Alan Duncan’s new job

September 8, 2009 at 2:02 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, Prison Reform | 4 Comments

As demotions go, it could’ve been worse. Whilst Alan Duncan won’t be a member of the cabinet if a Prime Minister Cameron names him Minister for Prisons, the role is still massively important if the Tories are serious about mending their ‘broken society’. With a population of over 80,000, prisons groaning under the weight of over-crowding, and a pathetic rehabilitation rate which means we waste much of the $4bn spent annually, Duncan would oversee an aspect of the criminal justice system in which Labour has been a determined, belligerent, costly failure.

Of course, quite whether he’s up up to the task is a topic for debate; reading some of the assessments from fellow Tories gives the sense that he’s an ineffective, gaffe-prone hack who shouldn’t be trusted to run any department. Granted, as a minister, Mr Duncan would have some supervision (likely Dominic Grieve), but his rather rapid fall from Shadow Secretary of State for Business to a lowly shadow minister doesn’t inspire confidence, and when we have a prison estate which – by the Tories’ own admission – is in a state of crisis, you really want someone competent at the helm.

In the past few years, the Tories have come to resemble Jekyl & Hyde on issues of crime & punishment. It seems all Mr Hyde Chris Grayling has learnt from Labour’s successive Home Secretaries is how well the odd grubby, attention-grabbing gimmick (the ’21st century clip ’round the ear’; getting the state to steal teenagers’ mobile phones) plays in the papers, and I would hope that a presumptive Secretary of State would use his time more productively than coming up with clunky analogies to hip American TV shows.

But what’s gone under-reported is that the Tories’ plans for prison reform aren’t too bad at all; they’re sane, rational and seem focused on achieving long-term goals rather than short-term opportunism. Clearly influenced by the work done by Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice, many of the proposals laid out in this document [PDF], if implemented well, could take the prison service in a better direction than the one it’s currently heading in.

The Tories claim that reducing the rate of recidivism will be one of the top priorities, and will create financial incentives for prisons which reduce reoffending, make more money available for rehabilitation programmes and make prison governors accountable for the actions of prisoners once they’ve been released. They accept that whilst new prisons will be necessary to end overcrowding, the warehousing of prisoners in ‘titan’ jails isn’t the way to go. Instead, they propose to build smaller, local prisons and sell off some of the crumbling old dead wood. On top of this, more freedom will be given to prison governors, more opportunities will be offered for third sector agencies to work with inmates, and for charities to help with education & drug rehabilitation. The Tories claim that their proposals would rejuvinate prisons as places of “education, hard work, rehabilitation and restoration.”

Obviously, you can’t just take their word for it; even Tony Blair sounded strong on ‘the causes of crime’ when he was in opposition, and when Labour got into power the prison population soared. Much will depend on budgetary constraints caused by the deficit, whether they can resist the impulse to allow expansion of private sector prisons, and avoid the urge to respond to rising crime with more draconian sentencing. I also don’t think the goals for reducing the prison population are ambitious enough; under the Tories’ plans, the population would still rise to 94,000 by 2020, and whilst that may be an improvement on the projected 100,000 if things stay as they are, it still means locking up around 10,000 more people than we are right now. For me, more needs to be done to find tough alternatives to short (and mostly fruitless) custodial sentences.

That said, this is still much better than anything Labour’s offered recently. If they do what they promise – and if Mr Duncan can’t find new & innovative ways of screwing up – there’s always a chance that it might lead to better outcomes for some prisoners, and slightly safer communities for the rest of us.

Image: Strangeways Prison in Manchester, by Flickr user phil.d (Creative Commons)

Islam, misogyny and the limits of feminism

September 5, 2009 at 5:54 pm | Posted in Feminisms, International | 9 Comments

Should anyone wonder why Heresy Corner is held in such high regard, this response to my recent post on Islam & western feminism should prove instructive. When something is this well written & persuasively argued , you wonder whether it’s even possible to make a critique, even if you do have disagreements.

