Mensch and Dorries shouldn't have to deal with sexist abuse

Why are female politicians not taken seriously?

Why is it still so hard to be a female politician in Britain? Decades ago, Conservative men bowed down to the Iron Lady. Today, female politicians are vilified from one end of the scale to the other. If they dare to be attractive, they are treated like a porn star. If they say something people don't want to hear, they are considered mentally ill. 

Earlier this week Conservative MP Louise Mensch – spokesperson for sisterhood after having reported to the police the betrayal of a rape victim's anonymity  – defended a political position on Newsnight. It was about the culture, media and sport select committee's report into phone-hacking and its disagreement over Rupert Murdoch's capacity to run News Corporation. But in our dumbed down world, the subject she was discussing seems to lose all relevance after sexist comments, from both men and women, were unleashed towards Mensch on Twitter. 
 
“Embarrassing watching you whore yourself out to News International,” one man said. “Louise Mensch is such a knob, fuck off slut”, said a woman. Perhaps some commentators thought they were being complimentary when they told the world “you would, wouldn't you?” (Someone continued: “Given half a chance you'd strangle her!” Could this be construed as a death threat?)
 
Meanwhile, hipster publication Vice ran a “May Day special” in which two journalists thought it would be hilarious to ask occupiers of Finsbury Square if they would sleep with Mensch. Not only is this hard-hitting journalism offensive to the “crusties” at Occupy (though to be honest, for people who are supposed to be politically active, a surprisingly large number of them didn't know who she was), the entire premise is brimming with sexism. Apparently the very notion that a woman should expect to be taken seriously in politics is risible. Does Mensch not know women are only allowed to exist as sex objects?
 
Last week, fellow Tory MP Nadine Dorries caused a stir within her party as she claimed that David Cameron and George Osborne were “two posh boys who don't know the price of milk.” This led, quite rightly, to the commentariat musing over the silver-spoon syndrome of our cabinet. Some, however, chose to focus on Dorries as a figure of ridicule, such as the Telegraph's Bryony Gordon, labelling her “Mad Nad” (and all too easily dismissing, somehow, her claim with “it isn't where you come from, it's where you are going”). 
 
Nadine Dorries is one of the last politicians I agree with, particularly on abortion. But she was making a valid point – whether or not you agree with it – on the shortcomings of social mobility in today's society. How many members of the cabinet grew up on council estates? Of course no-one wants to admit this is a problem, so instead they will pretend Dorries is from another planet.
 
The abuse Mensch has received is enough to put any girl off a career in politics. Do people tweet sexist abuse at George Osborne or Andrew Lansley, who are abhorred among the left? How are we to achieve any level of equal representation if this is what intelligent, determined, political engagement leads to? As with Dorries, Mensch and I disagree on a lot of levels. But it is her ideas that should be challenged, not her appearance, sexuality and certainly not her gender.
 
I hope that Louise Mensch continues her courageous stand against sexist abuse, because it needs to be done, not just for us but for the future of young girls. If she doesn't, who will?
Louise Mensch: not impressed. Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Who will take responsibility for the rise in far-right terrorism?

Muslims are asked to condemn Islamist terrorism – should the mainstream right do the same when the attackers are white?

Following the attack on a Finsbury Park mosque, both Theresa May and Amber Rudd have issued statements and delivered speeches adopting hard lines against Islamophobia and right-wing extremism. May has gone so far as stating that Islamophobia itself is a form of extremism.

These pronouncements have drawn positive responses from prominent members of the Muslim community such as Miqdaad Versi of the Muslim Council of Britain. But it is important to question whether or not this change in rhetoric signifies a genuine change in government policy.

On the face of it, there are reasons for tentative optimism. The seriousness with which politicians took the Finsbury Park attack is a significant change. On this, the government is ahead of the media. While other terrorism attacks have been condemned as unjustifiable violence, some newspapers framed the Finsbury Park attack as a "revenge".

