So it actually happened…

2 weeks ago today, Brexit actually was not far off becoming a reality. Staying up on the evening of the 23rd June to see the first result come in, I wasn’t really sure what I was going to wake up to on the 24th. The final poll I looked over earlier that afternoon suggested that Remain was in favour to win, albeit narrowly. The results from Gibraltar came in at 96% Remain, which was to be expected, but as Newcastle’s results came in just after midnight, Remain’s lead was not as high as hoped. This didn’t look good. If expected Remain strongholds were coming in lower than expected already, Remain seemed to be losing ground early on, and the counting had only just begun. With work the next day, I couldn’t pull an all-nighter, so I set my alarm for 6am – an hour before the official result was expected – and settled in for the night.

Waking at 5.30am, my mind obviously sensed I was going to need a little more time to get ready for work based on the news we were waking to. Reaching out to check my phone, my boyfriend was already 2 steps ahead – ‘Do you want to know the answer?’ I thought I already had the verdict, but I wasn’t 100%. ‘I think I know’. Opening the laptop to get the live coverage of the results, confirmed what we thought we knew. I was in total shock. Leave had essentially won, and in a hour that would be official.

Never have I felt such a reaction to the result of an election – my stomach dropped. I was in complete shock. I always knew it would be close, and at 52%/48% it was, but I had hoped those final polls would be right and that Remain would edge a small victory. I was expecting us to have to come to terms with an almost 50/50 split of the electorate, as per my last post before the referendum, but still, the shock that the result was in and official hung over me all of Friday, the weekend, and to a certain extent, it continues to do so now.

I guess this isn’t exactly a unique story. In fact, the shock and surprise we have seen over the past two weeks only highlights how no one really thought it would happen. It seems Boris Johnson chanced his arm on the Leave side. He could then sweep in, become MP and toe the Eurosceptic line, or whatever line he had decided on for that week. It seems as if the entire Leave campaign was in shock that they actually won, as demonstrated by their complete lack of a plan since the results came in. Yet it also seems the Remain campaign was also in a similar position.

I was never a fan of the official Remain campaign’s efforts, if I am honest – I agreed with them, of course, but I really think they missed the mark in making a great case for the Remain side. In fact, I actually unsubscribed from their mailing list a couple of weeks before the referendum because their emails were so uninspired in the lead up to polling day. The campaign failed to capture the minds of the public, too focused on the economics behind the vote to Remain. The official StrongerIn campaign failed to convince and compel, and certainly could have been stronger in its message.

It has been a busy couple of weeks since the results came in. We have seen David Cameron, Boris Johnson, many shadow ministers, and now Nigel Farage quit their respective positions. The contest for leadership of the Conservative party continues, the UKIP contest will soon start, and then there are the actual negotiations with the European Union and the triggering of Article 50. Added to this, we see Sinn Fein calling for a discussion on a United Ireland, Nicola Sturgeon opening up debate on the future of Scotland, and even Wales questioning its role in the UK. Gibraltar is also left wondering where it stands now, as are the 48% who voted Remain, and lost by 4%. The EU citizens living in the UK, and the UK citizens living in the EU, including myself, are wondering where they stand too. The results have opened up a rift in the UK – a deep chasm has formed – a lot of the pressures were, of course, there before the referendum, and I assume whichever way the result went, it was always going to widen. There are many, many unanswered questions and the future is uncertain right now. We need to work together to find solutions, and to minimise adverse impacts across the board. The increase in racial attacks needs to be bought under control immediately, as this referendum cannot be seen to legitimise racism that has been boiling under the surface.

I am very disappointed in the result. I feel distanced from ‘home’, and I certainly don’t feel proud.

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Europe on a turning point?

 

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2016 has been a busy year for member states of the EU, and it doesn’t look like it is going to calm down any time soon. Austria recently voted for their new president (a largely ceremonial role), but with 0.6% between the winning independent/former Green Party candidate Van der Bellen (50.3%) and far-right FPÖ (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs – Austrian Freedom Party) Hofer (49.7%), the election was too close to call until the postal votes were counted. While we can rejoice at the fact that Austria will not have Hofer, a man who carries a gun for ‘protection’ due to increased migration and threatened to use the (limited) powers he would have had as president to their full extent by potentially dissolving parliament, we must also consider the fact that 49.7% of the Austrian electorate voted for him. The country was quite literally divided down the middle, and while Van der Bellen may have secured the role in the end, we cannot ignore the fact that such huge numbers supported, and continue to support Hofer’s ideologies.

The Austrian presidential election isn’t the start however, and it certainly isn’t the end either. Europe has been seeing a shift – some might say a lurch – to the right recently. In Germany, AfD (Alternative für Deutschland – Alternative for Germany) received 24.3% of the vote in the local elections (2016) in Saxony-Anhalt, 15.1% in Baden Württemberg and 12.6% in the Rheinland-Palatinate. Their membership numbers continue to rise and currently stand at around 20,000 – this is all for a party that was formed in 2013 on a largely EU-sceptic message. Since then the AfD has turned ever more to the right, as seen in their most recent manifesto and its outward islamophobia.

