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Feb 10 2014

Putting a rainbow on Sochi’s games changes nothing

Some years ago, the Asian Women’s Advisory Service on Mare Street, Hackney had to close. In 2009, the rebuilding was bought up, transformed into an upmarket café (£6 per halloumi-and-avocado burger). Joking ostensibly at their own expense, the management named it the Advisory, retaining the old sign and furnishing walls with ironic citizens’ advice slogans. The Twitterati fumed on getting word of this last summer, and the owners – keen social media watchers, no doubt – agreed to dispense with the sign. The progressive Third Estate and countless commenters called this ‘A victory against hipster colonialism’, but victory would have been the Asian women’s centre’s survival. Taking the sign down was a mitigated loss, but only in aesthetic terms.

Why mention this? Because commentary on Sochi’s current winter games brings it to mind.

Courtney Caldwell, of the Cult of Courtney blog:

There’s been a lot of virtual ink spilled since the Olympics opening ceremony about the supposed LGBT themes that run amok in Sochi. Slate wasn’t the only outlet to write an article detailing just how “gay” the opening ceremonies were. But amidst growing rumbles from the progressive journalists about Russia’s increasingly backwards treatment of LGBT citizens (if you’ve not read Jeff Sharlet’s heartbreaking piece, go do so now. It’s lengthy, but worth it), many bloggers and Tweeters seemed excited by Greece’s supposed display of support for LGBT rights:

And who wouldn’t be excited? The fingers on their gloves appear to be the colors of the rainbow, a universal symbol for LGBT pride, which would seem to be a direct attack on Putin’s extreme stances on homosexuality.

. . .

The gloves are available for purchase, but the money goes straight to the Sochi Olympics[.] You see, those aren’t rainbow-colored fingers. Those are the colors of the Olympic Rings. What seemed at first to be a big gay “middle finger” to Putin, is nothing more than an expression of Olympic pride. But the story was believable, wasn’t it?

Not just the gloves, and not just Slate. Google’s rainbow logo, more undeniably an anti-homophobic gesture, drew the liberal commentariat’s applause, as did endless memes that echoed Slate by mocking every irony in sight. (‘Before you criticise Vladimir Putin for spending $51 billion dollars’, an admittedly amusing one from Red State Dems declared, ‘try forming a 51-strong male chorus without a single gay man.’)

Last-laughism fills the subtext here. If the whole thing’s a bit gay, we’re encouraged to console ourselves, Putin is showing himself up – his policies, once rainbow flags festoon the place, can’t be taken seriously; he and his friends have failed. Progressive forces have come out on top: sit back, bolstered, and watch the curling.

While we pat ourselves, chuckling, on the back, queer people are assaulted brutally on Moscow’s streets. Protesters like Anastasia Smirnova are arrested, as those police thought may cause ‘disruption’ were two years ago, ‘preemptively’, in London. Trans athletes, as Caldwell writes, face ‘regressive policies’ – not Russia’s, but the IOC’s – demanding they complete the forms, surgeries and drug courses deemed necessary in order to compete.

Those of us skeptical of boycotts hoped the games might magnify all this. Can they, if spectators’ impulse is to laugh at their own clever jokes about Olympic camp, as if once multicoloured gloves are worn, the day is won?

The Twitter mob who cheered the Hackney Advisory’s change of sign were as guilty as its owners were of reducing grim-faced struggles to marketing: a politics taking triumph in such superficial things is exactly that of the halloumi hipster. Mock the Olympiad’s medievalists and demagogues, by all means, but putting a rainbow on it gains us nothing.

Jan 25 2014

Coming Out Atheist: a tribute to godless people

I remember a time that I was in an airport, getting coffee before my flight and chatting with the barista. He asked where I was coming from or going to (as chatty people in airports often ask)—and I hesitated. I was coming home from an atheist conference, and I was tired, and I didn’t know if I felt up to having that conversation. But we’d been talking at the conference all weekend about how important coming out was, and I felt like I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t take this opportunity. So I went ahead. I said that I was coming home from an atheist conference, that I was an atheist writer and speaker and had been giving a talk.

And he got the biggest surprised smile on his face, and said, “Thank you. Thank you for doing that work.”

So writes Greta Christina in Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, And Why, released this spring. You know if you’ve watched her blog in recent months that she spent them writing it. I spent parts of them reading it, too.

I can’t say I’m unbiased. I’m quoted several times, thus unlikely to impede book sales on purpose. I have all kinds of reasons not to enrage the author (like she’d need it). And having had input on two drafts, I’m bound to like the final one – I’d have no right to make noises if I didn’t. There’s no point trying to be detached. If you’re seeking a balanced, neutral review, don’t seek mine. But do buy Greta’s book. It’s great.

Coming Out Atheist is in some ways a sequel to Why Are You Atheists So Angry (2012) – more precisely, a difficult second album. Her earlier book (and first atheist one) shared its title with a Skepticon talk attendees and YouTube viewers loved, itself spawned by a viral blog post. The formula makes sense: only a wilfully self-sabotaging writer could fail to capitalise on such a winning theme. After that, though, where to go? Coming Out Atheist isn’t one speech or article’s clear product, nor deliberately topical. It didn’t write itself the way its predecessor might be said to have. Whyever Greta embarked on this and not a different book, she thought about it. Her thought, I suspect, was to shine a light on other other unbelievers.

‘This book feels very much like a collaboration, even a community effort’, the book’s introduction, since cut, read. Why Are You Atheists So Angry was declaratively and self-consciously its author’s book, written Greta-Christina-style by Greta Christina of Greta Christina’s Blog, on Greta Christina’s thoughts about religion, with Greta Christina in its cover art. The maker, not just the medium, was the message. Coming Out Atheist, by contrast, spotlights dozens of names: ‘Sarah, a former Catholic’; ‘Jesse Daw[,] a 33-year-old gay man living in Fort Worth, Texas’; ‘Air Force 2nd Lieutenant Madison Scaccia (dates of service: August 2011 – present)’. ‘CoolRed38, who was brought up as a Muslim in the Middle East’. ‘CD from TX, a former passionate Christian and worship leader’.

These atheists’ and others’ stories fill the book – over 400, many of them cited there, inspired it, and the finished product pays tribute to them. Reading them changed my thinking on a hotly argued topic.

All kinds of tensions have arisen about paralleling queer and atheist struggles, something new atheism has been prone to do from Elisabeth Cornwell’s (then Richard Dawkins’) OUT Campaign to Bill Maher’s statements on unbelief and gay marriage. Straight atheists’ readiness to poach queer lexis certainly deserves reproach, but it bothers me how much critique has stressed stating one’s atheism simply isn’t like being out-LGBT – like ‘coming out’ in either case means one essential thing and nothing else.

Identities mean infinitely many things. There are people who think ‘gay’ means anyone who isn’t straight, who think it means exclusively same-sex attracted, who feel all manner of attractions but claim it since they only act on same-sex ones; people who think ‘atheist’ means any non-theist; that it means convicted god-denier; that it means confrontationalist. Many describe themselves using any of these terms because they understand them certain ways. Likewise coming out.

There are queer people – and atheists in this book – who struggled internally at length and performed tearful confession-rites to parents. There are queer people – and atheists in this book – who never struggled at all. There are queer people and atheists who took years to formulate a clear identity and those who ‘always knew’, queer people and atheists who attacked, harassed or disowned and those who surfed smoothly out of the ‘closet’, queer people and atheists who reject the notion of the closet or necessity of ‘coming out’ at all.

Taxonomising comings-out is easier to do across belief and gender-sexuality columns than it is to do within them. Queerness and godlessness are both taboos that get brushed under the rug, unspeakable politely over dinner – whatever secular heaven Britain might be thought to be, it’s still the case that calling oneself an atheist feels rude. This is a closet just as much, I think, as the ones we’ve build around sexual and gendered deviance, a constructed stigma that policies expression. We can’t speak any more sweepingly about what realities, in either case, are faced – they vary enough that to do so means homogenising queer people and atheists.

I say this as one of each. So, I’m pretty sure, does Greta. Her book’s not out yet (so to speak), but you should read it when it is.

Jan 20 2014

A study in reset buttons: the trouble with ‘His Last Vow’ and Sherlock series three

Sherlock had a good first series and great second one. The recently aired third helping fell somewhere in between, but its final part, the glossily directed ‘His Last Vow’, was deeply flawed. (Spoilers to follow.)

There was much to like, even to laud, about it. The story’s opening showed more promise than either of its predecessors’, Lindsay Duncan was on form in guest star mode and Lars Mikkelsen, playing Charles Augustus Milverton via Rupert Murdoch, served the icy creepiness his family has cornered. There was far more plot, too, than in either of the prior episodes, and fans seem to have welcomed it. Unfortunately, it falls to bits under the lightest scrutiny.

The denouement came as Magnussen tricked Sherlock, accepting Mycroft’s state-secret-filled laptop in return for showing him his vaults of blackmail material, then revealing they were only in his mind. Mycroft and his snipers thus caught John and Sherlock selling secrets, yes, but they also caught Magnussen buying them. Surely even sans faults, there’s an arrest in that?

‘I don’t have to prove it, I just have to print it’, he says when John points out his lack of hard evidence. If so, why does he need to know these things at all? If things he threatens to print don’t need to be true (or proved to be), why bother memorising endless, unverifiable details? Why not print just anything?

And if he’s only printing libel without proof, why is the secret service (Mycroft’s lot, at any rate) so scared of him? If all he publishes is deniable, why would they even be that worried? Magnussen is meant, of course, to resemble endless press barons – Maxwell, Murdoch, Dacre – raising the awkward point that the gutter press prints unsubstantiated gossip all the time. Harrowing for private individuals, certainly, but nothing for security forces to fear.

Given that Mycroft and his people, who seemed to want rid of him anyway, were apparently the only witnesses besides John to Magnussen’s death, why did shooting him even put Sherlock at risk? Given how shadowy Mycroft’s department seems, having seemingly tortured Moriarty during series two, hadn’t any of them thought of just assassinating Magnussen? And why didn’t Mary, who had, just do so anyway when Sherlock arrived? Sherlock would surely have covered for her, as he has for John – yes, she’d have a witness whose secrecy she relied on, but that’s what happened anyway.

Speaking of Mary… I’ve said it before, but Steven Moffat can’t write women. liked her in Mark Gatiss’ episode as a bread-baking part time nurse and disillusioned Lib Dem. I liked her lying about liking John’s moustache and their interplay in ‘The Sign of Three’ – I liked there being a normal person who took Sherlock’s side, and I liked how likeable Mary was made, a departure from her typical portrayal. I didn’t want another sex-crazed femme fatale – another Irene Adler, River Song or Tasha Lem. You can bet come series four, her gun-toting secret agent background will turn up again and she’ll be just one more of Moffat’s female tr(oll)opes. She was more interesting as she was.

Speaking of women and how Moffat fails at writing them: it wasn’t just Mary’s character that got retconned. Look what happened to Janine, the bridesmaid-on-the-lookout from episode two – here rewritten as a scrounging predator, by turns stupid and unscrupulous, combining sexuality and treachery as Moffat’s women (Song? Adler?) often do. Sherlock even calls her a whore. Then look at Lady Smallwood, the battleaxe and damsel in distress; Sherlock’s mother, ‘monstrous’, oblivious, fawning and a ‘flake’; Mrs Hudson, funny because she used to be a stripper, daft and treated with contempt by everyone around, heroes included. This must have been the most women in any Sherlock episode – and when the best-presented one is Molly Hooper, pathetically in love as ever, things aren’t going well. Yes, there’s a problem.

In the end though, ‘His Last Vow’ was a study in resets – retcons, reversions and suddenly-dropped ideas. Mary became a villain, then wasn’t after all. Sherlock shot up so Magnussen would think he was an addict, then Magnussen didn’t believe him anyway – despite him testing positive. Magnussen seethed and basked in villainy… then arbitrarily got shot. Sherlock was flown to probable Eastern European death, then flown back minutes later. This was a plot that didn’t know what to do or be. And then… that ending.

Look.

I love Moriarty. I love Andrew Scott as Moriarty. I loved his storyline in series two. But part of it was shooting himself in the head.

When Moriarty aimed his gun inside his grinning mouth and pulled the trigger, it wasn’t just a way to write him out, but a character moment – perhaps the ultimate one. This man was so unhinged, so desperate to spite Sherlock, that he’d kill himself to cut off his escape route. Reversing or negating that doesn’t just wind the story back – it undermines a powerfully crucial aspect of who Moriarty is.

That episode of series two, in case you hadn’t noticed? January 2012. Two years ago. Three years at the very least before we tune in for Sherlock series four. It speaks to a stagnating story if two to three years later, we’re still hung up about what happened on Bart’s Hospital roof. Series three’s sole contribution to long-continuity appears to be John’s marriage, and that’s not much sustenance for a one or two year wait till we see Baker Street again. (Compared, at least, with ‘How did Sherlock survive?’) I didn’t want another Moriarty arc – I’d have much preferred a longer, fuller look at Magnussen.

All in all? A muddled episode and rather wasted, if entertaining, third series.

Jan 13 2014

10 things atheist groups can do to take on class exclusion

When I wrote on this blog that I was homeless once, response was good – including, to my surprise, from colleagues with affluent backgrounds. What’s not surprising is how many of my colleagues’ backgrounds were affluent. The secular movement is notoriously exclusive, and even internal moves for change have met resistance.

Demands we talk about class from those unwilling to adjust their politics have at times derailed gender and race (among other) debates, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. A friend sought suggestions last week about how to be more economically inclusive. Here are the ones I made:

1. Remember poor people – some of them are atheists.
2. If your group’s a church alternative… be an alternative.
3. Don’t just meet at the ‘nice’ end of town.
4. Don’t charge prohibitive entry fees.
5. Provide childcare, free of charge.
6. Don’t hold graphic design contests.
7. Don’t just hire graduates.
8. Pay your speakers – well.
9. Pay your interns – money.
10. Remember ‘students’ and ‘young people’ aren’t synonyms.

