A new coinage of mine is ‘Rorschach text’ – a body of writing read necessarily according to prior sympathies. Scripture is, of course, the best example, but secular texts are just as liable to work this way, and we’re all as guilty of partial interpretation as each other. Yesterday, the Rationalist Association published a piece by the New Left Project’s Priyamvada Gopal, entitled ‘The Right may have hijacked the issue of gender segregation, but that’s no reason to ignore it’.
After a backlash from recent footsoldiers against the practice – Ophelia, the atheists of LSE, the British Council of Ex-Muslims, Left Foot Forward’s editor James Bloodworth and others – the headline was amended to the vaguer ‘Even if you’re suspicious of the campaign against gender segregation in universities, that’s no reason to keep silent’. I’m not sure this helped: the campaign, singular? There’s been more than one, from separate factions of British politics, since March’s infamous Krauss-Tzortzis debate put segregation on the mainstream media map. I’m fairly sure by ‘the Right’, Gopal didn’t mean the names above or last week’s Tavistock Square demonstration. Personally I liked the post – my reading of it at least – and I agree with her.
‘Ours is not an easy moment’, Gopal writes, ‘at which to practice [sic] a simultaneous commitment to anti-racism, equality and social justice. It’s a particularly testing time for progressive people who affiliate in some way to Britain’s ethnic and religious minority communities, among whom Muslims are under unprecedented attack. For us, it is especially difficult to practise a commitment to gender equality and social change in a context so heavily shaped by an intolerant Western “liberalism” passing itself off as “secular”, “enlightened” and more knowing-than-thou.’
Hello, Pat Condell – co-opting, distorting and outright inventing Islamic human rights concerns to feed an anti-Muslim, anti-migrant animus.
Hello, English Defence League – loved by Condell, posing as a liberal human rights organisation, lifting arguments near-verbatim from the One Law for All group while packed to the brim with neo-Nazi violence and theocratic Christian nationalism.
Hello Douglas Murray – pushing the clash-of-civilisations view that animates these monsters, calling the EDL an ‘extraordinary phenomenon’ and ideal ‘grassroots response by non-Muslims to Islamism’, arguing with spectacular obtuseness that to keep it at bay we need a reinvigourated national(ist) identity – that is exactly what we don’t need.
Hello David Cameron – parroting Murray’s rhetoric, the gentrified form of the EDL’s, demanding ‘muscular liberalism’ in a push for ‘British’ and ‘Western values’. Being at odds with the West, for fuck’s sake, is Islamism’s main selling point – condemning it for that is the perfect way to market it.
When the segregated Krauss-Tzortzis event made (inter)national news, Student Rights – contained and funded by Murray’s think tank, the Henry Jackson Society – was among the first sources to cover it, and the outpouring of recrimination since, both in the pages of papers like the Spectator, Telegraph and Daily Mail and recently by figures like Cameron, Vince Cable and Michael Gove, has come in large part from those Gopal cites as ‘so-called “muscular liberals” (generally, in fact, deeply conservative white males with a commitment to the idea that West is Best)’.
‘The battle lines were drawn once again’, she argues, ‘between [them] and defenders of the rights of minorities to their own customary or traditional practices. Those of us committed to both anti-racism and feminism must ask, however, whether we are really constrained to make our choices within this exhausted binary.’ It’s the same case Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters – endorsed in Gopal’s past work – makes in her speech at the Secularism 2012 conference, that presenting orthodox, patriarchal religious practices as culturally essential (as both the ‘muscular liberal’ right and apologists for segregation on anti-racist grounds are prone to do) empowers conservative religious authorities at minority-ethnic women’s expense.
To use Patel’s examples, playwright and Sikh woman Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti was forced to cancel plans and enter hiding in 2004 when production of Behzti, a story of murder, rape and abuse in a Gurdwara angered the Sikh right, who later claimed they’d have used the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 to suppress the play had it existed then; likewise, the treatment of bodies like the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal as the Muslim population’s representatives in matters of race relations and ‘community cohesion’ ignores and disenfranchises its female and feminist critics in that population. The ‘exhausted binary’ Gopal describes emerging from these issues’ cooptation by right wing elements like those namechecked above, where one either exploits religious sexism to ostracise minorities or treats them as ‘“harmless symbols” of community identity’ required for those minorities’ protection, silences the ‘many Muslim women and men, individuals and organisations [who] have also long queried such practices’.
Hers isn’t an argument that anti-segregation action is right wing by nature or should be abandoned – it’s an argument for the opposite, and specifically for anti-racists and ethnic minority women to support it vocally rather than be put off. ‘The fact that the issue was hijacked by conservative newspapers and politicians does not mean that the issue itself is irrelevant or cannot be addressed through nuanced and historically informed debate’, she writes. ‘I grew up in a context where gender segregation in many public spaces is common and ostensibly voluntary but far from making me comfortable with custom, it caused me and others concern. It did not take the proverbial “decent, nice, liberal” Europeans to get us to ask what segregation meant in both ideological and institutional terms.’ ‘It is at our peril that we, particularly women who come from non-European communities, cede or suppress [opposition to to such things] in the cause of anti-racism, vital though the latter is.’
I don’t mean to reproduce her manuscript with annotations or parse it condescendingly, but I am aware its critics have stressed its alleged impenetrability. (To me it seems perfectly readable: one hopes they never need Judith Butler’s help.) I understand the frustration of the Tavistock Square organisers at seemingly being called white, male and rightist – with central participants like Patel, Maryam Namazie and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown no less – but given her apparent ignorance of their demonstration at the time of writing, it seems clear she referred to Murray, Cameron and figures like them.
Some, Ophelia in particular, have charged her with ineptitude for not knowing about a demonstration ‘that got major media coverage and thus the attention of politicians who then firmly rejected gender segregation’. I didn’t know about it myself before it happened, and only then because colleagues including her mentioned it. It had, in her words at the time, ‘a small turnout, which was disappointing’; it wasn’t widely reported in mainstream media, except on Channel 4’s site. I can certainly believe it influenced the politicians’ comments that followed – though so might any of the previous pressure from the Telegraph or Speccie – but the coverage of those comments over the protest itself, if it did, exemplifies the very prioritisation of conservative white voices Gopal describes.
I don’t agree with her every line; not, in particular, with her characterisation of Student Rights, who she pointedly notes ‘[have] not addressed greater gendered problems on campus, such as the pay gap or sexual violence’. While I think there’s a time and place for noting inconsistencies, the group is a counter-extremist body: these aren’t issues that fall within its remit. It has, however, opposed Christian fundamentalism at some length as well as the far right’s presence on campuses. Their individual staff are a mix of conservatives who take after Murray and the HJS and centre-left progressives like Rupert Sutton, who does most of the group’s day-to-day work. Similar scenarios exist elsewhere – I know of at least one officially centre-right think tank most of whose staff are dramatically left of it due to its lax recruitment practices – and I suspect that, as with Sarah Brown at Harry’s Place, the centrality of Student Rights’ role as an HJS-sponsored group symptomises more than anything a lack of receptiveness to these issues on Britain’s left. Broadly, I’m glad of their existence and their work.
Perhaps my view of the piece or interpretation of it will change. For now, I’m with Gopal.