Heard of U8?

One group of students try to build "global grass-roots" organisation

Imagine a world in which we all have a voice. A world where there is a platform for the voiceless, a platform for global dialogue and shared learning, and a platform for engagement with the policies that affect our everyday lives.

Or, more practically, a platform that enables you to see the impact of global warming in a remote Indian village, in the Ethiopian plains as well as on a Dutch seaside town. A platform where all countries can communicate with each other on shared concerns which will indeed have the ear of the President.

Well almost – try Al Gore, a former Vice President as well as Peter Lilley of the Conservative Party’s Global Poverty group, Hilary Benn and top executives at ABC News in Washington, DC. Let’s also not forget the Foreign Ministries in over 13 countries, and regional and international institutions such as the African Union or the World Bank that have been engaged. With features in the Guardian and the Hindu, and confirming global TV coverage for the U8 summit in less than a month’s time, it is time to talk.

The U8 is a global grass-roots student organisation facilitated by a small yet dedicated executive committee. As of today, the U8 actively involves 27 universities in developed and less developed countries, as well as having a presence in over 40 universities in 19 countries.

Unlike the G8, membership is not just for the richest countries, but for all countries. The U8 is wholly independent, non-partisan, and student-led with top level universities involved such as Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, Warwick as well as universities in Nepal, India, Kyrgyzstan, Ethiopia, Mexico, Egypt, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, France and Germany. We are a growing and open organisation, having more than tripled our membership since October 2006.

The aims: (1) shared learning of international development issues, (2) to promote not only a culture of inclusion but genuine global partnerships by twinning U8 universities in different continents and (3) engagement with policy makers to inform policy.

On 9-11 March, one of the most important global summits on international development led solely by students will take place at Warwick University in Coventry, England. Over a hundred students from around the world from both developed and developing countries will gather for the 2nd annual U8 summit.

To prepare for the upcoming summit, students across the globe have been researching, holding debates at their respective universities, gaining international media coverage, meeting with key policy makers and influential leaders, and blogging online on the U8 website: www.u8development.org.uk. All of these views will come together at Warwick during the 3 day summit.

The online blogs and student researchers tackle issues such as conflict, poverty, migration, health and the environment as chosen from the U8 Consultation Paper 2006. The U8 asked governments, NGOs, private sector companies and academics in both developed and developing countries as well as international organisations what they thought the most important issues were in development. This sets the framework for the research, giving a representative view of global developmental concerns.

On the online forums, the following exchange is an example of the daily dialogue since November:

“I am not convinced that the EPAs [European Union Economic Partnership Agreements] are as harmful for developing countries as is often argued,” says Steve from Oxford.

Senayt from Ethiopia at the Addis Ababa University replies, “Unless we Africans strengthen, diversify local production, and transform our commodity dependent economies, EPAs will render our continent even more dependent on foreign aid handouts.”

Meareg, also from Addis Ababa adds, “Aid does not solve our problems rather destabilize our internal activities….we know how much terrible it is …so please I beg you pardon to delete the word aid from your mind and please replace it with the word ‘fair trade’.”

The U8 website on average each week attracts over 1850 visitors from over 60 countries, from Peru to Mongolia, Canada to Cameroon, Tajikistan to Mexico.

"It is incredible to see the traffic generated to the website as we are truly becoming more global and inclusive in our discussion," said U8 Co-President James Clarke, studying Politics at Warwick.

Following the U8 Summit in March, delegates from member universities from around the world will consolidate research and present issues raised to key policy-makers, researchers and practitioners.

Already, meetings are taking place such as in the House of Commons with the Globalisation and Global Poverty group, set up by David Cameron, where members of the U8 Exec have called for a regulation of the gap year industry, arguing that development is usually not part of their agenda.

The issue is being opened up to the forums to get views from both developed and developing countries. U8 Ethiopia delegates were the first to submit its views to the Party.

"Students from developing and developed countries are asking ‘What can we do to help?’" explained Clarke. "We hope that the meetings with government officials of all political views will continue to allow students to inform policy, and allow for changes needed."

To find out more about the U8 Summit or to become involved, please visit the website www.u8development.org.uk.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.