Rumy Hasan's blog posts

Why the head of British Veterinary Association is correct on religious slaughter

Mar

15

The call by John Blackwell, head of the British Veterinary Association, to ban the religious slaughter of animals is, in fact, in accordance with the recommendation repeatedly made by the Farm Animal Welfare Council (Top vet calls for reform of halal and kosher slaughter practices, 6 March). FAWC's advice was first set out in 1985 and then reaffirmed in 2003: the "council considers that slaughter without pre-stunning is unacceptable and that the government should repeal the current exemption". However, both the Thatcher and Blair governments rejected the advice. The reasoning of the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs in 2003 was that "the government is committed to respect for the rights of religious groups and accepts that an insistence on a pre-cut or immediate post-cut stun would not be compatible with the requirements of religious slaughter by Jewish and Muslim groups".

In other words, heightened religious sensitivities, combined with the fear of Jewish and Muslim religious lobbies, have led to successive governments ignoring the advice of their scientific advisers and the pleas of animal welfare organisations. By so doing, they have provided an exemption to the law on animal cruelty, which not even advocates for fox hunting are granted.

It is important to note that a number of other European countries have already outlawed religious slaughter (including Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and Poland); those countries that take the prevention of cruelty to animals seriously ought to follow suit.

 

Published in The Guardian 11th March 2014

Rename the Nobel Prize for Economics

Mar

12

Recent protests by economics students on both sides of the Atlantic against their curriculum have once more shed light on the nature of economics. In November Harvard students wrote to Prof. N. Gregory Mankiw, author of a major economics textbook: ‘Today we are walking out of your class, Economics 10, in order to express our discontent with the bias inherent in this introductory economics class.’ The course ‘espouses a specific—and limited—view of economics that we believe perpetuates problematic and inefficient systems of economic inequality in our society today.’

Many students around the world are opposed to the dominance of standard (neoclassical) theory and its focus on mathematical modelling that is quite divorced from the real world. However, the aim of dislodging orthodoxy from its entrenched position in academia will be difficult to achieve: as in any field of activity, those in powerful, privileged positions will strive to preserve the status quo.

True, the neoclassical theorists failed to predict the 2008 economic and financial crisis but this has caused little self-reflection and self-doubt, not least in the ivory towers. Lest one forgets, economics is — along with other social sciences — a highly ideological, normative discipline so its claim to the status of a ‘science’ needs to be treated with caution. Indeed as Joseph Stiglitz, a recipient of the Nobel Prize for economics (in 2001), has asserted, ‘That such models prevailed, especially in America’s graduate schools, despite evidence to the contrary, bears testimony to a triumph of ideology over science. Unfortunately, students of these graduate programs now act as policymakers in many countries, and are trying to implement programs based on the ideas that have come to be called market fundamentalism.’ It needs pointing out that the recipients of Nobel awards have overwhelmingly been US citizens who, despite notable exceptions such as Stiglitz, use the toolkit of ‘market fundamentalist’ neoclassical theory.

But of all the social sciences, economics has been singled out for special treatment by the conferral of an annual Nobel Prize for Economics. However one may dislike the accolade given to the Nobels, there is little debate over its prestige: many think ‘Nobel Laureate’ is the highest mark of distinction. A current example is Al Gore’s new book The Future, with its cover emblazoned ’Winner of the Nobel Prize’ (it fails to mention ’for Peace’). That the Nobel prizes emanate from Scandinavia rather than a superpower or one of the old colonial powers has no doubt been a factor in their universal acclaim.

It follows that the Nobel Prize for Economics confers great legitimacy and excellence on the type of economics practiced and theorised by the winners — and implicitly on the ideological underpinnings of their works. This cannot be right, and would not be tolerated in any other social science discipline. The two other Nobel Prizes that have attracted sustained criticisms are those that also have ideological (and indeed political) elements: the Peace and Literature Prizes.

What is rarely acknowledged is that the prize for economics is not one of Alfred Nobel’s original prizes created in his will which were to be conferred to those who had contributed to the ‘greatest benefit on mankind’ in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, peace and literature. The true name for what is mistakenly termed the Nobel Prize for Economics is the Sveriges Riksbank (Swedish Central Bank) Prize in Economics Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. It was inaugurated in 1969 and is awarded at the same ceremony in Stockholm as the others (excepting the Peace prize). So to all intents and purposes it is a bona fide Nobel.

