Some post-Question Time clarifications

For those of you who seem intent on getting the wrong end of the stick . . .

I'm not sure which I enjoyed more – appearing on BBC1's Question Time last night or following the Twittersphere's reaction to it as the show went out at 10.35pm. Once again, it seems, I am the Marmite panellist – people either loved me or hated me. (From the tweets, it seems as if the "lovers" edged out the "haters" – phew!)

And I was amused to get – almost at the same time – tweets/texts/emails of the "We're so proud of you for sticking up for Muslims" variety and tweets/texts/emails of the "You're just an evil extremist Islamist" variety; tweets/texts/emails of the "Great to see an articulate lefty" variety and tweets/texts/emails of the "You're an embarrassment to the left" variety. Hilarious.

Question Time is a fun show to do but I'd be the first to admit that it doesn't lend itself to nuance or depth and doesn't allow panellists enough time to unpack their views and opinions in any detail. There's been some confusion on Twitter, and in the texts and emails, about the various views that I expressed and positions that I took – and, of course, some of the confusion is a result of the deliberate misrepresentation and distortion of my views by my critics on the right. So I thought I'd take this opportunity, like last time, to offer some brief post-QT clarifications:

1) On prisoner voting: I don't support giving every prisoner the right to vote but I am opposed to a blanket ban. It might be considered right, proper and proportionate to strip serious criminals – murderers, rapists, paedophiles, armed robbers, etc – of their right to vote but the vast majority of prisoners in this country are not serious criminals. On what basis can it be said to be proportionate to remove the right to vote from a shoplifter or a drug offender or someone who has breached the terms of their Asbo? And this is not some odd or extreme position. Italy, Malta and Poland, for example, ban only those deemed to have committed serious crimes from exercising their right to vote. In Greece, anyone sentenced to life receives a permanent voting ban. Let's be clear: I'm not advocating giving killers such as John Hirst the right to vote in prison – and nor was the European Court, despite Douglas Murray's factually inaccurate claim to the contrary on the programme last night.

2) On multiculturalism: I didn't equate David Cameron with the EDL or "smear" him, as Tim Montgomerie and others have claimed. I pointed out that the English Defence League and the French National Front welcomed Cameron's remarks (and that even the BNP's Nick Griffin, while also welcoming the comments, pointed out the "provocative" timing of the speech in Munich, given events back home in Luton). Am I expected to ignore their comments? As a member of an ethnic minority, should I not be bothered that far-right racists who wish me and my family harm are claiming the PM's speech – or, at the very minimum, the media spin around it – as a vindication of their views/opinions? Am I supposed to pretend that politicians never "dog-whistle"? (For more on my views on Cameron's speech, see my column in this week's New Statesman.)

As for the "forced marriages" issue, which the oddball right-wing blogger "Archbishop Cranmer" seems to have seized upon in his rambling blog post this morning, I didn't say there weren't any forced marriages in the UK or that forced marriages were a "myth" – I pointed out that it was ridiculous for Murray to pretend (a) that multiculturalism is responsible for forced marriages and (b) that I've yet to come across a single politician, community leader or religious spokesman who defends forced marriages or excuses them on the basis of "multiculturalism". It is just ridiculous and dishonest to make such a claim. "Cranmer", who constructed his entire blog post on the basis of something I didn't say, says my "ignorance is astonishing"; I find his inability to understand simple English "astonishing". He really should pay attention.

3) On Egypt: There is no inconsistency to supporting the popular and peaceful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt while opposing the Anglo-American military intervention in Iraq. Arabs should be allowed to choose their own leaders and decide their own destiny; the west should neither prop up the despotic dictators in the Middle East – as we did with Saddam Hussein (until 1990) and Hosni Mubarak (until last week) – nor set out to remove them through "shock and awe" – as we did in Iraq, without UN backing and with bloody consequences.

4) On the "big society": I was amazed that Francis Maude could pretend that the draconian cuts to spending on charities and voluntary groups could be avoided if councils reduced their "costs" and "overheads". Conservative ministers have made some pretty disingenuous claims in recent weeks but this one takes the biscuit. The fact is that councils, which are having to make unprecedented and front-loaded cuts to their budgets of roughly 27 per cent over the next four years, "made savings of more than £3n between 2005 and 2008 and a further £1.7bn in 2008-2009. In 2009-2010 councils made efficiency savings of more than £4.8m every day." As David Cameron himself admitted, in opposition (on 8 September 2009): "Local government is officially the most efficient part of the public sector." He added: "Councils achieve well in excess of the sector's spending review targets, beating central government savings by a country mile." And much ink has been spilled in the tabloid press about "fat-cat" local council bosses but a "reduction in the chief executive pay bill of 50 per cent would only yield 0.35 per cent of the savings needed to fill the £6.5bn funding gap for 2011-2012, and equates to only 0.05 per cent of total employee expenditure". Bad luck, Francis.

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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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.