Icons of Feminism

I recently stumbled across this incredible series of portraits capturing the rare sight of women fighters in the Syrian civil war:

Syrian Woman Turned Revolutionary

Fadwa, 20 years old, widow with 3 children: “My husband died on the front lines, I will die on the front lines, may God help us.”

Amal, 30 years old, married, housewife with 3 children: “I’m sincere to God, that is all I need and want, the rest will come with time.”

White middle-class wankers of Marxist cliques have this tacit presumption – that they can be revolutionary at work and then go home to a Waitrose ready meal and Britain’s Got Talent. Hypocrisy is as old as it is everywhere pervasive.

This is, in fringe Western language, no less true of the orthodox communities in the Arab Spring. Aristotle saw the political community as the macrocosm of the household; he would have despaired to see far right Muslims protest for change on the street and then return to a family as stoic as footsteps on the surface of the moon. Or perhaps not. Anyway – what we can be certain of is that hunger for the vote is a far cry from cultural revolution. As we’re seeing in Egypt, and even more so in Iraq, those who were once oppressed are using their votes to settle sectarian scores and force others to live their nightmares. The activists – or whatever we wish to call them – are disproportionately male. They crave power in worlds public and private. For all the irritant definitions of any “patriarchy”, these political upheavals have left the fabric of masculinity unapologetically content.

In such a context I’m not entirely sure what the most enlightened response to these all-women fighting forces ought to be. No one is pleased with perpetual warfare, or for the disintegrated communities from which these women have formed new lives.

What these women represent is that no “patriarchy” is inevitable, I think. 20 year-old Fadwa tells us, “My husband died on the front lines, I will die on the front lines, may God help us.” Women are able to protect their families just as men can, and it emerges from the social wreckage that fascists have traditionally been best-equipped to exploit. We shouldn’t find this remarkable, but I suspect most would. The union of gun and child is so utterly disturbing that it smashes any conventions of effeminacy.

In one of Max Weber’s rare moments of concision he quipped that “the person who attempted to walk by constantly applying anatomical knowledge would be in danger of stumbling”. The nuance of ideology bows before the primacy of instinct. It’s why, whenever we race to term someone an “icon” to a movement, we should do only if they exemplify that to which his or her followers aspire. Veneration, after all, implies emulation; and to emulate an ideologue is to emulate their arguments. It’s ideological constipation. Not only does this abandon our critical reasoning of their deficiencies, leading to the most conformism of dogma, but it also assumes the perpetuity of resistance, and thereby a defeatism in which the individual strives for struggle rather than victory. An icon, in other words, should embody a movement’s dreams – not the movement itself.

Nelson Mandela is justly iconic for civil rights figures, black and white and every other gradient. Some Western liberals in the 20th century who considered themselves anti-racist did – much like those today who affirm that “Arab democrat” is a primitive paradox – argue that Mandela was a black man in a white man’s game. For them, anti-imperialism also meant anti-democracy in the most absurd phrases of cultural relativism. Obviously, that was a racist belief even if its conviction in opposition to colonial rule. The reason for Mandela’s iconic status, in other words, is that he represented democratic politics in promoting an equal share in this philosophy. If you think that’s self-evident then you’ve just proved my point – that an icon should be no more, and no less, than a tautology: a black man is born equal to a white person. The truest of truisms.

No less true of women, is it not? What the women in the women’s militia represent is that when the old rules fragment, socially as well as politically, sex is entirely irrelevant to a person’s potential. Inevitable biological differences aside, we’re left with that other obvious tautology that women are people like men and neither anything more nor less. Just as these women represent some of the most utterly desolate communities of Syria, so should an icon also be found from above. But who could possibly serve such a purpose?

