Harper, We Have A Problem: Women-Only Gym Hours, Niqabs, and Canadian Islamophobia

When Soumia Allalou recently put forward a request to institute women-only hours at McGill University’s gym, she set off a maelstrom of controversy both on campus and off. Opinion pieces articulating outrage along with a petition opposing the idea quickly circulated. The University administration’s response was to unilaterally cut off discussions, stating that “it’s always been clear, McGill is secular and co-ed, and this is what we promote.” This is an interesting version of McGill’s history, given that McGill operated as a male-only institution for the first 63 years of its existence. In fact, up until the 1970s, all female undergraduate students were categorized separately as students of Royal Victoria College. It is also intriguingly amnesic in light of the Christian imagery found throughout campus, such as the stained glass windows portraying Saint Michael in the War Memorial Hall and of Saint George elsewhere.

Soumia Allalou, McGill Student. Source: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/women-only-gym-hours-nixed-by-mcgill-university-1.3002816

Soumia Allalou, McGill Student.
Source: http://www.cbc.ca

Speaking from personal experience as a woman who has worked out in a gym, I agree with Ms. Allalou’s perfectly reasonable statement that “there are many reasons women would want to work out only with other women. They might feel more comfortable. They might have had bad experiences in the past…” Given the University administration’s citation of secularism, one wonders what the response would be if a non-Muslim woman had put forward the request…

As one online comment on the McGill Daily states,

“This is only about accommodating a growing religious group that hold an ideology that is demanding more and more changes to our secular society. The fact that feminists are endorsing this kind of thing shows that we need to educate ourselves more on these customs and take a look at the middle east where they are the norm – because that is where we are headed.”

This comment is both disturbing and representative of the response to Allalou’s request. Firstly, note the framing of Muslims as a group who are demanding changes in the context of a zero-sum game in which accommodating the needs of a minority is seen to equal rescinding the rights of the majority. This kind of thinking sets up an “us vs. them” mentality in which it becomes increasingly difficult to think collaboratively or collectively. Secondly, this comment reveals the now familiar assumption that Islam is somehow particularly demeaning to women (never mind the fact that clear incidents of misogyny can be found in nearly all major world religions). This comment also troublingly demonstrates an unquestioning adoption of a belief that has been at the centre of several major imperialist interventions throughout history, including the more recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Such Western invasions have often actually resulted in devastating set backs for the status of women, despite the rhetoric citing ‘the plight of women’ as justification for military intervention.

Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod's latest book on the topic.  Source: http://anthropology.columbia.edu/

Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod’s latest book on the topic. Source: http://anthropology.columbia.edu/

The idea that Muslim women are particularly oppressed and need to be ‘saved’ by ‘our superior secular society’ is a trope that is stealthily seeping into many of the discourses around immigration, Islam, and navigating cultural difference in Canada. (On a side note – why is it that the very people who are making these kinds of statements are often in the very next breath claiming that we live in a ‘Judeo-Christian’ society? You really can’t have both!). Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod offers some extremely relevant perspective on this topic in a piece entitled “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” (2002).

In it she provides us with a timely reminder of the ways in which the issue of the burqa and women’s rights were boldly mobilized in order to justify the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Abu-Lughod tells us that

“it is deeply problematic to construct the Afghan woman as someone in need of saving. When you save someone, you imply that you are saving her from something. You are also saving her to something. What violences are entailed in this transformation, and what presumptions are being made about the superiority of that to which you are saving her? Projects of saving other women depend on and reinforce a sense of superiority by Westerners, a form of arrogance that deserves to be challenged.” (Abu-Lughod 2002:788-789).

The slide from demonizing women who wear niqab to making blanket statements about the supposed inferiority of Islam is chillingly smooth, and often used for nefarious purposes.

Muslim women practice many different types of veiling.  Source: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-09-23/why-do-muslim-women-wear-a-burka-niqab-or-hijab/5761510

Muslim women practice many different types of veiling.
Source: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-09-23/why-do-muslim-women-wear-a-burka-niqab-or-hijab/5761510

The incident at McGill is but one example in a recent spate of Islamophobia that has occupied the nation’s headlines over the past few weeks. The arguably racist attitude expressed in these discourses is unfortunately not confined to Internet comment sections. Our Prime Minister, the political leader of this country, is also guilty of stoking the flames of Islamophobia in similarly unabashed fashion. Whether for tactical political purposes meant to distract the public from a less than stellar economic record, or out of plain old racism, Mr. Harper’s statement that the niqab is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women” (and as such should not be worn during the Canadian citizenship ceremony) is undeniably Islamophobic. As other commentators have pointed out, the real anti-woman sentiment here is to be found in the idea that the State has the right to tell women how to dress. Another Conservative Member of Parliament, Larry Miller, echoed this Islamophobia when he told women who wish to wear the niqab to “stay the hell where you came from.”

Importantly, all of this is taking place in the context of a noticeable ratcheting up of anti-Muslim rhetoric. The Conservative party has expressly utilized the threat of Islamic terrorism to gain support for their controversial Bill C-51, against which there has been widespread protest. During the hearings for this Bill, Conservative MP Diane Ablonczy’s questioning of the head of a group that represents Canadian Muslims was labelled downright “McCarthy-esque.” In fact, this group, the National Council of Canadian Muslims, has launched a defamation lawsuit against the Prime Minister’s office for slanderous statements linking the group to Hamas.

If all of this wasn’t troubling enough news from our political leaders, a recent EKOS poll found that “not only is opposition to immigration in general scaling heights not seen in twenty years but the number of Canadians saying we admit too many visible minorities has just cracked the 40-point ceiling for the first time ever.” The author rightly points out that “opposition to immigration can be driven by factors other than racial discrimination, such as economic anxiety. But it’s hard to see how those saying too many immigrants are visible-minority can be motivated by anything but racial or cultural bias… these numbers should alarm anyone who believes in an open and tolerant society.”

The denial of a university student’s request for women-only hours at the campus gym may seem a small and trivial issue. However, it is in such seemingly mundane examples that we can begin to see the shift in attitude towards a totalitarian rejection of those we perceive to be ‘the other.’ If history has any relevance for the unfolding of the future, it is that the stakes for such a rejection are unbelievably high. These kinds of divisive tactics have no place in our collective future. We must reject Islamophobia, and smash the walls Prime Minister Harper is attempting to build between us. We are enriched through our differences. We are stronger, better and more prosperous together.

Rage and Its Repercussions: “Happy” International Women’s Day

*Trigger warning: discussions of sexual violence, rape, harassment.*

On this 106th International Women’s Day, I find myself wondering: how much has really changed for women over the past hundred years or so? We are still harassed on the streets, at home, at work. We are still raped, even in our own beds and everywhere else imaginable. We are still beaten by our partners and watch as society formulates excuses and justifications for the men who do such things. We are fed obscene fantasies that glorify domestic violence and stalking.

We claim our rights within specific arenas, only to watch as each area so hard won shifts and recedes into irrelevance as rights of any kind are eliminated from it. It is becoming increasingly obvious that fighting for equality within a neoliberal context of unbridled capitalism and vicious austerity (read: a cover for increasing economic inequality) is pointless and futile. Feminism is not just about “women’s rights.” It is about dismantling the hierarchical systems that place more value on one person over another due to gender, race, class, ability, religion, sexuality, and so on. It is about recognizing the interconnectedness of our struggles. I am hesitant to make sweeping generalizations

Source: http://www.nwherald.com/2014/12/01/germany-hails-slain-turkish-german-student-tugce-albayrak-as-hero/at7520h/

Remembering Tuğçe Albayrak. Source: http://www.nwherald.com/2014/12/01/ germany-hails-slain-turkish-german-student- tugce-albayrak-as-hero/at7520h/

about women in differing cultures and regions of the world. However, in this increasingly globally connected time if I open the news to see that Tuğçe Albayrak can be beaten to death for trying to prevent a man from harassing two other women, do the rest of us feel free to move through the public sphere? If Anita Sarkeesian can receive death and rape threats for daring to criticize the misogyny of video games, are the rest of us free to speak out? If a man convicted of raping and killing a woman on a bus in India can boldly state in an interview that he believes women should shut up and not resist rape, do the rest of us feel safe using public transportation? How can we “celebrate women’s equality,” as news sources have framed various marches for International Women’s Day, if these earth-shattering events are still occurring every day?

