A question of progress

Will the Arab Spring lead to more democracy or more state entrenchment in the Arab world?

Imagine you are an Arab country, thus not a democracy but a political economy and rentier state, and you have not seen the protests of the Arab Spring on your streets calling for greater democratic institutions, better governance, growth and inclusion within your borders, yet. You have however, seen the power of the protests and its successful domino effect at toppling dictators and their regimes all around you, within a period of a few months. So, despite your own internal stability, do you wait to see if the Arab Spring dominos lean towards you or, do you take decisive pre-emptive action to keep your population "on-side" and avoid revolt?

Now imagine that you are the richest country in the world per capita and despite the billions you have invested in recent years in economic growth, market liberalisation and diversification to help reduce reliance on your considerable oil wealth to help move your economy towards greater productivity and stability, one of the key cards you still hold is that of national wealth re-distribution. So, will the action you take to avoid protests and revolt take you closer towards democracy and liberalisation or further entrench your rentier state?

Last week, despite internal stability, a booming economy with 19.4 per cent growth and strong investment to create more capital market forces and increase private sector employment, Qatar announced a public sector pay and benefits rise of incredible proportions. With retrospective effect from 1 September, public sector employees in Qatar will receive a 60 per cent increase in basic salary, social allowance and pensions and military staff will receive a 50-120 per cent increase. This is no small Band Aid. With over 80 per cent of Qataris working in the public sector, the implications of this salary and benefits hike will be felt almost population-wide. No explicit reasons for the rises were given, though it is interesting that the military received nearly twice the rise of the public sector.

These pay rises are significant in themselves - the majority of public sector workers already receive double and treble the pay level of most private sector workers - but even more so as Qatar and their wealthy Arab neighbours have been trying to achieve more balanced economies with greater reliance on the private sector and entrepreneurship to create jobs and wealth for over a decade now. Reducing economic volatility and sole reliance on oil for jobs and stability is sound economics but so far few have had much success at this. The private sector in Qatar still employs less than 10 per cent of the Qatari workforce and increasing public sector pay may now reduce this even further.

So why raise public sector pay and benefits - are Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia worried that after years of stability they may now follow their Arab neighbours in overthrow? Or, as Qatar and UAE have not yet seen protests, are they rewarding their people for not revolting or buying time to reform? Who's it hurting - especially if you can afford it? Pay and pension rises in Qatar will cost around $8bn a year extra, in Saudi the extra handouts are around $130bn and in UAE, in addition to pay rises, they have also now subsidised staple foods.

Indeed, redistributing wealth in the short-term through high subsidies, salaries and pensions hikes is a rational and tactical move, and can be implemented speedily. However, in doing so, these countries risk further long-term dependency on the state. Higher salaries and benefits for public sector workers do not come without wider costs. Already in Qatar, social networking sites are full of cries of inequity and discontent by private sector workers and disadvantaged groups who have been overlooked, whereas in previous pay hikes they too were "rewarded", and how all are now experiencing demand-push inflation are retailers and services have increased their prices, to no doubt take advantage of the greater disposable income now floating in the economy. Moves to balance out the pay rises to all workers have not yet been announced but moves to counter inflation are being made.

The Arab Spring protests have been largely about a lack of jobs, opportunities, equity and equality, political and economic liberalisation, and so increasing public sector salary and benefits measures will not lead in themselves towards the stability and reforms the people are protesting for. In the long-term that requires genuine economic, social and political reconstruction and reform too.

Qatar especially has played a strong and proactive leadership role in the region and globally to show support for the Arab Spring, through diplomatic intervention in Syria and Yemen to military support for the NTC in Libya, thus showing it understands what the protesters in the region are now demanding. And President Obama back in April praised Qatar for the leadership it showed for democracy in the Middle East, but also let slip how Qatar was not itself a democracy and was making no reforms to that end.

In the long-term, all Arab policy-makers must implement strategic moves towards greater economic diversification, political and social reform to truly deliver the equity and opportunity their protesters are demanding. Oil rich states, may be able to afford many pay-rise 'Band Aids' but these are not equitable or long-term strategic or sustainable options - the oil will run out at some point - and risks harming or even reversing the sound investments already made towards economic diversification. Indeed, the few national private sector workers these countries have may now quit their jobs in hope to find more lucrative and secure public sector jobs, thereby leading to further reliance and rentier state entrenchment - not democracy.

The Arab Spring represents an opportunity and a "wake-up call" for Arab countries - that have and have not seen protests - to now accelerate reform. Moving away from the rentier state model may not be easy - and is long overdue - but all should try to avoid short-term fixes that in the long-term are unsustainable.

Zamila Bunglawala is a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center

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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.