Saudi Arabia's Defence Minister Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud with David Cameron, April 2012. Photograph: MATT DUNHAM/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Mehi Hasan on friendly versus unfriendly dictators

Cameron's speech on Islam and democracy contains some glaring omissions.

Three quick responses to David Cameron's big speech on Islam and democracy in Indonesia:

1) According to Nick Watt's report in the Guardian:

Cameron will cite Muammar Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, the former Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Assad as he says: "In each case the Arab spring has shown that denying people their rights in the name of stability and security actually makes countries less stable in the end. Over time, the pressure builds up until the people take to the streets and demand their freedoms.

How can the PM keep a straight face? No mention of his friend, the King of Saudi Arabia, who is the biggest roadblock to democratic reform in the Arab world and who Cameron visited in January. No mention of his friend, the King of Bahrain, who has killed, tortured and gassed his own country's "Arab spring" protesters and who has been invited to attend the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London in June. No mention of his ally, the President of Uzbekistan, a brutal dictator who has the UK "over a barrel" and who was visited by Cameron's Defence Secretary Philip Hammond in February. When will the British government, and western governments in general, understand and recognize the obvious fact that we will have no credibility as critics of anti-western dictators until we decide to denounce and distance ourselves from pro-western dictators? When will we end our brazen double standards?

2) In his speech, according to the Guardian, Cameron condemns Islamist "extremists – some of whom are violent – and all of whom want to impose a particular and very radical, extreme version of Islamism on society to the exclusion of all others. And this total rejection of debate and democratic consent means they believe that democracy and Islam are incompatible."

Yet the Prime Minister knows perfectly well that not all Islamists reject democracy or free and fair elections. See the Ennahda party in Tunisia. See the AK party in Turkey. In fact, on a visit to Turkey in July 2010, Cameron told his counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of the Islamist AK party: "I very much admire the leadership that you have given to Turkey."

I am no fan of Islamist parties but, again, why the double standards from the PM?

3) I'm all for the British government encouraging democracy and freedom around the world but when will we realise that such values can be encouraged and promoted without the use of bombs and bullets? Intervention can be in the form of diplomacy, engagement, dialogue and trade; carrots as well as sticks. Plus, the sticks don't have to be violent either: there are sanctions, boycotts, international criminal tribunals, etc, on offer.

In fact, contrary to conventional wisdom, the empirical evidence suggests that it would be much wiser for western governments to back nonviolent, rather than violent, protests against unelected autocrats and dictators.  In opposition, Cameron admitted as much: "We should accept that we cannot impose democracy at the barrel of a gun; that we cannot drop democracy from 10,000 feet - and we shouldn't try. Put crudely, that was what was wrong with the 'neo-con' approach, and why I am a liberal Conservative, not a neo Conservative."

How things change.

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.

Show Hide image

Women-only train carriages are just a way of ensuring more spaces are male by default

We don’t need the “personal choice” to sit in a non-segregated carriage to become the new short skirt.

“A decent girl,” says bus driver Mukesh Singh, “won't roam around at 9 o'clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy.”

Singh is one of four men sentenced to death for the rape and fatal assault of Jyoti Singh Pandey on a Delhi bus in 2013. His defence was that she shouldn’t have been on the bus in the first place. Presumably he’d have said the same if she’d been on a train. In the eyes of a rapist, all space is male-owned by default.

I find myself thinking of this in light of shadow fire minister Chris Williamson’s suggestion that woman-only train carriages be introduced in order to combat sexual violence on public transport. It’s an idea originally proposed by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in 2015, only to be shelved following criticism from female MPs.

Now Williamson feels that a rise in sex attacks on public transport has made it worth considering again. Speaking to PoliticsHome, he argues that “complemented with having more guards on trains, it would be a way of combating these attacks”. He does not bother to mention who the perpetrators might be. Bears, vampires, monsters? Doesn’t really matter. As long as you keep the bait safely stored away in a sealed compartment, no one’s going to sniff it out and get tempted. Problem solved, right?

And that’s not the only benefit of a woman-only carriage. What better way to free up space for the people who matter than to designate one solitary carriage for the less important half of the human race?

Sure, women can still go in the free-for-all, male-violence-is-inevitable, frat-house carriages if they want to. But come on, ladies - wouldn’t that be asking for it? If something were to happen to you, wouldn’t people want to know why you hadn’t opted for the safer space?

It’s interesting, at a time when gender neutrality is supposed to be all the rage, that we’re seeing one form of sex segregated space promoted while another is withdrawn. The difference might, in some cases, seem subtle, but earlier sex segregation has been about enabling women to take up more space in the world – when they otherwise might have stayed at home – whereas today’s version seem more about reducing the amount of space women already occupy.

When feminists seek to defend female-only toilets, swimming sessions and changing rooms as a means of facilitating women’s freedom of movement, we’re told we’re being, at best, silly, at worst, bigoted. By contrast, when men propose female-only carriages as a means of accommodating male violence and sexual entitlement, women are supposed to be grateful (just look at the smack-downs Labour’s Stella Creasy received for her failure to be sufficiently overjoyed).

As long as over 80 per cent of violent crime is committed by men, there can be no such thing as a gender-neutral space. Any mixed space is a male-dominated space, which is something women have to deal with every day of their lives. Our freedoms are already limited. We spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about personal safety. Each time it is proposed that women don’t go there or don’t do that, just to be on the safe side, our world gets a little bit smaller. What’s more, removing the facilities we already use in order to go there or do that tends to have the exact same effect.

Regarding female-only carriages, Williamson claims “it would be a matter of personal choice whether someone wanted to make use of [them].” But what does that mean? Does any woman make the “personal choice” to put herself at risk of assault? All women want is the right to move freely without that constant low-level monologue – no, those men look fine, don’t be so paranoid, you can always do the key thing, if you’ve thought it’s going to happen that means it won’t …. We don’t need the “personal choice” to sit in a non-segregated carriage to become the new short skirt.

In 1975’s Against Our Will, Susan Brownmiller pointed out that the fact that a minority of men rape “provides a sufficient threat to keep all women in a constant state of intimidation”. Whether they want to or not, all men benefit from the actions of those Brownmiller calls “front-line masculine shock troops”. The violence of some men should not be used as an opportunity for all men to mark out yet more space as essentially theirs, but this is what happens whenever men “benevolently” tell us this bus, this train carriage, this item of clothing just isn’t safe enough for us.

“A decent girl,” says the future rapist, “wouldn’t have been in a mixed-sex carriage late at night.” It’s time to end this constant curtailment of women’s freedoms. A decent man would start by naming the problem – male violence – and dealing with that. 

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