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.’

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 an 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.

Gitsupportthisblog

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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.

Gitsupportthisblog

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Dear Pat Condell… why this homo-Islamic masochist rejects your anti-Muslim crusade

Dear Pat Condell:

I was recently linked to your ‘How gay is Islam?’ video by a fan of yours quite desperate to persuade me (as a queer left wing atheist blogger) that I need to spend more time attacking Muslims, intent as you say they are on killing me.

The reason you haven’t heard from me till now is not that I was stumped; it’s that the sheer amount of wrong in what you say is so extreme that it’s taken me a week to lay it out.

I’ve even divided my response in two: an extended, detailed examination of what polls on British Muslims actually say, contrary to your assertions, can be found here. (It grew long in the tooth, again, because there’s so much in your statements to correct.) For this post, I thought I’d go through your transcript point by point.

As you know, I don’t like to criticise anyone, but surely the most comically deluded people on this planet, outside creationists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientologists, are idealistic left-wing gay people who think they share a common cause with Muslims as two oppressed minorities when opinion polls tell us that most Muslims are disgusted by homosexuality and think it’s completely unacceptable.

No, opinion polls don’t tell us that, and the single poll you cite contradicts several key claims you make. You’d know this if, in fact, you’d read it.

What is true is that according to the BBC, the ‘Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks’ hotline recorded 632 incidents of harassment between last February and this March (more than a baker’s dozen a week on average), and a further 212 including 17 violent attacks between Lee Rigby’s murder in Woolwich and the start of June; that Woolwich was followed by attacks on mosques with bombs and knives in Essex, Kent and Lincolnshire, and the burning down of a Muslim community centre in north London; that by May 28, ten mosques had been attacked; that others were vandalised with racist and far-right slogans; that women’s headscarves were reportedly torn off by strangers as they walked the streets, a disturbingly familiar phenomenon today.

I have no idea what it’s like to live through this as a Muslim, and I wouldn’t presume to guess, but I do know what it’s like to feel unsafe in public – to fear going outside for homophobic catcalls from across the road, having objects thrown at me, being spat on, hit and kicked, having possessions grabbed, stolen or destroyed. I know what it’s like to be afraid all the time, and that no one – no onewhoever they are, whatever they think of me – should ever live in fear. I won’t be complicit in that.

What do you know about being queer, or about being a Muslim? (Not about Islam, in principle – about being a Muslim?) And what, in particular, about being a queer Muslim, doubly trodden on and ignored, including by you?

I expect this understanding to be returned, and that other people stepped on, pushed to the margins, know not to do this to me or other queer people. That they sometimes – often – don’t know this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t . Yes, negative views of people who aren’t straight are widespread in the so-called Muslim community; no, this doesn’t legitimise attacking, harassing or demonising Muslims, and it doesn’t free people who know what that treatment feels like from needing to resist it. I’m keeping my end of the bargain.

Among UK Muslims, disapproval is 100%. Admittedly, that’s from a sample of only 500 people who all happened to agree unanimously, but that’s hardly representative. After all, not all Muslims were included, so we can’t reasonably extrapolate anything from it without being racist. That’s a relief. I thought we might have to face an unpleasant truth there for a second, didn’t you?

Note the downsizing on several fronts: from disgust to disapproval, ‘most Muslims’ to 500 in Britain. Note too the treatment of British Muslims as archetypes of opinion in Islam, while citing a poll which shows them as far more conservative than those in Germany or France.

Gay people who look for common ground with Islam are a bit like left-wing Jews who want to boycott Israel. They’ve let their twisted “progressive” politics trump their common sense.

Excuse me: how did we get from ‘a common cause with Muslims as two oppressed minorities’ to ‘look[ing] for common ground with Islam’?

If you want to make comparisons, and your views on Israel speak volumes, I needn’t believe in God, the validity of zionism or the prudence of building a fence around the Torah to think synagogues shouldn’t be smashed, Jews targeted with ethnic slurs or societies and legal systems segregated – I certainly needn’t support the slicing of infants’ genitals, or the herding of children into proselytising schools. I needn’t think any of the above are even remotely good ideas – I don’t. I need only think people have rights.

From your claim – again, against the polls – that Muslims think otherwise and therefore should be shunned, I gather you agree. I can find Islam absurd, while also thinking mosques shouldn’t be banned or bombed, as easily as finding UKIP laughable, deranged and incoherent while not wishing to assault or expatriate its voters. (Come to think of it, I’ve met some sensible Muslims…)

It’s hard to know if they really believe in their fantasy gay/Islamic alliance, or if their “look-at-me-how-tolerant-I-am” Guardianista political correctness hasn’t just mutated into a kind of homo-Islamic masochism.

Independent if you don’t mind. Tribune on the side.

How else do you explain the willingness of otherwise intelligent people to indulge a religion that wants them dead?

Islam doesn’t want me dead. Islam doesn’t want anything. Saying religions want things is like saying homeopathy feels sad or Thatcherism likes watching Countdown.

Almost no British Muslims – one or two percent – support execution for homosexuality. The only other measure of what Islam ‘wants’, it having no single catechism or analogue to the Holy See, is what its texts say, and scripture on its own is a remarkably bad predictor of beliefs or practices within religions. (The cutting of more than one human in ten’s penis, unlike the female version a near-universal practice, would surely rank among Islam’s most undesirable manifestations, but is demanded next to nowhere – indeed, very arguably proscribed – in the Qur’an. Every religion’s texts, conversely, bear long-forgotten commandments.) I’m not interested in what scripture mandates, most of the time, but in what believers in the real world think and do, and British Muslims don’t think what you say.

And not dead in a symbolic or theoretical way, but in an actual string-them-up-in-public sort of way, as they do in the Islamic Republic of Iran where they regard death as too good for homosexuals.

Post-revolutionary, theocratic Iran and its governments being, of course, an oasis of democratic transparency and rule by popular consent, whose public have no history at all of protest or dissent. (This sentence isn’t even coherent. One either regards death as too good for someone or kills them. Both are not possible.)

If they could find a way to kill them twice over they know it would please Allah more than a Tel Aviv school bus suicide bomb, but what can they do? They’ll just have to wait for Islamic science to find a way, and pick up that long overdue Nobel Prize.

There is absolutely no reason – except to make Muslims sound particularly foreign – to refer to the god of Islam as Allah. ‘Allah’ is the Arabic word for God, and nothing more specific; it’s what Arabic-speaking Muslims, Christians, Jews and members of other faiths all call their god. (Among Muslims, heavy use of Arabic is often an Islamist strategy to frame Islam as un-Western and culturally distinct. This kind of racialising discourse, including when non-Muslims adopt it, makes leaving Islam harder for atheists.)

Surely it’s obvious even to the most PC-crippled among us that if any one group of people on this earth should be opposing the spread of Islam with everything they’ve got, it’s gay people. Nothing is a more serious threat to them.

Please don’t use words like ‘crippled’.

Please don’t assume you’ve thought at greater length about the consequences of my sexuality and other people’s beliefs than I, a queer atheist blogger, have.

And once again, the data contradicts this.

Islam will never be remotely gay-friendly. There will never be a pink crescent moon, unless you count gay bloodstains, and good luck finding an Islamic “scholar” who’s prepared to deny that.

Daayiee Abdullah; Junaid Bin Jahangir; Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle; Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed; Ziauddin Sardar.

That’s five, as many minutes after a Google search. Oh yes – and about what the data says

It’s true that not all “scholars” feel the same way about gays. Some think they should be stoned to death. Others favour throwing them off a mountain. Maybe on a good day you could even get to choose. In Iran they’ve settled the matter by hanging them from cranes in public. In Mauritania they use the more traditional method, stoning to death. In Saudi Arabia they prefer beheading, as they do for many things in that country, including witchcraft.

