A protest in Brazil. Photo: Getty
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Why did a judge describe a woman made to drink bleach as not "vulnerable"?

The case of Fakhara Khan should make us ask: can a woman be too privileged to need feminism?

The husband of Fakhara Karim ordered her to kill herself. He took her into their bathroom, forced her to drink bleach and grabbed her neck so hard she thought she was going to die. On another occasion he beat her with a cricket bat, telling her “if I hit you with this bat with my full power you would be dead.” When he wasn’t physically assaulting his wife, Mustafa Bashir was telling her who to see, what to wear and how to spend her money. He subjected his wife to a reign of terror, and did so knowingly, as your everyday, loving abuser invariably does.

After pleading guilty to assault occasioning actual bodily harm, Bashir was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment suspended for two years. During sentencing, Judge Richard Mansell QC declared himself “not convinced” that Karim was “a vulnerable person”: “Sometimes women who moved here from their country become trapped in a relationship where they lose their support network of family and friends and cannot speak the language. This is not the case [Karim]. She is plainly an intelligent woman with a network of friends and did go on to graduate university with a 2:1 and a masters.”

These comments have provoked outrage, with many believing Bashir’s light sentence to have been based on the idea that Karim was too privileged to have suffered real harm. Indeed, upon reading Mansell’s words, I was reminded of Judge Sir John Leonard’s claim, following the 1986 Ealing vicarage rape, that the trauma suffered by Jill Saward was “not so very great.”

How can women trust in a system that ends with powerful men deciding whether or not the terror they endured has harmed them all that much? Why isn’t the fact of what was done to these women’s bodies and minds enough? Must a woman be utterly destroyed before her abuse becomes worthy of note?

As the blogger the Secret Barrister has pointed out, the ruling in the Bashir case is complex. Whereas Leonard’s comments revealed a startling lack of empathy, Mansell’s can be situated within a requirement that judges consider “factors indicating greater harm,” one of which is whether or not the victim is “particularly vulnerable because of personal circumstances”: “It’s an odd exercise to ask a court to engage in, perhaps, but that’s what the Sentencing Council in its wisdom instructs judges to do: arrive at a hierarchy of vulnerability and pin the victim somewhere within.”

Does that make things any better? Personally, I don’t think so, not least because one thing that is not mentioned in the Sentencing Council guidelines on domestic violence is sex. If we are going to start claiming that “some victims of domestic violence may be more vulnerable than others,” I would have thought sex difference must be considered at least as significant as “cultural, religious, language, financial or other reasons.” After all, 78% of those killed by a partner or former partner between 2001/2 and 2011/12 were female. 54% of rapes in the UK are committed by a woman’s current or former partner. It is not irrelevant that Bashir is male and Karim is female. On the contrary, that, more than anything else, is what puts the latter most at risk of stalking, rape and retaliatory violence. We can forget whether or not Karim has a degree; far more significant is the fact that she has neither a male body nor decades of male socialisation behind her.

But for all the fury surrounding the Bashir case, I don’t hear many voicing such a view. Knee-jerk outrage at the idea that a woman’s academic record makes her less vulnerable is one thing; a serious analysis of what does make a woman vulnerable is quite another. I have to say it doesn’t surprise me. It seems to me that no matter whom a woman turns to – be it her partner, the courts, the right, the left, feminists, men’s rights activists – she will be measured against a “hierarchy of vulnerability” in which her sex is considered the least important thing of all.

While openly anti-feminist organisations will claim that this is because women are not discriminated against as women at all, more enlightened groups have found more subtle ways of putting it. Even so, the outcome – a lack of empathy and compassion for any abused woman who cannot display a more “significant” vulnerability than femaleness alone – remains practically the same.

Men from both ends of the political spectrum exploit the idea of the “privileged female” to suggest that sex does not constitute a significant axis of oppression. The Spectator’s Brendan O’Neill complains of “young, opinionated new media feminists who get handsome advances to write books spluttering about ‘white male privilege’” being “far more privileged than many of the white males they splutter about — especially the ones who empty their bins or sweep their roads.” In the Guardian Nick Cohen invites us to “google the number of times ‘straight white males’ are denounced by public-school educated women in the liberal media and think how that sounds to an ex-miner coughing his guts up in a Yorkshire council flat.” It may be churlish to note that neither O’Neill nor Cohen, although both white and male, are ex-coal miners or road sweepers themselves (or to ask them to consider how their words might sound to a public-school educated woman who’s been forced by her partner to drink bleach). Nonetheless, their willingness to invoke other axes of oppression in order to minimise what misogyny is and does betrays a startling level of ignorance about feminism (or, to put it another way, about any political thought that does not centre men).

In Mapping the Margins Kimberlé Crenshaw proposed that “the problem with identity politics is not that it fails to transcend difference, as some critics charge, but rather the opposite – that it frequently conflates or ignores intra group differences”: “In the context of violence against women, this elision of difference is problematic, fundamentally because the violence that many women experience is often shaped by other dimensions of their identities, such as race and class.”

