Platform Eight

Eve Garrard answers Natasha Walter’s feminist critique.

A response to Natasha Walter

In her piece on the Euston Manifesto, Natasha Walter raises some interesting objections to it and to the group with which it originated. The interest lies less in their content (much of which rests on a mistake about the nature of the document) than in the way in which she deploys them, and what she is trying to do with them.

Walter has two principal criticisms of the manifesto. The first and less substantial one is her complaint that there are too few women among those who produced the document. It’s true that there are considerably more men than women among us, but Walter herself answers her own objection when she acknowledges that it would be silly to expect new political groupings to ‘make a representative showing’ before setting out their views. She’s quite right to say this, since such groups must initially be self-selecting or they’d never get started at all. The Eustonians would very much welcome more women becoming involved, and we hope they do; but short of creating all-women shortlists for co-signatories the main way to get more women involved in the first instance is going to be the same as the main way to get more people involved, period — putting our case as persuasively as we can and getting others to notice and engage with us.

Walter’s second and lengthier objection is to what she regards as a failure to advance the feminist cause within the manifesto itself. She thinks (a) that the document is not concerned enough about the under-representation of women in powerful positions in the UK, and their over-representation in low-paid jobs. And she also thinks (b) that it says too little about the West’s failure to help and protect women threatened with brutality or worse in their own countries. The first of these concerns involves a mistake about the nature of the Euston Manifesto. She disregards what it explicitly says: it’s a broad statement of general principles rather than a presentation of specific policies (see section A paragraph 3). It calls for recognition of human rights (sections B3 and B4); it’s silent about violations of these rights in China, for example, or in Zimbabwe. This doesn’t show a lack of concern about rights violations in these particular countries; it shows that the document is, and is meant to be, operating at a more general level. The same is true for our concern about justice for women. Indeed gender equality is precisely one of the core left-liberal values which we want to protect against contemporary anti-Enlightenment discourse and the general cosying-up to fundamentalism which the manifesto explicitly rejects (sections B4 and B15; section C paragraph 1). A criticism which objects to the omission of specific policies on women’s rights, in a document which does not purport to make detailed policy recommendations about any rights, is a criticism which is in fault-finding rather than fair-minded mode.

As to (b), Walter’s concerns are ones which of course all Eustonians will strongly agree with. Too damn right, we say — we support strong action by the West against human rights abuses, including those against women (section B10, section C passim). How can Walter have failed to notice how central this is to the whole document? Particular failures on the part of the UK government to provide this support have to be judged on their demerits, of course, but again this kind of case-by-case discussion is too specific to be appropriate for a general manifesto. However, the fact that such complaints against the government can plausibly be made by Walter does suggest that worse things are happening to women in cultures which practise genital mutilation or honour killings than the failure to get equal pay or full representation in the Conservative party.

Walter is right to say that many people on the liberal-left have become lethargic about feminism, and she’s right to mention the horror of honour killings in this context. But though the inequalities of pay between men and women in this country are often highly unjust and should be recognized and opposed as such, it does not belittle that injustice to acknowledge that the oppression of women which produces honour killings is seriously worse. It certainly is vital that people here should play their part in addressing domestic issues about women’s rights, but the exclusive focus on problems in the West is an example of those double standards which are one of the manifesto’s targets (section B3, section C paragraphs 6 and 8). Their effect, here as elsewhere, is to produce a curious flattening of the moral landscape, whereby honour killings, lower pay for women in the UK, genital mutilation, and the absence of representative numbers of women in senior civil service posts are all treated as being morally on a par, the occasion for equal moral outrage. The implication of this is that we have enough to do, morally speaking, about women’s rights here at home, so there’s no need for us to consider the failures of other cultures and polities in this respect. But this is simply to abandon the cause of women elsewhere. It seems unlikely that Walter really endorses this. But perhaps she has to pretend to, in order to focus her criticism about women’s rights where she is really determined to place it, namely here in the UK, and on the signatories of the manifesto.

That there is an element of pretence in Walter’s feminist critique of the manifesto is indicated by her silence about the neglect of women’s rights by other groups and individuals such as RESPECT, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and Ken Livingstone’s friend Sheikh al-Qaradawi. (This has been forcefully pointed out by other members of the Euston Manifesto Group in the comments to Walter’s piece on the Comment is Free site). Yes, she is right to complain of a lethargy about feminism on the liberal-left; unfortunately she herself demonstrates a version of it notable for its selectivity. It’s hard not to believe that she focuses on a supposed neglect of women’s rights in the Euston Manifesto as a stick for beating a political group to which she objects on other, undisclosed, grounds. It would have been better and more constructive if she’d addressed the real source of her disagreement with the manifesto, whatever it is, rather than focusing on a non-existent failure to recognize the rights of women.

It’s an essential part of the Eustonian case that we should take the horrors perpetrated against women (and others) seriously. But we should do so with something a bit less narcissistic than conscience-stricken navel-gazing about Western inadequacies, and a bit more productive than writing indulgent articles about Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

Finally, a minor but revealing point to note about Walter’s piece is its ostentatiously patronizing tone — ‘I couldn’t suppress a little smile’, ‘I told myself not to mock’, ‘they all have their hearts in the right place, I thought’. This is a pity — we’d all be better spending our time trying to sort out the truth on the topics in hand rather than engaging in these little positional manoeuvres.

Eve Garrard is a moral philosopher with a visiting position at the University of Manchester

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