Shut Down Yarl’s Wood!

Amy Hills-Fletcher

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For more information on what is going on at Yarl’s Wood Detention centre:

https://www.facebook.com/SHUT-DOWN-Yarls-Wood-Asylum-for-Women-NOW-126966244120907/

http://womenagainstrape.net/inthemedia/yarl%E2%80%99s-wood-freedom-crossroads-centre

http://www.ladybeardmagazine.co.uk/blog/out-of-sight-and-out-of-mind

Amy Hills-Fletcher

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Why it is time for Labour to place a truly anti-racist message at the heart of its politics 

Lily West

In support of International Women’s Day, I attended ‘Invest in Equality: End the Tory Austerity Assault on Women’, an event organised by the Labour Assembly Against Austerity (LAAA) and Momentum. The all-female panel condemned the Tories’ ideologically-driven austerity for the disproportionate effect it has on women and a discussion was then opened up to the floor. Although the event was a great success, unfortunately, as any woman, BAME person or anyone from a marginalised group will know, ‘the floor’ can often mutate into a hotbed of microaggressions which in turn makes you (understandably) live up to the ‘hysterical’ or ‘angry ’ stereotype that the white patriarchy has so conveniently used as another attempt to silence us.

Prior to this inevitable occurrence, it was refreshing to hear each speaker emphasise that WoC have shouldered the greatest burden of the austerity measures. Both Cat Smith MP and Sian Errington (LAAA) referenced the analysis from the Women’s Budget Group research which showed how poverty, ethnicity, and gender magnify the impact that austerity has on BAME women. In her message to the meeting, Dianne Abbot MP shed light on Labour’s commitment to ‘build upon current equalities legislation… after consulting on how we can best remove obstacles that prevent women, BAME people, and the disabled from reaching their economic potential.’ Maya Goodfellow, a Guardian journalist, stressed the importance for Labour to position an anti-racist sentiment at the centre of its policies to challenge and counteract the consistent erasure of WoC in the discourse around austerity.

Massive shout out to all these women. In a world where you can so often feel like you’re screaming into a vacuum because, whether the prejudice you’re experiencing is overt or insidious, there are still people who want to deny its existence – you made me feel as if someone was listening.

This ‘YAAS QUEEN’ moment unfortunately had to be cut short by the first hand that shot up during the open discussion with the panel. As I’m sitting there, shamelessly fan-girling and basking in the feeling of bittersweet glory that had arisen from the speakers powerfully acknowledging and condemning the variable experience of austerity’s severity depending on the combined interaction of one’s race, gender and income, my serenity is interrupted.

“I don’t really think there’s a need for race to be included in the discussion”, said (you guessed it) a white woman.

* Yas Queen moment is officially over. I’m back in the vacuum, screaming into silence.*

She goes on… “As we’re discussing women’s issues I think we should try and stay united on that front and not bring race into it as it often makes people uncomfortable or alienated and can become quite divisive.”

* My eyes are now seizing as they’re conflicted between rolling right back into the depths of my skull whilst also wanting to continue throwing copious amounts of shade all over this woman. *

It is not my intention to vilify this woman, but rather to shed light on the ubiquity of racial prejudice and how people of colour continue to encounter white people’s discomfort and often denial of racism in even the safest of spaces. Whilst it may suit us to assume that only the right-wing are capable of embracing racist rhetoric and implementing measures that bolster existing racial inequality, this is a misconception. We need only look back to Labour’s ‘control on immigration’ mugs to remind ourselves of the party’s ability to stray from their responsibility to encourage tolerance and diversity in Britain.

