Waiting game: Crown Prince Felipe at an award ceremony on 4 June. Photo: Getty
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Can the Spanish monarchy survive without King Juan Carlos?

His successor, Crown Prince Felipe, faces many challenges: the growth of republicanism, lessening support for the main political parties and the ongoing moves by Catalonia to become independent.  

King Juan Carlos of Spain has always been an extraordinary monarch. Placed on the throne by a dictator, he soon sacrificed the autocratic powers he inherited and played a critical role in the country’s transition to democracy after the death of Franco in 1975. That story – and particularly his part in the collapse of a right-wing coup attempt in 1981 – is the single most important strand in the narrative of modern Spain. Like a benevolent father figure, Juan Carlos stepped back from his position of authority and gently pushed the now adult nation to look after itself. And, on the whole, the Spanish have been grateful to him for it.

In many ways, he resembles the kings of folk tales; the fortunes of Juan Carlos have been inseparable from the destiny of the country over which he reigns. As the newly democratic Spain began to prosper – joining the EU in 1986 and watching its economy grow until it briefly became the eighth-largest in the world – so everything seemed rosy in the royal family. And the king’s popularity soared. The constitutional monarchy that he had done so much to establish appeared secure.

But, with the economic crisis, the problems began: austerity measures, high unemployment and a series of corruption cases going right to the top of the Spanish political class. The royal family became embroiled in the scandals when Juan Carlos’s daughter and son-in-law were implicated in the embezzlement of nearly €6m of public funds. The monarchy’s approval ratings suffered enormously, and soon this sickness of the nation appeared to be reflected even in the body of the king. Since 2010 Juan Carlos has been operated on eight times, most notoriously in 2012 after breaking his hip while hunting elephants in Botswana.

In these circumstances, it was not surprising that the king announced his abdication after 39 years on the throne. The question now, however, is whether his successor, Felipe, is sufficiently unsullied to restore the monarchy’s fortunes and the nation. He faces many challenges.

First, republicanism in Spain is growing steadily. Recent opinion polls suggest that over 43 per cent of Spaniards do not want the monarchy to continue. Many of those who support the institution do so through a sense of loyalty to Juan Carlos: although he was appointed by Franco, he earned his position in effect by bringing down the old regime. Felipe is considered well prepared but has merely been born into the role.

Secondly, the two main parties – the right-wing Partido Popular (PP) and Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), which both back the monarchy – no longer enjoy the support they once did. At the recent European elections they polled under 50 per cent between them for the first time. The governing PP will support the legal moves needed for the abdication to happen smoothly. So, too – probably – will the PSOE. But the Socialists are also starting the process of electing a new leader after a terrible showing in the EU elections and already the cracks are showing. Many in the party are calling for a referendum on whether Spain should become a republic.

Then, apart from all the other factors that make the present situation so tricky (the growing divide between rich and poor, the move towards the political extremes, collapsing public faith in state institutions), there is perhaps the biggest single challenge facing Spain: the ongoing moves by Catalonia to become independent.

Spain – or the Iberian Peninsula – has been breaking apart and reuniting for centuries. For well over a thousand years a pattern has played itself out, in which various “regions” split off to create sovereign nations whenever a powerful individual (such as the caliph Abd al-Rahman III or King Philip II) has been lacking at the centre. Fear that this might repeat itself in the 1930s was one of the principal causes for the outbreak of the Spanish civil war. Franco subsequently held the country together by force for almost four decades.

As a democracy Spain has been sailing through uncharted waters: it has held together up to now despite lacking an authoritarian figure at the centre. Yet in many ways Juan Carlos played that role at a symbolic, subconscious level.

With his abdication, that central individual has gone and the patterns of history seem ready to repeat themselves: the Catalan president has stated that the independence moves are going to continue as planned. Spain as we know it may be about to undergo important change.

Jason Webster’s most recent book is “Blood Med”, newly published by Chatto & Windus (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

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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.