British Muslims are overwhelmingly opposed to punishments like these. If you’re determined to homogenise Islam, whose stance is the ‘official’ one: theirs, or the current Iranian, Saudi or Mauritanian governments’? (Mauritania, on a point of fact, hasn’t actually executed anyone since 1990.)

In countries that don’t impose the death penalty for being gay it’s still punishable by flogging and imprisonment.

States whose official religion is Islam (generically or one particular denomination), and/or with a Muslim majority…

…with laws against homosexuality: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Brunei, Comoros, Gambia, Guinea, Iran, Kuwait (men only), Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Palestinian territories (Gaza – men only), Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sierra Leone (men only), Somalia, Somaliland, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan (men only), United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan (men only), Western Sahara, Yemen. (Total: 26.5 28.5)

…without laws against homosexuality: Albania, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Burkina Faso, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Indonesia, Jordan, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait (women only), Lebanon, Mali, Mayotte, Niger, Palestinian territories (Gaza – women only), Palestinian territories (West Bank), Sierra Leone (women only), Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan (women only), Uzbekistan (women only). (Total: 21.5)

Other countries with laws against homosexuality: Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Belize (men only), Bhutan, Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Cook Islands (men only), Dominica, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Grenada (men only), Guyana, Jamaica (men only), Kenya, Kiribati (men only), Lesotho (men only), Liberia, Malawi, Mauritius (men only), Myanmar, Namibia, Nauru (men only), Nigeria, Palau (men only), Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis (men only), Saint Lucia (men only), Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Seychelles (men only), Singapore, Solomon Islands, Somaliland, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Swaziland (men only), Tanzania, Togo, Tonga (men only), Trinidad and Tobago, TR North Cyprus (men only), Tuvalu (men only), Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe (men only). (Total: 40.5 38.5)

(All data: Wikipedia)

And it was announced recently that several Islamic countries are trying to find a medical test to detect gay people and stop them at the border, so disgusted are they by homosexuality.

Not just gay people, actually, but LGBT (including transgender) people. This is alarming and a major human rights concern – much like refusing people entry to Britain, in fact, for being Muslims or coming from a ‘Muslim country’. (If you lived in the ones above, wouldn’t you want to leave?)

If you care so much about human rights abuses, by the way, you should probably stop voting for a party that wants to scrap the Human Rights Act.

They even forced the United Nations to remove sexual orientation from a resolution condemning arbitrary execution, because Islamic countries want the right to arbitrarily execute gay people without being condemned for it, and the United Nations went along with that, which tells us something about the United Nations, but nothing we didn’t already know.

Yes, the six nations of the GCC and 73 other member states of the UN voted for this amendment. Of those 79, less than half (38) were ‘Islamic countries’ by the criteria above.

The concept of human rights is alien to Islam, as we know. The concept of gay rights is an insulting and vile obscenity to Islam, without putting too fine a point on it. Islam does not regard homosexuality as a different lifestyle, but as a disgusting form of sexual perversion on a par with paedophilia or bestiality, that should be severely punished.

Islam doesn’t regard anything as anything. Islam doesn’t have opinions independent of its followers’. (It has holy texts of course, but texts mean nothing without a reader, and again, they’re terrible predictors of what religious groups will think or do.)

While it’s certainly true the kind of Islamist states that have tended to develop in the last 50 years have notoriously poor human rights records, they’re far from unique in this, including among religious states more broadly. Of the non-Islamic countries above that criminalise homosexuality, almost all (41) are majority-Christian.

Further, polling of British Muslims shows high levels of support for secular legal infrastructure, human and LGBT rights and the respectful treatment of gay people.

Islamic preachers often conflate homosexuality and paedophilia, and are not challenged on it because the people they’re talking to generally agree with them.

Yes, it’s generally true that people who go to see people preach agree with them. (Hence the expression ‘preaching to the choir’.) How often do your regular viewers challenge you?

We know that the more Islam there is in a society the more physically dangerous it’s likely to be for gay people.

We don’t. You might, but you need a citation for this if you do.

There’s very little data available about correlation between religion and violent attacks on gay people, or about religious support specifically for these. (Anecdotally, speaking from experience among queer and human rights activists, the countries most infamous for this are generally Jamaica, Russia and Brazil.)

What we do know – from the survey, actually, which you cite to smear Muslims – is that those in Britain, Germany and France overwhelmingly oppose all forms of violence; that homosexuality is legal in almost as many ‘Muslim countries’ as it is against the law, and that substantially fewer states criminalising it are Muslim countries as defined above than are predominantly Christian.

In parts of Europe with high Muslim immigrant populations we know that openly gay men are far more likely to be attacked and beaten up on the street for being gay.

Citation desperately needed, once again.

I found none in the description to your video. I’m also impressed you seem so confident of this, since having been out as queer for the past ten years and a writer, researcher and activist on various queer issues (violence included) as well as religion for a good many of those, I’ve never been able to find a comprehensive study of homophobic assault levels by country. If you know more than I do about this, which you might (but I’d be surprised), why not share your data?

It’s a non-sequitur in any case that if homophobic violence occurs in places with high Muslim migrant populations, Muslims must be the perpetrators – rather like your claim that since 5 percent of Sweden’s populace are Muslims, they must be responsible for its rape statistics.

And there’s a good reason why they don’t hold gay pride marches down Brick Lane.

Actually, assuming by Brick Lane you mean Tower Hamlets and London’s East End, they do.

The march you mean was postponed and reorganised over concerns it would be used as an EDL front – concerns which came not from Muslim groups, but local LGBT ones, and certainly weren’t accompanied by threats of violence.

In a nutshell, gay people, Islam wants your blood, and if you’re ever stupid enough to go to an Islamic country and let them know you’re gay you’ll find that out the hard way.

I have – several times, in Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Turkish Cyprus (if the latter counts). My pulse persists.

It doesn’t give a damn how tolerant or inclusive you are. It just wants you dead for being who and what you are, and it’s no more open to persuasion on the matter than you would be open to persuasion about letting sewer rats run around your house.

Stop saying abstract philosophies want or give a damn about things; stop calling my sexual identity ‘who and what I am'; start reading the data, which indicates decisively that queer-positive versions of Islam can and do exist, and that Muslims by and large (in Britain at least) are unsupportive of violence or oppression targeting LGBT people, whatever their moral view. (Yes, those views themselves do matter; no, not because they’re a threat to the way of life of gay or straight non-Muslims.)

You’ve got more chance of celebrating Christmas in a pub in Saudi Arabia than you have of finding common ground between Islam and homosexuality, and you’ve got absolutely no excuse for pretending otherwise because there’s nothing nuanced about the Islamic position. There is no ambiguity. There is no grey area. There is no common ground. There is no shared struggle. There are no bridges to be built, and there won’t be any until you stop being gay.

Again, what ‘common ground between Islam and homosexuality’ do I advocate by saying people shouldn’t be expatriated, attacked, harassed or slandered for their religion? (Or indeed perceived religion.) This as far as I’m concerned is elementary secularism.

Moreover: attitudes to queer sexuality within Islam are demonstrably varied, often sympathetic and at times explicitly affirmative. Of course gay imams are a fringe, but so were Islamists in 1960. Islam has shown itself to be as malleable and susceptible to evolutionary change as any other religion – there is no reason to assume queer-positive versions are somehow innately unsellable.