I may not be walking around with a purple sash draped across my chest declaring “votes for women!” But I do move through the world with a button pinned to my jacket which reads: “this is what a feminist looks like.” And in the grand scheme of things, is there much of a difference? Because 96 years after women were granted the right to vote in Canada, I still feel the need to assert my belief I should have equal rights, regardless of my gender. I still walk out my front door everyday knowing that it is well within the realm of possibility that I will be disrespected on the basis of my gender: that I will be cat called on the street, groped on the subway, receive unwelcome and uninvited texts of a sexual nature from a male acquaintance, be sexually harassed by my boss, or simply be bombarded with objectifying images portraying women as sub-human objects, existing solely for men’s pleasure, or the incubating of babies. Indeed, all of these things have happened to me within recent memory. These everyday instances of misogyny and sexism accumulate, resonating against each other into a tidal wave of experience, in the process exposing the invisible thread of patriarchal violence that encircles us all.

Source: http://dictionary.reference.com/illus/illustration.html/ahd4/suffragist/suffra

“Votes for Women” Source: http://dictionary.reference.com/illus /illustration.html/ahd4/suffragist/ suffra

We may have the vote, but what use is it to us when those who are elected are uniformly in favour of a capitalist, racist, imperialist status quo? What is the point if women and people of colour and LGBTQ politicians are so harangued and harassed that they are forced to occupy the most conservative corner of their (already centrist, tepid) political party (perhaps we could think here of the optimism and failed promises of Obama’s presidency)? Does it matter that we can vote, when corporations and the wealthy are increasingly utilizing their financial advantage to influence the outcome of elections? The politicians who govern this country are so out of touch and so insulated by their own privilege and wealth, is it any wonder they have no idea how the vast majority of us feel? The fact that a petition exists to convince federal party leaders of the need for a debate on women’s issues illustrates this point perfectly. Women make up slightly more than half of the population of Canada. Why are the concerns of the majority relegated to a special debate? The issues we care about should be discussed in every debate, should in fact be the bedrock upon which our political parties’ platforms are built!

Instead, we learn not to smile in public, lest our joyful expression inadvertently fall on a man and be interpreted as an invitation. We learn not to wear our favourite skirt if we’re out by ourselves, lest we be mistakenly identified as unclaimed property. We learn that we must hold ourselves to a higher standard of achievement than the boys, at work, at school, online. We attempt to starve, coerce, poke, prod, lace up, and slice our bodies into perfection, because we believe that if we should reach that non-existent Holy Grail, we will find satisfaction, happiness, fulfillment. And any time that we dare to speak up or voice our truths against these pressures, we are punished for daring to believe that we could or should be equally human (and equally imperfect)…

To be a woman in 2015 is to be awash in miraculous hopes and frustrated desires, a heady cocktail of progress, contradiction, and rage evoking injustices.

‘Act Like a Shepherd and Whistle Indifferently’*: Ocalan and a Greek Tragedy Retold

By: George Mantzios, guest author 


“Caught between the bandit state on the one hand, and the comedy state on the other.”

These were Abdullah Ocalan’s words to his lawyer after slipping through the protection of the Greek National Intelligence Service (EYP) and into the hands of Turkish Special Forces in Nairobi, Kenya, on February 15, 1999. Confined now for nearly fifteen years on the prison-island of Imrali in the Mamara Sea in North Eastern Turkey, the specific chain of events that led to Ocalan’s capture are still shrouded in contention and conspiracy.

A Kurdish protester sets fire to himself outside the Greek Parliament in Athens. Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/281195.stm

A Kurdish protester sets fire to himself outside the Greek Parliament in Athens.
Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/ hi/europe/281195.stm

And yet, between the self-immolated body of a Kurdish protester in Athens and the shamed resignations of the Greek Foreign, Interior, and Public Order ministers, as well as the chief of the National Intelligence Service (EYP), there was and still is little room for confusion: Greece was responsible for Ocalan’s protection and so Greece is accountable for his capture. Greece’s accountability was even confirmed by a May 1999 Kurdish ‘popular court’ ruling sentencing the chief of the EYP and two Greek security officials to death for their role in Ocalan’s capture. But even after all these years, this blame is suspended awkwardly between incompetence and betrayal, suspended that is, between the comedy state and the bandit state, Scylla and Charybdis.

However both of these iterations of guilt reproduce a diplomatic conceit by holding the nation-state itself responsible, reifying the illusion that the nation-state is a bounded singular will on a world stage. Since at least the early nineteenth century such conceits have formatted the terms of engagement in international relations. However we all know that these conceits belie complex social dynamics of class struggle that articulate and disarticulate private and public interests within and beyond the state apparatus, complicating our ability to identify where sovereignty ultimately lies, rendering the concept at best an expedient means of juridical reckoning within the international community.

Ocalan in the custody of Turkish special forces (MiT), February 15, 1999. Source: http://www.ellanodikis.net/2014_04_01_archive.html

Ocalan in the custody of Turkish special forces (MiT), February 15, 1999.
Source: http://www.ellanodikis.net/ 2014_04_01_archive.html

What I am here proposing is that we suspend Greece’s guilt- rather than absolve it- so as to reopen what one news-outlet has dubbed the ‘Ocalan Files’. Doing so refines our level of analysis beyond the pixelated viewpoint of the nation-state, forcing many unanswered or unasked questions and considerations into focus. Firstly, and most glaringly, how did Ocalan end up cornered in a Greek embassy in Kenya? On their second day in Nairobi, the Greek intelligence agent charged with Ocalan’s protection, Savvas Kalenteridis, would read in the Turkish “Hurriyet” newspaper that Turkish intelligence (MiT) had uncovered Ocalan’s whereabouts. Through what channels was this information leaked; was the CIA involved as Kalenteridis maintains to this day? After all, a high-level US delegation had previously travelled to Italy (where Ocalan was being harbored for some time) to persuade the Italians to expel him to an ‘unstable’ African country, where his capture would prove easy.

In fact, prior to arriving in Greece in 1999, Ocalan spent sixty-six days in Italy before being expelled (the Italians were under intense pressure from France and Germany, on the one side, and Turkish trade embargos, on the other). From Italy Ocalan was procured safe passage to Moscow and from there redirected to a military base in the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, being covertly harboured there while U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was visiting Moscow to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov with the objective of persuading the Russians to expel Ocalan. The story takes another twist at this point when, flying to St. Petersburg from Dushanbe, Ocalan was advised to remain in his plane because he was being targeted for kidnapping or assassination by the Russian mafia!

And ultimately who were Ocalan’s contacts inside the Greek government that facilitated his clandestine and unsanctioned arrival in Greece on January 29, 1999? This question in particular inflects the internal divisions and exclusionary systems of political patronage that beset Greek politics and that complicate the blame game in this particular case. For instance, although sympathy for the Kurdish struggle achieved popular support from across the Greek political spectrum- a support that culminated in Turkey accusing Greece of actively hosting PKK rebel training camps- there were ongoing tensions within the ruling leftist socialist party (PASOK) that compelled Ocalan to seek out unofficial channels of entry into the country in 1999.

