Category Archives: Politics

Why I March…

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences”— Audre Lorde

I woke up on January 20, 2017 with a feeling of dread in my stomach. I knew all too well that at 4:00pm GMT a new president would be taking an oath of office in the United States. Being both an American and an international student at Birkbeck, I spent the previous year worrying about first, Brexit – Would I get my scholarship? Would my fees change? Would I feel welcome in the UK?  -and second, the toxic rhetoric surrounding Donald Trump’s campaign – Would I have equal rights as a woman? Would my black, LGBTQ and immigrant friends be safe?

If I felt helpless on January 20th, then I felt empowered on January 21st. With plans to attend the Women’s March on London at noon, I awoke early. I chose wool socks, pulled jeans over long johns, grabbed a hat, and picked out my warmest scarf (cashmere – a gift from Bolivia). Deciding to make feminism the theme of the day, I walked over to The Photographer’s Gallery, where an exhibition entitled Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970’s was on in full force. I was greeted with free entry (every day before noon – great for students!) and five floors to explore.

Two floors showcased pieces of art that I am not qualified to critique, but their striking international scope highlighted diverse ways of approaching the issue. For those of us feeling small in the face of patriarchy and wondering what we can possibly do to fight this, the fifth floor was key. A few larger-than-life light box photos and a film, Joanne by Simon Fujiwara, were compelling in the way they opposed the typical portrayal of a woman as one-dimensional. The project depicted Joanne from the perspective of who she is, rather than what she looks like. In her words, “I feel like I’m cheating if I say: I am a model, I am a teacher, I am a lover, I am an artist, I am a chameleon, I am a fighter . . . I am a person . . . I am a female.”

Joanne, in the film, watching over Joanne, the athlete, from Simon Fujiwara: Joanne at The Photographers’ Gallery

Inspired by the active role Joanne played in re-branding herself as a complex human being and feeling a bit more hopeful, I headed towards Grosvenor Square. As I neared the meeting point I saw my first pussyhat. I followed the pink ears towards the rapidly-growing crowd and was met by a variety of signs.

There were some standards being handed out: “Reject Hate, Reclaim Politics,” “No to Racism, No to Trump,” some poignant quotes: “But still, like air, I’ll rise,” by Maya Angelou, “When they go low, we go high,” by Michelle Obama, and “Women’s rights are human rights,”  from Hillary Rodham Clinton,

The true creativity of some participants was shown in more heartfelt hand-written signs, such as “Respect existence or expect resistance,” “Viva la vulva,” and “Women of the world UNITE!”. For 5 or more hours I felt the hope creep slowly back into my worldview as we gathered together, wound our way along Piccadilly, then convened in impressive numbers at Trafalgar Square (nearly 100,000 people in London alone).

Excitedly, I watched online as other groups gathered across the Western Hemisphere. The high was muted however, as a polarised stance was emerging on social media. Among the disparaging comments, a friend posed the question:

“I’ve tried looking up specifically what is being protested, but it seems exceptionally vague. Womens [sic] rights and visibility, I know, but specifically?”

It wasn’t the first, nor the last question like this that I saw, and although I like to promote research into topics that are a bit out of one’s grasp, I think friends of mine were looking for a more personal response. For them, and any others wondering:

I march..

…because rhetoric in the United States (and throughout the world) has disrespected women, demonized immigrants and threatened all minorities.

…because I want to make decisions about my body.

…because everyday sexism is ignored, denied and ridiculed.

…because I did not invite the male gaze.

…because I want every girl in the world to have access to an education.

…because female genital mutilation is STILL happening!

…because if I wear a skirt, I’m a “slut.” If I wear a low top, I’m “asking for it.” If I wear jeans, I’m a “tomboy.” If I wear makeup, I’m “professional.” If I don’t, I’m “frumpy.”

…because the first thing little girls are told is how pretty they are.

…because people of color in the US are still treated as second class citizens.

…because aside from Native Americans, everyone is an immigrant in America.

