There’s no point in online feminism if it’s an exclusive, Mean Girls club

Ever tried to engage with feminist discussion on the internet? Chances are, you won’t be welcome.


There’s a story that does the rounds in politics about a radicalised council in north London in the 1980s, when the Trotskyite entryists were worming their way inside the local Labour Parties with all the potency of dry rot. It goes like this: if an unsuspecting comrade, new to the area, wanted to join his or her local branch they would be informed that they couldn’t.

“Sorry,” they would be told as the door was slammed in their face. “No vacancies.”

Ever tried to engage with feminism on the internet?

I’ve had to start differentiating between feminism – good honest feminism in all its manifestations from Luce Irigaray, to Greenham Common, to Andrea Dworkin and even (although the Lord knows, she’s not to my taste) Camille Paglia  – and what I’ve started calling the Online Wimmin Mob. The latter is meant to sound insulting. Borderline misogynist if you like, and there’s a reason for that: the Online Wimmin Mob don’t seem to like feminism. There’s not much evidence that they like women very much. Perhaps this is the reason that they don’t want you to be a feminist either.

If you try to join the club that they seem to believe they have seized control of, you too will be told that there are no vacancies. No room for you, with your “privilege”. They will sneer at you and imply that you’re only into “lipgloss feminism” and that, with your inferior intellect and experience, you could never measure up to their sophisticated world view. “Run off and cry to mummy Caitlin [Moran]” is an insult I’ve seen levelled at more than one curious young woman, whose naive but genuine interest has fallen foul of The Committee.

"Shut up and push off you stupid bimbo" is the message that comes over loud and clear.

I, too, have not been allowed to join, which I think is highly unfair as I too can be just as pretentious and full of my own self-importance, while simultaneously adding nothing that makes my pontifications in any way relevant to anything that is going on in the real world. I’d like to present to the Court this as evidence: my dissertation title at university was “How far has a philosophical dichotomy affected changing attitudes towards women?”

Pick the intellectual peanuts out of that one, ladies.

The Online Wimmin Mob takes offence everywhere, but particularly at other women who are not in their little Mean Girls club, which has their own over-stylised and impenetrable language, rules and disciplinary proceedings.

“Check your privilege!” This has become the rallying cry of the Mob when faced with a woman with whom they disagree. “Privilege”, when out of the hands of Mob bullies, is actually not a bad concept. God knows, party conference fringes involving Harriet Harman chatting to her public school mates about the importance of getting more women into politics have been known to bring me out in a bad case of the hives on more than one occasion. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with thinking, “Woah, there! Is it possible that there are more things in heav’n and earth than were dreamt of in a South Kensington champagne bar over tapas with Jocasta?”

Where “privilege” goes wrong is that it is routinely used for, I’d argue, shutting up women who disagree with the Online Mob. The whole foundation of the argument is flawed anyway; about 35 per cent of the world’s population has access to the internet. Everyone on Twitter is privileged. Everyone. Claiming “unprivileged” underdog status when you are in the top 35 per cent of the entire world makes you sound like the sort of annoying princess who screams that it’s just not fair and she hates you because she only got an iPhone and a pony for Christmas.

All women suffer from discrimination, internet connection or not, in one form or another. For some, it is mild. For some takes the form of sexist comments or harassment or female genital mutilation, rape, crap pay, rubbish pension, the glass ceiling, domestic violence, transphobia, botched abortions, slavery, death in childbirth or as a result of, or in combination with, of all of the above. Not to mention mental health issues such as eating disorders, bipolar, anxiety or depression. It’s not good times.

“Checking your privilege” is about playing an inverted game of Top Trumps where the real message is that it’s not who you are but how you were born that determines whether what you have to say is worth listening to. It’s not a dissimilar message to that of your average bar room sexist – or transphobe for that matter - but so much more depressing coming from our own side.

For myself, I reckon that until we identify the poor sod who’s officially recognised as the least privileged woman on the planet, women should welcome other women’s thoughts and experiences, not with the aim of identifying the “best” and most “relevant” one, but as a means of understanding that in spite of our diversity, we have more things in common than we don’t.