The PASOK Prime Minister at the time, Costas Smitis, known to Greek posterity as ‘the modernizer’ or ‘book-keeper’, was motivated above all else by the prospect of joining the European currency, enforcing very unpopular and punitive austerity measures towards these ends. Such measures were so unpopular that in 1998 eight of his own deputies openly criticized his policies, instigating a vote of confidence in parliament. And whereas Simitis was beholden to Western European interests, which considered Ocalan a terrorist, many of his deputies were ideologically wedded to the leftist politics of the party founder, the populist leader Andreas Papandreou, and maintained strong ties with elements of the PKK. It was in this vein of solidarity that one PASOK deputy would later proclaim, “this [Ocalan’s capture] is the most humiliating moment in Greece’s history.”[1]

Added to this internal political division was the division between the state itself and the ‘deep state’ of the National Intelligence Service, which maintained an informal level of operational autonomy, an autonomy typified when on four separate occasions Savvas Kalenteridis refused orders directed to him from the minister of Foreign Affairs, Theodoros Pangalos, to get rid of Ocalan in Nairobi, that is, to forcibly evict him from the embassy there. As a senior aid to Pangalos bombastically instructed to Kalenteridis, “[T]ell him to go on a safari. Tell him to go wherever he likes. He should stay away from [Greek] national colors.”

Ocalan's picture on a passport bearing the identification of a prominent Cypriot journalist. Source: https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol53no1/fiasco-in-nairobi.html

Ocalan’s picture on a passport bearing the identification of a prominent Cypriot journalist.
Source: https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol53no1/fiasco-in-nairobi.html

More endemically, this sort of operational autonomy was cited in EYP Espionage Division Director Col. P. Kitsos’s 2003 testimony, i.e., that the EYP chief, Haralambos Stavrakakis, had received a tip-off about Ocalan’s planned clandestine arrival in Greece in 1999 but did not act on the information. As Miron Varouhakis’ unforgiving report for the CIA would later frame it, it was this dysfunctional command structure between levels of the EYP and the Greek government that turned Ocalan’s security provisions in Kenya into a joke; the security agents appointed to his defense in Kenya were purportedly not even equipped with weapons. However, Varouhakis’ report, based on leaked official Greek government documents and testimony given during a trial in 2003 of those who illegally brought Ocalan into Greece in 1999, spills too easily into a castigation of the EYP and Kalenteridis specifically, going so far as to cite Kalenteridis’ “family roots and the tradition of nationalism that it implied” as a cause for his ineptitude.

EYP agent Savvas Kalenteridis. Source: http://www.ekurd.net/mismas/articles/misc2013/5/turkey4678.htm

EYP agent Savvas Kalenteridis.
Source: http://www.ekurd.net/mismas/articles/ misc2013/5/turkey4678.htm

However thanks to an exclusive interview conducted in May of last year by a Kurdish freelance reporter, Noreldin Waisy, we have for the first time a detailed personal account of the events leading to Ocalan’s capture by Savvas Kalenteridis himself. This is the first time that Kalenteridis has spoken out about the events. As such it provides an invaluable and intimate timeline that can serve as an instructive counterpoint to the official narratives that work through diplomatic conceits to locate fault at the superficial level of the nation-state. Such an attenuated account also serves as a compliment and corrective to Varouhakis’ report that finds fault quite specifically with the EYP, and Kalenteridis in particular. For these reasons I refer the reader to the transcribed interview in the link attached here.

*          *          *

Funeral for YPJ fighter killed in action defending Kobane against ISIS.  Source: http://www.dnaindia.com/world/report-wounded-kurdish-soldiers-fighting-islamic-state-at-kobani-die-after-being-refused-entry-at-turkish-border-2026224

Funeral for YPJ fighter killed in action defending Kobane against ISIS.
Source: http://www.dnaindia.com/world/ report-wounded-kurdish-soldiers-fighting- islamic-state-at-kobani-die-after-being- refused-entry-at-turkish-border-2026224

As I write this ISIS forces are besieging the Kurdish Canton of Kobane in Syria. How desolate this topic, Ocalan’s capture all those years ago, appears when viewed in relation to the stakes of the violence transpiring relentlessly over there, right now.

What an oblique intervention I am proposing! Can solidarity attend such peripheral revisions to the historical record? Is solidarity the turning of opportunities into techniques, techniques of thinking, writing, acting… feeling? Does it have an ethical stance particular to it or is it always more of an improvisation between movements of envisioning and compromising? In spite of these nearsighted hesitations, there is an impulse to act, an impulse that is not mine but to which I belong. This impulse is an excitement as much as it is a throbbing, that is, as much pleasure as pain. These two things finally being equal, much work can now be done. But how much? Do I risk doing too much or too little in my protracted contemplation of first steps?

These are questions that haunt me as I write, but not as a Greek (I am not that). This contribution was not an attempt to absolve a nation of its guilt but rather to attenuate that guilt by uncovering the actions that inscribe the risk of betrayal in every gesture of solidarity.

And so I imagine through my writing, imagine Ocalan pacing back and forth on his prison-island, trying to keep pace with the urgency that now dictates time in Kobane. Consider the lag between his words and their bodies. Consider how decisions must fester in this interval, in the meantime. Consider how this interval grows bold with autonomy, articulating their bodies with his words and vice versa. Everything seems both urgent and untimely in this interval between. Perhaps this is the space of solidarity and perhaps justice, a space that none of us can fill but that all of us must occupy.

Source: http://www.ozgur-gundem.com/index.php?haberID=89797&haberBaslik=Daha+fazla+ROJAVA&action=haber_detay&module=nuce

Source: http://www.ozgur-gundem.com/index.php? haberID=89797&haberBaslik=Daha+fazla+ ROJAVA&action=haber_detay&module=nuce

*”Act like a shepherd and whistle indifferently”-Vassilis Papaioanou, senior aide to Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos, offered this advice to Georgios Costoulas, Greek ambassador to Kenya. This was during the interrogation of Costoulas at the hands of the Kenyan authorities who were trying to ascertain the whereabouts of Ocalan.

[1] Clogg, Richard. 2002 [1992]. A Concise History of Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


George Mantzios is currently pursuing a PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of Toronto and is a member of the Rojava Solidarity Collective. 

The Looming Spectre of ‘Social Unrest’: Millennials, Joblessness and Politics

“I have no connections…”

Last weekend, I spent an afternoon in a coffee shop on the Danforth, where I struck up a conversation with the barista. He noticed some residual University of Toronto insignia on my person and asked me if I had attended the school. After a deprecatory remark about how this paltry logo was the only useful thing I’d gotten out of the place, he told me that he had an Engineering degree from Queen’s University. We commiserated over our mutually unsatisfying jobs for which we were both vastly overqualified. He cited a “lack of connections,” a remark I’ve made lamenting my own career situation too many times to count. After some time floating around the job market, I’ve come to realize that without some oligarchic hookup or familial nepotism, you don’t stand a chance.

We were living out a scene strikingly similar to one featured in a recent documentary by CBC, aptly titled “Generation Jobless.” In this memorable scene, the camera pans over the waitresses at a sushi restaurant in Vancouver, text floating down to describe their educational credentials, set against the backdrop of them serving drinks: Honours degrees in International Relations, Modern European History, etc. etc.  The effect is jarring and immediate. These young people are forced into low paying service jobs, struggling to pay off the mountains of debt accumulated through pursuing an education: an investment that our parents, our teachers, our guidance counsellors told us would be worth it.

I came away from the conversation thinking about all the times I had been told that my “Arts” education was useless and that I would never get a decent job with it. I wished I could go back and brandish this piece of evidence in my colleagues’ faces: I guess Engineers are not immune either. But unfortunately, I already knew this. The reason is self-evident: this is not a crisis of too many history majors, but a case of an entire generation being sidelined and forgotten. We simply do not matter to those currently stalking the corridors of power.

