The Unbearable Persistence of Whiteness

by Agata Lisiak

How do racism and Islamophobia persist in situations and places that appear to be civil, even convivial? The Brexit vote in the summer of 2016 and Trump’s electoral victory later that year sent ripples of disbelief across the parts of the West that like to think of themselves as multicultural: how did we not see this coming? As attempts at explaining the massive support for right-wing populism multiplyand are, in turn, rejected as insufficient or wrongit is imperative to ask what has been, and possibly continues to be, largely overlooked in these debates: racialisation of gender strikes me as one such blank spot.

In my paper ‘Other mothers: encountering in/visible femininities in migration and urban contexts’ in Feminist Review Issue 117, I propose a feminist revision of the typically celebratory tone in scholarship on urban (super)diversity and point out that seemingly peaceful interactions in urban space do not exclude privately harboured racial, ethnic, religious, and class prejudices. Based on my recently completed research project, the paper discusses everyday practices of Polish migrant mothers living in British and German cities, with a focus on their performances and perceptions of femininity. And regardless of some local differences, one thing remained true for all of the women I met in Berlin, Munich, London, and Birmingham: when they talk about their own femininity, their appearance and grooming practices, and their sense of style and taste, they do so by comparing themselves (favourably) to other white women. Non-white and Muslim femininities remain, at best, invisible to them or, in the not infrequent cases of blatant racism and Islamophobia, they are stripped not only of their gendered features, but of humanity altogether.

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, much has been written about hostility to anything that appears foreign to Britishness and Britain. Now, ‘even’ white EU migrants in the UK report their unpleasant, passive-aggressive, or openly violent experiences in public and private spaces. They are made to feel like they don’t belong—or that they belong less than they thought they did. Xenophobia and racism are hardly new phenomena, as racialised people in Britain (and elsewhere, for that matter) know all too well—but they currently seem to be discussed more vividly as they are increasingly also affecting white migrants.

Speaking about Polish migrants’ racism and Islamophobia is thus risky, as—following a cynically twisted logic—it may be used as a proof of their incompatibility with ‘British values’. And not infrequently, when presenting my work at conferences in the UK, concerned colleagues have made sure to remind me of this danger. Yet it is more dangerous, I believe, to uncritically maintain that ‘all migrants are good’ in an attempt to counter anti-migration rhetoric. I do not claim that Polish migrants are more racist than other migrants or non-migrants in Britain. In fact, when they make Islamophobic and racist statements, it is often because they think they can get away with them—after all, such racialisation and stigmatisation of Muslim and non-white bodies has been legitimised in public discourses both in the UK and in Poland.

There is a striking difference between bodies being read as having no value and bodies that are not read as bodies at all. These invisibilities, absences, and misreadings must be noticed, acknowledged, and addressed if we are to grasp the persistence of whiteness as the default category across the west, as well as its disastrous repercussions.

Agata Lisiak teaches migration and urban studies at Bard College Berlin.

Agata’s article on  ‘Other mothers: encountering in/visible femininities in migration and urban contexts’ in Feminist Review Issue 117 is available here


Lisiak, A., Forthcoming. Other mothers: encountering in/visible femininities in migration and urban contexts. Feminist Review, 117, pp. 41-55.

Lisiak, A., 2017. Immigrant Mothers as Agents of Change. Available at: [last accessed 8 March 2018].

Emejulu, A., 2016. On the hideous whiteness of Brexit: “Let us be honest about our past and our present if we truly seek to dismantle white supremacy”. Verso Blog, 28 June. Available at: [last accessed 8 March 2018].

Krupa, J., 2016. The killing of a Polish man exposes the reality of post-referendum racism Jakub Krupa. The Guardian, 5 September. Available at: [last accessed 8 March 2018].

Woods, R., 2016. Brexit six months on: how do Birmingham’s Polish expats feel now? BBC News, 23 December. Available at: [last accessed 8 March 2018].


Striking Universities

by Carrie Benjamin

Since 22 February 2018, staff across 68 pre-1992 Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) have been engaged in an industrial dispute with Universities UK (UUK), the governing body that represents the vice-chancellors, directors, principals and wardens of universities across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. At the centre of this dispute are the proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), which would see lecturers, administrative and support staff moved from the current ‘defined benefit pension’ scheme to a ‘defined contribution’ scheme. The change means that the current pensions, which promise members a specified and calculable income upon retirement, would be moved to a scheme where retirement income depends on the fluctuations of the market. Essentially, the ‘risk’ (and responsibility) of managing pensions would shift from the university employers to the employees, and if a defined contribution scheme is adopted, the average USS member stands to lose £10,000 per year in their retirement.

USS 3 Photo

The University and College Union (UCU) has been pushing the employers to negotiate their position since the proposal was put on the table last autumn, but UUK has consistently refused to discuss anything other than a full defined contribution scheme. The 14 days of strike action we are currently engaged in are a last resort. We have been left with no other option but to withdraw our labour. It is a lamentable situation, but one that could have been avoided if UUK had not given Oxford and Cambridge Colleges greater weighting in the vote on pension changes [1], not based it’s risk assumptions on the simultaneous collapse of all higher education institutions [2], or if they had simply agreed to discuss counter proposals put forward by UCU. Instead, our employers have forced us out of our universities and onto the picket lines to defend our pensions.

However, we need to recognise that the proposed changes to USS are about more than pensions and retirement. For academics and support staff on casual, part-time, fixed-term or hourly-paid contracts at UK HEIs, the proposed changes would strip away one of the last remaining forms of job security that we have. Precariously employed university staff often bounce from one fixed-term contract to another or experience periods of un- or underemployment, and many do not know where or if they will be working in the coming academic year. Over 50% of teaching and research staff across the HE sector are on casualised contracts, and the number is growing. Administrative and support staff are in a similar position, as fixed-term contracts have become de riguer for HEIs undergoing (or planning to undergo) restructuring and wishing to avoid the financial ‘risk’ of redundancies. Within a university system that demands increasingly higher fees from its students, these precariously employed workers are expected to be the face of higher education: providing a ‘service’ (whether that is education, student support and well-being, or administrative assistance) to a ‘consumer’ whose feedback, in the form of the National Student Survey, has the power to decide funding or facilitate the ‘market exit’—in the words of former universities minister Jo Johnson—of individual HEIs. Despite this volatile situation, many precariously employed university workers can find a small sense of stability knowing that under the current defined benefit pension scheme we can, if we stay within the higher education sector, calculate and plan for retirement. The changes that our employers have put forward are not simply an attack on our pensions, but an egregious act that seeks to take away the last sense of a secure future for those in insecure employment.

USS 2 photo

The attack on USS is another development of the neoliberal university, propped up by decades of public sector cuts and tuition increases that have sought to widen the gap between students and university workers. But there are reasons to maintain hope. Over the last three weeks there have been amazing acts of solidarity on the picket lines and beyond. Students at several HEIs have occupied meeting rooms and vice-chancellors’ offices in support of striking staff. Local UCU branches and student unions have organised teach-outs to open up radical spaces for critical political engagement. Songs, poetry, photographs and videos about the strike made by students, staff, and workers outside UK higher education have circulated on social media. UCU London Region called a mass demonstration on 28 February, and drivers and pedestrians honked and waved in support as staff and students walked through central London in the snow, blocking traffic. The overwhelming support from students, colleagues and comrades across sectors, coupled with the broadly positive support of the media, demonstrates that we, as a collective, are unwilling to accept the inevitability of a race to the bottom.

While the current UCU dispute is about pensions, it is also fundamentally about a refusal to accept the increased marketization of higher education and the erosion of workers’ rights. We’re halfway through the largest higher education strike action in history, and our withdrawal of labour has already had an impact on our employers. UUK has changed its tone and agreed to sit down and negotiate with UCU, but we do not yet have assurances that the defined benefit scheme will be preserved. In the coming days, it is crucial that we maintain the momentum and the pressure on the employers. If you haven’t already done so, please come out and join your colleagues and students on the picket line. Together, we can win this dispute and change the course of higher education.

Carrie Benjamin is currently a Teaching Fellow (Department of Anthropology & Sociology) and Research and Administrative Assistant at the SOAS Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies. She is also a Fractional Representative of SOAS UCU.





A reflection on vulnerable methods of research

by Tiffany Page

My article, ‘Vulnerable writing as a feminist methodological practice’ in the Feminist Review themed issue on methods, is drawn from my PhD project. The project was concerned with locating vulnerability as a political and ethical concept as well as thinking about what vulnerability might mean as a methodological practice. How is vulnerability to be researched, especially in telling the stories of others within the context of trans-national studies, and when these stories involve suffering?

My research approaches vulnerability as localised and specific. Rather than being a universal ontological condition, I suggest that vulnerability must be understood through the relations, capacities, and networks in which bodies endure and persist. While all forms of research involve vulnerability, I wanted to expand on discussions of feminist reflexive processes by thinking through the temporalities of being affected in research, and the necessity of reflexive accountability as a core component of vulnerable writing. Anthropologist Ruth Behar (1996) draws attention to how the aim of storytelling might not be to present history but to grapple with the impossibility of telling certain stories (p.176).

In my article I drew upon the difficulties and challenges I experienced during my research in trying to develop partial or incomplete narratives about two asylum seekers who had set their bodies on fire (commonly referred to as self-immolation): Mariam al-Khawli, who escaped the violence of the civil war in Syria by seeking refuge in Lebanon with her family; and Leorsin Seemanpillai, a young Sri Lankan Tamil who had sought asylum in Australia. It was through the struggles of representing another person’s suffering that I began to pay attention to the details of how both Khawli and Seemanpillai made lives in countries that were not their own, and cared for others, in both ordinary and extraordinary ways. The stories and their telling came to illuminate how vulnerability might be situated within particular bodies through the complexities and ambivalences in the ways individuals live and endure, and that this might change, both over time and in response to particular environments and spaces.

I continue to grapple with how to tell stories of self-immolation, and my role in this process. How to make sense of and story another person’s actions? How to write about their intentions? These questions think about the ways in which my research and methods might also result in forms of violence, both symbolic and epistemic. While I used publicly available media articles, I am aware that I tell these stories without the permission or consent of Khawli and Semanpillai, their families, or those close to them.

The advice I was given by one of my supervisors – don’t be an invulnerable researcher researching vulnerability – has stayed with me. In the article I have tried to describe the process of what it might mean to write vulnerably. There is inadequacy to all methodological approaches to documenting another person’s life: the inability to do justice to the lives of others. But there is another methodological side to this kind of research that I experienced: the affective and emotional wounding that comes with immersing yourself in the suffering and deaths of people who are structurally in a far more vulnerable position than you.