Would that option be on the table at all? For the sake of, you know, community cohesion? After all, by being gay you’re being culturally insensitive, disrespectful, divisive, provocative, offensive, Islamophobic and racist. What can I say, people? The bottom line is if you don’t want to be a filthy racist you’re going to have to stop being gay. And when you think about it, it’s really not that much to ask. After all, if you’re not willing to compromise on your sick and sinful gayness, how can you reasonably expect Islam to compromise on wanting you dead? Peace.

Oh, Pat. Stop.

Stray thoughts on niqab-related tussles

I don’t care for ‘Islamophobia': it names a multitude of sins, but more than the odd virtue too, and politics seldom gains from too-broad terms. That said, Daniel Trilling’s latest column at the Rationalist Association site (he’s New Humanist‘s new editor) says excellent things on the recent media storm over niqab-clad women.

A defendant currently on trial in London, if you hadn’t heard about it, has been permitted to wear hers in court while removing it to give evidence, face shielded from public view by a screen but visible to judge, jury and lawyers. (‘The defendant, who cannot be identified,’ BBC News reports mischievously, ‘was present for the hearing.’) A Birmingham Sixth Form college, meanwhile, has revised its dress code after pressure to allow niqab.

Writes Trilling, among other things:

The National Secular Society opposes “a general ban on the wearing of the burka and niqab”, but states that “religious freedom is not absolute” and supports certain requirements to remove a face veil in situations where people need to be identified. Precisely which situations, how these are negotiated, and whether people are being treated fairly and without being stigmatised, seem to me to be the real areas for debate.

It seems on the face of it a sensible line to take. Discussions like this always call for degrees of nuance, so like him, I’ll avoid skindeep demands and outline some instincts that shape my thinking.

  • I’m don’t believe in ‘religious freedom’ as a category unto itself, the ‘right to manifest religion’ being one example. There are no religious rights or freedoms, as such: there are secular rights and freedoms (of thought, speech and assembly, say) which at times find religious expression. One such right, it seems to me, is not having one’s clothing unduly policed.
  • Demands ‘face coverings’ be banned in public, Tory MP Philip Hollobone’s among them, seem clear products of the so-called War on Terror’s Hobbesian domestic politics, obsessed with fatuous ‘security’ concerns. Could you tell a friend in detail, if asked, about the faces of passers-by when last you went to buy milk or strolled to work? Did you even eye them that closely, or feel a burning need to view them? If not, what does this say about the widespread urge to view niqab-wearers’ faces?
  • My general presumption thus would be not to proscribe items of clothing. Certain specific contexts do exist, however, where we justifiably require faces’ visibility – in passport photographs, banks or while taking exams, for instance. (During my university finals, student cards were placed on desks to be compared with owners’ faces by invigilators.) The question then, as Trilling states, is which contexts qualify.
  • Incidentally: should we assume any woman in a niqab considers its removal an unthinkable sacrilege? Many no doubt do; there are also those, I’d imagine, who find it viable enough if unpreferable, or else not a matter of huge importance. Veiled women: not homogenous or undifferentiated.
  • Relatedly: niqabs are not burqas. Here are the former, predominantly Middle Eastern; here are the latter, predominantly South Asian. So-called Muslim cultures from all around the world: not interchangeable.
  • Also: why the media’s constant reference to ‘the niqab’/’the burqa’, as if only one exists? Veils, and women wearing them, are plural.
  • Also: a little over three million Muslims, half of them presumably female, live in France where veils have been publicly banned since 2011. Around 2000 women according to the Independent‘s coverage of the Sixth Form college story, and certainly a very small minority, wear this version of hijab. Why have veil-wearing Muslim women, making up only a tiny, highly conservative fraction of the populace at large, been used so emblematically of Muslims in the West by media there?
  • The question of whether or to what extent niqab (or hijab more broadly) is a ‘choice’ is not binary. ‘Choice’ is complex and has degrees and counter-valances; if you want to read about that, see Marwa Berro’s guest post here on Lady Gaga and veils.
  • This whole discussion is complex, in fact, and needs to involve who are Muslims, ex-Muslims and who’ve worn hijab – as Zakia Uddin argues persuasively here.
  • France’s anti-veil laws have, it seems to me, had penetratingly dire results.
  • All sides in the current British controversy appear to want a ‘definitive answer’ from government on the status of niqab ‘bans’, one way or the other, which seems to hint at legislation on the issue. I am unconvinced, especially in the courtroom and college contexts, that this is a good idea, as I’m often unconvinced demands for new legislation are worthwhile.
  • In educational settings, it seems to me niqab-related issues might best be dealt with case-by-case. It’s conceivable potential risks of students covering their faces might vary strongly between schools (are ‘security’ concerns over covered faces more valid, perhaps, at Birmingham’s inner-city colleges than small-sized grammar schools in leafy Buckinghamshire?), and different teachers might feel differently about veils’ impact on lessons. (Could staff legitimately ask, for example, to see students’ faces for while teaching them? Probably, yes – on the other hand, individuals’ discomfort on being made to remove veils or tense group dynamics as a result might stop that being worth it, or cause teachers to think carefully about whether, or how uncompromisingly, to set down that rule.)
  • In court, as in the classroom if not more so, facial expressions matter greatly. Though we don’t bar the blind or partially sighted from jury service, those who do serve are presumably told as objectively as possible of testifiers’ expressions – certainly, we wouldn’t hold court with the lights out. In the current case, of course, jurors and court officials can still see the defendant’s face, so perhaps the point is moot. While we do let individuals give evidence in silhouette, this presumably requires special circumstances: religious faith alone, as far as I can see, shouldn’t qualify. There may perhaps be issues of comfort here too, since insisting garments held sacred be removed could quite conceivably place witnesses under added stress, thus biasing proceedings – this seems, though, like a reason for the kind of reasonable accommodation currently on offer. (Do members of the public have the same right as the jury to see all participants’ faces? I would say not.)
  • In either case above, existing laws allow over-draconian rulings to be challenged quite sufficiently. My sense is that any case for niqabs’ allowance based specifically on legislation to that effect, and not on any broader principle of human rights or personal autonomy, would deserve dismissal, as does UK Christian groups’ demand for a specific, legally enshrined right to wear crosses.

Those are my thoughts. I might have missed no end of things of course, and my stance here isn’t set in stone, so what are you yours?

A shaggy dog (s)tory: MP responds to right-of-protest letter with ‘dangerous dogs’ concern

Some weeks ago I signal-boosted Jonathan Lindsell’s excellent, incisive commentary on media rape culture.

He’s written on a range of other topics at Haywire Thought, Liberal Conspiracy and other places – including, the day before that, the further erosion of Britons’ right to protest in a post which ought to have made more waves than it did.

After writing it, Jonathan in his own words ‘calmed down and wrote a measured, balanced, meticulously-researched open letter‘ to his Member of Parliament, Conservative Jeremy Wright – also Minister for Prisons and a lawyer by training – which set out at length the horrifying details of the forthcoming Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill.

On being sent this letter, Wright sent back the following.

Dear Mr Lindsell,

Thank you for contacting me about the recent consultation on maximum prison Sentences for Dog Attacks Causing Injury or Death.

Dog attacks can be terrifying and I believe that we should have appropriate penalties to punish those who allow their dog to injure people while out of control. Ministers recently announced changes to the Dangerous Dogs Act as partof the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill. Those measures including extending the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 to private property and providing protection from prosecution for householders whose dogs attack intruders in the home.

I believe that the measures that the Government is introducing are a proportionate, measured response that will improve the way in which irresponsible dog ownership is addressed and help to prevent further attacks. In particular, the provisions in the Bill already deal with exactly the type of problems that would be dealt with by dog control notices.