Given its ideological nature, not surprisingly, the Economics prize has been bedevilled with controversy since its inception. Even Alfred Nobel’s descendants have argued against the award, saying a prize for the discipline was never envisaged, and it ought to be renamed ‘The Riksbank Prize’. The Austrian, Friedrich Hayek, who aroused much controversy when he was awarded the prize in 1974, made clear his views in his acceptance speech: ‘I must confess that if I had been consulted whether to establish a Nobel Prize in economics, I should have decidedly advised against it ... It is that the Nobel Prize confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess. This does not matter in the natural sciences. Here the influence exercised by an individual is chiefly an influence on his fellow experts; and they will soon cut him down to size if he exceeds his competence. But the influence of the economist that mainly matters is an influence over laymen: politicians, journalists, civil servants and the public generally.’

In 2005 a petition by over 1,000 academics was organised against the prize winners — the Israeli Robert Aumann and the American Thomas Schelling — on the grounds that the former used game theory to justify occupation of Palestinian land, and the latter was accused of support for the Vietnam war and US foreign policy. Using Nobel’s criterion, the petition stated: ‘Neither of these individuals has contributed anything that improves the human condition; rather, they have contributed to the misery of millions.’

It is therefore appropriate that the Nobel Prize for Economics be renamed as the Riksbank Prize for Economics and not included in the annual Nobel prize-winning ceremony in Stockholm. This would doubtless downgrade the present prestige accorded to the discipline and its recipients, helping to place economics in its rightful place as a social science with inherent ideological bias. Moreover, it would also reduce the dangers of the argumentum ad verecundiam (appeals to authority) fallacy, which detracts from objectivity and sound empirical evidence. By so doing, it would facilitate the teaching of a more rounded approach to the discipline, including its history, together with the various approaches used to help understand the real world in the endeavour to better tackle so many of its problems.

Published in Le Monde Diplomatique 10th March 2014

Problems of laissez faire extend beyond economics

Mar

12

The theoretical underpinning of the modern global economy has broken loose. The so-called Washington consensus based on neoclassical, laissez-faire economics has encountered a sustained challenge from the 2008 financial crisis and alternatives are being actively sought. It’s about time Nigel Farage was not left as the only voice doing the same when we consider the impact of immigration and multiculturalism.

Establishing a new economic consensus might take a while, but what is clear is that there has been no vigorous attempt by the leaders of the global economy to return to laissez-faire capitalism. On the contrary, a firmly regulated market economy with robust government intervention appears to be the order of the day.

It is curious then that those who have been most critical of neoclassical economics in the West – in the main from the left – have tended to agree with its approach with regard to immigration. While they adopt demand controls on cross-border movement of goods, services, finance, and investment, they are in favour of a “borderless” world for people. This contradiction has usually been justified by the belief that it is a human right to live anywhere in the world.

The economic case for this approach to immigration is straightforward: labour is a mobile factor of production that must be permitted to move freely to wherever there is demand for it, improving global efficiencies and resource allocation. It naturally follows that immigration will help raise economic growth and, conversely, immigration controls can be a barrier to growth. But evidence suggests immigration does not necessarily have an overall positive impact on growth.

Cultural baggage

But the social, political and cultural impact of mass immigration has been of little concern to the laissez-faire economists for whom labour is simply labour. Historically, the well-intentioned focus of those favouring this approach to immigration has been on immigrants themselves, on the difficulties of settlers in new lands and societies far from home

But immigrants are people who bring with them all manner of cultural and religious attributes – some of which are very much at odds with those in the society in which they have settled. As I have argued before, for advocates of open borders, a similarly laissez-faire approach to the culture and religious characteristics of immigrants is adopted under the rubric of “multiculturalism”, the theoretical underpinning for which is cultural relativism.

The outcome of this is that immigrants are allowed to lead lives pretty much akin to those they might have led in their places of origin. That being so, some groups – particularly in segregated neighbourhoods – have proceeded to demand separate rights, resources, institutions and exemptions to the law.

In stark contrast, little, if any, attention has been paid to such non-economic impacts of mass immigration on the established population. On the contrary, it is argued that national and local governments, as well as the indigenous population, must accommodate to the modus vivendi and separatist demands of the settlers. It transpires that this neglect of the views of the majority population is a prime cause for the increasing angst around the subject.

