Defend Bahar Mustafa!

By Rosalind Robson

As a current mature MA student at Goldsmiths University I have been watching with increasing dismay the media storm, and swirl of half-truths and lies being spread around about the Student Union’s Welfare and Diversity Office, Bahar Mustafa, and how this has developed into a nasty campaign against her.

This began with a media storm over Bahar’s organisation of a meeting for BME women/non-binary students to talk about “diversity in the curriculum” at Goldsmiths. That meeting was a follow-up to an event on the same subject, which was open to all, and part of an ongoing discussion at Goldsmiths on this subject. The holding of this meeting (and presumably any meeting) which is not open to all was said to be exclusionary, racist, sexist etc. It was also said that Bahar was offensive to white men in her behaviour around that meeting. This has been repeated ad nauseum on social media.

Then a petition calling for a vote of no-confidence in Bahar was organised. The petition has to get 200+ signatures and hopefully will not succeed. It did not repeat the complaint about the BME meeting, but did say Bahar was unrepresentative, unprofessional in her conduct and was guilty of racism and sexism. The last claim – of “racism and sexism” – was picked up by the media, with another round of articles, including, most recently, one in the local south London rag — the News Shopper.

The articles commented on Bahar’s statement of defence at a Student Union meeting in which she argued against the notion of reverse racism and sexism, i.e. if white men are not structurally discriminated against on grounds of race and/or sex they cannot be victims of racism and/or sexism. She also pointed out that, logically, as a woman of colour and structurally oppressed herself, she could not be racist or sexist against a white man. She did not however, as was argued, claim she could never be guilty of racism or other oppressive actions.

In addition, the media have complained about Bahar using hashtags that were rude against white men (a common thing on Twitter apparently). A further petition has been circulated which bundles together all of the above. A petition defending Bahar’s record is also being circulated. Oh, and did I mention? The cops have been called on Bahar, on grounds of her alleged racism/hate speech.

What really happened here? On the Facebook event for the BME meeting Bahar asked white cis men not to attend. This wasn’t, as was made out, in any way offensive; maybe a little bit cheeky, but with the clear implication that there would be other events which would be open to all. If anyone was in any doubt, the Student Union issued a statement reiterating the point that “special interest” meetings were normal, that future “open” meetings would follow.

So, the big deal is…. some BME people were helped by Bahar to meet to talk about issues that affect them!

Some students today call that kind of meeting a “safe space”; okay, but there’s an older political way of thinking about this kind of organising. Thirty years ago, even ten years ago, we would have been more likely to call this autonomous organising by oppressed groups. Meetings where women, black people, other oppressed groups got together to discuss experiences, work out ideas, and get some confidence to push for them in wider political arenas were common.

Some history needs to be rediscovered. Autonomous women’s groups in the “modern” women’s movement (now 40+ years ago), organised women who were desperate for ways to understand the shitty reality of their lives, from enforced wifedom and motherhood, to low pay, social invisibility. For socialist feminists like ourselves these discussions could not be separated off from engaging with wider political processes, in fact they were a way to build better, more coherent unity in class struggles. The fact that there were many deep-seated problems of sexism and racism in labour and left movements made autonomous organising essential. Whether you are a convinced socialist feminist or not, this sort of meeting is not apolitical.

That is why Bahar was absolutely right to defend it in political terms i.e. to argue, as she sees it, against the impossibility of reverse racism. Bahar was elected on a “ticket” of defending the most unrepresented and – whether you agree with her completely or not – she is being absolutely consistent with the politics on which she was elected. This has pissed people off and we have to ask why.

As I see it, a big part of what is going on here is an attempt to confine Bahar to her “Welfare” role, to being someone who is apolitical in what she says and does. That is the clear subtext of the no-confidence petition against her. This is a deeply sexist idea that rests on the notion that women should not take a full part in public life. It is one of the cultural divisions which drive Twitter hate campaigns. Women who stick their neck out, who are political, who are controversial, deserve to be “slapped down”, or worse.

On the issue of Bahar calling someone “white trash” on Twitter, well, she apologised for this. It didn’t seem to offend the person on the receiving end of the insult (in the context of a heated argument on free speech). This person was my AWL comrade Tom Harris who had this to say: “Calling people ‘white trash’ might be daft, but it’s hardly racist. Being white in our society is clearly not a source of racial oppression. Indeed, quite the opposite is the case. 
Far from being upset by the so-called ‘racism’, I had totally forgotten about the episode until this piece of ‘journalism’ [the story in the student right-wing Tab website] was brought to my attention.
” In an ironic twist on this “scandal”, Tom tried to get the above comment on the Tab website, but was blocked.

The “debate” about whether white men (talking here about people who are part of a majority white community, e.g. white English men in England, rather than minority white men like Polish, Albanian etc. migrants) can ever be the victims of racial abuse (as opposed to e.g. poverty and exploitation), I guess, is one to be had. But it’s very, very much secondary for anyone who wants to fight inequality.

No doubt too, there are also issues here about how to analyse identity and experience of oppression and what weight you give that analysis in a political fight against capitalism. In other words there are debates to be had about “identity politics”. And some of us have a big concern about the not unrelated question of the damage done to free speech at Goldsmiths when the Student Union banned the Socialist Workers Party society. But there is absolutely no chance of discussing any of these things in a calm and serious way (as, in fact, I have been able to do with Bahar in the past) while attacks like this take place. If we don’t stand up to this kind of attack we risk undermining our ability to defend all kinds of feminist politics and practice in the future.

