What's the point of a "feminism" which attacks mothers?

If feminism winds up assuming “someone else” will raise the kids while “we” get on with the real work, it's just become what it was fighting.

One man attacks another man on the grounds that his failure to reproduce betrays a lack of investment in the future. Niall Ferguson, you’ve been a fool, but at least you’ve admitted it this time (sort of). Now all that remains is for the debate about who’s the most self-centred – parents or non-parents – to become more and more about mothers, in the way that any debate about “parents” does. Has that happened already? Ooh, excellent.

I’m a parent and I’ll be honest: I did not have children for altruistic reasons. Yes, I could lie and say that the only reason I gave birth was so that my children would be around to pay the taxes that support feckless child-free folk in their old age, but that would be bollocks (as would, to be fair, any suggestion that I only had them in order to get nine months’ maternity leave and the right to use parent parking at Sainsbury’s). I had them because I got broody. It’s not a very detailed or helpful reason but that just about sums it up. In my defence – and that of all selfish parents – I don’t think we parents have a monopoly on failing to do things for the right reasons. I strongly suspect more people don’t have children due to a lack of broodiness than because they’re committed to saving the planet. It’s just one of those things. Those of us who’ve been able to respond to our broodiness or lack of it (as opposed to enduring forced pregnancy or infertility) have to admit we’re the lucky ones, selfish or not. 

Unless we’re Julie Bindel, that is. Bindel has taken one look at Ferguson’s dismissive, homophobic  depiction of John Maynard Keynes, and spun it into a full-on diatribe against selfish, unproductive parents – or, let’s be honest, mothers. It’s nothing incredibly unfamiliar. For women in particular, judgments based on whether or not you reproduce are so extreme and unforgiving that it’s not surprising these buttons get pushed. Women who – shock! – do not have children have to deal with intrusive comments and off-base assumptions on a daily basis. Mothers, meanwhile … well, they’re just mums, aren’t they? Like proper people, but somehow not. The Daily Mail-driven face-off between the barren harpy who’s “left it too late” and the smug, porridge-brained mummy who’s “let herself go” might not be taken seriously but it’s seeping into the general consciousness all the same. The spectre of Motherhood makes all women vulnerable. Far easier to reach for off-the-peg insults, courtesy of Femail, than deal with the deeper inequalities which these stereotypes mask. 

Overall, Julie Bindel’s “mothers are selfish” rant isn’t a patch on one of Liz Jones’s (my favourite of hers being “no, I don’t hate all mums – just middle-class ones over 30”. Like me. *glows with pride*). I find Bindel’s more problematic, though, because of the misguided links she makes with feminism. You get the impression that for Bindel, having children really does represent a form of selling out. After all, it limits your freedom of movement and your ability to have influence in a society which is not focussed on the needs of unpaid carers. I’d say this was a feminist issue, and Bindel would agree – but only, it appears, insofar as all this caring can make a woman a crap feminist compared to those less encumbered. Those such as Bindel herself, for instance:

My legacy – what I leave behind – will not be my DNA but my contribution to the emancipation of girls and women.

To be honest, I’m not sure how implicitly excluding mothers from having any agency as feminists contributes to the emancipation of women, but what would I know? I should be out slut-walking and instead I’m stuck at home wiping noses and the occasional arse. 

Bindel is dismayed at the apparent lack of activism by feminism mothers:

I have seen the most passionately committed feminist activists go gaga once they give birth. All the promises such as "I'll still come on that march/go to that conference/burn down that sex shop" disappear when they sprog.

Reading this, I can’t help thinking of Alan Sugar having another of his rants about useless bloody women screwing up his profit margins by swanning off to have children. Should feminist activism work along the same lines? Does Bindel actually expect feminists to adopt the mindset of dinosaur patriarchs who see no value in any human being who has domestic and familial responsibilities? The truth is, if feminism, of all movements, can’t call for a different approach, I don’t know what will. If feminist activism is structured in a way that necessarily assumes “someone else” is looking after the kids/washing the dishes/caring for the elderly while “we” get on with the real work, then it really has adopted the very mindset it claims to challenge. 

Feminism has to recognise its investment in motherhood. Not all women are mothers, not all women want children and not all women become mothers by giving birth. Those who can physically bear children are more than their wombs. Cis womanhood is not a mere waiting room, defined by the tick of the biological clock. Even so, it doesn’t follow from this that any woman who has children holds such a reductive view of herself and others. Nor does it mean that choosing motherhood means bowing out and accepting secondary status as a human being. Motherhood is neither an embarrassment to feminism nor an all-embracing definer of female power. It’s part of some women’s lives and not others, but prejudices about it restrict us all.

1958: "Mr and Mrs C Baker and family of Cambridge take part in a march from Trafalgar Square to Aldermanston Atomic Weapons Research Establishment". 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.