I am pleased that the Government undertook a conseultation before the next Parliamentary stage of the Bill, on a change to the maximum sentence for allowing an aggravated dog attack, namely where a person or an assistance dog is injured or killed by a dog. The Government will consider all responses and issue a response taking in to account the points raised. I do not wish to prejudge the outcome of the consultation as I believe this process is the best avenue to allow interested parties to raise their concerns regarding the specific policy.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.

Yours sincerely, Jeremy Wright MP

To quote Jonathan’s post about this:

My criticisms of the ASBCP bill [prizes for anyone who can make a catchy acronym] were:

  • the bill made it near-impossible to get compensation for miscarriage of justice
  • the bill’s IPNAs [super-ASBOs] gave police too much power with too much subjective discretion
  • the bill’s  PSPOs [dispersal orders] threatened legal protest and freedom of assembly
  • the bill contributed to a general lurch towards heavy-handed state supervision

My criticisms did not include:

  • unicorn horn shape and size safety regulations’ cross-compliance with EU Directive 1998/238A.
  • the war in Syria.
  • oliphaunts rampaging around Harad.
  • dogs.

I had taken quite a lot of time to verify these criticisms, I didn’t just complain to make a good blog. My blogs don’t get the hits or income to justify that. I had read the minutes of committee meetings and the wording of the draft bill itself, which is bloody tedious. I had talked to lawyers and read human rights groups’ scrutiny of the bill. I linked to all of these, which is part of the reason I sent a companion email (and I explained as much in the letter). All of my criticisms were at least valid enough to deserve an actual response.

Yes, quite: it’s rather uninspiring, if also unsurprising, that writing to one’s MP might garner a reply like this. (At least it got a reply at all.) What kind of world are we living in where parliamentarians neglect even properly to read constituents’ concerns – the kind perhaps in which a good many, dare I say it, aren’t interested in representing us?

Read Jonathan’s blog post for more. The whole thing’s barking.

Lady Gaga and the burqa: it’s personal

My blog on Lady Gaga’s use of burqa (actually niqab) imagery was a discussion of relevant topoi in broad terms – it conceded that never having worn hijab or been made to, I can’t speak to what that’s like any more than Gaga. This is a guest post, as promised, from Marwa Berro of Between a Veil and a Dark Place, who can. Tweet her your thoughts at @Marwa_Berro

NB: refers to personal experience of parental abuse, harassment and intimidation, violence, mental illness, racism and state terrorism.

A lot has been said about Lady Gaga’s new song ‘Aura’, which was leaked several weeks prior to her live performance of it at the London iTunes festival this month.

The argument that this song others, eroticizes, and fetishizes Muslim women in ways they do not want or approve of has been made here and here.

The argument that this song blatantly commits cultural appropriation, is context-blind, and falls into orientalism has been made here.

An argument by a Muslim woman in support of the song, arguing that it allows Muslim women to be viewed as powerful and active sexual beings rather than a forcibly oppressed voiceless mass, has been made here.

Alex Gabriel, kindly hosting me as a guest-blogger, wrote about it a few days ago too, pointing out several layers of irony and paradox in the gap between Gaga’s representation and the reality of the burqa and other forms of Muslim veiling.

Much has already been said. I am here to make it personal.

I’m not here to give yet another spin on the critiques of Gaga’s song as orientalist and fetishizing and appropriating and ignorant. It’s been hashed and re-hashed and some of it is great and some of it is trivial and the arguments and responses to them have been made, and I am not willing to expend the emotion and care it takes to separate what has already been said into smaller and more robust distinctions.

Nor am I here to say something for the sake of saying something about it, because I am an ex-Muslim woman of color who blogs about such things and thus I must blog about this thing.

But I must blog about this thing.

Because after I watched her performance, read all the commentary and watched her performance again, I burned with ideas and emotions still unexpressed or insufficiently expressed. So I’m here to tell a story: to say what it is like to be a Muslim woman watching Lady Gaga sing about an aura, a burqa, that hides and empowers.

If you read my blog you’ll know by now that I am one for careful preambles. Talking about this takes great emotion and care. From what I have read on the topic already, even those arguments in passionate defense of the rights of brown women not to be lumped together as one entity, appropriated and consumed, have left me feeling empty. The discourse has been so depersonalizing as to make me feel almost physically ill. And I watch the video again and feel ill again at how the criticism of it has been given in such general terms of what Muslim women want and don’t want, have and don’t have, can and can’t choose – without actually mentioning specific instances of any of that. What is it like to want or not want, have or not have? What it is it like to choose and not choose the hijab, the burqa, the niqab? To be faced with such a choice? How is it presented? What does it mean? Why is it important? Where is the discussion of what it is like to wear the hijab, the niqab, or the burqa in private, in public, by choice, or unwillingly, as identity or as norm?

I understand why this hasn’t really been gone into. This is an issue so broad that subjectivity could be utterly limiting. There is good reason for generality, striving to preserve sound argumentative form by attacking the issue from multiple planes, so as to be all-encompassing and unbiased. But does it work? Because as a result, I read all of this commentary and come away thinking that it has missed, in some dire ways, how nearly entirely removed it is from the details of a woman’s life that give the concepts of appropriation and oppression meaning.

I say this to assert that when it comes to gender and identity politics, there is good reason to ignore the philosophical urge to entirely sidestep personal anecdote as an incoherent form of commentary and critique because of the probability that it is fallaciously unrepresentative. There is moving power in literary-narrative critique that is not to be found in philosophical argumentation, and the field of creative nonfiction (encompassing personal essay and memoir) is testament to how rhetoric that is personal can change minds and hearts, be listened to, gather money, create movements for social change, make real things happen. Not that the more impersonal arguments cannot do all of this also. It is not a binary. They ought to supplement each other, precisely because specific example illustrates in ways that general discussion cannot. So I am here today, as a gentle reminder of the how deeply personal all of this is, how powerfully supplemental personal narrative can be to general argumentation.

Here is a story, and with it a promise.

The story starts like this: a woman wears the hijab from her childhood, for fourteen years from the age of nine to the age of 23. She moves to the West and stops wearing it at that point, angry and resentful of the wasted confusion and coercion of those years, and doesn’t know what exactly to do with that energy. That she knows what she wants and takes what she wants now is true; it is also true that the complexity of the life-long process of coming to that knowledge and ability has left her somewhat bereft and burdened.

When she was nine years old and came of age, her mother asked her if she wanted to wear it. Her mother, who was the warm, smiling, giving woman who fed her and cradled her when she was sick, who comforted her and shielded her from the dark, who taught her to cup her hands like a book she read from, and ask for mercy and grace from above.

I promise you she was asked when she was nine, and that her mother who wore it too not only asked her, but explained to her what it meant, what it was for, how it was protective like a shimmering oyster around a precious pearl, how it kept the special things about a person special for only the closest and most special people to see. I promise you, they asked her. And she was surrounded by it, living on a compound in Saudi Arabia as a Lebanese-American expatriate with family friends of similar backgrounds, surrounded too outside the compound by niqabs and black abayas hiding the special graces of special people she was not special enough to see. And little girl that she was, she wore the abaya by law whenever she left the compound, venturing into the public places of the Kingdom, because so it was dictated by the highest power in the land. I promise you she said yes and she meant it, because it was so clearly right and normal and she wanted to be like her mother. They threw her a hijab party. She cut her cake, her small hand with fingernails newly cleaned from the ornamental polish of childhood.

I promise you that fifteen years later, she watched Lady Gaga sing ‘I’m not a wandering slave, I am a woman of choice/My veil is protection for the gorgeousness of my face’, trembling at how easily this person spoke about a choice they could never fathom having to make.