Racism is inextricably linked with our country’s history which is what makes it so pervasive and difficult to challenge. It speaks volumes that I was so elated by the speaker’s recognition of race playing an integral role in peoples’ experience of austerity. It shows that Labour’s reluctance to overtly speak out against racism has become so part of the fabric of our mind set that when they do, it causes a reaction. A party who is willing to call out racism should not be seen as refreshing or radical, and above all it should not make people feel ‘uncomfortable’.
After having heard a panel of women each recognise the necessity to look at austerity’s impact on women through an intersectional lens, this white woman still chose to ignore the facts presented to her so that she could unsuccessfully veil her own ingrained prejudice under the guise that race makes ‘people feel alienated and uncomfortable’. Whilst she was prepared to condemn the injustice of austerity measures having a disproportionate impact on women, she was not willing to look further and see that it is low income black and Asian women who are paying the highest price. Her apprehension to talk about race and inability to acknowledge her white privilege was disappointing and is something that BAME women hoped had been addressed several waves of feminism ago.

This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, where a white person dismisses racism as an issue, and it is the very reason why I want to thank Maya Goodfellow for emphasising that the Labour party position an anti-racist sentiment at the very centre of their politics.

In 2017 we have seen both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as President, two successful campaigns that were plagued with racist rhetoric in order to prey upon and exacerbate existing prejudice. The argument that left-wing parties should resist identifying as explicitly anti-racist in order to be palatable and to avoid making (white or racist) people feel uncomfortable in order to secure their vote, is no longer good enough.

Politicians have a responsibility to challenge society’s ingrained prejudices, rather than avoid them in an attempt to remain popular. The fact that we have allowed racism to resurface as a ‘populist’ policy is a failure that has to be addressed. The reluctance to ardently speak out against racism is legitimising people’s prejudice, and allowing people, such as the woman at the meeting, to deny their white privilege.

The confused approach to Brexit and unchallenged concerns about immigration are serving as a vessel for voters to float away into the hands of the right. Labour’s current leadership HAVE to offer a strong, pro-migration message that destroys the divisive myths created by racist agendas, that exposes the attempts to scapegoat disadvantaged people, and that emphasises how integral immigrants are in our society.

Meanwhile, those of us who aren’t in politics have a responsibility to challenge racism when we see it, harness the enthusiasm that is being generated from current campaigns and channel it towards dismantling the current structures that nurture inequality. Those who feel like they ‘don’t see it’ and find it uncomfortable accepting that racism is still alive and well, there are a few simple things you can do: Listen to those who tell you they’ve experienced racism and try not to let your discomfort convince you that it’s a personal attack on you. We are not looking to you for an apology or to provide us with a solution there and then. Vocalising our experiences is an attempt to make you understand and help you open your eyes to see what (perhaps with good intentions) you do not want to see: a world so entangled in structural racism that it seems easier to ignore it than to be an ally and help continue to try and solve it.

Lily West

 

 

An Open Letter to Theresa May

Artwork by Alice Skinner https://www.instagram.com/whothafuckisalice

Dear Prime Minister,

You are due to meet with Donald Trump at the White House tomorrow. As I’m sure you are aware, you are also due to meet with a man who, whilst talking about women, was recorded saying: ‘when you’re a star you can do anything… grab them by the pussy.’ You are also due to meet with a man who called for ‘a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.’ You are also due to meet with a man who in order to ‘fight fire with fire’ has justified the use of torture, such as waterboarding. You are meeting with A MAN who said that women who seek abortions should be subject to ‘some form of punishment.’

Whilst I, along with the millions of other people who took to the streets all over the world last Saturday for the Women’s Marches, continue to try and reconcile the fact that this man is the President of the United States, I urge you to consider the following:

We could waste our time talking about how the President has so admirably recanted and apologised for the comments mentioned above (never mind how they alone have helped legitimise islamophobia and misogyny), however, I think that employing an ‘actions speak louder than words’ approach may be more enlightening. I’m a great believer in everyone deserves a 522nd chance, so let’s delve into the President’s recent activity and see if these abhorrent comments were merely several slips of the same disgusting tongue.

1) The right to grab pussy.

