A policeman keeps an eye on a boat full of protestors against tax dodging. Photograph: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on The G8: welcome to the “New Northern Ireland”, a place where no dissent will be tolerated

"Could they not have just had the meeting on Skype?"

In Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, the streets are full of fake shop-fronts, designed to give the impression that empty stores are still selling things. Some of them are so realistic that locals have attempted to walk through doors that turn out to be painted on. The small Northern Irish town has 4.8 per cent unemployment, with an 82 per cent rise in redundancies last year, and a population of 14,000, plus about 3,000 police from all over Britain, plus a protest camp. It’s here that the 2013 G8 conference is taking place.

The G8 allows the world's richest nations to come together without representatives of the global south blocking the corridors and raising inconvenient points in meetings, but that's not its only function. It is also about pomp and show. It’s a pageant of neoliberal capitalism functioning whether local residents like it or not. That sort of pageantry requires the suppression of dissent, especially in a political climate where the elite's only answer to a drop in living standards and a collapse of faith in democracy is to line up an epic number of police with water cannons and tear gas.

“They’ve spent fifty million on policing,” Gerry Carroll, an activist in Belfast, tells me. “For god’s sake, could they not have just had the meeting on Skype?”

Since the 2001 summit in Genoa was targeted by 200,000 protesters, all subsequent G8 meetings have been held in remote locations designed to be inaccessible to the general rabble; last year the gathering was due to come to Chicago, but the location was changed to Camp David after the Occupy movement promised to converge on the city. This year, the chosen pitch is tiny Enniskillen, a good two hours' drive from Belfast even without roadblocks and hold-ups.

There has been an enormous uptick in police presence and capabilities both on the streets of Belfast and in rural County Fermanagh. Central Belfast was virtually shut down on Saturday during the peaceful march called by local left groups, where 3,000 demonstrators were met by an almost equal number of police, even though the G8 leaders weren’t even in the country yet. Local prison facilities have been expanded, horrifying residents. "One of the top stories on the news here in the North was that they'd spent millions building this facility – they're so prepared for mass violence that they could lock up 300 people at will," Sean Mitchell, an activist with the Irish anti-austerity group People Before Profit, tells me.

The choice to hold the G8 in Northern Ireland is an interesting one, designed in part to showcase the state's newfound stability, but also to demonstrate the lengths to which local law enforcement is prepared to go to defend that stability. In his speech at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast this morning, Obama praised the people of Northern Ireland for their commitment to ending sectarian violence, saying that the peace process gave "the entire world hope." He quoted Yeats and Heaney, made jokes about the craic, and spoke of sunny days free from the anticipation of violence. Outside it rained hard on 3,000 police, the sort of airless city rain that seems to come from all directions at once.

You might have been forgiven for thinking the whole of Belfast loved Obama, were it not for the massive slogan marked out in white bedsheets on a nearby hill, visible across the city, and certainly from the presidential helicopter. The slogan reads “G8/NWO: WAR CRIMINALS.”

The governments in Westminster and Stormont are keen to show off a Northern Ireland free from the merest whimper of trouble, whatever it takes. In the process, they have collapsed the notion of hard-won peace into a logic whereby all protest is put down and suppressed in the name of "stability". This confuses, effectively, the idea of a state in which citizens work together to live better lives after years of fighting – some might call this a democracy functioning well – with a state in which no dissent is tolerated, which is the sort of crisis of representative democracy that most G8 leaders, from Putin to President Obama, are facing at home right now.

This morning the streets of Enniskilllen, lined with abandoned shops disguised behind false fronts, were practically deserted. Protesters making their way to Fermanagh from across Northern Ireland expect to be arrested and thrown into one of the specially-developed dentention facilities standing ready for them. I spoke to young Fermanagh residents who had been hassled at home by the police merely for discussing the possibility of peaceful protest on the internet; all of them were too frightened of retribution to talk on the record. To mistake this bicep-flexing neoliberal muscle-show for a stable state full of happy people would be a mistake.

"The argument is that we're in a new situation, a 'New Northern Ireland', but the security response to the G8 has broken that down," says Sean Mitchell. "It's the same mass-scale, repressive response to political protest - but this time used against anti-capitalist protesters."

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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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.