Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité! – Or How to Fight The War on Humanity.

It was a mild autumn evening in London, still light, the leaves still green on the trees, and I had popped into the Marble Arch branch of Marks and Spencer on my way back from work. A woman in traditional Arab dress – black burqa, her face covered – queued in front of me to pay. A companion rushed through the queue to join her, and as she pushed past me, she didn’t offer a word of explanation or apology. Once the two reached the head of the queue, they were imperious, demanding size changes and replacements in loud, accented English from the flustered young cashier.

 

‘Imagine the cheek,’ the elderly lady behind me whispered. ‘And after what has just happened.’

 

What had just happened was 9/11. It was the evening of September 12, 2001, and the world had changed forever. In a concerted series of attacks orchestrated by Muslim terrorist outfit Al Qaeda, planes were hijacked and flown into New York’s World Trade Centre’s twin towers and into the Pentagon in Washington. A fourth plane, also heading for Washington, crashed in a field in Pennsylvania after the hijackers were overcome by passengers.

 

And the two women in front of me, privileged and badly bred, suddenly seemed to so many to be the emblem of a hostile Islamist ideology. They were ‘the other’, and while people from other cultures can be badly bred and imperious too, the two women in M&S seemed to epitomise all that the Western world found incomprehensible.

 

Soon it wasn’t just those dressed in Islamic clothing who were seen as ‘the other’. Soon it was men in beards, including innocent Sikh gas station attendants in America who were attacked and killed. Soon it was anyone of colour doing anything – anything at all – out of the ordinary. Few in London will forget Jean Charles de Menezes, a twenty seven year old Brazilian man who was killed by police in Stockwell after he was wrongly suspected of being involved in the 2005 London bombings.

 

Over the past few days, it feels like the world has been changed forever once more. In a series of concerted attacks on November 13, eight militants belonging to the Islamic State (ISIS) laid siege to a host of Parisian venues. Suicide bombers detonated bombs outside the Stade de France, then playing host to a football match between France and Germany. Gunmen held a Parisian concert hall hostage, and others fired guns outside bars and restaurants in the centre of town. Over 132 were killed, and hundreds more injured. The French President, Francois Hollande, called the attack a war on France. Borders are being closed, and the unending wave of immigrants from Syria are being blamed for the atrocities. It is important to note, though, that at least one of the Paris attackers was a French citizen. And that ISIS is attacking more than just France. The attacks on Paris follow ISIS led attacks on Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Turkey and Tunisia, and can rightly be recast as a war on humanity. As an attack on civilisation. A war that the overwhelmingly vast majority of refugees is looking to flee.

 

The way to fight this war, in the near term at least, is almost certainly through combat. But in the rush to eradicate ISIS, it is important not to alienate whole populations. Israel’s aggressiveness towards Palestine hasn’t led to any lasting solution in the area. And funding militants to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s led to the birth of the Taliban. Recent interventions in the Arab world have had a large role to play in the rise of ISIS. There is no good terrorist, and once you give credence to a vengeful ideology, there is no hoping for peace. The allies of today in this demented, ceaseless holy war are very often the adversaries of tomorrow.

 

It is important too, to consider the realities closer to home. Rising Islamophobia in the aftermath of 9/11 is sometimes blamed for the fundamentalisation of parts of Britain’s Muslim population. This may well be true. Muslims – women with their heads covered, men in beards – are conspicuous enough in times of tension. And as the rhetoric in the West has teetered between the twin poles of tolerance and vengeance, it is understandable that a tiny minority in the Muslim community have felt isolated. These people are almost invariably young, and like most impressionable teenagers, they are looking to fit in. They don’t want to be seen as ‘the other’. And when the streets of their native Britain don’t feel hospitable, they start to look to others that do. These people, children still for the most part, are prime prey for fundamentalist voices advocating a ‘purer’ way of life. And it is unutterably sad that there are women among the number who feel drawn to join the Islamic State, even as they are denied so many basic freedoms under an extreme and literal interpretation of Islam.

