Gowns, grades and getting in to Oxford

There’s a lot of talk about the need to change Oxford stereotypes. It’s now the university’s mission to prove to all those teachers and future applicants that prancing around in gowns and attending graduation services in Latin doesn’t mean that you’re rich – or, for that matter, that you come from a private school. (more…)

ISIL Response

There are no easy answers to Isis

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



Why the first debate of the year has left me with little confidence in the Union


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.




Transmisogyny and “Radical” feminism

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 (, 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 (|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) ( or the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force research “Injustice at Every Turn” (2011) ( )

Mouth Taped Shut

Farewell to Free Speech.

It is sad, truly, when principles which form the basis of democracy are battered and moulded beyond recognition. So it is that the freedom of speech has been debased to the point where it no longer resembles its true meaning. It has been mutilated into a catch-all excuse for any sort of unethical, offensive, or even illegal behaviour.

The thefts and subsequent publications of celebrity photographs have been mulled over by virtually all news media, but there is an amusing contrast to the NSA revelations. Granted, state surveillance has its differences from the selective stealing of private photos – but at least the NSA has some excuse for its behaviour, however irksome Ben Franklin would have found it. Oddly enough, no-one was saying ‘Shouldn’t have saved your stuff on the iCloud!” when the NSA was found with one hand in their emails. Perhaps if they’d shared some of the juicier material, we would have hundreds of Voltaires in the street, defending mass surveillance to the death.

Invasions of privacy are wearingly routine: the very fact that we have ministers mentioning revenge porn is evidence. Much has been made over the reason that in this case, celebrities were targeted: commentators have called it a power-play, an attempt to put famous women in their place. I’d say the answer is, by and large, a little less profound. It seems to ignore the deluge of other women whose photos have undoubtedly been splashed out across the internet, and downloaded onto thousands of computers. Men want pornography; naked celebrities offer (A) nudity and (B) some rarity and excitement – but (A) probably trumps (B). It feels worryingly unlikely that those who stole the photos or continue to share them even have the capacity to imagine the real people behind them.

The act was a crime, regardless, and although we can quibble over specifics and the apparent favouritism of the FBI, at the least the general outrage of Celebgate might cause some actual changes in certain quarters of the internet. I remain doubtful, because there is a deeper problem when it comes to free speech, and the internet in particular. Granted, there are the typical issues of hate speech which have plagued traditional media. These are amplified online, but for the most part, they exist within communities of likeminded idiots: the Stormfronts and Global Islamic Media Fronts of the world, hives of hatred abusing tolerance for the sake of intolerance. There is a newer phenomenon, however, a slavish devotion to principles, as in the Violentacrez saga.

For those who missed it, Violentacrez (Michael Brutsch) was a member of Reddit. With a keen eye for spotting illegal content, he built strong relationships with moderators, who in turn allowed him to build up his own impressive array of obscene images. Founder of the /r/jailbait subreddit, filled with sexualised photos of underage girls, as well as dozens of other depressingly unpleasant forums, Brutsch was outed by Adrian Chen, a reporter for Gawker, in late 2012. The effects of the ‘doxing’, or release of private information, was unsurprisingly devastating for Brutsch, who lost his job and whose funding by members of Reddit doesn’t appear to have added up to much. Yet the amount of vitriol which Gawker received is stunning.

For violating one of Reddit’s central tenets, the protection of personally identifiable information, the website was banned from Reddit – at first totally, but even after this ban was lifted, numerous sub-reddits continued to block links to Gawker. You can argue about Chen’s ethics in outing Brutsch – you can accuse him of playing vigilante – but this doesn’t take away from what Redditors were defending in the name of free speech. Paedophilic images; pictures of abused women; hideous racism – all were inconsequential, as far as they were concerned. No matter the content, the principle seems to be that you cannot reveal the real names of the monsters.

I’m intrigued as to where they go with this. Certainly, it would be unfair to pretend that doxing doesn’t have the potential to be harmful. Brutsch lost his job, but at the least it was the right person. In the case of the suicide of Amanda Todd, Anonymous succeeded in doxing the wrong one – perhaps an admirable act of vigilante justice, but woefully misdirected.