This year has also seen Sweden and Denmark reintroduce border controls in response to the migrant crisis, while Denmark  also approved policy to seize belongings from migrants entering the country over the value of 10,000 DKK (around €1,344). The Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party) grew to be the second largest in last year’s election, jumping from 12% to 21% over the period of just four years, while in Sweden the Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats) recently polled at 24.5%, making it the largest party in the country. Like the AfD and the FPÖ, they both oppose immigration and multiculturalism in their respective countries. The UK has seen similar with the somewhat slower success of UKIP (UK Independence Party) toeing a similar party line to the above mentioned parties. The fear of immigration has largely dominated the campaign leaflets, slogans and speeches in the build up to the UK’s EU membership referendum tomorrow (23rd June). Across the Channel, France has seen the steady rise of Marine Le Pen of the Front National, while the Netherlands has Geert Wilder of the Partij Voor De Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) spreading a similar message of intolerance, ignorance and a desire to look after ones ‘own’ before others. 

Tomorrow is a big day for the UK, its closest neighbours, the EU and in all honesty, the world. The campaign has been vicious – focusing on immigration, the economy and… immigration. The EU is by no means perfect, but to throw our toys out of the pram when the going gets tough is hardly the answer, nor a solution. The Leave campaign seems to be plagued by an old world view of the UK and its former empire. Like Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’, there is a harking back to a time that for some were the ‘glory days’ – the days when the sun never set on the British Empire. Personally, I am of the opinion that colonialism isn’t something to be celebrated, but for others it seems to be a tough pill to swallow that the UK cannot bark orders as part of a union (as a side note, it seems to be forgotten that while the EU is a union, the UK plays a heavy role in the decision making process and continues to carry substantial weight behind it as a key player). I certainly hope that Friday brings the news of a vote to remain in the EU – it would be sad to see the UK turn its back on the EU as a project, and as a union.

Sadder still is the prospect of further exit referenda in the near future – if the UK does decide to leave, it will place the future of the EU as a whole on thin ice at a time when all member states need to pull together. Alongside the rise of right wing parties across many member states, we face an interesting chapter in the as-yet-unwritten future of Europe.

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The Impact of (Re)acting

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Tuesday 27th May 2014. 2 days since the ballot boxes for the European Elections were closed after 4 consecutive days of voting across the EU. I would say 2 days since the dust has settled from the results, but I sense that the dust is still a long way from reaching the ground. For me, stemming from the UK, UKIP’s victory struck a particularly strong chord, but as the results rolled in from France, Denmark, and the remaining countries where far-right gains were palpable, I realised this worrying gain was something that was affecting Europe as a unit.

If I am truly honest, I can’t say that I am all that surprised. Rhetoric in the UK has been particularly anti-EU for a while now and a referendum has been on the cards. Now, the main shock is that we are edging ever closer to the referendum becoming a reality. With the EU elections behind us, hurdle number 1 is down, hurdle number 2 (the general election in 2015) is fast approaching, and as the mood worsens, this is an ever-growing concern.

If these turnout figures show us anything, it’s apathy. While the UK didn’t have the lowest turnout (by far), a rate of between 20-30% is still nothing to shout from the rooftops about. In fact, this figure represents between 12.7 and 19.1 million people (based on 63.7 million people in the UK). This in turn suggests that a huge proportion of the population either simply did not care about the election, or didn’t want to/didn’t manage to register to vote. Then, of course, there are the people who withheld their vote out of protest. On the other hand, in the last general election 65.1% of people turned out to vote. Bearing these figures in mind, it could be argued that UKIP’s victory can simply be accounted to the fact that UKIP voters, angry at the EU, turned out in force to vote, dominating the polls and sending out shockwaves as the votes began to be counted.

Of course, even if this is an explanation, this victory shouldn’t be cast aside. Seeing this result mirrored across other member states only enforces the message that Europe isn’t happy. We are now entering a crucial stage, where reforms must be discussed. The EU is by no means perfect, but it also should not be allowed to collapse. The UK, in particular, now enters a turbulent time in the build up to the general election and the referendum on Scottish Independence. The mainstream political parties need to rebuild trust with the voting public, and the EU needs to rework itself to ensure its future. It would be a great shame to see the UK and Europe descend into crisis, for the Right to take a hold on national governments and for the intolerant to grasp at power.

(I do not own the rights to this image)

Equal Marriage?

