Due to technical errors, the publication of this article was delayed by two weeks.
Faced with grizzly videos of beheadings and massacres, the demand that something must be done about the so-called Islamic State (Isis) is a natural reaction. Moreover, given the hundreds of billions of dollars the west spends on defence, it seems reasonable to think that doing something should be possible. After all, what’s the point of all our expensive weaponry (The F-22 Raptor, on its first combat missions in Iraq, costs the US $150mn apiece) if we can’t achieve something with it? It is a mistake to think this is the case: western intervention carries no guarantees of defeating Isis in any meaningful sense, while bearing a significant risk of worsening the situation.
Public and political opinion has shifted in favour of intervention, but it is hard to say what for – we are rushing headlong into a conflict against an ill-defined enemy with an ill-defined mission. Airstrikes can certainly hamper Isis’ ability to make war by preventing their forces from moving openly and striking their command structures and heavy weaponry, but airstrikes alone cannot defeat the group. Even with ground support, defeating Isis is as much about creating a society that rejects the group as about victory on the battlefield. This is where the plan comes unravelled, and the bigger question appears: what is our endgame? What does mission-accomplished look like?
The west has intervened against many undoubtedly disagreeable regimes in recent years – most recently in Libya – but western leaders have often found winning the peace to be much harder than winning the war. In Iraq, the US-led coalition forces were able to defeat Saddam’s army in six weeks, but after eight years of occupation and reconstruction the mission to build a stable, inclusive liberal democracy has clearly failed. It is hard to say with any confidence that Iraq today is any better off than if the 2003 invasion had not taken place.
Similarly, in Libya the western military campaign was a success – Gaddafi’s regime was brought down with few civilian casualties. But the unpleasant regime has not been replaced by a desirable one, but rather by what looks increasingly like a failed state and a civil war. Time will tell if Libya develops into the sort of state the west would like to see, but the signs do not look encouraging.
We cannot be at all sure that any power vacuum left by weakening Isis will not be filled by equally unpleasant groups – as has happened to varying degrees in both Iraq and Libya. Even if the Iraqi government can restore control, undermine Isis’ support base, and create an inclusive society, continued instability in Syria will permeate the porous border. Plans to arm moderate elements of the Syrian opposition to fight both Isis and Assad do not appear credible at this point. Our best likely endgames look like either victory for Assad and stability in Iraq, or continued civil war spilling across the Syrian border, hardly hopeful prospects.
And then, what if the aerial campaign doesn’t work?
This is where the real risk lies – if a combination of western-led airstrikes and Iraqi forces proves insufficient to dislodge Isis, then what? Large scale supplies of combat equipment to the Peshmerga and/or Iraqi Army seems a likely next step (and indeed has already begun). This equipment will need to be accompanied by ‘advisors’ to ensure its proper use – any weaponry likely to make a difference will require specialist training, if not outright operation. From here, how long until these advisors play a combat role – either operating hi-tech weaponry alongside local allies or scouting targets for airstrikes?
There is still little real appetite, even in the USA, for a long and protracted engagement and the body count that implies. Anything that Isis can spin as a western defeat will strengthen and legitimise the group far more than not intervening. If the west is not prepared to pay the price in blood and treasure necessary to conclusively defeat Isis, a half-hearted attempt that leads us to an ambiguous defeat and withdrawal is worse than doing nothing. Our current course may well force us to decide between escalation and ignominious retreat.
Worse still, western intervention on the ground has the potential to turn the perception of the conflict into a war between the west and the (Sunni) Muslim world – as Isis would so clearly like it to be seen. Nothing will build support for militant jihad more than the presence of yet more western troops in the Middle East – if our concern really is about our own security, this certainly doesn’t enhance it.
Embarking on a campaign to defeat a group of violent fundamentalists and bring freedom and democracy to Iraq (again) sounds like a worthy ideal. Embarking on a campaign to replace one group of sectarian murderers with another, hopefully less-bad group, all while running the risk of getting sucked into a long and bloody conflict, does not.
PHOTO/ US Department of Defense Current Photos
I arrive mid-rehearsal of Fat Pig into an intense argument that feels more like a courtroom drama than the scene of a comedy. Yet, the immediate connection I witnessed between characters solidifies what this play is about – human relations and interactions.
Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig has been widely performed since its inception in 2006 from Melbourne to Mexico City. This is indicative of the play’s universal appeal dealing with the endless obsession with weight in society.
Talking to the director/producer/lead actress (and probably more roles than can be listed here) Phosile Mashinkila, she tells me that this universal appeal is why she wanted to put this play on in Oxford. We are bombarded with a constant stream of body shaming every day in the media yet it still remains a difficult topic to talk about.
Fat Pig concerns Tom (Jason Imlach) who falls in love with plus-sized Helen (the aforementioned Phosile Mashinkila) and how his friends and colleagues react to this. Yet, this play with its brash direct dialogue is not pushing morals but instead about confronting this issue head on. The audience may feel uncomfortable, they may not want to hear the horrible things that are being discussed but surely a shout out loud is better than a whisper behind backs.
The Burton Taylor Studio, then, is perhaps a perfect venue for this play. With its not-quite darkness, and closely compacted seats, the will be no space for an audience to hide. This is not to say that the play isn’t an enjoyable watch as LaBute’s writing offers comedy as well as depth that Mashinkila’s clever directorial touches aid – whether it be the sly offering of chocolate or the dramatic dropping of a book.
The scene I was shown was the second scene in the play – a tense office scene where Tom is confronted by both his co-workers – Jeanie (Martha Reed) and Carter (Brian Chandrabose) – asking whether he is seeing someone. Even in this brief extract it is clear to see that the actors have thought a great deal about their dynamics and relationship. As an audience member, you already begin to question your sympathy when the bullied Tom in one interaction becomes spineless in another.
This play is what the best drama is – real people and real situations. Down to its uncomfortable dialogue, bitter sweet ending and comedic moments, this is a play you won’t want to miss.
As one of the most famous university societies in the world, the Oxford Union Society is one of the most valuable assets the University has; the opportunity to listen to world-class speakers and debates exposes people to conflicts of opinion, new ideas and controversial topics. It’s hardly surprising that Oxford consequently produces so many future politicians. With an equally talented committee and team of debaters, the Union does present some of the very best parts of Oxford.
However, unless we’re careful, the Union’s place within the University as a forum for well-matched and heated debate will be lost. To some extent it already has been.
Before my arrival in Oxford this month as a Fresher, I was already well aware of the controversies that often surround the Union, particularly recently. I was expecting a certain level of distrust from the students. Most importantly, I was expecting this to be across all the students. On arrival however, I discovered it is a startlingly different state of affairs.
As expected, the Union was full to bursting on the evening of the annual debate on the motion, “This house has no confidence in Her Majesty’s government”. A debate of almost legendary status, there was a noticeably strong turnout of Freshers, our first experience of the Union. However, what started to become clear was the presence of OUCA. Specifically, vocal OUCA men. On looking around to find similar representation by other political and social societies of the University, I simply couldn’t find any. OUCA’s presence was in no way a bad thing. The fact that it was not matched by any other groups and the startlingly few women among their numbers, is a bad thing. On speaking to people around Oxford, it is Feminist groups and politically centrist or left societies who have taken the strongest stand against the Union. As a student who falls into both of those categories, I had, at times, a rather uncomfortable evening.
Thankfully, any denial of Labour’s responsibility for the UK’s recession was hotly contested by the Tory MPs. Sir Alan Duncan’s sexist joke for cheap laughs however didn’t receive the reaction it should have done. It received laughs. Perhaps an indication of why, twice, the President of the Union had to directly appeal for women speakers to take the floor. Alok Sharma’s description of Thatcher as the light at the end of the 70’s Labour tunnel received cheers that were not answered with boos or protestation. The same occurred when a student made a speech for the opposition arguing that 100 years ago we were “Number One” in the world, but now, thanks to Labour, we are a measly “Number six.” Sorry, but brutal colonialism isn’t really my thing. And just to make sure a sufficient range of people felt out of place, Nicky Morgan’s tale of phoning up her Father to ask for £80 to join the Union was simply privileged, darling.
