Amy’s Cat-callers

My feminist writing has grinded to a halt for the past half a year due to challenges of maintaining – as cliché as it sounds – a good work-life balance.  Last Monday, however, I managed to escape work and child care duties to attend a Guardian Masterclass entitled “Understanding the History of Feminism”. I don’t intend to dwell upon the actual workshop too much except to say it was not as rigorous as I had hoped. I had taken the class to improve my understanding of feminist theory and the movement’s history but we ended up spending most of our time engaging in group discussion rehashing experiences of every day sexism that are familiar to most women and by no means shocking or even surprising.

 

Although peeved at the time, the exercise proved fruitful in the end since in my group – in the context of affirmative action – we talked about the complete absence of female role models in a multitude of industries and how one single person with influence can inspire a whole generation of women to pursue a female unfriendly career path. As an example I mentioned female comedians and noted the explosion of female comics on the scene in the last several years with the likes of Mindy Kaling, Tina Fay, Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham, Samantha Bee, and Jessica Williams creating shows and writing memoirs. The talk inevitably turned to the responsibility of these influential figures in the wider society in perpetuating stereotypes and moulding values including the racism controversy around Amy Schumer’s Tweet about street harassment. I was unaware of this story but the basic gist of it is that in response to a Tweet by Paulo dos Santos saying “Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, et. al. refuse 2C that misogyny among men of color, while hideously prevalent, is no more so than among white men.” Amy shoots back with “how would you know? Statistically who is hollerin at you in the street more pa?” before deleting it shortly afterwards.

 

I am not going to beat Amy Schumer’s drum. She may genuinely be a racist. I won’t argue against that. Before Amy Schumer became the Amy Schumer of today, I found her stand-up routine’s racist material, very offensive not to mention unfunny. Schumer has responded to critics by arguing that she plays a character in her stand-up routine, a blonde bimbo who says stupid things and holds stupid opinions. Yet her jokes around blacks and Hispanics were not made at her own expense. Rather they perpetrated overworked stereotypes. They were lazy, tired jokes. More predictable than provocative. Yet, I believe that as a social commentator and a woman, even a racist one, Amy Schumer should still be able to tell her story, to share her observation, and to state her statistic – albeit a crude one – on street harassment and cat calling without being silenced.  The catcallers of Amy Schumer’s world may really be a small sample of our society with a statistically overrepresented number of Hispanic migrant workers just like the workplace sexual harassers of Gretchen Carlson, Andrea Tantaros may be white corporate America.

 

Of course making racist jokes in the first place strips Schumer of credibility to comment on the racial breakdown of cat callers. But I take her comments from a different angle. I take her Tweet to be an expression of range or at least of irritation at yet another man telling women how it is. The “how would you know?” epitomises that feeling. This may appear naïve but to my knowledge no one has attempted to critique Schumer’s credibility or whether or not she suffers from bias – subconscious or otherwise – in tweeting this. The label was simply used as a trump card to shut her up.  Go after her for her lazy material, for her offensive jokes. But not for stating she’s been target of street harassment by one group of men more than others.

Parks and Recreation – More of ‘em

As a child, I took my first steps in an apartment in Tehran. It was a big apartment – over 180 square metres – but an apartment nonetheless. We lived in that apartment until we left Tehran, initially for London, and eventually settling in Richmond Hill, a suburb of Toronto, Canada. I remember quite clearly that as a child I felt deprived of green space, of not being able to climb trees or to run around without being scolded that I might break something. Even in the schoolyard, which was almost entirely covered by concrete slabs, save for a few trees, we were reprimanded for running or chasing each other due to the risk of falling and injuring ourselves. I was quite lucky because my best friend in primary school, Mandana, lived in a two-story house with terraces overlooking a beautiful garden. We’d spend many afternoons both during the school year and in the summer, playing in the yard or the attic or the storage room in the basement of this house. It was a great outlet for an apartment-dwelling kid especially since the closest public green space, the Melat Park, was a good two miles (3.5 kilometres) away and we seldom went to it. That garden was a treasure in a concrete jungle of several million residents.