Expanding on what I thought were misguided generalisations about feminism’s ‘betrayal’ of Muslim women, The Heresiarch accepts that there are plenty of feminist writers & organisations who do take an interest in the misogyny practiced in the name of Islam. Nonetheless, Heresiarch contends, there remains a feminist mainstream; a “largely middle-class, whitish, left-leaning, “progressive”, Guardian-reading type of feminism” which can be accused of barely paying lip service to what happens beyond their borders.

Instead, these ‘mainstream’ feminists obsess over provincial issues – female representation in positions of power, equality in the workplace, pornography, prostitution & sexual harassment – which appear minor when compared to acts like genital mutilation, forced marriage, honour killings & banning women from working or learning. After quoting my (by no means comprehensive) compilation of blogs & organisations who do show vigilance, Heresiarch responds. “It’s not that feminists never talk about these issues. It’s just that I seriously wonder why they ever talk about anything else.”

My first problem is this: if we are to accept that the relatively minor challenges at home bring the injustices abroad into sharp relief, and conclude from this that feminist activism on domestic issues is at best frivolous, and at worst ‘limitless self-regard’, then the same charge could be made of most of us. What on earth are we doing whinging about incandescent light bulbs when there are villages in Africa without electricity or sanitation? Why do we indulge in panics about our social services when around 1 in 4 Zimbabwean children is an orphan? Sure, the expenses scandal might be an affront to our democracy, but why not take a trip to Burma and see if we prefer how they do things over there?

We may be considerably more healthy, better educated, more materially well-off and more free than billions of people across the planet, but that does not stop us from being restless; demanding that we improve further; imagining a better future for our country. Whilst our problems may be minor in a global context, and though we might sometimes overstate their importance, to campaign on domestic issues need not signal apathy for problems elsewhere, regardless of the movement or ideology you subscribe to.

But aside from feeling a sense that Heresiarch’s response expects more of feminists than would be expected of other political movements, I think his snipes at relativism & his expectations of what western feminists could achieve for Muslims are misjudged.

In June 2007, the Carnegie Endowment published a report which noted the growth of some kind of feminist movement in countries like Egypt & Lebanon. Sure enough, the report was ignored by all & sundry – no feminists publicised their cause and no neo-cons clucked about ‘freedom on the march’. Why was this encouraging development not heavily publicised? Because the trend being observed was happening within Islamist organisations, and the women the authors interviewed were members of Hizbollah & the Muslim Brotherhood.

The report found that these groups began appealing to women purely as a means of expanding their political power. However, as time went on they became dissatisfied with being relegated to ‘women’s branches’, and started agitating for greater representation, the right to work and the right to study. Whilst western feminists have always been able to frame these issues in secular rhetoric, for the ‘Islamist feminists’, their arguments have remained rooted in their faith:

Rather they believe that the cause of women’s rights needs to be pursued by reviving Islamic thought and promoting a new interpretation of the Quran and Sunna. They dismiss the idea that by advocating such interpretation they are rejecting an established body of Islamic law and thought, claiming instead that they are building on the contributions of previous generations using the same tools of interpretation.

Indeed, many of the women campaigning for equality do not consider themselves ‘feminist’ at all, and regard western feminism with a great deal of scepticism, charging that it is excessively individualistic, anti-family, and obsessed with the ‘irrelevant’ issue of gay rights:

By contrast, Islamic activists are concerned with the entire community, which they want to be just and egalitarian within an Islamic framework, recognizing not only the intrinsic equality between men and women but also the different roles they play.

Obviously, there is much about Hizbollah & the Muslim Brotherhood which we find repulsive, regardless of whether we identify as secularists, feminists or none of the above. It is also true that this incipient ‘feminism’ is starting from a very low base, and that there are far more appealing groups who advocate secularisation as a means of achieving equality. Some, such as Wafa Sultan, even argue that it is Islam itself, and not just the interpretation of it, which is fundamental to sustaining women’s inequality. But whilst Sultan may be feted in the west, she is widely-rejected by Muslim scholars who view her as implacably opposed to their faith.

