Online trolls, Julian Assange on the run and Jimmy Carr’s tax dodge

“You’re a Bolshevik feminist Jewess.” That was one of the more printable insults aimed at a blogger named Anita Sarkeesian, who wanted to make a series of videos about the portrayal of women in computer games. And it wasn’t just offensive comments. In a targeted campaign of harassment, seemingly led by a handful of message boards, she had her Wikipedia page defaced and received dozens of threats of death and rape. What was her offence? Little more than being a woman with an opinion, which is usually enough to burst the dam of rage on the internet.

Last autumn, I wrote a piece about the bullying experienced by many female writers online. It hit a nerve: others came forward to tell their stories and there have since been two BBC documentaries on “trolls”.

Slowly, the law is beginning to catch up with online bullies and the first cries of “you’re infringing freedom of speech” have gone up. The mistake that is often made in talking about the internet is to assume it’s somehow qualitatively different from any other medium. If you threatened to kill someone in person, or by letter, or through phone calls, you wouldn’t expect to get away with it. Our “freedom of speech” already has restrictions. Why should the web be a consequence-free playground?

Added to that, what about Sarkeesian’s freedom of speech? She proposed making some videos and was harassed, shouted down and victimised by hundreds of anonymous persecutors. Thankfully, she has decided to continue making the video series but many women (and men) will have looked at her ordeal and thought again about speaking up.

When you gotta go . . .

Why does the right hate Owen Jones so violently? After the Chavs author spent a day on Twitter talking about how call centres limit their workers’ loo breaks, the Telegraph’s blogs editor, Damian “Blood-Crazed Ferret” Thompson, commissioned two separate hit jobs on him. First came Donata Huggins, who found the whole subject hilarious. “He has spent the day, as [Dave] Spart would, campaigning for longer toilet breaks for call centre workers,” she chuckled. (Dan Hodges, also of this parish, followed up with an ad hominem attack about Jones being the “Justin Bieber of the left”.) 

Perhaps I’m a Dave Spart, too, but loo breaks are only a trivial subject to those who are allowed them whenever they want. The most eye-opening book I’ve read this year is Rose George’s The Big Necessity, which chronicles the struggles of the millions of people across the world without access to adequate sanitation. The Telegraph bloggers would presumably find their plight hilarious.

Leaking away

At some point on the afternoon of 19 June, Julian Assange slipped unnoticed into the Ecuadorian embassy in Knightsbridge to claim political asylum. It was a surprise, not least to those who had put up the £240,000 he needed to make bail while his appeal against extradition to Sweden played out.

Over the course of the past 18 months, I’ve watched in fascination as Assange has destroyed almost every friendship he has had: with the original WikiLeaks team, with the journalists who worked with him, and now – perhaps – with those who backed him financially. He appears to believe that he and his cause are indivisible, and therefore nothing he does can be wrong. Hosting a chat show on the Kremlin’s favourite TV channel, Russia Today? Fine. Refusing to investigate or comment on allegations that his associate Israel Shamir handed over cables on Belarusian opposition activists to the country’s dictator, Alexander Luka­shenko? Not a problem. The importance of the original WikiLeaks project has been drowned in seas of self-promotion.

The irony of Assange’s situation is this: the self-avowed campaigner on free expression now wants to go to a country where, according to Human Rights Watch, “laws restrict freedom of expression, and government officials, including [President Rafael] Correa, use these laws against his critics”.

Manger zone

Have we reached Peak Pret? Walking down Piccadilly at the weekend, I saw a hoarding advertising a new Pret A Manger store “opening soon!”. It could not have been more than a couple of hundred metres from an existing Pret.

I’m intrigued. How can the market bear so many identical shops in such close proximity? Who thinks about going to Pret but doesn’t, for the sake of an extra few metres? The answer can’t be that competing owners are jousting over business, because the chain (unlike, say, Subway) refuses to sell franchises. There are 249 Prets in Britain, 176 of them in Greater London. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry: they’re sure to come to a town near you soon. The chain has stormed the slow-eating capital of Europe with a store on the Avenue de France in Paris. Disappointingly, over there Pret A Manger is not called “Ready To Eat”.

Carr crash telly

Following the news that Jimmy Carr shelters £3.3m a year from tax by using a Jersey-based scheme, I can’t really do better than his fellow comedian Frankie Boyle’s reaction: “It’s OK to avoid tax, providing every time you do a joke about a town being shit you add, ‘Partly down to me, I’m afraid’ under your breath.”

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s most dangerous leader

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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.