On Germany's new intersex law and the dangers of our gender-obsessed culture

Germany has become the first European country to pass a law that lets a birth certificate to be left blank in cases where the child is neither obviously male nor female, but it will take far more than a bureaucratic fix to remove the stigma of "abnormalit

A new law, which came into force today in Germany, provides that the box on a birth certificate specifying a child's gender should be left blank in cases where the child is neither obviously male nor female. This will, an Interior Ministry spokesman explained, "take the pressure off parents to commit themselves to gender immediately after birth" - thus allowing for greater delay before drastic, life-defining and perhaps mistaken surgery is carried out on an infant too young to decide for itself what it wants to be.

Such legal acknowledgement of the existence of intersex conditions, which have been known about for all recorded history, comes surprisingly late. Germany is the first country in Europe, and only the second in the world after Australia, to pass such a law.  (Australian law is in fact more advanced, allowing people a third option - designated X - on all official forms.)

Awareness of intersex issues has attracted some official notice elsewhere, but only fairly recently. This summer, the EU stipulated for the first time that intersex people should be included in anti-discrimination law, while earlier in the year the UN Special Rapporteur on torture called for a ban on "forced genital-normalising surgery". Yet intersex people remain excluded from our own Equality Act, and when the German proposals were first brought forward there was criticism from some that they would create a legally-defined "third sex". 

In the event, the new law has left some intersex campaigners unsatisfied. For them, the main issue remains the practice of surgical intervention to definitively assign gender and thus "correct" the apparent mistakes of nature. Intersex activists accuse doctors of interfering with nature, of making arbitrary judgements based on aesthetics or to fit cultural norms, of calling it wrong (in some cases, surgically-corrected "girls" grow up to identify as male, or vice versa) and of indulging in practices equivalent to the genital mutilation widely condemned when performed for religious or tribal reasons. Silvan Agius, for example, writes that "Surgical or hormonal treatment for cosmetic, non-medically necessary reasons must be deferred to an age when intersex people are able to provide their own free, prior and fully informed consent... The right to bodily integrity and self-determination should be ensured and past abuses acknowledged."

This is the core of the problem. On one level, humanity has become a great deal more enlightened since Roman times, when the birth of a "hermaphrodite" might be interpreted as an omen of war or natural disaster and the child was liable to be exposed, or since the Middle Ages when such an "unnatural" birth could be seen as evidence of the sin and perversion of the parents. Modern science recognises that biology in its infinite complexity doesn't care about the neatness of human thinking with its love of binary categories. Being of indeterminate gender is not in itself a disability. 

To a first approximation, of course, human beings come in two sexes, but contrary to popular wisdom (or bestselling pop psychology) men and women are not separate species and don't come from different planets. Biological sex doesn't even always come down to chromosomes, but rather results from the subtle interplay of genetics and embryology. There are physically normal-looking males who have two X chromosomes and physically normal-looking women with who are XY - though such extreme examples of sexual crossover are thought to extremely rare. (Typically, they only come to light when the people involved, who are sterile, show up at fertility clinics.) More common are children born with ambiguous genitalia - testes that might be ovaries, an unusually large clitoris that might, from another point of view, be an unusually small penis. 

How many children are intersex is a matter of dispute, and also of definition. One in 4,000 is a commonly accepted figure, but Anne Fausto-Sterling of Brown University has argued that it might be as many as one in 70. Taking a polemical stance on the issue, she has written that "male and female stand on the extreme ends of a biological continuum" and that "if nature really offers us more than two sexes, then it follows that our current notions of masculinity and femininity are cultural conceits."

But the biology, and the experiences of intersex people assigned at birth to what they grow up to believe is the wrong gender, may tell a different story: that you can't arbitrarily assign decide that a child is a boy or a girl and expect it to conform to the cultural expectation. The problem with surgical intervention isn't just the theoretical one that it violates the integrity of the body but the practical one that the doctors might well make a mistake. The answer, say campaigners, is to hold off both legal gender assignment and surgery until the child is old enough to make up its own mind as to whether it's a boy or a girl - or something in-between. Yet such a child, in our gender-obsessed culture, is likely to feel confusion and face prejudice. The stigma of "abnormality" can cause deep psychological scars: every child has a right to feel normal, and social expectations of gender can make it difficult to feel normal in a body that is not unambiguously male or female. Tackling that will be a much larger problem than a simple bureaucratic fix.
 

From now on in Germany the gender on the birth certificate of a child who is not obviously male or female can be left blank. Photo: Getty
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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.