I’m a feminist, could that make me an extremist? Yes, according to Theresa May’s new definition

by | 27 May 2015

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Unfortunately it is still the case that some people, for whatever reason, are yet to catch onto the monumental importance of feminism. That being said, I’ve found that it’s extremely rare, in the course of serious conversation, to encounter any expectation that I should keep my feminist views to myself. I’ve always chalked this up to the fact that it is one of the principal goals of any self-professed liberal society to protect the freedom to express such views.

Observing Tory tactics with regards to counter-terrorism in the last few years, however, I’ve begun to feel a bit on edge as a feminist. I know I live in a society where our recently re-elected Prime Minister has stated that Britain ‘will never give up free speech’. However, after the recent Counter-Terrorism and Security Act was passed, which served to promote censorship in universities, my concerns about the growing threat to me and my political views, as a feminist, became heightened. I tried to comfort myself with the fact that May herself has identified as a feminist. The idea that government could legislate in a way that would threaten feminism, in light of the Home Secretary’s being a feminist, seemed implausible. After just about managing to allay my fears, though, I then heard about Theresa May’s new definition of extremism.

The definition, to be used in conjunction with recently proposed ‘non-violent extremism disruption orders’, is this:

the vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.

Now, obviously there is no one definition of feminism — it means different things to different people. You don’t need to have a problem with any of the things cited in the definition in order to be a feminist. However, it’s undeniable that at least some feminist thought has sought to problematize, and has stood opposed to, some of the so-called ‘British values’ laid out above.

In particular, the idea of individual liberty, as conceived of by liberalism, has long been the subject of feminist critique. For example, it has been argued that freedom from state intervention has had, from a gender perspective, a damaging effect. This is by keeping certain aspects of social life, where people are vulnerable to gendered forms of abuse, isolated from state protection. It is also not uncommon for feminist legal theorists to attack traditional notions of the rule of law — by framing it as an empty notion insofar as it fails to address the content of the law itself. For some feminists, the fact that the rule of law fails to take a normative stance on the law’s content, while adherence to it is taken to underpin law’s authority, speaks in favour of dismissing the idea completely. Such feminists argue that law’s authority ought to be solely derived through an evaluation of the content of the law and the real-life implications for the people it governs. In this way, certain strands of feminist thought, indeed, very established strands of feminist thought, can be seen as opposed to ‘British values’.

The fact that feminism might be thought of as opposed to ‘British values’ leads to the conclusion that it could be liable to fall under the new definition of extremism for the purposes of forthcoming plans for ‘extremism disruption’ (or, ‘increased levels of censorship’ if euphemisms aren’t your thing). Because of this, it’s not clear that feminists can take it for granted that they won’t find themselves labelled ‘extremists’ and therefore subject to forms of gagging. So, what’s in store for us “extremists”? The government is expected to seek new powers, to be announced in the Queen’s Speech this week. These include ‘banning orders’ for those organisations they consider to be extremist organisations (watch out all you FemSocs). Powers to close premises ‘where extremists seek to influence each other’ are also sought to be waiting in the wings (perhaps feminists will never be able to hang out in groups again). It is also seeking to work with Ofcom to take action against TV channels that broadcast ‘extremist content’ (if I could think of a straightforwardly feminist TV program, I would definitely be lamenting the potential loss of it here). These are just some of the changes that the government intends to bring in — all in the name of security.

Of course, legal changes presented in the name of security — as necessary to prevent bombs going off and planes from being hijacked — can seem attractive: basically no one wants bombs to go off or for planes to be hijacked. This perhaps explains why the changes that have been creeping in since 9/11 have not seen sufficient opposition to prevent the Government endlessly extending its powers. It seems that to the majority, each change, such as the introduction of control orders and secret courts, has not seemed worth kicking up a fuss about, probably largely due to the fact that on the whole they have not seemed aimed at me and you, but ‘them’. Indeed, this is how the government has always presented such changes. It has generally appeared that the real worry should be felt by those who are taken to be engaged in dubious activities, while in reality we have all been significantly affected by the recent changes. However, the mask has now come off. The government, with its new plans for non-violent extremism disruption orders, has shown that it can’t even be bothered to pretend that its strategy is targeted at a minority of people. Apparently, the fact these plans threaten the ability of you, me and everyone in this country (even Theresa May) to be aligned with perfectly valid ideological positions, feminism for example, isn’t even considered worth dressing up. This was well demonstrated by our Prime Minister’s recent chilling statement to the effect that obeying the law should no longer be considered sufficient grounds for supposing that the State shouldn’t pronounce on our political ideals.

Be in no doubt that such remarks, along with May’s proposed changes, represent a significant shift in the political climate today. One that should be seen as deeply disturbing from whichever perspective one adheres to — feminist or otherwise.

Daniella Lock currently studies law at University College London. She has previously carried out research on national security law at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law.


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