But given how badly secular voices are marginalised in this area, what seems apparent is that if there is to be a move towards better rights for Muslim women, it will have to demonstrate how those rights can be compatible with Islam. To that end, the Carnegie report speculates that ‘Islamist feminism’ actually stands a greater chance of achieving its goals than some secular, western-influenced version:

It is premature at this point to conclude that a full-fledged Islamist paradigm for addressing women’s issues and concerns has emerged, but there is certainly an attempt to develop one. And if such a paradigm were to become widely accepted, it could be enormously influential in the Arab world and more broadly in the Muslim world, much more so than the efforts to promote women’s rights by Western and Western supported feminist organizations.

For me, these developments demonstrate that rather than simply peddling cultural relativism, the consensus among feminists that change should come from within Muslim societies actually seems like pragmatic politics. If feminists embraced the ‘Islamist feminism’ that women are trying to spread through groups like Hizbollah & the Muslim Brotherhood, feminism’s critics wouldn’t be asking ‘where are the western feminists?’ but rather ‘why do feminists hate the west?’ Equally, if they stood squarely behind the kind of secular feminism which more closely resembles their own, they would only succeed in further toxifying an ideology which is already looked-upon with great suspicion.

Heresiarch’s contention that feminists could bring great pressure to bear on their governments to demand the end to misogynistic practices also strikes me as a little optimistic. At present, the ability of western (particularly British & American) governments to use their power to influence foreign governments is more restricted than at any time since the end of the Cold War. In nine months alone, the Obama administration has pondered a deal with the murderous regime in Uzbekistan, has broken a promise to officially recognise the Armenian genocide, and made a speech in Cairo with barely a mention of women’s rights. Each of these decisions were morally questionable, yet all could be rationalised as acting in the self-interest of the United States.

These are not good times to be an internationalist. With staggering deficits, two wars & a massively depleted political capital, human rights advocates, secularists & feminists all face quite insurmountable hurdles towards getting our governments to intervene in cases of rank injustice. As dreadful as it might be, I suspect that even if feminists did all band together to demand that their government get tough on the abysmal Karzai government, the Obama administration wouldn’t possess either the will or the means to follow that through.

Ultimately, I suspect the differences between myself and Heresiarch are relatively minor. Whilst we might differ on matters of strategy or whether feminists should be doing more, we can both agree that secular governance is just objectively better than any superstition-fuelled alternative, and that secularism is the surest way of abandoning centuries of misogyny. Lastly, we both know who the real culprits are for allowing this misogyny to continue, and that certainly it isn’t other women.

Selected Reading (02/09/09)

September 2, 2009 at 9:41 pm | Posted in Misc. | 1 Comment
  • Total Politics has published its top 100 centre-left bloggers, which features many great, interesting writers. And Tom Harris.
  • Apparently, teachers can’t be trusted to conduct themselves well in public.
  • Anton Vowl on how our glorious press treats rape victims.
  • Joe Romm asks us to consider a world without fish.
  • Andrew Exum on being the only person in Washington willing to defend the Afghanistan mission on TV.
  • Speaking of which, Arnaud de Borchgrave has a pretty stark assessment: “President Obama is not Lincoln with a BlackBerry as some have suggested, but Lyndon Johnson with a war the country no longer supports and a new Cronkite yapping at his Afghan heels.”
  • Shorter Pat Buchanan: WWII was all the fault of those pesky Brits.
  • John Norris warns that we need to act quickly to avoid disaster in Sudan.
  • James Ridgeway has some troubling stories from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
  • Scott Morgan looks at an Esquire report claiming that as many as 15,000 Americans die each year in the ‘war on drugs’.
  • The Guardian’s data blog has some startling statistics on projected world population growth & meat consumption.

Are feminists letting down Muslim women?

