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Laurie Penny: Iranian women are being co-opted into a Nato narrative pointing towards invasion

The West must not use women’s rights to justify war.

Despite an international outcry, Iran seems determined to have Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, 43, stoned to death for adultery. Her plight has become a test case for the global community's response to Iran's barbaric, institutional misogyny. Tehran has responded by thumbing its nose at the rest of the world, forcing Ashtiani to confess her "crimes" on television. In Britain, our outrage is unanimous, and rightly so.

It seems curiously inconsistent, then, that, just a few weeks ago, the Home Office was quite prepared to deport another Iranian woman, Kiana Firouz, to certain execution in her native country for sexual unorthodoxy. Firouz made the film Cul-de-Sac to raise awareness of the oppression of lesbians in Iran, outing herself very publicly and embarrassing the state in the process: both crimes punishable by death in Iran. Nonetheless, it took a co-ordinated campaign by LGBT activists and solidarity networks in the UK to shame the Home Office into granting Firouz leave to remain.

Bita Ghaedi, another Iranian woman facing execution for breaking her marriage vows, also escaped to Britain -- where she was sent to a holding cell and repeatedly threatened with deportation. Ghaedi has been on several hunger strikes to protest at her treatment, but she still lives in fear of being sent back to Iran. Had the unfortunate Ashtiani been smuggled to the UK, it is fair to assume that she, too, would currently be detained in Yarl's Wood, subjected to the indignity of pleading for her life to a government whose professed solidarity with Iranian women has not yet overcome its prejudice against immigrants to extend support to the hundreds of women who arrive on these shores fleeing violence every year -- all of whom, unlike Ashtiani, we could actually do something materially to help.

State violence against women has long been used to justify military interventionism. The government of Iran is rather unusual in taking it upon itself to employ the executioners, but plenty of states with whom the US and UK have no military disputes currently allow men who feel their women have besmirched their family honour to carry out the killings themselves on the understanding that punishment will be minimal or non-existent.

Article 340 of the Penal Code of Jordan states: "He who discovers his wife or one of his female relatives committing adultery and kills, wounds or injures one of them is exempted from any penalty." Similar laws were struck down only very recently in Syria, Morocco and Brazil; in Pakistan, incidences of women and girls being slain by their families for sexual transgressions (including having the gall to be raped) are routinely ignored by police and prosecutors.

Moreover, across the world, 68,000 women are effectively condemned to agonising death each year -- 5 per cent of them in developed countries -- for the crime of wanting sexual and reproductive self-determination in states with sanctions against abortion. There has, as yet, been no systemic global outcry at their plight. And in at least one European country, the defence of "provocation to murder" -- the so-called "cuckold's defence" -- was enshrined in law until just two years ago, allowing husbands to plead for a reduced sentence if the wife they had killed was unfaithful.

The country in question was Great Britain. Were the US or UK to launch a systemic offensive against every country brutalising its female citizens because of their sex at the level of policy and culture, it'd be World War Three on Tuesday -- and we would have to start by bombing our own cities.

In this context, it could well be construed that there is another, more sinister agenda at play beyond concern for women's rights. Yesterday, Iran told the west to butt out of its right to murder Sakineh Ashtiani, making it clear that this case is now less about the well-being of one woman than about moral and militaristic positioning between hostile states. There is clear precedent for this callous, ideological long game.

This month, Time magazine published a cover photograph of a young woman, Aisha, whose nose and ears had been cut off by her father-in-law. The cover ran with the unambiguous title, "What happens if we leave Afghanistan". However, as the Afghan women's rights activist Malalai Joya told France24, Aisha was attacked under western occupation and such atrocities have arguably increased since the 2002 invasion.

"Eighteen-year-old Aisha is just an example -- cutting ears, noses and toes, torturing and even slaughtering is a norm in Afghanistan," said Joya. "Afghan women are squashed between three enemies: the Taliban, fundamentalist warlords and troops. Once again, it is moulding the oppression of women into a propaganda tool to gain support and staining their hands with ever-deepening treason against Afghan women."

In March, WikiLeaks published a CIA briefing that outlined a strategy to counter growing opposition in Europe to participation in the US-led occupation of Afghanistan. It recommended using a narrative about the oppression of women in the country that highlighted the Taliban's misogynist violence, while ignoring that of the pro-occupation warlords and the occupation armies. A similar story is now being disseminated about the plight of women in Iran and poor Ashtiani has become a tokenistic figure in that absolving narrative.

Instead of the solidarity they deserve -- solidarity that might first be extended by treating asylum seekers with something less than contempt -- Iranian women are being co-opted into a Nato narrative whose trajectory seems to point inexorably towards invasion.

That the state of Iran hates and fears women is not up for debate and if even one person can be saved from fascistic, fundamentalist woman-haters, an international campaign is more than justified. However, if, as seems likely, Iran executes Sakineh Ashtiani anyway, it would be beyond distasteful for Nato governments to cannibalise her corpse as part of the moral groundwork for further bloodshed.

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

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle