Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Mass Shootings in the US: Looking beyond labels of the “lone wolf” and “mental illness”

 This week, Arissa Hossain examines:


Mass Shootings in the US: Looking beyond labels of the “lone wolf” and “mental illness”

When thinking of countries facing violence and mass civilian casualties, the United States isn’t generally the first to come to mind. However, violence can show up in different forms, and when it comes to gun massacres, the US has more public mass shootings than any other country in the world. Americans also own the most guns per person, with 4 out of 10 on average reporting they own a gun or live in a household with one. Gun culture in the US is distinct; it is a fundamental right to own and bear arms in the Second Amendment of their Constitution. The US is known as the land of the free, the place to pursuit happiness, and ironically, the country with the most mass shootings in the world.


The rise in public shooting incidents have sparked debates over gun laws, with politicians and civilians divided over whether there is a need for stricter gun laws or, paradoxically, more guns as a security measure. The issue has everything to do with gun laws, but could there be other underlying factors at play? Is it really just the access to guns that is behind the spike in gun massacre incidents? People rarely want to address the elephant in the American room, but when the pattern of these shootings is inspected, most have a similar feature in common: majority of the time, the perpetrator is a white male. Out of 95 mass shootings in the US between 1982 and 2017, 92 of the shooters were male and 54 of them white. So what is this ‘elephant’ referring to? – a history of white male supremacy and entitlement.


Often mainstream headlines include the terms “lone wolf” and “mental illness” when referring to white, male gunmen. But how much of an outlier, as the term “lone wolf” seems to suggest, is someone when mass shooting starts to increase and become a disturbing trend? Between 2000 and 2013, annual incidents saw a threefold increase in the US. Instances of shootings at schools, malls, workplaces and places of worship are no longer novel or unheard of. The current social and political climate is highly charged: police brutality against black Americans, anti-immigrant sentiments, Islamophobia, antisemitism and outspoken white supremacists who claim to be empowered by the likes of Trump and Steve Bannon. It is not to say that these issues are new, but rather, they seem to have resurfaced with less restraint and more vigour. In the rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, participants chanted, “You will not replace us” – a testament to the growing conviction and proud expression of white supremacy. Just recently, Pittsburgh synagogue shooter Robert Bowers invoked hatred online against Jews that supported refugees and acted out his sentiments violently in October 2018.


According to criminology professor Scott Bonn from the University of Miami, the recent rise in mass public shootings can, in part, be attributed to racism, other hate crimes , and feelings of powerlessness and rage, to name a few. It shouldn’t be surprising that a history that involved slavery, segregation, and oppression of minorities has a lasting impact on the fabric of the society itself. This is not to accuse Americans of racism, but to simply point out that these issues were never fully eradicated and did not just disappear – they are bound to have some kind of impact and legacy within the society.


After all, it is easy to peg violent outbursts as “lone wolf” incidents or to blame mental illness, as it defers any true accountability or identifying of deeper-rooted social structures and beliefs. It cannot be that mental illness is solely what drives a man to go on a mass murder spree and kill innocent people. After all, statistically 23% of women in the US have a diagnosable mental illness, compared to 16.8% of men, and yet the proportion of men being the perpetrators of these acts is staggering. Mental illness is also a global phenomenon, so why don’t mentally ill men all over the world behave in the same way to, the same extent? Two shootings in Michigan and New Jersey in 1991 both involved men who felt they were owed a job, and there are many other examples with similar descriptions. Loss of a job, being expelled from school, rejection from women and animosity towards an out-group have all been linked to motivations of mass shooters in the US. Additionally, even in cases where the motive is not directly related to rejection from a woman, there’s often a history of sexual or domestic violence. According to Professor David Wilson, a criminologist at Birmingham City University, the motivation behind a lot of these shootings seems to point towards the fact that men seem to handle catastrophic loss and self esteem worse than women.