I first began thinking of myself as a kind of analyst, analysing media reports and attempting to piece together a chronological account of Khawli and Seemanpillai’s lives. As I was both challenged over this and struggled with what this work actually entailed, my role shifted to one of being an unchosen, and unreliable narrator, a term I used to try and make visible my lack of authority or permission and the multiplicity of accounts that are never exhausted in our research. While this is the language I have used in the article, in having more time to reflect on the project I am now less certain. Narration suggests there is a story or a tale to be told, and this brings forth its own ethical problems. In referring to the life and death of another person as a story there is danger that the story can become a commodity that can be used in the service of research. The language that I used to describe and account for my role was signaling to others the work I was doing with the online archive of media articles, and a relation that I might have had, however distant, to Khawli and Seemanpillai. And I am still not sure of this. Was I telling a story? Am I narrating a partial account of their lives?

For me, the notion of an account connects to the demand to account. Kamala Visweswaran (1994) writes of her experience in asking a woman to be a subject of her research, and the woman’s refusal. In my article, I suggest that being engaged in the reluctance of subjects and materials to “give up” tales and confessions can involve being obstructed and emotionally punctured by these silences, gaps, and refusals to become part of an archive (p.60). Through the woman’s refusal to become a particular subject Visweswaran begins to position her own role as a researcher as involving how she understands and negotiates the “construction of a silence, how I seek to be accountable to it” (p.60). Neither Khawli nor Seemanpillai, who both died from their burns, had the opportunity to refuse to be a subject in my research.

Rather than attempting to account for gaps and absences, and therefore to develop an account, Visweswaran’s reflexive engagement shifts the response and responsibility to researchers in becoming accountable to those erasures, pauses, and fissures in narratives. It includes being accountable to what such narratives require from others, and what forms of epistemic and symbolic violence are enacted in figuring an individual through a fixed form of subjectivity where intention can be known and documented, and actions made intelligible. I am continuing to think about what it means to be accountable to silence, which might occur through remaining with an absence of understanding, or equally with a muting that comes with a lack of permission or consent. I think that the ways it is tempting to fill this silence through different modes of methodological endeavouring to make sense of this absence in knowledge, to try to reduce forms of ethical violence, or to justify actions taken, is part of what needs to be encountered, and accounted for, in vulnerable research.

Since writing this article I have thought more about the outline of a vulnerable methodology that I proposed through developing a workshop for postgraduate students on vulnerable writing. In the doing and making of this workshop I wanted to consider if what I had written could be described in a way that could provide the outline for a particular ethical and political sensibility when conducting research. I was curious to see whether there were elements or practices of thinking and doing that could be replicated outside of my project, and whether the students would see value in thinking with the uncertainties and fragilities of the research process. Again it required exposure on my part to allow the uncovering of the scaffold and structures of a research process, where I was also positioned, through my performative role as a lecturer, as someone who had things figured out. It required me to be in the room, with my hesitations and uncertainties, and to expose these in order to enable the students to see how often I messed up, and what can happen when we give ourselves permission to say “I don’t know”.

One question that I received during the workshop was, “Why is Mariam al-Khawli’s voice not more present in the article?” It is a question of representation that calls me to account, and raises the concern again of whether the utility of Khawli’s story as a means through which to publish an article, to develop the outline of a vulnerable methodology, continues to inflict the very damage that we hope vulnerable methods might reduce. For this I don’t have an easy answer. I am aware that the article will form part of an evolving archive that now persists indefinitely through technology, and represents, without consent or permission, the life and death of Khawli. What remains clear is that the continued insistence to account for the forms of violation inflicted within the research process remains concomitant with the insufficiency of ever being able to meet the ethical demands of representation and responsibility within modes of story telling.

Tiffany Page is currently an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London and a Visiting Research Fellow in the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths (2016-2017). Her research interests include investigating conceptions of vulnerability, endurance and exhaustion. Tiffany is co-founder of The 1752 Group, a research and lobby consultancy working to end staff-to-student sexual misconduct in higher education.

Tiffany’s article on ‘Vulnerable writing as a feminist methodological practice’ in Feminist Review Issue 115, Methods is available here.


Behar, R., 1996. The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart. Boston: Beacon Press.

Visweswaran, K., 1994. Fictions of Feminist Ethnography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


Marriage, Kinship, Modernity in South Asia

by Parul Bhandari

Asha Abeyasekera’s article, Narratives of choice: marriage, choosing right and the responsibility of agency in urban middle-class Sri Lanka’ is a much needed contribution in the field of marriage, kinship, and modernity that provides a nuanced understanding of urban Sri Lankan women’s negotiations with self-expression, modernity, and contours of continuity. Her work helps establish similarities and differences across South Asian societies and helps challenge the popular binaries of ‘modern’ and ‘tradition’.

Abeyasekera has addressed the much complicated and pertinent issue of ‘love’ and ‘agency’ in marriage choices of urban Sri Lankan women. She has unpacked the category of ‘choice’ to explain that far from the popular opinion of ‘choice’ as being synonymous with independence and freedom, it is in fact received with much anxiety especially by women who are expected to make ‘right’ choices. This analyses certainly speaks to my own ethnographic research on the middle class of Delhi, where both men and women were aware of their immense responsibility in spouse-selection processes (using matrimonial agents, matrimonial websites, or more recently dating applications) to ensure that their family status, class position, and individual aspirations are well-represented through their choices (Bhandari 2014).

Another poignant aspect that Abeyasekera brings out is the continued importance of parental approval in self-choice marriages. Such a critical observation has also been noted by ethnographies that delineate the characteristics of the ‘modern’ in India (Bhandari 2014; Donner 2008, 2016; Twamley 2014) and in that Abeyasekera’s work allows us to see the affective and kinship continuities that mark South Asia. This pattern of findings in the South Asia region is also crucial to challenge Eurocentric western models and ideals of ‘modernity’, which view the modern era as marked by some sort of a break from a past that is rendered traditional and untimely. Abeyasekera’s work then, in challenging the binaries of ‘tradition’ and ‘modern’, explains that contradictions and contestations of time and space are in fact what constitutes the modern (Dube 2009, 2011). This is well-captured in the section where Abeyasekera’s highlights her interaction with older women, who, as she explains, also had a say in their spousal-choice. In this way, Abeyasekera emphasizes that the element of ‘choice’ is not soleley the prerogative of the present generation, and in that not necessarily a ‘modern’ experience. The distinction, however, is in that the older women downplayed their assertion in spousal choice, whilst the younger women emphasize on it as the marker of their independence and identity. We thus see that even in Sri Lanka, much like in India, the modern is not indexical of a break of a certain temporality of love, choice, and romance as much as it is of the reconfiguration of these elements in new social contexts.

Abeyasekera’s work resonates with some recent works on urban India, however these ethnographies have also brought out a few other nuances of the characteristics of the ‘modern’ in marriage practices, and it would be interesting to know if Abeyasekere either encountered these in her fieldwork and attempted some other conceptualizations of the symbols and experiences of modernity.

Firstly, these ethnographies have analyzed in detail on how ‘choice’ can conceptualized in a changing space of spouse-selection? To elaborate, my work on the urban middle class in Delhi explains that the term ‘self-choice’ marriage as much as ‘love’ marriage (which is already widely critiqued in this article and in other works) forms only a small part of a wide variety of choices that modern techniques of spouse-selection offer. In fact, the modernization and professionalization of spouse-selection practices in the form of matrimonial websites (Agrawal 2015; Bhandari 2009; Kaur and Dhanda 2014; Titzmann 2013) and matrimonial agencies allows the parents and children to interact with varying degrees of influence to choose a spouse. Donner too in her study of Urban middle class Kolkata marriages observes that “The values of companionate conjugality are very much part of middle-class self representations and the ‘Indian arranged’ marriage too offers varying degrees of choice and agency. The self-chosen ‘love’ marriage is only one variation on the main themes” (2016:1179). In other words, the notion of ‘choice’ itself is much more variegated and determined not simply by individual aspirations and ambitions to claim a modernity but also defined by changes to the space of spouse-selection, which is no longer restricted to recommendations by kin but has been transformed with intervention of technology (websites, chat rooms) and a professionalized ethos where impersonal services are offered to aid in looking for a suitable match. Is urban Sri Lanka too experiencing a transformation of space of spouse-selection, which itself is offering varying degrees of communication between individual desires and parental approval? If so, how then can ‘choice’ be conceptualized keeping in mind the various possibilities of expressing agency, control, and upholding duty and responsibility?

Secondly, the cultures and practices of pre-marital relationships in Colombo and Delhi seem a bit different and thereby perhaps altering the significance of ‘background checks’ in the form of astrology and tarot. Contrary to Abeyasekera’s work, my research revealed that young middle class Delhiites engaged in many pre-marital relationships, and rarely did their first or second relationship transform into a marriage. Instead, they viewed this phase of young adulthood (from 18 to 25) as the age of social experimentation where they formed inter-caste, inter-community, and at times inter-regional relationships. It was only when they reached an age of ‘maturity’ did they seriously contemplated marriage. They used astrology not to convince themselves that their match is indeed compatible and nor did they immediately view astrology checks as causes of anxiety and potential deadlock for their union. Instead, they expressed a more convenient relationship with astrology. As astrology checks certainly forms an important part of making an alliance official (so much so that matrimonial websites also offer the option of uploading one’s horoscope and horoscope matching facilities), the couples flirt with the idea of bribing the priest incase the horoscope is declared to be unmatched, or insist on performing special pujas (prayers) to ward off the evil omens and ensure an auspicious alignment of stars. In other words, they view astrology as a tool that can be used in their favour and be easily manipulated.

Thirdly, does Abeyasekera infer elements of middle class morality in these narratives of burden of choice and responsibility? Ethnographies on middle class in India have analyzed with much rigour that the middle class carry a self-imposed burden of ‘morality’ that is to be expressed in the ideals they uphold usually around the family, duty, and sacrifice (Saavala 2012). In the space of marriage choices these moralities are expressed in decisions to not elope, deny pre-marital sexual relations, and use the language of ‘pure love’ to describe mutual feelings towards each other (Bhandari 2014). The spousal choices made by the middle class are also seen as strategies of reproduction of status and boundary maintenance to ensure that those who are not considered to belong to the middle class are kept outside. Perhaps Abeyasekera too could explain the place of morality in these narrative of self-choice used by women in Colombo to ascertain if the motivations underlying these burdens and anxieties around choice are in fact insignias of being middle class as much as they are of being modern.

Abeyasekera’s work on urban middle class women of Colombo is certainly a timely contribution as it begins to unpack and nuance the category of ‘modernity’. It helps understand that the modern need not necessarily be new, as ‘choice’ in marriages was upheld even by an older generation and as she elucidates, ‘choice’ too is guided by elements of past traditions, in this case, for exmaple, through astrology and tarot reading. Abeyasekera, higlights that choice is not simply a signifier of progress and freedom as it is in fact bound by calls of duty, burden of gender performance and anxiety. ‘Choice’ then is far more complex, making it a suitable signifier of late modernity, which refuses to be captured by a single narrative of change or progress.  Abeyasekera’s article and many other similar works across South Asia have revealed the strategies and resistances of women against their local cutlures, as they also highlight the continued pressures and anxieites of being women, perhaps more relatable at a global culture. Most importantly, these works bring out the voice of diverse women in diverse social and political situations, emphasizing their ability to resist and also comply, aim for transformation and maintain status-quo, and in these dualities and juxtapositions they seek their modernity, their freedom, and speak their stories.


