Blaming women

Why Frank Field’s plan to address child poverty won’t work.

At last, the coalition shows its softer side. In the interests of making sure their policies are "fair" for the nation's poorest children, it has asked Frank Field, Labour MP to conduct a review of poverty and the effect on children's life chances.

To be fair, it was a sorry situation the coalition inherited. The gender pay gap widens to a huge 41 per cent when looking at the part-time workforce dominated by mothers. The salary needed to cover the average cost of childcare and housing without state support sits at about £26,000 a year, with the median average full-time salary sitting at well below that.

Discrimination against mothers in the workplace is so widespread that women having their children young may find they never get to experience a career on the same terms as everyone else. Mothers are concentrated in low-paid, part-time positions that allow them to balance paid work with the unpaid 24/7 job that is parenting.

Most women in Britain, married or not, working or not couldn't afford to breed without the support of either a partner or the state. The very act of "breeding" ensures they are highly unlikely to be able to provide for themselves and their children alone, and there are no guarantees that the person they "breed" with will always be a willing, able, or safe provider.

Twenty-one per cent of working single parents are in poverty, and the rapidly rising cost to the state of subisidising this inequality has contributed to our booming tax credits and housing benefit bill. The receipt of housing benefit and tax credits when I worked full-time as a social worker meant that, after paying rent, childcare, utilities, student loan and travel to work, I was able to spend about £100 per month on food and the clothes that my daughter had the temerity to grow out of.

There are organisations that would have shared their extensive research with Mr Field. He could have looked at the overwhelming evidence that mothers act as "shock absorbers" of poverty within families, and the effect this has on their mental and physical health, as well as their ability to parent. He could have taken a passing glance at the plentiful evidence of widespread discrimination in the workplace experienced by mothers of young children – preventing many from entering the workplace at all. He could have looked at the exorbitant cost of childcare in the UK. On Friday, Unicef declared that urgent action was needed to tackle the income poverty caused by low wages of households with children in the UK.

So I read Mr Field's report cover to cover – after all, something needs to be done. All the things I thought were crucial to understanding children's poverty are apparently irrelevant. What children need is secure and loving parenting, and parents who are poor clearly cannot be trusted to do this, so money paid to them should be diverted into "early years intervention care" so that clever graduate professionals can raise children's aspirations.

Mind the gap

Frank Field's report is the centrepiece of a strategy to tackle child poverty, which has so far seen huge cuts to the housing benefit, and tax credits that allow the parents of young children to work and stay in their communities.

Single parents are to be forced on to JSA when their children are five, with their housing benefit being cut a further 10 per cent if they fail to fly in the face of widespread discrimination and secure employment, and mothers of babies as young as one will face financial sanctions for not "keeping in touch with the labour market". Conditions of the replacement to the current tax credit system are likely to look at whether working mothers requiring state support are doing enough paid work, and dictate their working patterns accordingly.

Our "feminist" equalities minister Lynne Featherstone MP announced this week that companies will not be required to address the gender pay gap in their organisations, and the legal aid that would allow individual mothers of young children to challenge employers when they experience discrimination has been dropped.

Rapidly rising female unemployment is to be addressed by slashing hundreds and thousands of jobs in our public sector done predominantly by women. Still, now that the clause in our Equality Bill which demands that legislation be assessed on its impact on equality has been dropped, it isn't like anyone can point this out.

After nudging women out of the workplace and into poverty – nudging equality out of our legislation, nudging away women's ability to seek legal help to challenge this, and slashing the meagre state funding that bridges some of that inequality – early years professionals need to teach these feckless women (and let's face it, it is mainly women we are talking about) to centre their lives around Surestart, so they can be taught to be "better". Create poverty and blame women for the effects.

Now I don't want to be disingenuous. I knew that part of Frank Field's remit had been to eliminate a "couples penalty" from our tax and benefit system. A penalty calculated by omitting the cost of childcare, or the earnings potential of women with children.The anti-abortion charity Christian Research Action and Education (Care) has long been grateful for the support of Iain Duncan Smith and Frank Field in campaigning about it.

Frank Field's belief then was that if you took money away from single mothers, they would be more inclined to find themselves a man – thus improving their outlook. I thought the coalition had quietly dropped this obscene aim, but it would appear it has been achieved completely – without anyone bothering to announce it.

Christopher Hitchens is apparently incorrect: the cure for poverty isn't empowering women, it's marriage or Surestart.

Getty.
Show Hide image

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.