Snow is like the Pussycat Dolls

Snow is starting to get too big for its boots. It needs to be put in its place.

Snow! When I woke up this morning, it had been falling stealthily for hours with that strange, magical, I'm-thicker-than-rain sound. As I glance out of the window at my quiet street, it's coating the cars and hanging thickly in the branches. The pavements and lawns are covered in unblemished white layers of it.

Pretty soon local schools will start admitting there's no point in trying to restrain the kids, who will be let loose like wild animals. By this evening, with a couple more flurries, the whole neighbourhood will look like a Christmas card - fittingly, as local shops have been pretending it's Christmas since mid-September as usual. Good old snow!

White gold

And if we get another couple of days of the white gold, it'll start to bring about all the other magical effects we see every winter. Elderly people will fall over and crack ribs and break legs, but the emergency services won't be able to do much about it, because they'll be dealing with "youths" who've chucked handfuls of it in each other's faces. Public transport will grind to a customary halt, and if there's one thing more tedious than that, it's people complaining that public transport has ground to a customary halt.

Radio phone-ins and local news bulletins will be full of nothing but people asking: "Why, oh why, can't we in this country deal with a little bit of snow?" But even as they're doing this, the national media will be embarking on their annual snow-fest, with wall-to-wall updates on exactly how white everything is at the moment. The blanket (of snow) coverage will push everything else out of the headlines: if Elvis were to fly in to the country during a cold snap, the main focus of the reports would be on whether or not his airport was going to be closed.

On top of this, it will be horribly, horribly cold for weeks. It'll be difficult to get around without slipping and sliding like beginner ice skaters. In fact, the whole of Britain will look like the early stages of Dancing on Ice, except without the alarming leotards. Queues in ­supermarkets and post offices and banks and everywhere else will suddenly be maddeningly long as people get into the British mildly-bad-weather siege mentality ("We might be prisoners for six months! We must withdraw all our money and buy 1,000 tins of beans!").

Events will be cancelled. The public mood will become ugly as cars get trapped in driveways; the poor man whose job it is to explain why the country doesn't have enough grit for the roads will be wheeled out again. Finally, the whole fandango will sputter out about a week before Christmas, just in time for an un-festive dampness to settle as Father Christmas starts to make his rounds.

Yes, I'm sorry to be a Scrooge about this, and I know it isn't a popular viewpoint, but snow really isn't that much fun. It's time for us all to get over it.
I know there's an atavistic thrill when it starts to fall, I know it looks beautiful at night when you're huddled in front of the fire, I know it's a very handy way of getting a day off work. I'm not advocating a complete ban on the stuff. Nor am I crying "humbug" at all the people whose first instinct is to go scampering out to play in the snow until their face freezes over. Good luck to them all. I'm just asking for a bit of common sense and perspective here. Snow is like a lot of today's girl bands: superficially attractive, but quickly tiresome and ultimately quite damaging.

Next time the heavens open with snow, picture the Pussycat Dolls hurtling out of the sky, and I can almost guarantee you'll see it in a less favourable light. Unless you go on to imagine them dashing their brains out on the pavement. In which case, the fantasy has its merits.

Big boots

Perhaps a couple of years ago, the rarity value of snow provided more of an excuse for its worship. But in 2009 and 2010 alone, there have been at least four severe snowfalls, two of them shutting down the roads around me for a week at a time. We can no longer act as if snow is some kind of prodigal son appearing whimsically to light up our lives. It's starting to get too big for its boots. It needs to be put in its place.

And that place is a few days either side of Christmas, a cameo in a few dozen festive films, followed by a dignified disappearance.

When snow starts playing by those rules again, I'll be back on its side. Until then, do excuse me if I don't join in the scramble to put it down someone's neck or throw it at cars, or even jump around in it. I'm off to buy some of those flaming torches used by circus acts. Let's see if
I can tidy things up a bit around here.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle

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.