Now that I have my own little girl, we too live in an apartment and although she’s too small to run around and play hide and seek or climb trees, I think about things like raising children in big cities, green space, and human-nature interaction. Arguably London with its several million residents is one of the original mega-cities. Yet amazingly it doesn’t feel like a concrete jungle. For one thing, the prevalence of low-rise buildings even in the very centre of the city allows one to always catch a glimpse of the sky. More importantly, the UK capital is exceptionally green. We live in Chiswick in the West of London and within a 20-minute walking radius, we’ve got an impressive array of parks to choose from. From the stately Chiswick House and Garden (a mere five-minute walk) and magnificent Kew to the more modest Grove Park, Turnham Green, Chiswick Common, and Acton Green Common, there is no shortage of greenery in this area. If I were more active and motivated I could easily reach Osterley or Richmond Park by public transit, bicycle, or car. In fact 47% of London is composed of green space. This is a figure one should not take for granted. I know I certainly don’t.

When I lived in Canada too, I was grateful for the conscious integration of public parks and nature trails in urban areas, which I assumed was somehow linked to the legacy of Anglo-Canadian pioneers and their city planning efforts. In Richmond Hill, where I grew up as the township began to increase in size and turn from farmlands to subdivisions in the early 1970s, an impressive 166 parks were planned for. A few of these are undeveloped natural areas similar to the valley around the Don River in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) but most are urban parks, small in size and usually containing playgrounds, ice arenas, and baseball pitches. Their purpose is to provide recreation and activity space, not so much conserving nature. Since the early nineties, Richmond Hill’s population has more than tripled from 60,000 to over 185,000 as development has increased at an explosive rate. In fact, all over the GTA and surrounding suburbs in an increasingly competitive and capitalist climate, every bit of land is being turned into private property. Among this sea of new homes, the public sphere, is sadly becoming a string of spaces of consumption. Shopping malls, plazas, plazas, and more plazas. Even public washrooms exist only in the realm of shopping malls, cafes, and restaurants and can no longer be called “public” since they serve the consumer rather than the ordinary citizen.

In 2008, when the last remaining wooded area surrounding the David Dunlap Observatory was sold by the University of Toronto to developers, Richmond Hillians took a stand. The story is chronicled in detail in the university’s student paper. In short, the observatory and 76 hectares of land around it, was endowed according to the wishes of David Dunlap by his family to the university in the 1920s. The deed indicated, however, that – should the university ever “use the land for purposes other than research” – it should revert to Dunlap’s heirs. So when the university decided to sell the land in 2008 as light pollution in Richmond Hill rendered research in the observatory impossible, it spent four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in a war of attrition to get the three descendants of David Dunlap to capitulate to an alteration in the deed. Eventually in 2007 the university sold the land to the highest bidder, the housing developer Corsico, for 70 million dollars. The Town of Richmond Hill, together with David Dunlap Observatory Defenders (DDOD), a lobby group, and another group of advocates, the Richmond Hill Naturalists fought for complete conservation but finally settled with Corsica in 2010 to turn 40 out of the 76 hectares to parkland. The media hailed this as a victory for all parties.

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When I went back to Richmond Hill this past spring, seeing the sight of the clear-cut site, an area that used to home to coyotes, foxes, and numerous birds was painful. Looking at the Richmond Hill Parks and Trails map where the rectangle representing the 76 hectares of land around David Dunlap Observatory encompasses a bigger area than Richmond Green Park and Mill Pond Park combined, the top two biggest parks in Richmond Hill, is even more painful. What a lost opportunity. And to think that half of this land, the last naturally green area with a diverse wildlife is being turned to not a museum, not a public library, not even a public secondary school, but townhomes, banal suburban cheaply made townhomes, is painful. I applaud the efforts of the Richmond Hill council, DDOD, and Richmond Hill Naturalists for saving even half of this estate. Yet I still cannot get over what a lost opportunity this was. I have nothing against home ownership. It’s the first step toward wealth creation for ordinary families on top of providing decent homes. Yet this level of suburban sprawl devoid of public green space – public anything – will turn places like Richmond Hill into an asphalt and concrete hell. We need communities. A sea of subdivisions interspersed with shopping malls and plazas with the occasional denominational or ethnocentric places of worship won’t do. In an increasingly multi-cultural secular society they have to take shape around all-inclusive public spaces like parks that are open to all citizens independent of their shopping habits, home ownership, religion or lack thereof.