Read more at Alternet.

Jan 11 2014

99 ways I’ve personally been victimised by religion

How many of you have ever felt personally victimised by Regina George religion?

Various articles have circulated recently attacking ‘new atheism’ and trotting out familiar ‘don’t be a dick’ arguments: Alom Shaha’s and Ariane Sherine’s at the Rationalist Association, Martin Robbins’ at Vice. Marianne Baker, on her own blog, has weighed in.

I’ve already responded to Alom’s, which appeared in New Humanist some months ago. All kinds of things in articles like these – not just or even necessarily these ones themselves, but the common rhetoric of ‘chill atheists’ at large – tend to grate on me: conflation of opposing religion-qua-religion with a vicious, scathing tone; conflation of it in principle with sexist, racist or otherwise unseemly views, common admittedly in some ‘new atheist’ sectors; dismissal of opposition to religion-qua-religion as a useful goal; dismissal of ‘atheist’ itself as a meaningful identity.

It’s meaningful to me. The last two, and the related claim that religion in Britain isn’t much of a problem, are things I’ve heard a lot from atheists with no strong background in religion, who haven’t in any extensive sense been on its receiving end. As someone who has, it’s hard for me to say how galling I find atheists with no serious religious history telling those of us profoundly affected by our own to pipe down, be nice and stop bashing God already, so ‘positive’ or ‘constructive’ goals can be achieved.

I frequently share Greta Christina’s legendary talk at Skepticon IV, ‘Why are you atheists so angry?’, in arguments like this. Her litany of grievances, on behalf of firebrands like me, is a perfect testament to the things about religion that enrage us, why that rage is valid, and why blaming religion-qua-religion for them is legitimate. But there’s also a problem: Greta had an atheist upbringing too. Apart from a handful, her complaints are of religion’s impact on the wider world and not on her own life personally.

When you’ve been on its business end and been trodden on, speaking to the harm it does – particularly in angry, confrontational, uncompromising terms – can be healing in ways atheists don’t always seem to grasp who haven’t. It is, for us, constructive.

I’ve often wished to illustrate this with a litany like Greta’s – but unlike hers, one specifically of my own grievances. This is it. Read it, if you grew up secular, and grasp why some of us are fierier-than-thou. I’ve 99 problems, but bashing God’s not one.

* * *

1. Being baptised into the Church of England, made a member before I could speak or walk. (A prayer on the certificate reads ‘May he grow up in Thy constant fear’.)

2. Not being able to undo that membership, despite attending a different church for nearly all my time as a believer and being an atheist today. The Church refuses to strike names from its baptismal rolls, since the number of names there is the number of members it’s allowed to claim. That one of them is my name tells you how honest this is.

3. Being taught religious narrative as uncontested fact – not just virgin births or resurrection, but a world created in six days and Noah’s flood. It took till I was eight, browsing an encyclopaedia I’d been given, to realise people disagreed.

4. Being fed the ‘nice’ bits of the Bible - David and Goliath, Jesus and Zacchaeus, the Good Samaritan – but never encouraged to read it like I would another book, and growing up with huge, convenient gaps in my knowledge.

5. Dreaming of Satan aged three or four (or someone I assumed was Satan), and thinking seriously that it meant something; hearing his voice, while awake, tell me to be naughty too.

6. Having birthday parties held with the church, or following attendance in the morning, so children with different backgrounds couldn’t come, even when I wanted to spend time with them.

7. Being made to pray (or pretend to) in assemblies at school – all the way from reception class at four years old to sixth form at seventeen.

8. Being subjected to local clergy’s sermons in some of those assemblies – something like once a week, again all the way through. (All these clergy were Christian. Tax-funded schools in the UK are required to practise ‘broadly Christian worship’, and in my hometown there were no other faiths anyway.)

9. Being taught in class, aged five or six, that Hinduism’s gods were false – unlike Jesus. ‘False gods’ were Mrs Ironmonger’s exact words, in part of the syllabus designed to give a balanced view of another faith.

10. Fearing anything even faintly Asian – yoga, women in saris, the Bollywoodish song on the Moulin Rouge! soundtrack (I know) – since Indian religion, Hinduism especially, was Satan’s work. I feel sure that if I’d been at primary school following 9/11, Islam would have filled this role instead.

11. Being read the Chronicles of Narnia – like that wasn’t enough – and told the hideous skeleton-god Tash, antithetical to Aslan and worshipped by the dark skinned, Eastern, polytheistic Calormenes, symbolised Hinduism’s Satanic gods. (Which, to be fair, he largely did.)

12. Wanting to go on a fast, aged six, as a gesture of faithfulness. Church members did this quite often, as I recall, for a weekend or so. We hadn’t much food as it was.

13. Being told Mrs Jones who died of cancer was in Heaven, aged six, by my primary school’s headteacher. She told us this in a specially arranged assembly, and that Margaret (as I’d known her in church) was with God now, smiling down at us. It wasn’t a passing comment, but the main point of her speech.

14. Being told my non-religious relatives were now in Hell, aged six or seven, when I told Mum I thought having no god at all – compared with having a Satanic Eastern one – seemed fair enough. Hell meant to me, and I assume to her, a literal furnace at this point.

15. Being told to participate in ‘faith healing’ on a weekend at a church camp aged six or seven. (Mum, at this point, was going through a charismatic phase, surrounded frequently by fundamentalists. I, and later she, reverted to the more traditional Christianity we’d practised earlier the day I had the chance.)

16. Taking part in Operation Christmas Child at teachers’ and church friends’ encouragement aged seven or eight. The scheme, led by a man who supports nuclear action against Muslims (yes, Muslims specifically) and calls Hinduism Satanic (sensing a theme?), distributes shoeboxes of temporary gifts to children in poverty – accompanied with evangelical literature and mandatory Bible study.

17. Being told aged eight or nine that Satan had possessed me. Mum and I argued till our church leader came round at her request to scold me. I refused to apologise, telling him to leave, mouth dry and crushing pains in my chest. Later she said it was the Devil using my voice, and invited to pray in tongues. I never did.

18. Thinking sincerely at that age that my father was a demon. Angels patrolled the Earth – surely the fallen ones did too? If the thought’s more frightening still that his drinking, theft and violence were entirely human traits, I now see what this stopped me from appreciating: that the man almost certainly had some form of mental illness.

19. Spending Hallowe’en terrified each year, even into my teens – chanting, on a whispered loop, ‘Jesus is Lord’ to keep Satan’s forces outside (that is, children in monster masks) at bay.

20. Taking part aged eight or nine in a church march round my town, praying outside shops with Buddha statues in their windows or toy witches – confirming church members’ view it was their right, and thinking it was mine, to dictate what other people find profane.

21. Being terrified into my teens of any kind of horror – particularly, like The Omen or The Exorcist, horror with a religious bent. The one exception was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which for some reason got a free pass despite Mum calling it demonic. Even then, I watched it in secret when she wasn’t in the house.

22. Being told aged nine or ten that I was damned, since I’d sworn something ‘in front of God’ that Mum didn’t believe.

23. Being told by my teacher Mrs Walker that Warhammer was Satanic, due to the use of dark, soul-rending magic in its universe. Not Harry Potter, mind you. Not sure why.

24. Having teachers at my primary school who lost their temper at or punished blasphemy. Mrs Walker in particular, a member of our church like Mrs Jones before her, considered this her job – which, at my church-run school, it was – at least as much as teaching.

25. Having Bibles and Gospel tracts handed out at school, which classmates and I under the age of ten were told to take home and study.

26. Being fed demonising, inaccurate canards about Islam after 9/11 happened. I was ten at the time, and subsequently told that Muslims were Arabs and Arabs were Muslims, female genital mutilation and the killing of non-Muslims were doctrinally central to Islam and that its followers by definition ‘all want to die for Allah’.

27. Hearing my class gasp when Mrs McDonald, a formidable left wing English teacher who also taught us ‘Citizenship’ aged 12 and 13, said she was an atheist.

28. Hearing my mum deny flat-out that Christians would refuse to pay for food, when I relayed to her common stories of guests at my hometown’s evangelical convention leaving gospel tracts rather than money next to restaurant bills – as if Christians acting unethically were somehow implausible. (Keep reading if in doubt.)

29. Being told ‘it says in the Bible “live and let live”’ – it doesn’t – and that Jesus supported public welfare provision (where is the evidence for this?), as if supporting these somehow meant plagiarising Christian morals.

30. Being raised to judge whether people were Christians by their ethics. My father and his female partner couldn’t really be Christians, for instance, since they weren’t good people.

31. Having homophobia preached in my school lessons, aged fourteen or fifteen, by substitute teacher Mr Ingles, who’d once taught RE full time. The right response to a gay friend, he said, not understanding ‘why any man would want to put that part of his anatomy there’, was to love the sinner and ‘hate… hate’ what they did.

32. Wondering what the lesson was when I was spat on, hit, harassed in the street, when things I owned were destroyed – wondering why God had planned this for me, what I was supposed to learn from it, and what I’d done to make him test me in such ways. (This, I stress, was long after Mum’s charismatic phase, when my beliefs were perfectly mainstream, non-fundamentalist Christian ones.)

33. Forgiving the bullies who hit me, spat on me, destroyed the things I owned and harassed me in the street, rather than standing up to them, because loving my enemies and praying for my persecutors was the Christ-like thing to do; because he forgave those who knew not what they did; because the right response to being struck was to turn the other cheek, not to resist; because those who lived by the sword died by the sword.

34. Wanting to die anyway, making more than one attempt, after years of doing the Christ-like thing.

35. Fearing suicide would land me in Hell during my first attempt, as I swallowed whole boxfuls of painkillers.

36. Lapsing back into religious dependency in the aftermath, feeling guilt over this and needing emotional support, and being told turning the other cheek the way I had was praiseworthy – then lapsing back into that, then suicide again.

37. Being told tearfully by my mum that she prayed for my soul nightly, some time after learning I was an atheist, like I was to blame for what she feared might happen to me, or for her fear itself.

38. Being told ‘I’ll pray for you’ - in that superior, knowing way – by her and other believers when I applied to university and staffed a humanist street table in Oxford, as if to say I know something you couldn’t hope to know.

39. Being told religion cost her nothing, ‘but if you are wrong, you are in serious trouble’, her finger jabbing sharply at my chest as if to spear me through the heart.

40. Hearing her call atheism a reasonable conclusion… while still apparently condoning damnation for it.

41. Reading a clipping on her noticeboard that said to pray for me because I chose ‘another path’ rather than to ‘serve God’, and let God ‘close the deal’ with me to ‘turn [my] stubborn heart around’ – like I’m an atheist because I’m stubborn, disobedient or delinquent, and not because I find it the most coherent answer to religious claims.

42. Hearing her explicitly acknowledge her beliefs as ‘irrational’… while still living by them, making me as a child, and doing everything else listed here.

43. Being patronisingly called a ‘truth seeker’ by her – like caring about what’s true is an optional fucking lifestyle choice. (This doesn’t strike me as an unfair or overblown description of her stance.) Note this contradicts the idea I’m an atheist because I’m stubborn or disobedient… and that numerous other views of hers are likewise incompatible.

44. Being asked ostentatiously if I’m ‘spiritual’ or have ‘an inner life’ by her – like whatever these meant provided an emotional fulfillment atheists, with our empty, hopeless worldview couldn’t hope to have.

45. Getting a dismissive, frustrated ‘Well, okay’ when I said I didn’t know what these things meant – like failing to understand meaningless, vague deepities and wanting clarity made me shallow, unenlightened and mundane… rather than better at communication.

46. Being told I was raised to think critically, skeptically and for myself on more than one occasion. No. I was duped, exploited, fed beliefs as uncontested facts, pressured into evangelism, pressured into faith healing… the list goes on. Denying this happened denies my right to feel how I feel about it.

47. Being told to come back to church ‘just as practice’, because the university I was going to had chapels, and I’d be expected to take part in services there. (I wasn’t, and it would have been a problem if I was.)

48. Going to a university that still had chapels. Not just voluntary services from local groups with adverts in the common room for those who wanted them – functional, religious, Anglican chapels as part of the infrastructure, with chaplains on the college payroll. (I don’t think it helps that most of them, when it came down to it, were really atheists.)

49. Having to stand through a Latin grace at meals when I visited other colleges at Oxford. Mine never practised this ceremony, part of the reason I applied there (Oxford University comprises many separate colleges, as the U.S. does individual states), so I only ever had to endure it twice – but students there sometimes had to regularly.

50. Getting looks of disgust and hostility from strangers when I helped staff a humanist table in the street. Not for doing or saying any one thing: simply for standing at a street stall with ‘Humanist’ and ‘Not religious?’ signs. This was in Oxford – hardly the buckle of the Bible Belt.

51. Getting told not believing in God made me an idiot by other strangers who actually spoke to us.

52. Getting threatened with a literal, fiery Hell by strangers who spoke to us.

53. Getting doorstepped by evangelists at my and relatives’ homes, and forced into conversations about God.

54. Having to do a risk assessment when believers ask to meet me having found my work online – weighing potential benefits against likelihood of being preached at, interrogated, recorded, threatened. The overwhelming majority of meetings like this have been good: it’s how I got involved in what could be called an interfaith project, and how I went for dinner with a (lovely) preacher whose (unlovely) sermons I’d blogged about. But I have had bad experiences – the calculus is necessary.

55. Getting preached at during my evangelical friends’ wedding.

56. Fearing being deemed a ‘dick – not a thought that concerns me often, you’ll have gathered – for sitting silently through the hymns rather than joining in.

57. Being called aggressive or intolerant for wanting secular public space.

58. Being called a cold-hearted atheist grinch for not celebrating Christmas.

59. Being called a hypocrite devaluing Christianity for celebrating Christmas in the past.

60. Being called a hypocrite for eating chocolate eggs at Easter – as if egg rituals in spring, or even the name ‘Easter’, were original to Christianity.