Agrawal, Anuja. 2015. “Cyber-Matchmaking Among Indians: Re-Arranging Marriage and Doing ‘Kin-Work.’” South Asian Popular Culture 13(1): 15–31.

Bhandari, Parul. 2009. “Marriage and the Internet in India.” University of Cambridge. (unpublished thesis).

———. 2014. “Spouse-Selection in New Delhi: A Study of Upper Middle Class Marriages.” University of Cambridge. (unpublished thesis).

Donner, Henrike. 2008. Domestic Goddesses: Maternity, Globalization and Middle-Class Identity in Contemporary India. Farnham: Ashgate.

———. 2016. “Doing It Our Way: Love and Marriage in Kolkata Middle-Class Families.” Modern Asian Studies 50(4): 1147–89.

Dube, Saurabh. 2009. Enchantments of Modernity: Empire, Nation, Globalization. New Delhi: Routledge.

———. 2011. “Makeovers of Modernity: An Introduction.” In Handbook of Modernity in South Asia, ed. Saurabh Dube. New Delhi: Sage, 1–25.

Kaur, Ravinder, and Prit Dhanda. 2014. “Surfing for Spouses: Marriage Websites and the ‘New’ Indian Marriage?” In Marrying in South Asia: Shifting Concepts, Changing Practices in a Globalising World, eds. Ravinder Kaur and Rajni Palriwala. New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan.

Saavala, Minna. 2012. Middle-Class Moralities: Everyday Struggle over Belonging and Prestige in India. New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan.

Titzmann, Fritzi-Marie. 2013. “Changing Patterns of Matchmaking: The Indian Online Matrimonial Market.” Asian Journal of Women’s Studies 19(4): 64–94.

Twamley, Katherine. 2014. Love, Marriage, INtimacy among Gujarati INdians: A Suitable Match. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Parul Bhandari is a post doctoral fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines de New Delhi. She finished her PhD in the Department of Sociology at Cambridge University in 2014 and researches gender and modernity in South Asia. Her PhD thesis ‘Spouse-Selection in New Delhi: A Study of Upper Middle Class Marriages’ forms the basis of her review of Asha Abeyasekera’s article here.

Asha Abeyasekera’s article on ‘Narratives of choice: marriage, choosing right and the responsibility of agency in urban middle-class Sri Lanka’ in Feminist Review Issue 113, Currents, is available here.

Autieethnography – Theory of Mind and Developing Autoethnographic Accounts

by Robert Rourke

“Are my feelings to be trusted? Can someone without a body have feelings? Can someone without a body be subject to abuse? Can someone who lacks a theory of mind accurately narrate the lives and actions and abuses of others? Can she narrate her own life? Where is the body in theory of mind?”

(Melanie Yergeau 2013 “Clinically Significant Disturbance: On Theorists Who Theorise Theory of Mind”)

My PhD research on the sensory experiences of adults with autism, investigates relationships to “favourites”: favourite activities, people and objects. What are the processes through which habitual favourites are formed? How do individuals create and follow a habitual means of engagement? What subjective, material and atmospheric/affective dynamics contribute to the formation and development of a favourite?

I use autoethnographic methods to bring into focus the issues of a researcher with Aspergers Syndrome writing autoethnographic narratives and the methodological questions and challenges autism presents to autoethnographic writing. I have been trying to embody and work with the feminist literature on reflexivity and standpoint theory including Donna Haraway’s influential piece on “Situated Knowledges” (1988). Situated knowledge for Haraway recognises that we as researchers can never produce knowledge that is unmarked by subjective experience and our located entanglements with the human and non-human. Such distant and disembodied knowledge is what Haraway parodied as the “God Trick”.

One such form of the “God Trick” in relation to autism concerns the understanding and application of the concept Theory of Mind (ToM). Baron-Cohen, a central psychologist in this area of research, describes ToM as “being able to infer the full range of mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, emotions, etc.) that cause action… having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one’s own and other’s minds” (Baron-Cohen 2001: 174). My concerns with this branch of autistic theory, research and practice arose when reading the autoethnographic method literature. Autoethnography, with its focus on the self, is seen as too narcissistic and lacking in depth or valid reference points to describe the phenomena under study. Also present in this literature is the critique that this method did not provide enough distance between the topic and subject. These accounts are seen as not applying the “correct” form of research objectivity, thus defiling the God’s Eye view of rigour and quality.

This charge, as Holt (2003) has noted, is often levied at autoethnographic works as a reaction to the unease it can engender within scholarly review processes. Without recourse to traditional criteria of quality such as validity, trustworthiness, lack of bias and reliability, Holt found that many reviewers laid the charge of narcissism without adequately engaging with the topic at hand and the ways in which reflexivity was handled. This may come from a bias and hostility towards the divergent forms through which autoethnography is produced such as through poetry or disjointed narrative. This threatens the sanctity of academic, non-disabled ways of writing, presenting a normative academic persona that privileges a neurotypical, or “normal” cognitive functioning.

I found this troubling because the etymology of the term autism is itself derived from the Greek autos or self and ismos, the action or state of “morbid self-absorption” (Online Etymology Dictionary). The charge of narcissism within autoethnography is more likely going to be laid down without readers thinking about the ways in which an able-bodied subjectivity is being assumed and imposed, let alone the specific detail of the autoethnographic account in question. The risk is a doubly misunderstood or reductive interpretation of autism that threatens to remove any traces or connections to anything outside of an autistic self-reference. Poetry, disjointed narrative and other forms of expressive writing may be more akin to autistic empirical experiences, but are side-lined for rational, concise arguments when considered academically.

Discounting the emphasis on individual self-mastery and the differential cognitive access humans have to their own and others mental states, the problems for those with autism go further than this. Melanie Yergeau, an autistic academic of rhetoric, has written on the link between what she terms “autieethnography” and what the theorists of ToM have argued to be characteristic of autistic sociality (2013). Yergeau finds that ToM theorists discount autieethnography as highly suspect and therefore deprive autistic people of recognition. Baron-Cohen notes that ToM is a core characteristic that makes us human. Yergeau shows us that for people with autism, this attitude to ToM is reflected in degrees of erasure for people with autism trying to document their experiences. With ToM researchers like Happe (1991), who argue that because autistic people can only talk about their own self-contained experiences, they are unable to express themselves in “non-autistic” means. Thus the “God Trick”: in order to be human, you need a ToM, if people with autism do not conform to a ToM, they cannot be human and thus it is impossible for them to conduct valid autoethnographies.

What is problematic is that the emplaced — meaning the spatial, temporal and material location of subjects — are often erased when ToM ideas are taken without critical examination. Yergeau’s account of her forced hospitalisation during a ‘meltdown’ meant that the psychiatrists and nurses informed her that her confused, frightened and at times self-determined words and gestures was “just the autism talking”. Leading her to reflect that the gurney she was tied to was more “material than her” to these care professionals. ToM strips away the embodied, gestural and material diversity of cognition and intersubjective interaction.

These examples also go to show that neurotypical people claim to know more about autistic ToM than people with autism. Yet, they posit this as being so different to their own embodied and cognitive form of ToM that they cannot possibly show an understanding of the mental states, desires, beliefs and intentions of those with autism.

In other words, I, as a PhD student with Aspergers Syndrome, cannot write autie-ethnographies because, as Baggs notes “Autistics are not expected to write autobiographies. We are expected to write textbooks, which happen to be about ourselves” (Baggs 2003). So I should stick to formulating statistically based structural, functional, rational models of social life, which fit better with my pattern sensitive cognitive style, rather than conducting qualitative, research that is based on nuanced social interaction. However, my aim in using autoethnographic methods is to show that these conceptions of autoethnography and autistic sociality are misguided and can be usefully combined to enhance our understanding of both.

If we were to take a more open ended approach to cognition, beyond individualist and human centred understanding, we can find how a supposedly “universal” human ToM is contingent and emergent upon highly local and specific interactions. Dawn Prince-Hughes, an autistic primate anthropologist, who conducted a zoological ethnography with gorillas (Prince-Hughes 2004), forces us to think more critically about how theorists of ToM conceptualise autistic sociality. Not only did she through her observations, learn and integrate into her habits and means of actions, the social customs and behaviours of the gorilla group to interact with them on their own terms. She further recognised that gorilla behaviour is not too dissimilar to human interaction. Allowing her to transfer what she had learnt from them to successfully interact with people. This example highlights the ways in which the sources of learning about intersubjective engagement for those with autism are often not typically recognised as conventional human developmental learning. Instead, animals, plants and the natural world often allow development of capacities such as empathy, beliefs and preferences. People with autism then become “human” through the non-human in many cases.

In my autoethnographic writing, I will be trying to develop an embodied and affective sense of autism. I will be attuned to the many sensoryscapes that inhabited my fieldwork, from the impact sound had on me and my participants and club members, to the use of bodily movement and gesture to convey meaning and recall and augment written field notes. I also call into question the biases and assumptions within academic work and relationships that reduce autistic means of self-expression. In this way, I believe that auto/autie-ethnography is a vital feminist method that and can enrich our understandings of the sensory worlds of autism.

Robert Rourke is a PhD student in the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths. This methods-related blogpost is published in relation to Feminist Review’s themed issue on Methods.


Baggs, A. (2003), “The Validity of Autistic Opinions”,, Available at:, accessed on: 26th May 2016.

Baron-Cohen, S. (2001), “Theory of Mind in Normal Development and Autism”, Prisme, 34, 174-183.

Happe, F. (1991), “The Autobiographical Writings of Three Asperger Syndrome Adults: Problems of Interpretation and Implications for Theory” In Autism and Asperger Syndrome, Frith, U. (Ed) 207-242, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Haraway, D. (1988), “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and The Privilege of Partial Perspective”, Feminist Studies, 14(3), 575-599.

Holt, N. L. (2003). Representation, Legitimation and Autoethnography: An Autoethnographic Writing Story. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 2(1). Retrieved June 8th, 2016, from

Online Etymology Dictionary (2016) “Autism”, Online Webpage, Last Accessed: 15/06/16, Found at:
Prince-Hughes, D. (2004), Songs of The Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism, New York, Harmony Books.