Fear, whether it is of a perceived “other”, of one’s own security, of loss of esteem or pride, seems to have an important link to mass public shootings. Although “fear” can sound as if it is justifying and sympathising with the act, it is one of the emotions that comes out of entitlement: you would not fear losing something if you did not feel like you deserved it and had a right over it. This entitlement has everything to do with the white male feeling threat, rejection and loss of control, using violence as an offensive weapon to reinstate his dignity and sense of control. Themes of power and toxic masculinity cannot be separated from these horrifying, aggressive acts of violence, however it leads to an important thought to ponder – it is important we redefine conceptions we have of masculinity, control and “the other”. It is not enough to remain passive to troublesome social structures and value systems. Being pro-active and caring about issues that affect society is crucial if there is to be any kind of change in this pressing moment in history.




Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Meaning of Violence to the Inferiorised

Na'eem Ibn Farooq investigates the Meaning of Violence to the Inferiorised
"At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect" (Fanon, 1963: 94)

Is professional combat sport (PCS) violent? Yes. As a consequence of participating, between 15-40% of boxers suffer from ‘symptoms of chronic brain damage’ and most have a degree of brain damage. Some even die in the ring. Paradoxically, some lives are saved by it. We, the audience, love the ‘theatre of violence’. Through pay-per-view sales and merchandising, we make participants millionaires and organisers billionaires. For fans it’s about skill, to organisers it’s profit, to critics it’s senseless violence. However, for some, it has socio-political meaning. I, and many Muslims, enjoyed watching Khabib Nurmagomedov beat Conor McGregor at UFC 229. Let me explain what it meant for us.

Despair and inaction
In April 2018, Conor was arrested for attacking Khabib’s team bus – at this point, I didn’t care. In the pre-fight press conferences, Conor insulted Khabib’s country, family and religion – now I cared. Conor insulted everything Khabib valued and something I valued – he insulted a person for being Muslim. Suddenly, my perception of UFC was coloured by its Islamophobia. Dana White, UFC President, implicitly condoned the bus incident, controversially used it in the fight promotion video and could be seen smirking along with Conor’s insults in the press conference. Khabib remained stone faced. For Muslims, Conor represented bigotry; Dana represented the structure that enabled the bigotry; and, Khabib represented us – tolerant and abashed in the face of abuse.

‘War on Terror’ rhetoric created in the ‘theatre of politics’ has had far reaching consequences. We, Muslims, experience the many manifestations of Islamophobia daily. Religiously motivated hate-crime is up 40% in the UK, with 52% of victims Muslims. And structural discrimination has become normalised through policies such as PREVENT in the U.K., and the Travel Ban in the US. Both were designed with the Muslim in mind, but invisible in the text. ‘War on Terror’ imperialism has also consumed the movie theatre. Recognising this, a group of friends created The Riz Test, which highlights the negative portrayal of Muslims in popular culture. One trend it picks up on is the gendered stereotypes of Muslims, with men depicted as terrorists and women in need of liberation. Take Iron-Man, one of its main villains is Raza, Leader of The Ten Rings, an Afghan-based terrorist organisation. Iron-Man was released in 2008, during the U.S. war in Afghanistan. In the 1963 comic book, which the film is based on, the leader of The Ten Rings was Wong-Chu, a Vietnamese terrorist. No prizes for guessing who the U.S. was at was with in 1963. In Iron-Man 3, Iron-Patriot ‘rescues’ a sweatshop full of voiceless niqabi women. One of the narratives put forward by Western men justifying the war in Afghanistan included the liberation of women.
In Black Skins, White Mask, Fanon (1952: 124-125) discusses the psychopathological impact of entertainment on the subconscious – it can be an escape, an outlet, a cathartic experience. But for whom? When we, Muslims, try escape into fantasy to find our cathartic experience from the pressures of life and Islamophobia, we see the same themes we experience in reality. In realms where the notion of aliens is plausible, a nuanced Muslim is not possible. So, the pressure remains and builds.

