Some post-Question Time clarifications

For those of you who seem intent on getting the wrong end of the stick . . .

I'm not sure which I enjoyed more – appearing on BBC1's Question Time last night or following the Twittersphere's reaction to it as the show went out at 10.35pm. Once again, it seems, I am the Marmite panellist – people either loved me or hated me. (From the tweets, it seems as if the "lovers" edged out the "haters" – phew!)

And I was amused to get – almost at the same time – tweets/texts/emails of the "We're so proud of you for sticking up for Muslims" variety and tweets/texts/emails of the "You're just an evil extremist Islamist" variety; tweets/texts/emails of the "Great to see an articulate lefty" variety and tweets/texts/emails of the "You're an embarrassment to the left" variety. Hilarious.

Question Time is a fun show to do but I'd be the first to admit that it doesn't lend itself to nuance or depth and doesn't allow panellists enough time to unpack their views and opinions in any detail. There's been some confusion on Twitter, and in the texts and emails, about the various views that I expressed and positions that I took – and, of course, some of the confusion is a result of the deliberate misrepresentation and distortion of my views by my critics on the right. So I thought I'd take this opportunity, like last time, to offer some brief post-QT clarifications:

1) On prisoner voting: I don't support giving every prisoner the right to vote but I am opposed to a blanket ban. It might be considered right, proper and proportionate to strip serious criminals – murderers, rapists, paedophiles, armed robbers, etc – of their right to vote but the vast majority of prisoners in this country are not serious criminals. On what basis can it be said to be proportionate to remove the right to vote from a shoplifter or a drug offender or someone who has breached the terms of their Asbo? And this is not some odd or extreme position. Italy, Malta and Poland, for example, ban only those deemed to have committed serious crimes from exercising their right to vote. In Greece, anyone sentenced to life receives a permanent voting ban. Let's be clear: I'm not advocating giving killers such as John Hirst the right to vote in prison – and nor was the European Court, despite Douglas Murray's factually inaccurate claim to the contrary on the programme last night.

2) On multiculturalism: I didn't equate David Cameron with the EDL or "smear" him, as Tim Montgomerie and others have claimed. I pointed out that the English Defence League and the French National Front welcomed Cameron's remarks (and that even the BNP's Nick Griffin, while also welcoming the comments, pointed out the "provocative" timing of the speech in Munich, given events back home in Luton). Am I expected to ignore their comments? As a member of an ethnic minority, should I not be bothered that far-right racists who wish me and my family harm are claiming the PM's speech – or, at the very minimum, the media spin around it – as a vindication of their views/opinions? Am I supposed to pretend that politicians never "dog-whistle"? (For more on my views on Cameron's speech, see my column in this week's New Statesman.)

As for the "forced marriages" issue, which the oddball right-wing blogger "Archbishop Cranmer" seems to have seized upon in his rambling blog post this morning, I didn't say there weren't any forced marriages in the UK or that forced marriages were a "myth" – I pointed out that it was ridiculous for Murray to pretend (a) that multiculturalism is responsible for forced marriages and (b) that I've yet to come across a single politician, community leader or religious spokesman who defends forced marriages or excuses them on the basis of "multiculturalism". It is just ridiculous and dishonest to make such a claim. "Cranmer", who constructed his entire blog post on the basis of something I didn't say, says my "ignorance is astonishing"; I find his inability to understand simple English "astonishing". He really should pay attention.

3) On Egypt: There is no inconsistency to supporting the popular and peaceful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt while opposing the Anglo-American military intervention in Iraq. Arabs should be allowed to choose their own leaders and decide their own destiny; the west should neither prop up the despotic dictators in the Middle East – as we did with Saddam Hussein (until 1990) and Hosni Mubarak (until last week) – nor set out to remove them through "shock and awe" – as we did in Iraq, without UN backing and with bloody consequences.

4) On the "big society": I was amazed that Francis Maude could pretend that the draconian cuts to spending on charities and voluntary groups could be avoided if councils reduced their "costs" and "overheads". Conservative ministers have made some pretty disingenuous claims in recent weeks but this one takes the biscuit. The fact is that councils, which are having to make unprecedented and front-loaded cuts to their budgets of roughly 27 per cent over the next four years, "made savings of more than £3n between 2005 and 2008 and a further £1.7bn in 2008-2009. In 2009-2010 councils made efficiency savings of more than £4.8m every day." As David Cameron himself admitted, in opposition (on 8 September 2009): "Local government is officially the most efficient part of the public sector." He added: "Councils achieve well in excess of the sector's spending review targets, beating central government savings by a country mile." And much ink has been spilled in the tabloid press about "fat-cat" local council bosses but a "reduction in the chief executive pay bill of 50 per cent would only yield 0.35 per cent of the savings needed to fill the £6.5bn funding gap for 2011-2012, and equates to only 0.05 per cent of total employee expenditure". Bad luck, Francis.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.