Yergeau, M. (2013), “Clinically Significant Disturbance: On Theorists Who Theorise Theory of Mind”, Disability Studies Quarterly, 33(4), Online Journal Article, Accessed 7/04/16 Found at:

Gender and Religious Freedom under Secular Law

Earlier this month the city of Nice lifted its controversial burkini ban after a national court ruling in France. Even while human rights lawyers fight the cases which (in the case of the ban in Villeneuve-Loubet) according to France’s Council of State “seriously and clearly illegally breached fundamental freedoms”, some politicians are adamantly in support of it. This latest ban is only the most recent in the line of France’s secular laws implemented to restrict the wearing of certain clothes; in 2010, France became the first European country to ban the full-face veil in public. It might be useful to contextualise this discourse within a larger history of the relationship between religious freedom, sex, gender and secular law. The following is an excerpt from a roundtable discussion between Christine M Jacobsen, Mayanthi Fernando, Janet Jakobsen on the topic, published in the latest issue of Feminist Review. The full conversation, as well as the list of references, can be accessed here

Christine: Sex and gender are at the heart of much controversy over religion in secular societies, and in general sexual freedom and gender equality are associated with secularism, so that regulating religion is seen as necessary for ensuring gender equality and sexual freedom. Playing on this assumed relationship, Joan Scott (2009) has coined the concept ‘sexularism’, which points to a particularly salient form of body-politics in today’s European secularism, which increasingly plays itself out in the intimate sphere of sexuality and religion. Some of the questions I want to raise in this conversation are: why and how do discussions about religious freedom and secularism tend to coalesce around questions of gender and sexuality, and how can we conceptualise the relation between sex, gender, religion and secularism differently? What is the relationship between the legal and paralegal regulation of gender and sexuality and the regulation of religion?

Mayanthi: One of the things I am interested in is what we might call the sexual protocols of secularism, the way in which one needs to approach secularism not so much as a site of emptiness or a kind of space-clearing neutrality but rather as a formation that has a series of norms and protocols about sex and gender. Working in France has helped me see this, because in France sexual and gender protocols are much more explicit than they are in other European or North American societies—although such protocols exist everywhere. I think there is a lot to gain from approaching the secular and secularity as full of sensibilities, affects and embodied practices. There is a tendency to think about embodied practices as a matter for the study of religion, and this approach leaves the secular unexamined as equally a site of bodily norms. What Joan Scott (ibid.) tries to do with the concept of sexularism is to unpack some of the sexual protocols of secularism and to think about the embodied practices of the secular subject.

Janet: In my work and my work with Ann (ibid.), we have been very focussed not only on interrogating secularism but also on what freedom can mean. Freedom from religion is a marker of modernity, a marker of enlightenment, and this goes back to the reformation concept of freedom from the Church. This freedom has a particular content to it, and, as Mayanthi was saying, it is not just an openness. When people make an argument regarding secularism, it is partly empirical; it is about whether secularisation is happening. But, part of the argument even when it purports to be empirical is also moral, and the moral aspect is very much tied to the idea of freedom and enlightenment. And so freedom secures secularisation, so that, if secularism is happening, the argument is that it must be a good thing, and, if it is not happening, it should be happening.

One of the reasons that these concepts have flowed around gender and sexuality is, if we follow Foucault, the body becomes embodiment through having a sexuality, instead of having sex. And this means that gender and sex are not just about acts but about broader discourses, including moral discourses. The site for securing the sense of moral good is often focussed on gender and sexuality, and this claim to the need to secure moral good is very powerful. Not only does it run in the face of an empirical analysis that might say, ‘Well, secularisation is not happening’, it also runs in the face of the tremendous violence associated with modernity: colonialism. When the violence of US militarism is viewed as in defense of secularism, it becomes peacekeeping. It is creating a better world. It is civilisation. This massive militarism becomes a moral good in part by turning to a question of how women are treated. Are they free? Therefore, a constellation of terms—freedom, women, gender, sexuality and secularism—come together to make an argument that is not only moral but basically anti-empirical. This argument—often condensed into the invocation of one or two of the terms, like women and secularism—nonetheless has a great deal of extensive political power behind it.

It is important to integrate our analysis of gender and sexuality into major issues like militarism or the study of religion and secularism. One way to think about social shifts is to think about the ways in which they are sexual revolutions, as well as changes in political structure and nationalism. For instance, the Protestant Reformation is also a sexual revolution. For both Luther and Calvin, freedom from the Church is freedom from monastic life, a freedom that is embodied by leaving celibacy behind and entering into marriage. Marriage becomes the sign of freedom. That is one of the reasons why the current debates in the United States over gay marriage are often made in terms of ‘freedom to marry’, when the freedom being sought is regulation by the state. Similarly, neo-liberalism is both a revolution in economic and political relations and a sexual revolution. Neo-liberalism is a change in protocols of sexuality and also protocols about what freedom can mean. This contest over the meaning of freedom is part of what is being worked out through discourses about gender, sexuality and secularism at the trans-national level, the national level and the local level.

Christine: Before we pursue the question of freedom, I want to unpack the notion of secularism a bit more. What is running through many conceptualisations is that it has to do with separating and maintaining some sort of division between politics and religion, church and state. Gil Anidjar (2007) likens the distinction between politics and religion to the distinction between women and men. The question is, he says, ‘How do you define this or that difference? Where do you say that a difference occurs or cuts? Clearly there are differences between religion and politics, as there are perhaps between men and women. Who will argue with that? Yet, does that mean that there should be or that one could claim to know in any exhaustive and fully determined way what the difference is? The problem occurs at the moment one tries to identify where the difference or even differences lie and what their significance is. We know in biology, as in cultural studies and history, that when there is a claim made identifying where the difference between men and women, male and female, is, something is at stake that has little to do with the difference, as such’ (ibid., p. 226).


One thing that, for instance, Hussein Agrama (2012) writes about is how the relationship between politics/religion and the public/private is a question less of an established division and more of a continual redrawing and re-separation of these distinctions within what he calls the problem-space of secularism. Mayanthi, you have written insightfully about the paradox that is created in France: when the state claims to be neutral about religion and wants to keep it in the private sphere, while at the same time the state is getting involved in regulating religious practices also in the intimate sphere.

Mayanthi: Even though public/private is a binary opposition with which we are constantly working, determining whether something actually is public or private is in fact never clear. The headscarf is a prime example of this. It is a personal religious practice, but it is read as an entry of religion into the public sphere and therefore as a public religious practice, because the line between public and private is drawn in a particular way. It is a perfect example of the ambiguity of public/private, where it becomes very difficult to determine where public ends and private begins. The ‘nanny law’ proposal that Christine (Jacobsen, 2013) has been writing about, which is a proposition in France to ban the wearing of religious symbols by childcare providers, be they public employees or privately employed, shows how that line between public and private is increasingly difficult to determine and delineate.

Christine: The other interesting thing about that case was the consternation in France that the state was overstepping its bounds, that the law was stepping into a sphere in which it had no business, which was ostensibly business.

Mayanthi: One solution proposed to avoid the state overstepping was that the businesses themselves should be allowed to make internal regulations saying that employees could not wear headscarves to work. The employees could not file suit under discrimination regulations, because the principle of secularism was outsourced to the businesses. If we think seriously about neo-liberal governance as precisely the state farming out its citizen-making techniques to private enterprise, then it makes perfect sense that even privately employed nannies would become key to forming ‘good citizens’. There is an interesting shift here in the distinction between what is public and what is private in relation to the hijab. There used to be a lot of faith in the public school to do its work of making citizens, such that girls coming to school in headscarves would learn for themselves to take it off. By the early 2000s, those very same people who had put their faith in the public school shifted their opinion, not simply because they see a so-called Islamisation of France, but also because they have lost faith in the school’s ability to turn these ‘bad Muslims’ into ‘good French citizens’. That is what I am trying to invoke by talking about the anxiety of the loss of national sovereignty. Even if this is a myth in some ways, it is a reality in the sense that people feel as if there is a loss of national sovereignty and an inability of state institutions to do what they once did; hence, these moves of punishment and incarceration and the discourse of reassertion of state authority. And I believe the shift in thinking about the headscarf is indicative of a larger set of anxieties.

Christine: Yes, the proliferation of legal regulations of religious symbols in France these days is related to a certain anxiety and loss of faith in the socialising institutions that were entrusted with the task of forming ‘good republican citizens’. This also highlights the ways in which the proliferation of law goes hand in hand with the normalisation of religious and other subjects—and as you have shown, the public/private distinction is crucial to such legal and paralegal processes of governance. How are religion, gender and sexuality entangled in relation to governance of subjects that are deemed ‘problematic’ in the current French context?

Mayanthi: In France there is a demand for Muslim women to keep both their religiosity and their Islamic sexual protocols private. Yet there is also a constant demand on them to account for their non-normativity, to account for the fact that they are not like ‘us’ and to bring their ostensibly private, intimate, religious and sexual lives into the public sphere where those practices and beliefs can be examined. And, if they are deemed normal, they are allowed to be private, but if they are not normal, they have to be changed. Even though secularism ostensibly depends on a distinction between public politics and private religion, certain subjects are compelled to prove their normality precisely by transgressing that boundary between public and private. But by bringing their ostensibly private religious and sexual lives into the public sphere, they are judged as having transgressed the boundary between public and private on which secularism depends and therefore become problematic non-secular subjects. That is one of the major paradoxes of secularism and secular power.

Christine: There is an interesting parallel here to the discussions about the French nanny law, and how declaring one’s intention to practise one’s religion in the work contract was suggested as a possible way of regulating religion in the private without violating religious freedom in the way that an outright ban would do. I am wondering, though, whether normativity operates differently in the US and in France, and what the particular relationship is between the regulation of sexuality and the regulation of religion in these two contexts. Mayanthi, how do you see the disciplining of a particular form of Muslim religiosity in relation to what has been said about sexuality here?

Mayanthi: The regulations of Muslim sexuality and Muslim religiosity are parallel processes and also intertwined in the sense that that which is properly sexual is that which is not religious. And that which is properly religious is that which is not sexual. Veiling is not just criticised as the entry to that which should be private—that is, religion—into the public sphere. There is also a whole discourse about gender equality, which itself is based on certain deep-rooted conceptions of sexual difference and femininity and what it means to be a properly secular, that is, feminine, woman. The headscarf is both not secular and also not properly sexually normal, because it is seen as a form of sexual repression. Its problematic status as a religious practice hinges on its problematic status as a sexual practice, or a practice of sex and gender. So there is a kind of double regulation of the headscarf in France as both sexually abnormal and religiously abnormal. I do not know whether this would make sense in a US context, because the reaction I often get is that the sexual protocols that I am talking about, the investment in the female body, are a kind of obsession peculiar to France.

Janet: Yes, and the obsession with sex in the States is often supposed to be Christian rather than secular: ‘Oh, we have secularism so it’s just a problem with conservative Christianity’, which is why part of my argument is that one of the powerful forces that creates the obsession with sexuality in US public discourse is the content that is given to secular freedom. I want to be clear that there are a whole range of discourses of freedom, including in modernity, that we could be talking about instead of the mainstream idea of secular freedom. Part of the contestation over sexuality in the US is a contestation among freedoms. The possibility of multiple ideas of freedom almost completely disappears in mainstream politics, though, because it is assumed that there is secular freedom and there is religious regulation. There are some differences between dominating theories of freedom and sexual difference in France and the US, but the overall idea is that we should have two genders, masculine and feminine, they should lead to one sexuality and that sexuality builds families, and families build the nation. Therefore, it is not about differing sexual practices; it is about a different idea about what the nation should be.