Quite simply, very large numbers of people are opposed to the often profound transformation to their communities from large-scale immigration and are saying enough is enough. This is a key reason why opinion polls show a large majority of the population (77% according to the recent British Social Attitudes Survey) want to see immigration reduced. What is particularly revealing is that of the 31% who think that immigration is good for the economy, half still wish to see it cut.

‘Unrecognisable’ Britain

The sentiments behind this have been picked up by Nigel Farage of UKIP – a free marketeer – by his argument that some things are more important than economic growth. The inference was made clear in his speech at the UKIP spring conference on February 28 when he argued that parts of Britain have become “unrecognisable” because of immigration. In fact, this line of reasoning has usually been used by those opposed to laissez-faire economics. Consider environmentalists’ demands for green policies – which businesses argue are harmful to economic growth – as an essential element in switching to renewable energy in order to cut greenhouse gas and tackle climate change.

Those advocating a laissez-faire approach to culture and faith should beware a common paradox. Often no such freedom is on offer to those within the segregated religious-ethnic minority communities that have sprung up in many towns and cities. On the contrary, for very many their lives are dictated by high levels of intervention from family members and community leaders, so that the outcome for them is distinctly devoid of individual liberty. The often highly oppressive consequence of this for these citizens is, in fact, mono-culturalism and mono-faithism.

So a laissez-faire stance on culture has contributed to significant levels of self-segregation, isolation, and lack of integration. Just as unfettered laissez-faire economics is rightfully thought to have been harmful, so it is time for more people than Farage to recognise that a similar approach to culture and religion runs counter to the goal of social cohesion.

Published in The Conversation on 11th March 2014

"Forces of endarkenment" threaten freedom of speech: Interview with Voice of russia 4th March 2014

Mar

06

5 March 2014, 17:58

"Forces of endarkenment" threaten freedom of speech - academic

"Forces of endarkenment" threaten freedom of speech - academic

Rex Features

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Prominent academics in Britain have been debating whether a new wave of censorship is taking hold in Britain with politicians, academics and the media afraid to criticise religious beliefs or religions for fear of retaliation. VoR's Tim Ecott spoke to one of the speakers at the event at The London School of Economics, Dr. Rumy Hasan of Science and Technology Policy Research, Sussex University

How do you balance the right to religious belief and the right not to have to witness the defamation of the Prophet MuḼammad with freedom of expression?

"Because this freedom of expression has been won over centuries. We had very powerful blasphemy laws in this country. You would be killed for insulting the prophet of Christianity or Christianity centuries ago, so we had through the enlightenment this fundamental bedrock of democratic society. So you have to be careful in not imposing your personal beliefs into the laws and norms of this society. So there is, if you like, a struggle going on between the forces of the enlightenment and what I call the forces of counter-enlightenment."

But some people will take that as saying Islam is out of step with the 21st century?

"It's been out of step for 200 years. but will give you a very powerful example of what took place in Birmingham in December 2004, nearly ten years ago. There was a play called Behzti [that included scenes of rape, physical abuse and murder] written by a Sikh woman about a Gurdwara [Sikh temple]. Sikhs in Birmingham found it offensive and what did they do? They literally smashed the Birmingham Rep down and the Rep were so frightened that they pulled the play. So this was censorship through violence

“Just recently, a few weeks ago, in London South Bank University there were posters which caricatured God as the flying spaghetti monster, which you can find on the web. These posters were pulled because they were deemed to be offensive.”

Are you saying that no matter how offensive that is to people of that religion, it must be allowed to be shown or broadcast?

“I am saying that as long as freedom of speech and freedom of expression does not incite violence then it must be allowed. Now there is a very, very important resolution that was passed by the [Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe]. It says that ideas that shock, offend or disturb the state or any sector of the population are protected by freedom of expression in accordance with article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Take the recent example as some of the press in Britain paying a lot of attention to the idea of Islamic speakers saying that audiences must be segregated, male and female, because that Islam would want. What should student bodies and universities say if they are asked by a speaker, segregate the audience because I will be more comfortable?

“They should absolutely reject it. Thankfully all the main political parties spoke very strongly against it. David Cameron said he was totally opposed to the idea of gender segregations in universities but this shows the depths to which we have plunged when a university body can countenance something that was unthinkable 2-3 decades ago.”