I think it a lovely irony that in rejecting feminism Thatcher should have set in stone her legacy as a feminist icon – but before you send an armed guard to castrate this patronising male blogger, hear me out. Thatcher should have been thoroughly ashamed of her refusal to aid female Parliamentarians. Even today, only a quarter of our MPs are women. Now it’s in my humble opinion that you shouldn’t promote equality – and cut down sexism – by superficial politics like all-women short-lists. That will not solve gender gaps in salaries and leaves lad cultures unscathed, unabashed and altogether uncaring in their ignorant trance.

And yet – in many respects Maggie represented a lot to which the female feminist ought to aspire. By breaking their every convention she denied the existence of the ideal woman. She does not have to be liberal; she does not have to be working class; she does not have to be sympathetic to the vulnerable or pass maternalist charity to whomever beggar she greets. All of these are desirable, but they are just as desirable for a man as for a woman. Maggie neglected feminism because of her own success; with triumph ends ideology. Thatcher was a bitch – but so are an awful lot of men.

Mandela was not a black man in a white man’s game; Thatcher was no woman struggling through a man’s world; and the Syrian women do not believe in a conscious battle against any conceptual patriarchy. Take this final image:

On her head, in the place of the traditional woman’s headscarf, Em Joseph dons the keffiyeh of the Arab man. When Thatcher used her curious propensity to sexuality to navigate her way through her colleagues’ stubborn attitudes, she was accused of cheapening women’s activism and accepting male instincts. But was she? Or was she not, like Em, reminding people that conventions can be twisted by women just as much as they can be by men?

Whatever happens to these few Syrian women, I can only wish them the best of luck. Great icons – better than the self-indulgent paranoia of some radical feminists whose minds are like Shakespearean theatrics on steroids.


Like it or not, Margaret Thatcher was a democrat

Socialism is a weapon – the fiercest, I dare say, that humanism has. The friendship between people can be pretty strong but inequality fragments it; nothing cuts through a society’s common honesty and decency than the greed that shits at poverty. Without a fair playing-field good sportsmanship becomes hopelessly fantastic.

And it was Thatcher’s obsession with finance that dissipated whatever ghost of this we had. The economic power in Britain was robbed from working class communities, and it was fed to the city whose now unabashed bankers litter what seems like a perpetually recessive nation. Against this it would be not only inhuman but unhistorical not to be touched by the lost culture romanticised by Owen Jones:

The old industries were the beating hearts of the communities they sustained. Most local people had worked in similar jobs and had done so for generations. And of course the unions, whatever their faults and limitations, had given the workers in these communities strength, solidarity and a sense of power. All of this had sustained a feeling of belonging, of pride in a shared working-class experience.

The unionist chains Thatcher cast off were replaced with the prickly vines of neoliberalism – we musn’t forget it. I suspect that Hitchens was probably correct to point out that she will be remembered as “an episode in Britain’s decline rather than the answer to it”.  She chose to smother the unions rather than treat their corruption.

But Thatcherism replaced one conservatism with another, one whose authority was bolstered by its pleas to the individual and the family. This is not tyranny. The Iron Lady consistently won large majorities in Parliament, and it would be patronising – insulting – to pretend that her supporters were blind stooges spoken to in a language they couldn’t understand. Working class voters were no less likely to vote Conservative in ’83 and ’87 than anyone else; they saw, in her language, a chance to dismantle the chains with which old conservatism had suffocated their mobility. If we’re going to be intellectually serious and honest about the legacy of Thatcher then we have see her as a a democrat. No parliamentarian works alone for she never exists in a vacuum.

The denial of this is invitation of flippancy. Criticise the policies, certainly; but an elderly lady having a stroke is not something to celebrate. Nothing makes the humanist purpose of socialism so morally redundant. So these people disgust me:


The Absurd Hysteria of a Dethroned Church

Lord Carey

Lord Carey using the Force in his latest attempt to change the votes of the 400 pro-marriage equality MPs.