61. Being confronted with picketers and preaching at atheist and skeptical conferences.

62. Receiving death threats as a student – graphic, detailed ones – when I wrote in support of atheist Facebook groups sharing Jesus and Mo cartoons.

63. Being the ‘bad guy’ at family gatherings, particularly Christmas, who doesn’t say grace at dinner, go to church or read bedtime stories about God. (This has been a problem in particular since my niece, now six, arrived.)

64. Having my atheism mentioned in an ominous tone, by family and others – ‘He’s an atheist…’ – like a drug problem or improper sexual fetish.

65. Having to do a risk assessment before mentioning I’m an atheist to new people – weighing the likelihood of condemnation, arguments, awkwardness. I never had to do this as a Christian.

66. Having to do a risk assessment before mentioning atheism on my CV. This might sound odd, but much of the work I’ve done – group organising, writing, graphic design – is atheist-related. I have to weigh the likelihood of hostility or discrimination from those reading my CV, and I know any number of other atheists who do. This would be unthinkable if our work had been for church groups. Again: not in the Bible Belt. In green-pastured, supposedly atheist-loving England.

67. Being spoken to like I know nothing of Christianity or its texts by believers, including family with seemingly short memories… even when on cut-and-dried questions like reference in the Gospels to damnation, I could demonstrate more knowledge than they did. On a related note:

68. Being spoken to by believers like they personally are sole authorities on their religion, and no reasonable controversy exists – like the time Mum read my coursework for religious studies (my highest-graded subject) on competing Christian soteriologies of faith versus good works and called it ‘incredibly erroneous’, because ‘if Adolf Hitler had been a Christian, he would be in Heaven now’; the time I criticised belief alone as a requirement for salvation, and my sister said ‘No, that’s not true… that was cleared up a long time ago’ (notice their disagreement proves wrong both their assertions of a settled debate); the time a family friend read my coursework on the Irenaean theodicy and responded ‘No, no it’s not thatit’s the Fall’ (proposing Augustine’s alternative) like this was the most obvious thing in the world. I was still a Christian at that time: this kind of intellectual arrogance is something believers inflict frequently on one another, not just atheists.

69. Having to go to church to mourn a nonagenarian Anglican friend, who always sent me sweets at Christmas as a child. Having to sit silently through songs and sermonising, the odd one out, because there was no supplementary, non-religious wake.

70. Being glared at by the priest as I left my friend’s freshly-filled grave for sitting silently through the hymns.

71. Wondering if being queer would cost me his friendship, as a King James reading traditionalist Tory, had we still been in contact by the time he died.

72. Hearing homophobic jokes from the boys in the tent next door when I went to an evangelical youth camp and blogged about it. Not knowing how to report this when the code of conduct involved no rule against it, and parts of some sermons were tacitly or overtly queerphobic.

73. Hearing my parents’ friend discuss the need to ‘keep marriage Christian’ in their kitchen, from the next room. (I think same-sex marriage is a movement that deserves a lot more scrutiny politically than it’s received – but I also think this was hugely homophobic, and that one might as well keep post offices Christian.)

74. Hearing a variety of homophobic things from Mum while I was a young child, which I now suspect (since her views were always muddled) she got from evangelical and charismatic Christian friends.

75. Hearing her grouch to me about one friend’s views today, forgetting conveniently how many of them (see above) she once shared or adopted.

76. Learning one of the church wives told her, when she compared my shy 12-year-old self to Freddie Mercury after I showed unexpected onstage energy, ‘Let’s hope Alex doesn’t have anything else in common with Freddie Mercury’.

77. Learning my dad’s next partner told her, when I was 17, ‘I hope [Alex] gets his sexuality sorted out’. This woman was a regular congregant at the same church as my old Anglican friend, full of homophobes and conservatives; her views on sex and relationships, as long as I’d known her, were always religiously derived.

78. Hearing my brother call queer sexuality ‘an offence against nature and God’ from the next room, at Christmas, while he spoke to Mum and other members of the family.

79. Having to do a risk assessment on this too when I meet religious people, particularly according to their age and denomination.

80. Having preachers in my own town’s marketplace call me an abomination.

81. Being told after blogging about it by my mum that I ‘have a go at Christians’ – as if she was the victim, and it was my fault for pointing it out and not keeping politely stumm when a member of her religion quoted horrible things from its central text.

82. Watching Mum enter emotional lockdown – falling passive-aggressively silent, changing the subject, leaving the room – when faced with anything from measured, polite critique of her stated beliefs to mild amounts of snark about them, holding herself emotionally hostage so that commenting as I would on any other subject makes me into an insensitive, aggressive bully.

83. Being expected to accept this, treading diplomatically around the topic, and respect her right not to be preached at or forced into unwanted discussions. Fair enough – but when as a child was I ever allowed that right?

84. Having to deal with her emotional incontinence even in non-argumentative, non-combative conversations about religion – the time, for example, when she broke down into tears (while driving) attempting to describe what Christmas meant to her – so I have to handle her beliefs with kid gloves instead of treating them like any adult’s views.

85. Hearing her call The Da Vinci Code ‘part of all the Christian-bashing that’s going on’ after its release – like people saying ‘I’m an atheist’, ‘Religions are mistaken’, ‘Religions are silly’ and ‘Religion harms the world.’ I know what actually being bashed is like – and what being spat on, called an abomination, threatened with Hell and threatened with beheading feels like. Christians aren’t persecuted in Britain. Deal with it.

86. Watching Monty Python’s Holy Grail and hearing her say haughtily at the ‘Holy Hand Grenade’ scene that the filmmakers ‘love[d] to deride Christianity’. Yes… and?

87. Listening to her complain of anti-Christian sentiment… while doing all the things mentioned here and more, apparently expecting members of her faith be able to act with impunity, no matter how obscenely. If people in Britain have negative views of Christians, which I’m not sure that they do… don’t lists like this go some way to explaining why?

88. Seeing her treat her father and mine as bellwethers of ‘aggressive atheism’, dismissing any critical comment I make on grounds of having ‘heard it all before’… without taking time to compare my views with theirs. There are a hundred angry atheists – more – who don’t speak for me. Chances are they didn’t. (I don’t treat individual believers like they speak for the rest, after all.)

89. Seeing her give £5 notes to Salvation Army chuggers because we depended on their charity once. The Salvation Army has campaigned extensively against LGBT rights, including for recriminalisation of homosexuality, and denied help to queer couples on the streets.

90. Knowing if I ever needed aid from such a group – if matters were so desperate that I threw myself on the mercy of faith groups – there’s a real possibility I’d be denied it.

91. Knowing we’d have lost a huge amount of social and economic aid, at the lowest ebb of her time as a single mum on benefits, had she lost her faith or left the church – and that atheists and ‘doubters’ the world over stay in their pews because of this.

92. Having a nightmare recently about demonic forces stalking me, my first for years, and waking in a cold sweat. I can’t be sure, of course, that I wouldn’t have anyway without the upbringing I had… but I’m sure that made it harder to shake off than a different nightmare would have been.

93. Fearing being deemed a ‘dick’ for publishing this list, another angry, ‘awful’ atheist taking unproductive potshots at religion – and fearing this particularly from other atheists. Speaking to the things faith’s done to me is productive as far as I’m concerned. (I still consider this a form of victimisation by religion, because I think it stems from religious beliefs’ characteristic insulation against criticism, and the way attacking them like other ideas is ‘rude’, ‘aggressive’ and unacceptable in polite – sometimes even atheist – society.)

94. Being savaged mercilessly when I am an impolite dick now and again. I wake up angry about some things on this list: it’s a struggle not to hulk out constantly, and I can’t win that struggle all the time. Treating me as the bad guy the one percent of the time I lose my temper is unreasonable and unfair – it ignores the context of enormous harm from which my temper stems. Forgive me if I can’t contain it at all times. The 99 percent of the time I do, it takes hard work.

95. Fearing Mum will read this list and feel attackedagain! – instead of called to account. Sometimes, someone else is the victim.

96. Fearing a chorus of ‘Yes, but-’ when I hit ‘Publish’. ‘Yes, but your experiences are a drop in the ocean’. ‘Yes, but some believers are persecuted’. ‘Yes, but you still shouldn’t bully or harass believers.’ This post isn’t about how representative I am, oppression of religious groups or anything any atheist does being okay. It’s an evocation of the harm religion’s done me, and why I’m motivated by it to be confrontational. Please don’t derail it.

97. Being told I ‘just got a bad version’ of religion – that a fundamentalist or extremist fringe was what trod on me, whose members are a few bad apples in the cart. Fundamentalist beliefs did tread on me – but the version of Christianity that almost cost me my life, like the versions of religion that caused most of the harms mentioned on this list, was perfectly mainstream and non-fundamentalist.

98. Having my feelings on religion dismissed because I’m bitter. I am. And I’m right.

99. Writing this post casually in a few hours – and knowing I could go on.

Jan 02 2014

The right propelled last year’s ‘segregated seats’ debate – and yes, it matters

‘I am very well aware that journalists, politicians and policymakers alike may have great interest in stories like mine, and may even attempt to use them solely to progress their own agendas, some of which have a distinctly Islamophobic taint to them. That does not mean those stories are not important.

So writes Shaheen Hashmat (alias @TartanTantrum), one of my favourite bloggers, in a post a few days ago. Shaheen is an apostate of Islam, survivor of ‘honour’ violence and a writer on mental health, sex, Scotland and more; she speaks here of difficulty voicing rage at her family’s religion knowing anti-Muslim axe-grinders will hijack it.

I have Shaheen to thank for prompting this post. You have her to blame for it. I’d planned to write it and wavered, resolved then deliberated, recommitted and then shelved it. It won’t be fun writing or defending it – I don’t enjoy being dogpiled by those I respect, as I’ve been the last few days and am sure I will be now. But I’m also sure it’s worth it. This matters. Thanks for the push, Shaheen.

Saturday’s post was a timeline of efforts made last year against gender-segregated seats at universities – mainly at Islamic Society talks, often for guest speakers like Hamza Tzortzis. (See the timeline for exemplary events.) It was written largely to clarify the roles of distinct political camps in opposing it, and especially to illustrate the right’s involvement.

Yes, the right propelled the segregation debate

Priyamvada Gopal was accused of inventing ‘conservative newspapers and politicians’ at the Rationalist Association, criticising how ‘battle lines were drawn once again between so-called “muscular liberals” (generally, in fact, deeply conservative white males with a commitment to the idea that West is Best) and defenders of the rights of minorities to their own customary or traditional practices’. Laurie Penny was accused (by Nick Cohen specifically) of ‘rais[ing] up right wing bogeymen’ in a similar piece at the Guardian.

It’s true both articles gave short shrift to the anti-segregation work of Muslim and ex-Muslim women – Shaheen, Maryam Namazie and the Council of Ex-Muslims, Yasmin Alibhai Brown and British Muslims for Secular Democracy, Sara Khan, Lejla Kurić, Ahlam Akram, Mari Nazmar – as well as that of women and the left at large. (Gita Sahgal, Pragna Patel and Southall Black Sisters, Polly Toynbee, Ophelia Benson, Kate Smurthwaite; any number more.) This work needs visibility: it’s often underfunded, unrecognised and, as Khan writes at the Independent, unaccommodated by existing politics.

It’s also true, however, that Gopal and Penny didn’t invent the Times, the Telegraph, the Mail, the Express, the Week, the Sun, the Standard, the Spectator – papers which dominate 2013′s press coverage of segregated seating. Nor did they invent, as Cohen says, ‘bogeymen’ like Toby Young, Charles Crawford, Graeme Archer, Matthew d’Ancona, Martin Samuel, Brendan O’Neill, Richard Littlejohn, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Vince Cable, David Cameron – nor Douglas Murray and Peter Hitchens, who since the timeline’s end have jumped aboard – to name only white and male and right wing ghouls. It’s not just about mentions per side: the latter voices speak overwhelmingly from bigger platforms too.

It’s a long post – eleven thousand words – that documents this. I thought I’d leave interpreting it, that in mind, to readers. After the response, it seems important to draw out some key points.

First, Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss put this issue on the map. That segregation happens at ISocs’ and other groups’ events came as no surprise last year to Maryam Namazie, prominent campaigners Student Rights (more on them shortly), me or many who’ve followed campus Islamism. Ask about and you’ll hear of it. What made the ‘debate’ at UCL on March 9 the case that caused a national stir, not one of the many prior cases? ‘Had it not been for the furious tweeting of Richard Dawkins’, David Aaronovitch wrote five days later in a column for the Times, ‘I doubt whether I would have heard of this event.’ Dawkins himself (873,067 followers today) tweeted it only because Krauss (63,369) did first.

This matters since their commentary set the tone. Dawkins, in the tweets Aaronovitch describes, accused UCL of ‘cowardly capitulation to Muslims’, exclaiming ‘Who do these Muslims think they are?’ ‘I don’t think think Muslims should segregate sexes’, he added, ‘Oh NO, how very ISLAMOPHOBIC of me. How RACIST of me’, and closed a post on it at RDFRS later cited in the Daily Mail by asking ‘Isn’t it really about time we decent, nice, liberal people stopped being so pusillanimously terrified of being thought “Islamophobic” and stood up for decent, nice, liberal values?’ Speaking to the Telegraph in an article headlined ‘Britons afraid to challenge radical Islam’ (largely regurgitated by The Week as ‘Brits too afraid of “aggressive” Muslims’), Krauss said segregationists ‘feel their cultural norms are not being met’, attacked the notion ‘these cultural norms should be carried out within a broader society that not only doesn’t share them but that is free and open’ and called it their obligation ‘to mesh with broader society, not the other way around.’