(Once having been told that this is not actually an amendment on the Constitution) Donald Trump did issue a short statement saying ‘I said it, I was wrong, and I apologise… anyone who knows me, knows these words don’t reflect who I am’. The President’s attempts to dispel fears about his predatory behaviour have been undermined by at least 24 women who have accused the President of inappropriate sexual behaviour in multiple incidents spanning the last 30 years.

I think it is fair to argue, Prime Minister, that here is an example of (multiple) actions speaking louder than words.

2) The man said he wanted to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. To quote the President can we please figure out ‘what the hell is going on?’

Well, as you know, Prime Minister, the President is planning to sign an executive order that would indefinitely block Syrian refugees from entering the US, as well as suspending any immigration for at least 30 days from a number of predominantly Muslim countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.

Once again, despite the fact that Trump did later modify his planned Muslim ban to a slightly less inflammatory ‘extreme vetting’ of immigrants from certain countries, his racist intentions have been made clear only a week into his presidency.

3) Let’s take a minute to look at the moment Donald Trump was allowed to sign an anti-abortion executive order surrounded by men: image1

Never, as long as I live, will I see a photo of 6 women signing legislation which determines what men can do with their own reproductive organs. In this photo, the President is signing an executive order that prohibits international NGOs from funding abortion services and providing information about abortions if they receive US funding. As the United States is the single largest donor to global health efforts, this order will affect thousands of international healthcare services who will have to decide between critical funding and whether to continue to offer family planning care. The possible decrease in access to abortions will inevitably lead to an increase in unsafe abortions, which kill tens of thousands of women every year.

Prime Minister, at this point I need to quote you. On the Andrew Marr show you said ‘whenever there is something that I find unacceptable, I won’t be afraid to say it to Donald Trump’.

Please, Theresa, if you honestly can’t find anything in the points above that you personally find ‘unacceptable’, I urge you PLEASE to listen to and stand up for the millions of people who marched last Saturday who have shown that they do.

You being there as a female Prime Minister is simply not a big enough statement. Being a woman in power is not the same as standing up for women’s rights. Your faux feminism is no good to the millions of women facing systemic sexist injustices. Your party’s silence when it comes to women’s issues is deafening and your decision to prioritise finding common ground with a racist misogynist will only prove how shallow your feminist principles are. 

In the words of Desmond Tutu, if you are neutral (or in this case silent) in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. 

STAND UP TO TRUMP.

Yours (hopefully) in solidarity,

Lily West

The Burqini Ban exposes the hypocrisy of the “Secular” French State

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Photograph: Franck Pennant/AFP/Getty (The Guardian Online)

Sara Khan

This month – while the Scottish have officially allowed the hijab to be worn as part of police uniform – French politicians have given us a clear demonstration of what constitutes liberté, égalité, fraternité. In a nutshell, women are liberated only when armed white men patrol their beaches, dictating what they should and should not wear. Of course, it’s only oppression when brown men are doing it.

Never mind that an estimated 40% of burqini wearers are non-Muslim (see Nigella Lawson, who wears one in order to protect her skin). Never mind that white French women are allowed to wear full body wetsuits and swim caps – you know, covering exactly the same parts of their body as a burqini, save maybe a bit of neck – without being forced to strip. The important thing here is the word: burqini. Bring an Arabic word into it and suddenly it’s evil. By definition, the term burqa simply denotes a loose garment covering the body from head to foot; it is not mentioned in the Qu’ran even once. In several countries, such as Saudi Arabia, women are forced to wear these, and that is wrong – whether or not a woman wears a burqa should be her choice, her decision to express her modesty and her faith in a certain way – but it is equally wrong to prohibit them from doing so. Women can only reclaim their bodies when they are able to choose how to do it. Remember, while burqinis provoke terrorism, short skirts and tight dresses provoke rape. Either way, women’s clothing is inevitably the reason for appalling and immoral actions committed by men; it’s not like men have agency over themselves or should be held responsible for their own actions.

