Women at universities have the right to feel physically safe and intellectually unconfined. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Universities won’t be a safe place for women until they’re a safe place for feminism

If feminism cannot engage in a critical analysis of gender and sexual objectification then feminists can only ever be on the defensive.

In 2004, Angela McRobbie wrote a piece for Feminist Media Studies in which she discussed young women, feminism and sexual empowerment. In it she argued that “the new female subject is, despite her freedom, called upon to be silent, to withhold critique, to count as a modern sophisticated girl, or indeed this critique is a condition of her freedom”:

There is quietude and complicity in the manners of generationally specific notions of cool, and more precisely an uncritical relation to dominant commercially produced sexual representations which actively invoke hostility to assumed feminist positions from the past in order to endorse a new regime of sexual meanings based on female consent, equality, participation and pleasure, free of politics.

At the time, I disliked the piece intensely, first because I saw nothing wrong with “a new regime of sexual meanings […] free of politics” (it still sounds pretty cool), and second because I hadn’t really read the piece, just read about it. As a young-ish woman leaving university, having done my best to embrace Nineties and Noughties retrosexism, I objected to what I just knew was the patronising idea that I had no agency and could not enjoy sex in the same way men could. The notion that, fun sex or no, there might still be a power imbalance requiring critique was alien to me. All I saw was some prudish old biddy telling me off.

 A decade later, the piece means something different to me, and not just because I am now some prudish old biddy telling other women off (or rather, once you’re past a certain age, that’s the role you’re automatically shoved into). It’s only now I can look back on my time at university and admit to myself that I didn’t really feel safe. It’s not that I feel ashamed of anything I did or didn’t do; I just wish I had been able to feel bigger and stronger and bolder. I wish I’d noticed the way men encroached on my space and, instead of seeing any challenges to male sexual entitlement as heartless inter-feminist slut-shaming, I’d thought a little harder about whether broader structures did in fact need fixing.  The reason I couldn’t do this is because, ironically, I was too scared. I was “called upon to be silent” and “to withhold critique”; I didn’t know all the things I couldn’t say because I never even tried to say them. 

It’s a kind of self-monitoring, an internalised backlash that prevents you from having to engage with how bad things are. All the same, however bad things were for female students then, it seems they are worse now. Time was when male students at least pretended they knew they were being sexist and that it was all some joke; today, as the NUS’s “That’s what she said” study and other reports of on-campus sexism indicate, the atmosphere is altogether harsher and more openly misogynistic. While membership of student feminist organisations is growing and more and more women are speaking out, it feels like a losing battle. Male entitlement shows no sign of abating and to make matters worse, it has become more and more difficult to pinpoint why this is happening, as an increasing number of feminist concepts are declared off-limits.

The work of feminism ought to be cumulative, self-correcting, self-critical, repetitive, doing whatever is necessary to make women’s lives safe and valued. Instead, it seems to me we are stuck in an endless cycle of reinvention, hurling more and more ideas onto the scrapheap in the hope that they, and not actual oppression, turn out to be the problem we were dealing with all along. In the Nineties and Noughties any critique of objectification led to charges of slut-shaming; now, any critique of male sexual entitlement and gender itself leads to charges of whore- and transphobia. Watching all the “bad”, discarded feminisms pile up can create an illusion of progress – finally we’ll hit on the right one! – but it is a distraction. It disregards intersectional critiques of structural oppression in favour of blanket notions of inclusion which leave women without politics and back where they started (to quote de Beauvoir, as “only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity”).

In such a climate feminist academics need to tread carefully. After all, who wants to be the subject of a change.org petition demanding that one’s work is not published or named and shamed on twitter?  As the academic Delilah Campbell writes, “the idea that certain aspects of women’s experience or oppression are not shared by trans women […] gets labelled hate speech”. Even if there is no immediate consequence to this, it’s an accusation to avoid if you’re jumping from one temporary contract to the next, relying not just on your intellect but on whether your face will “fit” in any new faculty. Moreover, accusations against “bad” feminists have become increasingly outlandish. In the past you might have been called a slut-shamer or judgmental. More recently you’d have been accused of denying someone’s agency. And now? Now, in addition to all this, you could be blamed for male violence, even if that is something you’ve spent your whole life challenging. The distinction between critiquing a system and reinforcing it has been utterly – and deliberately, I think – blurred, and it’s not just students but women of all ages and classes who are losing out. 

At a time when they desperately need it, women are being denied the language to articulate their experiences. An NUS LGBT campaign that’s prepared to single out one feminist as “vile” is sending a message to all students regarding the consequences of speaking out of turn: it’s just not worth the risk. While it is easy to pretend that there is a clear line between male sexual entitlement and a culture in thrall to sexualisation, objectification and gender categorisation, this simply isn’t true. No amount of agency, choice or self-definition will form a protective shield around the female body. It doesn’t work like that.

If feminism cannot engage in a critical analysis of gender and sexual objectification then feminists can only ever be on the defensive, plugging leaks here and there while wondering why the flood won’t recede. Involvement in feminist debate should not require an oath of allegiance to the commoditisation of female bodies, in exchange for which one might get the odd consent lesson for all those men who, funnily enough, still feel entitled to female flesh. In today’s universities female students are being held to ransom not just by braying rugby lads, but by male students who believe gender-nonconformity is compatible with continuing to police women’s physical space and intellectual boundaries thanks to the acronyms SWERF and TERF. It’s hyper-conservative behaviour beneath a thin veneer of rebellion – perhaps a slick of lip gloss, but nothing so daring as thinking women have the right to question the very structures that hold them down.

Female students have a right to feel physically safe and intellectually unconfined, yet instead they find themselves intellectually restricted and physically exposed. A greater priority is accorded to dressing up conservative ideology in postmodern clothing than to enabling women to think for themselves. What better way to limit a young woman’s potential, just at the point where it should be expanding? What better way of weakening powers which, if permitted to flourish, just might change the world?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.