 

As the world rushes to retaliate to the latest declaration of war by Islamist terrorists, it is important not to be knee-jerk in our reactions. It’s important not to confuse those fleeing extremists with the extremists. It is important not to identify the moderate face of Islam with a tiny, fundamentalist minority. It is important not to blame ‘the other’, such as the innocent Canadian Sikh man – who had never stepped foot inside Paris – who found his image photo-shopped to fit the picture of one of the Paris attackers. It is key not to answer intolerance with intolerance. Just as it is vital not to answer militancy by funding militancy. Promoting secularism is the answer, in the fractured Middle East just as much as in the West. Humanity’s best hope lies in the rallying cries of the French Revolution – Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité! Because that indeed is something worth fighting for.

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WHY SHOULD A WOMAN VOTE?

I was recently asked by a friend if I was going to vote in the upcoming elections.

No, I replied, explaining that there was no candidate I felt strongly enough about.

‘But you must,’ she said.

I told her I lived in a marginal constituency, where the candidate representing the ‘least worst party’ was certain to win. My vote wasn’t even required from marginal considerations.

‘But you must,’ she repeated passionately. ‘As a woman you have to vote.’

We fell into a discussion about how recently women had won – no, wrought – the right to vote less than a century ago. We spoke of the sacrifices they had made, the violence they had faced, and how they had to fight against their own social mores. We discussed the many parts of the world where women still struggled to get their voices heard. There were the obvious examples like Saudi Arabia, where women can’t so much as drive a car, but also the India I originate from – a vibrant democracy – where women often bear the shame of being raped. They are chastised for wearing inappropriate clothes or for being out of their homes after dark. The rapists’ actions are excused away by their feudal, patriarchal apologists – boys will be boys.

In these societies there is much work to be done to further female empowerment. Empowerment, perhaps, is an ambitious term. In many cases, work needs to be done to just keep women alive and safe. Girl foetuses need to be allowed to live; girl children need to gain access to food, healthcare and education; young girls need to be able to leave home for work or for leisure without fear; they need to be able to marry without the stain of dowry; they need to not be punished for infertility or for bearing girl children; and after old age descends on them and their husbands pass away, they need to not fear being thrown out of the homes they have created for their children.

These worries, these struggles they face, they seem so different from those that concern us in the developed world. I worry that I am expected to take on more of the duties around the home than my husband is. I worry about my daughter’s burgeoning love for dolls, even though I delight in her nurturing character. When I worked in investment banking, I rankled at the sexist office culture. Out of an analyst intake of 50, only 6 were women. Of course there are more serious infractions taking place against women in the developed world. Women are raped in the West too. They are groomed for sex too. They meet with violence too. But they are treated – for the most part – like the blameless, innocent victims that they are.

I have a foot in both worlds – as an Indian living in England, I identify with the issues faced by women in both cultures. There is no denying there is more work to be done in the developing world than in the developed. There is more absolute inequality in the developing world. There are more human rights infringed, and more women placed in daily danger.

But does this mean that I run the risk of forgetting the work that still needs to be done in the interests of equality in the West? Am I forgetting that work practices in the developed world still need to be improved, or that the everyday sexism that pervades our society still needs to be eradicated? Should I, as my friend suggested, be exercising my franchise as a duty to my gender?

On the whole, I think not. And this, I feel, is not an abandonment of my feminist duty. I greatly admire the women who went before me, the fearless trailblazers who often sacrificed family for career, all in order to achieve the rights that we now are able to take for granted. I truly appreciate all they did.

But my present apathy is a function of their achievement. The suffragettes and the feminists of the 20th century won us the freedoms we see as our birth right. My decision to vote or to abstain is as personal a calculation today as that of a man. My decision to study for a degree or to gain employment is just that, a private decision unprejudiced by my gender, even though these were hard fought freedoms too. True liberty is the freedom to choose. My greatest feminist endeavour now lies in campaigning for a woman’s voice when it goes unheard. Voting for an uninspiring candidate in a non-marginal constituency in an unexciting election – this mercifully no longer forms the greatest exercise of my strength.