When she was thirteen, she was tired of being an ugly, awkward, desexualized, bullied girl with raging hormones and a forged parental signature on the permission slip for sex ed in health class. She was a teenager, and had she been the girl with a leg brace or stutter she would have been tired of that too, but it happened that she was the girl who wore a rag on her head (and was told she wore a rag on her head) in this American school full of bare limbs, bare heads in the middle of the Arabian desert. She was tired of being thirteen, hardly with the nubs of breasts, and having her sleeves checked by her mother before she went to school, to see if they covered her wrists all the way. She was tired of her mother measuring all her shirts to make sure they went down over her knees, making sure her jeans were baggy enough, tired of hair plastered back by pins and more pins under her hijab in the desert heat, her notebooks and bag and pockets routinely searched and checked, her phone calls listened to, her roller blades and bike incrementally torn away from her, an absolute ban on makeup or nail polish of any kind – and understanding finally that it was about sex, even though she did not know yet what sex was.

I promise you she was confused and said NO in her head, and once dared to take the hijab off when she was at school, and did not understand the choice she made in taking it off because she only took it off due to being harassed and tired, and she might have torn off a leg brace or her glasses in the same way.

Maybe.

Maybe even then she kind of knew it was not the same, because there was something about how urgent and moral wearing this thing was, how important it was, and how could she think her father would not find out? How could she think she would not be dragged across the floor by her hair and have it cut off with a knife, and be relegated to sleeping and doing homework for weeks in the storage room, because it was her place? Did she not understand what it meant to have a place and a role and a responsibility she had to fill? Because it was expected by others – because others asked her if she wanted to wear it when she turned nine and she didn’t ask herself, and she wore a veil over her head but was always watched and it was never about what she wanted.

I promise you eleven years later, she watched Lady Gaga sing ‘Do you want to peek underneath the cover? Do you want to see the girl who lives behind the aura, behind the aura?’, trembling at how easily this person spoke about wanting something, as if she could fathom what it is to want ownership of your body in this way, to know who the girl you were behind all of that even was, independent of what she was allowed to be.

When she was fourteen, she repatriated to her homeland, Lebanon. They sent her to an all-girls school at first, an Islamic one with uniforms, and the guilt of looking different and being shamed for it was gone, but gone with it was any space that allowed wanting to look different or be different. Her yellow prayer card was stamped every recess as she joined rows and rows of identically clad girls in the school’s rooftop mosque area. At first she rebelled by rolling up her sleeves and growing her fingernails, but soon she found peace and pleasure in conformity, and she thought of her body as a holy thing of grace, a beauteous thing of wonderment that only she knew and only one person who committed his livelihood and self to her utterly could ever access. She loved her hijab and wore it by choice, violent choice that she’d defend if anybody tried to touch her or it. It was hers.

I’m not a wandering slave, I am a woman of choice.

But I promise you, it did not last – because even when she was willing and loving of all that was prescribed to her, even though she prayed and fasted and was so clean, none of that was easy, and though she wore and wanted to wear it, the choice she already made was not an easy one to keep implementing, moment after moment, day after day. She had to watch how she walked and spoke, to keep checking her sleeves and hairline and socks, and hardest of all, to watch how she thought as it grew and changed so she could keep it in line and reconcile it with the choice she had made as she learned more about what that choice meant. She learned that the hijab was not just about sex, but about control and power and honor and her entire family, and it was not even about itself, a thing by itself or a symbol, but only one thing among a million other things, a symptom of something much bigger, a set of behaviors that underlie an entire social structure. She learned that though she chose it, the hijab afforded her no privacy of being or thought, and still all she said and did and read and kept was watched and checked. She learned how to hide her books and stash and code her stories and essays successfully, so she could keep more secrets. She learned that the hijab was the most private thing in the world, and that she had no privacy.

Then she was twenty, and I promise you she had gone through every loophole and read through every book trying to understand why things seemed to be so disproportionately controlled for women, why she had to stand in the back during prayer and not speak though she was smarter and livelier and more articulate, why women were constantly compared to inanimate objects like lollipops and pearls in attempts to honor them. She shed blood for asking questions, and tears for not understanding the answers. (That is not a metaphor.) Nobody told her she was allowed to create her own answers, but she understood that maybe she could, and keep them to herself, and never tell anybody what they were because they were not the right ones. None of it was special or hers or new or an uncommon narrative.

I promise you she loved a boy who she would not touch without a marriage rite and read enough to figure out how to perform one herself, but things went wrong and she tried to leave her parents’ home and ran away, and she wasn’t even a heathen yet but she ran away still, and they had a militant Islamist organization track her down, bring her home and keep her quiet while she was first taught lessons of what she was allowed to do with her skin and what was allowed to be done to it, then locked away for months without books or human contact but with drugs and doctors and suppressants. I promise you she understood the one choice to be made was to conform and that was how things would change.

And four years later, I promise you, she listened to Lady Gaga sing ‘Do you want to touch me, cosmic lover?/Do you want to peek underneath the cover?’, trembling at how easy it was for this person to invite other people who were different and strange to a place even her own self was not allowed; to give a sexual invitation without acknowledging how powerful, dangerous, taboo, wanted, yearned for something close to a sexual identity could be.

Then she was 23: successful, accomplished, educated and an educator who was modest and reserved and kind outwardly, and a robot in every other way. She had a letter of acceptance to graduate school in the United States in one hand, and then the real ticket there in the other: approval and acceptance from her parents. She was 23, and had spent the last ten years thrashing into her pillows from sexual frustration, curling her fists in her pockets, hiding relationships and friendships like dirty secrets, saying godly words though her heart had lost God years before, fasting from food and water though she did not believe it held any merit, praying because others were watching and even mouthing the words in case they read her lips, nullifying her own thoughts and instincts and feelings and humanity, regulating her emotions and responses like a clock.

She flew to the West, convinced it would backfire at any moment, and a lifetime of work and struggle, confusion, pain, punishment, and mistakes flew with her. She flew, waited, gathered courage, and took off her hijab.

And claimed her sexuality. Lost her family. Lost her homeland. Lost her peace of mind to depression, anxiety, PTSD, and panic attacks.

And claimed her body. Lived – lives – in fear.

A year later, she watched Lady Gaga sing this song, trembling at how easy it is for everybody to say things like ‘A Muslim woman can be a sexual being’ and ‘The burqa and niqab and hijab represent complex choices’ and ‘Women from Muslim cultures can reclaim the burqa as a symbol of their own freedom and identity’, and ‘It eroticizes Muslim women in a way they haven’t consented to’ and so on and so on and so on. It is easy to say these things without thinking of the years of thought and movement and struggle and defiance and confusion and control and suppression that is entailed in having, doing, choosing, wanting these things.

In retrospect, this girl, watching Lady Gaga sing so easily about things so weighty and momentous and dangerous and grave – about life-defining, moving things – she remembers things she never even knew were so integral to the puzzle. She flashbacks to when she was four, before her expatriation, when she called 911 when her parents were not home because she didn’t know what it meant and wanted to see what would happen. Her parents arrived with the police, and explained to them how they had to run out to the leasing office down the street for fifteen minutes, just fifteen minutes to sign some paperwork – and they were afraid, being Muslims in America, of having their children torn from them on pretense of negligence, as afraid as they were when it happened to another Muslim family because of a bathtub accident; as afraid as they were when the FBI visited their home just when she, their daughter, was born, asking why her parents called the Arab-American hub of Dearborn, Michigan so often; as afraid and suspicious as they were of Western backing of the foreign occupation of Lebanon that had caused them to immigrate to begin with.