This is absolutely not a criticism of the Tories. The Union should be upheld as forum of free speech and debate. Right or wrong, it is the controversial issues which appeal to the student body and get people talking the most. And the Debate certainly had plenty to offer. Yet these issues weren’t received as controversial because of the imbalance of representation at the Debate. My gasps of astonishment were hardly going to be audible amongst the cheers of Tory men. By failing to appeal to Feminist groups and other political parties, the debate embodies the precarious self-perpetuating imbalance that made and will continue to make people like me more and more uncomfortable.
It’s not an easy situation to resolve. The logical argument would be for me to encourage as many people to join the Union as possible and attend as many debate and talks as possible, to ensure the imbalance I witnessed on Thursday of 1st week is rebalanced. However, with 29 men to just 5 women as guest speakers on the term card, the imbalance seems to be institutional. While this may be of no surprise, as a woman, I am hardly enthused by the prospect of dedicating 83% (ish) of my time to a testosterone-filled chamber.
Yet by simply not attending the Union, I am only adding to the gender and political imbalance that I witnessed. By encouraging others to not attend, I am reducing yet further the number of people who can dispute the generally right-of-centre male arguments. For me, distancing myself from the Union on political grounds is the easy option. Refusing to join on feminist grounds is a well-founded one. But encouraging people simply not to join won’t change anything. By not paying my membership fee I would be reducing the Union’s ability to invite women. This will do nothing to institutionally change the Union.
Our protestations have to be loud. We need to encourage other political groups to have as strong a presence in the Union as possible. From Labour to UKIP. If OUCA want to reserve seats at a debate, so they should, but so also should everyone else. Understandably, there will be students and alumni who simply will not feel comfortable partaking in Union events. As a woman and a Feminist I am well aware of this and have grappled with the same decision. Either way, our protest cannot be silent. I will simply not accept a Union who sees 5 out of 34 as an adequate number of women speakers.
By attending as many of the Union’s events as possible, you are making your voice heard and representing a different perspective. The power of one person cannot be undervalued in this situation. It is through this that we can hope to change the unequal representation I witnessed at the Debate. For those who choose to make their stand by staying away, make your protestations as vocal as possible. This is our only hope of saving the Union as a force for good.
Union Secretary Dom Merchant has resigned for ‘health reasons’.
Merchant, a 2nd year at New College, issued a statement, saying: “It is with great regret that I am resigning my position as Secretary for health reasons. I have greatly enjoyed my time on committee and am very sorry for the disruption this will cause to the committee and the members. However, I need to put my own well-being first and I am unable to continue in the role.”
Stand-up, spoken-word and performance poetry have long seemed secondary in Oxford’s crowded cultural milieu to theatre and music, driven underground and out of town to places like Jericho’s Albion Beatnik Bookstore. New spoken-word night From the Horse’s Mouth aims for nothing less than bringing what has long been a quietly thriving scene to the ears, eyes, hearts and souls of the Oxford mainstream.
Trigger warning: discussion of transphobia, sexual violence and murder; exploration of “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” ideology
On the 20th of November, trans people will light candles and read the names of the people in our community that have been murdered. Last year we heard names like Evon Young, a 23 year old that was taken into a basement, choked with a chain and beaten with tools until they died, and an unnamed 13 year old child that was strangled to death. This is a world in which 63% of trans people have experienced some form of serious discrimination (including but not limited to eviction, physical assault and sexual assault) and 51% of UK trans students say they have seriously considered dropping out of their studies.
With this in mind, I was greatly upset to read Elsa Field’s piece in the St. John’s College (SJC) Gender Equality Festival Zine (entitled “What is a woman? In defence of a Radical Future”). The article is typified by two statements. First, it is telling that the article opens with a defence of FemiFest (http://www.femifest2014.com/about/4582419922), a trans exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) event which included three of the most prominent transmisogynists around today. Perhaps the worst of the line-up was the ‘academic’ Janice Raymond, author of “The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male” in which she claims that “all transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artefact, appropriating this body for themselves …. Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive”. With her was Germaine Greer, who called trans women “a ghastly parody” of women with “too much eyeshadow”, and Julie Bindel, author of the infamous “shoving a bit of vacuum hose down your 501s does not make you a man” quote. By platforming transmisogynists, Field immediately aligned herself with the people that uphold institutionalised transphobia. Secondly, the article is typified by her complaint that “radical” feminists shouldn’t have to face no-platforming because they “challenge the view that a man who has his penis surgically removed has become a woman”. This statement reveals a number of myths about trans women such as that they all go through surgery, that trans women aren’t women until they have genital reassignment surgery, or that all designated male at birth trans folks identify solely as women. Moreover, the violence enacted through the intentional misgendering of the abstract trans woman (who is not a man) given contributes to the wider dismissal of transphobia, and specifically the gendered aspect of trans-related violence – note for instance that the majority of the names we heard on the Trans Day of Remembrance names women of colour.
