Why the UK should boycott Euro 2012 in Ukraine

Cameron should join Merkel and take a stand on political repression.

Does Roy Hodgson speak Ukrainian? The question arises as England’s new multilingual manager now faces the horror problem of all sports bureaucracy – namely whether England should play in Ukraine given the alarming reports about political repression there.

Last October, I asked David Cameron about the harsh treatment of the former Ukrainian prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. She had been placed on a political show trial by the current Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanokuvych, her deadly life-long rival. The charge was poor administration of the complex energy dossier from the time Ms Tymoshenko was prime minister.

The Prime Minister’s reply was robust. Cameron said “‘We completely agree that the treatment of Mrs Tymoshenko, whom I have met on previous occasions, is absolutely disgraceful. The Ukrainians need to know that if they leave the situation as it is, it will severely affect their relationship not only with the UK but with the European Union.”

So will Cameron now join other European leaders and take a stand on the ill-treatment of Ms Tymoshenko who is now suffering from severe health problems as Yanukovych regime increase pressure on her? Hillary Clinton has now expressed concern about Ms Tymoshenko’s health as well as the continuing prosecution by the Yanukovych clique of the former prime minister’s aides and associates.

Not content with winning power Yanukovich is determined to take revenge on anyone who challenged him in his years of opposition after the Orange Revolution. In Ms Tymoshenko he rightly sees a serious opponent. But the Ukrainian ruler like his friend, Vladimir Putin, whose inauguration as Russian president next Monday will be greeted by protests, refuses to abide by the normal rules of Council of Europe member states and accept that an opposition should exist as part of democratic politics. Politics is personal in Russia and Ukraine and where better to dump a political opponent than in prison.

The question for us is: will Cameron live up to his word? Will the treatment of Ms Tymosenko “severely affect” the UK-Ukraine relationship as he told the Commons six months ago? Many of his fellow centre-right leaders in Europe think so. Angela Merkel has said she will not go to the Euro 2012 contest as long as the Ukrainians continue to hold Ms Tymoshenko in prison in dire conditions. She is joined by the EU Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso and Cameron’s close political Eurosceptic ally, Vaclav Klaus, the president of the Czech Republic. The presidents of Austria and Germany have also said they will boycott the Ukraine matches.

It is a problem for England as all the first round matches are being played in Ukraine even if the team themselves are going to stay in Poland for the contest. The real responsibility lies with UEFA who should threaten to relocate the matches out of Ukraine if Ms Tymoshenko is not  released and allowed to have proper medical care.

But as with the Bahrain F1 Grand Prix, the wilful blindness of sports organisers to how they can end up boosting repressive regimes should be examined. In 1938 the England football team in Germany were ordered to give the Hitler salute by the Football Association. Whatever their bleating about not getting involved in politics, the 3 Lions will be used by Yanukovich to boost his repressive regime Today, while William Hague and Cameron wallow in their (perfectly correct) denunciations of Syria they are silent on Bahrain. In China, Cameron refused to mention the name of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Laureate who is rotting in the Chinese gulag. At least Mrs Thatcher raised the case of Andrei Sakharov and Malcolm Rifkind when a junior FCO minister in the 1980s went to Poland and expressed support for the banned Solidarity trade union.

Today, Britain’s foreign policy has all but given up on human rights. Instead William Hague’s mercantilism -- trade above democracy and human rights -- prevails. Almost certainly the Hague mercantilist wing of the British state regret that Cameron was so forthright in his support for Yulia Tymoshenko in the Commons. But the Prime Minister should stick to his position and join Angela Merkel and other EU leaders in boycotting Euro 2012. It may be too much to ask Hodgson and Wayne Rooney to take a stand. But how wonderful if England’s political-sporting nexus could speak for freedom and decency rather than hiding behind the lie that sport and politics should not mix.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and former Europe Minister. Follow him at @denismacshane and www.denismacshane.com

A supporter of Ukrainian jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenkoshouts as she holds a picture of her during a rally in front of a court in Kiev. Photograph: Getty Images.
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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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.