Mayanthi: And what would you make of Winnifred Sullivan’s (2007) argument that religious freedom actually presents a kind of impossibility? Does predicating sexual freedom on the model of religious freedom present the same kind of impossibility? Is that part of your critique of freedom itself—the use of the term freedom?

Janet: What I say about religious freedom in the United States is that it is the freedom to act like Protestants. But there are also other religious freedoms that people have built in various forms of intensive practice and various sets of relations of refusal to the state. One of the things that I am interested in is not just leaving these terms to the state-based version of them, freedom as defined by the law, but in fact shedding light on other ways in which they have been built up in various communities. And similarly, for sexual freedom there are all kinds of practices that people have built up that are not free from freedom, from the reach of the law’s freedom, but that are different.

Christine: One crucial question we have not tackled so far is how gender, sex, religion and secularism are also racialised, and also how race and religion are entangled in the genealogies of Christianity and secularism.

Janet: In the US context, and specifically in the law, this intertwining certainly has a genealogy. Historian John Sweet (2003) has traced the shifting of a religious distinction between ‘Christians and strangers’ into a racial distinction that legitimated slavery in colonial America. Therefore, thinking about an assemblage or entanglement is very, very important. More recently, after 11 September 2001 there was an intense racialisation of Muslims. The presumption, particularly on the part of the security sectors of the state but also by perpetrators of extra-legal violence, that Muslims must be racially different in some way and that racial profiling could tell you something about how to run a security state is certainly part of the ways in which race and religion are fundamentally intertwined.

One of the ways in which we are likely to see this intertwining happen is that certain forms of conservative religion will provide a path towards whiteness. Over the history of the United States, the category of whiteness has expanded when there has been a demographic threat to it. When it seems as though white people might be disempowered or become a minority, more people become white so as to shore up the category. Irish and Italian immigrants, for example, were not always considered part of the white majority. Now there are various ways in which, for example, conservative Catholicism may be a path towards whiteness for Latinos. Various paths towards the expansion, and then consolidation, of new forms of whiteness may happen through discourses that are religiously inflected.

Mayanthi: One sees this intertwining of race and religion in the figure of the Arab Muslim. Part of the difficulty of thinking about Islamophobia as either a form of racism or a form of religious discrimination is that it is both. I am hesitant to talk about the racialisation of Muslims in France as a post-9/11 phenomenon, because I think they have always already been racialised. If one thinks historically about French colonial Algeria, for example, and the legal system that was put in place, there were different laws and different legal regimes for different Arab Muslims, for Jews, for Kabyles and others. These communities were under customary law rather than French civil law, and you were born into and ontologically attached to your legal personal status. Religion was not understood as any sort of choice, and you could not escape it. Part of the alterity of the figure of the Arab was that he was Muslim, and part of the alterity of the Muslim was that he was Arab. In other words, there has long existed a nexus of race and religion.

One also sees this nexus in the figure of the Jew. Is ‘Jewishness’ religion or is it race or is it both? One of the things that happens with Jewish Emancipation is that the figure of the Jew is split across race and religion and can never quite fully occupy either category. This reappears in the contemporary period where the discourse of Islamic terrorism and the discourse of black and Arab criminality come together in a carceral discourse about the banlieue. The fear is that the petty juvenile delinquency of what is now called ‘the Muslim boy’, if unchecked, will become Islamic militancy, because he is supposedly much more susceptible to radical Islam in the banlieue. So this is one way in which these two seemingly quite different articulations of race/religion—one as criminality and one as terrorism—come together in the figure of the Arab Muslim.

Christine: These examples show how the entanglement of religion and race is also gendered. It is the male Muslim Arab who is both the terrorist and the criminal, and there is a very different sort of racialising of the Muslim woman.

Mayanthi: Yes, although I think white female converts who are ‘visibly Muslim’ all of a sudden go from being white to being Muslim simply by wearing certain forms of dress. It is sort of the opposite of what Janet was talking about, where to transition to a different type of religion actually means losing your whiteness rather than gaining it.

Christine: One thing that is striking is how race and religion also come to be entangled with security issues and crime prevention, which also has a gendered and sexual dimension. Mayanthi, you draw on US literature on carceral feminism to point at how some feminist groups and movements in France are invoking state and legal regulation and the use of punishment to regulate religious and sexual subjects.

Mayanthi: I found Elizabeth Bernstein’s (2012) work on carceral feminism helpful in thinking about the way in which mainstream feminist critiques of certain social practices in the French immigrant suburbs rely on the state to do justice, to punish and to bring these unruly subjects under control. There is an almost symbiotic relationship between some feminist groups and the state, because these groups are able to deploy the power of the state and rely on the state to be recognised as legitimate social actors. But, the state also relies on these feminist groups to do two things. One is to provide an alibi to go into these spaces and punish and incarcerate. Second, these carceral practices enable the French state to reassert its sovereignty in the face of the ostensible neo-liberal de-sovereignisation of the nation state. I say ostensible because I do not buy the argument that the neo-liberal state has lost its national sovereignty. Many of the decisions that were made to let neo-liberal capital in, to destroy nation state borders, were national sovereign decisions made by governing elites. And many of the same elites are also European and World Bank elites. Therefore, there are all kinds of entanglements between the national and the post-national. The myth of the loss of national sovereignty perpetuates a kind of anxiety that is assuaged by the carceral state going into these unruly areas and reasserting its authority. So it is not simply that certain feminist groups justify the state’s regulating of black and brown bodies. The regulation of these black and brown bodies is also doing much more for the nation state itself, and for governing elites who can thereby evade responsibility for the neo-liberal decision-making that has made life precarious for so many in Europe.



Collective Reflections on BREXIT

The Feminist Review Collective members have put together narrative fragments reflecting on their reactions to the EU referendum results and its effects. The pieces are intended to be anonymous, but to capture the diversity in positionality and viewpoints in the collective.

BREXIT Reflections

I have never felt a sense of belonging to a nation state. Growing up in Germany, the horrors of nationalism were very much at the centre of my early education and consciousness. My father’s religious, ethnic and national, background (Muslim Arab Iraqi) must have contributed to my underdeveloped sense of belonging where German national identity was concerned. But I certainly did not feel Iraqi either. Bi-annual trips to see my family in Baghdad were filled with surprises and confusion about proper conduct and etiquette.
I have already shared my ambiguous relationship with “Germanness” and my constant childhood and teenage struggles to fit in, to be “more German than the Germans’, but never quite succeeding. Being European was something I latched on to early on. I loved the fact that we lived only 30 min car drive from the Dutch border, 45 min from the Belgium border, 2 and a half hours to either Amsterdam or Brussels, 3 and a half hours to Paris. Italy and Spain were regular destinations for summer holidays as well.
I never forget the moment when I was 10 or so when my Iraqi uncle “ Ammu Jawad” was visiting from Baghdad and we took him to the closest border town in the Netherlands. He could not get over the fact that there were no border controls and no one was checking any papers. My brother and I were looking out for signs and indications that would tell us that we had entered another country while driving through Europe.
Feeling European accompanied me during my time studying in the States as well as my 6 years living in Egypt. By now I have lived in London longer than anywhere else. 22 years. It is my home. And it has been the place where I thought my Jamaican, German, Iraqi, British south London daughter could be at home. Despite its history of colonialism and more recent imperialist ventures, as well as continued racism and the rise in Islamophobia over the last years, I still felt that London, as opposed to either Germany or the rest of the UK, was a more welcoming and safe space for me and my family.
The day of the referendum I sent the email below to our SOAS UCU discussion list while sitting in a café in Cihangar, a leftist bohemian area of Istanbul:
“As many of you have pointed out, the EU is far from the progressive entity we want it to be. It is implicated in some of the worst measures of austerity, has been failing to have an adequate response and policy to respond to the “refugee crisis” and its foreign policies are often extremely disappointing, to put it mildly.
But to my mind, many of the limitations and problems of the EU are about lack of proper collective thinking and problem solving. And not about too much collectivity.
I understand that economic factors have driven the establishment of the EU and its institutions. However, for many of us who grew up on the continent, and I assume here on the island as well, the idea of Europe and European unity is very much tied to our awareness of history. In its origins, the European union was supposed to make “war unthinkable and materially impossible”.

Like many of my colleagues I cannot vote today. It is not that I am emotionally tied to my German passport. I am still of the generation of Germans who grew up loathing and fearing any kind of expressions of nationalism.  But I just can’t get myself to swear allegiance to a monarch and state my loyalty to a country.
Having talked to other continental Europeans, I know I am not the only one who will feel less welcome if LEAVE will win today.
Being privileged in holding a citizenship that allows me to travel relatively easily (as opposed to my Iraqi relatives who can’t get anywhere these days), I know I should not moan. But I also fear the ascendancy of right wing xenophobia and have not much hope of a leftist revolution in this country, even if Corbyn makes it. It scares me.”
Most of my colleagues on the SOAS UCU list made passionate pleas for Remain. But there were 3 colleagues, all very much to the left who argued for Leave. Their main argument seemed to be that Remain was to vote for the status quo and Leave was opening up the way for a progressive working-class led revolution to occur in Britain. I have to say I hold these people and their friends as responsible for the outcome of the referendum as the large number of right wing xenophobes.
The day of the referendum I anxiously tried to distract myself in Istanbul where some colleagues were bemoaning Cameron’s scathing remarks about Turkey joining the EU (“not in a thousand years”) while most complained about the EU’s turning a blind eye to the Turkish government’s increased authoritarianism and human rights abuses in the context if its role within the “:refugee crisis”.
Meanwhile, Mark, my husband, voted for the first time in his life. Yes, can you believe that I am married to someone who refuses to vote out of principle, I am not even sure what this principle is aside the recognition that the whole political class is corrupt. Weeks before the referendum, I told him that I would divorce him if he did not go to vote. Until the actual day of the referendum I did not realise that he would actually do it.
I feel ashamed that I had not realised how strongly he felt about it. He has been depressed ever since the results come out. The day after the referendum he told me that he never felt like this in Britain. When walking on the streets for the first time after the results was announced he felt if he had forgotten something. His trousers? He was looking at everyone wondering which way they voted, and if they wanted him out as well. My daughter announced that she was going to leave the UK once she finished her GCSEs. “I will go to a boarding school in the US unless Trump becomes President.” I was stunned.
Me, I have felt gutted. Surprised. In disbelief. I do feel less welcome. My first reaction after the initial shock was wanting to leave as well. At home my husband tried to make some jokes about me being dependent on him as a British citizen unless I passed the citizenship test. But then I am not really worried about that so much. Any kind of self-indulgent worries or thoughts got quickly replaced with the recognition that the beast had been unleashed. Or rather the unleashed beast normalised. Everywhere I turned, all my friends have told stories of racist and anti-immigrant remarks and incidents, almost on a daily basis.

