Women are forever subjected to the "tick tock" body clock media narrative. Photo: Getty
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We know we won't be fertile forever – we don't need misinformed media dropping "fertility timebombs" to keep reminding us

A message to those constantly deploying the "tick tock" body clock narrative: we already know we can't "have it all", so stop reminding us.

I can’t be the only one who wants to crawl into a hole whenever the phrase “fertility timebomb” hits the news. To have your entire multifaceted being reduced to the status of a time-stamped broodmare with a ticking clock chained around its neck is not the most pleasant of sensations, especially when accompanied by statements such as Professor Geeta Nargund’s, who said over the weekend: “We can’t rely on net immigration to increase the country’s birth rate. It’s not a permanent fix.” Well, excuse me if my decision to procreate involves a few more considerations than the “obligation” to maintain population levels.

The coverage of Nargund’s comments was yet another example of the kind of haranguing pressurised remarks that always make you want to throw up your hands and declare in a thick New York accent, “who are you, my mother?” Despite the fact that it was revealed two years ago that the “wisdom” that a woman’s fertility “falls off a cliff” in her thirties (another charming analogy – why don’t you just push all the selfish childless whores off Beachy Head and have done with it?) is actually based on a study of peasant women living in France in the 1700s, this debate continues apace. Yet I’d hazard that modern women share very little in common with those living in French hamlets 300 years ago other than a nagging sense of malaise at being reduced to little more than our biological parts and a desperate desire for carbohydrates.

More irritating still, if that is indeed possible, is the suggestion that women of my generation are ignorant of their fertility to the point where we just rock up to the doctors one day in middle age, menopause looming, and demand to know why we are not yet impregnated. In reality, the pressure to conceive from the media is so predictably frequent that you might as well set a reminder in your phone. It’s only a matter of time before they start putting little slogans on your contraceptive pills. “Tick, tock…”

It’s all rather quaint, really, this notion that we’re all just hanging about, as though it’s a lazy Sunday on the sofa, Netflix punctuated by frenzied masturbation, and tea. It’s not as though women of my generation have other concerns, such as how exactly we can go about being responsible for a whole other human being in the midst of a housing crisis, the quagmire of zero-hours contracts, patchwork careers and low-paid work, and a post-Tinder dating market. The need for a reliable partner is, for many, a concern. Last time I checked, unattached women who had babies who couldn’t afford it were feckless, scrounging single mothers. The same newspapers surely couldn’t be telling us to throw caution to the wind and get birthing? Could they?

I suppose you could argue that delaying motherhood is the plight of the modern urbanite, and that all these educated women in their late twenties should be shipping themselves out to the suburbs or even the country if a child is what they really want. Sure, it’s an economic model that belongs in the Fifties (pass the barbiturates), but what’s the alternative? Affordable housing and childcare? Proper paternity leave? Don’t make me laugh. A future of garden cities populated by frustrated, lonely Stepford baby-machines surely awaits those of us who know we want children but can barely afford a studio somewhere in Zone Q.

We’ve been told that we can have it all, but any woman living in Britain today knows that this is some savage bullshit. In my more optimistic moments I comfort myself with the knowledge that skint human beings have been procreating and managing for hundreds and hundreds of years (see aforementioned French peasant women), but one must also take into account the fact that they had support networks of mothers, sisters, aunts and grandmothers to help share the childcare.

When most of the work available to career-minded, educated young women is concentrated in urban areas, this is not always achievable. Also to consider is the disturbing notion that women who are starting to think about children might also seek fulfilment in other areas, and that the fear of a disrupted career path is not one solely dominated by financial considerations, but ideals and ambition and the desire to create, to change, to influence, to be independent. I know that, should I choose to have a child now, there is a very real risk that I would lose the chance to have that. I know others feel the same.

The choice to be a stay at home mum is, of course, a valid one. But many of us who want both (and do not have parental financial support, nor will marry rich) are in an impossible situation, with many factors against us. I wish, truly, that it were easier, but it isn’t. Indeed, thinking too much about the obstacles that we face induces a kind of despair that is difficult to articulate. It is a despair rooted in the knowledge that a tough, anxiety-inducing choice and almost inevitable sacrifice awaits us. It is scary, profoundly sad, and, like the hum of an intrusive fridge, is difficult to tune out.

So, to anyone who feels the need to invoke the “fertility timebomb” argument in public again, I say only this: we know we won’t stay fecund forever. We know with painful clarity of thought. For fuck’s sakes we know. We know, we know, we know. You’ve told us enough. Now shut up.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

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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.