Getty
Show Hide image

Why prioritising women and children in the refugee crisis is a terrible idea

As the UK agrees to take in more Syrian refugees, there are calls to put "women and children first". But such prioritising won't help.

As the tide starts to turn in favour of helping refugees instead of building taller fences, we are starting to see calls to prioritise “women and children”. But this is a terrible mistake.

You might think that, as a feminist, I’d be fine with prioritising women.  But instead my reaction is quite the opposite. Partly my reaction, I admit, is an emotional one:  I find myself wondering at what age my now ten-year-old son would count as no longer worth saving (16? 18? 21?); and knowing that my partner, brother and father would already be deemed so.  But not all the reasons for rejecting this idea are so emotional.

The “women and children first” idea has deep roots in the idea that women are, like children, in special need of protection because they are unable to fend for themselves. The country that brought us Jessica Ennis-Hill, who just won her second world championship at the Heptathlon a year after giving birth, should know better. More generally, the dismissal of women’s capacities makes no sense in the modern world.

There is, however, an enlightened reason to pay special attention to the needs of women along with children. Women may face particularly difficult barriers to resettlement in a new country. In many countries, including some of those producing large numbers of refugees, women less likely to be able to acquire much in the way of language skills and employment experience, and this means they may be more in need of certain sorts of assistance than men.  But this is all the more reason not to separate them from their husbands, brothers and fathers.  If someone is in extra need of support, the very last thing you should do is deprive them of their existing support system.

To fully understand the desire to prioritise women and children among refugees, I suspect, we also need to acknowledge that, for some, this has its roots in suspicion of foreigners, especially Muslim ones. The willingness to make exceptions to this suspicion is better than the refusal to do so. But the idea that women and children are innocent and therefore exceptions is not only patronising to women, but appalling in its attitude toward men. To cast the men under this cloud of suspicion is to deny their humanity and their equal right to a life free from terrible persecution.

This attitude is especially shocking, it seems to me, in its casual willingness to destroy families – to say “we will help your wives and children, but leave you to see if you can make a life under Isis”.  When discussing domestic matters, politicians always strive to affirm their family values, and there is particular contempt reserved for fathers who abandon their families. Is it really right to demand such abandonment from fathers in circumstances more desperate than we can imagine?

And this brings me, finally, to Kindertransport. There are now calls for a new Kindertransport. This massive humanitarian effort is often thought of as the pinnacle of British compassion, and it would indeed be far better than the current situation were we to institute it for the crisis taking place now. But there is a horrific fact that is too often forgotten: nearly all the family members of the children saved died in the Holocaust.

We can do better than this today: it is not enough to only save the children, or even the children and the women. We must stop trying to choose the groups of refugees deserving enough of our help. There is a reason the Declaration of Human Rights uses the term “human”.  These are rights we all have.

Professor Jennifer Saul is from the University of Sheffield's Department of Philosophy.

Getty
Show Hide image

Britain's commemoration of Partition is colonial white-washing in disguise

It’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it.

While in London a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t help but notice a curious trend in the British media’s coverage of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent. It wasn’t the familiar think-pieces about "the jewel in the crown", thinly disguised nostalgia for empire masquerading as critiques of colonialism (see for example, The Conversation’s piece on how colonialism was traumatic for, wait for it, officials of the British Raj). It wasn’t the patronising judgements on how India and Pakistan have fared 70 years down the road, betraying the paternalistic attitude some of the British commentariat still harbours towards the former "colonies". It wasn’t even the Daily Mail’s tone-deaf and frankly racist story about 92 year old countess June Bedani and her “loyal Indian houseman” Muthukanna Shamugam, who doesn’t even speak a word of “Indian” (that’s just classic Daily Mail). What got my attention was the British media’s raging hard-on for Partition - a flurry of features, documentaries and TV specials about one of the biggest and bloodiest mass migrations of the 20th century.

Just take a look at the major headlines from the past couple of weeks - "They Captured And Forced Him Out Of His Home: This Isn’t Syria In 2017, It Was India In 1947" (Huffington Post UK); "Partition: 70 Years On" (The Guardian, BBC and Independent, each with a different subhead); "The Real Bloody Legacy Of Partition" (The Spectator); "Remembering Partition: 70 Years Since India-Pakistan Divide" (Daily Mail) and many more. It isn’t that - unlike some of my more reactionary compatriots - I believe that the Partition story shouldn’t be documented and spoken about. On the contrary, I think India and Pakistan have failed to grapple successfully with Partition’s scars and still festering wounds, and the way it still haunts both our domestic politics and our relationship with each other. But the overwhelming focus on the grisly details of Partition by the British press is deeply problematic, especially in its unsubtle erasure of British culpability in the violence. Even the Guardian’s Yasmin Khan, in one of the few pieces that actually talks about the British role in Partition, characterises the British government as “naive and even callous” rather than criminally negligent, and at least indirectly responsible thanks to its politics of "divide and rule". Of course, it’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it. That would require the sort of national soul-searching that, even 70 years on, makes many British citizens deeply uncomfortable.