Clearly, Leave voters contained a range of positions, backgrounds and motivations. I am aware that the Remain campaign and its supporters has been accused of elitism. But I can’t help it: populism scares me. People voted for Hitler in Germany.


I have a red passport with a lion and a unicorn on the front and a stamp on nearly every page. My first passport wasn’t red, it was navy blue with my name hand written in the oblong white space at the bottom. “Holder is a dependant of a member of her Britannic Majesty’s diplomatic service” stamped on the page after my 5-year-old picture – mandatory early 80s bowl cut and a pink sweatshirt with Speedy Gonzales on the front. (The nanny told my feminist mother, by way of explanation, that she’d wanted to buy me the blue one, but the shop assistant scolded, “No! Pink for a girl!”)

But that was a lie. The pink and the stamp.

More like: holder was a dependant of “dragged himself up by his bootstraps” / 1960s social mobility / grant to study / grammar school / a bath once a week and one pair of trousers tough if they’re not ready for school on Monday morning / council house / Mass on Sundays / over on the boat / baby sister dead from TB / char woman / factory work / hopeful back to the old sod / hopeless back again when the doctor’s bills broke them / homeless.

“No blacks, no Irish”.

He’s one of them, you see. I’m one of them, you see. Not that you’d know, to look at me, or to hear me. Same goes for him. We pass. Assimilated. Taken the Queen’s shilling (well, he did. I did the online test but they told me I wasn’t civil service material). Or at least, we tried. Easier when you run away, neutral territory, “that’s what it says on my passport so it must be true”. No need to think about it. But then there’s “This man may be a competent diplomat but he will never make it in the salons of Paris or Rome”.

It’s not just the Irish blood in his veins, of course, it’s all the things that came with that: the poverty, the grammar school, the Catholicism, growing up in a place that only looked inwards. Poles were alright – Catholic, you see. Better a Pole than a Protestant, even if they didn’t speak very good English. Yes, they had Poles back then, too.

Anyway, back to those stamps. And the nanny. Class is a funny thing. Dad went up, you see, high enough for his kids to be on solid ground (despite the salons of Paris). Nanny. Private school. Big house. Married up, both times. Travelled the world “on behalf of her Britannic Majesty”, me in tow. So I got the bug, which hasn’t helped on the assimilation front but it keeps things interesting. But his brothers and sister? Not so much. My cousins are factory workers, barmaids, lorry drivers. Not much solid ground there. “White working class”, apparently.

See, that’s the thing. You say “there are too many of them”, but you’re not defining your terms. And that’s whether you’re talking about migrants or those mythical members of the “white working class”. You want them to “go home” but where are they supposed to go? Most of them are home already. Scrape the surface and there’s migration-on-the-grounds-of-economic-necessity a few layers down.

“Not me,” says my feminist mother. And that’s true, but then three centuries of prosperity does give one a bit more of a solid grounding in the world. Or at least, it did until last week, or whenever it was. She’s as shaken and upset as the rest of us (and yes, for the record, that does include my “white working class” cousins. Some of them, at least).

Anyway, I’ve had enough. I never did understand what you meant by “English” and I never saw what was so great about Britain, either. I don’t need your lion or your unicorn. I can wander the world with a passport with a harp on it, just as well, thank you very much.

“Go Home Paki, Go Home”: The Aftermath of Brexit

The result of the UK’s referendum on EU membership came as a surprise to many. Before heading for New York City, I had already sent off my postal vote because I knew for certain why my vote was so important and I had vociferously expressed that concern to friends and acquaintances. Having noted too that the debate was being dominated by white men in pinstriped suits, I had added my name to numerous “Remain” campaigns, urging everyone in our communities to vote IN on 23 June.
My vote to remain was cast in support of hope and in recognition of all those who have fought for peace across Europe. While acknowledging that the EU system is far from perfect, crucially for those of us working to end violence against women, it needs to be noted that Europe’s politico-economic union has established important frameworks that protect women living in the UK. My vote to remain was, therefore, also cast in the hope that many of those hard-fought legal rights gains would be protected The EU has also made important laws in the area of employment, such as safeguarding parental leave and helping defend part-time workers (the majority of whom are women) from exploitation, and we know that any financial insecurity, recession or increase in austerity affects women first and foremost.
A few days before the referendum, the far-right, anti-immigrant UKIP party had, as part of its OUT campaign, unveiled a poster showing a queue of refugees with the slogan “Breaking Point”, along with a plea to leave the EU. Like most of the “Leave” campaigns, this poster suggested that unrestricted immigration from Europe could lead to greater competition for government services, with the tone of panic and loss of social control creating a lingering implication that it could even put British women at greater risk of sexual violence. Boris Johnson’s “Vote Leave” campaign too was built on racist, xenophobic rhetoric that blamed an influx of immigrants for the overtaxing of health care and schools. Those of us against this nasty politics of scapegoating were standing up for the next generation, looking outwards not inwards, and marching forward against the hateful rhetoric spouted by the likes of Nigel Farage.
When I was flying back from New York on the evening of 23 June, the pilot announced the narrow margin win for the “Leave” campaign over the intercom. A casual silence followed, as though nothing of much note had happened. I was gutted, but it seemed my feelings were not widely shared. Only one person mirrored my sense of disbelief about the situation I was returning to in Blighty. I phoned my brother and he informed me that not everyone in our family had voted “in.” He joked that “Some of them have shut the door.” Forgotten their journey from the Pind… To top it all off, my 18-year-old niece, who was planning a weekend post-A-level break in Barcelona, seemed to be mostly upset because she wished she had bought her Euros before the date of the referendum result.
I felt an overwhelming sense of dread. Why did so many British Asians vote to leave the EU? And why were they exhibiting the same xenophobic attitude as the white British “Leave” voters? Waiting in the early hours of the morning at Heathrow, I read through a Desi family WhatsApp chat group. A group of Sikh Punjabi friends and family had posted 257 messages between 23 and 24 June. Most of the messages expressed concerns about immigration, with these stated in the same racist “us versus them” rhetoric used by the white racists:
Kick them out, it’s my country and I am voting out.
(Second-generation Asian male)
Fact – why don’t you see what percentage of Eastern Europeans have committed crimes in this country since coming here 10-15 years [ago] – then compare [it to] when our fathers came here. And you still want them in??
(Second-generation Asian male)
One of the Punjabi women (who happened to be the sister of the above commenter) responded:
I’m happy in Hackney, all races and dogs!
(Second-generation Asian female)
Growing up in an inner-city area of the East Midlands in the 1980s, I was surrounded by racism, poverty, social exclusion and inequality. Racial harassment was the norm and being called a “Paki” was a daily occurrence – in school, on the street and even at the corner shop. It was vicious, visceral and deadly. It was also merely a physical expression of the racist animosity of the larger society that my family and I inhabited back then. For it to rear its ugly head again has re-planted a seed of vulnerability in me and my fellow Asian friends that, in many ways, has caught us off-guard. I have lost count of the number of racist posts my friends have reported on social media feeds since 24 June. Once again, our right to be here is being questioned. “Go home you f*****g Paki,” people say.
Go home? But this is my home. You can’t send me and my family back. We don’t have another home; we thought this was our home… There is a strong feeling of being pulled backwards. For example, one of my good friends posted this on her Facebook timeline (on the 26 June 2016):
So, today, for the first time in a very long time on the streets of London, I have just been called the P*** word by a van driver who refused to stop for me at a zebra crossing and almost mowed me down. What is going on people?
The EU referendum result has provided a legitimate platform for multiple forms of re-victimisation and discrimination. These racist attitudes are deeply rooted in our society and no #safetypin campaign is going to be able to gloss over them. Prepare yourselves for a future of atavistic nationalism. In calling a referendum, our (now resigned) Prime Minister David Cameron has unleashed a bevy of problems with ramifications for generations to come. He should not have called the referendum in the first place. The former Prime Minister of Belgium Guy Verhofstadt summed up the crisis: “The Brexiters do not have a clue what needs to be done. Cameron, Johnson and Farage behave like rats fleeing a sinking ship”.
In London, the only credible politician to steady the ship has been the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. At the annual Pride march, he expressed a defiant message of reassurance to local communities, calling on Londoners to stand together against the tide of increasing reported hate crimes after the Brexit EU referendum vote:
I want to send a particular message to the almost one million Europeans living in London, who make a huge contribution to our city – working hard, paying taxes and contributing to our civic and cultural life. You are welcome here. We value the enormous contribution you make to our city and that will not change as a result of this referendum.
The crisis we are facing in the aftermath of this referendum, however, is deepening, with political meltdown and Machiavellian treachery amongst politicians who are unable to curb their egos and deal with the Brexit mess they have created. It is difficult to know what the costs of the referendum result for minorities and women will be. The fallout for them is just the beginning of this calamity. There is no off-the-shelf solution. Much is at stake. Not the least of our problems now is finding how to live in a new world order in which hard-fought rights are being drastically undermined in what can only be described as an atmosphere of fear and hatred and against a backdrop of economic and social disruption.

I am an immigrant.

I am an immigrant but you don’t see me. I am a Commonwealth citizen so I can vote in the UK. I am a white woman so you don’t see me as an immigrant. I am from a white settler colony in the Commonwealth so you don’t see me. You don’t see me as a threat. You don’t racialize me. You listen to me. You let me walk by in peace. You let me say my piece. I have a voice. You give me a home. You stamp my passport and welcome me at the borders. I am an immigrant.
Brexit is about whiteness and Britishness, it is about race. As a white Australian living in London for twenty years I am never labelled or acknowledged as an immigrant. I don’t suffer racial taunts, I am not told to go home (unless it a bit of sporting humour). The United Kingdom referendum that resulted in the majority vote to leave the European Union brought home, for me, the privilege of whiteness, of colonial settler states, of language and of voice as a marker of belonging: all drenched in stories of nation, belonging, safety and economics and driven home as racism. When I invoke home I invoke home as a space of belonging, I am allowed to belong – in theory the stamp on my passport decides this and yet a thousand micro acts tells me this, permit me to walk in London and the United Kingdom and be told I belong. Brexit demonstrated how the belonging colleagues and friends had thought was similar to mine was always something given, something conditional and something racialised.
If Britain no longer belongs in Europe, which community of states does it congregate with – the Commonwealth? The Commonwealth is an old-fashioned story of Empire that pretends the outposts of the British Empire still gaze back to the metropole as mother-country and re-tells colonialism as prospering and in the absence of indigenous lives. Europe too has a genealogy of violence, of occupation and conquest that must be rendered present in our lives. Brexit turns its back on how these histories of racial hatred and national pride fragmented and killed. Brexit reminds me of how privilege is so simply and easily carried, an invisible marker of belonging with brutal consequences for those who are no longer permitted to belong. I am a white Australian immigrant living in the UK, I voted to remain in the EU and stand against all racism, all stories of exclusion and I fear the insurgent nationalism told as parliamentary sovereignty, security and economic gain.