September 1, 2009 at 1:13 pm | Posted in Misc. | 4 Comments

For some reason, these past few weeks have seen a great deal of attention paid to the relationship between Islam and western feminism. The latest issue of Standpoint features lengthy essays by Clive James & Nick Cohen who both argue that feminists have let down their Muslim sisters by failing to protest with sufficient vigour at the atrocities carried-out in the name of Islam. Meanwhile, The Guardian’s CiF ran a series which asked “can western feminism save Muslim women?” To this, The Heresiarch acidly replies:

No. Western feminism is too bogged down in its own limitless self-regard, arguing ad nauseam about the evils of sexually stereotyping adverts, or why female bankers don’t get quite such enormous bonuses as their male equivalents, to care about anyone else. Least of all the millions of subjected women living in conditions they cannot begin to understand.

Now, I have a huge amount of respect for Heresiarch (as well some for Clive James, and a little for Cohen), but this kind of statement reminds me of the folks who run around lazily claiming that hip hop’s only about violence and misogyny. Sure, there’s plenty of hip hop which is violent & misogynistic, but if you think that’s all there is, then you’re clearly not listening to enough of it. Equally, if you’re comfortable dismissing western feminism for being “bogged down in its own limitless self-regard” or, as Cohen does, for ‘turning a blind eye to misogyny’, then there’s a pretty good chance that you’re just not paying enough attention to feminism.

For this characterisation to be true, we would have to ignore the western feminists who run Women for Women International, the Feminist Majority Foundation, or the Global Fund for Women, and ignore all the work they do in Muslim countries. Similarly, we would have to ignore the feminists who’ve campaigned to help the women of Afghanistan, support those protesting for democracy in Iran and end the practices of stoning & ‘honour’ killing.

Once we’re done ignoring the western feminists in aid organisations, NGOs and pressure groups, we’d then have to ignore the scholars who’ve written books about these issues, the activists who’ve actually visited Muslim countries and the innumerable bloggers who regularly post in opposition to oppression, or in support of the brave women who fight against it.

And once we’ve ignored all these different writers, bloggers & organisations who do exactly what Clive James & Nick Cohen claim feminists aren’t doing, then we finally get to the main (and oft-repeated) charge against feminism: that it has failed to show sufficient support for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch writer who endured some of the most unimaginable cruelty in Somalia and then faced a fatwa for daring to write about it.

Now, it’s true that Hirsi Ali has been met with some mixed reactions, and her that writings have encountered varying amounts of support & opprobrium. Some have felt uneasy with her comparison of Islam to fascism; others felt that her dogmatism would alienate Muslim women from the feminist movement. Additionally, many of the people who embraced Hirsi Ali during her meteoric rise were the same people who spent every other op-ed concocting new moral justifications for the war in Iraq, whilst slavisly supporting a Republican Party which stood squarely opposed to women’s reproductive freedom, either in America or abroad.

But feminists were able to discuss women’s oppression in Islamic states quite independently of what they thought about Ms Hirsi Ali; there’s been plenty of debate (if one can be bothered to look) amongst feminist writers about how to approach the issue, and because feminists aren’t one monolythic block, the responses happen to vary. Some warn against cultural imperialism, others against cultural relativism, but they have at least been talking about it, trying to understand others’ points of view, and sharing stories with each other of both the cruel injustices and the small victories won. In any case, what does seem clear is that the development of feminism in Islamic countries is going to look very different from how it developed in the west.

Of course, in both Clive James & Nick Cohen’s pieces you’ll find a few deferential hat-tips to women who’re on the ‘right side’ of the issue; James doffs his hat to Pamela Boone & Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, whilst Cohen mentions Katha Pollitt, Joan Smith & Laurie Penny. But by holding aloft a few token feminists, they imply that these are the exceptions; marginalised outliers in a field full of women who’re oblivious to the suffering of Muslims. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The voices are many, widespread and longstanding, and just because neither Clive nor Nick has noticed doesn’t make it untrue.

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