Although, one does find oneself muttering under one’s breath from time to time, about the future of all those spacious Baby Boomer houses, left to rot in the suburbs because there will be no one able to buy them, about the economic calamity which will occur when the Baby Boomers do (at long last) retire, and there is no one to fill their positions. What will our economy consist of? Legions of well educated people whose only work experience consists of pouring drinks? Our resumes are filled with service jobs and advanced degrees, monuments to frustrated desire.

How sustainable is all of this, really? How long will it be before the system collapses under it’s own sagging weight?

Perhaps, as the experts are already hinting, we will begin to experience (as they delicately put it) “social unrest.” And what else could possibly happen? Are we really expected to sit back and watch our lives drain away in endless shift after shift in jobs we hate, jobs which are a complete waste of our potential, our education, and the skills we’ve paid so much to cultivate through incurring thousands and thousands of dollars of debt?  The situation is akin to a stack of kindling, waiting patiently for a single spark to ignite the entire building in a roaring inferno of destruction.

A vengeful voice breaks into my stream of thought to whisper: perhaps then they’d listen. Perhaps if the experts are correct in their predictions, the media and the government wouldn’t call us lazy, useless, spoiled, entitled. Perhaps then our experiences and our voices would be taken seriously. Perhaps then they would decide that we do matter.

Before we can demand some justice for ourselves, we need to abandon the neoliberal models of selfhood we have been handed. Instead of criticizing the government, instead of thinking critically about systemic forms of oppression, we turn that potentially transformative energy on ourselves. In doing so, we end up anxious and depressed, caught in the tertiary time of the precariat: constantly working to find work. We believe the problem must lie with us, that we are somehow inept, if we just rewrite our cover letters one more time, if we just scour the internet for a dozen more job postings, if we devote more hours in the day to searching, somehow things will turn around. This is a self-defeating attitude, but one that I’ve found myself slipping into many times during my own periods of joblessness. But who, exactly, benefits when we beat ourselves up over these things? When we turn this criticism on ourselves, instead of the real causes of economic precarity? Certainly not us…

As it stands now, it’s obvious that the issues our generation faces are not taken seriously in wider society. Is it any wonder we millennials don’t vote? We aren’t blind: we see that we have no recognized voice in these matters. We are not permitted a voice. We already know we will not be receiving any pension payouts in our old age. We will work until we drop. That is, if any of us will be permitted to have access to jobs by then. We know that under the current government income inequality is growing, our environment is being ravaged, and our country is being transformed into a democratically hollow petro-state. But if all these things are self-evident, if in every conversation I have with a person my age, these pieces of knowledge lie between us, known and acknowledged without even needing to be spoken, then how long can this status quo hold? All over the world, from Egypt, to Spain, to Hong Kong our generational fellows utter a collective scream of “enough.” How long before we join them?

Because the truth at the heart of the matter is this: If not us, then who? And if not now, then when?

Blood & Oil: A Smattering of Canadiana

The camera pans over rows of plush chairs upholstered in a hideous green, creaking under the weight of indifference. A man, wearing a crisp suit, his long black hair swept back, stands and speaks an unwelcome truth into a space which is saturated in long years of deceit.

The speaker is Romeo Saganash, Member of Parliament for the riding of Abitibi–Baie-James–Nunavik–Eeyou and you can watch his speech here. In it, he called for an official inquiry into the hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of missing and murdered Aboriginal women of Canada. The proposed inquiry has been gaining support after the body of 15 year old Tina Fontaine was found dead in a garbage bag in the Red River in August, and volunteers, losing hope in the government’s willingness to do so, begin to drag the Red River themselves, looking for the bodies of other missing indigenous women.

Another clip from the House of Commons circulated on social media around the same time as Saganash’s speech. In this second clip, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair is shown asking some pretty reasonable questions of Conservative MP Paul Calendra regarding Canada’s military mission in Iraq. Instead of responding to the questions (with information that I believe Canadians are entitled to know!), the Conservative MP launched into a completely unrelated attack on the NDP concerning the position of an affiliated fundraiser on the Israel-Palestine conflict, repeating the same irrelevant information over and over again, like an enraged parrot.

As if we needed any more proof that the Canadian government currently in power is utterly and completely out of touch with Canadians’ priorities, our dear leader Mr. Harper declined to attend the UN summit on climate change which took place a couple of weeks ago. Harper has made it audaciously clear that we apparently have neither the right to know the details of our military involvements in other countries, nor the right to any assurance from our leader that he recognizes the importance of what has been called by many the greatest challenge of our lifetimes (i.e. climate change). Nor do we apparently have the right to a say in how our natural resources are used, and whether or not we want pipelines spewing toxins into the water and land.

At first glance, these issues may seem disconnected. They are not. Building pipelines and developing the tar sands are a direct repudiation of the idea that we cannot continue to rely on fossil fuels and carry on with business as usual. To do so would be to commit a slow, toxic, collective suicide, and the evidence is clear that breaking our dependence on fossil fuels is essential if we want to counter and reverse (if possible) the effects of climate change. Indigenous peoples have been extensively involved in environmental activism, and respecting the Earth was a common theme in the Idle No More movement, which began in December 2012. Not only does our addiction to fossil fuel continue to destroy the planet, it also sets the stage for devastating military interventions, such as the U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and for the greedy despoiling of land in blatant disrespect for indigenous people’s rights to it.  The depth of denial of the Conservative government is readily apparent in the actions of its leader: denying that we have a history of colonialism, claiming that the murder of so many indigenous women is a “crime problem” and not a “sociological” one, tweeting about the deliciousness of bacon while Chief Teresa Spence was on hunger strike outside the Parliament building protesting the stunningly economically depressed conditions of Attawapiskat, muzzling scientists working on the issue of climate change, and generally creating an environment where speaking out against such things is more and more saturated with a simmering fear of government crackdown.

These sorts of actions reinforce a creeping suspicion of mine that perhaps the answer to these questions will not come from coercing and needling our government into respect our long term interests through acting on climate change, breaking our dependence on fossil fuels, and forming respectful relationships with indigenous people whose territory we have colonized. I’m not convinced the current class of people from whom the ranks of politicians are drawn will ever be able to do so, given how intimately tangled up they are in the flows of the capitalist class’s ill-gotten wealth. In short, they have been bought. But I refuse to be bought, or paid off for my silence in this egregiously obvious manner by shaky promises that cannot be delivered: candied promises of jobs from poisonous pipelines in the depths of a recession will not sway my conviction that to force these projects to completion would be morally reprehensible on multiple levels.

Intimations of the determination needed to combat these sorts of actions float across my newsfeed daily. Recently, a group of indigenous nations located on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border signed an international treaty amongst themselves, vowing to protect the Salish Sea, and asserting their right and their perceived duty to do so. Notably, the Canadian government is not a signatory, because it does not recognize the sovereignty of indigenous nations. The fact that this treaty was signed, even though the Canadian government will not recognize it fills me with hope: although we may not see much of it in the mainstream media, indigenous sovereignty is real, and it is being practiced as we speak.

This kind of quiet “we’ll just have to do things our way” action calls to mind David Graeber’s book “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology”[1]. In it he discusses the idea that in the end, perhaps capitalism will not be dismantled in the roaring fires of revolution, but rather through quietly determined, collective non-cooperation, through the construction of alternative networks and circuits of economic exchange which reflect a different set of values than those endorsed by the current political hegemony and the wild west/neoliberal iteration of capitalism those in power so vociferously champion.

clearing the plainsWe, political subjects and ‘ordinary Canadians,’ know better than to believe that the Conservative government currently in power will ever treat any of these issues with the seriousness and respect they deserve. Despite Harper’s historical amnesia, we know about residential schools, policies of forced starvation[2], discrimination, mass murder, systemic sexual violence, and economic conditions that result in extreme poverty, suicide, and substance abuse for indigenous people.