This is about the hijab too, because it is this fear of invasion, takeovers and control that spurs so much invading, taking-over and control. Her mother was so afraid that she beat the little girl and told her never to do such a thing again. And again, it was fear when she beat the girl at six for touching herself, at ten for running outside without her hijab, forgetful, at thirteen for changing clothes when she got to school, at sixteen for refusing to go to bed at midnight, at nineteen for not answering questions when she was asked them – because security and protection and keeping personal things personal was so powerfully important.

So there is one story, from one woman: me.

Maybe another story from another woman will come along, and another, and another. Because the greatest relevance this discussion has is as commentary on the very personal struggles Muslim women and women in Muslim-majority countries deal with regarding their personal autonomy and sexual identities.

Maybe somebody will be moved by one of these stories in a way that they are not when they are told that somebody’s culture has been appropriated and it hurts, it hurts.

And maybe some of these stories will become normalized, the voices heard in mainstream media, the movements requisite to change things undertaken.

Maybe. Either way, my conscience compelled me to tell this story because none of it is easy, general, impersonal. People live, die, bleed, love, and hate for these choices.

Singing about them is so easy. Making them is everything.

Marwa Berro is a Lebanese American blogger, philosopher, writer, atheist, and apostate from Islam. She engages in critique about Muslim and ex-Muslim issues at her blog, Between A Veil and A Dark Place. She writes fiction and teaches creative writing, composition, and rhetoric at a very lucky school in the midwest. She blogs under a pseudonym.

How not to write about bisexuality

Earlier this year, I appeared in a small segment of English radio presenter Jeremy Vine’s discussion programme. Researchers contacted me after reading my blog; the studio guest was Julie Bindel, beloved bête noire of trans* people and bisexuals, and the topic was something like ‘Do all gay people want gay marriage?’ Most other phone-in guests sidestepped all relevant critique of the gay marriage project with worn-out euphemisms like ‘We have equality!’ and ‘We don’t personally want to get married’ – during prep, I felt my contribution being pushed in that direction, and my sense was guests were being sought who could be used to validate conservative heel-digging on the issue. (The segment no longer seems to be online, but I think I did a good job nonetheless.)

What really pissed me off, and has irked me since, was my introduction. Before going live, I’d given my handler a brief self-description on request, stating I wrote on ‘queer left politics’ and lived in Oxford; since I’m not gay, being interested in men, women and everyone between and beyond, I asked specifically not to be glossed as such. The researcher in question took helpful note of this, double-checking the description I’d provided and that point of emphasis; another producer, before placing me on the line, went through these details one last time to triple-check with me. I appreciated this. You’ll understand my annoyance then when, welcoming me to the programme, Jeremy Vine announced the studio was being joined by Alex Gabriel, a writer on ‘gay left politics’.

Never mind that ‘gay left’ isn’t even a recognised political identity; never mind that Vine’s researchers, paid to compile accurate biographies for guests, had checked three times the text in front of him was correct: I’m queer. That’s my sexual identity, the way somebody else’s might be lesbian or straight. I don’t particularly call myself ‘bisexual’, but I can live with having the word applied to me; I can’t live with being described as gay – on national radio, no less – when I’ve specifically said I’m not. (If you think, by the way, that ‘gay’ is an acceptable umbrella term for everyone in the LGBT+ population – why, actually? Would you use ‘transgender’ or ‘lesbian’ that way?)

This isn’t like someone straight being termed gay accidentally; it isn’t quite like someone gay being termed straight. Calling me gay helps spread the myth everybody’s one or the other – it promotes erasure of everyone whose sexuality’s not binary. That erasure leads to pain. It’s the reason people assume from a single same-sex partner that I, Ben Whishaw or Jodie Foster must be gay; the reason my mum, even after being told for years that I partnered with men and women and was neither gay nor straight, continued asking till I was 21 if I was the latter, treating me like a vulnerable, confused stray animal when I wasn’t confused at all. (In fact, she was.)

It’s the reason magazines like Attitude hire non-bisexual columnists like Iain Dale to write about bisexuality. Often, and Dale is no exception, they do it badly.

‘Inside the mind of every bisexual’ writes Dale, whose radio show I was also on a medium-to-long time ago, ‘is a gay man struggling to get out. At least, that’s the view of many. It’s a widely held view that bisexuals are people who either want the best of both worlds, or, who are still too scared to embrace their inner gayness because they are on hold in some sort of mid-way sexuality transit lounge.’ It’s also a widely held view God created the world in the last 10,000 years; it’s a widely held view humans aren’t causing climate change; it’s a widely held view benefit fraud is soaring, as compared with an actual fraud rate of 0.7 percent. Plenty of widely held views are false, including those Dale voices, his couching them in such terms notwithstanding: the specific idea bisexuals (all seemingly men) are greedy and opportunistic, for instance, or gay and in denial. I’ve no desire at all, personally, for ‘the best of both worlds': I choose in practice to see men primarily because I dislike having straight partners, prefer the distinct texture of gay relationships and feel drawn to partnering conventions – polyamory, for example – less widespread in straight society; thanks to bisexual invisibility, moreover, I’d already identified for years as gay (sincerely and quite happily, I might add) when I became aware of an interest in women.

It’s mildly ironic, given how many of the above ‘widely held views’ inform their platform and the party’s overtly queerphobic record, that Dale calls UKIP ‘the bisexuals of British politics’ at ConservativeHome. ‘They don’t quite know whether they are Arthur or Martha’, he says. ‘Instinctively they are still Conservatives, but they fancy a walk on the wild side. The question is, once they have satisfied their self-indulgent desires or perversions, will they return to the comforting fleshy folds of the mother party?’ Adultery, at which the final words here hint, would surely be more analogous to Tory voters’ fling with UKIP – but in any case, we are not swing voters. We do not move, as swing voters do, between being gay and straight, nor are we part gay, part straight. Our identities are self-sufficient, self-contained and whole, not just composites of other people’s. Dale’s metaphor fails even on its own terms: rather than oscillating between sides in a two-party system many find dated, UKIP exists outside and beyond it – bisexuality, likewise, exists outside and beyond, rather than within, the gay-straight binary. (Gender, regarding the Arthur/Martha line, is incidentally not binary either.)

The Attitude piece was prompted, it seems, by Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski’s coming out as bisexual this June. ‘To his utter astonishment,’ writes Dale, ‘the thirty people present rose as one and gave him a standing ovation. I wondered at the time whether they would have done that if he had said he was gay.’ The author asserts ‘genuine’ bisexuals are rare, since ‘a true bisexual is someone who… doesn’t have a particular preference on way or the other’ (this applies to almost no one bisexual) and ‘experimentation does not a bisexual make’. ‘Simon Hughes may or may not be one of them,’ he continues, ‘but the Liberal Democrat deputy leader seems to be a politician who can’t quite seem to get out of the transit lounge. Should we blame him for that, should gay men criticise him because he can’t bring himself to admit what most people assume he is – gay?

‘…Daniel Kawczynski will feel a weight has been lifted from his shoulders. Yes, he will be the subject of gossip at Westminster, but that goes with the territory. There will be members of his family, long term friends who feel let down by the fact that he hasn’t been honest with them. But in the end they will realise that for people of a certain age, these things are incredibly difficult.’