This is the ‘clash of civilisations’ standpoint’s racist rhetoric. I’ve chastised Dawkins since for using it. It describes Islam with the language of invasion (compare Dawkins’ ‘cowardly capitulation’ with the EDL’s ‘never surrender’), homogenises Muslims and chides Islamists not with puritanism, polluting a secular public sphere or violating essential rights but with failing to cohere with ill-defined standards of Britishness or ‘Western values’. We see it again as time goes on in the anti-segregation commentary of Anne Marie Waters, Toby Young, Louisa Peacock, James Bloodworth, Chuka Umunna, Richard Littlejohn, Jennifer Selway, Graeme Archer and the Daily Telegraph‘s December 4 editorial, as well as to various implicit extents elsewhere. I don’t think it’s by chance it’s used most by commentators who were never Muslims. The myth of two dichotomised ‘cultures’ at loggerheads, Islam versus the West (or Britain specifically) is the engine of Islamism; it’s what gets ex-Muslims shunned at times as race traitors, pariahs, ‘coconuts’.

Second: Student Rights, as vigorously denied by Nick Cohen and others following Gopal’s post, was instrumental to the anti-segregation push. Between publications, news stories and citations in the press, they’re the ones most often mentioned on the timeline by a comfortably wide berth, twice as much or so as the nearest runners up. ‘Unequal Opportunity’, their May 13 report on segregated events at universities, made headlines across the British press within days of its release and was cited frequently thereafter, particularly following Universities UK’s release of guidance on November 22 condoning side-to-side segregation of men and women. Student Rights (specifically, researcher Rupert Sutton) provided breaking coverage of various segregated events, as it regularly does, including at Queen Mary’s and Northampton Universities, were initial signatories of Maryam Namazie’s petition for UUK to withdraw its guidance, covered the organisation’s response to opposition and covered the December 10 rally outside its headquarters supportively.

Unlike Priyamvada Gopal, I don’t in practice consider Student Rights a right wing group; certainly, I don’t think their work for the most part (the odd Islamist lambasted as ‘anti-British’ notwithstanding) is innately rightist. It is, however, funded and supervised by the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society, whose Associate Director Douglas Murray calls the EDL – whose ex-leader greatly admires him – an ‘extraordinary phenomenon’ and ideal ‘grassroots response by non-Muslims to Islam’ (see the Youtube comments), having infamously said in 2006 that ‘Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board: Europe must look like a less attractive proposition’. Like Shaheen’s righteous rage or the anti-segregation cause in general, Student Rights’ work and Sutton’s personally isn’t discredited by the forces seeking to exploit it, but the latter are concerning. As Chris Moos of LSE’s atheist society, who oddly denied the prominence of Student Rights’ campaign work, wrote at the Huffington Post in May, ‘It is a lamentable fact that it is being left to an organisation with possible ties to a neo-con associated group to highlight what the Left should’.

Third: the loose, broadly left group behind the December 10 anti-segregation rally, many of whose members took credit for UUK’s eventual withdrawal of its advice, were amplified largely by right-leaning media. Their rally in particular gained noticeably greater coverage than similar ones held previously by One Law for All and its associates – I’m doubtful this would have been the case, or that UUK would even have weighed in on segregation, had reports of the UCL event with Krauss and subsequently Student Rights’ report not raised awareness earlier. Apart from the Independent, publications covering UUK’s release tended initially strongly toward the right – objections on the left from people like Namazie, John Sargeant and Rosie Bell were confined to smaller blogs, if very worthy ones. The exception is Polly Toynbee’s Guardian column of November 26, seemingly the paper’s only coverage till December 12, by which time the Telegraph alone had published eight separate pieces on the issue. Once the dispute had been put on the radar, a number of ‘progressive’ or more neutral outlets followed suit, reporting on the December 10 demonstration – Channel 4, the BBC, politics.co.uk, Huffpost – but it remains true that beyond the blogosphere, the right set the agenda.

Fourth, last and doubtless most incendiary: I am not wholly convinced December 10′s protest made the difference it’s been thought to have.

Ophelia Benson said that for once ‘making a stink worked’. Maryam Namazie said the rally ‘received widespread coverage, including when Prime Minister David Cameron intervened to oppose sex segregation’. Yasmin Alibhai Brown said ‘Result! In one week, we, a small group of stalwarts, Muslims and non-Muslims, who are opposed to sexual apartheid in our universities, raised the slumbering politicians and jolted gutless academics. Universities UK (UUK) will reconsider its guidelines’. Student Rights called UUK’s retraction ‘a great success for those who have been campaigning on this issue’.

Jim Denham said ‘At first it looked as though we were shouting into the wilderness: a few blogs . . . drew attention to the outrage, and a small demonstration took place; just 8,000 people signed an online petition. It looked as though Universities UK (UUK) would get away with [it]. Then the issue seemed to take off. To his credit, Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umanna declared that a Labour government would outlaw gender segregation’.

Rosie Bell said ‘Student Rights picked [UUK's guidance] up’, ‘the bloggers you’d expect [Benson, Namazie, Bloodworth] produced angry posts’, ‘mainstream media [Cohen, Alibhai Brown] moved in’, ‘there was a petition and a small demonstration which Channel 4 covered’, ‘the BBC began to thunder’ in discussions on Radio 4 Today and ‘politicians – Chuka Umunna, Jack Straw, Michael Gove, David Cameron – spoke out’, ‘So now the UUK has withdrawn gender segregation from its guidance’.

Denham’s and Bell’s accounts seem in some ways tenuous to me. The TimesTimes Higher Education, the Independent and the Telegraph (twice) picked up UUK’s guidance before any of the bloggers mentioned covered it, and there was a great deal of noise in (again, mainly right-leaning) papers long before the demonstration or Umunna’s comments. There’s also cause, I think, to question the notion in Namazie’s post and various reports that Cameron’s intervention via a spokesperson was what prompted the guidance’s withdrawal. On December 12, before Cameron’s comments hit the press, the Equality and Human Rights Commission had announced via the Telegraph it would ‘help re-write’ UUK’s advice, the story there noting ‘A Downing Street spokesman refused to comment’: Huffpost‘s report the next day, where both Cameron’s statements and UUK’s retreat appear first to have surfaced, mentions only in passing its Chief Executive’s comment, ‘We are working with our lawyers and the EHRC to clarify the position. Meanwhile the case study which trigged this debate has been withdrawn pending this review.’ It seems highly plausible to me then, contrary to what headlines intimated, that Cameron stepped in after UUK retracted its advice and not before.

This blows something of a hole, moreover, in the idea the demonstrators prompted it. Whatever led UUK to seek the EHRC’s involvement, Cameron was still unwilling to comment on December 12, two days after their rally. It’s certainly true it added urgency to the climate of debate, increasing pressure on authorities to act – many media sources used photos of demonstrators or made passing mention of the row having ‘sparked protests’, politics.co.uk referring rather generously to ‘a week of protests’ – but that’s a vexed thing to quantify. We know the Telegraph put pressure on Theresa May for comment on December 4, and that the following day she obliged. We know statements followed from Jack Straw, Chuka Umunna and Michael Gove, and that at some point in this time Vince Cable wrote to Universities UK. This seems more like the kind of thing to me that would put Cameron under gradual pressure than a protest by 100 people.

This isn’t to say it and associated actions weren’t worthwhile. They’ve galvanised crucial alliances, developed awareness of the issue on the left and led to plans for future projects. Nor do I think their organisers wrong to celebrate UUK’s u-turn, whatever the cause. I share their relief, and don’t care to rain on their parade – but I do care about this.

Yes, this bloody well matters

You’re not a good journalist if you don’t know who has the most clout in the room. You shouldn’t be a journalist if you don’t care. Likewise it matters in politics, at least as much as who’s in government, which voices hold most sway.

I’ve been told at every turn that who made the difference here is academic, that it matters only that the argument is won and not who wins it. Would we speak that way of an election outcome – of what put and kept Blair’s governments in power, say? James Bloodworth might. But I see the papers cluttering my timeline and recall headlines like these.

DailyExpress

Telegraph

DailyMail

Times

EveningStandard

Sun

Spectator

If these kinds of press outlets, indeed, these outlets specifically, were instrumental to the anti-segregation pushback – if they were the ones with influence enough to make the difference, for which I find the evidence compelling – do you see why I and others are concerned? It’s all very well not caring who fights the good fight, so long as it gets won, but what happens when the biggest guns turn out to have a fight all of their own, and it isn’t good at all? We cede the debate to kulturkämpfer at our peril.

I am told, additionally, that since I didn’t campaign myself – in other words, blog on the subject – I’m not entitled to complain. I’m flattered on the one hand by the thought my profile’s anything like high enough to’ve made a difference (Penny’s, perhaps), but frankly resent the claim I forfeited my right to comment by not being on the picket line. I’ve taken on any number of ‘Islamism on campus’ fights: Mohammad cartoons at UCL two years ago; at LSE; ‘Islamophobia’ bans there that prohibit criticism; threats of violence at Queen Mary; threats previously at Leeds and other universities; threats I and friends got for writing about those threats;, LSE’s secular group not being allowed ‘ex-Muslim’ in their name; the same group being harassed and threatened at freshers’ fair last year; the measures taken against another group at Reading for calling a pineapple Muhammad; their being banned for it last year. I’m working at present, among other things, on a long, detailed post about segregated seating’s prevalence in British ISocs. But there’s only so much work one feels able to do, and fights are hard. Hang me if I don’t turn up to every last one, every time. Sitting one out now and again doesn’t make me a hypocrite, but even if it did, I’m still not wrong.

Why do we pine perennially at the British left’s reluctance to contend with Islamism, then clutch our pearls tight at the corollary: that the anti-Muslim right, in its absence, holds the floor? Those prepared to make alliances with it, thinking perhaps to take advantage of its firepower, may find their shots at segregation ricochet. You underestimate my boredom if you doubt I can duel both at once till then.

Dec 28 2013

Gender segregation on campus: a timeline of opposition in UK media

There’s been a lot of friction lately over who the main opponents were of segregated seats for men and women at Islamic campus talks, endorsed till recently by higher education group Universities UK.

Priyamvada Gopal, in a December 16 post at the Rationalist Association originally entitled ‘The Right may have hijacked the issue of gender segregation, but thats no reason to ignore it’, described ‘the deft way in which Student Rights, an offshoot of the bullishly paternalist Euro-American think tank, the Henry Jackson Society, has managed to bring “gender segregation” at some campus events to national attention’ and how ‘battle lines were drawn once again between so-called ‘muscular liberals’ (generally, in fact, deeply conservative white males with a commitment to the idea that West is Best) and defenders of the rights of minorities to their own customary or traditional practices.’ She was roundly vilified on Twitter and in the blogosphere for this, charged by a wide variety of anti-segregationists – especially those behind the December 10 demonstration in Tavistock Square – with inaccuracy over who its and related actions’ organisers were.

Laurie Penny, in Guardian column this Sunday she acknowledged as being influenced by Gopal’s piece, wrote that as a feminist she is ‘constantly being told that Islam is the greatest threat to gender equality in this or any other country – mostly by white men, who always know best.’ ‘The rhetoric and language of feminism has been co-opted by Islamophobes’, says Penny, since gender segregation made the headlines this year, and ‘rightwing commentators and tabloids seized upon the issue to imply that Islamic extremists are taking over the British academy.’

Both posts contain inaccuracies and intimations I’d dispute. Penny too faced a wave of criticism, rebuked by Muslim and ex-Muslim women, not unfairly, for ignoring their role in the anti-segregation push – and by Nick Cohen, less fairly, of ‘rais[ing] up right wing bogeymen’. (Both also somewhat miss the mark, I think, in their characterisation of Student Rights, but that’s a different post.) Confusion abounds, it seems, over which forces drove back support for segregation. Both sides have become heated about it.

To add some clarity to the debate, I’ve assembled a timeline of events – coverage, principally, in British media – between March 9 when the issue first came to light and December 15, the day before Gopal’s piece (accused by many of rewriting history) was published. Suffice it to say the true picture is mixed: Gopal’s and Penny’s critics are right to knock them for overlooking one faction’s role, but they themselves are right – and I side with their general point of view, if not their every word – to say right-leaning pundits and publications played a central role.

I’ve made the timeline as comprehensive as I can, though inevitably I’ll have overlooked some things – let me know and I’ll amend it. There are a couple of caveats to this: first, since I’m measuring events in the still-insular British news environment, inclusion is UK-specific, hence Ophelia Benson’s posts at Butterflies and Wheels (cited only once, as I recall, in a post listed below) don’t appear while Maryam Namazie’s do; second, since this post tracks opposition to segregated seating, it doesn’t account for articles defending it – that some papers published more of these than others (the Huffington Post and Independent spring to mind) is, consequently, part of their role the timeline fails to gauge. When it comes to smaller or personal blogs, there’s also a subjective question of which merit inclusion and which don’t, but I’m more or less confident I’ve answered it with reasonable fairness.

The method by which bullet points were sourced, for transparency, had several steps. It began with date-specific Google searches of UK sites in five day intervals between March 9 and December 15 for the keywords ‘segregation’, ‘universities’ and ‘gender’, listing relevant results from the first five pages. After this came site-specific searches for results containing the keyword ‘segregation’ or ‘segregate’ on sites (newspapers’, for instance) that had yielded results initially. Finally, relevant pages already linked or cited were added in, before pages and posts by the specific campaigners Gopal and Penny were charged with ignoring. (Many of these, it should be noted, didn’t show up in the initial search, but I didn’t want to erase them myself, and it’s notable which are and aren’t cited in other media here.)

The timeline follows, with names of major players emboldened and notes underneath on things I find, well, noteworthy.

March 9

  • A debate is held at University College London between Lawrence Krauss and the Islamic Education and Research Academy’s Hamza Tzortzis, entitled ‘Islam or Atheism: Which Makes More Sense?’