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This weekend the ‘UK’ became the 8th state in Europe to legalise same-sex marriage, placing it in a small group alongside Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Spain. While this is a historic moment, and certainly one to celebrate no matter what your view point on marriage as an institution, it is also a moment to reflect on the progress that has been made, and most importantly, on the progress still to be made.

It is pretty striking that only 8 nations in Europe offer full marriage equality. These countries are more or less neighbours and form the Western section of Europe. It is, however, slightly misleading to consider the UK as a nation of full marriage equality, considering that the law passed only covers England and Wales. Scotland will allow same-sex marriages from Autumn this year onwards, and Northern Ireland does not foresee a discussion in the near future. This is not something unusual, and is in fact similar to the stalemate that Germany finds itself in today.

Marriage equality is, most importantly, not the only yardstick to measure equality by. Legislation counts for one half, but the other half must be counted against public attitude and day-to-day life. While it is great that same-sex couples can marry in a country where it was a crime to even be gay 47 years ago, it is crucial to remember that same-sex couples do not necessary feel safe to behave in public as a straight couple might. Homosexuals still have to consider coming out over and over again, and wonder if it will effect their life at work and other aspects of their daily routine.  Homosexuals are still beaten up and attacked in acts of homophobic violence. Of course, these are problems that affect different people in different areas on numerous levels, but even at a base level, homosexuals still have to endure name-calling, heckling and snide remarks. While marriage equality is a huge step in the right direction, until suicide rates, hate crimes levels and the above listed significantly drop, there is still a lot to fight for. Away from home, and around the world there are plenty of much larger issues and more dangerous circumstances that we must bear in mind. We have not reached a stage where we can rest on our laurels.

Various recent examples include:

On the topic of marriage equality: BBC – “Fifth of Britons would turn down invitation”

On whether ‘marriage equality’ is even a valid term: Buzzfeed – “6 ways the UK still doesn’t have marriage equality”

Perhaps the most powerful presentation of the reality of discrimination: Panti’s Noble Call 

(I do not own the rights to this image)

 

Sexual Healing

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Sex education. This phase probably conjures up various emotions and flashbacks. Sex education holds a certain air of taboo, a definite sense of embarrassment and (should) hold a huge amount of importance. Secondary school is, on most levels, pretty horrendous. Add sex ed to the mix of hormones and you are bound to make a class of spotty teenagers go red. However, despite all this ’embarrassment’ (see, I can put I speech marks now) sex ed has a very serious and important role, with what could be a life changing message. This is, of course, if it is done properly.

We had a very enthusiastic teacher for our sex ed class at school and while we thought this was hilarious in that did-she-just-say-that kind of way, and while she was probably the most thorough of the bunch, she and the science teachers who gave us more of an anatomical view, didn’t really, now I come to think of it cover that much. Boys, put the condom on a dummy. Check. Girls, take the pill. Check. (This combo, she called ‘Double Dutch’ – something that still baffles me now.) Make sure you are ready speech. Check. And then, it was pretty much back to personal hygiene ‘lessons’. Sex ed, much like most first sexual experiences, over in 60 seconds.

Recently sex ed has been discussed in the House of Lords, which I am sure got many of them very hot under their Savile Row collars. Surprise, surprise – they voted against making sex education mandatory in primary and secondary school. 209 t0 142 voted against, in fact. Included in this bill was the mandatory inclusion of hetro- and homosexual sex education. Now, like I said before, school is horribly humiliating for many, and queer kids don’t get it any easier. Sure you might get some puerile comments from the back of the class when the teacher starts explaining the ins and outs of anal sex, but I think a lesson’s worth of discomfort is worth it compared to the potential side effects of unprotected sex.  Teenage pregnancy is down on last year according to the NHS, but considering we already had a rate that overshadowed the rest of Europe, this in no way means we are tackling the issue as well as we could. HIV/AIDS infections have seen an increase in recent years despite a decline in the last decade. While thorough and inclusive sex education may not have a direct effect on these numbers, they can only help. Knowledge is power, as the saying goes. Considering the fact that homosexual sex is rarely (I could even say barely) covered in your typical sex education lesson, any inclusion could only be of benefit. Addressing homosexuality in sex education and citizenship classes can only help in exposing school children to the world outside their school grounds. For pupils struggling with their sexuality, this could only help in offering recognition and inclusion. For pupils struggling with other people’s sexualities, this could only help in opening their minds.

With David Cameron’s ‘porn filter’ in full operation, blocking safe content across the land, teenagers now have limited access to sex education online. How many teenagers do you know, that would be willing to ask certain ’embarrassing’ questions in class? I mean the pupils who really want the answer, not the pupils looking for a laugh. This block affects all teenagers looking for advice, and there have been reports of this filter blocking advice websites and sites with gay content. While I can see that internet forums and the like can be damaging for an impressionable teenager looking for answers, I believe that blocking on a keyword basis is not the way forward.

