Sian goes to Climate Camp

I wonder how many people have decided this week that, actually, they don’t think expanding airports

I joined the Camp for Climate Action near Heathrow on Sunday, a few hours before the start of the 24 hours of ‘mass action’. As I walked up from the A4, chased by the dreadful roar of planes landing behind me every 30 seconds, I wondered if I was heading in the right direction. Where were the posters and stickers on every lamppost – the typical signs of being in the area of a demonstration? Around me an ordinary west London morning was happening, with people picking up papers and catching buses as usual.

Then I remembered. The people I knew were at the climate camp were real greens; not into careless vandalism, but practising what they preached; literally ‘being the change’ they wanted to see; building a camp based on self-reliance and low-impact living. I bet myself right then that there wouldn’t be single piece of non-biodegradable litter left in that field at the end of this.

I finally got confirmation I was on the right road when a police roadblock came into view, followed by the camp itself. I went in, past the Met photographers and a press enclosure worthy of a Big Brother eviction (but with much longer lenses).

The atmosphere was satirical, serious, determined and friendly. I got my bearings, bumped into plenty of people I knew - some I hadn’t seen for ages - and everyone I spoke to was excited at the attention created by the camp. The compost toilets were excellent and, after a short visit, and joining up with some fellow (capital G) Greens, I discovered the range of ‘actions’ I could take part in.

I decided to go for whatever the biggest group was doing, which was a press photo followed by a ‘family-friendly’ march. Joining a large group preparing for the press call under a banner with the best slogan I’ve seen in ages: ‘We are armed – only with peer-reviewed science’. We all took copies of the executive summary of a Tyndall Centre report to attach to our hands (“Without swift action to curtail aviation growth, all the other UK sectors will have to almost completely decarbonise by 2050 to compensate” - quite).

After brandishing our scientific reasons for protesting at the press, we set off for the village of Sipson – along with nearby Harlington, set to be subsumed under the planned third runway and new flightpath. Other, smaller, groups took a range of routes to the headquarters of BAA, of which several made it. They are still dug in there as I write, while others have reached the British Airways cargo terminal.

At Sipson we were joined by protesting locals and marched – very slowly thanks to the police halting things regularly for no reason – along the route of the proposed runway, accompanied by music from the Rinky Dink pedal-powered sound system.

The self-discipline and seriousness of the camp has wrongfooted most of the press pack. Earlier in day, I was sent to review the Sunday papers on Radio 4, so had to read almost every word of the coverage – of which there was a huge amount. On its own, getting so much attention for a neglected, yet massive, failing in government policy is a real achievement. But I also noticed how the nature of the coverage had changed over the week.

Every paper had sent in undercover reporters in an attempt to root out any shred of trouble or hypocrisy they could find. But their attempts to paint the protestors as a fringe outfit failed by their own admission. Again and again these journalists brought up caricatures of the green movement, but all were forced to qualify their reports with phrases such as ‘of course the protestors are right’ and ‘I found it hard to find anyone without a PhD’.

The thing is, this is no longer the 1990s, and protest camping is no longer something only a tiny minority can conceive of. The policy changes the campers want to ram home with this week’s actions are now desired by a majority, and there are now many, many people with first-hand experience of direct action who make up the constituency the camp emerges from.

These might include people whose first experience of marching was in February 2003, who then joined the World Development Movement or got on a coach to Edinburgh with Oxfam for the G8 in 2005. Not flying and holidaying in the UK also means that, for many more, camping holds no fear.

Will the camp succeed? I wonder how many people have decided this week that, actually, they don’t think expanding airports and ruining all our other efforts to stop climate change is a good idea. Whatever the other achievements of this week’s camp, whole pages seriously questioning the government’s aviation policy – including in the Mail on Sunday – can only help.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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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.