March 10

  • Krauss tweets that he ‘almost walked out of [the] debate as it ended up segregated + saw 3 kids being ejected for sitting in wrong place’, adding ‘I packed up and they gave in’.
  • Richard Dawkins responds, posting numerous tweets accusing UCL of ‘cowardly capitulation to Muslims’, referring to Tzortzis as ‘Some Muslim or other’ and asking ‘Who the hell do these Muslims think they are?’ (These tweets and later ones by Dawkins on Islam have heavy criticism, including from me.)
  • Facebook user Dana Sondergaard posts video footage of Krauss threatening to leave, tweeted by him soon afterward, stating: ‘After having been told the event would NOT be gender segregated, we arrived and were told that women were to sit in the back of the auditorium, while men and couples could file into the front’ and corroborating Krauss’ account.
  • Richard Dawkins at the RDFRS site: ‘Sexual Apartheid in University College, London
    ‘A few days ago,’ states Dawkins, ‘I had received a tip-off from somebody who had made an inquiry’, writing that he informed Krauss, prompting him to secure IERA’s (eventually worthless) assurance seating would be non-segregated. Dawkins closes the post asking ‘Isn’t it really about time we decent, nice, liberal people stopped being so pusillanimously terrified of being thought “Islamophobic” and stood up for decent, nice, liberal values?’
  • The Tab: ‘Dawkins outraged by Islamic gender segregation at UCL
    Both Krauss’ and Dawkins’ tweets are cited in the student tabloid’s report, as well as Dawkins’ RDFRS post and statements by students on Facebook that ‘Ucl security helped enforce the segregation’.
  • The forum of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain publishes a widely-distributed statement ‘by concerned students’ that ‘Sexual segregation at UCL is a scandal’, detailing correspondence with university officials who promised a segregated event would ‘not be permitted to go ahead’. CEMB members Adam Barnett and Christopher Roche are quoted as two of the three male students ejected, as well as a female Asian student named Halima and Chris Moos, a prominent member of LSE’s student atheist group.
  • The Huffington Post (UK): ‘Segregated Seating Row At UCL Debate Between Islam And Atheism

March 11

March 12

  • NSS: ‘Islamic group banned from UCL following gender segregation row
  • John Sargeant at Homo economicus’ Weblog: ‘Take a seat: UCL Islamic V Atheist debate
  • Anne Marie Waters at the Huffington Post: ‘Islamic Extremism on Campus – Is the Tide Turning?’
    States IERA enforced segregation ‘in a scenario lifted straight out of Saudi Arabia’; indicts ‘the political left and student activists’ as ‘defenders of religious brutality and totalitarianism’, gender segregation and ‘medieval misogyny’.

March 13

  • Alliance for Workers’ Liberty: ‘Socialists must fight for secularism
    Notes criticism of Dawkins’ March 10 article for its ‘air of . . . western superiority’ and describes him as ‘not the best spokesperson against sexism’, while also insisting ‘mild annoyance at the idea of the first university in the UK to admit female students on the same basis as their male counterparts playing host to a quasi-segregated event is simply not a good enough reaction. Any attempt to forcibly divide an audience at a secular institution such as a university, or anywhere else for that matter, must be thoroughly denounced. . . . he tradition of marginalising religion from the public sphere is a proud one that socialists used to uphold. Let us continue to uphold it.’

March 14

March 15

  • The Daily Telegraph: ‘Britons afraid to challenge radical Islam, says former Obama adviser
    Cites Lawrence Krauss in the byline as suggesting ‘British people are too afraid to offend a “vocal and aggressive” section of the Muslim community who demand that their cultural values are accepted by wider society’, and quotes him verbatim as telling them segregationists feel ‘their cultural norms are not being met’, that ‘the notion that these cultural norms should be carried out within a broader society that not only doesn’t share them but that is free and open is a very serious problem’ and that ‘[t]he notion . . . broader society should accommodate that discomfort is complete nonsense . . . . It is the obligation of people who don’t feel comfortable with that to decide how they are going to mesh with broader society, not the other way around.’ Note the headline’s emphasis on Krauss’ role as a policy consultant in Obama’s first presidential run – as if to lend his views extra authority, despite having advised on science rather than anything directly relevant (secularism, social cohesion, etc).
  • The Week: ‘Brits too afraid of “aggressive” Muslims, says US academic
    Regurgitates Lawrence Krauss comments to the Telegraph - all my notes there apply here too – and also David Aaronovitch’s in the Times.
  • An Islamist event at the University of East London advertised with ‘segregated seating’, scheduled to take place on this date, is averted by campus authorities.
  • Toby Young in the Telegraph: ‘Even a right-on Obama advisor is shocked by Islamic sexism at UCL
    Quotes Krauss’ comments to the paper, again describing him conspicuously as ‘a leading physicist who served on Obama’s science policy committee’ and nodding at his comparison of British campus attitudes with those of (Young:) ‘other Western universities’ – including, tellingly, one in Australia, directly south of Japan. Young, like the Mail‘s coverage the day before, quotes Dawkins’ ‘nice, decent liberals’ statement, calling him and Krauss ‘absolutely right’. (Original URL reads ‘bowing to Islamic sexism’.)
  • The Independent: ‘UCL bans Islamic group after segregation row
  • Guardian: ‘UCL bans Islamic group from campus in row over segregated seating
  • Tab: ‘Islamic Society in sexual segregation row
    Details an event at Leicester University’s Islamic Society where Tzortzis addressed a segregated audience on February 20, including signage directing men and women to separate areas.

March 18

March 19

  • Terry Sanderson at the NSS: ‘Feeding the fires of fundamentalism
    Says of Tzortzis’ events, ‘it has become clear that the only purpose of these “debates” is to prove to his devout followers that the infidels must be overcome.’

March 20

March 22

March 24

  • FOSIS organise a sixth formers’ event with Hamza Tzortzis at Imperial College London, advertised with separate information phone lines for men and women. (I can’t track down promotional material, so am taking Andrew Gilligan’s word in the Telegraph for it – see below – but this is quite a common practice in campus Islamic Societies, and if organisers wished to prevent men and women speaking on the telephone, it’s presumably a reasonable bet they wanted them to sit apart.)

April 15

April 16

April 19

  • Student Rights: ‘MPACUK have a “Dream for the Ummah” at Queen Mary
    Reports plans by the Muslim Public Affairs Committee – listed, it’s mentioned here, by the NUS No Platform policy as a racist group – to hold a conference on Queen Mary’s campus where a student in touch with Student Rights ‘claimed that gender segregation was planned, though we have found no evidence to suggest that this is the case.’

April 22

  • Student Rights: ‘Segregation by gender advertised at MPACUK Conference
    Confirms the planned use of segregation at the ‘Dream for the Ummah’ event, based on an email sent to attendees which announced ‘Separate seating arrangements for men and women have been arranged’.

April 27

  • Andrew Gilligan in the Telegraph: ‘Baroness Warsi and the demons of hate
    On Sayeeda Warsi’s cooperation with FOSIS, despite other members of her government refusing to meet its leaders, and numerous segregated events at universities.

May 1

May 6

  • Islamic group DaruTawheed holds an event in the city’s Asian Cultural Centre previously promoted on student-based Facebook page ‘Interesting Talks Oxford’ and advertised as ‘fully segregated’.

May 9

May 12

  • Commentator: ‘UK universities fall victim to campus segregation trend
    Covers the findings of Student Rights’ ‘Unequal Opportunity’ report on segregation, released the following day. Note that the Commentator was formerly edited by Student Rights’ director, Raheem Kassam – it isn’t surprising, in light of this, that it had the scoop on the report. The piece does link the Times’ story from May 13 (see below); I assume this was an edit after publication, unless the Commentator site shows the wrong date.

May 13

May 14

May 18

May 19

  • Raheem Kassam in the Commentator: ‘A tangled web…
    Offers a more personal rebuttal to Aked and various others.

May 20

May 22

May 23

  • Chris Moos at the Huffington Post: ‘Defending the Right of – Muslim – Students
    Describes the Krauss-Tzortzis event at UCL as having been ‘[w]orryingly . . . omitted from the discussion’ of the Student Rights report, despite it being mentioned in coverage by the Independent, Times and Daily Express. Also states, supported by good data, that ‘FOSIS, the umbrella organisation of Islamic Student Societies represents only a fraction of Muslim UK students’, and states ‘there is merit in mentioning that Student Rights is affiliated to the Henry Jackson Society. It is a lamentable fact that it is being left to an organisation with possible ties to a neo-con associated group to highlight what the Left should’.

May 26

May 27

  • Louise Tickle in the Guardian: ‘How do universities deal with gender segregation?
    Quotes the opinion of female Muslim student Razana Abdul, who wished to sit with her male partner at the segregated UCL debate but was prevented, describing this as ‘gender apartheid’.

May 30

  • Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail: ‘Keeping the sexes apart is extremist
    Gives figures from the Student Rights report on segregated events, stating ‘All were organised by Muslim groups, or were focused on issues of interest to Muslims.’ See notes on the Telegraph piece from April 15: this is strictly true, but also somewhat misleading.

June 3

June 4

June 13

  • Hanna Ibraheem at Times Higher Education: ‘Are there extremist “swamps” to drain on campus?
    Notes the impact of the Lee Rigby’s murder in Woolwich, mentioned in the Standard’s June 3 editorial, as ‘reignit[ing] debate over university radicalisation’. This is the first story to refer to comments by David Cameron, who after Woolwich ‘said he wanted to “drain the swamp” that allowed violent extremism to take root in British society, including groups based at universities.’ It also quotes Rupert Sutton’s comments on City University Islamic Society refusing to submit sermons for pre-approval and 2011 statements by Theresa May (another important name later) that universities ‘have [not] been sufficiently willing to recognise what can be happening on their campuses and the radicalisation that can take place’, as well as referring to segregation ‘controversies’.

September 18

  • Abishek Phadnis at Trending Central: ‘The silence of secularists: how the Left-Islamist alliance is winning
    Notes various Islamist-related controversies on campuses and elsewhere, including segregation at the Krauss-Tzortzis event in March, and the role of left wing campus authorities. Note that Trending Central‘s ‘About’ page states it was ‘founded in 2013 by Raheem Kassam’, being in some respect a successor to the Commentator in this regard.

October 5

October 26

November 22

  • Universities UK publishes ‘External speakers in higher education institutions’ guidance for higher education bodies signed by Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge, stating the free speech of guest lecturers who demand segregated audiences mustn’t be ‘curtailed unlawfully’ and ‘a balance of interests is most likely to be achieved if it is possible to offer attendees both segregated and non-segregated seating areas’, which is acceptable ‘assuming the room can be segregated left and right, rather than front and back’.
  • Times Higher Education: ‘Some gender segregation in Islamic talks may meet “balance of interests”
    Reports on the UUK guidance, mentioning segregated events where Tzortzis spoke at UCL (March 9) and Leicester University (February 20).
  • Daily Telegraph: ‘Universities “can segregate men and women for debates”
    Refers to the UCL debate on March 9 and Student Rights‘ report on segregation of May 13.
  • Independent: ‘Freedom of speech is not an “absolute”, university leaders warn
    Mentions the Student Rights report and the NUS’ approval of the guidance, claiming to have been involved in drafting it.
  • Louisa Peacock in the Telegraph: ‘Allowing university speakers to segregate genders is outrageous
    Cites Razana Abdul’s testimony in Louise Tickle’s Guardian piece of May 27, Boris Johnson’s comments in the Telegraph from May 26 and the Student Rights report; asks how ‘a modern Britain [can] sit back and allow external speakers to dictate where young men and women sit’, adding ‘We pride ourselves on democracy, on the freedom to choose how we live. I want my children, and children’s children, to grow up knowing the UK respects freedom of choice. . . . We live in a modern, grown up Britain. Let’s start acting like it.’

November 23

  • Times: ‘Universities “allowed to segregate students”
    Paywalled.
  • Maryam Namazie: ‘Sex apartheid not discriminatory?
    Quotes and criticises the UUK guidance, stating it forgets ‘segregation of the sexes and the veil are highly contested even amongst Muslims’, and calls for it to be rescinded and for UUK to be contacted to this end; credits Chris Moos for the tip.
  • The CEMB calls an anti-segregation protest outside UUK headquarters on December 10 (the UN’s Human Rights Day), with Namazie and Moos as contacts for information (therefore, presumably, the two main organisers).
  • Student Rights: ‘Universities UK speaker guidelines excuse gender discrimination
  • Maryam Namazie creates a petition at Avaaz.org, titled ‘Universities UK: Rescind endorsement of sex segregation at UK universities’. It gathers signatures swiftly, reaching many thousands over the following few weeks.
  • One Law for All: ‘URGENT ACTION: Rescind endorsement of sex apartheid at UK universities
    Cites the UUK guidance the NUS’ approval of it. Links to the Avaaz.org petition, displaying a diverse list of prominent signatories (among them DawkinsKassamMoosNamaziePhadnis, SandersonSutton, TatchellRory Fenton, Marieme Helie Lucas, Pragna Patel and Polly Toynbee, plus many other noted secularists and human rights campaigners). Note that both the CEMB and One Law for All campaign are co-organised by Maryam Namazie.
  • CEMB: ‘Urgent Action: Protest against Universities UK endorsement of Sex Segregation at UK universities
    Promotes the petition, naming prominent signatories as above. Also outlines further plans for direct action, providing a (now defunct) Facebook link to the December 10 protest and announcing ‘Teams of Sex Apartheid Busters are being organised to break segregation wherever it is instituted.’
  • Chris Moos at Harry’s Place: ‘“You are a woman, you can’t sit here”: UK Universities condones gender segregation
    Opens by stating ‘If the new guidelines by Universities UK, an organisation representing the leadership of UK universities, are adopted, this is a phrase that might become not uncommon to hear at UK universities’. Cites the Student Rights segregation report, UCL’s banning IERA in March after the Krauss-Tzortzis event, the Independent’s coverage of the UUK advice, the contents of the advice itself, the NUS’ support for (and apparent role in creating) it, comments by NSS Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood later republished in the organisation’s 26 November statement (see below), Maryam Namazie’s ‘Not discriminatory?’ blog post from earlier in the day, her Avaaz.org petition, the December 10 demonstration and the opposition to segregation of signatories DawkinsToynbeeA.C. Grayling and Gita Sahgal.
  • Maryam Namazie: ‘Rescind endorsement of sex segregation at UK universities
    Reproduces the earlier One Law for All update, adding the additions plans announced on the CEMB site.
  • Trending Central: ‘British university heads back Islamists in pro-segregation scandal
    States the UUK document ‘has shocked anti-extremism campaigners, as well as those who believe in Western liberal values’ and mentions the Student Rights report, saying (somewhat misleadingly – see notes on the Telegraph’s May 13 story) that it ‘made mention of 25 percent of events monitored being segregated’ and links to Namazie‘s Avaaz petition, noting its having been signed by DawkinsGraylingToynbee and Trending Central editor Raheem Kassam, who I suspect wrote the copy here.
  • John Sargeant at Homo economicus’ Weblog: ‘University UK Guidelines Allow Gender Apartheid
    Cites the Telegraph’s coverage of the UUK guidelines, the guidelines themselves and his own post of March 12 on the Krauss-Tzortzis debate.

