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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.

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Labour is launching a stealthy Scottish comeback - thanks to Jeremy Corbyn and the Daily Mail

The Scottish Labour strategy is paying off - and hard evidence that it works may be more plentiful come 8 June 2017

When I suggested to a senior Scottish Labour figure earlier this year that the party was a car crash, he rejected my assertion.

“We’re past that,” he said gloomily. “Now we’re the burnt-out wreck in a field that no-one even notices anymore.”

And yet, just as the election campaign has seen Jeremy Corbyn transformed from an outdated jalopy into Chitty Chitty Bang Bang magically soaring in the polls, Scottish Labour is beginning to look roadworthy again.

And it’s all down to two apparently contradictory forces – Corbyn and The Daily Mail.

Kezia Dugdale’s decision to hire Alan Roden, then the Scottish Daily Mail’s political editor, as her spin doctor in chief last summer was said to have lost her some party members. It may win her some new members of parliament just nine months later.

Roden’s undoubted nose for a story and nous in driving the news agenda, learned in his years at the Mail, has seen Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly forced to defend her government record on health and education in recent weeks, even though her Holyrood administration is not up for election next month.

On ITV’s leaders debate she confessed that, despite 10 years in power, the Scottish education system is in need of some attention. And a few days later she was taken to task during a BBC debate involving the Scottish leaders by a nurse who told her she had to visit a food bank to get by. The subsequent SNP attempt to smear that nurse was a pathetic mis-step by the party that suggested their media operation had gone awry.

It’s not the Tories putting Sturgeon on the defence. They, like the SNP, are happy to contend the general election on constitutional issues in the hope of corralling the unionist vote or even just the votes of those that don’t yet want a second independence referendum. It is Labour who are spotting the opportunities and maximising them.

However, that would not be enough alone. For although folk like Dugdale as a person – as evidenced in Lord Ashcroft’s latest polling - she lacks the policy chops to build on that. Witness her dopey proposal ahead of the last Holyrood election to raise income tax.

Dugdale may be a self-confessed Blairite but what’s powering Scottish Labour just now is Jeremy Corbyn’s more left-wing policy platform.

For as Brexit has dropped down the agenda at this election, and bread and butter stuff like health and education has moved centre stage, Scots are seeing that for all the SNP’s left wing rhetoric, after 10 years in power in Holyrood, there’s not a lot of progressive policy to show for it.

Corbyn’s manifesto, even though huge chunks of it won’t apply in Scotland, is progressive. The evidence is anecdotal at the moment, but it seems some Scots voters find it more attractive than the timid managerialism of the SNP. This is particularly the case with another independence referendum looking very unlikely before the 2020s, on either the nationalists' or the Conservatives' timetable.

Evidence that the Scottish Labour strategy has worked may be more plentiful come 8 June 2017. The polls, albeit with small sample sizes so best approached with caution, have Ian Murray streets ahead in the battle to defend Edinburgh South. There’s a lot of optimism in East Lothian where Labour won the council earlier in May and MSP Iain Gray increased his majority at the Scottish election last year. Labour have chosen their local candidate well in local teacher Martin Whitfield, and if the unionist vote swings behind him he could overhaul sitting MP George Kerevan’s 7,000 majority. (As we learned in 2015, apparently safe majorities mean nothing in the face of larger electoral forces). In East Renfrewshire, Labour's Blair McDougall, the man who led Better Together in 2014, can out-unionist the Tory candidate.

But, while in April, it was suggested that these three seats would be the sole focus of the Scottish Labour campaign, that attitude has changed after the local elections. Labour lost Glasgow but did not implode. In chunks of their former west of Scotland heartlands there was signs of life.

Mhairi Black’s a media darling, but her reputation as a local MP rather than a local celebrity is not great. Labour would love to unseat her, in what would be a huge upset, or perhaps more realistically go after Gavin Newlands in the neighbouring Paisley seat.

They are also sniffing Glasgow East. With Natalie McGarry’s stint as MP ending in tears – a police investigation, voting in her wedding dress and fainting in the chamber sums up her two years in Westminster – Labour ought to be in with a chance in the deprived neighbourhoods of Glasgow’s east end.

Labour in Scotland doesn’t feel like such a wreck anymore. Alan Roden’s Daily Mail-honed media nous has grabbed attention. Corbyn’s progressive policies have put fuel in the tank.

After polling day, the party will be able to fit all its Scottish MPs comfortably in a small hatchback, compared to the double decker bus necessary just a few years back.

But this general election could give the party the necessary shove to get on to the long road back.

James Millar is a political journalist and founder of the Political Yeti's Politics Podcast. He is co-author of The Gender Agenda, which will be published July 21 by Jessica Kingsley Publishing.

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