In a final piece of news from the Houses of Parliament, certain Conservative backbenchers want to introduce restrictions on HIV+ migrants entering the UK. While only 16 MPs have signed so far, this is an alarming development. Something that only stands to support the vilification and stigmatisation of whose with HIV further.

It’s about time the government took sexual health seriously with a contemporary mindset, instead of the outdated opinions of the House of Lords.

The Debate Surrounding The Veil

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I recently came across two articles regarding the debate surrounding the veil, one by the Berliner Morgenpost (Germany) and one in the Guardian (UK), and I was intrigued that both the German and the British press were discussing this on the same day. The Morgenpost article reports on a Berlin judge’s decision to ban a female lawyer from wearing a headscarf (or ‘hijab’) in court, while the Guardian article considers the ‘niqab’.

First things first, let me clear up the difference between the ‘hijab’, the ‘niqab’ and the ‘burqa’ (also spelt ‘burka’). The ‘hijab’ is commonly referred to as a headscarf and covers a woman’s hair and shoulders/chest, leaving her face exposed. The ‘niqab’ refers to a veil that covers the entire face and leave only the eyes visible (as pictured above). This is not to be confused with a ‘burqa’ (which it often is), as a ‘burqa’ is especially loose and features a thin cloth section over the eyes.

There are so many different arguments surrounding this issue it is difficult to know where to begin. From the articles, we can see that, even from the surface, this issue is hugely contentious and very current. The German article, is, to my mind, more contentious as it merely regards the ‘hijab’, which is much less controversial than the ‘niqab’ or the ‘burka’ – Full veiling of the face, raises many more questions. The judge argues that a court of law is a neutral ground where the law is in place without the influence of personal beliefs. This is an interesting sentiment considering that Germany is far from a secular state. The Government is (currently) represented by a Christian party (the CSU, or the Christian Conservative party), the church is still entwined with the tax system (there is still a Kirchensteuer of between 8-9% of income)  and shops still close on a Sunday to observe the Sabbath. Furthermore Article 4 of the Federal Constitution (‘Grundgesetz’) claims:

“1. Freedom of faith and of conscience, and freedom to profess a religious or philosophical creed, shall be inviolable. 2. The undisturbed practice of religion shall be guaranteed.”

This raises questions regarding the ruling made by the judge and furthermore raises issues regarding bias towards Christianity. It also raises questions regarding the fine line between integration and assimilation – what happens if you live in a predominately Christian country, or in a predominately Muslim country? How far should people expect you to integrate? And furthermore, in the interest of freedom of choice and individuality, how far should you be willing assimilate?

From this more questions arise, as we start to consider who decides if a woman wears a veil in the first place? It is a personal choice, social and religious pressures, or patriarchy?

From all of these questions we see that there isn’t one simple answer, and this means there shouldn’t be one simple solution. One thing is for certain – a general ban is not the answer, as we have seen from France in recent years. You can’t speak for every woman who wears a veil, whether she chooses to, or not and for these reasons it seems unlikely that these stories will change in the near future.

Recently, I wrote about Wadjda – the first film to be fully recorded in Saudi Arabia. This film raises interesting questions about the veil and the role of women in this Islamic State, and most significantly the influence men have on the women in this state. It is a very interesting film and I would highly recommend it, particularly because it comes from within Saudi Arabia and therefore avoids the distortion of a Western view on the issues that arise.

As the Guardian article points out, discussions in the UK so far seem to have left Muslim women out and have instead decided to speak for them and about them, without allowing them to express an opinion or a counterargument. If something is to be discussed, both sides should be represented. It is ironic that parliamentary discussions talk of the repression of women, and the lack of a female voice as reasons for a ban, while promoting a repression of women through the discussion of the topic by disconnected parties.

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ILGA-Europe Rainbow Map – 2013

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The ILGA recently posted this ‘Rainbow Map’ to show which countries in Europe provide the best level of human rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex residents. From the first glance I was surprised to learn that the UK provides the best human rights at 77% , compared to 66% for Norway, 65% for Sweden, 57% for Denmark and 60% for the Netherlands. I find this difficult to believe as the above 4 countries are well renowned for offering some of the best human rights to people across the LGBTUA+ spectrum.

Legislation doesn’t mean equality or human rights are adhered to and this is a pitfall of this graph. Results from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights survey show just how high homo-/transphobia are in the Western world, despite misconceptions.

To see a larger version of the map click here. 

To see the results from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights click here.

Ps. In an article entitled “Europa lebt die Diskriminierung” (Discrimination lives in Europe) Die Zeit discusses the above mentioned studies and concludes: “Such laws are great. However, at the end of the day, the new EU study shows that it’s not enough to declare equality in the law books. These laws have to actually come alive too.” This is a statement I wholeheartedly agree with as we learn time and time again that legislation is all well and go. Yet it means nothing unless everyone takes it into practise.