Woolwich deserves better than the attention of murderers and EDL racists

An eyewitness account from last night's disturbances in south east London.

It’s just before 9pm on Wednesday evening, and the handful of customers in Woolwich Wetherspoons are distracted by the giant TV screen playing looped footage of a crime scene about half a mile up the road. It’s the main topic of conversation, and even the barman is arguing with the waitress, like people everywhere have been arguing: who did it, why, what it means. A few minutes later, a dozen men – youngish, in windbreaker jackets – enter the pub, looking jumpy. Several are talking into their mobiles. As his companions approach the bar, one steps back outside and unfurls a St George’s flag with “EDL – Bexley Divison” written on it.

As details of the brutal murder of an off-duty soldier near to the barracks in Woolwich filtered through yesterday afternoon, the leaders of the EDL set about trying to exploit it. Their street movement has all but collapsed, under the weight of public revulsion at its bigotry and violence, and the determined efforts of anti-fascist campaigners. Their only hope now is to provoke some kind of serious disorder: earlier this month, on the day of the Oxford grooming trial verdict, EDL leader Stephen Lennon and his sidekick Kevin Carroll spread unfounded rumours on Twitter of a child rape by “Muslims” in Luton.

Yesterday, the Woolwich killing – a personal tragedy for the victim’s friends and family, a shock for the local community, but with a political context guaranteed to make it front-page news – appeared to give them another opportunity. Jihadist terror and the rise of anti-Islam sentiment is widely discussed – but since 2008, with far less comment, the military has become an increasingly sensitive element of British culture. Uniformed soldiers play a ceremonial role in major sporting events; politicians use the issue of soldiers returned from Iraq or Afghanistan for rhetorical effect – as the communities secretary Eric Pickles did at last year’s Tory conference, when he accused “foreign immigrants” of being unfairly given housing ahead of “those who fought for Queen and country”. Is this a natural effect of more than a decade of war, or does it speak to a deeper unease? It was, after all, an incident at a homecoming parade by the Royal Anglian Regiment in 2009 – an insulting protest by a small group of self-styled Islamists – that sparked the creation of the English Defence League in the first place.

At the pub, more men arrive. The first group head off, while one of the new arrivals says “let’s get a round of sambucas in”. Leaving, I cross the central square – newly refurbished and overlooked by a giant, curvy new block of aspirational apartments – to find out where the first group is headed. If the “Bexley Division” flag is anything to go by, these EDL activists have come over from the neighbouring borough: whiter in ethnic make-up than Woolwich, and where in a little-reported subplot to the 2011 riots, a gang of EDL activists gathered to “defend” their neighbourhood from rioters.

There is an echo of that incident as, suddenly, a group of men come charging towards the lower end of the square, throwing bottles and chanting “E-E-EDL”. A train station borders that side of the square, and a mainly black crowd of onlookers scatter. I catch a look somewhere between disbelief and panic on the face of one man as he passes me. The EDL – along with their more respectable cousins in the political mainstream – claim that their islamophobia has nothing to do with race. Yet it’s striking how quickly one can slip into the other, as indicated by the careless description of the murder suspects as being “of Muslim appearance” that found its way into the main BBC News reports yesterday. Video footage later revealed them to be two fairly average-looking men of African or Caribbean origin, dressed in everyday clothes.

But the chaos is fleeting. The police, who had lined up on the other side of the square, catch up and block the road; the EDL crowd isn’t as big as it first seemed, numbering around 60. Confronted, its members run off down a street alongside the railway tracks, towards the Queen's Arms, a pub with a huge St George’s Cross flying from the flag pole in its front yard. As the EDL crowd regroups, their numbers swelled to a hundred or so, some have slipped into balaclavas. I see one of these men stuff what looks like a weapon into the waistband of his shorts. Their plan is to head towards the local mosque, which lies on the other side of the estate behind the pub, but their way is blocked by a line of police. Instead, they head back to the square, where they’ll play cat-and-mouse with riot officers until they get bored, or until the TV news crews pack up and go home.

My lasting image of the night is not of the EDL, but of the crowd that gathered to watch them, outside the the Queen’s Arms. These were local people – men and women on their way home from work, teenagers out for the evening – in a neighbourhood that only gets serious media attention when it plays host to a murder, or a riot. The mood was uneasy, but convivial all the same. When a dog starts sniffing a little too enthusiastically at someone’s leg, its owner jokes “don’t worry it’s not a police dog!” There’s a ripple of laughter when a newspaper reporter gets out his iPad to take a photo of the scene. A car drives past and its occupant swears in the direction of the police. The car is flying a stick-on Union Jack from its roof. Behind me, a man gestures towards the EDL, and says to his girlfriend, “I get where the anger’s coming from, but this is not the way.”

Daniel Trilling is assistant editor of the New Statesman and the author of "Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain's Far Right" (Verso Books). Follow him on Twitter @trillingual

Members of the EDL in balaclavas as they gather outside a pub in Woolwich in London. Photograph: Getty Images

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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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.