I also object to the requirement to deny the power of language. This state of affairs has arisen from the entirely admirable aim of making transgender females feel more at home within the movement, and better able to express the particular concerns they have as a result of the women that they are.

But, again, language has become a weapon to denigrate women’s experience.

In Sexual, Textual Politics by Toril Moi, she said that we, women, have had the power of naming taken from us. Language is not just communication, it is the prism through which we filter and understand the world around us. Words are weighted and have meaning beyond being the mere grunts by which we communicate, “Change the channel love, I’m saving Hollyoaks for the omnibus.”

Words that are used to describe sexual self-determination in women imply sexual incontinence (slut, whore); words used to describe the same behaviour in men imply virility and manliness (stud, lad).

Words are not just words, otherwise the terms “tranny” or “slag” wouldn’t be so offensive, but part of the wider narrative of language. Language is a system of belief – like the Force – it binds us and holds our universe together, shapes us in terms of how we perceive ourselves and others. And it was designed by men and for the benefit of men.

So we come to the word “cis”. I invite anyone who wants a more detailed definition of cis to Google this one, because one step wrong on my part and I’ll be up to my eyebrows in a flame war for the next fortnight and I have plans for Friday night. In summary, however, cis means “not trans”.

A lot of cis women have a problem with the term in a way they can’t quite fathom. Well, I’ve fathomed it and I’ll tell you: because it’s a name that has, once again, been conferred upon a certain group of women without their consent. It would still matter, although infinitely not as much, if a Twitter search of “cis” demonstrated that the term is mostly used in a sisterly and affectionate manner. Nah, more like “cissexist” or “cisfascist”.

And that’s the stuff I didn’t search for, I just happened to see it on my feed one Tuesday evening.

So forgive me if I hear “cis” as an insult to the very essence of who I am and then, when I complain, feel aggrieved that I’m not entitled to experience my discomfort because my “privilege” means that my point of view doesn’t matter and my opinions don’t count.

The good news is that cis is a term that can be reclaimed. After all, it is just a word and meanings of words can be rehabilitated. But in its current manifestation, through its misuse, it is laden with pejorative connotations.

If you are a member of the Mob, you spend your evenings in noble pursuits. Namely, picking up on ill-considered comments on the internet (which are often, although admittedly not always, well-meant but made in ignorance) and encouraging all your mates to weigh in to beat up on the woman.

Is this beginning to sound like an evening out with the patriarchy to anyone else?

There is nothing wrong with arguing with other women, disagreeing with them, or suggesting that they might be wrong about certain issues. I’m all for standing up to sexism and transphobia too, although often I think that a lot the statements deemed capital crimes by the Mob come down to lack of experience and understanding on the part of the perpetrator. But this is not what we see online.

For the most minor infraction, women are flamed in the most hideous, unsisterly way. A living offence, she is told, to the sisterhood and the ideals of feminism she is the worst kind of disgusting privileged bitch, the sort of woman who revolts all right-thinking women, who deserves to “f**k off and die”. She will slink off with her guilt and upset, not quite clear what she has done, but clear that she should feel dirty and ashamed of herself.

This is definitely sounding like an evening out with the patriarchy.

I’ve considered myself a feminist for as long as I can remember, even before I knew exactly what a feminist was and this state of affairs sickens me. Feminism is not bullying and beating up other women. It’s not denouncing diversity instead of celebrating it. It is not stigmatising women instead of listening to them. It is not telling them that their opinions and experiences don’t count. It is not about thinking that sitting behind your computer at 2am, looking for offence (on the internet, you will always find things to be offended by) and using the excuse that you are “calling out” someone on something that you disagree with as a front for making yourself feel superior at another woman’s expense.

Come to think of it, anyone who thinks that anything can be achieved on Twitter at 2am has no business feeling superior to anybody.

There’s a big, wide, world out there and a lot of the time it’s bloody awful to people in general and women in particular. It has become clear since the India bus horror that there are some subsections of that society who reckon that there’s nothing wrong with a bit of cheeky rape if they’re in the mood. Malala was shot in the head by the Taliban for the crime of wanting the same education as her male counterparts. Trans women often exist in fear of their lives, and for good reason: transmisogyny is, disgracefully, still seen by some as the kind of sexism it’s socially acceptable to indulge in. And in Steubenville, the community has given the impression that they think that the real victims are the rapists, and their comatose victim a “slut” as a result of what was done to her.