…because,  “legal rights are of limited value when they are enforced by people steeped in a culture that does not respect women. They can run for office, but can they win? They can accuse their rapist, but will the accusation stick? They can be themselves at work, but will they be promoted?” –Paul (from a forum on Our Shared Shelf, Emma Watson’s online feminist book group, and part of her work with UN women)

…because men STILL make more money than women for the SAME jobs.

…because I don’t just want your daughter to be told she can be an engineer, a scientist, a politician, an artist, an astronaut, a CEO, a designer, an academic… I want her to be ENCOURAGED to be whatever it is that makes her happy and confident and strong.

…because we live in a patriarchy, where “men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.” –Oxford Dictionary

…because a person holding the highest office in the US has been recorded saying, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything …Grab them by the p***y … You can do anything.”

…because women are valued primarily for the way they look.

…because the patriarchy is ALSO detrimental to boys and men.

…because “We can not all succeed when half of us are held back.” –Malala.

…because I believe in the importance of telling the truth.

I do not claim to speak for all attendees of the Women’s Marches on January 21st (up to 2 million worldwide), but I do hope that this glimpse into one attendee’s personal reasons for marching may draw attention to the concerns underlying the movement. Studying at Birkbeck – the 50th most international university in the world – global political policies have very real implications for students who are also immigrants, women, and minorities.

What kind of entry requirements will we have? Will our status be monitored by the government? Will women in burkas or men with beards be discriminated against? We must remain vigilant – the hospitality we receive, the respect we are afforded, and the underlying equality that is the goal of feminism could be at stake.

Wondering what’s next for women’s rights activists? This is a good place to start.

All images by the author

Five arguments for the continued exploration of space

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Exomars has cost $1.3 billion, the Apollo program cost $20 billion, and the International Space Station, $150 billion. With austerity still biting and strain on our public services, the huge sums of money involved in space exploration beg the question; is it worth it? I have this argument a lot, normally with distant relatives who seem to appear only at Christmas to question me on everything from my degree to the jeans I wear (we all have THAT uncle right?). So as rehearsal for my upcoming battle, here are my five arguments for continued investment in space exploration.

1. It’s really not that much
Ok, I know, that sounds ridiculous, but hear me out. If you are anything like me then trying to manage rent, tuition fees and food on a monthly basis is a struggle; by the end of the month I’m rooting through my coat pockets trying to find an elusive tenner to get me through to pay day. $1 billion could really come in handy. But this is not personal wealth, this is government money. The numbers are beyond the budgets of normal people. NASA’s annual budget is $18.4 billion. That’s out of a budget of $3.8 trillion. To put it in context, that works out at $7.57 a year per taxpayer, or 63 cents a month. In Europe it’s even less; the European Space Agency’s budget is €5.26 billion. With a population of 510 million that’s only 85 cents a month. 85 cents isn’t going to pay my rent, it’s not going to dent my tuition fees, and I don’t want to know what kind of food it will buy. It won’t even pay your Netflix subscription so you can watch The Martian, but it will actually get us to Mars. Sounds like a good deal to me.

2. It makes us money
Yes, there is a headline cost, but there are economic gains as well. First of all the government-funded space industry employs hundreds of thousands of people directly, and there are indirect jobs and wealth created as well. Telecommunications, transportation, large-scale farming, and many other sectors employ millions of people, and in the modern world, these industries rely on satellites and other space-related technology. On top of that there are now a growing number of private sector companies cashing in on the advances and opportunities of space technology, from the billionaire-backed behemoths of Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, to the small but growing local companies like Surrey Satellite Technology. All of these companies employee people and pay tax, in a commercial field that is growing exponentially. In a globalised economy where jobs and expertise can be exported at a moment’s notice, the highly-skilled roles required by STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) employers are better paid and more secure. The jobs our children will eventually do probably don’t even exist yet, and they may never exist if we stop funding advanced science.