What we don’t seem to know is our own power. What would happen if Settler Canadians collectively chose to recognize indigenous nations’ sovereignty despite our government’s colonial attitudes? In what position would the Canadian government find itself, if we-the-people decided to actually treat indigenous nations as de-facto sovereign nations? Would we ask permission to enter their territories, passports in hand? How would this look? How could this be practiced? Perhaps we could start by thinking of these pipeline projects in the same way that we think about the invasion and occupation of places like Iraq. There are some striking similarities, to be sure. Depending on how you look at it, our government is unilaterally entering another sovereign nation’s territories for the purposes of economic gain (specifically pertaining to oil), against the will of that nation’s peoples. Perhaps we should oppose the pipelines on this basis and start asking our government to reveal not only the exit date for our troops in Iraq, but also for the exit date of unwelcome government agents and their business sector cronies in indigenous territories.

[1] Graeber, David. 2004. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

[2] Daschuk, James. 2013. Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Indigenous Life. Regina: University of Regina Press.

The Receding Frontiers of Life: The Christian Right and the ‘Minefield’ of the Hobby Lobby Ruling

Last week, upon exiting the subway at Queen’s Park station, I was accosted by a handful of self-righteous individuals waving posters displaying graphic images of bloody fetuses, and handing out pamphlets containing anti-abortion information. This week, my newsfeed was filled with pieces on the American Supreme Court’s decision regarding Hobby Lobby, an American business which has argued that including contraception (deemed by Hobby Lobby to be abortifacient) in women employees’ health care coverage is a violation of the corporation’s religious freedom. Needless to say, the issue of women’s access to reproductive health care is STILL a contentious one, on both sides of the border.

Dublin abortion protest

Protesters demand action after Savita Halappanavar died as a result of being denied an abortion in Ireland in 2012. Photo source: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/nov/19/london-expert-irish-abortion-inquiry

A trend running through many of the pieces commenting on this Supreme Court decision is that the case presented by Hobby Lobby shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the science behind contraception. Why anyone would be surprised by this, I’m not sure. Evangelical Americans in the Christian Right have already thoroughly demonstrated their refusal to accept basic scientific principals. In fact, they rejoice in this kind of obdurate refusal to recognize scientific consensus through their denial of climate change, building a “creationist” museum with the explicit goal of ‘debunking’ evolution, and now by insisting that some contraceptives actually cause abortion.  (Note that the prevention of implantation of a fertilized egg is not abortion, as has been claimed. The fact that Evangelicals are now drawing the boundary line of the beginning of “life” this far back, to a not even implanted fertilized egg is frighteningly extremist).

Besides this delight in flaunting an outright denial of scientific principals, the Hobby Lobby case may also reveal information about the Christian Right’s fundamental goals which are less easily spotted. For decades, anti-abortion activists of the Christian Right have defended their activism by stating that at the heart of their actions is a valuing of life, and the interests of women. But this justification begins to look patchy when applied to the full spectrum of activist causes endorsed by these groups. In my recent encounter described above, one of the activists involved responded to my insistence on respecting women’s rights by asking me about the rights of the (supposedly female) fetus’s rights, whose photo she brandished so disrespectfully.

This activist’s statement is interesting in that it reveals some underlying assumptions involved in the rhetoric being deployed here. Underpinning the question she leveled at me is the idea that a female fetus’s rights trump those of a fully adult woman’s rights to control of her body, reproduction, and health care choices. This focus on the female fetus rather than the adult woman serves to illustrate the Christian Right’s refusal to accept sexual, adult females as deserving of human rights, and thus as fully human. (The title of an excellent blog covering issues of gender and sexuality in Evangelicalism clearly points to this as well: Are Women Human?).

Amanda Marcotte also calls attention to this style of rhetoric, pointing out that

“…it’s becoming increasingly fashionable on the right to portray women as inherently asexual beings who are being tricked by all this contraception into thinking they have to have sex, which allows them to argue that depriving women of reproductive rights is doing women a favor, by giving them an excuse to get out of that icky sex.”

This view of women portrays them as asexual, in need of protection of their innocence, and ignorant of the consequences of their actions, not to mention in need of having others (the State, the Church, Evangelical “sidewalk counsellors”) inform them (and even force them into) the ‘correct’ course of action in regards to decisions about their health care. The direct result of this view of women is to infantilize them.

Whether this is an explicit strategy, merely a coincidental outcome, or a revealing slip which pulls back the veil on the misogyny at the root of this worldview remains to be seen. It must be noted, however, that to inscribe a view of women as infantilized conveniently sets the stage for the further erosion of women’s rights on the basis that such inherently infantile women are incapable of making decisions pertaining to their own bodies and health care.

Sex educator Laci Green's response to the Hobby Lobby ruling.  Photo source: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152362978804213&set=a.284745684212.144562.221909329212&type=1&theater

Sex educator Laci Green’s response to the Hobby Lobby ruling.
Photo source: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152362978804213&set=a.284745684212.144562.221909329212&type=1&theater

Such a bald attack on women’s rights may just be a step too far. Several weeks ago, after the news of Elliot Roger’s misogyny fuelled shooting spree broke, women took to the internet to fight back against the refrain of the media which dismissed any analyses of the incident as misogynist by invoking the phrase ‘not all men.’ Twitter exploded with feminist responses in the form of the hashtag #yesallwomen, recounting thousands of women’s experiences of being harassed by men who believed they had a right to do so on the basis of their gender. In the wake of such a strong wave of feminist activism, perhaps the lingering memory of the extreme misogyny of Elliot Rogers will serve to illuminate the more subtle, but equally deadly misogyny of the recent Supreme Court ruling.*

The evidence is certainly mounting against the Christian Right, as it becomes abundantly clear that the activists of this movement are willing to use legal challenges, street harassment, public shaming, and even murder (see the case of Dr. Tiller) to prevent women from enjoying the equal rights we so deserve. What we are witnessing is the active, willful, unabashed suppression of women’s rights and a total disregard for women’s health. Now, if ever there was one, is certainly the time for a resurgence of feminist activism. Luckily, we just might be seeing signs of such an awakening.

 

 

*Those of us in Canada would also do well to take note, as the activists I encountered in Toronto demonstrate. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is an Evangelical belonging to the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, which maintains an anti-choice/anti-abortion stance (See http://www.cmalliance.org/about/beliefs/perspectives/abortion). Stephen Woodworth, Member of Parliament for Kitchener Centre riding, is openly anti-choice (see Motion 312: http://www.stephenwoodworth.ca/motion-312 ). These are merely two examples of many.

Sex, Drugs & Leprechauns

I was shopping in Kensington Market last week, when I wandered by a store displaying manikins wearing St. Patrick’s day gear. This included lots of green fabric, t shirts with slogans like “sex, drugs and leprechauns” and oddly, plastic “Grinch” face masks.  I rolled my eyes, and walked on, but something bothered me about those manikins and the feeling has clung to me like static ever since. After consideration, I have put together four reasons you should stop celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day (North American style anyway)…

1)      What’s Saint Patrick’s Day without drinking?

Part of this celebration of all things related to alcohol consumption is a romanticization of drunkenness. The effects of alcoholism are serious, so why are we promoting a clearly unhealthy relationship to alcohol? Celebrating extreme drunkenness in this way is not only disrespectful to those who are affected by alcoholism, it also promotes a culture of irresponsibility and recklessness. In 2012, students celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day in London, Ontario caused $100,000 worth of damage when their riotous, alcohol fueled party turned into a riot.