As an academic, are you fearful yourself of expressing these views? Do you fear you could be targeted or victimised in some way?

“I have had the odd threat but I think that is the price on has to pay if one cherishes these very, very fundamental rights that go back centuries. I am debating, tell me where I am wrong? Let’s have healthy disagreement. Don’t darken the enlightened and unfortunately what I call the forces of endarkenment are feeling confident because these principles are being eroded. There is – as you very nicely put it – a very great deal of sensitivity where arguments against religion easily slip over to arguments against race and ethnicity. It’s a sleight of hand that must be blocked. And it’s my job, I feel as an academic who is in the business of free debate, ideas, knowledge to speak out.”

(VoR)
Read more: http://voiceofrussia.com/uk/news/2014_03_05/Forces-of-endarkenment-threaten-freedom-of-speech-academic-8025/

Enemies of free expression - letter in Independent

Mar

06

Enemies of free expression

Your commitment to freedom of expression is necessary and laudable (Letter from the Editor, 1 March). The examples of the threat to the life of Muhammad Asghar in Pakistan and of the withdrawing of a book on Hinduism by Penguin India, both on the grounds of blasphemy, are indeed harrowing.

But these are in countries in which freedom of expression is pretty much prohibited. It is important to realise that in this country freedom of expression is also under sustained attack by religious groups and their apologists, despite the fact that the law on blasphemy was repealed in 2008. Three recent examples illustrate the point: the removal of posters by South Bank University in which God is replaced by the “Flying Spaghetti Monster”; the attempt by a local authority in Belfast to ban a play which satirises the Bible; and the widespread censoring of the “Jesus and Mo” cartoons.

After the furore of the Danish cartoons, in June 2006, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe provided firm and principled guidance to the effect that ideas “that may shock, offend, or disturb the state or any sector of the population” are protected by the freedom of expression.” I would ask you to champion this marvellous resolution, not only within The Independent but in the media at large.

 

Published in The Independent 4th March 2014

Return of Blasphemy in Britain?

Feb

28

 

Return of Blasphemy in Britain?

Prior to the start of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, it was good see an array of global authors protesting against Russia's blasphemy laws but it is important to note that the danger of blasphemy remains in Britain. Despite the repeal of the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel in 2008, we may be witnessing a concerted attempt to reintroduce it though the back door. The key protagonists are Islamists incensed by the portrayal of their prophet in cartoon form - of Jesus and Mo fame - and they appear to be making gains. Last October, at the LSE's Freshers' Fair, two students were forced to remove their Jesus and Mo t-shirts as both LSE management and the Students Union argued this constituted 'harassment' of Muslim (but not Christian) students.

Recently, we have had threats against Quilliam Foundation member and Liberal Democratic parliamentary candidate Maajid Nawaz for his tweeting of a Jesus and Mo cartoon, and a concerted attempt by Islamists in the LDP to have him de-selected. To their credit, the Lib Dem leadership refused to be bullied by such blatant intimidation. The episode does, however, beg the question as to why thoroughly illiberal, undemocratic people are allowed to become members of the Lib Dems.

But, sadly, Channel 4 News abandoned its commitment to freedom of expression by blotting out the image of 'Mo' in its otherwise very good coverage of the controversy. For a channel that prides itself on the daring nature of its coverage, this act of censorship was abject cowardice on the pretext of not causing offence. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson 'Taking offence is now the first refuge of the censor'. They need to be reminded of Rowan Atkinson's principled stance on censorship: 'The freedom to criticise ideas, any ideas - even if they are sincerely held beliefs - is one of the fundamental freedoms of society ... the right to offend is far more important than any right not to be offended'.

But this country has a history of selective self-censorship by the media - the most graphic example was the refusal by any mainstream media outlet to publish or show the Danish cartoons when the controversy exploded in 2005. The offence taken by some people is clearly given more serious consideration than offence taken by others.

When Monty Python's Life of Brian came out in 1979, many town councils banned it on the grounds that it was offensive to Christians and was in breach of the law on blasphemy. Nevertheless, the film was shown widely and became the fourth highest grossing film of that year in the UK - by this success the reactionary blasphemy law was robustly challenged. There is, however, a striking and troubling difference between now and then: whereas in 1979, opposition to what was deemed blasphemous was peaceful; nowadays it is much more menacing as violence and threat of violence are de rigueur.