Violence is a cleansing force
For Khabib the fight was his catharsis… almost. After Conor’s insults, this was not about showing he was the better wrestler (i.e. making him tap out), this was about smashing him. This was best summarised by a fellow UFC fighter Daniel Cormier:

"Some things aren’t for fight promotion. Religion, family, country. Throwing stuff in Brooklyn. For Khabib it wasn’t fight promotion, it was really personal"

The match ended with Conor tapping out and but the fight wasn’t over. Khabib was left with unspent cathartic energy. He jumped the cage and attacked a member of Conor’s team who had been insulting him throughout the fight. Once Khabib regained his pre-fight composure, he apologised for his actions.

For many Muslims, the four rounds were a cathartic experience. We finally saw someone who represented us successfully fight back and triumph over bigotry. Through PCS, we found release.

Restoring self-respect
"Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules, and sadistic pleasure of violence. In other words, it is war without shooting" (Orwell, 1945)

Promoters have long understood fights sell better when there is a narrative greater than the fight itself. Fighters often represent thematic concepts such as bigotry, racism and the underdog. Dana White used this tactic to great success as UFC 229 racked up 2.4m pay-per-view buys, eclipsing the previous record by 60%. The story was compelling enough for viewers like me to change our routine and stay up until 6am to see the drama unfold.

For Western non-Muslims it may not have meaning which I would argue is because they are in a position of privilege. And I accept for some Muslims it is not that deep – we are not a monolith. However, we must all agree violence perpetuated by some groups is normalised, whilst others marginalised. In the theatre of politics and movie, the privileged control the narrative on violence. Between the bells in the theatre of violence, no one controls the script. The playing field is levelled for the underprivileged, outcasts and inferiorised. It’s brutal and raw. It is truth. And in that we find meaning.

Fanon, F., (1963). The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. London: Penguin Books.
Orwell, G., (1945). The Sporting Spirit. London: Tribune.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Fighting Against the Sexual Harassment of Cairo’s Women: A Battle of Pink Taxis, Social Media and Art

This week, Hana Zeina Ingram examines the issue of:

Fighting Against the Sexual Harassment of Cairo’s Women: A Battle of Pink Taxis, Social Media and Art

Cairo is a city that assaults the senses. The sound of its traffic: the relentless beeping of horns and the yelled conversations between drivers, standing outside their cars in frustration. The taste of its street food: the quickly fried falafels wrapped in powdery baladi bread, charred onions sprinkled upon a mound of spicy koshary. The beauty of its Nile sunset: a scorching orb melting into the ripples of the river. Unfortunately, the type of assault that Egypt’s hectic capital is most known for is not of a sensory nature, but an insidious one.


99% of all Egyptian women have experienced some form of harassment in their lifetimes (a figure that has remained stubborn throughout the years). Public transport has served as the breeding ground for the vast majority of these non-consensual advances. The gendered segregation of transportation has been implemented for years as a response, in the form of female-only buses and metro carriages. This reaction is by no means unique to Egypt. Several countries including Mexico, Brazil and India have implemented similar policies, and the goal of each ‘Ladies Only’ sign is the same: to battle the sexual harassment of women. However, given its official status as the most dangerous megacity for women in the world, the effects of gendered segregation in Cairo is especially significant.


In 2015 a further step was taken to protect commuting women, with the launch of Pink Taxi, a service with female only drivers and passengers. Although this initiative was based on the metro’s segregated carriages, it spurred a new stream of criticism: that by relying on gender segregation, government policies and initiatives like Pink Taxi were adapting to the harassment, rather than attempting to solve it. In encouraging Egyptian women to isolate themselves from the opposite sex, every public space shared by both genders is portrayed as an inevitable environment for harassment. The Egyptian man is permanently vilified and the Egyptian woman is likewise victimised.


