Comment | The Maajid Nawaz Scandal: With ‘Feminists’ Like These, Who Needs The Patriarchy?
New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Tuesday, April 14, 2015 3:21 - 4 Comments
This weekend, the Daily Mail reported that Maajid Nawaz, a prospective parliamentary candidate (PPC) for the Liberal Democrats and a founder of “anti-extremism” think tank Quilliam, had attended an East London strip club last summer.
The rights or wrongs of attending lap-dancing clubs is a discussion for another day. Nawaz’s conduct during his visit, however, is not. Nawaz claims to be a feminist and a progressive, and routinely attacks others on this basis under the guise of ‘anti-extremism’, yet his behaviour shows him to be a sexist whose attitude towards women is very problematic.
The released footage, from a private room at the back of the club, shows Nawaz persistently and deliberately attempting to touch the woman he is paying for the lap dance, explicitly against the rules of establishments of this type. The dancer is seen trying to fend off Nawaz’s advances, ‘repeatedly removing his hands from her body’. The owner of the establishment has confirmed that Nawaz had to be warned several times over his conduct.
Let’s be clear: Unwanted sexual contact is sexual assault. This is the case whether it takes place towards a woman in the street, a woman dancing in a nightclub, or indeed, a woman paid to dance in a strip club. And yet, Nawaz’s behaviour at the club, and his reaction to the news story in the days since, suggest he is, at best, oblivious, and at worst, indifferent, to the seriousness of his actions.
The expectation that women are open to sexual advance is one that fuels sexual harassment. A 2013 research study by Slater and Gordon found that 60% of women have faced sexual harassment in the workplace. But Nawaz’s actions reveal far more than his attitude to workers in the sex industry. After all, Nawaz doesn’t seem to mistake the woman for a ‘prostitute’, and he isn’t offering to pay her for sexual contact. The incident shows that Nawaz assumes the lap dancer is accessible to him because seemingly, in his mind, she’s a ‘whore’. He pays money to be excited by her; she is paid to move in an exciting way, so therefore her consent doesn’t matter as much as a woman who wasn’t being paid to dance for him.
Presumably, Maajid doesn’t treat all women in such an overtly sexist way. Yet he does so with her simply because she’s a stripper and thus, to him, a ‘whore’. Because this woman is a lap-dancer, Nawaz’s behaviour seems to suggest, the need for consent dissipates. That’s the assumption, and it is far worse than assuming she is a prostitute. It is precisely an example of that form of sexism known as ‘whorephobia’: a subjective transfiguration of those who work in the sex industry, assuming that their career choices deny them the right to sexual autonomy or boundaries. At its heart, this is a denial of their humanity and freedoms – the rest of us make choices about what sexual conduct we engage in, whereas women deemed ‘whores’ are ‘fair game’ for whatever proclivities men such as Nawaz may have in mind. Is this not a form of sexist extremism?
Of course, we should not view Maajid Nawaz’s attempted sexual assault in isolation. Male entitlement to women’s bodies is something we witness across society, with 1 in 4 women having experienced sexual assault. Nawaz recently claimed on BBC’s Newsnight to be a ‘feminist’, implying he is not part of this sexist culture. His conduct in this episode is a good test of this proclamation, and the result shows him to be a hypocrite. It should also serve as a test for the Liberal Democrats: a party with a chequered past (to put it politely) when it comes to taking action with regards to their male politicians’ abuse of female colleagues and subordinates.
Nawaz has so far refused to comment on the sexual assault aspect of his visit to the club. In doing so, he’s predictably hoping to consolidate his credentials as a so-called ‘moderate good Muslim’. Indeed, whilst such a story is embarrassing and problematic on many levels, Nawaz is likely delighted that he can cast the outrage expressed by many within the Muslim community as a conservative backlash against his enlightened version of Islam.