It is a week and four days

It is a week and four days after the referendum. I have experienced different stages of grief since the results were announced, including disbelief, profound sadness, and denial. I wake up and I am still in shock when I remember the results: I have still not mentally readjusted to the reality of Brexit and what it may mean. While I suppose few know what it will mean and how it will unfold at a practical level, it has changed everything in the atmosphere in this country and has already caused incredible damage. How things have changed: in a less than three years, the EU has become the evil institution that can be blamed for immigration, for the failure of the NHS, for everything really. We hear already that the fate of “EU nationals” is in discussion and their right to remain in the UK will possibly not be guaranteed. One of my friends in Brixton, when we met the morning after the results of the referendum were announced, jokingly said: “See you in Dover when they deport us all.” It was obviously a joke, but a chilling one. He added: “well, it was nice while it lasted.” “It?” For me, “it” means living in the UK as an EU national, on a Romanian passport, without visas. Feeling like you are part of a larger community, of a postcolonial, postsocialist Europe, in a diverse, cosmopolitan London. At my son’s primary school, it has been a joy to be part of the community of children and their families who hail from all over the world. Another friend once told me that the school was like the United Nations.

But some of us no longer feel welcome.

I worry about the racist attacks that have proliferated after the Brexit results. They have legitimated racism, not only against “new comers” to the EU table—EU nationals from the former Eastern bloc, Poles, Romanians etc—but also against all those perceived to be immigrants, including non-white British citizens. I teach my students about Enoch Powell’s 1968 racist and inflammatory “rivers of blood” speech in the hope that such language will never be used again, and most of them have not heard about it. We are going through yet another similar moment, when the polarization into “us” and “them” only apparently targets a different set of immigrants, and unleashes racism against everyone who may be perceived not to “be from here”. Once you start telling one group to go home, it’s a slippery slope.

As someone who had no right to vote in a matter that directly affects me—despite having lived here for ten years and paying taxes—I am very angry at how the media has covered the referendum campaign and how difficult it was to get basic facts. The polarisation of the debate into claims and counter-claims, without a basic fact check, has turned the discussion into mercantile bids about monetary gains and losses. You will be this many pounds poorer if we leave the EU, but house prices will fall, said the Remain campaign. £350 million will go to the NHS if we leave the EU, claimed the Leave campaign. And this last argument really seemed to stick, even though it has been removed from the leave campaign website, because it was a promise that cannot be sustained. The same morning after the results were announced, I spoke to someone who was delighted because all that money would now go to the NHS…

Coming from a country that has aspired to join the EU for many years after 1989 and finally did so in 2007, I identify as European and the freedom of movement within the EU is precious, and even more so because I had to wait for it for a long time. In the mid to late nineties, I waited and queued at embassies to travel to European countries, only to be turned down. I remember putting in an application at the Dutch embassy in Bucharest, having to wait half a day outside to be seen and be denied a visitor visa. As a student from a post-communist country, I was eager to travel, after having spent my childhood under Ceausescu’s dictatorship, unable to move outside the Eastern bloc. That’s why I do not take for granted the freedom of movement, and I am glad young people can go wherever they want within the EU. You see, for me, Europe is about much more than a couple extra thousand pounds per year, or the money that goes into the EU as national contribution, even more than the free market, and all the undoubted benefits that come with it. It is about being united against racism, nationalisms and extremism and it is about building a future together rather than in closed off communities. We can’t go back to being small islands. I certainly am not.


There have been bleak times before, events which take you into catastrophe time, when the thirst for information overwhelms the normal rhythms of life, work, care, love, friends, when every conversation is a restatement of what is so far known or understood. In very different registers one can have a body memory of responses to (this list only some that come to my mind) the Kings Cross fire, the 1992 election, the build up to the Iraq war, air strikes on Libya, Dunblane, Katrina, 7/7 and 9/11, and its myriad bloody aftermaths, Hillsborough. This list is not (quite) random (though it is idiosyncratic) and perhaps there are some links indictment and fear, the local and the global and the sense of disgust at what is done in the name of something to which one is attached (if only by proximity or accident of birth or by something even less tangible, more haunting) to rank injustice, by design or otherwise. Catastrophe time is felt -breathless, sleepless, anxious; it curtails the ability to think, to write to ‘make sense’. A present uncertainty that throws a shadow forward, defiling futures we did not know we had so much invested in until they were lost.

It is as many have said, the temporality of grief, too. Preoccupied, stricken. Jo Cox.
Brexit, has produced an unnecessary and catastrophic racist ‘state of emergency’ as Brendan McGeever put it. It has become clear that the failure to speak out (or to be heard) against the insidious creep of rhetoric around the movement of people toward ever more dehumanising and animalising tropes – tropes and figures with a long, long blood stained history in the British lexicon- seems to have produced a perfect storm of kick back against a cruel and carping elite, happy to stigmatise and humiliate, pander to and enrage as the will took them. This utterly unnecessary, negligent, vote was taken because the careers of a few rich white people is more important than the well being, livelihoods and everyday safety of all of us. All of us, because catastrophe time will soon become mundane remorseless grim time, bleak time. I do not say all of us because I’m unaware of the difference these events have had and will have on those with a different skin tone or accent to mine, but because we are all branded by Brexit into a crystallisation of projections, mine? ‘White British’ what an ugly, ugly sound.

Race traitor

One of the many creoles spoken on the South Asian subcontinent is Urdu which makes a distinction between ‘ajnabi’ and ‘ghair’.

16th June. Avtar’s Brah’s words, a companion. The Scent of Memory.

An ‘ajnabi’ is a stranger; a newcomer whom one does not yet know but who holds the promise of friendship, love, intimacy. The ‘ajnabi’ may have different ways of doing things but is not alien.

At my desk, I’m reading through the last pages of a collectively written book on government immigration policing campaigns. Alone in front of the screen, I wonder if the emphatic claims that we have made about the performative politics of immigration campaigns, xenophobia and racism need to be toned down. I do not know who or what is sitting on my shoulder. The cursor, a familiar heartbeat flickers.

She could be(come) ‘apna’; that is, ‘one of our own’.

I turn the radio on during a tea break. The news: an MP has been shot. She’s been taken to hospital. I’ve never heard that name before. Someone says they heard the attacker shout ‘Britain first’. I can’t take in what is unfolding. I remember the MP Stephen Timms who was stabbed years earlier for supporting the invasion of Iraq. He had survived. Surely she will too?

Jo Cox does not survive. She dies from her horrific injuries.

19.19pm I send a text to one of my co-writers: ‘Shattered by the assassination of Jo Cox. Feels like even we underestimated the hatred and malice out there. Feels important to talk about in the book? Up till recently when I’ve described things to Z [my son] about how bad the racism was when we got here, he’s found it difficult to understand. And in a way I took that as a sign of progress. He will never know what it’s like to have your window’s broken, to be spat at and abused in the street, to be scared for your life walking past a skinhead. And in the past few months things feel different, more precarious, more dangerous. I despair.’

The idea of ‘ghair’ is much more difficult to translate for its point of departure is intimacy; it walks the tightrope between insider/outsider.

18 June. ‘My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain’. This is how Thomas Mair, the man charged with Jo’s murder responds when asked to confirm his name at his first court appearance.

22 June. Brendan Cox, Jo’s husband is speaking to thousands of people who have gathered in Trafalgar Square to celebrate what would have been her 42nd birthday. ‘Jo’s killing was political’ he says. ‘It was an act of terror designed to advance an agenda of hatred towards others’. A plane flies over the square, trailing a banner. ‘Take Control #VoteLeave’.

I dream of Jo’s murder. I see the knife. She was assassinated because in Thomas Mair’s eyes, Jo’s xenophilia (a new word I have learnt since her murder) made her a race traitor. What does it mean to betray your race? Or to be loyal to your race? I don’t know. I’ve never really had a race or a nation.

Apna Jo Cox. Apna.

Thursday 23rd June

Thursday 23 June – I go door knocking around London Fields for three hours, reminding Green Party supporters to vote in the referendum. Many of them have Remain posters in their windows. It’s pouring rain and my flyers are soaking wet, as am I. One woman offers me an umbrella. Later I realise that the encouragement and solidarity on the doorsteps of Hackney lure me into a false sense of security. In the pub afterwards someone says that the Leave campaign has told such blatant lies that someone may take them to court; their strategy must be that they’ll deal with any legal action afterwards – a small price to pay if they win. The conversation feels hypothetical. I retire early.

Friday 24 June – I awake at 5.30 a.m. and look at the Guardian homepage on my iPad. The little Boris cartoon at the top of the page has its fist raised. Blurry eyed, I send an email to friends with the subject heading ‘What the fuck are we gonna do now?’ And somehow manage to get back to sleep for a few hours. Replies to my only half rhetorical question are surprisingly earnest. Someone says it’s time to throw all our weight behind the Greens, another that we need to work now with the Lexit crowd. One friend states bluntly that Higher Education will go down the tube with no EU funding and students, another that she wishes she had bought her holiday euros before today. Somehow it feels easier to nurture fears for our jobs and our unaffordable summer voyages to the continent than to face the enormity of the bigger loss. Over the next week I will try to articulate to myself and others just what was and still is at stake.

Later that day I write to C, because if anyone will appreciate the affective dimension of all this it will be her. She is distraught. We are painfully aware of the vulnerability of our queer community, this motley chosen family made up of people from all over the EU, the Middle East, the Americas, and beyond. All living in London thanks to a combination of birthplace, ancestry, happenstance, fortune – good and ill – freedom of movement, and various acts of ingenuity and solidarity. I’m tired of hearing that Londoners are out of touch with the rest of the country. ‘They may call it a bubble,’ I tell C. ‘We call it home.’

In the early evening I go on Radio Ava to talk with old friends about the implications of Brexit for sex workers’ rights. Work, migration, freedom of movement. Preaching to the converted. For good measure – for the record – I add abolitionist feminists, with their anti-trafficking campaigns, to the list of those we should hold responsible for the anti-migration hysteria that has enabled this fiasco.

Saturday 25 and Sunday 26 – We dance and laugh our way through Pride weekend. At Black Pride on Sunday it doesn’t rain until nightfall, the first dry day all month. A DJ from Pulse Nightclub comes on stage; memories of Orlando surround us. With Jo Cox’s murder in the middle of it all, we have 10 days of shock and grief to sweat off. D looks healthy and beautiful and she goes up to a hot young butch and gives has a sexy kiss – her first proper snog since diagnosis and treatment. I feel giddy.

Later that night we hear the news of the depressing election results from Madrid, and I commiserate with Spanish friends in London and abroad. This too feels easier than facing the pain closer to home, though I know it’s all connected.

