Category Archives: Society

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 German Society

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The German society is one of the most vibrant societies of Birkbeck, and  has recently celebrated its fifteenth year in Malet Street. Under the current President, Ryan Gray, and Secretary, Geraldine MacMahon, there are twenty seven active Birkbeck students affiliated with the society, alongside eighteen associate members.

International trips have included excursions to Dresden, where members visited the Semperoper (Dresden’s Opera House), the Frauenkirche, and the Zwinger Palace.  The society also travelled to Meissen, situated North-West of Dresden, the home of Albrechtsburg Castle and Gothic Meissen Cathedral.

Ryan and Geraldine will be arranging events at The Goethe Institute in South Kensington, and The Austrian Cultural Forum in Knightsbridge. Admission is generally free of charge for events, but occasionally trips may cost a couple of pounds.London trips have included an excursion to Wigmore Hall for a liederabend, where students enjoyed an evening listening to the songs of Franz Schubert. The society also took in a performance of Berholt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Three Penny Opera at The National Theatre in June. Ryan and Geraldine hope to plan a trip to Munich in March 2017.

The society regularly meet up at Bierschenke, an authentic Munich beer hall in the City, and  The George Birkbeck Bar.  Ryan and Geraldine intend to arrange at least one film screening at the beginning of next term, and arrange guest speakers to give a talk on current affairs including Germany’s future in the EU post-Brexit.

From the beginning of the next academic term (2016/17), the membership fee will be £10 for current students, and £12 for associates to join. There will be opportunities to run for a variety of prominent positions within the society including President, Treasurer and Secretary.

For more information, follow the Student Union website at:

http://www.birkbeckunion.org/groups/german-society–4

german@socs.birkbeckunion.org

Lebt wohl, liebe leser!

 

 

Global Goals: Take Action

On the 28th of April 2016 the London International Development Centre and the UCL Institute for Global Prosperity will host the Global Goals: Take Action conference.

The event will take place in the Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre, on behalf of UCL, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), SOAS, the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), and Birkbeck. The conference will address the challenges presented by the post-2015 development agenda.

The Global Goals for Sustainable Development (also known as the SDGs) build on the Millennium Development Goals, which focused on meeting the needs of the world’s poorest in low and middle income countries.

The new Global Goals are universal, so will be applicable to developed, as well as developing countries.

The conference aims to challenge students to think about the impact of the goals and how that might be relevant to them in the future, and guide them towards training and careers.

The event is aimed at undergraduate and postgraduate students from all disciplines from UCL, LSHTM, SOAS, RVC, and Birkbeck.

The Global Goals are set to run from 2015 to 2030, a time scale which will coincide with a sizable proportion of current students’ careers. The conference will be targeted at students from across all subject areas – to include medicine, public health, engineering, politics, law, pharmacy, veterinary science, anthropology, geography, environmental sciences and development studies, among others.

The day will kick off with a panel debate, then everyone will have the opportunity to get involved in more focused discussions with leading experts in international development around clusters of goals on six desks.

The themes for the desks will be:

 

The conference will end with a high profile guest who will bring together the day’s ideas towards action for 2030.

The conference is free for all undergraduate and postgraduate students from Birkbeck, UCL, SOAS, LSHTM, and RVC.

You can book a place here.

How much do you know about the goals? Please take our survey.

My Place in the World: A short meditation on identity and happiness

Preface

The main purpose of this article is to explore an individual’s identity and role within their society. Birkbeck students continue to define and redefine their role in society. We often define ourselves against or in accordance to our ancestry. Some students may say something like, “Although my ancestors were ethnically Russian and Catholic, I am a British atheist because I choose to be, regardless of my ethnicity and ancestry.”

Does ethnicity determine our characters or are there other contributing factors? Ethnicity, the environment we live in and the choices we make are all factors that form our character and personality.

On this topic, I spoke to a woman who lives in Turkey when she visited London this April to attend the Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race. She is the daughter of a family friend.

Narrative

The people I refer to as “My parents” are the people that have raised me since the time of my infancy.

Of whom I was before my adoption, I remain in the dark, exempting that I am ethnically of Egyptian origin.

The identity of the people who created my entry into this world remains unknown to me to this day. If I ever had memories of them, they have long gone from my mind.

It is immaterial to me that my adopted parents were born into practising Catholic families. They consider themselves Turkish secularists, and I consider myself Turkish secularist. Why should it matter to me if my ancestors were taught to say Happy Christmas, or Diwali, or Hanukkah, but my parents were not?

I have always believed that culture is an adjustable feature. We are who we choose to be regardless of our lineage.

Do I feel that an unfilled void exists within my heart due to the absence of my biological family in my life? No. I do not. Still, I have often thought about them and wondered how life would have turned out for me if I had grown up with them.

Do I have just cause to regret the way life turned out for me? No. I am aware that I have never wanted for anything and that is nothing to regret.

The parents I know and love best in this world watched me develop from infancy to adulthood, held and I hushed me as I have wept, and shared in my triumphs. Their love for me has been and continues to be unrestrained and constant. Additionally, I am privileged to have had so many friends with outstanding qualities like loyalty and Bravery. The love and respect I have for these individuals is what gives me the courage to persevere in my quest to achieve happiness and success.

If I searched the whole world, I know I would never be able to find a better life than the one I have now.

Someday I hope to have the opportunity to give a child the love and stability I was given. And I hope they have the freedom to identify as they wish, regardless of my beliefs, our culture, or ethnicity.