Nawaz, like Katie Hopkins, earns an income by pretending to represent a contrarian strain of thought but actually acts as a tool of ideology by attacking concocted phantom menaces (i.e those vulnerable to radicalisation, or those with depression through pure weakness of mind). And, like Hopkins, Nawaz thrives off publicity, which explains his jovial reaction to the strip club ‘scandal’. There will be no future earnings if people forget about him and, like Hopkins, moving from the obese to the disabled, Nawaz, too, has to keep chasing the ghost of extremism in a community that disavows him. Sharks have to keep moving to survive.
Let’s be clear: opposition to sexual harassment and assault is not a conservative or religious cause. It’s a basic value of any progressive and open society. However much Nawaz wants it to be the case, this story has little to do with adhering to religious norms or customs but with living up to progressive ideals he has repeatedly used as his calling card and entry point into the political and media establishment. Viewed in this context, it is hardly surprising that he’s been working hard trying to portray himself as a victim of attacks by a conservative community angry at his licentious, ‘modern’, open-minded ‘one of the lads’ ways, rather than for attempted sexual harassment towards a non-consenting woman.
The refusal to address the abusive element of Nawaz’s trip to the club is echoed by many of his supporters. Inspire’s Director Sara Khan’s statement makes no acknowledgement of it, only after firm insistence was she willing to admit that what is plain to see on camera actually took place.
More broadly, this incident also offers yet another telling glimpse into how power operates; not only the systemic patriarchy-enabled imbalance of a man assuming that a woman paid to dance for him is there for him to touch – regardless of her consent – but how entrenched power within organisations and groups supports and sustains such unequal dynamics and behaviours.
The indifference shown by the Liberal Democrats to the accusations reflect this blasé attitude towards abuse. That one of their candidates is caught on camera apparently attempting to force himself upon a non-consenting vulnerable woman should have given rise, at the very least, to immediate disciplinary action. Instead, they continue to allow him to represent them.
That this is happening after everything we’ve learnt over the past months and years – about political cover-ups of sexual abuse and misconduct, and the systemic and toxic power dynamic that allows for it – is astonishing, but maybe we shouldn’t be surprised precisely for that reason. The way Nawaz has tried to deflect the story with smug and gleeful posturing makes it clear he doesn’t think he did anything wrong; quite the contrary. More damningly, his Lib Dem colleagues seem to share his insouciance.
Some might be tempted to dismiss this as a storm in a tea cup. After all, Nawaz has zero chance of winning the Hampstead and Kilburn seat. Indeed, ironically, the real danger is that publicity around these shenanigans could help boost his profile and generate sympathy, votes and support. It’s also worth keeping in mind that this story was brought to us by the Daily Mail and its rogues’ gallery of almost cartoonishly villainous hypocrisy. Maajid Nawaz knows he can easily play the victim while milking the attention. This is why it’s important to underline that this is not a story about a man breaking some religious code. The crux of this matter is sexual violence against women, a subject that our political and media elite continue to ignore and dismiss. This is the horror which Nawaz’s ‘acting the lad’ is attempting to distract from.
As Nawaz and others have discovered, anti-extremism is a very lucrative racket. His Quilliam Foundation is organising a Summer Ball, at which tickets for a private dinner with Maajid Nawaz are available at predictably absurd prices. Does Nawaz fear any of the paying men might expect the right to visit sexual contact upon him as part of the deal they’ve paid for? I rather expect not. In fact, judging by the scant regard he’s shown to his victim, in spite – indeed, because – of her position of vulnerability, I expect he couldn’t imagine what it’s like to be afraid of the prospect of sexual violence. Alas, this is an endemic attitude and it must be challenged as such.
Tickets are still selling – at £3,500 a pop for a space on a large table and a, no doubt oracular, ‘personal address’ from the man himself. In the absence of an apology or explanation from either Nawaz or his party, perhaps money could be raised for a ticket for his victim? This would present a perfect opportunity for her and others to publicly challenge his sexism and an occasion for him to personally explain himself.
With the roles reversed, we could watch Nawaz dance for money – albeit in a far less dignified and honest way.
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