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.
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We can't rush to war in Syria without a plan for peace

A recent visit to Iraq has left me doubtful that the Prime Minister's plan can suceed, says Liam Byrne.

As shock of the Paris lifts and the fightback starts, all eyes are now the prime minister and, at last, the 'full spectrum response' we were promised months ago.

But what's needed now is not just another plan to bomb the ground -  but a plan to hold the ground we win. Four days in Northern Iraq has made me deeply sceptical about air strikes alone. It's convinced me that after the mistakes of Iraq and Libya, we cannot have yet another effort to win the battle and lose the war. Without politics and aid, projectiles and air-raids will fail. It's as simple as that.

After the horror of Paris it's easy to ignore that in Iraq and Syria, Isil is now in retreat. That's why these animals are lashing out with such barbarism abroad. In the ground war, Kurdistan's fighters in particular, known as the Peshmerga - or 'those who face death' -  have now shattered the myth of Isil's invincibility.

A fortnight ago, I travelled through Northern Iraq with a group of MP's arriving on the day the key town of Sinjar was stormed, cutting the umbilical cord - route 47 - between Isil's spiritual home of Mosul in Iraq and Isil HQ in Raqqa. And on the frontline in Kirkuk in north west Iraq, two miles from Isil territory, Commander Wasta Rasul briefed us on a similar success.

On the great earthwork defences here on the middle of a vast brown plain with the flares of the oil pumps on the horizon, you can see through binoculars, Isil's black flags. It was here, with RAF support, that Isil was driven out of the key oil-fields last summer. That's why air cover can work. And despite their best efforts - including a suicide attack with three Humvees loaded with explosives - Isil's fight back failed. Along a 1,000 km battle-front, Isil is now in retreat and their capitals aren't far from chaos.

But, here's the first challenge. The military advance is now at risk from economic collapse. Every political leader I met in Iraq was blunt: Kurdistan's economy is in crisis. Some 70% of workers are on the public payroll. Electricity is free. Fuel is subsidised. In other words, the Government's bills are big.

But taxes are non-existent. The banks don't work. Inward investment is ensnared in red tape. And when the oil price collapsed last year, the Government's budget fell through the floor.

Now, in a bust up with Baghdad, cash has been slashed to Kurdistan, just as a wave of 250,000 refugees arrived, along with over a million internally displaced people fleeing Da'esh and Shiite militias in the south. Nearly 6,000 development projects are stalled and people - including the Peshmerga - haven't been paid for months.

We have brave allies in the fight against Isil - but bravery doesn't buy them bullets. As we gear up the battle against Isil, it's now vital we help boost the Kurd's economic strength - or their sinews of war will weaken. There's an old Kurdish saying; 'the mountains are our only friends'. It's an expression born of years of let-down. In the fight against Da'esh, it's a mistake we can't afford to repeat today.

Second, everyone I met in Iraq was clear that unless the Sunni community can find alternative leadership to Isil then any ground we win may soon be lost, if not to Isil, then “Isil II”. Let's remember Isil didn't just 'emerge'. It grew from a tradition of political Islam decades old and mutated like a Frankenstein monster first by Al-Qaeda, then Al-Qaeda in Iraq, then the Al-Nusra front and now Isil.

Crucial to this warped perversion has been the total breakdown of trust between Iraq's Sunni residents - and the Shi'ite dominated government in Baghdad. In Mosul, for instance, when the Iraqi security forces left, they were stoned in their Humvees by local residents who felt completely humiliated. In refugee camps, it's not hard to find people who didn't flee Da'esh but Shi'ite militia groups.

Now, tracking surveys in Mosul report tension is rising. The Isil regime is sickening people with an obsessive micro-management of the way everyone lives and prays - down to how men must style their beards - with brutal punishment for anyone stepping out of line. Mobile phone coverage is cut. Food prices are rising. Electricity supplies are sporadic. Residents are getting restless. But, the challenge of gaining - and then holding a city of 3 million people will quite simply prove impossible without alternative Sunni leaders: but who are they? Where will they come from? The truth is peace will take politics.

There's one final piece of the puzzle, the PM needs to reflect on. And that's how we project a new unity of purpose. We desperately need to make the case that our cause is for both western and Islamic freedom.

I serve the biggest Muslim community in Britain - and amongst my constituents, especially young people, there's a profound sense that the conduct of this debate is making them feel like the enemy within. Yet my constituents hate Isil's violence as much as anyone else.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, I heard first-hand the extraordinary unity of purpose to destroy Isil with total clarity: “Your fight,” said the Kurdistan prime minister to us “is our fight.” In the refugee camps at Ashti and Bakhara, you can see why. Over a million people have been displaced in Kurdistan - grandparents, parents, children - fleeing to save their children - and losing everything on the way. “Da'esh,” said one very senior Kurdistan official 'aren't fighting to live. They're fighting to die. They're not battling a country or a system. They're battling humanity".

Here in Europe, we are hardwired to the fortunes of Central Asia, by trade, energy needs, investment and immigration. It's a vast region home to the seminal struggles of Israel/Palestine, Sunni/Shia and India/ Pakistan. Yet it's a land with which we share traditions of Abrahamic prophets, Greek philosophy and Arabic science. We need both victory and security. So surely we can't try once again to win a war without a plan for winning a peace. It's time for the prime minister to produce one.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.