3. It keeps us safe
There’s the obvious benefit of military and defence technology that spins off from space research but there is also a less obvious way in which it helps preserve the peace. Ever heard of Space Station Freedom? No? Well there’s a good reason for that. It was announced as a US space station by then-president Ronald Reagan, but it never materialised. There were a number of reasons, but one of the significant ones was the end of the cold war. Instead of building their own station, The US decided to put aside decades of enmity and cooperate with Russia on the International Space Station. Why? In part it was an attempt to build bridges with a defeated enemy, but another factor was the end of the arms race; the western world didn’t fancy the idea of a lot of unemployed rocket scientists wandering around the world looking for a pay cheque. The ongoing success of the ISS and numerous other space missions have helped to maintain diplomatic contact at times of geopolitical strain, and fostered a spirit of cooperation in a world of competition. It’s hard to quantify just how much impact this has had, but when it comes to preserving global peace, every little helps.

4. It helps you win water fights
No really. The technology that created supersoaker water guns was invented by NASA for space exploration. As was memory foam. Cordless vacuums; NASA. Insulation, scratch-resistant lenses, artificial limbs, smoke detectors, hearing aids, CAT scans, water filters, freeze-drying, landmine-removal technologies and solar power; all NASA, all as a result of the space program. Space exploration is hard and we have to solve unimaginable problems to succeed, and in doing so we create technologies that can change people’s lives. Who knows what breakthroughs we will miss out on if we stop.

 

So, there are four good answers. These are the answers I use for economists and accountants, for politicians and the military. But they are not my answer. My answer is just four words:

It’s what we do.

A few hundred thousand years ago we stood upright and we left the caves, we walked the African plains and we crossed the oceans. Space is what’s next. All too often the story of humankind is one of death, destruction and horror. We are the species that produced Hitler, Stalin and Charles Manson. But this is not what defines us; yes, we have to take responsibility for murderers and dictators, but we have also created Bach and Beethoven, Shakespeare and Chaucer, da Vinci and van Gogh, Einstein, Feynman, Sagan. We don’t listen to symphonies, marvel at great art or read profound literature for any practical reason. It doesn’t pay our bills, but it does something much more important; it reminds us what it is to be human. Curiosity, cooperation, the exploratory spirit. It unites us, it gives us something to be proud of, something to strive for, it connects us to our fellow man. Whether its Cassini’s stunning images of Saturn’s icy rings, Hubble’s awe-inspiring views of distant nebulae, the people we sent to walk the surface of the moon, or the people we will send to walk on Mars. This is what we are capable of together. This is what we do.

 

2016 – A disastrous year? 

First Brexit, now Trump! It seems that we haven’t yet recovered from the first shock and now we’re experiencing another political hammer-blow!

Disappointed people across the world blame the alleged stupidity and ignorance of Trump supporters. Terms like racism, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia and any other descriptions of discrimination appear repeatedly in articles, opinions, comments.

But is it true? Is ignorance and discrimination to blame for the political decisions in 2016? Or is it rather a deep disappointment and anger about the arrogance and failure of the establishment, of the media and of leaders like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Angela Merkel. Was it a vote for Trump, or against Clinton?

According to a study by the Pew Research Centre, President Obama has hit the lowest level of trust of the US populace towards the federal government for around fifty years. Levels are higher among Democrat party members than Republicans, but still the number never exceeds 40%. When it comes to socioeconomic issues and immigration, Americans seem to be very unhappy about their government’s performance. 61% say that the government has failed to address the matter of fighting poverty. The highest levels of mistrust (68%) are felt regarding handling of immigration. However, the immigration itself does not seem to be the main problem. It is rather illegal immigration and the consequences it is believed to create, namely unemployment and social inequality, which points back to the government’s failure to address poverty.

Obama made his original bid for presidency on the back of the slogan ‘Yes, we can’. He represented hope for change, and even received a Nobel Prize, “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”.

His flagship ‘Obamacare’ health policy has been highly praised in Europe but criticised in the US, perceived as financially burdening the middle class. Ideological division is more severe than ever, generating hostility between different groups.

Obama’s foreign policy has also been criticised for allowing Syria to escalate into a civil war, and also for the continuing deployment of drones in Pakistan which caused many civilian casualties and a destabilization of the political situation in the country.

Another issue which might have contributed to Trump’s election is the disappointment felt by Bernie Sander’s supporters. When Clinton won the nomination to be the Democrat’s presidential candidate, some  were not able to hide their regret and back Hillary.