The French public have shown overwhelming support for the outright racism and sexism of these politicians. Mathilde Cousin, a witness to the incident at Nice, said that “the saddest thing was that people were shouting ‘go home’, and some were applauding the police.” According to an Ifop survey, 64% of French people are in favour of the burqini bans, while another 30% are indifferent. That’s 94% of French people suffering from either active or internalised racism, Islamophobia and sexism. And it is extremely important to note that this figure includes women. That’s an overwhelming number of white “feminists” supporting the bans (because the liberation of women only counts when in accordance with Western ideals).

French politicians keep saying that the burqini opposes secular French values. Since when did secularism translate into “the authoritarian imposition of atheism”? If secularism is about the separation of the state from the influence of religious organisations – which it is – then it does not entail the suppression of religious expression. Secularism is about taking an unbiased standpoint; it’s about protecting people from being imposed upon. When practiced correctly, it should entail the elimination of discrimination on the basis of religion, and it should protect the rights of religious minorities. Looks like it’s actually the French authorities whose actions are flying in the face of secular values.

Aheda Zanetti, who designed the burqini, recounts how when she was growing up, her hijab made it difficult to participate in sport. She remembers being afraid to go outside and to socialise because of rampant Islamophobic attitudes in the English-speaking world. She created the burqini – along with other sportswear for Muslim women – to give them the freedom to engage in a range of activities, to integrate and to be accepted. In denying the burqini, the French have shown that they are not interested in the rights of Muslim women, or of any women, really. The burqini ban defines Frenchness by whiteness, and it defines womanhood by sexuality. Consumer culture relentlessly commodifies women’s bodies, and women who choose to cover themselves are perhaps the most threatening of all, as they radically refuse to be defined by patriarchal, capitalist trajectories.

Unfortunately, these bans are only one manifestation of a terrifying trend. In France, Marie Le Pen and her racist Front National continues to rise, while in the lead up to next year’s election, Nicolas Sarkozy has announced that as president he would extend the ban on the hijab to universities, restrict access to benefits for women who repeatedly violate the burqa ban, and scrap laws authorising immigrants to be reunited with their families. Elsewhere, Donald Trump rallies vast numbers of white Americans against the immigrant population, and Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have successfully lead us towards Brexit, resulting in exponential rises in xenophobic abuse. Racism and fascism are spreading, and they are spreading fast.

The world that many French, American and British politicians would have us live in is steeped in hatred, bigotry and fear. In particular, the claim that the burqini bans have been made in the name of counter-terrorism is completely farcical. The Nice ban specifically references the Bastille Day attack last month, but completely fails to mention that 84 of its victims were Muslim; the mayor of Cannes has said that burqinis refer to an allegiance to terrorist groups (because Islamist organisations are known for encouraging women to bathe in form-fitting swimwear on mixed gender public beaches). By pitting us against each other, the people that spread these lies hope to divide and conquer.

As ever, it is wonderful to see that the French authorities have their priorities in order. Instead of focusing on resolving the socioeconomic issues that affect migrants and that may predispose them to harbour negative feelings towards the state, they choose to aggravate the situation by alienating them further and making them more vulnerable to recruitment by extremists. Today, the French High Court suspended the burqini ban in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet, and this does bode well; the ban may soon be suspended in other towns across the country. State-sanctioned Islamophobia, racism and sexism are still alive and well in France, however, and we have not heard the last of Sarkozy, Le Pen, or Manuel Valls. When Islamist organisations next strike, remember to blame the government.

Sara Khan

 

Why the Black Lesbians United 7th Annual Retreat is not the same as Azeem’s Flute Recital

Stephanie Stapleton

You may or may not have seen the new wannabe ‘Azeem Wardesque’ take-down that happened on Facebook last week. This time, however, it was on the event page for the Black Lesbians United 7th Annual Retreat. In short, mostly boys (but also some girls), decided to hijack the public group set up by the Black Lesbians United (BLU) organisation.