Of course, female-only spaces are not limited to Cairo’s transportation. A popular counterargument is that these environments (be it a metro carriage or a public swimming pool or a cafe) are havens that, in fact, empower women. However, along with the safety it offers, the segregation ‘solution’ represents a burden on Egyptian women exclusively. The trains offer only two female carriages each. In a metro system of only three transport lines, servicing a population of over 10 million (the underground is by far the most popular mode of transport used in Cairo today), a mere two carriages is inadequate for the thousands of women travelling on them every day. Meanwhile, Pink Taxi charges higher fare rates than regular taxis, making it an unaffordable expense for many. The question we must ask ourselves is why these women, who have either experienced harassment or fear its possibility, are the ones who have to squeeze into claustrophobic train cars or spend more on taxi trips? These burdens may seem small, and may not be felt to the maximum extent every day, but they exist nonetheless.


This month a new anti-harassment agenda emerged. On the 25 November 2018, Bassita, an Egyptian NGO, posted a video introducing their anti-sexual harassment campaign: ‘Speak Up’. CairoScene, a widely read online publication, praised it as ‘the biggest anti-sexual harassment campaign’ of the Middle East. This accolade is strange for several reasons. The most obvious one is that the campaign has yet to begin – it has only a 1:29 minute video to show for itself. When analysing the message given in the video, this praise seems even more bizarre. As its name indicates, ‘Speak Up’ emphasises silence as the crucial obstacle to tackling sexual harassment in Cairo. At first it seems to lay this responsibility solely on the victim: ‘Harassment affects many women and girls. Some of them speak up, and some don’t.’ This is problematic, as it completely ignores the stigma that is prevalent in the majority of instances when a victim speaks out against her attacker. The viewer is then told to ‘stand with her, not against her’. While solidarity with the harassed is vital, this appeal is not supported by any examples of how one should show this support, other than to share the video. Clearly, Bassita’s initiative is strongly rooted in the influence of social media. It is therefore surprising that the campaign did not mention Cairo’s most recent harassment scandal.


On the 11 May 2018, Amal Fathy, an Egyptian human rights defender, was arrested in her home. This arrest was in response to a video she had posted on Facebook, accounting her experience of harassment and criticising the Egyptian government for its continuous failure to effectively improve the situation for its female population. Fathy represents the very agenda Bassita is promoting: she spoke up against her harasser, and against the system that enabled him to carry out his attack. She has now spent over 150 days in prison and has been served a two-year sentence. Her attacker remains free. Rather than make vague appeals to speak up, humanitarian organizations should target Cairo’s political power – the authorities that Amal Fathy challenged.


Several months before the launching of ‘Speak Up’, a very different anti-harassment project was developed. Plan International (a UK based organisation) started running art lessons for Cairo’s tuk tuk drivers. Like taxis, tuk tuks are common sites of harassment, particularly for young schoolgirls. As they paint and mould clay, these men are exposed to the detrimental harm they cause whenever they harass, and are taught about the importance of gender sensitivity. This particular initiative has no social media platform to speak of. It targets the harassers as opposed to the harassed, and it revolves around educating rather than blame. The aim is to build a relationship of respect between the male driver and the female passenger – to ensure a safe mode of transportation that is not dependent on segregation but on a respectful interaction. This is the road that all of Egypt’s anti-sexual harassment initiatives, both foreign and grassroots, should take.


Monday, 4 March 2019

How we are failing women by failing men

This week's blog is by Naomi Clugston and investigates:

How we are failing women by failing men: the importance of promoting alternative masculinities in contexts of increased violence against women


In the global fight to end violence against women (VAW), recognising the role men can play in achieving this end deserve high praise. However, there is a distinction between compelling men to play a role and actually engaging them in this fight. If we are truly committed to preventing VAW, we must go beyond damaging narratives that imply VAW is caused solely by violent individuals and work with men to identify the structural dynamics that cause violent models of masculinity, which legitimise such behaviour, to become dominant. When we fail to do this, we risk placing the responsibility to reduce VAW on those men and boys with the least power to affect change. We also miss crucial opportunities to better support communities trying to reclaim alternative models of masculinity when violent ones have gained traction.


For the purposes of this blog, masculinity and femininity are defined as the traits and behaviours that societies expect men and women to express.