Compounding this romanticization of drunkenness is the way it plays on negative stereotypes of Irish people. Since when is it appropriate for us to hold a holiday which revolves around celebrating negative stereotypes of one particular ethnicity? I realize that many different ethnicities put up with this kind of treatment on a daily basis. That isn’t right. But just because it’s only for one day doesn’t make propagating tired, old stereotypes about the Irish as drunkards appropriate either.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, displays in shop windows boldly stated “Help wanted – No Irish need apply.” Eugenicists debated which position the Irish occupied in the racial hierarchy in relation to “Whites” and “Blacks.” Even into the 1900s, prominent authors discussed the “Neanderthal characteristics of the native Irish – the great upper lip, the bridgeless nose, beetling brow with low growing hair, and wild and savage aspect.”

Political cartoon from 1871, depicting the Irish as drunkards. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Irish_sentiment

Political cartoon from 1871, depicting the Irish as drunkards. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Irish_sentiment

Furthermore, “political cartoons during the 19th century questioned how and if the Irish were fit for American democracy by depicting them as apes, and comparing them with similarly caricatured and stereotyped images of African-Americans. The question of “how” and “if” the Irish were suitable for American democracy also emphasized their Catholic religion, and cast doubt on if “papists” were capable of being proper and loyal citizens.” Suddenly, those Grinch masks don’t seem so innocent…

2) Celebrating the Christianisation of Ireland and the loss of autochthonous belief systems

The legend goes that Saint Patrick banished all the snakes from Ireland. But many hold that the archaeological record contains no evidence of snakes having ever been native to Ireland. In fact, some archeologists and historians claim that the snakes of the legend actually represent the banishment of the Druids, for whom the snake was a powerful symbol of rebirth, ancient wisdom, and the old spiritual practices. Christianity, although it has played such a deeply intertwined role in modern Irish history, was not native to its soil. The shamrock grew there before it ever took on the symbolism of the Holy Trinity. Linking Saint Patrick’s Day to Irish identity results in a homogenizing and flattening of Irish history as always having been Christian, resulting in an oddly ahistorical portrayal.

Saint Patrick, banishing the snakes from Ireland. Source: http://www.strangehorizons.com/2009/20090727/da_silva-a.shtml

Saint Patrick, banishing the snakes from Ireland. Source: http://www.strangehorizons.com/2009/20090727/da_silva-a.shtml

3) “The Wearing of the Green”

The colours of the modern Republic of Ireland flag are green, orange, and white. Each colour correlates to a specific idea: green for the Catholic Irish, orange for the Protestant Irish, and white for hard won peace. An older tradition involved wearing orange if you were of Protestant descent and green if you were of Catholic descent. If you wore green, you made sure to pinch anyone who wore orange on the day, and vice versa. In North America, the colour green has now become synonymous with the celebrations. I’m quite confident that if I went out and polled a random selection of drunken revelers decked out in plastic shamrock bikini tops, ridiculous felt top hats festooned in shamrocks, and mardi gras style green beaded necklaces, most would not have a clue what the colour orange symbolizes on the flag. Not wishing to delve into partisan politics at this time, I will only say this: if you’re going to celebrate someone else’s holiday, the least you could do is educate yourself on the (long, complicated, bloody) history involved.

4) LGBTQ Exclusion.

As if all of this weren’t enough, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Boston is being boycotted because of the parade organizers’ treatment of LGBTQ community members. Guiness, Heineken, Westin, Gillette, and the Boston Beer Company (the makers of Samuel Adams Lager) have pulled their sponsorship from the Parade, after parade organizers decided to ban LGBTQ members from marching with “any and all signage about sexual orientation.” If Saint Patrick’s Day in North America is a celebration of Irish heritage, then why are LGBTQ members of the diaspora not welcome?

Celebrating my Irish heritage is something that I should be able to do in a way that honours my ancestors, does not romanticize a serious illness, and that draws on a remembrance of the full, rich history of Ireland, rather than a stale, inaccurate, homogenized, sugar coated, ahistorical, “Plastic Paddy” version. Furthermore, why are we participating in a capitalistic, consumer driven binge on consumption when we could be using our time to learn so much from the history of the Irish? With so many struggles and so much political upheaval going on around the world today, why not look at the Irish case to further our political knowledge, deepen our understanding of history, and maybe even find a little revolutionary inspiration?

Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh.

In the Crosshairs of Conversion: Encounters with an Evangelical Driscollite

R: If you and your husband were asleep and a robber broke into your house who would go downstairs with the baseball bat?

Me: ….

These are the types of ludicrous questions you must answer on a regular basis if you should have the misfortune of being accosted by one of those die-hard Evangelicals. As I’ve written about before, I’ve had quite a bit of exposure to Evangelicals and Evangelical doctrine in my life, but the most frustrating experience by far involved a friend of mine who was an avid fan of Evangelical pastor Mark Driscoll. In fact, after several years of theological debate, the sexism, misogyny, and homophobia of R.’s doctrinal assertions became overwhelming and I decided to end our friendship.

The most frustrating aspect of trying to be friends with an Evangelical is the feeling of being constantly in the crosshairs of conversion; I was a lost soul in need of ‘saving.’ We had numerous lengthy, pushy conversations in which he insisted, eerily sure of himself, that his narrow interpretation of Christianity was the only valid one, all the while completely oblivious to his blind theological arrogance and the condescension inherent in his assumed position of superiority. Eventually I came to realize that his main interest in speaking with me was not to cultivate a friendship based on shared interests or goals. Rather, he saw me primarily as a potential ‘convert.’ I began to realize that he spoke constantly to me as a salesperson would while making their sales pitch. In the end I was left feeling like a cheap piece of soul-meat, whose only value was in adding a notch to R.’s ‘conversion belt.’

If I’m speaking in sexual metaphors, it is because Mark Driscoll and his followers are completely obsessed with sex and sexuality. It is at the core of his teachings, and the views on gender which have grown out of this obsession are precisely what make his ideas are so damaging and abhorrent. It is also why his ideas appeal so strongly to young, white men feeling insecure as a consequence of the rapidly shifting meanings attached to masculinity in our society. When I asked R. about his views on women, he was full of opinions. I cited a Bible verse famous within feminist circles as one of my main concerns with Evangelical views of women’s roles in society:

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing (1 Timothy 2:11-15, NIV).

Contrary to my expectations, R. did not deny that women’s proper role was a submissive one. Rather, he embraced this idea with a certain unrepentant zeal. When prompted, he elaborated a whole philosophy revolving around this concept, revealing a central tenet of his Driscoll-infused faith. Since R. had recommended Mark Driscoll’s sermons and articles to me many times, I eventually caved to my curiosity and visited the website of Mars Hill Church where Driscoll preaches as head pastor. What I found there was mind boggling in its arrogant and blatant embrace of misogynistic theology.

Beyond the sleek design of the webpages, and the feel-good mumbo jumbo about “resurgence” and “leadership,” the most painfully apparent aspect of Driscoll’s teaching on gender is that women, as independent beings, cannot exist. Within the Mars Hill doctrine, women only “count” as they relate to men who hold some measure of authority over them (fathers, husbands, pastors, Jesus, God).

A particularly good example of this way of thinking discusses “options for godly single women.” Throughout Driscoll’s writing, being a single woman is assumed to be a horrible fate. He even goes so far as to say that if you are a single woman you will have feelings of “shame, isolation, and despair.” He compares singleness to “a club for Satan to beat you with over, and over, and over, and over…” In outlining his views on the “options” facing single women, Driscoll first assumes that you can only be a godly woman if you want a husband. He warns of the dire consequences of casually dating, “sleeping around” (translation: participating in any sexual activity that is not within the bounds of a heterosexual, legally and religiously sanctioned marriage) and moving in with a partner (all things that the vast majority of the population do and/or have no problem with). Driscoll screeches that in following this path of normalcy “you will eventually come to feel horrible for what you have done and miserable in the world you live.” (As you can see, encouraging healthy self-esteem in his congregation isn’t really Mark Driscoll’s ‘thing’ to put it nicely).

