"Gay Girl in Damascus" at it again?

Tom MacMaster, author of the fictional blog A Gay Girl in Damascus, has been accused of posting comm

It seems Tom MacMaster, the US graduate student behind the lesbian blogger hoax, has never heard the phrase "once bitten, twice shy".

He was subject to international criticism after he was unmasked as the true identity behind the Syrian blogger Amina Arraf. Posing as a lesbian activist, MacMaster's writings drew a wide following around the world, and highlighted humanitarian and political issues in the Middle East. But he was "outed" (if you'll excuse the pun) when he claimed "Amina" had been abducted by Syrian security services -- sparking a man-hunt which ended with MacMaster himself.

Now the beleaguered blogger has been accused of a similar trick, after he admitted that a comment defending his actions on the liberal Jewish news website Mondoweiss was written under a false name.

"Miriam Umm Ibni" wrote a supportive message about MacMaster, saying that although "he misguidedly placed himself in the guise of an Arab woman...he did so from real compassion... He is an individual with no budget, trying to bring attention to issues through writing."

But the post was found to originate from the same IP address used by the American blogger, raising allegations that he was again assuming the identity of an Arab woman to make a point. In an email later posted by the editors of Mondoweiss, MacMaster admitted Miriam Umm Ibni was an assumed identity, but claimed he was not behind the comments.

"A friend of mine who would really like to remain nameless recently posted a comment defending me on your site. She used a pseudonym as she is a committed activist on the Palestine cause as well as a fellow international student here at the University of Edinburgh. To post it, she used the same wireless connection I use. She was, after all, visiting my wife and I at the time."

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is a freelance journalist currently living and working in London. She has written for the Sunday Express, the Daily Telegraph and the Economist online.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.