Rose-tinted views of empire aside, the coverage of Indian and Pakistani independence by the British press is also notable in its sheer volume. Perhaps, as some commentators have suggested, this is because at a time of geopolitical decline and economic uncertainty, even the tainted legacy of colonialism is a welcome reminder of the time when Britain was the world’s reigning superpower. There is certainly some truth to that statement. But I suspect the Brexit government’s fantasies of Empire 2.0 may also have something to do with the relentless focus on India. There is a growing sentiment that in view of historic and cultural ties, a post-Brexit Britain will find natural allies and trade partners in Commonwealth countries such as India.

If that’s the case, British policy-makers and commentators are in for a reality check. The truth is that, despite some simmering resentment about colonialism, most Indians today do not care about the UK. Just take a look at the contrast between the British and Indian coverage of Independence Day. While there are a handful of the customary pieces about the independence struggle, the Indian press is largely focused on the here-and-now: India’s economic potential, its relationships with the US and China, the growing threat of illiberalism and Hindu nationalism. There is nary a mention of contemporary Britain.

This is not to say that modern India is free of the influence - both good and bad - of colonialism. Many of the institutions of Indian democracy were established under the British colonial system, or heavily influenced by Britain’s parliamentary democracy. This is reflected both in independent India’s commitment (in theory, if not always in practice) to the ideals of Western liberalism and secularism, as well as its colonial attitude towards significant sections of its own population.

The shadow of Lord Macaulay, the Scottish legislator who spent four eventful years in India from 1834 to 1838 and is considered one of the key architects of the British Raj, still looms large over the modern Indian state. You can see it in the Penal Code that he drafted, inherited by both independent India and Pakistan. You can see it in Indian bureaucracy, which still functions as a paternalistic, colonial administrative service. And you can see it in the Indian Anglophile elite, the product of an English education system that Macaulay designed to produce a class of Indians “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” It was this class of Anglophile Indians who inherited the reins of the Indian state after independence. It is us - because I too am a Macaulayputra (Macaulay’s child), as the Hindu right likes to call us. We congratulate ourselves on our liberalism and modernity even as we benefit from a system that enriched the few by impoverishing the many. This class of brown sahibs is now the favourite punching bag of a Hindu nationalism that we have allowed to fester in our complacency.

Still, ghosts of the past aside, the UK no longer holds sway over young India, even those in the Anglophile upper classes. Today’s young Indians look to the United States for their pop culture references, their global aspirations and even their politics, both liberal and conservative (see the Hindutva fringe’s obsession with Donald Trump and the alt-right). We still want to study in British universities (though increasingly strict visa rules make it a less attractive destination), but we’d rather work in and emigrate to the US, Canada or Australia. We drink coffee rather than tea (well, except for the thoroughly Indianised chai), watch Veep rather than Yes Minister, and listen to rap, not grime.

Macaulayputra insults aside, the British aren’t even the bogeymen of resurgent Hindu nationalism - that dubious status goes to the Mughal Empire. Whether this cultural turn towards America is a result of the United States’ cultural hegemony and economic imperialism is a topic for another day, but the special "cultural links" between India and the UK aren’t as robust as many Brits would like to think. Which is perhaps why the UK government is so intent on celebrating 2017 as the UK-India year of Culture.

Many in the UK believe that Brexit will lead to closer trade links between the two countries, but much of that optimism is one-sided. Just 1.7 per cent of British exports go to India, and Britain's immigration policy continues to rankle. This April, India allowed a bilateral investment deal to lapse, despite the best efforts of UK negotiators. With the Indian economy continuing to grow, set to push the UK out of the world’s five largest economies by 2022, the balance of power has shifted. 

The British press - and certain politicians - may continue to harbour sepia-tinted ideas of the British Raj and the "special relationship" between the two countries, but India has moved on. After 70 years, perhaps the UK will finally realise that India is no longer "the jewel in its crown". 

 

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.