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Laurie Penny on the Burqa: a modesty slip for misogyny

It is patriarchy rather than religion that oppresses women across the world.

Slip away the modesty cloth of faux-feminist posturing over the veil, and you'll find an ugly skin of nationalism, male intolerance and misogyny.

In his article "Thinly veiled threat", Mehdi Hasan impressively fails to assume that the debate over the niqab and burqa -- recently outlawed in Belgium, with similar laws tabled across Europe -- is all about him. This sets him apart from nearly every man writing, legislating and proclaiming about this most symbolically loaded piece of clothing.

Hasan's piece is learned and thorough, but it misses perhaps the most fundamental question about the veil debate. The question is not to what extent the veil can be considered oppressive, but whether it is ever justifiable for men to mandate how women should look, dress and behave in the name of preserving a culture.

Male culture has always chosen to define itself by how it permits its women to dress and behave. Footage recorded in 2008 shows a young member of the British National Party expounding upon the right of the average working man in Leeds to "look at women wearing low-cut tops in the street". The speaker declares the practice is "part of British history, and more important than human rights", and laments that "they" -- variously, Muslims, foreigners and feminists -- want to "take it away from us".

Never mind the right of the women in question to wear what they want or, for that matter, to walk down that Leeds street without fear of the entitled harassment made extremely explicit in this speech. This is not about women. This is about men, and how men define themselves against other men.

In the dialect of male-coded cultural violence, whether it takes place on a street in Leeds, in a Middle Eastern valley, or in the minds of a generation raised on sectarian squabbling and distrust, women are valuable only and always as a cultural symbol.

Some years ago I spent a summer on a ward for eating disorders, where I struck up a friendship with a fellow patient called Sara, a Saudi Muslim who wore the hijab and smoked Italian cigarettes. When we were well enough to walk in the hospital gardens, Sara and I would spend long hours talking about how other people always seemed to want to control how we looked. She shared with me the privations of compulsory Islamic dress, and I explained the pressure constantly to appear feminine and sexy that I experienced as a British teenager raised by atheists.

As an experiment, we decided to swap clothes for a fortnight. Sara wore skintight tracksuits and her short, spiky hair uncovered; I wore an abaya with full headscarf that she taught me to fold and tuck.

What was striking was that when we took trips to the shops in our new gladrags, both of us felt immensely liberated: our bodies were finally our own, hers to show off as she pleased, mine to cover if I wanted. For the first time since puberty, I felt that people might be seeing the real me, rather than looking at my body.

This flavour of freedom, which for some women is central to self-respect, is just as valid and important a choice as the freedom to go bare-legged and low-cut. A truly progressive western culture would respect both. But what European governments seem not to have grasped is that the freedom to wear whatever little dress we like is not every woman's idea of the zenith of personal emancipation.

There are hundreds of points of action that feminists across Europe would prioritise above banning the burqa, were anyone to actually ask us. What about increasing public provision of refuges and counselling for the hundreds of thousands of European victims of sexual abuse, forced marriage and domestic violence, rather than focusing state efforts on the fashion choices of a minority of women who wear the full Islamic veil? After all, it's safe to say that any woman who is forced to wear a burqa against her will has problems that will not be solved simply by forbidding the garment.

It is patriarchy rather than religion that oppresses women across the world, whether it wears the face of an imam, an abusive partner or a government minister. The truth is that the way women choose to present themselves is still desperately political, in Islamic culture and wider society.

The Islamic veil is definitively a threat to western values, and will continue to be so as long as the west continues to define its notion of freedom as a measure of exposed and monetised female flesh.

In seeking to restrict women's free choice to dress as they please, whether in a burqa, a bolero or a binbag, European governments are not protecting women but rather mounting a paranoid defence of their own right to determine what constitutes feminine behaviour.

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

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war