Let me begin by explaining what I mean by suggesting that violent models of masculinity become dominant in certain contexts. Evidence across the world, from Nepal, through Sub Saharan Africa, to the UK, suggests that in times of peace, acceptable forms of male behaviour are varied, that we would struggle to describe many of them as violent, and that these intersect with a plethora of other identity features including but not exclusive to caste, race, ethnicity, and age. Having said this, it is true that when a group believes the State is either unable or unwilling to protect them from perceived or actual attacks exceptionally violent models of masculinity do tend to gain dominance. In such contexts, leaders often narrow definitions of masculinity and femininity to compel men to take up arms. For example, they may propagate claims that the embodiment of violent masculinity is the only legitimate way to be a man’, increase the proportion of power held by men able to achieve this definition, and justify violence by reinforcing narratives of women as weak, childbearing and in need of protection. As violent models of masculinity gain purchase within a community, the space in which non-violent models of masculinity are valued is often reduced.


It is important to note that, in order for such messages to gain traction, they must be reproduced by men and women alike. The White Feather Girls and women in Rwanda who incited violence during the genocide are prime examples of the role women play in compelling men to fight and shaming those who don’t. Women may not always be aware of the full consequences of this messaging and so, through this insidious process, they risk becoming agents of their own victimisation. Without even discussing the use of VAW against women perceived as ‘belonging to the enemy’, in conflict affected states violence against the female subjects of supposed protection tends to increase. Far from being protective then, evidence suggests that violent masculinities put women in great danger.


So, how can it be that VAW tends to increase in contexts where men are called upon to protect the women in their communities? There is no doubt that the reasons are as varied as they are complex. However, I propose that the structural dynamics, which reduce the space in which non-violent models of masculinity can be valued is key.


Firstly, when societies endorse violent masculinity as the only authentic manifestation of ‘manhood’, men able to embody this model are often legitimised in committing violence against those deemed subordinate to them. Since narrowed definitions of masculinity are linked to narrowed definitions of femininity, which reinforce narratives of women as subordinate, VAW may be legitimised. 


Secondly, and perhaps less obviously, men who struggle to express this narrowed definition of masculinity may see VAW as the only attainable path to achieving this goal. Because the value given to non-violent models of masculinity is limited, the pressure to conform to violent models increases. We can see the seriousness of this pressure when observing the increase in violence against ‘weak men’ from ‘real men’. Since this violence against men is intended to humiliate as well as harm, underreporting, especially about sexual violence is likely high. As a result, this violence is probably more widespread than the statistics suggest. Further, in these contexts, ‘weak men’ are at higher risk of committing violence against themselves, illustrated by the suicide rates of those deemed unable to fulfil narrowed definitions of masculinity. When pressures to express masculinity violently are so high, the risk that civilian men become perpetrators of VAW in order to achieve this increases. While we should of course commit to reducing these pressures for the sake of male victims themselves, it is also important to recognise that, when trying to stop VAW, such work is key.


It is worth noting that these pressures have negative consequences for women beyond VAW. We should not for example, be surprised in peace-building contexts when civilian men resist attempts by women to remain in economic and political spaces they inhabited during times of violence. This is especially the case when such spaces represent opportunities to reclaim non-violent models of masculinity, denied to men during war.


While we platform the voices of female survivors and commit to bringing violent individuals to account, we should also recognise the role that widening definitions of masculinity can play in stopping VAW. As such, we must commit to supporting societies promoting and reclaiming alternative masculinities and address attempts to undermine these efforts wherever they arise. Creating spaces where women are valued as more than ‘child bearers’ is only sustainable if we create spaces where men are valued as more than ‘protectors’. By playing into narratives that all men necessarily benefit from violent models of masculinity, we not only fail those men who fall victim to this model, we also fail women for whom the rise of violent masculinities legitimises their continued and intensified oppression.











State-sanctioned sexual violence against women in the Egyptian revolution

Following from last week's post, this is another video submitted as a piece of group work by some of last year's MSc VCD students....