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. 

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.

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.

A Defense of Naivety: Creativity in Political Debate

Bits and pieces of cheap food and drinks lie scattered over the surface of the kitchen table. Monday morning classes are comfortably far away and someone pulls out a quarter and empty bottles to begin playing a simple game called spinners. We, students and roommates, relax amid friendly banter and joking taunts about the relative talent of each player. Then, as usual, the discussion turns to politics. Sooner or later things begin to get heated, and a word surfaces that I’d heard many times before: “you’re so naïve…”

Young, naive idealist in "Mr Smith Goes to Washington" (1939)

Young, naive idealist in “Mr Smith Goes to Washington” (1939)

I spent countless nights of undergrad this way, sitting around a table with roommates and friends, laughing and chatting exactly like this. That period of my life is forever associated with the political debates I had with my fellow students during those years. But marring these experiences is a particular insult which was often directed my way during those discussions. On more than one occasion and in several different contexts I was labelled by my peers as “naïve.” Whether the topic was gun registries, LGBTQ rights, military interventions or the merits of capitalism the word seemed to dog my every step. The merits of the arguments made were always registered along the political spectrum. Not surprisingly, I found myself somewhere on the left and, in the eyes of my interlocutors, teetering on its extremity.

Since this word tended to dry up otherwise rich discussions, and always found its way into the conversation after I had laid out some idea in considerable depth and detail I began to resent it. I began to grow wary of its usage and prepare for its slinking movements through the conversation, always headed in my direction. Being called this word stung. I knew I was no professor of political science but I saw no reason why my opinions were less valid or valuable than my peers.

My response at the time was to combat this word, head on. I endeavoured to read more, see more, think harder, and insulate myself from the possibility of ever being called naïve again. But I have come to realize that I should be complimented the next time someone with whom I am debating politics calls me naïve.

The truth is that “naivety” is relative; it is dependent on time and place. Who gets to use it is also dependent on whose point of view most closely resembles the ideas of those in power. Labelling someone naïve conveys a non-threatening, easily dismissible point of view. What it really means is that your thinking is so far outside the bounds of their narrow scope of possibility that they have no other choice than to use this label for you in order to avoid the pain of cognitive dissonance.

Eventually I realized that this accusation should never deter you from thinking about politics creatively. Accepting your own supposed naivety actually works in favour of the political status quo. For this reason, if you are serious at all about disrupting the status quo, it is essential that you not take this accusation to heart (But don’t for a second think that I am advocating a lapse in doing the hard, dirty work of critically examining your own beliefs – that is another matter entirely).

I realized that the people who called me naïve in my politics did it simply because to them, I did appear naïve. I was formulating political stances outside of the realm of the political status quo. I was not advocating replacing the current ‘old white guy’ with a new ‘old white guy.’ I was advocating something else entirely – a different system, a different way of thought.

The trouble with accepting this accusation as a reliable representation of reality is that it discounts the fact that you have your own unique experience of the world. Just because those are not necessarily shared with the people you’re debating, doesn’t mean that they aren’t valid. Just because the people you may be debating are unimaginative and narrow in their thinking, thoroughly stuck in the morass that is the current political reality, doesn’t mean that you need to impose the same limits on yourself. Your experiences are valid, and so is your opinion.

After thinking about it, I began to see that the accusation against me as naïve mirrored accusations against the study of humanities in general. My conversations on politics with fellow students mirrored the wider debate (heavily influenced by neoliberal doctrine) going on within wider society on education, jobs, and what kinds of fields are considered “useful” and which are not. Fields like economics, engineering and business are not unimportant, of course. They open up ways of thinking which enable us to solve certain problems. But if we limit ourselves to these fields exclusively, and insist on their valuation above all other ways of thinking, then we (as a society) are going to run into some serious problems.

It seems to me that the real target in all of this is creativity itself. The humanities and arts provide training in a certain kind of creative thought. I propose that creativity is by definition the enemy of the status quo, because it enables us to think outside of our current political limitations. It makes perfect sense that instruments of the status quo, or people who are benefitted by the current system would want to squelch your political creativity. Creativity implies change, it implies coming up with alternative ways of thinking, and living, and acting politically. More of that is exactly what we need.

The real sting comes when we realize that the accusation of naivety is often hurled at youth. As people who fall into this category, we need to realize that this is part of the game. If we are demoralized, unsure of ourselves, lacking confidence in our ability to observe the world around us, think critically about it and then formulate political opinions on it, we will never change anything. And that’s exactly what they want.

I would like to humbly suggest that we embrace this word, naivety – it means we’re doing something right. The old ways of thinking about politics can be (and will be) pushed aside. Just because we are young does not mean that we are wrong. Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes on a problem can be the turning point in solving it. Just because we have enthusiasm and energy does not mean that it is misguided. The fact that we have not yet been tired out and beaten down by the monotony and hopelessness of the current system is something we should be proud of, not shamed by. The word naivety should not shut down the conversation, and it should not deter you from speaking your mind. Let those who are “tired” step aside. We’re more than ready to take the torch.

And lastly, go ahead – call me naïve. I dare you.