No burning issue

Freedoms of speech do not excuse giving the largest soapbox to the most egregious orator.

The last few weeks have seen more ink spilled over the ill-conceived conflagration of a couple of hundred Qurans than is probably contained within the books themselves, and the media machine shows no signs of letting up.

The chief target of this stupid act of vandalism is Al-Qaeda, a group whose paid-up membership in the coalition's chief battleground is apparently not much larger than the pathetic congregation of their bibliographic tormentors.

News of the Quran burning - to be held at the at the inaptly-named Dove World Outreach Centre, Gainesville, Florida - has been met with several similarly ill-attended protests, most notably in Kabul, Afghanistan. Counter-protestors have burned the US flag (as usual), and an effigy of 'Reverend' Terry Jones, a man of improbable moustache and abhorrent attire and 'mastermind' of the burning. Reuters reports that more spectacles of this sort are likely to follow throughout Europe.

This inverse pyramid of events can only built on so paltry a foundation by a global news media that dredges for the most pathetic actions of the most dismal fringe actors and then seeks to shape an entire discourse around them. Thanks to the Ponzi mores of the world's 24-hour news media, we can mark the end of 9/11 anniversaries' exemption from America's rabid religious-cum-political discourse. If coverage continues we may also witness an eruption of violence not seen since the barbarous reaction by several mobs of Muslim men to a Danish cartoon.

Meanwhile, millions of words - many of them ensconced in the vocabulary of "offence" "insensitivity" "freedom" and so on - have been uttered over a planning application for the erection of a community centre/Mosque/whatever on a bustling commercial street in lower Manhattan, New York that is unlikely to ever come to fruition unless a Fox shareholder foots the bill.

These events share two common factors. The first is their parochialism: before mid-term election season and the tenth anniversary of 9/11, each story would only would prick the ears of a provincial news editor. The second was best put by James Joyce of his young artist, for whom "the preacher's knife had probed deeply into his disclosed conscience". Today, our respected news outlets give preachers' barbs their reach, successfully putting the 'International' in 'International-Burn-A-Koran-Day'.

If - rather than encouraging Jones by reporting on the wacky schemes from his Jesus shed - the media moved on, Jones will simply go away.

Instead, increasing news coverage of Jones and the "Ground-Zero mosque" has had a Wonderbra effect, pushing two otherwise uninspiring bagatelles together, up and out, to form a putative cleavage of civilizations. A report in today's Telegraph is a typical example of the self-reinforcing nature of this story:

It is feared the event at the Dove World Outreach Centre, an evangelical church in Gainesville, will put the lives of coalition forces serving in Afghanistan at risk and inflame religious tensions worldwide.

Between 'the' and 'event' above, we should insert 'mediation of', and divide culpability for the lives put at risk and 'religious tension inflamed' (whatever that means, presumably riots and the like) accordingly. Instead, commentators deride the pastor without questioning their collective role in his rise to to the international stage. The BBC website also conforms to Godwin's Law to lend the prospect of this squalid little episode some 'context'.

Fevered coverage of these non-stories has also required a menagerie of luminaries from Barack Obama through Ban Ki-Moon to Angela Merkel debase their high offices by denouncing a congregation too small to put on an American football game.

Sadly, the media circus has now gone far enough in its invention of a crisis in the 'culture war' to endanger service personnel and retard the progress (and thereby conclusion) of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan.

No doubt that, should someone be killed as a result of this wretched incident, a few dozen camera crews will be there to cover it too. And so on.

Orwell, in reference to the politicization of literature through the 1930s, wrote "What books were about seemed so urgently important that the way they were written seemed almost insignificant." The news media may do well to take account of their effect on events before conflating freedom of speech with a premise that the largest soapbox be given to the most egregious orator.

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.