Clinton may not be as controversial a figure as Donald Trump, but still many subjects affect her reputation: Whitewater, support of the Iraq War, the private email server controversy, Benghazi, accusations of corruption and a perceived lack of empathy. In contrast to the grandfatherly Sanders, Clinton makes a cold, sometimes arrogant impression.

This impression has been reinforced during a campaign which was often focused more on attacking her opponent than on tackling the issues that exercise people. As Sanders’ staff tweeted, many Trump supporters are not sexist and racist, but are “worried about their kids; they’re working longer hours for lower wages”. Sanders emphasised the need to reach out to these people and to create an economy that would allow everyone to make a living. Social equality could erase discrimination. America has to unite against both – inequality and discrimination.

Though he ultimately endorsed Hillary, many of Sanders’ supporters announced they would not vote for her but rather for third party candidates like the Green Party’s Jill Stein. It appears the Democrats made a mistake when they chose Hillary as their candidate, a politician seen as representative of the unpopular establishment, and of the government in Washington.

So what happens next? Is Trump going to the next World War? He has been described as ‘Putin’s puppet’ and as unpredictable, after stating he would support Russia’s actions in Syria and combat ISIS together with Putin. Besides this, Trump does not seem to have a clear plan or strategy on foreign policy. He has put forward ideas of isolationism and non-interventionism, in order to focus on domestic issues and ‘making America great again’.

However, Clinton’s harsh tone towards Russia was also dangerous. Her plan to establish a no-fly zone over Syria was considered by President Obama as risking initiating a conflict with Russia. Indeed, the USA needs to be careful towards Russia. Russia does not intend waging a war, but direct clashes with the USA might escalate into a full-scale conflict.

On the other hand, Trump’s idea of a cooperation with Russia and his questioning of article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty could lead to the USA taking a submissive role, with a weakened position in the international arena. The USA might then lose their lead over emerging powers like Russia or China, who could take over the role of ‘world policeman’ and abuse this power in an unpredictable ways for their own benefit.

A war or armed conflict with Trump as president does not seem so likely. His populist rhetoric appears to be a strategy to gain attention and voters. We can only hope he did not actually mean all he said, and that as president he will adopt a diplomatic persona. Otherwise, we could face dark times similar to 1930s Europe. Nevertheless, the impact on society might still be severe, similar to the post-Brexit-Referendum atmosphere in Great Britain, which has seen a wave of racist attacks across the country.

Trump’s lack of experience and unclear strategy might not lead into outright disaster, but instead to a stagnation of the US, economically, politically and socially. It is important at this point to accept Trump as president and simultaneously observe him carefully. Discrimination remains an issue which has to be dealt with, still we cannot say that this is the only motivation of Trump supporters.

The true losers in these elections are not just Democrats, but all the people of the USA who went through an exhausting and embarrassing campaign, seemingly without any moral or ethical limits, that was ultimately more about political power games than actual reform and progress. At the end of this tiring road, citizens arrived at the ballot-box to choose between two candidates who at the end have nothing to offer and do not care about them, the nation.

The disastrous outcomes of the US elections or the Brexit Referendum do not necessarily prove the continuing strength of racism, sexism or any other kind of discrimination. Rather, they reflect the failure of politicians and governments! The US and the UK are only two of many examples in the modern world. If political leaders do not wake up and face the reality, soon we will see more examples of people choosing a life in misery over the arrogance of the political establishment.

Birkbeck welcomes Sir Keir Starmer MP for campus visit

Sir Keir Starmer, MP for Holborn and St Pancras, received a warm welcome at Birkbeck, University of London where he met staff and students from across the college community.

The Labour MP, elected in May 2015, visited the University on Friday, 23 October and had discussions with Professor David Latchman, Master of the college about a range of topics including Birkbeck’s advocacy for the societal and economic benefits of combining work and study.

Recent Birkbeck initiatives include a joint submission with the Open University to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, calling for policy changes to help stimulate part-time study, and Parliamentary briefings on the decline in part-time students and the opportunities apprenticeships present for expanding university study and widening participation.