Last but not least, the “debate” started by the no-confidencers at Goldsmiths seems to be a continuation of some students’ opposition to the recent occupation (including lobbying and petitioning to end it). A lot of the backlash was began by right-wing student scandal, sex and shit-stirring website, the Tab. Over the Easter break a large number of students participated in discussions about how to defend Goldsmiths, its courses and student services, in the context of restructuring and cuts. Because Bahar played a prominent part in the occupation she is being picked on.

Whatever our differences, all of us on the left must defend Bahar against this nasty, sexist witch-hunt.

Post-script (Sunday 24 May): It’s been pointed out that Bahar’s use of the hashtag “killwhitemen” is quite offensive. Only if you don’t think twice about it and therefore miss the ironic meaning (or maybe you have missed the news about all those young black men getting killed by the police in the US). Bahar’s explanation of these kind of hash tags is here. You can see how “performance” politics which uses irony and reclaiming of words can be badly misunderstood and can jar. Slutwalk faltered when working-class and black women pointed out how being called a slut was a pervasive and material part of their lives growing up and dealing with the sexism of young men. But many of the same women did, eventually accept the bigger picture and got on board and prioritised their support for a march against the toleration of rape and sexual violence in society. We too should focus on the bigger picture. The people who are causing most of the hue and cry about the hashtag etc., are not making reasonable points about the millions of white working-class men whose lives have been physically and mentally destroyed by brutal capitalist exploitation. They are the angry “PC gone mad” brigade who hate feminism.

Note: Small edits to correct typos and ambiguities, to add links and a point about Tab website made to this article on 24.5.15.

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About womensfightback17

Women’s Fightback is a socialist feminist paper and blog produced by members and supporters of the socialist group Workers' Liberty. Workers’ Liberty is a revolutionary socialist organisation fighting as part of the labour and student movements, and in campaigns, for a socialist alternative to capitalism, based on common ownership and democracy.

4 comments

  1. Pingback: Chatting shit, and what it means | Bureaucromancy

  2. https://womensfightback.wordpress.com/2015/05/22/defend-bahar-mustafa/

    The contradiction here is that the word “equality” means two very different things depending on your underlying assumptions.

    The simple definition of equality is simply to assume that our society should simply be race and gender blind, and the best way to promote equality to treat men and women as if they are already equal.

    The alternative worldview is through identity politics, where men and women can never be equal because by definition women are inherently and structurally oppressed and men are inherently and structurally the oppressors. That equality is not an actually achievable goal, but rather an extension of the Marxist concept of the never-ending battle of class warfare where gender has simply been substituted for social class.

    Thus if you define racism and sexism as “prejudice + power”, and openly admit that everybody is inherently prejudiced, then the quest for “equality” is not really about “equality” but rather an artful piece of social misdirection to distract from the true nature of the quest which is in fact a power struggle.

    A logically self-consistent definition of equality would imply one of two things, either we drop identity politics and assert that for the most part equality has already been achieved if only we would individually identify with being equals.

    Alternately if identity politics believes that minority groups should be given special privileges and band together to promote their own self-interest, then to be logically self-consistent, straight white men should equally also be afforded the right to identity politics and the right to call themselves a minority. The privilege of not having privilege. This only sounds ridiculous if you view equality as a morally justified one-sided power struggle.

    True equality means that eventually men will have to be treated as equals too.

  3. There is no “Irony” here. It is racism pure and simple. Normally the AWL of which you are a member supporter take reasonable positions on a lot of matters that the far-left shame themselves. Perhaps you should reconsider your “support” for this piece of work.

    Given her Turkish background I wonder what Armenian and Kurds would make of the position she takes.

    • There is irony intended in that hash tag. Whether it works or not is a matter of opinion. I think not. Whether you agree with the politics behind it (feminism that emphasises social recognition of experience of oppression – aka “identity politics”) is also a matter of political choice. Whether you like the guilt tripping of white men/people or not is also a matter of political choice. I don’t. But then I am not an “identity politics” feminist (though I do think identity and experience are important political questions to address). The hash tag is consistent with a particular style of politics. Is it my style? No.
      “Anti-white” statements happen, probably happen a lot, but as with all statements you really have to look at the context.
      So that all said, the intended irony is clear to me. My point is only that the fuss created around the hashtag is completely out of all proportion to its “offence” and I want to know why. I do not like the politics behind the fuss.
      Of course Bahar would be aware of the history of genocide and oppression against Armenians, Kurds. The whole point of this kind of left identity politics is that it seeks to equally recognise everyone’s oppression wherever oppressions exist. It can be very inconsistent and muddled about that, which is inevitable if you see society as a bundle of competing relative inequalities. Society is kind of like that but in a more fundamental way it really isn’t. Capitalist exploitation (the basic mechanisms of capitalism) is the beast at the heart of the system, the driving force behind the creation and recreation of all kinds of inequalities.

      “Piece of work”? What do you mean. She is a “piece of work”? Or are you referring to her defence?

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