the voting public that Cameron isn't the sole Great White Hope of working families. Great - as long as it's backed up by legislation ensuring that those who then seek flexible hours don't a)face a drastic salary-cut or b)lose their jobs.

One thing, though. The right is only available to any employee with 12 months' service. Correct me if I'm wrong, but 12 months, for, say, a woman with a young child attempting to return to work after maternity leave, is a very long time indeed. A proven year-long service record will be no problem for many of the more affluent, middle-aged, middle-class citizens, but it WILL be a problem for the most vulnerable working citizens: contract workers, those in low-paid service industries where jobs are less permanent, immigrants, recent graduates, women returning to work, and the young. Furthermore, this sub-clause will mean the new legislation has no effect on the corporate bullying of the 1 in 16 British workers who are classed as 'agency workers' - this includes, for example, a substantial proportion of UK nurses and care workers.

Moreover, it seems that employers will have the right to refuse flexible working hours 'on the grounds of excessive cost.' Brilliant: so we'll have no actual right to flexible hours - but nevermind, at least we'll have the right to ask for them!

Distinctly below-average, there, Gordon. Must Try Harder.

Tuesday 6 November 2007

Islam, feminism and false logic on the left.

Came across this little gem via feministe: feminists are letting the terrorists win.

In precis, conservative students across the USA have been picketing Women's Studies departments which do not offer a model on Women and Islam, specifically denouncing Islamic cultural practices, as part of 'Islamo-fascism Awareness Week' (if you nearly spat your tea across the keyboard at that one, you're not alone). The reasoning being that, if you're not denouncing the treatment of women in Islamic cultures, you're not denouncing 'Islamo-fascism', which you should be doing as a good little American citizen. The really funny thing about this one being, of course, that the issues of Women in Islam, and the situation of women in the Arab world, have absolutely bugger all to do with US/British military action in the gulf.

Generally I find myself on board with the fine people at feministe on most things gender-political. This blogger, however, seems to have fallen for some very simple false logic. To whit: the Republican argument that, if one supports military action in the Gulf, one must actively denounce the mistreatment of women in the Arab world, does not mean that those who oppose military action can't actively involve themselves in Islamic Feminism. That's just as nonsensical as arguing that all feminists are proto-terrorists. The original article says, in fact, that protestors have specifically been targeting those Women's Studies faculties which do not have any provision for Islamic Women's Studies whatsoever. Now, I'm no Redneck Republican, but I'd be on the front-line of any protest to raise the academic accessibility of such studies. One in every three women in the world is a Muslim. Two percent of the population of the US and three percent of the population of the UK are followers of Islam. Islamic issues, for better or worse, are of deeply topical political and cultural significance. As such, for an academic department to ignore them, much less one which purports to deal centrally with issues of equality, is not only racist, but phenomenally short-sighted. The fundamental point that both this blogger and the whole damn Republican Right (tm.) seem to have missed is that awareness of and concern for women's rights in Middle Eastern totalitarian states has little or nothing to do with one's support, or lack of support, for military action. Sloppy thinking there. Very poor show.

Alright, now let's get one thing straight: the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were nothing to do with women's rights. Had the combined Pentagon and Westminster hawks been at all interested in fighting for the safety and self-determination of women worldwide, they would have made constitutional protection of Afghani women's rights a priority whilst they were masterminding the new constitution. They would not - just for instance- be wining, dining and declaring 'shared values' with the leader of a country boasting arguably the most shocking human rights abuses against women on the globe. The pro-war lobby does not care about Arab women, other than as a convenient lever to prod wavering centrist liberals into acquiescence.

All the more surprising, then, that the blogger at feministe seems to interpret the protest action as demanding that feminists either 'condemn their [Islamic women's] religion and...launch deadly attacks on their countries' or shut up and get back to figuring out what Mary Wollestonecraft ate for breakfast. Even more deeply reductionist is the assumption that Islam is 'not our culture, so it's not our business, so it's not our place to get involved.' Hello? I'm sorry, since when did 3% of the population constitute 'not our culture'? And since when did 'not getting involved' imply 'not speaking about Islamic issues, not speaking about Islamic women, not getting angry and organised about the phenomenal cruelties and injustices that are carried out overseas in the name of religion'?

Yes, political involvement with cultural and religious cultures and sub-cultures that we don't understand is foolish. Which is exactly why we should be educating ourselves about them. Which is exactly why we need more courses on Women and Islam. Lack of understanding is a piss-awful excuse for inertia on the political left. At some point, someone's going to use the word 'multiculturalism', and then I'm going to have to go away for a little bit and break things.* When are we going to get it through our thick collective heads that Islam, Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic totalitarian states are not the same beast?

Crucially, Islamic women are not homogenous. Yes, as some clever linkage in the feministe post demonstrates, there are lots of vocal, independent, successful Muslim women. I went to college with some of them; I've been on the panels of feminist conferences with others; throughout my life, there are likely to be Muslim women writing my textbooks and signing my paychecks. However, the fact remains that Islam is non-monolithic: Islamic women's issues in the Western world are not of a kind with Islamic women's issues in many extremist Middle Eastern states. Although it is, thankfully, getting easier for Muslim women in the UK and elsewhere to be self-determining, it is no less the case that many Muslim women, especially those in Arab states, do not have voices, are unable to stand up adequately for their own rights, and need the support of other men and women, both Muslim and non-Muslim. We need to be talking about the role of women in Islam, and we need to be analysing the situation of women in Islamic states, and - just as importantly - we need to be aware of the difference.

