They f*** you up

After my hospitalisation for eating disorders, my brother's schizophrenia diagnosis came as a relief, of sorts. Whether family history or chemical imbalance, we desperately seek a reason for the unreasonable.

Getting a mental illness diagnosis can feel like a reprieve. You’re not going mad, or rather, you are, but in a structured, officially acknowledged capacity. If not method, then there is at least legitimacy in your madness. You’re no longer alone in your isolation. You and those around you are no longer uniquely incapable people, failing at life.

I was first hospitalised for anorexia in the late 1980s. Back then it wasn’t seen as an illness, at least not by those who were treating me. I was admitted to a general children’s ward to address the physical symptoms. The not-eating itself was understood to be a moral issue, hence responses to this were strictly punitive, a pattern that continued with later admissions to supposedly more enlightened institutions.

When I found myself in an adolescent mental health unit, I was forced to sign a contract detailing which “privileges” – receiving letters, getting out of bed, being permitted to speak to other residents – I would be granted in line with weight gain. Mentioning food itself was strictly forbidden. Instead, the pressure was on to find some magic key to the past, one that would unlock the mystery of one’s own disruptive actions. Said key was most commonly located in the family home. We all knew this. We all knew that finding monsters under the bed would let each of us off the hook. Until then, as problem children we were obliged to carry the weight of all the pain we’d caused.

Like most people, I didn’t have a perfect childhood. I can sort through the jumble of memories and piece together different patterns, depending on whom I wish to blame for what went wrong, or praise for what went right. Each and every one of us possesses the raw materials for countless neatly structured morality tales. The truth changes from day to day, as joy is rediscovered or trauma relived. Of course, there are some fundamentals, some steps that should never have been taken, some actions beyond the pale. Nevertheless, far more of what goes on requires a particular form of editing, a certain lighting, in order to bestow upon it the necessary meaning.

When my brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia, it felt like a relief, of sorts. Once more family history was tossed in the air, only this time landing in a pattern that said “not anyone’s fault”. This time, it’s the chemicals. The imbalances. Take these words and hold onto them for all you’re worth, for therein lies your salvation. Schizophrenia is the trigger, the root cause. Not human frailty, but science. You can measure it in a test tube, you can even fight it with drugs. No more need for stories. You are officially exonerated by the very life sentence you’ve just been given. Good for you. Then the years drag by and you realise this means nothing.

The question “is mental illness real?” has a self-indulgent, gamey feel. It’s the kind of thing that should be reserved for first-year philosophy students, late at night in someone’s room after too many shots of vodka. Instead it is apparently “medicine’s big new battleground,” psychiatrists versus psychologists in a battle over – what? Professional status or the purity of the human soul? It’s not entirely clear.

As the American Psychiatric Association publishes the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), the Division of Clinical Psychology has released the following statement:

Psychiatric diagnosis is often presented as an objective statement of fact, but is, in essence, a clinical judgment based on observation and interpretation of behaviour and self-report, and thus subject to variation and bias.

Which to me seems fine, as far as statements of the obvious go. It’s not enough to shatter a whole world view. Psychiatry is flawed. Psychiatrists – who are also people – might enumerate symptoms and classify responses but don’t possess some unique insight into the meaninglessness of the human condition. If anything, it’s reassuring to hear this said out loud. After all, if psychiatry was as precise and objective as it’s apparently claimed to be, you’d want to know why human despair still existed at all.

For those suffering from mental illness and their carers, there’s very little to take from this. According to Oliver James – a man who’s ended up basing a whole career on the first line of a Philip Larkin poem – blaming mum and dad for their fuck-ups provides a way forward:

There is a huge body of evidence that our early childhood experiences combined with subsequent exposure to adversity explain a very great deal […] We need fundamental changes in how our society is organised to give parents the best chance of meeting the needs of children and to prevent the amount of adult adversity.

Which is all very well, to a degree. Don’t we all want this? As a parent, I want to best meet the needs of my children, regardless of whether mental illness is considered a specific risk to them. After all, is there anyone who believes that the intentional or accidental neglect of children is harmless? We try our best and we could do better. But what of those of us who are already damned? Does the route back lie in unpicking the past? Is there always a route back, or do we just have to plough onwards, making the best of what’s there – whether or not it involves chemical imbalances, and whether or not it’s helped by drugs? When it comes to this, it’s perhaps not so easy to take sides.

I see what the drugs used to treat schizophrenia do to people and it terrifies me. The side-effects are extreme and potentially life-shortening. I imagine books a hundred years from now, documenting our obscene treatment of the mentally ill in the same way that we currently look back on the Victorians, shaking our heads at their unenlightened attitudes towards so-called lunatics. Why did we do that to people?, we will say. Why did we drug them up like that? What were we thinking? The answer is because no one has given us an alternative. No one has yet offered “the truth”. The two options we have – the damning, relationship-destroying blame game versus the slow, drugged-up death sentence – aren’t even options. They overlap. We end up dealing with both at the same time. Take the pills, hate your parents, cling to whatever truths you can get, whatever gets you through the day.

It is easy to create a narrative in which family members deemed to be mentally ill become scapegoats. The victim in the corner takes his Clozaril so no one else has to face up to his or her sins. A neat, quasi-religious reading of what’s really a mess in which everyone’s drowning, measuring out doses and damned if they do, damned if they don’t. The horrific thing about the DCP statement is the degree to which it then fills you with guilt and false hope. You start to wonder whether actually, you’re living in some sci-fi nightmare in which all that’s required to step out into bright sunshine is to stop doling out tablets and inhale the fresh, clean air. And yet you know it doesn’t work like that. You know because you’ve already tried, so you’ve retreated back inside. You know that you’re poisoning yourself and your loved ones. You know that you’re probably living a lie. You watch the decline day by day and yes, the excuses are pathetic and prosaic – but they are real.

We don’t do it because we’re duped, we don’t do it because we’re evil. We haven’t sided with one medical faction over another. We do it because we wake up each morning and there are seconds, minutes and hours to be endured. We make the best of our lives and our guilt-ridden relationships, using the pitiful amounts of knowledge we have. There is still love, and self-awareness, and questioning, but there are also lives to be lived. Until this battle is magically resolved in one blinding flash of truth, what more can any of us do?

Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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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.