Is it me or is it her?

Several weeks after the new Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, took office, the New York Times did a profile on him. The article itself was not momentous or even memorable (it faithfully chronicled Trudeau’s life and rise to power) but what stayed with me was one reader’s comment at the bottom of the article in which Trudeau was described as a privileged member of the elite who had spent his youth snowboarding and smoking pot and his adulthood changing careers. The commentator stated that Trudeau had only gotten elected because of his father’s legacy and his own charisma and went on to say that for most North Americans elections are very much a personality contest. At the time I remember thinking that although cynical, these remarks hold a lot of truth. In both the US and Canadian elections the candidates’ charisma, sense of humour, and ability to inspire are given as much weight – if not more – as their track record, their vision for running the country, and their platforms. This made me think of Hillary Clinton’s second attempt at winning the democratic nomination and my indifference towards it. Is it that I am opposed to her proclaimed convictions or proposed policies? Or is it in fact due to her lacking the ability to inspire?

Hillary Clinton has achieved more in her lifetime than I would ever dream of in three lifetimes. Graduate of the top-ranking women’s college, a Yale-trained lawyer, and the first female senator for New York, Hillary Clinton has spent her life in public service. At the beginning of her career she worked at the Children’s Defence Fund defending adolescents incarcerated in adult prisons. She advocated equal education opportunities for disabled children in the same organisation and continued to champion the rights of families and children after her move from Massachusetts to Arkansas to start a family with Bill Clinton. Back in 1993, long before Obamacare, it was Hillary Clinton who headed a task force to oversee health care reform during the presidency of her husband. When that effort failed due to vociferous opposition from insurance companies and special interests groups, she worked bilaterally with Republicans to provide health care to millions of children. After losing the democratic nomination to Barak Obama in 2008, she set aside a hard-fought campaign and answered his call to service as Secretary of State with utmost loyalty.

One cannot doubt Hillary Clinton’s deep democratic convictions or undermine her life-long dedication to public service. Yet when watching her speak it is hard to get past the composed façade and grasp her passion for social justice or the ideals that have driven her for over forty years. After she released her second memoir in 2013, I watched an interview of hers with Peter Mansbridge on CBC and I remember being incredibly impressed by her answers to questions pertaining to policy and her experiences as Secretary of State. But despite her keen mind, her impressive record, and her detailed platform, she does not resonate with many young people, a significant portion of whom are women. Although there are no polls to quantify it, even in her traditional base of feminist baby-boomers, there is anecdotal evidence of ambivalence. The negative adjectives that I have often come across in articles and opinion pieces are “not authentic” and “robotic”.

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The Daily Show play on a critical question from a young audience member in the last Democratic debate.

Hillary Clinton far from being charismatic is an over cautious politician who relies on hundreds of advisors to inform her every word, every move, and every facial expression. In 2008, during her campaign to win the democratic nomination, after the polls indicated that the public found her soulless she unleashed the famous Hillary cackle. Her politics too are cautious and smack in the centre. She did not get on-board with gay marriage until 2013 after polls showed the majority of Americans support it. Some have argued that this was a calculated change of positions although Clinton herself has claimed it was a personal evolution. Her speeches too are very carefully crafted. She is experienced enough to know that going head-to-head with powerful lobby and special interest groups is an up-hill battle. But next to Bernie Sanders’ revolutionary rhetoric, this type of pragmatism is uninspiring.

But the power to inspire, charisma, and promise of radical change all seem to be the ideals that evoke interest in the younger generations. Charismatic leaders have the ability to mobilise public opinion, to instil in people the aspiration to tackle grand goals. Goals so grand they seem unachievable in one lifetime. Human history is peppered with examples of men and women who have changed its course with their passion and charisma, sometimes delivered in a single momentous speech. Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, Keir Hardie, and Martin Luther King Junior all managed to unify a vast number of people under a single banner and to march them toward a common good. Justin Trudeau may be inexperienced for his position but there is nothing he cannot learn from dozens of advisers and experts who surround him. His value lies in having led the Canadian Liberals to victory through his charismatic rhetoric and fresh vision for the country.

In an ideal world we should only have to worry about a candidate’s character, convictions, and proposed platform. However, we do not live in an ideal world and charisma matters in the context of a competitive political landscape. Hillary Clinton is the first woman in history to have a real shot at becoming the leader of the free world. But that in itself is not inspiring if she does not find a way to counter the elation surrounding Bernie Sanders’ call for revolutionary change and the frenzy surrounding Donald Trump’s populist rhetoric.

Until then, I have to admit, I too am ambivalent.

 

 

 

#WeCan

 

Last Thursday I along with two friends attended a 5×15 talk. 5×15 events are literary evenings featuring five speakers each of whom is given 15 minutes to seduce the audience with a compelling story or a ground-breaking idea. That night’s five speakers – Caitlin Moran, Jo Brand, Sandi Toksvig, Catherine Mayer, and Tanya Moodie – spoke to a predominately female audience in a packed Central Hall Westminster about gender equality. The event was a lively one and although we were stuck in the back corner of the balcony where the acoustics were terrible – for the offence of being bang on time as opposed to fifteen minutes early – I found myself laughing out loud the 20% of the time I did manage to hear the jokes. The best line I heard was by my celebrity heroine, the very funny Caitlin Moran, who after talking at length about women’s over-critical inner voices made the proclamation that “we just want to be as dim, fat, deluded, average, happy and secure as men”.

