Modern feminists can learn a lot from Suffragette sitcom "Up the Women"

Many of the questions faced by the women's movement today are played out in Jessica Hynes' new show. In a world where feminism still viewed by many women with distrust, wariness and even alarm, there's a lot we can learn from the ladies of the Banbury Int

As longtime fans of the television series Spaced (has a sitcom before or since so hilariously conveyed twentysomething experience?), we were extremely excited about Jessica Hynes’ new venture, a comedy called Up the Women focusing on a Banbury craft group’s sudden interest in the Suffragette movement. The first two episodes of the three-parter aired on BBC4 this month, and it has already been recommissioned for BBC2, news that is unsurprising for anyone who’s seen it. Its slightly stagey feel lends itself well to the razor sharp lines and its comic characters have been well rendered, particularly that of Helen, a Lady Bracknell-esque character and the craft circle’s chair (played by Rebecca Front), who disapproves of women’s suffrage, saying "the present system works perfectly well. My husband votes for whom I tell him to vote. What could be a better system than that?"

There are certainly elements of the series which recall The Importance of Being Earnest, not only because of the costumes and characterisation but also the wit of the writing. Helen’s mother Myrtle (played by Judy Parfitt) is a red haired bohemian with a sexy past who one suspects of having been a pre-Raphaelite. She is in constant conflict with her daughter, who claims that her mother has no understanding of the domestic duties of women. "I’m sure as I lie on my deathbed, I will cast my mind’s eye over all the table arrangements I never made," she says, sarcastically. Perhaps most reminiscent, however, is the farcical nature of the plot, which, rather than focusing on the central, founding members of the Suffragette movement, instead follows a group of parochial nobodies and their attempts to come to grips which the huge social changes of the last century, with predictably mixed results.

Hynes’ character Margaret returns from London having been caught up in a Suffragette rally, and suggests that the "Banbury Intricate Craft Circle" rename itself the "Banbury Intricate Craft Circle Frankly Demands Women’s Suffrage". It is in the group’s unwillingness to cause a stir that much of the farcical humour can be found, for what use is a radical protest group which is too frightened to do anything radical? Though the youngest member of the group, Emily, is keen on direct action ("Kill the king!") she’s somewhat compromised by her romantic attachment to resident "mansplainer" Thomas, who appropriately describes himself as "a spanner in the works of your oppression".

For a comedy set in the Edwardian era, Up the Women documents some very modern problems as far as feminism is concerned. In fact, if anything the series shows how these problems can be seen to have stemmed from the very outset of the movement and have endured. Simply becoming a cohesive group with shared aims is difficult enough, without the scaremongering that tyrant Helen uses to dissuade the others from joining and undermine enthusiast Margaret’s attempts at leadership. Helen demands to know whether Margaret’s husband is aware of her new feminist principles and that she is "cavorting with skirted anarchists" (he doesn’t as "he’s been very melancholic since Nietzsche’s death") and terrifies mother-of-fourteen Eva into joining her counter-movement by asking her to imagine her children orphaned and in the workhouse. This shitty kind of manipulation – the placing of equal rights in stark opposition to traditional female roles, such as motherhood – endures in the right-wing media today.

We see the Banbury Intricate Craft Group (Politely Demands Women’s Suffrage) face all this in the first two episodes, as well as some well-worn questions (Do we let men join? Should we change our tactics? What is an acceptable euphemism for vagina? Can’t somebody just DO something?) Up the Women is timely considering how we are seeing a new generation of feminists who don’t take themselves too seriously and seem more capable than their predecessors of laughing at themselves (though there’s still a long way to go, frankly), and it’s refreshing to see some well-written female-led comedy on prime-time telly. Though Up The Women draws on the past, it’s not so rooted in history and theory that it becomes alienating – a technique the feminist movement would do well to learn from. But perhaps most importantly this new comedy mirrors feminism’s reception in the outside world, where it is still viewed by many women with distrust, wariness and even alarm, and the idea that it is not something that women need persists. Just as the members of the craft group are unsure as to whether they need the Suffragettes at all, many women today remain unconvinced of feminism’s relevance to their lives, and those ensconced within their liberal bubbles would do well to remember that. 

Rebecca Front and Jessica Hynes in "Up the Women". Photograph: BBC

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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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.