Louise Mensch deserves our solidarity

I know what it’s like to be a woman with an opinion in a man’s world. I think Mensch does too.

Louise Mensch is currently making news because she’s been the target of misogyny. After she journeyed to every TV studio in London to voice her ill-advised support for Rupert Murdoch, some unpleasant individuals took to Twitter to brand her a slut, a whore, a bitch and other unedifying terms. In response, Mensch meticulously documented all those inveighing against her, and took to Twitter (where else?) to denounce them using the hashtag #feminism.

Never being one to miss out on a chance to fruitlessly commentate, I wanted to share with you my own experience of Mensch. You see a couple of months ago; I ended up having coffee with her at Portcullis House after we had a rather public spat about feminism. To be honest, I was apprehensive when she suggested we meet. because I feared the meeting would be so convivial I’d end up sympathising with her politics. I needn’t have worried: Mensch is every inch the Tory. She spoke about David Cameron in only the most effusive terms. At one point she even called him a feminist, which is frankly amazing to me. She never strayed once from the party line, and defended Tory policies to the point of nonsense. In that sense, Mensch is not the maverick she is made out to be. She’s a line-toer: a bog-standard, run-of-the-mill Tory.

But she’s also a Rottweiler. That combative, forthright thing she does on Newsnight isn’t a persona; it’s what she’s like. After we had our rendezvous I left feeling like I’d been savaged. That side of her, the side that’s always on the offensive, is where I think her feminism comes in. Because what I saw in Louise Mensch was a person who felt the need to defend her position – who felt she had fight for a place even in our argument. I suspected she’d had to fight really hard just to get the same hearing her male colleagues probably don’t even question.

During our meeting, Mensch was at her most passionate and sincere when she talked about feminism; especially in terms of how women are perceived by society. She was frustrated with the way women are constantly hemmed in by their gender; that we’re often made to feel as though womanhood is a thing we have to overcome in order to be taken seriously. I’m sure I’ll be accused of naïveté, but sitting there talking to her, I felt she was talking with the sort of depth that only comes from personal experience.

Now Mensch is being accused of using the misogyny she’s encountered to claim some sort of victim status. Well I’m sorry, but I just don’t think that’s true. Whenever I have suffered misogyny as a result of an argument I have made, I’ve never thought, ‘oh good, here’s something I can use.’ I feel depressed, because yet again I’m not being listened to. Yet again I’m being judged simply for having an opinion – for not being the pure, submissive, obedient ideal I’m supposed to be. The idiots who call opinionated women whores and sluts aren’t giving those women ammunition to deflect valid criticism; they’re oppressing them using the same rotten tropes women are exposed to from the moment the doctor says ‘it’s a girl.’

Anyone who casts doubt on Mensch’s insistence that she is sharing her experience because she refuses to feel ashamed simply doesn’t understand that shame is integral to misogyny. We women are often cast as the raw materials of body hair, madness, and sexual urges, which we must then wax, tame and abstain into social acceptance. Whenever we stray away from the ideal society has constructed for us, we’re judged as lapsing back into an unrefined natural state, like Lady Macbeth, Moll Flanders or the madwoman in the attic. When I’ve been called shrill or a slut, I often don’t tell people because I’m afraid that even the mere association with those terms might encourage others to think that maybe I am those things. And that will make me dirty and repellent.

I’m tired of feeling like that. I want to be judged on my words and actions, like men are. I’m tired of my uterus tying me to a whole set of arbitrary and suffocating standards that men will never have to worry about. I don’t have a window into Mensch’s soul, but I’m sure she’s tired too: tired of always having to be a woman and not a person – tired of the constant feeling of shame. I think that’s why she spoke out.

We could argue the toss about Mensch’s feminism. I’ve heard many feminists say that a woman whose party is closing down domestic violence shelters cannot consider herself a feminist. That’s an opinion I can understand. To be honest I don’t know how anyone with a shred of decency could join the Tory party, let alone identify as a feminist in the process. And I don’t know how Mensch can talk about Rupert Murdoch without picturing him dislocating his jaw and swallowing a human infant whole, but that’s just me. But I do know this: I know what it’s like to be a woman with an opinion in a man’s world. I know what it’s like to be cascaded because you don’t know how to be delicate or submissive. I think Mensch does too. And for that, I will put our political differences aside and offer her solidarity.

Ellie Mae O'Hagan is a freelance writer living in North London, contributing mainly to the Guardian. You can follow her at @MissEllieMae

Conservative MP Louise Mensch speaks during the launch of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee report 'News International and Phone-Hacking'. Photograph: Getty Images.
Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".