Though Islamists are the major culprits, they are by no means alone as evidenced by the infamous case of the play Behzti when hundreds of Sikhs - who found it offensive - smashed the Birmingham Rep in December 2004. The result was complete victory for the violent censors as the play was pulled. Recently, a local authority in Belfast banned a play (The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged)) by the Reduced Shakespeare Company on the grounds of it being blasphemous. After much protest, including by Amnesty International, the threat of censorship was thankfully lifted. Intererstingly and revealingly, Amnesty has made no such intervention regarding the Jesus of Mo cartoons. Perhaps they can provide an explanation for this double standard.

The latest example of censorship is that of South Bank University removing posters advertising the Atheist Society's posters for being - you guessed it - 'offensive'. The poster depicts Michelangelo's famous 'Creation of Adam' fresco from the Sistine Chapel but with the character of god replaced with the satirical online deity the 'Flying Spaghetti Monster'.

Given the depths to which we have plunged, it is saddening, but not altogether surprising, when Michael Palin laments 'Religion is more difficult to talk about. I don't think we could do Life of Brian any more. A parody of Islam would be even harder'. I hope he is wrong but it will require courage and determination on the part of the artistic community - and academia and the mainstream media will need to offer unflinching support.

The resisting of censorship by recourse to offence or threat of violence is surely a prize of the highest order for a civilised society - a cursory glance at the myriad countries and societies where freedom of expression is so thoroughly curtailed (witness the pulping of Penguin India's book on Hinduism) or proscribed should be enough for doubters to stiffen their resolve. And it needs reminding that this means granting of freedom of views one does not like or even passionately opposes as in the timeless remark attributed to Voltaire 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it'.

When Life of Brian was banned in Norway, an effective marketing opportunity presented itself to the Pythons: 'So funny it was banned in Norway!' Perhaps the makers of Jesus and Mo can follow suit by marketing their cartoon strip with the slogan 'So funny it was banned by the LSE and Channel 4 News!' As Mark Twain quipped 'Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand'.

First published in Huffington Post on 28th February 2014

Interview with Voice of Russia on faith identities on 20th February 2014

Feb

20

"The forging of faith identities is radicalising people" - Dr Hasan

Birmingham Central Mosque

Birmingham Central Mosque

EPA

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The radicalisation of Muslims in the UK who are prepared to go abroad to wage a holy war has become an increasing security concern. The government has repeatedly warned that so-called British jihadis could return to the UK and pose a significant home-grown terrorism threat. We spoke to Dr. Rumy Hasan from Sussex University, who has written to the Times saying that radicalisation begins in Britain, not abroad. 

 Dr Hasan is the author of Multiculturalism: Some Inconvenient Truths. He told VoR."The government hasn't really been much interested in integrating people from ethnic and religious minorities, " Dr Hasan, who is the author of Multiculturalism: Some Inconvenient Truths, told VoR. "In fact, they used to talk about Britian being a multi-cultural society, then after 9/11 it became a multi-faith society, so the stress was now on faith identities.

 "So whereas before you had Asians, they became divided into Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs.

 "People have been allowed to express their faith identities and have been provided resources, recognition and even exemption to the law."

 Wasn't that to satisfy the demands of people from those faiths and ethnicities in Britain?

 "To a some extent it was. It was the community and religious leaders who are deeply conservative and were hostile to the fundamental tenets of western liberal democracies who have been pushing for separate resources and exemptions to the law. And the government brought in the incitement to racial hatred act."

 So you're saying that paradoxically that has fermented radicalism?

 "Yes, in the sense that now if your primary allegiance is to your faith, and a lot of radicalised British Muslims are saying we're not British, we're Muslims first, then they have much more interest in what is going on to their fellow Muslims around the world in Syria or Iran or Afghanistan and they might in fact have no material connection with these countries - they might in fact be from India or Somalia.

 "Forging of faith identities is radicalising people particularly if they feel unjust policies have been imposed upon their co-religionists around the world."

 What can the British government - of whatever political persuasion - do apart from telling people they have to be less sensitive?

 "This is what the ministry of defence officials said in an interview last month, when they said that future Afghan or Iraq-type invasions are ruled out because of our increasingly diverse or multi-faith society. 