Sir Keir also met a group of students who shared their stories of the difference studying at an institution dedicated to providing degree-level education in the evening has made to their lives.

One of these students, Michael Peltier, who has successfully completed Birkbeck’s three-year degree in BSc Accounting and is studying for a Master’s degree in Accounting and Finance at the college, said:

“I am already seeing the fantastic benefits of studying and working simultaneously – I’m now employed in a role which otherwise would have required me to have years of experience, so studying at Birkbeck has definitely given me the edge. I’ve already learnt that employers really value Birkbeck students because balancing work and study shows you can deal with the demands of a career.”

Also in attendance was Birkbeck student Alicia Caley, who earlier this year successfully completed a BA Global Politics and International Relations (full-time) at the college, and who has now commenced studies on the MSc Government, Policy and Politics (part-time).

Alicia said: “Having the opportunity to study in the evenings has really opened up opportunities for me over the past three years. I have been able to gain invaluable experience of full time work whilst being able to gain a degree in the evenings over three years. Now I am studying for a Masters at Birkbeck that compliments my career perfectly. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the flexibility that comes with the structure of evening learning at Birkbeck.”

Sir Keir also toured the Birkbeck’s Bloomsbury campus to find out more about our world-class facilities in the heart of London’s Knowledge Quarter.

Speaking after the meeting, Professor Latchman, Master of Birkbeck, said:

“It has been an honour to welcome Sir Keir onto campus and to introduce him to Birkbeck’s work and the key role we play in enabling Londoners to combine work with study to gain new skills and knowledge.”

Article written and originally published by the Birkbeck External Relations Team, reprinted with their permission

An Insider’s Look: A Long Weekend of Student Politics

Cross Party London Youth Debate

It all started on a Friday.

While many students were heading off to one of the local watering holes, including “Radar” night at the former University of London Union, I opted instead for a trip to a room in City University.  The sparsely occupied lecture theatre hosted a panel debate among the regional chairs of all major political parties. In true London fashion, Nigel Farage’s UKIP was not represented, while the Green Party was – by incoming Birkbeck SU Welfare officer and Young Greens regional co-chair Sofiya Ahmed. It was duly noted by the floor, however, that the Greens do not constitute a major party.

The impartial chair (a confirmed floating vote) and the floor posed questions on topics such as the economy, employment, the housing crisis and education.

The most entertaining part of the night was when Will Dyer charmingly defended the Liberal Democrats and the governance of coalitions. He stated that the Liberal Democrats had protected the country from more radical Tory cuts, stopped the foundation of a Maggie Thatcher day and instituted a low tax band for working people.  He had a genuine love of the party, despite it being the least trusted by most students. Students turned away from the party after Nick Clegg’s tuition fees U-turn, which even saw an apology and subsequent viral video. Needless to say, I was not convinced by Will’s message that the Lib-Dems are the rightful stewards for his nation, although I must give him credit for the most uses of the word ‘anchored’ in a sentence.

Luke Springthorpe of Conservative Future defended the current government. Despite being pro-union, he praised zero-hour contracts for their flexibility, adding that such work was ‘better than no job’. He wrote off criticisms of DWP sanctions, saying the sanctions were probably there to stay. Springthorpe remained highly sceptical of the left proposition to use taxation as a stimulus for housebuilding.

Ria Bernard(@riab_22), a speech and language therapist and joint leader of London Young Labour, held the fort for camp Miliband. She maintained the current party line of a more moderate austerity. She said the cuts were ‘too fast, and too soon’ and Help to Buy was an interesting idea but problematic. When I told her that my plans for the next morning involved going to protest the party’s proposition of £6k fees, she replied with a shrug, “6 is better than 9.”

The three major parties all avoided the toxic term – “social housing” . Sofiya, however, did not shy away. She stated that the Green Party would ditch a £100bn trident renewal, instead spending £6bn on half a million new homes and plugging the £20bn NHS deficit. Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP has also made these suggestions. In response to the Tory panelist’s defense of apprenticeships, Sofiya expressed concern that some apprenticeships are low quality, and the employers just use young people, not providing adequate skills or education in exchange for the cheaper labour.

