UK Feminsta: voices that can't be ignored

Moving into the mainstream.

If you haven’t been paying attention to feminism recently, you’re missing out on one of the most committed, outspoken and energising social justice movements of modern times. On Wednesday, hundreds of campaigners headed to Westminster from across the country for UK Feminista’s mass lobby of Parliament. They came to rally, march and meet their MPS face-to-face with one demand: that women’s rights be placed firmly and finally on the mainstream political agenda, and not swept to the sidelines any longer.

And you couldn’t beat the timing. Only today, a Supreme Court ruling on unequal pay claims prompted doom-laden warnings of thousands more cases to follow. Among the reactions to the decision itself, it’s worth someone pointing out that if many employers are now vulnerable, it’s only because they weren’t paying women the same as men doing work of equal value in the first place.

Austerity has of course been shown repeatedly to have a disproportionate impact on women through cuts to public sector jobs, benefits and tax credits and vital services. But as the speakers at the rally repeatedly made clear, women’s inequality didn’t start with the financial crash. Progress on a welter of other issues has been circular, strangulated or almost non-existent for years, and the lack of public awareness of many of them is startling. Despite the recent return of abortion to the headlines, for example, it seems many people remain unaware that, far from being available on demand, abortion was never actually decriminalised in this country. If two doctors give their permission before 24 weeks that’s merely a defence – in Northern Ireland it’s up to nine weeks and even then only in the most extreme circumstances, forcing thousands of women to travel abroad for the procedure.

Despite huge advances in recognition and support for survivors of sexual and domestic violence, successful prosecution remains hampered by myths and stereotypes. There hasn’t even been a prosecution, let alone a conviction, for Forced Genital Mutilation in the 27 years it’s been a crime – nobody beyond the women’s support service sector seemed even to have heard of it before this year’s Newsnight exposé.

Even where the stories are spotted, the connections often aren’t. The new online campaign to end Page 3 hit the news just weeks before the Savile allegations, and still few commentators have made the link. A culture in which it’s normal to offer up very young women, including 16 and 17-year-olds until just 2003, as daily sexual fodder for strangers, is not likely to be a safe or respectful one for other young women, especially the vulnerable. And feminists have been saying as much for a generation.

But yesterday’s event was not simply about picking up where previous campaigns have left off. It’s not just renewed vigour that’s needed, but a significant shift in our ambition. Where political progress has been made on gender equality in the past, it has largely been through sympathetic and determined female MPs. In contrast, the point of a mass lobby is precisely that it isn’t targeted: participants come for answers from their own MP, whether that’s someone with a vast record of feminist engagement, or someone who thinks VAWG is a mispronounced item of cutlery.

We must now expect all our representatives to see understanding and promoting women’s equality as a fundamental part of their job – unless, of course, they can prove they don’t have any women in their constituencies. Short-term change that barely outlasts an individual pioneer’s Parliamentary career is not enough: it’s time for a democracy that works for women.

And between two and four o ‘clock yesterday afternoon, this actually began to look possible. MPs from all parties were dotted along the corridor with their constituents; the stewards were shouting themselves hoarse announcing a new MP arrival every few minutes. Labour MPs were of course out in force, but there was also a credible showing by their Conservative counterparts: Amber Rudd was squeezed into a corner with her constituents as Anne Milton popped in between votes for hers. The Bristol activist contingent, who had set up camp in the corner, swapped Dawn Primarolo for Charlotte Leslie with impressive efficiency. Robin Walker, who ducked out of his other meetings repeatedly to ensure he eventually found his constituents, stuck in the queue outside, must get a special mention, as must Sarah Teather’s extremely patient researcher, Frances.

Of course, some were no-shows. And one or two who did come might not have been missed in their absence– like the one who told a constituent, a student, that she wasn’t entitled to a view on refugee women or abortion because she didn’t pay taxes and hadn’t had a baby. But what was essential, in the end, is not that the MPs came, though so many did, nor that they pledged to take action, though so many did. It’s that their constituents came, and pledged – and made it clear they expect change.

Elsewhere in the media, you can see pictures of Dr Helen Pankhurst, Emmeline Pankhurst’s great-grand-daughter, and the Olympic Suffragettes, who brought both colour and context to an event that took place more than 80 years after women won the vote. But what was most noticeable on the day was actually the diversity of the lobby as a whole: women and men of all ages and races, from skinny jeans to sharp suits to sensible anoraks. This was an assembly that refused to be stereotyped, refused to be ignored and refused to be sidelined any longer. If I were an MP who’d shown little interest in women’s rights before, I’d be starting to pay attention right about now.

UK Feminista rally. Photograph: Getty Images
Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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