And how are the Online Wimmin Mob responding to this tiny tip of the iceberg? By whipping up huge Twitter storms and inviting feminists to flame other feminists. Yeah, keep it up, ladies, the patriarchy’s quaking.

If modern feminism is simply about exclusivity, abusively picking nits out of each other’s differences, and organising bullying mobs against women, then count me out.

This feminist, for one, really hopes that it isn’t.  

Not everyone is allowed to sit at the Mean Girls' table for lunch.
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Battle for Mosul: will this be the end of Islamic State?

The militant group's grip on power is slipping but it has proved resilient in the past.

The battle for Mosul is the latest stage in the long struggle to defeat Islamic State. The group has been around since the late 1990s in one form or another, constantly mutating in response to its environment. Undoubtedly its ejection from Mosul will be a significant moment in the group’s history, but it is unlikely to be its final chapter. The destruction of the group will only be complete when some fundamental changes occur within Iraq and the war in Syria comes to an end.

IS’s roots go back to a training camp established by the militant Islamist Abu Musab al Zarqawi in the late 1990s in Herat, Afghanistan. Founded as an army to overthrow the apostate regimes of the Levant, it fled to northern Iraq in the wake of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan post-9/11 where it re-established itself as a force alongside Ansar al Shariah, a hardline Salafi jihadi organisation.

As American attention shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq, the group was ideally placed to become one of the leading lights in the post-Saddam Iraqi insurgency. Brutally announcing itself to the world in August 2003 with successive attacks on the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, the UN headquarters and a Shia shrine in Najaf — the latter being the deadliest attack in Iraq that year with a death toll of 95 — the group grew to assume the mantle of al-Qaeda in Iraq. By 2006 this brand had become somewhat damaged through the brutal sectarian campaign the group waged, and when its founder, Zarqawi, died it sought to reinvent itself as the Mujahedeen Shura Council. This incarnation did not last long either, and eventually it assumed the title of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), alongside a more Iraqi leadership.

This was the start of a diffcult period in the group's history. Its excesses in Iraq (including indiscriminate slaughter of Shia Muslims to stir sectarian hatred and filmed decapitations of prisoners) lost it local support and led to the tribes in Sunni Iraq rising up and supporting the government in Baghdad's fight back against the group. By 2009, when the west abruptly stopped paying attention and withdrew from Iraq the group was largely perceived as in decline, with the Shia Muslim-led Iraqi government appearing to slowly assert itself more effectively across the country.

The terrorist attacks by the group continued. And the new government started to advance an increasingly sectarian agenda. These two played off each other in a downward spiral that was given a fresh boost of blood when the civil war in Syria erupted in 2011. Drawing on its existing networks (that were leftovers from when Syria was used as a staging point by the organisation to launch attacks into Iraq), the leadership sent a cell to Syria to explore what opportunities existed within the emerging fight there. This cell became the seed that grew into Jabhat al Nusrah and ultimately IS – a label the group adopted when in June 2013 IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided it was time to reveal this link between his Iraqi group and Jabhat al Nusrah. This led to divisions and the breaking up of the two organisations.

For IS, however, it was the beginning of an upward trajectory, building on this division to grow itself substantially in Syria (with Raqqa as its capital) and in 2014 taking over Iraq’s second biggest city of Mosul. We then reach the apex of IS’s success and the biggest expansion of the group yet.

It now seems that this growth had a shelf life of just two-and-a-half years. As the group appears to be losing Mosul, it is likely that we will see the beginning of a period of retraction. But this will not be its end – rather, it will flee back to the hills and the ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria from where it will continue a persistent terrorist strategy in both countries. Here it will bide its time until the moment presents itself to rise up. Waiting until the governance in Iraq and Syria fails its people again, the group can paint itself as the protector of Sunnis and once more build on that group's disenfranchisement to win supporters and occupy a space vacated by local governments.

IS's grip on power might currently be slipping but as history has shown, it has waxed and waned depending on the context it is operating in. We are now going to see a period of withdrawal, but unless attention is paid by the global community, it will expand again in the future.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Visit his website at