The solution according to Driscoll? Contradictorily, “worship a God who was single.” If you weren’t already terrified of Satan beating you with your singlehood, Driscoll completes his one-two punch by vaguely citing ‘some polls’ that suggest that “the odds are not in favour of godly single women.” Driscoll’s technique is to berate and beat the self-esteem out of his congregants himself, first by insisting that to be single is necessarily a state of despair and misery, then by swooping in with a dose of “only I can save you through my specific doctrine” propaganda.

Going further down the rabbit hole, I stumbled upon an article Driscoll had written on the topic of appropriate ways for the husband to “handle disagreements with his wife.” This gem of marital counselling discussed how a husband should “pray and discuss with your wife. Be patient. Wait for her to come around. Appeal to a higher authority (pastor/counselor). If the matter is pressing and/or a decision cannot be reached, the husband must decide. His wife should submit to the decision” (emphasis added). Notice here, the total absence of the word “compromise.” In Driscoll’s ideal marriage, there are no equal partners with valid concerns and needs, conducting themselves with mutual respect. The woman’s opinion simply doesn’t matter. Essentially, Driscoll’s technique boils down to waiting for the woman to “come around.” Besides the obviously insulting nature of this quote, it also demonstrates that in Mars Hill Church women are automatically wrong in every case, not to mention lacking the intelligence to contribute meaningfully to decision making processes, and having no important or valid needs themselves. If she does not “come around” Driscoll insists that the woman should be forced to comply with her husband’s will. If she resists, the husband has every right to bully her into submitting through capitalizing on his alliance with other powerful men. The woman is always wrong and the man is always right.

Far from being the “best kind of marriage,” Driscoll’s ideal of “Christian Complementarianism” in which wives submit to their husbands sounds more like glorified indentured servitude than anything resembling romantic love. In a hilariously entitled clip, “MARS HILL LOVES WOMEN” (excessive capitalization in original), Driscoll falls back on the old trope of insisting that women can only achieve through men (their husbands, male children or Jesus). She cannot achieve greatness, unless it is through her submission to God. This dynamic is taken as a template for marriage, implying that women can only be considered worthwhile humans in the act of submitting to God’s will through the proxy of her husband, and through her role as a mother. Driscoll’s angrily regressive views on gender roles shines through in a talk he gave with his wife in which they claim that being a stay at home father is “worse than being an unbeliever.” In case you had any doubts left as to the misogyny comprising the bedrock of Driscoll’s theology, there’s also some good old fat shaming thrown in.

After confronting R. with the material I found on the Mars Hill website he had enthusiastically recommended to me, I began to understand just how deep this worldview permeates. R. was evangelizing to me; he was fulfilling the central duty of an Evangelical’s life. For him and other Evangelicals, people are not potential friends, they are potential converts. As a result, non-Evangelical perspectives and opinions are not taken seriously, and are trampled in a rush of over-inflated confidence and intolerance.

Others have pointed out how powerful and dangerous a force Mark Driscoll is. His influence is spreading throughout Evangelical churches in North America. Many people have written publicly about their negative experiences within and while trying to leave Mars Hill Church. A substantial online community of people who have either chosen to leave Mars Hill or have been forced out are now sharing their stories of spiritual bullying, harassment, and campaigns of intimidation waged against them by church leadership. Many of them refer to Mars Hill as a cult.

In the end, I knew how to respond to R.’s alternating pandering and pushiness. And if any Evangelical attempts to draw me into their conversion snare again, I have an answer ready. I will insist that I am not chattel, to be passed from the ownership of one man (father) to another (husband) through the most archaic form of the institution of marriage. That I will not believe in a god that tells me to submit to a man because he is my superior by definition. I refuse to worship a being that silences me and tells me that I am an inferior creature by nature of my womanhood; I refuse to allow one person to usurp control of every aspect of my life, just because I am a woman.

And no woman should.

White Christmas, White Santa? The Racial Politics of Christmas

“Santa just is white…”

– Megyn Kelly, Fox news anchor, 11 December 2013.

Controversy arose this holiday season when Fox News host Megyn Kelly declared that Santa Claus was white. Kelly voiced this opinion while discussing a Slate piece entitled “Santa Claus Should Not Be a White Man Anymore” with a panel of guests.  She continued, stating that “just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change.”

The incident raises several questions: Why must Santa Claus be white, and why is it so important? In what context is Kelly making these assertions? And why should we care?

The figure of Santa Claus is an amalgamation of many different characters and traditions, emerging to become the recognizable figure we know today only fairly recently. Although the origins of Santa Claus are mostly European, the tradition has grown in such a way that people of many different ethnic backgrounds now celebrate this tradition. And yet, according to Kelly, it is imperative that we continue to conceptualize Santa as a man of European descent.

Unfortunately, racial elements of the Santa Claus mythology are also present in areas further afield. In Holland, Sinterklaas is celebrated, wearing a costume reminiscent of the Catholic clergy, and he is accompanied by a figure known as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), wearing blackface, gold earrings, prominent red lipstick and an “afro-style” wig.

Sinterklaas and Swarte Piet.  Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zwarte_Piet

Sinterklaas and Swarte Piet.
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zwarte_Piet

According to this tradition, Sinterklaas and his servant (or slave according to some accounts) Swarte Piet, reside in Spain throughout the year. Swarte Piet wears the costume of a Moorish character similar to those worn in Spain during annual re-enactments of the “Reconquista.” (The Reconquista is the period of time stretching from the 700s to the year 1492, when the last Moorish kingdom, Grenada, fell to Christian conquerors. During this period of time, Spain was ruled by Muslims who called the place Al-Andalus.¹ This historical event is re-enacted each year to celebrate the re-Christianization of Spain).

Originally Sinterklaas’ servant was portrayed as a dark devil. This figure was reincarnated in the 19th century as a character resembling a Moor (Moorish clothing, “darker” skin, etc.). Through this transformation we can see the literal demonization of Muslims and people of Middle Eastern origin (the people who came from the Middle East to Spain also included many people of Jewish faith).

Although Megyn Kelly’s pronouncements have been viewed as controversial, in reality, the news anchor is merely continuing a tradition of using Christmas practices and traditions in order to demonize “the Other” as conceived of as essentially different from Christian Europeans.

Kelly also went on to claim that another prominent Christmas figure was white, saying “You know, I mean, Jesus was a white man, too. He was a historical figure; that’s a verifiable fact.” The ridiculousness of portrayals of Jesus as a fair, blue-eyed Anglo-Saxon should be fairly obvious considering that the generally agreed upon “ethnic” identity of the figure of Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew.

Furthermore, all of these designations are fairly slippery conceptually due to the fact that “race” is actually a cultural construction, with no biological or scientific basis. Unfortunately responses to Kelly’s assertion of Jesus’ white ethnicity did not include a deconstruction of the concept of race. This approach would be much more useful than reinforcing the concept of racial difference through responding to Kelly by insisting that Jesus was “Middle Eastern.” In fact, the designation of “Middle Eastern” as a distinct racial category has only recently come into existence, along with the concept of a “Judeo-Christian” heritage, defined in contradistinction to Middle Eastern/Arab/Muslim identity.² As Ivan Kalmar, a professor at the University of Toronto, has pointed out, historically Jewish and Muslim figures were portrayed in similar ways in the West, as a common enemy of Christian Europeans.