In fact, radicalisation is not a one-off event, but takes place in a web of institutional, social and ideological conditions. Furthermore this ignores a much longer story about the drip, drip, drip of Islamophobic or anti-Muslim discourse which permeates British society. 

The government has played a part in legitimising this anti-Muslim sentiment. Let’s not forget that Prevent has, since its inception, disproportionately targeted Muslims. The impression of an "us and them" mentality is only underlined by its secrecy. Moreover, the Prevent agenda has conflated a variety of other social policy concerns relating to gender equality, sexual violence, and unemployment as "extremism" issues. For example, Amber Rudd herself suggested that Islamophobia would decline if grooming stopped, which can not only be seen as victim-blaming, but further contributes to stereotyping Muslims as the enemy within.

So are promises to get serious about Islamophobia more empty words from the Prime Minister?

Think about timing. Far-right extremism has been deadly. Mohammad Saleem was brutally murdered in 2013 in Birmingham by a far right extremist. Mushin Ahmed was killed in 2015 (and was notably called a "groomer" by his attacker as his head was stamped on).

Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right extremist this time last year. This is not even mentioning individuals such as Ryan McGee, who made a nail bomb and was intent on murdering immigrants.

Just twelve days ago, the Prime Minister claimed that Britain was too tolerant of extremism, and she was right. Just not in the way she meant it.

Britain has indeed been too tolerant of extremism of the far right kind. This is a rising problem, not just in the UK, but also in Europe.

According to the defence and security think-tank RUSI, far right extremists make up 33 per cent of the threat, with Islamic extremism slightly more at 38 per cent. Furthermore, one in four referrals to Channel, the UK deradicalisation programme, are from the far right.

We cannot forget the government itself peddles the tropes of far right hate. Think of David Cameron referring to migrants as "swarms", May’s hostile environment policy, complete with "go home vans" driving around in multicultural areas, and the uncritical embrace of Donald Trump’s presidency by the Prime Minister. 

The Muslim community has been told many times to fight terrorism from within, but will there be a similar response to far right extremism? The ongoing rhetorical attacks on multiculturalism, and the longstanding association of Islamist radicalisation with a lack of integration, rather than religiously inspired political violence, make it difficult to see how real change will happen.

This would require deep soul-searching, followed by serious changes in public debates about policies relating to both immigration and extremism. Until that happens, May’s words on Islamophobia will be nothing more than political PR.

But this PR also has a more sinister element. Although no specific new counter-terrorism legislation was announced in the Queen’s Speech, there was a promise that the government would review existing counter-terrorism laws, with a spokesman stressing that new legislation would be brought forward if needed.

May continues to lobby for increased executive powers to fight terrorism, which she has done since her time as home secretary. The policy on right-wing extremism is likely to follow that of Islamic extremism: it will focus only on ideology and it will ignore the wider context of structural racism and white privilege.

Ask yourselves, will white men ever be stopped and searched to the same extent as brown men? Will white women be seen as easy targets for violent attacks as Muslim women disproportionately are? Will far right extremists fear for their citizenship status?

And does the solution to extremism, in any form, truly lie in further oppressive legislation and more government power? We also need to be aware that powers extended to address extremism are likely to continue to have a disproportionate effect on minorities.

As long as there is no change in government policy, the status quo will continue to reinforce the same divisive narrative which is the bread and butter of every extremist group. After the Queen’s Speech, we continue to see no evidence of any serious attempt to reform policy and seriously address far right extremism. May’s empty words after the Finsbury Park attack represent nothing more than an opportunistic political move from a weakened Prime Minister who is desperate for approval – and for power.

Dr Maria Norris is a political scientist researching terrorism and national security. She is a Fellow at the  London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.

Dr Naaz Rashid is a Research Fellow at the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex and is author of Veiled Threats: Representing the Muslim Woman in Public Policy Discourse (Policy Press 2016) about the UK government's engagement with Muslim women as part of its Prevent agenda. She can be followed on Twitter @naazrashid.

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