What initially began as an event page, made public to reach out to its niche target audience of black lesbians, quickly then escalated into a space for predominantly white males to write abusive and offensive remarks intended to make the event into a joke. The page was taken down overnight – undoubtedly because it so rapidly evolved into a minefield of outrageously racist, sexist, homophobic, and generally offensive comments. In case you were fortunate enough to miss out, I’ve included screenshots of some of the damage (and by no means the worst…).

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In case you can’t see, it says ‘who’s ready to get black and BLU?’

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I’m not going to lie, a few days ago I was cracking up at the Azeem Ward hijack, like many other British students. This time, however, I was left feeling shocked and appalled. Yes, Azeem Ward’s flute recital’s public event page was also totally random, somewhere in the middle of America, almost fictional… but we weren’t bullying Azeem for playing the flute, or laughing at his expense, sexuality, or skin colour for that matter (and we definitely weren’t making light of the violent abuse of women). The BLU event page was seeking to provide a safe space and reach out to a group of women that already feel marginalised in society. While, Azeem was able to join in with the joke, girls on the BLU event page explicitly commented that the jokes were unwelcome.

The event page was intentionally created to be a safe space away from our heteronormative society that favours white, straight males, and the often derogatory ‘lad banter’ in which fraternities of males so often seem to indulge. Although members of the BLU group made it known that the comments were offensive and unwelcome, this only seemed to give the ‘jokers’ more fuel.

Most frightening of all, was the sheer lack of compassion that an extraordinary amount of the perpetrators showed, even after being asked not to ridicule the event page. Comments that explained the function of the group to provide a safe space for women that already feel marginalised did not appear to be enough. Instead, many boys started complaining that it was just ‘banter’. In the comment below, you can see one lovely lad goes as far as to call a girl a ‘cunt’ for speaking out against the behaviour on the group.

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Why, may I ask, did so many of these people feel their entitlement to ‘banter’ was more important than the need to respect other people?

Among more outwardly offensive posts, some people (again mainly white males) were tagging their friends on the page as a cheap gag. Several girls poignantly asked on the group: what is so funny about an event for black lesbians?

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Apparently the label of a ‘black lesbian’ alone is floor-beatingly hilarious to some people. Unfortunately, this only highlights the prevalence of racist and homophobic attitudes in our supposedly ‘progressive’ societies. The girls on the group pointed out that many of these boys were students at prestigious British universities, some of whom are mutual friends with me and my friends. This in itself is extremely depressing, that such privileged and educated people can be so cruel and ignorant. Surely people in such fortunate positions should be using their intelligence and fortune in more positive ways.

This brings me on to another more frightening point. We live in a society in which often the dominant group of straight, white males don’t realise how privileged they are. Furthermore, they sometimes abuse their dominant position to undermine and subordinate minorities in society, passing it off as ‘banter’. Scott Domis’ tasteless comment that told his friend ‘get your dick out here’ (see below) was not particularly witty or funny. But even more revoltingly: is a joke about forcing a dick onto a group of women normal ‘banter’? Although Scott’s comment was intended as a ‘joke’, it was extremely telling of the often violent and sexual content of ‘lad banter’. In a world where mobs of men still often get away with gang raping women, as has been highlighted in recent years in India, for example, jokes that normalise aggressive sexual behaviour within groups of men or ‘lads’ are treading a fine line.

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While the ‘jokers’ behind these kinds of comments will have their laughs and probably quickly forget about it, the organisers and members of BLU or any black lesbian women that see the comments are left feeling even more isolated and ridiculed. Sadly, within the very space they intended to build outside of a predominantly white, heteronormative patriarchy. These kinds of jokes are stigmatising and punish minority groups in society; by making them feel like they are not only separate, but also a source of jokes. Furthermore, are some people really so uncreative that they can’t conceive of any other kind of jokes or ways to amuse themselves that don’t have to target minorities? If that is the case, perhaps the entertainment industry is not for them.