 "Stop illegal wars of invasion.

 "Second, start forging a common identity. You have very deep segregated neighbourhoods throughout the country and it'll take more than a generation to undo this."

 Is government policy foolish, based on political correctness?

 "Once you have segregated neighbourhoods and you start giving in to the leaders of these neighbourhoods and saying, okay you can have mosques and Muslim of Hindu cultural centres, then you vote for me. We actually are having bits of the sectarianism of Northern Ireland and parts of western Scotland creeping into the mainland.

 "Political Islam particularly is becoming quite a powerful force."

 But wouldn't Muslim leaders be outraged if they weren't allowed mosques and community centres?

 "They can, but there is a trade-off: these are granted with the view that you will vote for us, but what you then set in store - which is peculiar where basically faith is dying out amongst the majority white population - is increasingly strong faith identities among strong ethnic and religious minorities."
Read more: http://voiceofrussia.com/uk/news/2014_02_20/The-forging-of-faith-identities-is-radicalising-people-Dr-Hasan-8500/



On jihadis returning from Syria

Feb

20

 

Sir, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe worries that British men are being radicalised in Syria ("250 jihadis spark UK terror alert", Feb 16). It is more likely that these men were already radicalised at home - which is why they went to wage jihad in Syria, with which few have any connection. The responsibility for this lies with failure of government policy on both the foreign and domestic fronts. The folly of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have radicalised significant numbers of Muslims as was predicted by many.

The present and previous governments stressed the importance of faith identities and of Britain being a "multifaith" society. Don't be surprised if some believe that their primary allegiance is to those of their faith around the world, to the point of waging jihad in support of them. Sectarian conflicts abroad spill over at home, as with the Sunni-Shia rivalry in the Middle East - those going to Syria are fighting a Sunni jihad against the Shia, or vice versa.

This kind of development supports those MoD officials who now rule out a repeat of the Afghanistan or Iraq invasions because Britain, being an increasingly diverse (ie, multifaith) nation, would have to deploy troops in countries from which UK citizens, or their families, once came. In other words, they are highlighting the risk of "blowback" - that is, of future wars "coming home". I hope that the political establishment will learn the appropriate lessons.


Letter to The Times 20th February 2012

 


Absence of Asians from sport and the arts

Feb

04

Absence of Asians from sport and the arts

2012 Olympic Games - Opening Ceremony
'Asians were conspicuous by their absence, no more than extras' in the London Olympics opening ceremony. Above, staff from Great Ormond Street hospital perform in one segment. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Lenny Henry is right to argue that the inequalities faced by ethnic minority talent must become a thing of the past (The door to nowhere, 25 January). However, his list of highly successful actors, directors, and writers includes only one Asian, and his description of "Team GB in its full multi-ethnic, multicultural butt-kicking glory" is sadly not correct.

Little commented upon at the time, Team GB was, in fact, comprised almost in its entirety of whites, blacks, or those of a black and white parentage. Similarly, in Danny Boyle's marvellous Olympic opening ceremony, Asians were conspicuous by their absence, no more than extras in the various sets.

There are profound reasons for the lacuna of Asians in the world of entertainment and sport – the fact that the Premier League is devoid of Asian footballers is perhaps the most striking example. A survey by the Commission for Racial Equality in 2000 found that black Caribbeans had much greater exposure in the British media (particularly in television) than Asians.

Though such a survey has not been repeated, there is no reason to think that the situation has changed. This has little to do with racism or discrimination but instead much to do with the separatism engendered in our supposedly "multifaith, multicultural society" – indeed it seems almost quaint to refer to a segment of society as "Asians", given the preference for a "faith identity". To truly comply with Lenny Henry's laudable wish, a starting point is for such separatist identities to be reined in.

