In praise of feckless, scrounging single mothers

Anyone who has raised a child on their own knows it's a tough job. Why is there such a stigma attached to single parenthood?

Single mothers - what are we gonna do with them, eh? They prance around, brazenly raising their children right under our faces, struggling for money and taking up school places with their kids who will just end up dealing drugs in the primary school playground anyway. What a scourge on society these women are, who must have immaculately conceived in a selfish bout of benefit-claiming spite and now stuff their families’ faces with free school meals served on golden platters. And how bad at mathematics they must be, to have surely calculated that having that family was financially worth doing, only to find that their income support barely stretches to the school uniforms. Ha! That’ll learn ‘em!

This sort of stigma might sound outdated, but it’s no longer confined to the fallback chat in the boarding school common room. In our experience, it’s actually accelerated during the recession, big-time. For one thing, the Guardian reported that the biggest losers from the Budget will be single mothers, who face losing their benefits if they don’t work longer hours which are not justified by the skyrocketing price of childcare. Women, part-time workers and parents found their purse strings tightened after changes to the welfare system, and the majority of single mothers tend to tick all of these boxes. Meanwhile, in times of austerity, the phrase “single mother” is often treated as if it were synonymous with “socially irresponsible” - or, if you really want to push the boat out, that charming label “scrounger”.

In the US, prejudice against single motherhood can be even more pronounced. American films often make a nod towards the idea that “single mother” is a polite term for “stripper” or “prostitute”, while national reports into crime statistics are often juxtaposed with statistics on single parent families. This practice is so widely recognised and accepted that the Atlantic posted an article a few days ago claiming that “Single mothers can’t be scapegoated for the murder rate anymore”. The LA Times on Saturday similarly published a piece where the writing journalist spoke about the reaction to an article she wrote crediting single mothers with helping to re-elect Obama. Apparently, a lot of people had seen that as “tacit encouragement of one parent homes over two”, which she felt that she had to explicitly clarify was not the case or her agenda. This journalist had raised her children as a single parent following the death of her husband, referring to herself as a “single mother” along the way. One commenter, however, informed her that widowed or divorced women “don’t count” as single mothers, because “single mother” is a label exclusively reserved for shaming people who had dared to procreate out of wedlock. The implication was that she should differentiate herself from these vile harridans who can’t even officiate themselves under God before popping out a sprog, and that she should go about this differentiation by declaring herself a “widowed mother”, whether she wanted to regularly reveal personal details about her life to strangers or not. 

Anyone who has singlehandedly raised children knows that it is far from a walk in the park. We’ve never attempted to do it ourselves, but we were both raised by strong, hardworking, inspirational single mothers. And there are still an astonishing amount of people we have come across - young and old - who have voiced their opinion that those like our mothers have single-(parent)-handedly destroyed the nation and ripped the taxable wages right out of their hands. Like so many conservative arguments, they centre around the idea that a mere "lifestyle choice" is to blame for self-imposed hardship, despite the fact that if you could actually and genuinely choose your lifestyle, most people would go for the “champagne breakfasts and high society” one rather than the “Primark t-shirt covered in baby sick at the 5am feed” one. It’s a nice little argument to deny people support and rights, but it doesn’t really bear out that someone might choose a damp, cramped flat in Nottingham over a palace in Chelsea because they just love the radical lifestyle allowed by walls that grow mushrooms.

Now, it hasn’t slipped our attention that single dads exist, and that in most articles about single parenthood, they hardly ever get a look in. This is partly because they comprise a tiny percentage of single parents, which is, of course, no reason to ignore them. Most single fathers - like most single mothers - are dedicated, conscientious people who try to do right by their children in the face of crippling social discrimination. And when single dads disappear from the equation, it can be as much an indicator of misogyny as it is denial that the fathers themselves exist. In 2011, the Daily Mail headlined findings that Britain has a lower number of coupled families than our Euro-counterparts with “Single mother Britain: UK has most lone parents of any major European nation”. The implication was, of course, that no single fathers exist, and that women doing things independently are once again ruining things for everyone. Right then.

When fathers do get a media mention, it tends to have a less judgmental slant (of course, custody issues in the courtroom are another matter entirely and do often favour mothers, for a myriad of equally unfair reasons.) There is a particular kind of fury reserved for the mothers, and usually an implicit sympathy for the fathers, as if by sticking around in the first place, these dads must be a truly decent bunch and a great example of manhood. Not so for the mother majority, who are all too often left to shoulder the burden of national murder rates and snide remarks about sex workers alone. In our time at the helm of the Vagenda, we’ve also experienced some (admittedly crackpot, but disturbingly regular) assurances that “men nowadays” are suffering psychologically (read: becoming “feminine”, submissive, or even - gasp - gay) because of a prevalence of single mothers. One even went so far as to say that if a man was raised by a single mother, he would make an “unsuitable husband” in the future. Could it be that these unmarried mums are part of the Gay Agenda too? They aren’t living in a nuclear family with a white picket fence, so we’ll go with “probably”.

Shoehorned into the “natural primary caregiver” role, women often find themselves chastised for doing things on their own. Those who believe that single parent families are bringing down the morals of the nation usually also believe that “it’s not natural” is a great line of argument for almost anything, and that the ladies are more suited to preparing a hot dinner for their husbands coming in. Additionally, of course, those quickest to judge single mothers are ordinarily also anti-abortion, which is a beautiful right wing paradox in itself. But as it turns out, keeping the caricature in our head of Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard pushing six discount pushchairs around the council estate as she swigs a cider isn’t exactly contributing to cultural progression. And if you really want to better society, it might be a whole lot more productive to change your own opinions than it is to rail against the so-called “lifestyles” of others.

Single motherhood isn't a "lifestyle choice". Photograph: Getty Images

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.