The French attack on the veil

The proposed ban is wrong and disproportionate.

From the BBC website:

France's lower house of parliament has overwhelmingly approved a bill that would ban wearing the Islamic full veil in public.

There were 335 votes for the bill and only one against in the 557-seat National Assembly.

I think the proposed French ban on the face-veil is wrong and disproportionate, not to mention Islamophobic. As I wrote in a New Statesman cover story on this contentious subject a few weeks ago:

Is support for a ban among Europe's political leaders, and the alarmist and vitriolic rhetoric that so often goes with it, really an expression of concern for Muslim women? And why, when confronted with a multitude of social and economic problems, including a debt crisis that could destroy its common currency, are they so obsessed with a small piece of cloth that so few women wear over their face? It is difficult to understand why so much political capital across the continent is being spent passing legislation to ban it, despite its minuscule impact on European societies.

In truth, the moves towards a ban seem primarily driven by a fear of Islam, the fastest-growing faith on the continent, and an inability on the part of Muslims and non-Muslims alike to discuss the future of Islam in Europe calmly. As the hijab-wearing British Muslim writer Fareena Alam pointed out in 2006, the controversy over the veil "has more to do with Europe's own identity crisis than with the presence of some 'dangerous other'. At a time when post-communist, secular, democratic Europe was supposed to have been ascendant, playing its decisive role at the end of history, Islam came and spoiled the party."

Meanwhile, Madeleine Bunting, over on CIF, has posted a brilliant response to the French vote, in which she writes:

The veil debate is making it entirely legitimate to pillory, mock and ridicule a tiny number of women on the basis of what they wear. French politicians described the full veil as a "walking coffin"; on comment threads online there is contempt and sneers for the full veil and those who wear it -- "hiding under a blanket", "going round with a paper bag over your head". In France it is estimated there are only 2,000 women who cover their faces with the burqa or the niqab out of a Muslim population of five million. The response is out of all proportion.

Let's be clear: the niqab and burqa are extreme interpretations of the Islamic requirement for modest dress; few Islamic scholars advocate their use, and many -- including Tariq Ramadan -- have urged women not to use them. They are as alien to many Muslim cultures as they are to the west. And yes, there are instances of patriarchy where some women might be encouraged or even forced to wear a full veil by their husbands or fathers. But generalisations don't fit. Increasingly, young women are choosing to wear the full veil, seeing it as a powerful statement of identity.

Invoking the full weight of the state to police dress codes in public is an extraordinary extension of state powers over an aspect of citizen behaviour which is largely regarded as your own business. Provided you are wearing some clothing, western public space is a free-for-all, and across every capital in Europe that is strikingly self-evident.

I hope it stays that way but I have my fears . . .

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.