Sooner or later isolation can affect all of us, be it our families or ourselves. It might be a disability, a mental health problem, a serious illness, racism, sexism, addiction, homophobia. And while I sincerely hope this is not the case, I can guarantee that making jokes at the expense of minorities or the vulnerable, and perpetuating such a bullying kind of comedy culture, is not going to do you any favours if and when you or your loved ones feel vulnerable, marginalised, or isolated in the future.

Strangely, some boys even tried to claim that the group itself was sexist and racist because it was aimed exclusively at black lesbians. Statistics from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) suggest that 1.6% of the US population are lesbian OR gay, and while these are most likely not to be completely accurate, it’s safe to say that the LGBT demographic is pretty low. The African-American community is currently measured as less than 15% of the US population. As part of the black lesbian community you’re part of a puddle-sized pool of people. Is it so unfair then that black lesbians need to create an exclusive group that attempts to reach out to other black lesbians that might be feeling alone and isolated within society? In most places within the US or UK, straight white males only need to walk down a busy street if they want to meet other straight white males.

Without this group and its support, the BLU members on that page would have been alone, trying to negotiate with a predominantly male group of bullies who for no apparent reason decided to direct unwarranted abuse towards them. And while there were a handful of supportive comments from males on the group (exemplified below, unsurprisingly with yet another homophobic comment underneath) the overall picture was bleak. To make matters worse, the page reflected instances where sometimes other women were also trying to jump on the bandwagon. Don’t they realise that by partaking in misogyny they are only helping oppress themselves and other women in the long term?

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The Facebook page was a microcosm of our world in which women are oppressed and often abused within patriarchal structures, particularly when not white and straight. This event therefore serves as an important example of why a solidarity, or movement of strong, vocal voices that are willing to defend their rights and those of other minorities are so important. Especially if we are going to move forward towards a more equal society in which we protect and respect each other regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexuality or disability.


I got in contact with the Co-Founder of BLU, Jeanette, and she emailed me this statement earlier. Even though Facebook have removed the event page from the Internet, it’s important that we don’t silence voices that need to be heard or brush what happened under the rug:

Once we realised what was happening it was quite traumatic. Within that vortex of hate, and utter immaturity, it was difficult not to feel violated organisationally and personally. We felt protective of our members, friends and supporters who were standing up to the cyber bullying, but soon became aware that of all the support we were receiving. We began receiving dozens of Facebook messages from people apologising for the behaviour of their classmates and citizens (mostly UK). These individuals expressed that they hoped that we would continue our work, and that we wouldn’t judge an entire class of people (white people, men, university students, UK citizens, etc.) based on what we experienced in those few rough hours.

Within a few hours we had over 6,000 RSVPs for our event (normally we have about 300 RSVPs total) and there were over 12,000 outstanding invitations so we knew that this problem would not subside on its own and we chose to put an end to it. Our mission statement is “To make the world safe for Black Lesbians” and by middle Sunday, this event page no longer felt safe. That does not mean that the actual retreat will not happen…on the contrary, we expect it to be stronger and better than ever for the experience. We will not be silenced.

It is a shame that these individuals succumbed to the pack mentality and went after our organisation with such disregard, mocking our purpose, calling us names, and being as disrespectful and childish as possible, however, we have learned that many attempted to remove their posts after submitting them, possibly due to peer pressure, or fear of punishment from their parents, or their educational institution. We have received several requests from institutions including Oxford and Leeds for screenshots in order to track down some of the perpetrators. Hopefully Facebook can help with these requests.

We give a heartfelt thanks to everyone who has sent messages of support, and for those who stood up for us in the midst of the firestorm.

* The screenshots were also sent through to me by BLU

Stephanie Stapleton