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5×15 webpage announcing WE Party’s event.

But the evening wasn’t only about telling jokes and sharing stories. The goal was to captivate and electrify the assembly into action for something quite big. The group was there to raise money for the first political party in the UK whose raison d’être is realising the promise of gender equality. The Women’s Equality Party (WE) has six (presumably immediate) objectives. These are equal representation in politics, business, and industry; equal pay; equal parenting and caregiving; equal education; equal media treatment; and an end to violence against women.

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Our view from the top back corner of a packed Central Westminster Hall on January 14th, 2016

Since the enfranchisement of women in the UK in 1918 (partial) and 1928 (full), women have won important civil rights. They have had better access to education and employment opportunities. And they have seen their representation in politics and the workforce grow at a steady rate. Yet, we have not witnessed the kind of revolutionary change that the visionaries of the suffrage movement had spoken of. In the aftermath of suffragettes’ victory, numerous disappointed feminist leaders lamented the reality of not being able to make the world anew. These were some of the more radical activists who were so determined of women’s worth that they attributed all evils to male dominance. Early leaders of the movement, the Pankhurst sisters Christabel and Adela, were after such grand goals as protecting children and ending poverty and war. Yet almost a hundred years later we still have not obtained equal representation in lead political roles or even ordinary political roles let alone bringing an end to poverty or war.

Contemporary scholar Jad Adams who has written a global history of votes for women chronicling a 200-year struggle around the world, goes as far as arguing that once conceded, women’s vote “changed nothing” and that “women would vote as their menfolk did and politics would not change by the addition of them to the electoral register.” To me this argument is quite cynical. In Britain alone, only in the decade following the partial enfranchisement of women in 1918, laws equalizing guardianship of children and granting pensions to widows of workers were passed. In the United States the Prohibition of 1919 came to pass with the support of female campaigners and voters who associated alcohol consumption with intensified violence against women. The achievement of votes for women certainly did not make as colossal an impact as early feminists had hoped but it certainly made an impact.

This is where Women’s Equality Party comes in. It may seem brash to start a political party dedicated to the cause of one group but given the fact that this cause impacts 51% of the population there is tremendous optimism that it will succeed. In the past other political parties have done just that. Labour came onto the political stage by advocating for improving labour conditions. While the Green Party started life as a political party in West Germany around a single cause of opposition to nuclear power in 1979. Green Party has matured into a political party with policies on all facets of government and although in the UK parliament there is only single green seat, in the German Bundestag it is currently holding 63 of the 630. WE’s leader Sophie Walker and co-founder Catherine Mayer say they will stand for the London Assembly and Mayoral elections as well as the Scottish Parliament the first being in three months. Time will tell whether they will be successful in proposing policies that can win votes but as Catherine Mayer said during her speech they will be happy if the mainstream political parties just steal their gender balanced policies!

I was not just inspired by Thursday’s event. I was charged. I was empowered. But two days have gone by and I have had time to reflect and reality has set in. And as much as I hate to end on a bleak note I have to say I am not too optimistic that WE will be successful in winning a meaningful number of votes in the immediate future. It’s true that 51% of the British population are women and it is only logical that they would want a political party dedicated to their plight. However, the issue lies in the public’s perception or rather women’s perception of feminists. In my previous life in Canada I encountered numerous younger women in my Iranian community who thought of feminists as – and I am borrowing somebody’s actual description here – “man-eating dykes”. In the Muslim community too Muslim feminists were in the minority at least back in 2010 and I don’t see why anything would have changed since then. I came across numerous young Muslim women who were eager to dissociate themselves from feminists claiming they do not feel they have to fight for feminist causes as Islam has liberated women 1400 ago already. Indeed Islam for its time was quite progressive in allowing women to manage their own money independently and still demand that their husbands pay for their living expenses. Women were also allowed to inherit property and other worldly possessions – a right that women in the UK did not obtain until the 19th century. However, I have often found myself struggling to argue effectively with the notion that women in Islam do not consider obtaining leadership positions a top priority and can be quite contented with their supporting role as wives and mothers – albeit highly educated and working ones. Several years back when Amina Wadud made headlines for being the first female imam to lead prayers in New York, based on my personal experience it was often the Muslim women who made the most vociferous criticisms in condemning this break with orthodoxy.

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My Women’s Equality Party Membership Card

So unless we rebrand feminism as Jo Brand suggested on Thursday night I am not sure how this party will win the widespread support it requires in order to truly shake up the political establishment. But I shall happily pay my £50 annual dues, proudly carry my membership card, and contribute to the cause where I can.