At the end, many debates continued in the pub. I left somewhat swayed to the Green cause.

#FreeEducation Protest in Birmingham

Saturday morning was the earliest of its kind since I had been bothered to go doorknocking with #labourdoorstep. This Saturday called for walking action against Labour. NUS London, in association with the Student Assembly against Austerity and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, called for a demonstration on the doorstep of Labour MP Liam Byrne in Birmingham.

Byrne is the shadow minister for Higher Education. His contribution to the Labour 2015 campaign was a commitment to lower the tuition fees’s upper band. His constituency is Hodge Hill.

There was an overwhelming amount of local support for the Demo. Regional support came from the Black Country Young Greens. A local Trade Union head and schoolgirl were among the opening speeches at Birmingham University.

The coach journey up to Birmingham came courtesy of the UCL union. UCL ‘defend education’ songbooks circulated for rounds of poorly tuned Trotsky-esque songs. It was a delight to see seasoned Birkbeck Activist Alex Owalade squirming at the singing, having heard it all better the first time round in the 1980s. The Marxist tone of the travelling demonstrators was echoed by the red patches pinned to a number of students’s lapels, supposedly the sign of international student resistance. Over the long journey, protesters discussed strategies for progress with NUS London as well as the viability of a demand for free education.

The communal feeling was very much disappointment with Labour. The demand for free education involved a complete turn-around from tuition fees to replace them with free education and living grants – such as would have been the deal for many of Birkbeck’s mature students had they had the chance to go for a degree at age 18.

The marching route headed through the town centre. Shouting for an end to student debt and austerity, cries of “Cutback! Fightback!” went on strong. Multiple megaphones, a sizeable crowd, a conch (like from Lord of the Flies) and an exuberant drummer kept pace and spread the message of anti-austerity through the city’s main shopping areas.

There was even an attempted entry into the Council and an impromptu incursion into the Library. The brand new central library, an impressive addition to the city, is facing cuts to its librarians agreed as part of Labour austerity.

Last Monday, a meeting at Birkbeck launched the @bbk24hr campaign: Birkbeckers aiming for a return of 24 hour access to the library computer rooms as exams and deadlines loom.  Watch out for more organised action on this campaign.

Finally, Stonewall will live up to its name @StonewallUK

“Stonewall? Oh, you mean Sonewall. The T is silent.”

Those working in LGBTQ activism may be familiar with the quip, which rightly ridicules the organisation’s lack of work on trans* issues. Stonewall takes its name from the Stonewall Inn, one of very few venues that explicitly catered to an LGBT clientele in 1960s New York. In the early hours of the 28th of June 1969, police raided the bar, but the patrons fought back. The ensuing riots were largely led by trans* women of colour – but this is often overlooked by the modern movement.

A few weeks ago however, in a milestone for trans* rights, Stonewall announced that their work will now include trans* people. As quoted in Pink News, Chief Executive Ruth Hunt said: “Stonewall no longer needs to maintain a strict distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity”. In other words, they will now try to live up to their name. Previously, Stonewall campaigned for the rights of marginalised sexualities – lesbian, gay and bisexual – but not on issues of gender identity.

The headline to that article, “Stonewall announces it will now campaign for trans rights too”, almost reads like a joke. An equality charity waited until 2015 to deem trans* issues important? Even the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT charity in the US, and notoriously homonormative, has had trans* issues on the agenda for some years.

Better late than never. To their credit, Stonewall did apologise in their report for past mistakes that hurt trans* people – a necessary step in regaining the community’s trust.

It is crucial that trans* issues are fought for by every equality organisation. Gender identity and sexuality are two different things, but the bigotry against them comes from the same harmful structure: heteronormativity. It is this structure that enforces the idea that a man or a woman should only act a certain way, dress a certain way, love a certain way, have certain genitals – even that one can only be a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’.

Trans activists have long fought for change and Stonewall is finally stepping towards it.

The full report that accompanied Stonewall’s announcement is available here. Birkbeck LGBT Officer Reubs Walsh was one of hundreds of trans* activists to consult with Stonewall on their introduction of trans* lobbying. You can read Reubs’ comment on the announcement here.