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.

‘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.