 

 

As a woman and an immigrant I stand with the women on this one

I am an immigrant. In fact twice-an-immigrant. The first time I migrated with my family from Iran to Canada was in the early nineties. The second was from Canada to Europe – first to Spain, then to the UK a year ago. As such, I am a big advocate of immigration and multiculturalism. Growing up in Canada provided me with the opportunity to live harmoniously within a mosaic of diverse cultures. Studying in an international institute in Spain allowed me to make friends from all over the world. More importantly the West afforded me opportunities as a woman that my country of birth would not have.

Last September, after pictures of the four-year-old Aylan Kurdi were published, I, an ordinary citizen, pleaded with friends on social media – the only medium to which I had easy access – to write letters to their elected officials in the Canadian House of Commons urging them to take in more asylum seekers from war-torn Syria arguing that Canada has a responsibility to lighten the burden of European countries in dealing with this mass exodus.

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Yet I was shocked, like so many others, when we started 2016 with reports of women in the hundreds being attacked and robbed during the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne and Hamburg by groups of men – allegedly from North African and Middle Eastern origin. We now have confirmation that the vast majority of the detained are migrants with a considerable portion being asylum seekers.

 

The common thread running through these incidents is that the police and other authorities are being accused of making light of the attacks, even covering them up, at least initially, in order to refrain from racial profiling and in all likelihood to prevent a backlash against immigration. This thread goes backwards to last summer where at a music festival in Stockholm numerous teenaged girls made complaints about being harassed allegedly by newly arrived Afghan refugees but were ignored by the police and media. And the thread runs even further back to the Rotherham child sex abuse scandal, which came to light last year. In Rotherham too, it was revealed British officials had downplayed or ignored complaints from a large number of vulnerable girls who had been sexually abused at the hands of a gang of Pakistani origin “for fear of being thought as racists”.

As an immigrant and a woman, I find this outrageous. As uncomfortable as it is we cannot shy away from stating the obvious. Different cultures have different attitudes toward women. Street harassment in Iran and Egypt, to name just two, is pandemic. In Iran sexual harassment both verbal and physical is a daily reality for women. The authorities do not pursue perpetrators but they have endless advice for women. Everything from maintaining eye contact for more than two seconds to smiling to wearing “provocative” clothing has been blamed for unwanted attention. Everything except rampant misogynistic attitudes in the culture itself.

In the West, some Islamic leaders have put the responsibility of unwanted sexual advances on the shoulders of women. I personally heard a lecture by prominent Islamic scholar Zakir Naik during the Reviving the Islamic Spirit conference in Toronto where he decreed that observing the Islamic dress code or hijab protects women from unwanted sexual advances. He went as far as stating that between a girl in a miniskirt and a girl in hijab, the former is more likely to be raped. Yet we know that at least in Egypt hijabi women, constituting a significant portion of the populace, are as likely to be harassed as non-hijabis. A survey in 2014 showed that 99.3% of Egyptian women reported being harassed verbally or physically. Zakir Naik is not alone in dispensing this kind of advice; the mayor of Cologne also stirred controversy by sharing a code of conduct with women to help them avoid sexual harassment.

We have to stop laying the blame on women for these attitudes but instead critique the patriarchal attitudes that exist in some communities among us. To offer real solutions and tackle these issues we need to have a discourse. These recent developments have remained rather under-reported by media outlets on the left. Harping on about “a few bad apples” is naïve at best, disingenuous at worst. Hundreds of perpetrators hardly qualify as a few. The left is so preoccupied with being labelled racist and xenophobic that it is doing a great disservice to women’s rights and society as a whole. If the left does not engage in the discussion, the resulting vacuum will let the right highjack the debate for its own political gain.

Integrating millions of refugees economically and socially into the fabric of Western society will be a challenge. It will not happen automatically or rapidly. However, brushing problems arising from culture shock under the carpet helps no one in the long run. Numerous things can be done to alleviate these problems. Here are some solutions we can employ.

First of all, precedence should be given to families seeking asylum over single men. Canada is employing such a policy already arguing that this policy will curtail security risks. Secondly, lessons in how the new host society works can be provided along side language and job training for newcomers. Perhaps even more specifically, lessons on the history of women’s struggle for equality as well as acceptable social norms when it comes to the opposite gender can be beneficial. This may appear colonialist at face value; however, we know such educational campaigns can be highly successful. When I was a student at the University of Toronto, the administration undertook a campaign to educate students as to what constitutes consent in a sexual encounter. In the eighties and nineties most Western governments undertook extensive campaigns to educate the public about safe sex in order to stop the spread of the AIDS pandemic. And if having mandatory training for refugees may stigmatize them, then let us educate all men over the age of 15 as to what constitutes appropriate behaviour towards women in our societies. Finally, once a newcomer has been well informed about the laws and the accepted code of conduct in his host nation, should he still break the law, he should get deported.

Bottom line is that we cannot regress on hard-fought women’s rights and freedoms (right to free movement, to dancing and celebrating in public, to owning one’s own body, to being in charge of one’s sexuality) for the sake of political correctness.