Returning to the character of Zwarte Piet, there is yet another slippage occurring here: the conflation of “Middle Eastern Moor” with African slave. In other words, the boogie man of Europe in the Middle Ages was reincarnated with the face of an African slave just as the trans-Atlantic slave trade was drawing to a close in the 19th century. Was this a newer collective enemy reimagined in the clothes of the old?

Over the past few years there have been protests in Holland over the continuation of the Swarte Piet tradition, with many Dutch people of African origin regarding the character as a racist representation, which should be modified or scrapped entirely.

Although many international commentators have criticized the Zwarte Piet character, a 2013 survey found that 92% of the Dutch public do not regard Zwarte Piet as racist and do not associate the figure with slavery. The same survey found that 91% of those surveyed oppose changes to the appearance of Zwarte Piet.

Rather than perpetuate and celebrate racial stereotypes, reinforcing the historical and political forces which have shaped those stereotypes, the stir over Megyn Kelly’s ‘controversy’ is the perfect opportunity to teach children about the culturally constructed nature of race and to challenge these tired, old assumptions. This incident should show us that it’s time to critically examine our holiday practices, fully understanding the development and evolution of these traditions, and discarding the aspects of them which we now find disrespectful. In other words, it’s time to excavate and reveal the racial underpinnings of Christmas.

¹ For more information on Al-Andalus, see these two excellent documentaries:

When the Moors Ruled in Europe (2005)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PM8HnvuKbAo

An Islamic History of Europe (2009)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YfhZR15QRKA

² It must also be pointed out that none of these three terms are actually synonymous. People of many ethnic backgrounds practice Islam. There are also many different ethnic and linguistic groups within the Middle East, such as Arab, Persian, Kurd, etc. Furthermore, the term Middle East is a concept which has been constructed through the drawing of boundaries by colonial and imperial forces historically.

Nelson Mandela and Political (Mis)Remembering

Terrorist. Freedom fighter. Subversive. Communist.

All of the above are words that have been used to describe Nelson Mandela, contrary to those being used by the mainstream media in the wake of his death in order to sanitize and subvert his legacy. He is now being hailed as an icon of peace, and elevated to saintly status with the likes of Gandhi and Mother Teresa (who are not exactly the kind of moral compasses we have been led to believe – Teresa was virulently anti-choice, and Gandhi’s exploitative sexual practices have recently come to light). I would like to argue that Mandela was not a peace icon, nor was he a saint – but that these are the very aspects of his legacy that have left such an impact on us, and that should give us hope for the future.

Perhaps the most galling aspect of the mainstream media’s discussion of Mandela is their smug, self-satisfied declarations that equality and democracy have arrived, that history is past and settled, that racial harmony is pervasive and the struggle is definitively over. All of this is a blatant lie.

Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this approach is apparent in American right-wing politicians clumsily stumbling over themselves in attempts to ‘pay homage’ to the legacy of Mandela. What they are really doing is desperately trying to obscure their own complicity and support of the former Apartheid government in South Africa. You can view a timeline of American right wing support for the Apartheid government and their accompanying demonization of Nelson Mandela here.

UK Conservative Students

A Poster from the UK’s Federation of Conservative Students (1980s)
Source: http://threefingeredfox.net/?p=98

But one aspect of the coverage which seems to be distributed across the ideological spectrum is this idea that Nelson Mandela was an icon of peace. In a time when class divisions and resentment over increasing joblessness and income inequality is growing, maintaining the idea that the only legitimate form of political change is peaceful is clearly only in the interest of the status quo. Nelson Mandela was a man who believed that violence had its time and place, that sometimes the system is entrenched in such a way that violence becomes necessary.

As one commentator predicts, “As with [Martin Luther] King, it is this subversive aspect of Mandela’s legacy that is most in danger of being erased as he enters America’s pantheon of sanitized moral icons.”

However, it is possible to resist this trend of sanitization and to remember history despite the mainstream media’s short memory and the status quo’s campaign to wipe it out.

As one blogger reminds us,

“Mandela founded and ran Umkhonto we Sizwe, the paramilitary wing of the ANC, which carried out armed resistance and a bombing campaign. The bombings mostly targeted high-profile pieces of property, but were nevertheless responsible for many civilian deaths. Umkhonto we Sizwe also executed collaborators…Botha would have freed Mandela in ‘85 if he’d agreed to renounce armed struggle; Mandela courageously refused. On his release in 1990, Mandela repeated:

“The factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today. We have no option but to continue. We express the hope that a climate conducive to a negotiated settlement will be created soon so that there may no longer be the need for the armed struggle.”

Instead of buying into the insidious repackaging and sanitizing of Mandela and his politics, let’s examine some of the issues he cared about, such as his belief that freedom from poverty is a fundamental human right. Because as much as we turn away and try not to see it, we face some of the same issues today, now, in our country. When the crisis in Attawapiskat came to light in 2011, images of people living in shacks, with no running water or electricity emerged. Many mainstream commentators were shocked, as they exclaimed “this is not what Canada looks like!” Unfortunately, extreme poverty is the reality for many Canadians, and indigenous people are disproportionately affected. We, as Canadians, must face our own history as well as the fact that we continue to live in a colonial state. It is not enough to praise leaders in faraway places for confronting these issues in other times, if we ourselves do not recognize our current complicity in the colonial structures that, for instance, continue to oppress indigenous people here in Canada.

Returning to the case of South Africa, the truth is that it is impossible to look at the poverty in South Africa today and say that the struggle is over. It is impossible to look at how entrenched the ruling political party, the ANC, is and view South Africa as an entirely healthy democracy. South Africans have dismantled Apartheid. But they have not yet dismantled the economic system which still places an incongruent amount of the nation’s wealth in the hands of so few (disproportionately white South Africans), while leaving so many out on the peripheries, struggling with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and suffering in poverty. The fact we all must face is that when we speak about poverty, what we are really talking about is income inequality and the greed of the ruling class. Poverty will not be alleviated until we have set up an economic system in which everyone shares in the wealth, and everyone has access to the resources a government can provide.

So instead of remembering Mandela as a peace icon and a saint, in a slick, repackaged image let’s remember him as the man who went to prison because he was charged with the intent to overthrow the government (and not only actually tried to, but had some measure of success). Let’s not forget him as the man who was branded a terrorist by the United States government up until 2008. It is those fearless confrontations with entrenched imperialist powers that really make him great.

As one commentator beautifully put it,

“Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel. Over the next few days you will try so, so hard to make him something he was not, and you will fail. You will try to smooth him, to sandblast him, to take away his Malcolm X…You will make out that apartheid was just some sort of evil mystical space disease that suddenly fell from the heavens and settled on all of us, had us all, black or white, in its thrall, until Mandela appeared from the ether to redeem us…You will try to make out that apartheid was some horrid spontaneous historical aberration, and not the logical culmination of centuries of imperial arrogance. Yes, you will try that too. You will imply or audaciously state that its evils ended the day Mandela stepped out of jail…

Well, try hard as you like, and you’ll fail. Because Mandela was about politics and he was about race and he was about freedom and he was even about force, and he did what he felt he had to do and given the current economic inequality in South Africa he might even have died thinking he didn’t do nearly enough of it.”

With that in mind, we should celebrate the aspects of Mandela’s life that brought these issues to the fore and refuse to sanitize his beliefs and his values. We should also refuse to forget all the messy complications, and competing forces in history (including the sordid past of his wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, infighting between different political parties in the fight against apartheid, and the ANC’s collaboration with organizations such as the IMF and World Bank along with the damaging consequences of these collaborations for many South Africans). We should refuse to allow mainstream media sources to colonize his radicalism. Let’s take him at his word, because I believe that that is exactly what he would have wanted. Let’s apply the lessons he has to offer us to our own country and the injustices that are apparent all around us.

The struggle is far from over. We still have a great deal of work to do.