Nevertheless, the free speech argument remains unsteady. There is an irony to the fact that the same people who criticise ‘white knights’ and ‘social justice warriors’ are driven by equal delusions of grandeur. Perhaps these free-speech defenders really believe that censorship or the outing of paedophiles is a slippery slope to a totalitarian state – that we’ll have our own Tiananmen Square online, where the forces of democracy, standing for truth, justice, and creepshots will be ruled over by the tanks of censorship? If so, I will put the whole length of my name on the line and say, don’t worry. It’ll be fine, really. In the meantime, people are being hurt by having their images ruthlessly plastered across the net to be jeered at by total strangers – and no matter of ‘free speech’ makes that any better.

In the end, if J S Mill clambered into a time machine and ended up on Reddit, I can’t imagine he would be best pleased with the use of ‘free speech’ for so much offence. Arguments that total anonymity is needed or else the edifice of freedom of speech will collapse are illogical at best. If you don’t have the courage or the intellect to admit that what you are doing hurts others, and you have to hide behind some slippery slope argument of fascist oppression, then you don’t really deserve the internet.

But don’t worry; you’ve got plenty of company.


PHOTO/Jennifer Moo


How do we slash our sugar intake?

It was a classic BBC News juxtaposition. First, the news that scientists from UCL and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine now recommend that sugar should make up no more than 3 per cent of our energy intake, in order to reduce tooth decay. This follows the recommendation from the World Health Organisation earlier this year that we halve our daily sugar intake in order to tackle obesity. Then, barely five minutes later, came the announcement that the London Eye will be sponsored by none other than Coca-Cola from January.

In less than 300 seconds, the BBC managed to encapsulate the problems we face when it comes to sugar. On the one hand, we are more and more frequently being bombarded with facts telling us how bad sugar is for our health. On the other, there is relentless pressure from the food and drink industry to increase our sugar intake through advertising, sponsorship, and special deals. For students especially, avoiding ‘bad’ sugar is nigh on impossible.

For most of the last four decades, the whipping boy of food health has been saturated fats; now, sugar seems to have taken over the mantle. Worse for your blood pressure than salt, worse for heart disease than fat, and the cause of a raft of diseases from cancer to Alzheimer’s to tooth decay, as well as being one of the leading causes of obesity, sugar is now the food to avoid according to the experts.

Of course, that’s not just added sugar: the recommendations of the WHO (World Health Organisation) cover “all sugars added to food, as well as sugar naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit concentrates”. These sugars are what is known as ‘empty calories’ – they play no positive role in your body’s internal workings, but are incredibly harmful and, even worse, hugely addictive. They are also the sugars that are nearly impossible to avoid.

The sponsorship of the London Eye by Coca-Cola is a case in point. London’s most visited tourist attraction is now sponsored by a company whose flagship drink would already take the average adult to their 5 per cent of their sugar target with just a single can. And the Eye’s not the only one: Cadbury sponsored the London 2012 Olympics, while Coca-Cola also sponsored the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. An Australian study found that children are being exposed to unhealthy messages for up to four hours per week during community sport. Large ‘community’ events and institutions are not taking their public responsibility seriously.

Neither are supermarkets. Walking into the Tesco on St Giles’ , you’re immediately assaulted by a host of freshly baked sugary ‘treats’ on one side, while the other showcases the latest deals on chocolates and sweets. Food manufacturers also include added sugar into a whole host of foods, from cereals to ketchup to pasta sauces, and even bread. It’s almost impossible for a student to live on a budget-friendly diet and at the same time avoid added sugar.

So, what can be done? The government claims that we are the first European country to have introduced voluntary traffic-light systems on food packaging so consumers can see how much sugar their food contains. But the problem is with the word ‘voluntary’: many companies have simply not signed up, and even if they do, knowing how much sugars is in your food won’t do much good if your student loan can’t stretch to more expensive foods without added sugar. A whole host of possible solutions have been suggested, including a controversial “sugar tax”, but it is clear that, whatever the solution, something has to be done to help people who want to take the latest health advice on board, but simply aren’t able to do so.


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