As a laywoman interested in urban planning, I won’t pretend to know the master plan of the town of Richmond Hill or its by-laws. I am just hoping aloud that as city-dwellers in whichever city we dwell, we can shift focus from building homes to building communities. I hope we can do this for our next generation. Whenever I think about moving back to Toronto or surrounding suburbs, one of the main considerations aside from employment is the availability of public green space, right up there with public transit and public education. Things that make a community, not just a home.

Happy International Women’s Day 2016

Today, March 8th, marks International Women’s Day. Amid the frenzy of getting prepared to go back to Canada for the next five weeks where my newborn daughter will get to know her maternal family, I could not possibly overlook this day which I have always tried to celebrate or at least acknowledge in some small way from the time I was old and wise enough to appreciate its significance.

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Of course there have been celebrations, events, protests, and dedications all over the world. The most easily accessible one is probably Google’s Doodle which is dedicated to the global independent initiative “Planet 50-50 by 2030”. In an uplifting video, women across 12 cities including Jane Goodall and Malala Yousafzai complete the sentence “one day I will”.

Here in the UK too, this past Sunday, the charity event “Walk in Her Shoes” attracted a number high profile women’s rights advocates including Helen Pankhurst the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, Annie Lennox, Bianca Jagger, and Sophie Walker the founder of Women’s Equality Party. During her address to the crowd, Sophie Walker who is also her party’s London mayoral candidate, reiterated the six objectives of WEP, which I covered in a previous post.

But the one dedication, which I found the most heart-warming is by Iranian-American comedian Kambiz Hosseini who inspired by Jon Stewart of the Daily show, has created a satirical news show in Persian called Poletik. In an Instagram post, under a picture of Nasrin Sotoudeh, a highly respected human rights lawyer, Kambiz has captioned humorously (and I’m butchering the phrase a bit in translation): “To the Iranian man and the non-Iranian man…today is International Women’s Day…be a man”. This is a pun that intends to say, “be a good man or be a human”. The post made me smile primarily because any picture of Sotoudeh always makes me smile but also because the mock scolding tone of the caption was very endearing.

Seeing Sotoudeh’s face makes me smile because what she has achieved as a woman, nay as a human being, inspires me beyond words. I am not referring to her noble work as a human rights lawyer but the fact that she is making an impact in her chosen profession with the backing of a loving family. Sotoudeh has come to represent the modern Iranian woman who has achieved gender equality in her personal life and professional aspirations in a patriarchal country. A widely published picture of a hand-cuffed Sotoudeh embracing her husband Reza Khandan after her politically-motivated arrest by the Iranian regime in 2011, has come to symbolise their loving yet equal partnership among Iranians both in Iran and on the diaspora. Her husband certainly deserves half the credit for the respect he has exemplified for Sotoudeh’s work. Throughout her political imprisonment between 2011 and 2013, he continuously defended her work during interviews while being the primary care provider of their two children. A scenario that is not so commonplace in Iran. To be fair it is not very commonplace anywhere in the world.

I wanted to write a post no matter how short to wish all my readers, men and women a happy women’s day because when we finally achieve gender equality throughout the world it will be both men and women who shall equally reap the benefits. But I also wanted to dedicate this to my own little girl. This is her first IWD. She’s only five months old now but I hope she grows up in a world that continues to progress on the path of gender equality and evolves to not impose gender-specific limitations on her and her peers. I hope she will grow up to have equal pay and a fair shot at leadership roles in whatever profession she chooses. But most earnestly, I wish for her to grow up in world that becomes ever more free of violence against and objectification of women. Be it street catcalling, workplace harassment, or cyber-bulling, I hope we succeed in cleansing the world of attitudes that strip our girls of their dignity.