November 24

  • Rosie Bell at Shiraz Socialist: ‘WTF is this shit?
    Reproduces the One Law for All statement of the previous day.

November 25

  • Sara Khan in the Independent: ‘Segregating men and women at university events won’t lead to equality
    Critiques the UUK guidance, noting it ‘delves into trying to tell us what constitutes Muslim religious belief implying that those opposed to segregation must be people from outside of the Islamic faith, not recognising that often it is Muslims themselves who oppose gender segregation.’
  • Rory Fenton at the Rationalist Association: ‘Equally separate?
  • British Humanist Association: ‘BHA condemns Universities UK’s endorsement of gender segregation’
    Notes the UUK guidance was ‘published amid concerns that extremists are attempting to radicalise young people on university campuses’ and quotes BHA Head of Public Affairs Pavan Dhaliwal‘s comment, ‘Universities are secular institutions, not places of worship, and sex segregation should have no place in secular spaces in which we expect to find equality between men and women.’
  • Charles Crawford at the Commentator: ‘So, farewell then, freedom of speech
    Describes the UUK guidance as ‘a totalitarian land-grab to bring intellectual activity under the direct control of those few anointed, invariably progressive, High Wizards who proclaim the correct ‘geopolitical and socioeconomic factors’ that fall to be considered’, ‘drafted by Sub-Dean Ceausescu with helpful contributions from Rector Stalin and Professors Kafka and Pol Pot’.
  • Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge at the UUK site: ‘Universities UK’s external speakers guidance does not promote gender segregation – it highlights universities’ legal obligations

November 26

  • Polly Toynbee at the Guardian: ‘British universities shouldn’t condone this kind of gender segregation
    Cites the commentary of Maryam Namazie and the CEMB as well as research on segregated events by the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Student Societies (led by Rory Fenton).
  • Student Rights: ‘UUK respond to petition against gender segregation guidance
    Noting Dandridge’s response the day before to Namazie‘s petition ‘[of] which Student Rights was one of the initial signatories’, by this stage with over 4000 other signatures, argues that it ‘still does not address the fact that the guidance excuses the enforcement of gender segregation on campuses’, reproducing the UUK statement and linking to the Avaaz.org petition page.
  • Organisers of the December 10 demonstration establish a Facebook page, ‘Separate is never equal – Yes to equality, no to segregation’. As of December 27, it has 236 ‘likes’.

November 27

  • James Bloodworth at Progress: ‘Why the silence on universities kowtowing to bigotry?
    Describes ‘things which at one time would have been viewed as reactionary’ being accommodated ‘if not outright embraced’ by ‘certain bien pensant progressives’, outlining UUK’s publication of its guidance and ‘the support of the normally ultra-politically correct NUS’. ‘Rather than the Ayatollah Khamenei taking over the body which oversees British universities,’ writes Bloodworth, ‘it’s actually identity politics that is to blame . . . with the rights of those considered “oppressed” trumping those of the supposedly “privileged”. . . . Being a Muslim – even an Islamist – trumps being a woman on the identity politics totem, therefore it is equality of the sexes which must fall by the wayside [in] a zero-sum game of appeasing whoever can demand the most ‘rights’ based on perceived oppression. The fact that there hasn’t been a greater degree of outrage about the authorities giving the green light to sexism on campus is testament to how comfortable many comrades have become defending bronze-aged bigotry against the enlightenment values of equality, universal rights and reason.’
  • Tab: ‘Uni chiefs back gender segregation
    Cites the segregation cases at UCL and Leicester University as well as UUK’s document and response to critics, as well as Student Rights‘ segregation report.

November 29

December 3

  • Nick Cohen in the Spectator: ‘The segregation of women and the appeasement of bigotry
    Embeds Sondergaard’s footage of Krauss walking out of the UCL debate, relating events there which ended in IERA’s banishment from the campus, and the ‘astonished reaction’ to UUK’s guidance ‘cloth[ing] reactionary policies in the language of liberalism’, describing it as ‘an instant when the liberal establishment became the open and avowed enemy of its best principles.’ Cites Toynbee’s Guardian column of November 26, alleging the paper’s ‘editorial line to date has been that protests against minority religious beliefs are racist’, and compares gender segregation on campuses with segregation of Jews and non-Jews in 1930s Poland and racial segregation in fifties America.

December 4

  • Daily Telegraph: ‘Extremists in our midst
    Refers to the counter-extremism task force set up by David Cameron following the Woolwich attack and criticises the (allegedly insufficient) ‘measures announced by Theresa May’, stating ‘it would be preferable if universities did not bow to pressure from radicals to segregate the sexes at official events’ and ‘the problem of jihadists returning from Syria’, concluding ‘Mrs May needs to find a way to stop them’.
  • Nishith Chennakeshava in the Tab: ‘Uni Gender Segregation Should Not Be Tolerated’
    Illustrated with the image of signage from the Leicester University event with Tzortzis on February 20; argues UUK’s ruling ‘shows how we have evolved to think that political correctness is so much more important than our rights’.

December 5

  • Times: ‘Free speech no excuse for campus bigotry, says May’
    Paywalled – but notice it came directly after the Telegraph put pressure on her.
  • David Aaronovitch in the Times: ‘Let’s expose these apologists for injustice
    Paywalled.

December 8

  • Yasmin Alibhai Brown in the Independent: ‘It’s shameful that our universities have accepted gender segregation under pressure from the most oppressive religious fanatics
    Refers to the December 10 protest outside UUK headquarters, calling left-to-right separation ‘Separate but equal . . . as Boers ordered society in pre-freedom South Africa’ and the NUS’ support for it ‘disaster for feminism, for university life, for modernism, for progressive ideals and for Muslims  most of all.’ ‘Throngs of students, academics, parents, politicians, and feminists should fill Tavistock Square and shout out loud’, writes Alibhai Brown. ‘Not that they will, what with Christmas shopping and perhaps inchoate fears.’

December 9

December 10

  • Jim Denham at Shiraz Socialist: ‘No to gender segregation in universities: protest in London today!
    Invites readers to protest later in the day with images of black anti-segregation demonstrators in 1950s America. Quotes an extended statement from One Law for All discussing plans to meet and condemning UUK’s guidance and the NUS’ support for it – oddly, I can’t seem to find the original anywhere online.
  • Marieme Helie Lucas at Maryam Namazie‘s blog: ‘Sex segregation in UK universities – a step forward for the Muslim religious-right
    Refers to UUK’s guidance and the resulting criticism. Notes Krauss’ walkout at UCL in March and Sondergaard’s footage of it on Facebook, the statements by ‘concerned students’ about how the event unfolded and the role of UCL staff, Tzortzis’ segregated event at Leicester University and its repercussions, the segregated event at Northampton University on May 1, statements after the fact by Dawkins and Krauss, IERA’s track record, controversy over segregation among Muslims and people of Muslim descent, the treatment of Islamists as representatives of Muslims generally, Yasmin Alibai Brown’s column of December 8, Namazie’s petition and the demonstration later that day.
  • Maryam Namazie: ‘Islamists and Universities UK: You have been warned!
    Details plans for the rally that evening and also for the enactment of a ‘Sex Apartheid Busters’ initiative.
  • James Bloodworth at Left Foot Forward: ‘Why we’re protesting against gender segregation this evening
    Cites and criticises UUK’s advice, inviting the reader to ‘imagine for a minute the justified furore there would be if racial segregation were permitted on campus on the basis that black and white people were “different but equal” [or] if gay people were separated out from their straight friends on the basis that they were “difference [sic] but equal”, with those refusing to move booted out of the lecture hall for no other reason than their sexuality.’ Lists the time and location of the anti-UUK protest.
  • The protestheld by the CEMB and a coalition of other groups here mentioned, assembles at 5pm with a turnout of around 100 and begins at 5.30pm. Speakers according to Denham’s post quoting One Law for All include Pragna Patel of Southall Black SistersMaryam Namazie, comedian Kate SmurthwaiteAnne Marie Waters of the NSSJulie Bindel of Justice for Women, Charlie Kleinjian of the Lawyers’ Secular SocietyHelen Palmer of the Central London Humanist GroupSam Westrop of Stand for PeaceSean Oakley of Reading Univerity Atheist, Humanist and Secularist SocietyGeorgi Laag of the London Atheist Activists Group, Palestinian women’s rights campaigner Ahlam Akram, James Bloodworth and Erin Saltman of the Quilliam Foundation.
  • Channel 4 News: ‘Gender segregation: protests against university guidelines
    Includes quotes from Moos, Namazie and Saltman; news copy refers to UUK’s guidance, Namazie’s petition, Student Rights’ report in May and the Krauss-Tzortzis event at UCL. Footage suggests demonstrators think universities ‘are putting fees from Middle Eastern students above rights for all’ and shows Oakley speaking to that effect and Namazie (interviewed) describing a ‘climate of fear and intimidation’, also referring to IERA being banned from UCL, and an in-studio debate between Alibhai Brown and FOSIS President Omar Ali.