It’s unclear what ‘he hasn’t been honest with them’ means: is Dale saying Kawczynski lied to his family about being straight, or about being bisexual? The perfect tense (compare: ‘hadn’t been honest’, ‘wasn’t honest’) suggests the latter, especially in view of his comments toward Hughes. ‘Experimentation’ is the byword of non-normative sexualities’ dismissal and erasure, but it’s true no specific sexual act makes a bisexual; all that makes someone bisexual, and all we need consider when taxonomising them, is that they identify that way. There is, as Dale himself concedes, no fixed ratio of interest in men and women which makes that identity permissible; ‘gay’, ‘straight’ and ‘bisexual’ are arbitrary, amorphous things we use reflexively however suits us, not objective diagnostics like ‘HIV positive’ or ‘allergic to wasps’. There’s certainly reason to question, therefore, how much people’s identities actually tell us – but not to police or regulate who uses which.

Were I in Kawczynski’s position today, such innuendo wouldn’t please me: the last thing anyone needs on coming out, particularly as bisexual, is conjecture about whether or not they’re really what they say – as if anyone held empirical scales on which to measure this. (Having come out as gay at 12, I saw years of similar invalidation – and the fact my identity’s since changed doesn’t mean that one was incorrect at the time.) In my own position, reading Dale’s piece was uncomfortable. Yes, there’s often overlap between gay and bi men, but that’s perfectly fine: we all get to understand and articulate our orientation how we want.

Iain: you asked people on Twitter what part of what you’d said was wrong. I hope this post answers your question.

Attitude: if you care about bisexuals, this is not the kind of commentary you should publish.

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Cameron’s Britain: this property-owning democracy is no place for queer youth

When Margaret Thatcher died this April, ‘Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead’ reached number two on the UK singles chart. Campaigns on social networks all but swept the song to the top spot, but the BBC, citing concerns of propriety, offense and taste, refused to play the song in its official countdown. Instead, a five second clip was shown in a news item. The socialist left and liberal right, of course, bristled at this while conservatives applauded, but the real joke was on Thatcher: her Cold War rhetoric sold us the notion high capitalism enfranchised us – that purchasing power was people power, and property-owning democracy the only kind. Could there be a better rebuttal? To send a message, Britons spent tens of thousands downloading the song, embodying the commerce-as-democracy narrative, but in an instant, Britain’s state media defused their action.

Current Prime Minister David Cameron, recently praised for his Conservative-Liberal Democrat government’s signing gay marriage into law, has cultivated an image cuddlier by far than Thatcher’s. On personal approval ratings, he is easily his party’s greatest asset, and marketed himself from his leadership’s outset as ‘a modern, compassionate conservative’, declaring in his first conference speech that marriage means something ‘whether you’re a man and a woman, a woman and a woman or a man and another man’. This isn’t the Tory Party of Section 28, the law that banned ‘public promotion of homosexuality‘ – and subsequently, Conservative support among LGBTs rose from 11 percent at the 2010 election to 30 percent at the end of last year. Yet Cameron is at least a Thatcherite. Inflicting spending cuts unrivalled since World War Two, his government makes hers look virtually left wing. His early statement, ‘There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state’ was pitched to distance him from her, but reified in fact her central axiom that aiding the poor or homeless lay outside government’s purview. In 2011, he even promised us the ‘new presumption’ all public services would by default be at least part-privatised.

That the Daily Telegraph column in which he wrote this glossed private takeovers as ‘diversity’, liberal byword for LGBT inclusion, says much of Cameron: he’s a man for whom, like Thatcher, all logic returns to that of the market. In the ninety minutes following Barack Obama’s statement, ‘Same-sex couples should be able to get married’, a million dollars went to his re-election campaign, and as a media executive before his time in parliament (who, only two years prior to his leadership, voted to keep Section 28), it’s conceivable the PM’s ‘pro-gay’ stances are more about profit than principle – I believe, though, that deep Thatcherite impulses drive them. His earliest support for civil partnerships came in the context of an argument the nation needed more marriage and less divorce; it’s no surprise he wishes to give married couples tax breaks, because for him, marital and family ‘commitment’ means personal responsibility – an alternative, that is, to public provision. Cameron’s political rhetoric, too, blames ‘family breakdown’ on overindulgent spending, slashing welfare to keep husbands and wives together. Behind the PM’s love of gay marriage, and marriage in general, hangs this bleak backdrop.

When he said he supported gay marriage due to, and not despite, being a Conservative, he wasn’t lying; as it did for Andrew Sullivan before him, gay marriage serves a regressive agenda for Cameron, informed by the same marketising Thatcherism he’s worked to purge from his public image. Elsewhere, that Thatcherism embattles queer Britons, and especially queer youth. What fate, in a property-owning democracy, befalls those who own least or stand themselves to be disowned?

Read the rest at {Young}ist.

Don’t be a Dickhead: fisking Nick Cohen’s defence of Richard Dawkins

Earlier this month I wrote a blog post called ‘Yes, Richard Dawkins, your statements on Islam are racist‘. Currently, it’s the most-read thing I’ve ever published.

The post argues Dawkins uses racialising, xenophobic language (‘alien rubbish’, ‘Islamic barbarians’ etc.) to mount a clash-of-civilisations critique of Islam(ism) – a misguided one which empowers the neocon right and the racist far-right; that we have to read this language in the context of his praise for figures like Geert Wilders and Pat Condell; that he homogenises ‘Muslims’ as a whole into a single hyperdevout, hyperconservative mass; that he singles out Islam in specific contexts where there’s no good reason to; that there are better ways we can discuss it, including critically.

It does not argue, at any point, that Dawkins is at heart ‘a racist'; it does not argue Islam is a race, or all criticism of it racist; it does not judge anyone ‘guilty by association’. (What it says, on the last count, is that if people like the EDL retweet you – if what you say can be so easily co-opted by such people – you should rethink your rhetoric.) I know for a fact that he read it shortly after it went up, then, making all the above complaints, returned to tweeting the same kind of material with added fervour.

That’s when things got busy.

Tom Chivers, at the Daily Telegraph, cited my post in an article called ‘Please be quiet, Richard Dawkins, I’m begging, as a fan‘.

Nesrine Malik, at Comment is free, wrote that ‘Richard Dawkins’ tweets on Islam are as rational as the rants of an extremist Muslim cleric‘.

Nelson Jones, at New Statesman, asked ‘Why do so many Nobel laureates look like Richard Dawkins?

Martin Robbins, also at NS, said ‘Atheism is maturing, and it will leave Richard Dawkins behind‘.

Owen Jones, at the Independent, asserted ‘Dawkins dresses up bigotry as non-belief – he cannot be left to represent atheists‘.

Then, finally – after these and probably a good few other salvos I managed to miss – Dawkins published a piece called ‘Calm reflections after a storm in a teacup‘, which near-epitomised the idea of doubling down. (It also persistently attacked the claim Islam is a race – a straw argument none of his critics here made, which most of us explicitly disavowed.)

Throughout all this, I heard regularly from the Dickheads – an army of online devotees who will never, ever hear anything critical of Dawkins said, no matter how nuanced or moderate. They accused me of hating freedom, being morally relativist, being left wing and long-winded (fair enough), dividing the atheist movement, knowing nothing about Islam, being racist, being PC, being ‘young and naïve’, being an ‘offensive little shit’, being in league with Mehdi Hasan. (Mehdi Hasan and I have no association whatsoever. We do not know each other. We have exchanged perhaps four or five tweets in the last year, such is the depth of our alliance.)

It’s as dehumanising to deify someone as to demonise them, and it’s one thing to like Dawkins while not thinking he’s perfect, but another to reject or try to silence anything negative said in relation to him. Secularity is not strengthened by being uncritical or unscrutinising of its press-appointed leaders, and the foremost of those deserve more scrutiny, not less. This is why Nick Cohen’s recent Spectator column, ‘Richard Dawkins attacks Muslim bigots, not just Christian ones. If only his enemies were as brave‘, which I’ve seen shared enthusiastically all over the place, grated on me – to the extent I thought it deserved a fisk.