Discussion of this sort is crucial, both within and outside academic environments. Only by talk and debate will the general public come to the realisation that Islam is neither an evil, nor even a specifically sexist religion: rather, that there are some who use Islam as an excuse for misogyny and cruelty, that there are some heinously woman-hating, homophobic, savage totalitarian regimes masquerading as Islamic states, and that these are subtly separate issues from the theosophical paradigms of Islam itself.

Self-education is one of the most important ways in which the left can regain the courage of its convictions. Flatly denouncing someone's religion is unacceptable, especially when used as an excuse to, say, commit atrocities abroad. But questioning how that religion is used - indeed, questioning how all major world religions are used - as a destructive tool in the hands of oppressive personalities and regimes is vital to liberalism, to feminism, and to humanism.

*'Multiculturalism' = quite possibly the most disgusting and misleading word in the English political lexicon: admirable in concept, it's been used as shorthand for tolerating cultural segregation and ghettoisation, and for conveniently sweeping messy issues like arranged marriage under the carpet, shorthand for 'it's not our problem because they're not really British/American/people with rights and feelings'. 'Multiculturalism' as it's understood today, particularly in the UK, has nothing to do with real respect for other cultures.

Monday 5 November 2007

Anarchy in the UK!

Every time I sit down to write about politics I end up writing about emotions, and every time I try to write something emotional it always seems to come back to politics.

I'm 21 years old, and have been hunting happiness since I can remember. Sometimes constructively, sometimes destructively, and pretty much always chaotically: I've experimented with drugs and sex and therapy, read all the self-help books I could get my hands on, seen herbalists, hypnotists, homeopaths and sociopaths; I've had my heart broken and I've run clod-footed over the hearts of others in search of emotional enlightenment. I've travelled continents with only a small back-pack half-full of rolled-up socks, poetry books and Polish vodks. I've been an anorexic, a starver, a self-harmer, an addict, a manic depressive, and have suffered from crippling anxiety attacks. I've been institutionalised, and I've soldiered through an Oxbridge degree, which is pretty much the same thing without the nurses, the locks on the doors and all the free biscuits.

The hardest thing I've had to learn in all of that time is how to sit with sadness.
What started me thinking about all this was nothing more than a scrap of conversation with a friend, and then, on the Picadilly line to college, watching a grown man in a sharp suit fighting back tears behind a copy of the Metro.

So much of modern life is about trying to buy things that will distract us from our problems, make us 'happier': up the interminable escalators to the spit-out point on the street, dozens of billboards try to tell us how to be wealthier, prettier, sexier, slicker, cooler - as if, somehow, all this would make us forget that we were angry, or hurt, or tired, or lonely, or sad.
Happiness, in fact, does not require the abscence of sadness. Real contentment, in fact, requires one to routinely sit down with sadness, one's own or other peoples', and acknowledge it, and allow it to pass through you.

Capitalist faux-democracy, however, does not allow for sadness. I shan't, actually, apologise for talking feelings and politics in the same breath, because I'm convinced that the two can't be separated like that. So: the capitalist political paradigm does not condone sadness, because if one is sad, and if one acknowledges and takes time to process and to sit with one's sadness, then where are the profit margins? What can be sold to stopper that sadness, if one has suddenly decided to feel it and to let it go?

Note, of course, that I'm not talking here about serious depression, which is its own, frightening illness deserving of every medical, personal and psychological attention that can be thrown at it. I'm talking about low-level sorrow, fits of black dog, depressive days, dissatisfaction, loneliness, bad turns, the Blues. The sadness that everyone encounters on a reasonably regular basis because, hey, life's not always amazing fun. The capitalist political paradigm tries to persuade us that these feelings can be squashed down or bought off. Actually feeling painful feelings and letting them go is antithetical to capitalist idealism, despite being generally essential to personal wellbeing. Actually being awake and aware of one's own feelings, rather than numb to them, is a threat to capitalism. Sorrow, properly and unashamedly acknowledged, is a threat to capitalism.

Unfettered joy is also a threat to capitalism, because joy - spontaneous or self-supporting - needs no financial transaction to take place. Joy is a simple, visceral response to the unpriceable pleasures of life. Uncontrolled joy - like uncontrolled sadness - is not encouraged in our society, where one is, instead, expected to be neither too happy nor openly sad. Unrestrained joy is a threat because it cannot be controlled or adequately hung on to. It is a threat because automatically exposes one to the thing that capitalist thinkers fear most: loss.

Emotional fluency is, hence, deeply radical. I propose Emotional Anarchy.

I propose genuine psychological self-determination in which every emotion is valid and needs no apology. I propose adventures with independence, dependence and interdependence. I propose bravery in self-exploration, I propose being unashamed to express feelings on public transport, I propose radical kindnesses, considered excesses, dances with one's own joy and despair. I propose Emotional Anarchy.

Emotional anarchy does not require you to run riot with your feelings, although rioting may be an unavoidable side-effect. It requires only honesty, self-expression, consideration and kindness. It'll probably save the world. To conclude, before I disappear into my soft, damply pink teenage faux-political rectum, I'm reminded of a snipling from Blake's 'Songs of Innocence and Experience', which says this better than I ever could:

He that binds to himself a joy/ Doth the winged life destroy -
He that kisses the joy as it flies/Lives in eternity's sunrise.
From The Clod and the Pebble.