One example Crenshaw uses is that of Anita Hill, the woman who accused supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Hill’s situation, writes Crenshaw, “fell between the dominant interpretations of feminism and anti-racism.” Even though Hill was a Black woman, only Thomas, a Black man, could be positioned and empathised with as a potential victim of racism. An unwillingness to see sexism and racism as anything other than competing narratives, rather than overlapping, intersecting experiences, rendered Hill’s own story of oppression untellable. Similarly, while Fakhara Karim might have won the judge’s sympathy had she conformed to certain racial stereotypes regarding “women who move here from their country,” she liberated herself out of having a story to tell. There is a fixed narrative regarding the way in which “those women” are oppressed; the vulnerabilities Karim experienced due to her race and sex are simply unspeakable.

Both O’Neill and Cohen compartmentalise sexism and class-based oppression in order to create their own “hierarchies of vulnerability.” What is more, just as in the Hill/Thomas scenario, it is the male experience which is considered more significant. Catherine MacKinnon has suggested that “if your oppression is also done to a man, you are more likely to be recognized as oppressed, as opposed to inferior [… ] A woman is just a woman – the ontological victim – so not victimized at all.” Sexism itself becomes not oppression, but a form of “privilege lite”. White, straight, middle-class women aren’t oppressed as women; they merely enjoy a low-fat, pinkwashed version of white, straight, middle-class male privilege. As for working-class women, lesbians and women of colour – well, they need to demonstrate (as Karim failed to do) that the oppressions they experience are “proper” ones.

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

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Daniel Hannan harks back to the days of empire - the Angevin Empire

Did the benign rule of some 12th century English kings make western France vote Macron over Le Pen?

I know a fair amount about British politics; I know a passable amount about American politics, too. But, as with so many of my fellow Britons, in the world beyond that, I’m lost.

So how are we, the monolingual Anglophone opinionators of the world, meant to interpret a presidential election in a country where everyone is rude enough to conduct all their politics in French?

Luckily, here’s Daniel Hannan to help us:

I suppose we always knew Dan still got a bit misty eyed at the notion of the empire. I just always thought it was the British Empire, not the Angevin one, that tugged his heartstrings so.

So what exactly are we to make of this po-faced, historically illiterate, geographically illiterate, quite fantastically stupid, most Hannan-y Hannan tweet of all time?

One possibility is that this was meant as a serious observation. Dan is genuinely saying that the parts of western France ruled by Henry II and sons in the 12th century – Brittany, Normandy, Anjou, Poitou, Aquitaine – remain more moderate than those to the east, which were never graced with the touch of English greatness. This, he is suggesting, is why they generally voted for Emmanuel Macron over Marine Le Pen.

There are a number of problems with this theory. The first is that it’s bollocks. Western France was never part of England – it remained, indeed, a part of a weakened kingdom of France. In some ways it would be more accurate to say that what really happened in 1154 was that some mid-ranking French nobles happened to inherit the English Crown.

Even if you buy the idea that England is the source of all ancient liberties (no), western France is unlikely to share its political culture, because it was never a part of the same polity: the two lands just happened to share a landlord for a while.

As it happens, they didn’t even share it for very long. By 1215, Henry’s youngest son John had done a pretty good job of losing all his territories in France, so that was the end of the Angevins. The English crown reconquered  various bits of France over the next couple of centuries, but, as you may have noticed, it hasn’t been much of a force there for some time now.

At any rate: while I know very little of French politics, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess the similarities between yesterday's electoral map and the Angevin Empire were a coincidence. I'm fairly confident that there have been other factors which have probably done more to shape the French political map than a personal empire that survived for the length of one not particularly long human life time 800 years ago. Some wars. Industrialisation. The odd revolution. You know the sort of thing.

If Daniel Hannan sucks at history, though, he also sucks at geography, since chunks of territory which owed fealty to the English crown actually voted Le Pen. These include western Normandy; they also include Calais, which remained English territory for much longer than any other part of France. This seems rather to knacker Hannan’s thesis.

So: that’s one possibility, that all this was an attempt to make serious point; but, Hannan being Hannan, it just happened to be a quite fantastically stupid one.

The other possibility is that he’s taking the piss. It’s genuinely difficult to know.

Either way, he instantly deleted the tweet. Because he realised we didn’t get the joke? Because he got two words the wrong way round? Because he realised he didn’t know where Calais was?

We’ll never know for sure. I’d ask him but, y’know, blocked.

UPDATE: Breaking news from the frontline of the internet: 

It. Was. A. Joke.

My god. He jokes. He makes light. He has a sense of fun.

This changes everything. I need to rethink my entire world view. What if... what if I've been wrong, all this time? What if Daniel Hannan is in fact one of the great, unappreciated comic voices of our time? What if I'm simply not in on the joke?

What if... what if Brexit is actually... good?

Daniel, if you're reading this – and let's be honest, you are definitely reading this – I am so sorry. I've been misunderstanding you all this time.

I owe you a pint (568.26 millilitres).

Serious offer, by the way.


Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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