Had its bishops been a little more flamboyant, Charlie Chaplin’s quip that “in the light of our own egos, we are all dethroned monarchs” might just have become the motto of the Church of England. To hear nothing beyond Lord Carey’s recent bombast one might be forgiven for thinking that David Cameron had recently led an anti-theist coup to purge England of all things non-infidel:

More shockingly, the Equalities Minister, Helen Grant, recently gave her support to the Labour MP Chris Bryant’s campaign to turn the 700-year-old Parliamentary chapel of St Mary Undercroft into a multi-faith prayer room so that gay couples can get married there. The Speaker of the House of Commons is reported to be supportive of the move.

Thankfully, he elected not to predict from the omens that by dawn we’ll be burning Protestants like it’s 1554. But more:

Lord Carey also that said a recent ComRes poll suggested “more than two-thirds of Christians feel that they are part of a ‘persecuted minority'”.

“Their fears may be exaggerated because few in the UK are actually persecuted, but the prime minister has done more than any other recent political leader to feed these anxieties.”

Ah, yes. The same Cameron whose homage to our “Christian roots” will go down as one of the most embarrassing pretensions to conservatism our political establishment has seen for some years.

The bemused reader of Carey, like myself, has plenty about which to be irritated. Much like its counterpart in Tehran, 26 places are reserved specifically for the Anglican episcopate in the House of Lords; the Church’s governor is the British head of state in Queen Lizzie; on paper, at least, it is our national church. Were these merely quaint anachronisms I doubt anyone would seriously care. I might oppose it on moral and constitutional grounds but be somewhat indisposed to that extra bit of administrative waste, being the history student with a curious affection for old things that I am.

And yet it would seem that no matter how many times these points are rehearsed they will never quell the arrogance of the Anglican Church – because these legislative tidbits are more like nourishing provocateurs than comforts for the senile. That the Church has in its history sunk to the most abysmal depths of the worst criminal acts should give it cause for humility; for having opposed attempts to end the African slave trade, for opposing the emancipation of gays and women in the 1960s, for administering African colonies on behalf of the British crown, for waving the flag in 1914 as young men marched like cattle into gunfire and never dropping it. That is not the record fitting for complacency, and fitting even less as a precedent to a panicky manifesto to a secular Parliament.

So when Carey cries “persecution” one ought to be astonished, and yet is somehow embarrassed and vaguely confused. The Tudor dynastic church, scrambled together in the bedroom of Henry VIII, now ranks in matters of sexual morality far below the condom machine. And psychiatrists love to remind us that relationships begin to fall apart when the sex dries up. That’s why it’s so farcical and not at all tragic: the absurd hysteria of Anglican figures is fueled by the knowledge that, deep down, their political authority is as hollow as the crown of Richard II. It wasn’t after all always so easy to get the Church to admit that its members are now in a minority.

But Lord Carey’s remarks are as insulting as much as they are arrogant: and none less, would you believe it, than to Christians worldwide. The sad irony is that they are probably the most persecuted religious group on the planet, alongside the Jews: in the Middle-East, China, North Korea, parts of India, north Africa and even Turkey, Christians simply for their beliefs and practices might face anything from exclusion from office to death. The ideology that once gave moral directorship to imperialism has now created victims in its modern adherents. To compare this with secularism – with the position of the equality of religious and non-religious outlooks – is a pompous disgrace, one which probably won’t humiliate the Church as much as it should.

Back in Britain it would seem that the Church is dying in the bed in which it was born, brought as it was into England feeding on the marital morality of which today it is starved. It can’t stop gay marriage – how dreadful. I never really cared for it until the Church revealed why they thought it was so important to oppose it. Indeed, one can only hope for one final divorce: not just from Rome, but from Parliament. Kick out the bishops, democratise the Lords and we really will have true freedom conscience in this country.

To Chaplin’s earlier quoted line might be added another, that “life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” Think of that with the Anglican Church, who might like many others learn from Shakespeare how a dethroned monarch need not forgo his assured self-respect:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

From the BBC’s “Richard II” of “The Hollow Crown” series.


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