Letter in Guardian on 3rd February 2014 in response to Lenny Henry article

Feminism's Blind Spot

Feb

03

Feminism’s blind spot

Exclusive 3 February, by Rumy Hasan

There appear to be the stirrings of feminism in Britain of late, though one cannot as yet call it a renaissance. For example, Charlotte Raven has generated publicity for the feminist cause by the launching of the new online magazine Feminist Times of which she is editor, which promises to promote female solidarity and consciousness-raising. The widely acclaimed actor Romola Garai has picked by the cudgel by joining forces with the feminist groups UK Feminista and Object against the sale of sexist ‘Lads’ Magazines’ and attracting much media attention in the process. Singer Charlotte Church has passionately spoken out against sexism in the male-dominated music industry with its ‘juvenile perspective on gender and sexuality’. Melissa Benn has also contributed to the feminist cause with her new book What Should We Tell Our Daughters?: The Pleasures and Pressures of Growing Up Female; whilst Laura Bates’s ‘Everyday Sexism Project’ is growing rapidly.

These are important initiatives that ought to be welcomed by those espousing women’s rights and equality. That said, the obvious reason why, in the West, feminism has waned over the past two decades or so is because of the enormous advances made by women; which is to say that the struggles of yesteryear have truly had a positive impact. Whilst women are underrepresented in the upper echelons of major corporations and political parties, it is equally true that girls are generally performing significantly better than boys at school, with profound implications for jobs and careers in many sectors in which women are likely to increasingly dominate.

But in Britain — and indeed in the West generally — there has long been a reluctance on the part of feminists to delve into areas of societies where women’s and girl’s oppression is at its greatest: that is, in many ethnic minority communities. Hence, leading white feminists have not concerned themselves much with issues such as forced marriage, female genital mutilation (which is, at long last, drawing attention), forced veiling, honour killings (given prominence by an Emmy award to Deeyah Khan for her film Banaz: A Love Story about a Kurdish girl in London murdered by her family), the very high incidence of suicide and self-harm among South Asian girls and young women, and the pressure on women from some ethnic minorities not to work or go to university. Why has this been so? I think this has much to do with a laissez-faire approach in regard to the culture and religion of ethnic minorities.

So there appears to be an unacknowledged hierarchy of oppression, at the top of which is racial oppression (and perceived racism), followed by women’s oppression when it predominantly affects majority white women. Following closely are gay oppression and disabled oppression. What is missing in this hierarchy is the oppression suffered by girls and women in ethno-religious minority communities emanating from their own (usually male) members. Whereas the first four are now resisted and challenged with admirable force and conviction, the last is invariably quietly ignored, underplayed or even supported through a variety of apologetics.

It is not too uncharitable to express western feminist thinking thus: yes, there must be a principled opposition to women’s oppression in all its forms — except in regard to ethnic minority girls and women in ‘their’ communities.

Such thinking seems also to apply at the global level. Contrast the response to the conviction and jailing of the Russian pop group ‘Pussy Riot’ (all white European women) where there was a chorus of opposition from feminists, with the virtual silence with respect to the likes of Saudi women bravely campaigning for the right to drive, and risking life and limb in doing so; of Indian women protesting against rape; of the Afghan singer Aryana Sayeed, a judge on a talent show programme in Afghanistan, who has been subjected to death threats for refusing to wear the veil and for her song Banoo-e Ahtash Nesheen in which she sings ‘I am a dishonour to culture and tradition, I am a black mark on faith and religion’; of the Sudanese Amira Osman Hamed, who has been sentenced to receive up to 40 lashes for ‘indecent or immoral dress’ because she refuses to cover her hair; and of a city on Indonesia’s Sumatra Island which is about to force female students to pass a virginity test before they can go to high school.

Back in 1999, Germaine Greer, then a leading light of the feminist movement, controversially argued that attempts to outlaw female genital mutilation (FGM) amounted to ‘an attack on cultural identity’, adding: ‘One man’s beautification is another man’s mutilation.’ Such excessive cultural relativist thinking is now rightly thought to be beyond the pale by mainstream society and FGM has been outlawed, but it was not because of campaigning by white feminists.

I believe that western feminists need to do more. They ought to take heed of the sober advice of Deeyah Khan: ‘We need to claim girls like Banaz as our own. We need to move beyond cultural sensitivity and let people ask questions. The moment people feel they can ask the silly or awkward question that they haven’t dared to ask, the layers start to come off.’ It is high time these layers of cultural sensitivity come off and feminists stop viewing girls and women from ethno-religious minority communities, like their sisters around the globe, as being part of ‘the other’ and claim them as their own. By so doing, they can make a significant contribution to improving the lives of countless girls and women in their own countries and throughout the world.

Published in Le Monde Diplomatique 3rd February 2014

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