It’s August, and you are a journalist stuck in the office without an idea in your head. What to write? What to do? Your empty mind brings you nothing but torment, until a thought strikes you, ‘I know, I’ll do Richard Dawkins.’

Dawkins is the sluggish pundit’s dream. It does not matter which paper you work for. Editors of all political persuasions and none will take an attack on Darwin’s representative on earth. With the predictability of the speaking clock, Owen Jones, the Peter Hitchens of the left, thinks the same as Craig Brown, Private Eye’s high Tory satirist. Tom Chivers, the Telegraph’s science blogger, says the same as Andrew Brown, the Guardian’s religious affairs correspondent. The BBC refuses to run contrary views. It assures the nation that ‘militant’ atheism is as fanatical as militant religion — despite the fact that no admirer of The God Delusion has ever planted a bomb, or called for the murder of homosexuals, Jews and apostates.

It’s certainly true much critique of Dawkins has been lazy and irrelevant – the charges, for example, that his views on religion must be invalid since he couldn’t recite to order the full, almost-never-used title of The Origin of Species (analogous, apparently, to Christians not knowing which book opens the New Testament), or because his ancestors at one time owned slaves. This does not, however, mean any critique of his rhetoric is worthless, and it seems extraordinarily self-defeating for atheists and secularists to dismiss it from the off. (See also Tom Chivers’ own response to Cohen.)

Sharp operators could sell the same piece a dozen times without changing a word. Read the papers, and you will suspect that is exactly what sharp operators have done.

Yes. I’ve read it. It’s a boring, neither-here-or-there piece. But the arguments against Dawkins’ tweets on Islam aren’t about how he’s shrillstridentaggressive or any of the usual things. They’re about his language being counterproductive and enabling racists’ agendas. Most of the people who’ve rebutted it most strongly – Chivers, Martin Robbins, Alom Shaha – are out-and-out movement atheists with vested interests in taking religion, including Islam, to task. They just want to do it better.

Cultural conservatives have always hated Dawkins for challenging traditional Christian beliefs. The liberal-left is fine with knocking Christianity, but it hates Dawkins for being intellectually consistent and tweeting — yes, that’s right, tweeting — against Islam too. Many of the charges against his inappropriate tweets are extraordinary. Jones denounces Dawkins for tweeting ‘Who the hell do these Muslims think they are? At UCL of all places, tried to segregate the sexes in debate’. If Jones can’t see what is wrong with segregation, then not even an equality course for beginners can save him.

Certainly, many parts of the British left (not usually the liberal parts) fail to acknowledge the Islamist far-right or counter it. This is a problem – but it doesn’t mean that when opposing things like segregated debatesanything goes. Owen Jones isn’t defending separate seating for men and women, he’s objecting to the phrase ‘these Muslims’ with its ring of xenophobia, as in ‘all these Muslims, taking our jobs’. Object to Islamism; object to Hamza Tzortzis; object to his so-called Islamic Education and Research Academy. But call them that, referring specifically to them, rather than conflating them with ‘Muslims’ as a whole. (Cohen, in fact, seems next to acknowledge this issue…)

But let me try to be fair. Dawkins has also tweeted against all Muslims — not just sexist god-botherers at University College London. I accept that generalising about Muslims can incite racism. It is all very well atheists saying that religion is not the same as race, because you are free to decide what god if any you believe in, but cannot choose your ethnicity. But try telling that to the persecuted Christians, Shia and Sunni of the Middle East. Their religious persecution is no different from racial persecution. I would go further and concede that Dawkins’s critics had other arguments that weren’t wholly asinine, were it not for a telling detail. They never stick their necks out and defend real liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims who are being persecuted in Britain right now.

Yes we do. I do, Alom does, Owen Jones does – in fact, most of the people I know who’ve criticised Dawkins’ comments more than anyone else and shared my post with particular enthusiasm are ex-Muslims.

They stay silent because they are frightened of breaking with the crowd, of the faint threat of Islamist retaliation, and of absurd accusations of racism. Journalists want the easy life. They want targets who cannot hurt them. Dawkins has never hurt a fly, so he’s all right. Looked at in a certain light, however, the enemies of Nahla Mahmoud might not be.

I signed the petition to protect Nahla Mahmoud. [Edit: I signed it, in fact, three and a half weeks before Nick Cohen did (the same day he responded to this post).] So should you, if you haven’t heard about her being threatened. This does not mean I have to shut up and marvel at everything Dawkins says – especially on Twitter.

I have picked on her, not because her case is unusual, but because it is so typical. She is a Sudanese refugee who became a leading figure in the British Council of ex-Muslims. Earlier this year Channel 4 gave her one minute and 39 seconds precisely to talk about the evils of Britain’s Sharia courts in Britain. In these institutions, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s, a man can divorce his wife by simple repudiation, and women who remarry lose custody of their children. One minute and 39 seconds may not sound long enough to list their vices. But it is one minute and 39 seconds longer than the BBC has ever given her.

Nahla described how she grew up under Sharia. She was ‘always dealt with as a second-class citizen, always bought up to believe that I am an incomplete human being [who] needed a man as a guard.’

She was shocked to find the same system here in her land of refuge. ‘Muslims have been living in Britain for hundreds of years and never needed sharia courts,’ she concluded. ‘Everyone should have equal rights and live under one secular law.’

She and her family have suffered for her simple moral clarity. Salah Al Bander, a leading figure in the Cambridge Liberal Democrats, went for her. (I was going to write, ‘who, surprisingly, is a leading figure in the Cambridge Liberal Democrats’ — but given the Liberal Democrats’ awful attitudes towards women and Jews, nothing they do surprises me anymore.)

Al Bander posted an article in Arabic on the Sudanese Online website (one of the most widely read sites in Sudan and throughout the Sudanese diaspora). He called her a ‘Kafira’ (unbeliever) who was sowing discord. These are words with consequences — particularly when Al Bander added, ‘I will not forgive anyone who wants to start a battle against Islam and the beliefs of the people…’ After mosques and Sudanese newspapers took up the campaign against her, religious thugs attacked her brother and terrified her mother. Nahla told me she is now ‘very careful when I go out’.

I understand that the Cambridge Liberal Democrats have had an inquiry and decided that Al Bander’s words were misinterpreted. My point is that women like Nahla are being terrified and abused every day in Britain. I have seen Richard Dawkins speak up for them as a matter of honour and a matter of course many times, but have never heard a peep of protest from his opponents.

Well then, listen more closely. Clearly this is a terrible, stupid turn of events that needs addressing – but attention to problematic things is not a non-renewable resource, which can only go toward one thing or the other. It’s possible to fight the Al Banders of the world while also pursuing better discourse around them on our own sight; useful, in fact, I’d say. (Also, Dawkins doesn’t help matters for moderate Muslims, especially moderate Muslim women, by erasing them – referring to all who practice their religion in blanket terms as violent, fundamentalist, abusive theocrats.)

One day there will be a reckoning. One day, thousands who have suffered genital mutilation, religious threats and forced marriages will turn to the intellectual and political establishments of our day and ask why they did not protect them. The pathetic and discreditable reply can only be: ‘We were too busy fighting Richard Dawkins to offer you any support at all.’

Not so – but I care less about ‘one day’ than the here and now, and here and now my feeling, to paraphrase Phil Plait, that no one in this movement is beyond critique or above reproach. Don’t be a Dickhead.