Jian Ghomeshi and the Court of Public Opinion

I have been following the trial of Jian Ghomeshi in the online editions of Toronto newspapers as well as on social media. For the uninitiated, Jian Ghomeshi used to be the famous host of CBC Radio One’s Q, a show he co-created and co-wrote. Ghomeshi’s confidence and charm, his smooth interviewing style, and his radio essays delivered as a soliloquy at the beginning of Q made him and his show very popular. So much so that Q became one of the highest-rated shows in the history of CBC. But in 2014, Ghomeshi, who is Iranian-Canadian, was abruptly fired by CBC and a series of articles printed by the Toronto Star revealed him to be the subject of multiple allegations of sexual assault and harassment. Ghomeshi is now on trial for four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance through chocking and faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Although to date 23 women have come forward – for the most part anonymously – only three are testifying under oath.

Reading about the trial is painful as legal experts and commentators believe Ghomeshi will be acquitted. His lawyer, Marie Henein has employed an effective strategy of discrediting and undermining key witnesses by scrutinising their behaviour and actions in the run-up to and in the aftermath of the assaults. She has revealed evidence that at least in two cases the victims pursued a relationship with Ghomeshi after the alleged assaults. What is even more painful than reading about these developments is reading the commentary of a handful of Iranian Facebook “friends” rejoicing at this turn of events and lamenting Ghomeshi’s “wrongful” dismissal from CBC.

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Jian Ghomeshi, defence co-counsel Danielle Robitaille, defence lawyer Marie Henein, Justice William Horkins, and a witness. Source: Canadian Press.

 

Firstly, whether or not these women pursued Ghomeshi after the assaults is irrelevant. Let’s not even enter into the psychological complexities with which victims of sexual assault often grapple or how common it is for victims to try and normalise their experience post-trauma. In a society that has laws against marital rape and requires spouses to obtain consent for every sexual encounter one expects that consent must also be obtained before chocking women or breaking their ribs. There is documented proof for the latter offence by the way, which apparently was the very instigator of Ghomeshi’s “wrongful” dismissal by the CBC.

Secondly, for some individual Iranians to rush to Ghomeshi’s defence simply because he identifies as Iranian is nothing but irrational tribalism. Although these individuals make up a minority (the majority of voices have either condemned his actions or remained neutral) I am disappointed to see even a single person defend a sexual predator over a sexual assault victim motivated by something as base and irrelevant in the twenty-first century as nationalism. Sadly, over the past week I’ve encountered not one but several individuals, women no less, who have expressed such views – despite being progressive enough to frequent pro-democracy protests and being active in lofty cultural and literary affairs in the community.

Our legal system has been designed to err on the side of extreme caution. And yes, every man is innocent unless proven otherwise in a court of law. But when a system fails women, specifically victims of assault, time and time again there is cause for outrage. Cases like this one expose a criminal justice system that continues to fail women by judging the victims more harshly for their actions before and after an attack than the perpetrator. It’s quite tragic that in 2016, consistent and highly overlapping testimony of four women among other evidence might not be good enough to get a conviction. Ghomeshi, his defence attorney, the judge, and the public most probably know full well that he is not being framed by 23 women. Yet he will most probably walk unscathed while the victims are depicted as star-stricken fans and “jilted ex-girlfriends” – to quote Ghomeshi himself. They will be and probably are already trolled online, subjected to character assassination, and harmed professionally.

So let us not kid ourselves! Given the overwhelming number of victims who have come forward with very similar stories and given the fact that, statistically speaking, false accusations of sexual assault are exceedingly rare, let us at the very least not exonerate Ghomeshi in the court of public opinion. And most crucially let us not do it in the name of something as stupid as tribalism!

 

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.