Right to refuge: Stewart holds the starte to account for its duty to protect those most at risk in their own home. Photo: Gary Carlton/Eyevine
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Patrick Stewart: There’s no such thing as “just a domestic”

Domestic violence takes an enormous death toll. Every week two women are killed by current or former partners in England and Wales.

Several years ago, I met an extraordinary woman named Sharon de Souza. In 2008, Sharon witnessed the murder of her 24-year-old daughter, Cassie. Cassie was stabbed to death by her estranged husband in front of their two young sons as she attempted to flee to the safety of a women’s shelter.

With the help of Refuge, a charity that supports women and children experiencing domestic violence, Sharon secured an inquest that would shed light on the circumstances surrounding Cassie’s death. It was a long battle, but in February this year the inquest finally took place.

After hearing from a number of police officers and other professionals who had been in contact with Cassie in the months and weeks leading up to that day in July 2008, a jury concluded that two separate police forces and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) all failed to take appropriate steps to safeguard Cassie’s life. They also found that, had the CPS and Sussex Police taken these steps, there is a substantial chance that her life could have been saved.

The sad truth is that Cassie’s story is not unusual. Domestic violence takes an enormous death toll. Every week two women are killed by current or former partners in England and Wales. And so, up and down the country, there are thousands of bereaved families struggling to come to terms with the loss of a beloved mother, daughter or sister. In too many of these cases, the police – and other state agencies – have failed to protect women and children at their moment of greatest need.

My own mother experienced violence at the hands of my father. I remember the police being called to our house on many occasions. As a child, I heard police officers standing in our small living room saying things like, “She must have provoked him,” or, “Well, Mrs Stewart, it takes two to make a fight.”

They had no idea. As a child I didn’t have the words to explain, but as an adult I can tell the truth.

The police had a duty to protect me and my mother, and they failed in that duty. They left us powerless and vulnerable. It shocks me that, decades later, women and children are still being let down by those agencies and by professionals who have a legal duty to protect them.

Of course, much has changed since my childhood. Many police officers do take domestic violence seriously. Yet the negative attitudes that I encountered as a small boy are still embedded in our culture and in our institutions. I have heard alarming comments from women using Refuge’s services about the poor response they still receive from police officers.

One woman was told that she should “just make up” with her ex-boyfriend though he’d assaulted her – an incident that the police officer involved referred to as “just a domestic”. Another woman reported that her partner was let off with a caution after he held a knife against her throat. These comments show how little we have progressed as a society in taking a stand against domestic violence.

It takes extraordinary courage for a frightened, abused woman to report her abuser to the police. When women make that brave step, it is vital that they be believed, supported and protected. They must have the full force of the law behind them.

Cassie’s story also proves that it is not just the police who fail victims of domestic violence. The inquest into her death found that the CPS was responsible for a number of failings. In 2012, Refuge gave expert evidence at the inquest into the death of another woman, Sabina Akhtar, which found Greater Manchester Police, Manchester social services and the CPS accountable for serious and significant failings that possibly contributed to Sabina’s death.

Our system is broken. Women and children continue to die in large numbers because they are not given the support and protection they deserve. Refuge is calling on the Home Secretary to open a public inquiry into the response by the police and other state agencies to victims of domestic violence. In my mother’s name – and in the name of women like Cassie – I support this call. We need a bold shift in the way we, as a society, view domestic violence – and in the way our public services and state institutions respond to victims. Those negative attitudes I encountered as a small boy – attitudes that allowed the violence to continue – must be banished once and for all. 

Patrick Stewart is a patron of Refuge. For more information and to sign Refuge’s petition calling for a public inquiry, visit: refuge.org.uk/publicinquiry

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.