Monday 27 – Tuesday 28 – Days off, not from politics, but from the intensity of the past few days. Seminars and red wine under the stars. Sublimation of trauma into high theory? We buy our last drink Monday night in a Soho bar where the Spanish barwoman says to my Spanish companion: ‘Vivimos y trabajamos aquí, y ahora no nos quieren.’ In this construction, I implicitly belong to ‘they’ – the subject of not wanting. Of ‘Leave’. Of ‘Send them back’. My loved ones the objects.

Wednesday 29 – I get excited about the safety pin campaign. Discussions with friends online bring up questions about who can feel safe wearing this small symbol of solidarity. I fear for many of my friends, my closest family in the UK, but safe in my own skin. Because I am one of those migrants who ‘doesn’t count’. Because I am white, from a Christian background, a native English speaker. Because I am impeccably middle class. At the British Library no one else I see is wearing a pin. The action seems to divide more than unite, too many good reasons – but also excuses – not to wear it, even among the mostly white academic milieu of Humanities 2.

Later I have my first real outburst. I row with a friend and new lover over dinner. Both Remain supporters, both EU citizens, one resident in the UK. It’s not a disagreement. I am not angry at them. Only one sentence of my rant remains clear in my memory: ‘There ARE legitimate reasons to leave the EU, but the case for these was never made effectively during the campaign. And all those supposedly progressive Leave voters had a full week following the murder of Jo Cox to get it through their heads what a far-right political assassination is, and what Brexit would mean in practice, not just in theory.’

(Over the coming days I will come back to this thought time and again, and to the nagging feeling that too much of the white British left does not see issues related to borders, migration, race and racism as central to progressive movement in the way class is – and should be – central. And it’s not just about how we deal with the present and work towards the future, but how we understand the past. What would an anti-Brexit History curriculum look like? The History programme I teach on seems more painfully parochial than ever. We have not begun to meet the task of building a postcolonial curriculum with and for our postcolonial student body. The task of de-centring England and the UK, decentering northern Europe and Christianity, is more urgent than ever.)

My mates are alarmed – not at my argument and sentiments, but at my tone. I am reminded of the thin line between passion and dogma, in politics anyway. One says sympathetically, taking my hand, that anger is good, but it needs to be transformed into productive, practical action. I snap back that I have had less than a week to take this all in and I still have the right to be angry. I go home alone in the rain and cry myself to sleep.

Thursday 30 June – I go to work exhausted, and for the first time hear people – colleagues – talk about grief. About not being able to sleep. About mourning.

That evening, another respite. A last supper. Preparing and sharing vegan food, glasses of Rioja, quiet, intense conversation. Communication. Contact. Touch. I know I will hold onto this memory in the times to come. I have started to build my anti-Brexit solidarity archive.

‘We have to have a conversation’ – but which one?

So, it’s the day after the referendum and I have the news on,
and there’s this older white woman on the screen,
who is tearfully proclaiming, with a catch in her voice, ‘I’ve got my country back!’
And I think, who do you think you’ve got it back from, lady?

And all the political commentators are drawing the lesson
that ‘we have to listen to these people’,
and Remain lost because it didn’t listen to these people,
because this liberal metropolitan elite has looked down on these people
and didn’t take their fears and concerns seriously,
because we ‘have to have a conversation’ about immigration,
and I think, where have you been for the last ten years, at least?

Because the normalising of this particular language of everyday racism,
of people naturally feeling unsettled by the presence of difference,
of people needing to hold on to an illusion of sameness
in order to feel comfortable and in control of their lives
has been a relentlessly repetitive part of mainstream political discourse for a long time now.

From New Labour’s ‘Secure Borders, Safe Haven’ in 2002,
through all the years of austerity politics, the migrant –
with his/her sham family,
with his/her failure to integrate,
with his/her demands to access the welfare state,
to sap and drain ‘our’ healthcare system, our housing, our schools and services –
has been one part of the pack of scroungers who need to be told to ‘do the right thing’,
to stop Breaking Britain.

And no one, in mainstream politics, has been willing or able
to step outside the logic of that narrative
that can only talk to ‘hard-working families who do the right thing’ to say,
well, actually, living with difference is part of being human and social,
having to rely on each other is part of being human and social,
being changed by the change that is happening around you
is part of being human and social.
Don’t think you’re getting your country back, lady,
what you’re ‘getting back’ is some narrow and – to me – ugly and enclosing home
that shuts you up and shuts you off from a good part
of what makes us human and what makes us social.

Let’s have that conversation for a change (lady),
you might even like that different kind of home better, in the end.

Gender, Violence and Indian Modernity

“The Feminist Review issue 112 is a welcome addition to the global discussion on gender-based violence from multidisciplinary perspectives”, writes Asiya Islam, a PhD researcher exploring issues surrounding gender violence and Indian modernity in University of Cambridge. This brief post by her situates India on this map to consider how violence against women in India has been subject to recent media attention, albeit selectively, and what implications this has for the narrative on modernity in India.

The most recent reference point for discussion on violence against women in India is the December 2012 gang rape of Jyoti Pandey. Pandey was a young physiotherapy student; she was brutally raped on a bus in Delhi and eventually died of her injuries. The case led to mass protests in the country and, subsequently, amendments to make rape laws more stringent and effective. Some recent scholarship that considers the media attention and the protests, reflects on how this case gained significance because it posed a threat to India’s image as a modern nation (see for example, (Krishnan, 2014; Raychowdhry, 2013).

While it is often argued that new economic opportunities in urban India have led to increased participation of women in paid work, Ghosh (2009) points out that the rate of participation of women in paid employment in urban India has actually remained relatively stable over the decades (16.6% in 2004-05 as compared to 15.6% 1977). This sense of the changing role of women in urban India alongside arguably little change in the rate of urban women’s participation in paid work presents an interesting picture of the links between modernity and gender in India. It is then perhaps not surprising to come across a lower middle class Muslim man in West Bengal, India, telling Ganguly-Scrase (2003, p. 554) – “Who keeps women at home these days? Only the most backward section of our community.”

Young women might not be ‘kept’ at home anymore because that’s not what ‘modern middle class families’ do, but there are numerous resultant anxieties, which often manifest as surveillance, including self-surveillance, of young women’s mobility. This post is a preliminary attempt to conceptualise this self-surveillance, whereby young women become responsible for their own conduct and ‘safety’, as a kind of violence in itself. I draw on Amanda Kidd’s article (2016, this issue) to understand how such responsibilization produces “an embodied ‘sense of limits’ (Bourdieu, 2010 [1984]) that helps to reproduce the structural violence of gendered and classed inequalities”.

As new sites of consumption grow in urban India – shopping malls, coffee shops, gentrified ‘villages’ – gendered and classed inequalities are heightened but also rendered invisible in multiple ways. While boundaries may appear to have become fluid, they are also increasingly considered ‘unsafe’ and are being reconstituted in new ways. The management of these ‘unsafe’ spaces by young women requires creation of distance, literally and metaphorically, from the perpetrators. This distance may be created by narratives of respectability (Skeggs 1997) produced through habitus – clothing, demeanour, and even mobility – and, as such, class and gender stick to habitus and vice versa.
We therefore need to ask – what does it then mean to conceptualise negotiating the risk of physical/brutal violence through self-surveillance as violence in itself? Does self-surveillance as violence legitimise or reproduce the risk of physical/brutal violence? And finally, what implications does this have for young women’s subjectivities in such contexts? I will be exploring these issues in my doctoral research on young lower middle class women in New Delhi.

Ghosh, J. (2009). The International Context of Women’s Work. In Never Done and Poorly Paid: Women’s Work in Globalising India (pp. 1–20). New Delhi: Women Unlimited.
Kidd, A. (2016). Networks of Violence in the Production of Young Women’S Trajectories and Subjectivities. Feminist Review, 112(1), 41–59. Palsgrave Macmillan.
Krishnan, S. (2014). Responding to Rape: Feminism and Young Middle Class Women in India. In M. Alston (Ed.), Women, Political Struggles and Gender Equality in South Asia. Palgrave Macmillan.
Raychowdhry, P. (2013). “The Delhi Gang Rape”: The Making of International Causes. Feminist Studies, 1(39), 282–292.
Skeggs, B. (1997). Formations of Class and Gender: Becoming Respectable. London: Sage.

Asiya Islam (Twitter – @asiyaislam) is a PhD researcher in Sociology at the University of Cambridge. Her research explores the formations of class and gender in urban India, focusing on practices of mobility among lower middle class women in paid work in New Delhi. Asiya has a Master’s in Gender, Media and Culture from the London School of Economics. She has published previously in Open Democracy, the Guardian and New Statesman, among others.

Read Free FR Articles for #IWD2016

‘All around the world, International Women’s Day represents an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women while calling for greater equality.’

The Feminist Review Collective is proud to present a selection of recent articles from Feminist Review addressing key issues in the fight for gender equality. Featuring a range of passionate, incisive feminist voices, the articles include a feminist strategy for economic recovery, a look at the effects of debility on politics, and a rethinking of how initiatives like “the Girl Effect” might impact women in the developing world. These articles are free to read until March 31- we hope you enjoy them!

The following are the articles that you can access for free:

Karen Throsby (2013) ‘If I go in like a cranky sea lion, I come out like a smiling dolphin’: marathon swimming and the unexpected pleasures of being a body in water. 103, 5-22.

Ofra Koffman, Rosalind Gill (2013) ‘The revolution will be led by a 12-year-old girl’ Girl power and global biopolitics. 105. 83-102.


Nydia A Swaby (2014) ‘Disparate in voice, sympathetic in direction’: gendered political blackness and the politics of solidarity. 108, 11-25.


Penny Griffin (2015) Crisis, austerity and gendered governance: a feminist perspective. 109, 49-72.

Ruth Pearson and Diane Elson (2015) Transcending the impact of the financial crisis in the United Kingdom: towards plan F—a feminist economic strategy. 109, 8-30.

Margaret Shildrick (2015) Living on; not getting better. 111, 10-24.


Lisa Blackman (2015) Affective politics, debility and hearing voices: towards a feminist politics of ordinary suffering. 111, 25-41.

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ballad of the small-boned daughter

This is a commissioned poem by renowned poet Mona Arshi for Feminist Review, Issue 112.

Mona Arshi was born in West London where she still lives. She worked as a human rights lawyer for a decade before she received a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and won the inaugural Magma Poetry competition in 2011. Mona was a prize winner in the 2013 Troubadour international competition and joint winner of the Manchester Creative writing poetry prize in 2014. Her debut collection ‘Small Hands’ was published by Pavilion Poetry, part of Liverpool University Press. ‘Small Hands’ was winner of the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection in 2015.

Read more about the case of Shafilea Ahmed in:

Gill, A. (2014) “All they think about is honour”: The Murder of Shafilea Ahmed, in Gill, A., Roberts, K., Strange, C. (eds) ‘Honour’ Killing and Violence: Theory, Policy and Practice, London: Palgrave Macmillan.