Tories can be feminists. They just might not be your kind of feminists

All social equality movements have their separate strands. Right-wingers aren't the enemy, any more

The recent refocusing of the feminism debate as a matter of left vs right might feel regressive, as hammily retro as a poor, pointed illustrative gag. But there's more to the partisan approach than over-simplistic team-picking.

What began as an attempt to nail Tory feminists to their cross -- first by Gaby Hinsliff in the Observer -- metamorphosed into a full-blown battle of ideology, with the somewhat surreal sight of Nadine Dorries standing up in Parliament to challenge BBC sexism on Monday. How could Dorries, a woman who only days before was proposing we teach girls in school to keep their legs crossed as a method of birth control, now be demanding an inquiry into the lack of women's representation in the media, citing research from her arch-enemy, the Guardian, as she did it? Suspending disbelief for a moment, it is possible that Dorries wasn't co-opting a "women's issue" for her party's purposes. Even if the BBC is hardly the worst culprit, her point about media sexism was still valid. But the left wouldn't have it, and as Laurie Penny, pitted against Louise Mensch, put it rather bluntly on Newsnight, some kinds of feminism are just plain wrong. The irony of one woman telling another what to think was not lost on the Twittersphere. Here, it triumphed, was proof of feminism's inherently flawed logic: a movement striving for women's rights championed by women that cannot agree on what is right.

All social equality movements have their separate strands. But perhaps the fact that mainstream debate has never really come to terms with the notion of "feminisms" has something to do with the sheer number of revolutionary turns the women's rights movement has taken (even popular discourse manages to talk of feminism's "waves"), and the fact that women are, paradoxically, a majority minority -- a group whose life experiences, personal and social needs are about as diverse as you'd expect from half the world's population. It's no wonder, then, that left and right can't agree. Of course, Mensch and Penny, Harman and May, right-wing think-tanker Charlotte Vere and Labour MP Stella Creasy (who had a politely aggressive exchange on Twitter earlier in the week) are striving for some common goals. But if one of you thinks more women in the work place is a matter of economic, rather than self-validating necessity, your ideas for how you not only end, but determine sexism, are obviously going to be pretty different. Sometimes it's what the left and right do agree on that highlights best the discrepancies in their thinking -- the issue of sexualised imagery, for example -- and the fact that consensus on the what disempowers women, if not the why, can be reached. (Of course, there are always going to be libertarian feminists like me who worry about the potential censoriousness of female sexuality that might arise if we start painting figleaves on every gazed-at lady -- but that's a whole other nit-picking debate, and not the primary issue of the porny-society one.)

Tories can be feminists, then. They just might not be your kind of feminists. As Mensch pointed out on Newsnight, historically, the women's movement is full of self-identified feminist right-wingers. But what the Tories have never been terribly good at is recognising the significance of intersectionalism on feminism -- the notion that class, economic and social status, race, educational background and disability status might just affect the severity of inequality women face -- and what powers they have to do something about it. A single mother and female heiress wanting to sell jewellery from a Chelsea boutique two days a week and a single immigrant mother on a Wakefield council estate wanting to work in the local supermarket two days a week might both face childcare issues due to male absenteeism. The means they have to tackle it are obviously going to be quite different. So when Mensch cited Conservative MP Nancy Astor as the first woman to take a seat in the Commons, what she forgot to consider was that Astor could combat the pure sexism she encountered (and there must have been some) with money, connections, and class privilege.

And don't let's forget the Man Question -- which as the heat generated by Nicky Woolf's post on the Staggers a couple of weeks ago proves, is usually where feminism reaches boiling pot. Intersectional feminism, it turns out, is pretty good at dealing with that too. If all women aren't equally affected by sexism, it stands to reason that men won't always automatically be the "oppressors".

Tories aren't the enemy then, any more than men are. Residual patriarchy, lack of legal rights and socio-economic privilege, meanwhile, remain worth fighting. For that, feminism needs a whole palette of combative colours.

Nichi Hodgson is a 28-year-old freelance journalist specialising in sexual politics, law and culture.

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.