December 11

December 12

December 13

  • Daily Mail: ‘Now furious Gove says it’s a disgrace to segregate students and accuses university bosses of “pandering to extremism”
    Quotes Gove’s comments to the paper describing UUK’s guidance as ‘wrong and harmful’. Also cites Student Rights’ report, though eroneously stating it to have been ‘produced this week’ and quotes Rupert SuttonSara Khan and Dana Sondergaard, referring to segregated events at UCL and Leicester University as well as UUK’s approaching the EHRC for advice.
  • Telegraph: ‘Michael Gove: Do not pander to extremism by endorsing segregation at university
    Cites Gove’s comments to the Mail as well as Umunna’s (and Dandridge’s) on Today.
  • Guardian: ‘Michael Gove: university gender segregation is “pandering to extremism”
    Juxtaposes Gove’s statement UUK ‘should withdraw [its guidance] immediately’ with the EHRC’s description of it as ‘not permissible’, adding ‘Universities UK has yet to confirm that it is rewriting the guidance.’
  • Huffington Post: ‘Michael Gove: Gender Segregation In Universities Is Pandering To Extremism
    Adds to Gove’s comments – the first story to do so – the announcement UUK’s advice has ‘been withdrawn after David Cameron waded into the row over Universities UK’s advice’. Also provides the first coverage of Dandridge’s response, saying ‘Universities UK agrees entirely with the prime minister that universities should not enforce gender segregation on audiences at the request of guest speakers. However, where the gender segregation is voluntary, the law is unclear. We are working with our lawyers and the EHRC to clarify the position. Meanwhile the case study which triggered this debate has been withdrawn pending this review’ – apparently, this is where both Cameron’s intervention and the case study’s confirmed withdrawal broke in the press. A joint comment from Chris Moos and Abishek Phadnis is also given, welcoming Cameron’s statement, and Umunna is quoted once again.
  • Telegraph: ‘Gender segregation guidelines to be reviewed as David Cameron steps into row for the first time
    Reports on UUK having ‘said it would work with the [EHRC] to look again at its guidance . . . as David Cameron’s official spokesman said the Prime Minister disagreed with rules set out by the vice-chancellors’ body.’ Mentions earlier plans for ‘Segregation Busters’ and quotes Moos, calling it ‘outrageous that the EHRC are now suggesting that a policy that would allow for gender segregation merely needs “clarification” and greater “consistency”. It really looks like the EHRC are hedging their bets.”
  • politics.co.uk: ‘Campaigners claim victory after Universities UK cancels sex segregation guidance
    Notes UUK’s ‘announcement came hours after the prime minister’s spokesperson said David Cameron felt “very strongly” about the issue’ and that their ‘change in position comes after a week of protests from feminists and secular group[s].’ Quotes Gove and mentions Namazie‘s petition.
  • Independent: ‘“We should not pander to extremism”: Michael Gove warns over segregation of men and women in university lectures
    Cites Gove’s comments to the Mail and (immediately next to them) Umunna’s to the BBC.
  • James Bloodworth at Left Foot Forward: ‘Gender segregation “not permissible” under equality law
    States UUK ‘may be forced into a humiliating climbdown’ after Cameron’s and the EHRC’s remarks – notably, contrasting with the Huffington Post’s and Telegraph’s statements of their already-confirmed withdrawal. (From what I can make out, Bloodworth’s post did come after both these reports.) Refers to UUK’s pursuit of legal advice, states ‘Left Foot Forward has been at the forefront of the campaign’ and again seems to make the odd claim Umunna’s remarks were made initially to them rather than Today.
  • Times: ‘Universities back down on sexual segregation
    Paywalled.
  • Guardian: ‘Universities UK withdraws advice on gender segregation in lectures
    Refers to the input both of Cameron and the EHRC, as well as Gove’s comments to the Mail, and also specifies that Business Secretary Vince Cable . . . was writing to UUK calling for the guidance to be amended to clarify the distinction between private worship and areas of public learning [and] said: “I am clear that forced segregation of any kind, including gender segregation, is never acceptable on campuses.”’ This is the first mention of comments by Cable.
  • Evening Standard: ‘Sex segregation at UK universities must end, David Cameron says
    Mentions Gove‘s commentary as well as Cameron’s, and cites ‘a 2008 poll [that] found nine in 10 Muslim students regarded segregation as unacceptable at university’ – I’m not sure which poll this is, especially since newspapers tend to report them incredibly badly, but there’s a chance it’s this one.
  • James Bloodworth at Left Foot Forward : ‘Gender segregation guidelines withdrawn by Universities UK
    Writes ‘After our protest on Tuesday, followed by interventions by the Prime Minister David Cameron and shadow business secretary Chuka Ummuna, Universities UK has now said it will review the controversial guidelines.’ Cites the Guardian’s coverage and links to Maryam Namazie’s ‘We will continue’ post.
  • Maryam Namazie amends the version of One Law for All‘s ‘We will continue our fight’ statement originally cross-posted to her blog on December 12 (I suspect after seeing the pingback from Bloodworth’s post, though it’s possible the order was the other way around), adding that ‘Soon after the rally, which received widespread coverage, including when Prime Minister David Cameron intervened to oppose sex segregation at universities, UUK was forced to withdraw its guidance. Whilst this fight has been won, the battle continues particularly since sex segregation is still taking place at universities and UUK has said it hopes to redraft the guidance.’ (For what it’s worth, only politics.co.uk’s coverage of Cameron’s intervention seems at this point to have mentioned the December 10 protest, and it seems debatable to me – unclear, at least – exactly what the demonstration’s role in prompting it was as opposed to other factors listed here.)
  • Rumy Hasan at The Conversation: ‘Segregation and censorship on campus must not be tolerated
    Links to the Guardian’s story on UUK withdrawing its advice after Cameron’s comments, cites Umunna’s and mentions a separate conflict Moos and Phadnis had with LSE officials.
  • NSS: ‘Universities UK withdraws its guidance on gender segregation
    Provides comment from NSS President Sanderson and cites the input of the EHRC and the views aired by UmunnaGove and Cameron, plus Dandridge’s response to the latter. It’s worth pointing out at this point that much of the coverage of UUK’s retraction connects it with Cameron’s views as stated by his spokesperson at Downing Street, but it seems possible based on the Telegraph‘s December 12 story on the EHRC‘s ‘not permissible’ comments that UUK’s case study had already been withdrawn for reconsideration when Cameron entered the fry, and Dandridge’s reply only confirmed this.
  • Channel 4 News: ‘Gender segregation guidelines u-turn following PM warning
    Notes input from the EHRCGove and Cameron, and embeds footage of studio debates featuring both Namazie and Alibhai Brown.
  • Evening Standard: ‘PM “clear” on gender segregation
    Cites the EHRCGove and Cameron, sayingMr Cameron told Channel 4 News: “I’m absolutely clear that there shouldn’t be segregated audiences for visiting speakers to universities in Britain. That is not the right approach, the guidance shouldn’t say that, universities should not allow this and I’m very clear about that.”’ This seems to be a new statement (and to have been made by Cameron personally and not a spokesperson), but I can’t find it anywhere in Channel 4′s coverage online, although all other citations Google lists attribute it to them.
  • Independent: ‘Universities UK withdraws rules on gender segregation
    Mentions both Cameron and Gove.
  • Times Higher Education: ‘UUK gender segregation case study withdrawn
    Cites CameronGoveUmunna and the EHRC.
  • Student Rights: ‘Victory for campaigners as UUK withdraw gender segregation guidelines
    Cites Cameron, the December 10 protest and the EHRC’s criticism and congratulating ‘all those involved in this campaign, including: One Law for AllSouthall Black SistersLeft Foot Forward; the Lawyers’ Secular Society; the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student SocietiesLSE Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society; the National Secular Society; the Peter Tatchell Foundation; the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain [and] British Muslims for Secular Democracy’ (founded by Alibhai Brown).
  • Sky News: ‘Cameron: No To University Segregation
    Cites Cameron, GoveUmunna and Student Rights’s report, also noting ‘Downing Street’s intervention in the row follows angry demonstrations by students outraged at the advice.’
  • Graeme Archer in the Telegraph: ‘A shameful case of apartheid in Britain
    Accuses ‘the liberal Left in Britain [of not having] learnt anything at all from Mandela’s story . . . those in charge of our universities appear to be completely deaf to what the man was trying to say. . . . Whether you keep blacks from whites or Jews from gentiles – or women from men – then you are tolerating apartheid. . . . oh, that you were with us now, Rosa Parks . . . this is the predictable outcome of the Left’s obsession with identity politics . . . the endpoint of Labour’s equality fixation: medieval Islamism can be imposed on public spaces . . . You woke up in Britain – the mother of parliaments, Magna Carta, freedom of conscience; how we like to remember our glory days, don’t we, lest we lament the gap between our own dreams and the downtrodden reality. You read about Universities UK and think: imagine if those people had been in charge of apartheid-era South Africa.’
  • Huffington Post: ‘Universities UK Withdraws Guidance Over Gender Segregation In Lectures And Debates
    Cites Cameron, the ECHR and Gove.
  • Sarah Brown at Harry’s Place: ‘More on gender segregation
    Links to the Guardian’s coverage of the guidelines’ withdrawal, contrasting Dandridge’s defence of them with quotations from their contents.
  • Telegraph: ‘Universities pull back from sex segregation as Cameron weighs in
    Cites Cameron and Gove‘s criticism of UUK and the Telegraph’s own December 12 coverage of the ECHR’s. Includes the same statement from Chris Moos as the paper’s coverage earlier in the day and one from Maryam Namazie that ‘It is good that David Cameron has intervened but I have little faith that UUK will do the right thing. We want to see very clear guidance that segregation is unacceptable in public places like universities.’
  • Daily Mail: ‘Inside the British university where Muslims were segregated by sex: Shocking picture shows how men were reserved front-row seats while women had to sit at the back
    Includes photographs from a January 2013 event at Leicester University ISoc and refers to Student Rights’s report on segregation and the EHRC’s opposition, quoting Rupert Sutton and David Cameron.
  • I’m not able to date it, but at some point around this time, UUK replaces the guidance listed on its site with an edited version removing reference to segregation – this is the one currently available.

December 14

  • Daily Mail: ‘Universities cave in over sex segregation after Cameron condemns demands by radical preachers
    States ‘Universities last night caved in after Mr Cameron intervened to warn them it was unacceptable.
    The Prime Minister told Sky News: “I’m absolutely clear that there should not be segregated audiences for visiting speakers to universities in Britain.["] . . . Mr Cameron’s intervention came after Education Secretary Michael Gove told the Mail that he believed universities were guilty of “pandering to extremism”. Also points to criticism from Umunna and the EHRC alongside Student Rights’s report and states ‘Protesters hold up placards rejecting “gender apartheid” outside the headquarters of Universities Uk’.
  • Jennifer Selway in the Daily Express: ‘Scandal of sexist seating
    States what UUK’s stance on segregation ‘is about is the financial muscle now exercised by foreign students – who take up more university places in Britain than in almost any other country. Many come from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, neither famous for an enlightened approach to women. But they pay big fees. University College London charges UK students £9,000, but demands up to £16,250 from its foreign students, while a foreign medical student has to pay £27,500. Universities need the money, radical Islamists get a foothold, demanding everyone respects their culture unquestioningly otherwise they’ll go screaming to the authorities about their human rights.’ (I’ve blogged already about why this view of Muslim international students – whether or not authorities hold it too – doesn’t stand up.) ‘Why’, Selway adds, ‘why should we respect practices that are so alien especially as Christians are routinely made to feel like second-class citizens? How can our universities – which should be totems of national pride, places of rationality and free speech – cave in without even a squeak of defiance? . . . single-sex schools remain a traditional part of British culture. What is not part of our culture is the belief that men are so easily inflamed by lust that they must be kept away from females.’
  • BBC News: ‘University segregation row: Ministers call for clarity
    Reports ‘PM David Cameron told Channel 4 News’ UUK’s guidance was wrong, and that Business Secretary Vince Cable, whose department has responsibility for universities, has now written to UUK urging it to clarify its position. “I am clear that forced segregation of any kind, including gender segregation, is never acceptable on campuses,” he said.’ Also notes ‘Baroness Perry of Southwark, chairwoman of the House of Lords backbench education committee, said she was “outraged” by the guidance. She told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme it was contrary to “the long struggle that the brave women of the early academics in the 19th Century had to get the provision to sit in lectures”.’
  • Kate Maltby in the Spectator: Gender segregation: radical speakers cannot demand an audience that fits their prejudice
    Maltby, who attended the December 10 protest, writes that ‘protest sometimes works: by Friday, the beleaguered [UUK] had shifted their position . . . thanks in part to criticism by Michael Gove and David Cameron’ and that since she’s heard IERA are considering a European court case ‘Those who want Britain to stay in the EU, and committed to the ECHR [European Court of Human Rights - not to be confused with Britain's Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)], had better start hoping the ECHR come down on the side of common sense.’ Links to Nick Cohen’s December 3 post and mentions segregated events at UCL in March and Leicester University in February; also embeds audio from Maltby (introduced as a writer at ConservativeHome) debating segregationist Fatima Barkatulla on BBC Radio 4 Today.
  • Jim Denham at Shiraz Socialist: ‘After UUK’s climb-down, keep up the fight against relativism!
    Begins ‘At first it looked as though we were shouting into the wilderness: a few blogs (including us at Shiraz) drew attention to the outrage, and a small demonstration took place; just 8,000 people signed an online petition’, seemingly ignoring quite extensive coverage and criticism of UUK’s stance in (particularly right-leaning) media long before the December 10 protest. Adds that ‘Then the issue seemed to take off. To his credit, Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umanna declared that a Labour government would outlaw gender segregation at universities, and – belatedly – Cameron intervened’.
  • Matthew d’Ancona in the Telegraph: ‘Campus segregation: “religious freedom” cannot be allow to trump equality
    Wonders if Christopher Hitchens might have been more impressed by David Cameron had he witnessed his intervention on segregation; also notes (but doesn’t link to) the same mysterious ‘2008 YouGov poll’ as earlier, and cites Gove’s statements about ‘pandering to extremism’

December 15

  • Louise Mensch in the Sun on Sunday: ‘How dare our unis back gender based apartheid?
    Paywalled.
  • The Observer: ‘Segregation: our secular values need to be protected
    Headed, like seemingly any piece the Guardian site ever runs on anything at all secularist, with a picture of Richard Dawkins: notes his ‘heads should roll’ comment from after the Krauss-Tzortzis debate at UCL. Notes also the opposition of ‘student protesters [see notes on the Mirror's piece of December 12], academics, feminists and, belatedly, politicians’, including specifically Cameron, Cable and Gove, and details both Krauss’ and Dawkins’s response to segregation at UCL, where it mentions IERA being banned.
  • Catherine Bennett in the Guardian: ‘Segregation by gender has no place in our public realm
    Refers to Krauss’s walkout and to the opposition to segregation of Jack StrawChuka Umunna, David CameronMichael Gove and ‘Muslim women such as’ Sara KhanMaryam Namazie and Yasmin Alibhai Brown (a designation to which I suspect Namazie would object). Also notes that “Maintain segregation between brothers and sisters” is how [FOSIS] advises student organisers, “keeping interactions between them at a minimum.”’
  • Joan Smith at the Independent: ‘Do stay out of religion, David Cameron, it’s not your job
    Blames segregation’s popularity on British political leaders attempting to create, in Sayeeda Warsi’s words, ‘the most pro-faith government in the West’; cites Cameron and Gove’s opposition.
  • Rosie Bell at Shiraz Socialist: ‘The segregationists unseated
    Gives an account of anti-segregation developments in which ‘Student Rights picked [UUK's guidance] up’, ‘the bloggers you’d expect . . . produced angry posts’ (BloodworthNamazie and Ophelia Benson, whose – extensive – posts aren’t listed here since she’s a U.S. writer), ‘mainstream media moved in – Nick Cohen in the Spectator, and Yasmin Alibai-Brown, finely furious, in the Independent’, ‘[t]here was a petition and a small demonstration which Channel 4 covered at length’, ‘the BBC began to thunder’ with the editions of Today from December 11 and 12, ‘politicians - Chuka UmunnaJack StrawMichael GoveDavid Cameron spoke out’ (‘Under the threads of their statements in the Guardian’, writes Bell, ‘commenters were saying, Bugger me, the horrible Tory creeps are right this time’) andSo now the UUK has withdrawn gender segreation from its guidelines. It looks like the forces of light have won for once. Congratulations to those who attended protests and wrote copiously.’ (Needless to say I – and, I think, this timeline – somewhat parts aspects of this account, as well as the implied chain of cause and effect.)
  • Yasmin Alibhai Brown in the Independent: ‘The Talibanisation of British universities has got to stop
    ‘Result!’ the column begins. ‘In one week, we, a small group of stalwarts, Muslims and non-Muslims, who are opposed to sexual apartheid in our universities, raised the slumbering politicians and jolted gutless academics. Universities UK (UUK) will reconsider its guidelines which sanctify gender discrimination in the name of freedom of speech and equal access.’ By Friday’, it concludes, ‘UUK had shed its overconfidence and seemed to be wavering. I predict the guidance will be binned. This Talibanisation of British universities has got to stop. Now I think it might be.’

Dec 24 2013

Class dismissed: how I went from homelessness to Oxford, and what Richard Dawkins has nightmares about

Say this city has ten million souls
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes

* * *

A letter in a too-large envelope came five years ago this week. The paper had shifted in the excess space so the plastic window meant for the address showed its initial lines of text instead. I am pleased on behalf of Wadham College, it began, to offer you a place. Oxford’s 2013 interviewees sit, as I write, in hope of such a letter.