What is most damaging about Field’s piece is the section on the science of gender where she asks “how can a child of 12, who thinks they are transgender because they display non-gender normative behaviours, possibly understand enough about the complexity of our society to warrant taking puberty blocking drugs?”. It is tempting to dismiss this statement as simply factually incorrect – a Dutch study (http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2014/09/02/peds.2013-2958.abstract#__utma=149406063.23235221.1413722672.1413727086.1413744686.3&__utmb=149406063.1.10.1413744686&__utmc=149406063&__utmx=-&__utmz=149406063.1413744686.3.2.utmcsr=google|utmccn=%28organic%29|utmcmd=organic|utmctr=%28not%20provided%29&__utmv=-&__utmk=164010431) of earlier this year found that psychological functioning in trans youth “steadily improved” in those that took blockers. However, the arrogance displayed by Field in thinking that she knows more about someone’s gender than they themselves do (particularly when children often understand the social construction of gender better than adults) feeds into a healthcare system that removes autonomy from trans people and allows our bodies to be controlled by cisgender gatekeepers. Indeed, it is telling that she so idolises Janice Raymond, who in addition to “The Transsexual Empire…” wrote a paper for the US government that advocated the limiting of trans-related healthcare services and is the reason why it was only in May this year that hormones were first given in the US under Medicare, and is why Medicaid and most insurance policies still don’t provide hormones for trans people. It is also important to be clear that the denial of healthcare to trans people is violence – study after study has shown that happiness greatly increases following transition, and considering the combined facts that 19% of trans people are denied health care and 41% have attempted suicide, this can have a life-changing effect. If Elsa Field truly thinks that denying trans people healthcare is a radical act, then I would point her to Andrea Dworkin, who said that “every transsexual has the right to survival on his/her (sic) own terms. That means every transsexual is entitled to a sex-change operation, and it should be provided by the community as one of its functions”.
The crux of Field’s essay comes down to a confused notion of gender abolition – the idea that if we just got rid of gender, there would be no sexism. The problem with this is not only that gender is never accurately defined (and indeed when it is so socially constructed and bound up in the irreducibility of culture, I doubt it ever can be), but also that there is a huge conflation of gender and gender roles. Trans people, just like cis people, internalise social pressures to perform gender, which makes the problem not trans identities, but gender roles. Indeed, Field mentions time after time how conformist trans women are, but forgets that every day we go out into the streets we face threats of violence because we are undermining people’s assumptions about gender roles in society, because we are deconstructing the rigidity of the gender binary – a concept that Field ironically clings to when reducing our bodies down to our genitals.
It is such a shame that this was published in the SJCs Gender Equality Festival Zine, an incredibly diverse and open festival. It is a credit to the rest of the committee that they have taken such swift action in publicly decrying this hateful, bigoted piece, and I hope this one deeply transphobic piece doesn’t take away from the rest of the week. However, considering this piece was meant to be in a zine encouraging equality, it is now the time to talk about whether we should be giving a platform to TERFs in our spaces. This is not an argument between equal parties; TERFs command huge sway in the wider feminist community whilst trans activists face discrimination at every turn. Providing these so-called “radical” feminists with a space to spread their literally deadly lies should be fought against wherever it springs up, and I would strongly recommend any policy that no-platforms transphobes.
(All statistics from the NUS research “Education Beyond the Straight and Narrow” (2014) (http://www.nus.org.uk/Global/lgbt-research.pdf) or the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force research “Injustice at Every Turn” (2011) (http://www.thetaskforce.org/static_html/downloads/reports/reports/ntds_full.pdf) )