Helen Lewis has been following the NUS Women’s conference, including the brouhaha about the jazz hands item. She has some questions about some of the votes.
The conference also voted to renew the no-platform on radical feminist Julie Bindel, for (among other things) reiterating her belief that “bisexuality doesn’t exist as a sexual identity, thus erasing bisexual individuals’ identities and experiences” and having “criticised women who wear the niqab in her article for the Daily Mail . . . [by] refusing to believe that Muslim women have made their own decision to wear the niqab she denies Muslim women agency”.
Oh really? What about Muslim women who criticize women who wear the niqab? Are they too denying Muslim women agency? Or are they just disagreeing with what said women do with their agency? I’ve just written a review of Mona Eltahawy’s new book for Free Inquiry; she’s very critical of the niqab and even critical of wearing hijab, even though she wore one herself for nine years. She’s also critical of simplistic non-arguments that it’s a “choice.” I wonder if the NUS Women will no-platform Mona.
If “the NUS Women’s’ Officers and members of the NUS Women’s committee shall not offer a platform to any transphobic speaker, biphobic or Islamophobic speaker”, who decides what qualifies as Islamophobia? It’s true that criticism of Islam can function as a cover for racism, but equally, religious beliefs and practices must not be accepted unquestioningly in a free, secular society. Only this week, Maryam Namazie – who was raised in a Muslim family but is now an atheist and secularist – pulled out of a talk at an Irish university after it was suggested that a discussion on apostasy would “upset” Muslim students.
There were many eminently sensible motions debated, including ones on childcare provision, support for rape survivors and better access to affordable housing. But it was this motion which really caught my eye:
This is an astonishingly conservative motion to be passed by a society which is otherwise so much at pains to stress the variety and fluidity of gender – for example, the conference has also resolved to “refrain from the use of ‘sisters’ and any other binary terms throughout the campaign”.
It is indeed. It’s as if they take manufactured rules about who gets to wear what to be not manufactured at all but biological. I wear jeans – black ones when I’m being “professional” – and I don’t consider that to be cross-dressing.
Cross-dressing is always an exploration of queer identity – because it makes obvious the fact that gender is a performance. The motion suggests that as long as the cross-dressing is not done for “shock value”, it is OK. But the whole point of cross-dressing is shock value. It is jarring to see categories we assume to be stable so obviously undermined and that makes it attractive to experimental, iconoclastic people. It’s why performing artists from kd lang to Conchita Wurst have made gender non-conformity part of their artistic expression.
When I was at university, we had cross-dressing nights of the type now deemed repressive by the NUS. The atmosphere always seemed (at least to me), very queer-friendly; because even the manliest men were being shown quite how much of their gender role was a performance. I’m not claiming that it magically cured homophobia, but it did suggest that people were open to the idea that the unspoken gender conformity of “real life” was, objectively, really weird. If you can accept that there’s no real reason women wear skirts and men wear ties, that gets you closer to acknowledging there’s no real reason that women are expected to be carers and men are expected to be cabinet ministers.
There is one reason women are expected to wear skirts, and that’s ease of access. Remember that whole thing about taking upskirt photos on buses? And how it turned out that’s not illegal? Yeah. That’s why skirts. Do NUS Women really want to codify that? I can’t see why.