Legends abound about the Oxbridge interview, referred to always with a definite article as in ‘the Eucharist’ – an arcane, unalterable rite shrouded in mystery. Oxford and Cambridge hopefuls have stories thrust on them of rugby balls, bananas and trick questions, and access workers’ first task (I was one once) is to dispel these myths. Interviews in reality amount most of the time to cordial, relaxed if mentally rigorous exchanges – nothing worse. Oxford’s bizarrenesses are many, but kick in for the most part only once successful candidates take up their spots. You might imagine by my fourth year there, I’d have acclimatised, but you’d be wrong: few ever wholly do. Memories of finals, now eight months ago, are among my most surreal.

Oxford’s exam dress – gown, mortarboard and suit or skirt-and-jumper – looks centuries out of date because it is. Amendments made to rules in 2012 eliminated reference to gender, making my year the first whose men could wear ordinary black ties rather than ivory bows, an aesthetic and practical step up that nonetheless resembled funeral garb. (Appropriate, I felt, for long dead academic prospects’ burial.) Tradition, though I’d no time for it, dictates white carnations be worn on top for first exams, pink ones thereafter and red for the final one, a colour scheme it’s always seemed to me suggests loss of virginity. Finalists in most subjects file thus dressed into Examination Schools – venue, incidentally, of next year’s World Humanist Congress – to sit exams between ornate wood-panelled walls, observed by ancient portraits, gazing periodically up at giant clocks that may or may not be as Victorian as they appear. The whole ritual feels close to religious; I can tell you, since he once told me, that Richard Dawkins has nightmares about it.

Being, unlike him, an academic slacker, I never felt much strain during my finals. I didn’t expect a very good degree, nor feel in need of one. (Upper second, as it turned out, English and Modern Languages.) One memory persists, though. Returning to college down Queen’s Lane from a twentieth century English paper (I managed a first there), three stocky, plum-voiced undergrads fell boorishly about ahead of me, red carnations near-invisible through baked beans, flour and confetti. ‘Trashing’, as it’s known, is another Oxford custom, inflicted on students finishing exams. I’m thankful I escaped it. Stumbling on down the road, the boy on the right shook vigorously and then uncorked a bottle of champagne, dousing the middle one in the resulting spray of foam. His accomplice on the left, still guffawing, restrained their target as he tried to flee, and the boy with the bottle upturned it over him, releasing every drop till none remained.

More than half Oxford’s students are state-schooled. Few attended England’s ancient public schools, as alarmingly many did in Britain’s cabinet, and it’s lazy to equate the two: Oxford is no costlier than any major university, and the ten percent of students with parents on less than £16,000 a year pay fees of three thousand instead of nine. It’s true though that an air of privilege pervades. Trashing is harmless fun for students in historically male garb well off enough to dry-clean it. It wouldn’t have been for me. My stomach turns recalling that champagne, but only since it spoke to the whole practice’s louche insensitivity. I saw this often at Oxford – in colleagues who wore designer clothes to bed and insisted a time passed when their parents ‘only’ made £250,000 a year; in those who casually forked hundreds out to replace a blemished croquet set; in the drunken braying outside pubs of boys in tailcoats who thought they owned the place. (Perhaps they did.)

The day I arrived, hauling luggage from a taxi to my first year room, a woman in her fifties with a warm Oxfordshire accent greeted me whose name was June, and whose role my fresher’s pack had told me was to clean my room, make the bed and change the sheets. Her job description, like the figure she earned, should have been longer: when it turned out I’d no duvet of my own, June snuck me a college owned one reserved for conference guests; when I spent my first week bedridden with swine flu, she brought food to my door; when I failed to lock it, she chided me good-naturedly. A surrogate mum a hundred miles from home, I loved June as I’ve read England’s public schoolboys love their domestic matrons – but flinched inwardly at how clearly this seemed the basis of her role. Early on, she referred in passing to wealthy parents funding my degree – the truth, I told her immediately, was that I belonged to that poorest tenth of students, reliant on a student loan and grants. A bedmaker who cleaned my floor felt as embarrassingly alien as meals served in the college hall by staff in black bow ties. (Their supervisor held the telling title of Head Butler.) When possible, I ducked these to eat privately or in the cafeteria.

My appetite – in one sitting, I can polish off whole cakes or quiches – was a subject of fun now and again in my tutorial group. They discovered it as time went on, but never why. I’m able to do this for the same reason I’m able, more or less, to function normally for two or three days without food: I know how it feels to be hungry for years.

It wouldn’t be true to say my mother and I starved at any point, but nor were cupboards ever adequately full. The two of us were homeless before I turned a year old; fleeing her then-husband, a man who broke her heart and numerous other parts of both of us, it took officials the best of two years to house us properly. The benefits on which we spent the next few years allowed, after expenses, a household budget of £70 a week or so, meaning that on my mum’s trips to the shops, counting the pennies wasn’t a metaphor. From the staples of our diet, bread, cheese, pasta and potatoes, she fashioned and uncanny range of meals, many of them my comfort foods today, but supply was limited. I still recall her voice, frustration masking despair, telling me when circumstances bit that there was ‘no food in the house’. Free school lunches, such as they were in the nineties, meant I rarely went without for longer than 24 hours, but if it was a weekend when this happened and no neighbours, church members or friends were forthcoming with help, nothing could be done about it. If I overeat at times, it’s because the concept still feels new.

Mum was 42 when she had me, but lived for the following years as students are imagined to. Our furniture, food itself if still vacuum-packed, came out of skips. Even the fridge in which the latter sat, she got by swapping the inferior original with another single mum’s named Shirley; the washing machine next to it, her first husband bought us. Almost all my clothes were second hand, donated by parents from church or the school gates, though always in good nick. It’s hard to get across just how poor we were, except that it shows in subtler ways too. Some nights, Mum taught keep fit at the local primary school, unpaid monetarily (a stipulation of her benefits) but provided in exchange with household goods – among them, a stereo. CDs from Woolworths being an unthinkable expense, I grew up with her cassette tape collection from the sixties, seventies and eighties, and my childhood’s songs as a consequence were by Dusty Springfield, the Pointer Sisters and Diana Ross. I was seven before I listened intently to contemporary music (a copy of Cher’s ‘Believe’ bought in a fit of decadence), and half way through my teens before I paid real attention. A gap of fifteen years or so in my musical knowledge, despite attempts to close it, has resulted.

The cost of a bottle of champagne, even from the cheap end of the shelf, would for us have meant an extra two or three days’ food. The hatred stirred in me by seeing one used as a water pistol is as incommunicable as our thriftiness back then, but prompts even now a hot, breathless nausea and impulse to lash out. I felt it at Oxford many times, though never more acutely than then – when a friend schooled for a six figure price complained a degree unfunded by his parents would saddle him with debts; when alumni of such places, 7 percent of Britain’s populace in total, mentioned their attendance as casually as if discussing where to buy socks; when I heard it said my feeling in response, called class hatred by those who’ve never had it, was the last accepted prejudice (a stupid phrase if ever there was one).

Pointing to class in any personal context is considered impolite. Praised by the Daily Mail last year, actor Tom Hiddleston – a product of the prep-school-Eton-Cambridge assembly line – complained the ‘artistic, political or intellectual has to be refracted through [a] prism of class consciousness’. Even a left wing, feminist friend opposed politically to fee-paying education shot me down for saying I wouldn’t date Eddie Redmayne of Les Mis fame since he went to boarding school with Hiddleston. Analogies in these areas are treacherous, but it’s tempting to think class, like gender or race, is something a friendly liberal politics encourages us not to see from day to day – dismissing and disregarding it as academic or off-limits, concerned as we might be in principle for that elusive thing, ‘equality’, in case the marginalised should make the privileged uncomfortable. Doing so prompts frequent accusations of bigotry, spreading the politics of envy and having a chip on one’s shoulder – canards, surely, that feminists and progressives like my alma mater’s ought to recognise.

If this post was unexpected, I know why. With my tweedy prose, unfashionable vowels (the ‘a’ amuses friends and enemies alike) and Latin postnominals, I’m something of a caricature – but ‘caricature’ is the word. Look closely for the giveaways: teeth affluent parents would have set in braces, hair only recently cut by professionals, voice without the real upper crust’s affected twang. I spot signs like these from a mile away: a partner of Hiddleston’s or Redmayne’s ilk, like the boys on Queen’s Lane who used champagne like water, would mean a barrage of emotional slaps in the face, a reminder in Wystan Auden’s words that they lived in mansions while I lived empty-stomached in a hole.

Try telling me I oughtn’t resent that. Try.

Dec 19 2013

No, gay marriage won’t fucking well stop HIV

Not many know gay marriage is a legacy of AIDS. Attempts by same-sex couples at the turn of the nineties to have partnerships legally recognised – in Denmark, New York, Hawaii – were prompted, in the words of the New York Times, by an epidemic that ‘brought questions of inheritance and death benefits to many people’s minds’. The argument gained ground, in fact, that pushing institutions of monogamy would stem the flow of HIV. ‘[I]n the wake of AIDS’, Andrew Sullivan wrote in the New Republic, it would ‘qualify as a genuine public health measure. Those conservatives who deplore promiscuity among some homosexuals should be among the first to support it.’

On calling gay marriage reactionary and citing this in evidence, I’ve been accused of gravedigging – unearthing arguments now twenty-five years old and foisting them anachronistically on current debates, regardless of historical context. But Sullivan’s logic never went away: it’s led to his acknowledgement in U.S. media as the contemporary gay agenda’s author, and is visible today all over moves for marriage reform.

‘LGBT history will be made’, the Advocate reported only yesterday, ‘on January 1, 2014, when a same-sex wedding takes place atop the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s float during the 125th Rose Parade[.]

‘The wedding between Aubrey Loots and Danny Leclair, both gay men from Los Angeles, will be a first for the Rose Parade. The couple’s display of their love and commitment to one another invokes the parade’s 2014 theme, “Dreams Come True,” as well as the theme of the AHF’s float entry, “Love is the Best Protection,” which aims to celebrate same-sex marriage and the role it can play in helping to reduce new HIV infections among gay men. The Foundation’s float will be designed to resemble a wedding cake, with each couple tying the knot atop the float as living cake-toppers.’

Setting aside this terrifying image, suggesting as it does some hideous gay version of the Hunger Games – ‘the best protection’? Really?

‘Love’ doesn’t equal the promise of monogamy; to say so is in the first place a fool’s errand, and an unkind one at that. But neither protects against transmission anyway. How have Catholic doctrines of sex within marriage worked out in countries with HIV-AIDS epidemics? How did chastity work out for those infected by a loved and trusted partner? How did vilifying ‘promiscuity among some homosexuals’, painting AIDS as the fruit of sexual immorality, work out for Catholic Sullivan himself, found posting Craigslist ads in 2001 for unprotected anal sex with ‘other HIV-positive men’? If he couldn’t practise what he preached, why take for granted lesser mortals will?

That spouses play around, with or without permission, isn’t news. Expecting they won’t amounts to abstinence-based disease prevention, which the AHF need only turn on the news to see in action. If not out of deeply conservative sexual ethics, why expect us all to swear monogamy anyway, when prophylactics infinitely more effective exist? Public health is guarded best by public measures, not the pretence of private virtue – in this case, access to condoms, sex education and healthcare and funds for medical research. And are those who do want to make vows prevented by not having them state-recognised? Does monogamy’s achievability depend somehow on access to a civil register?

In a Telegraph column this May that replicated almost exactly Sullivan’s original case, claiming ‘marriage acts as a “commitment device”, encouraging fidelity and discouraging high-risk behaviour’, David Skelton tacked on perhaps the most bizarre argument yet: that ‘[b]y making clear that gay people are fully equal members of society, equal marriage could also help to reduce the level of alienation felt by some young gay people’ – thus, presumably, quash their pursuit of risky activities as a contrived form of self-harm.

Neil Giuliano of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation claimed much the same in the Huffington Post a month later, writing ‘When we promote and permit intolerance through bans on same-sex marriage, we enable and encourage feelings of marginalization, depression and isolation among gay people – particularly LGBT youth. As a result, things like substance use, alcohol consumption, and sexual risk taking increase. And we cannot ignore the data: these activities lead to more cases of HIV.

‘On the flip side, when we promote tolerance through marriage equality, we bring people in from the margins, we help them to feel more affirmed and connected, and risk taking decreases. When this happens, HIV infection rates also decrease.’

What data does Giuliano cite so ostentatiously? A study from 2009 at Emory University suggesting, in his words and its authors’, that constitutional bans on gay marriage in U.S. states ‘raise the infection rate by four cases per 100,000 people’. Without, admittedly, having viewed the paper in detail, the nationwide infection rate according to Wikipedia is 0.6 percent, meaning the rise in question would push numbers from 600 per 100,000 to – wait for it – 604.

A fringe subculture of deliberate infection does exist, but the impression’s hard to avoid that Skelton and Giuliano are reaching opportunistically for any way to praise gay marriage, no matter how baseless or co-optative. According to government figures from 2010, UK diagnoses more than doubled between 1995 and 2009. This period saw Britain’s age of consent equalised, Section 28 scrapped and civil partnerships introduced, greater media visibility for LGBT people and falls in the prevalence of homophobic attitudes, all uncontroversially steps toward ‘bring[ing] people in from the margins’. If none of them stifled HIV transmission, why would marriage reform today? Persuading oneself it’ll solve a slew of other problems is a nice way of making the workload appear smaller while taking no material action.

We’ve no cause assume a vague, immeasurable sea change in the LGBT psyche will emerge mysteriously from the legal right to wed and magic HIV away. We’ve good cause to assume it won’t. Things that may actually help aren’t just condoms and clean needles, sex ed, med research and so on, vital as those are; they’re housing, healthcare and community support for those who fall into sex work, self-harm, drug use or homelessness, services Britain’s government cuts to the bone while commending itself for legalising gay.

A gay rights lobby that applauds it and others like it is one thing – but claiming cynically while doing so that marriage holds the key to HIV prevention is a fiction adding insult to infection.

Dec 17 2013

In support of Priyamvada Gopal

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.’

Check.

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.

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