Spy on the wall: a painting of GCHQ displayed in the Mount Street Gallery, London in 2011. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on terror and surveillance: Oh look! There's a new bogeyman on the scene to justify online spying

Liam Fox insists that the “public will accept” increased surveillance because of the threat of terrorism. One suspects that if we don’t accept it, we’ll be made to.

Three summers ago, I went to Brighton with a few members of UK Uncut, the fancy-dress protest group. We were there for an anti-austerity march that happened to coincide with a sunny weekend by the seaside. When the march was over, we decided, like the hardbitten domestic extremists we were, to have a paddle.

It was then that we noticed that a group of police officers who were not local were tailing us. There were more of them than there were of us and they trailed about 50 metres behind, being as surreptitious as it’s possible to be when you’re dressed in lurid, yellow high-vis jackets. The officers followed us down to the seafront, where we had an extremely suspicious little sit-down and some chips. They watched us eat, seeming a bit embarrassed and more than a bit sweaty.

Police officers watching you paddle are one thing. You can, at least, see them and when they eventually get orders to give up, you can watch them leave. The same cannot be said for the enormous data-mining programmes being wielded against British citizens on the internet.

The ongoing revelations from the Edward Snowden affair have shown that the British security services are tracking vast amounts of online activity. In June, it emerged that a legal loophole has let them monitor all of our private messages for years; they forgot to mention this, apparently, because they were very busy. If you use Google, Facebook or Twitter to communicate with your friends or colleagues – sorry, co-conspirators – those messages are routed through servers based in the US, which makes them “external” traffic for the purposes of the intelligence services. “External” traffic covers almost all emails, online searches and browser history. That allows GCHQ legally to intercept your mails, drunk texts and love letters – and, since it’s legal, it must be OK.

Liam Fox, former defence secretary, seems to believe this is a good thing and thinks voters will put up with ever-greater intrusions on their private communications because of the new threat posed by the Islamic dissident group Isis in Syria and Iraq. On 22 June, Fox told Andrew Marr that the debate about what personal information can be collected by the state “is a problem that is going to be with us for a very long time . . . You have people at the moment, in light of Snowden, saying that the state has too many powers.” He then insisted that the “public will accept” surveillance because of the threat of terrorism. One suspects that if we don’t accept it, we’ll be made to.

The security services are not requesting new powers. It’s more that there’s a new bogeyman on the scene and, oh, look! Look at this enormous surveillance network we already had in place that just got leaked! What a happy coincidence!

State surveillance is only incidentally about catching terrorists. The apprehension of shady fundamentalist miscreants is the excuse used to extend the powers of our government to monitor ordinary people, whether or not they have done or plan to do anything wrong. Such tracking is an everyday invasion of privacy that changes behaviour and intimidates minority communities. In 2009-2010, more than 100,000 stop-and-searches were made under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. Not one of them led to a terrorism-related arrest.

One of the cornerstones of the coalition agreement, the compromise on whose back this right-wing government glided into Downing Street, was the promise of “a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and roll back state intrusion”, including the “right to non-violent protest”. How’s that going? In a 2009 speech at Imperial College London, now conveniently deleted from the Conservative Party’s website, David Cameron condemned Labour’s surveillance programmes and asked: “How have we got ourselves into the position where there is such a marked imbalance of power between the citizen and the state?”

In 2010, civil liberties were on the lips of young voters, many of whom turned out to support Liberal Democrat and Conservative candidates promising to roll back the “surveillance state”. Young black and Asian people, in particular, had grown up under surveillance, being stopped and searched on their own streets. People with nothing to hide had everything to fear, if they happened to have the wrong skin colour.

In recent years, it has been notoriously tricky getting British voters to care about surveillance, even in the wake of the Snowden revelations about the extent of spying on us by the NSA and GCHQ. This is understandable. As a nation, there are only so many things that we can be outraged about at the same time and people who are worried about whether they can feed their children today and educate them tomorrow have rather less bandwidth to bother about their communications being intercepted.

However, austerity and surveillance are very much linked. A government impoverishing its electorate and claiming that it is for their own good can expect resistance. Resistance has duly occurred and where it has, the full power of the surveillance state and brutal protest policing has been wielded to stamp it out. Not even elected representatives are exempt. The Green peer and former councillor Jenny Jones was recently informed that she is listed on police databases as an “extremist”. So were members of UK Uncut and of the peaceful Occupy protests, who were tailed, pepper-sprayed and mass-arrested until the organisations imploded under the pressure.

What went wrong? The coalition was elected on a promise to roll back state surveillance but it is now using the same language of “terror” to justify more invasive monitoring than anything that New Labour put in place.

Laurie Penny's Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution is available for now. She will also be in conversation with classicist and author Mary Beard on 30 July at Conway Hall, London. More details and tickets here.

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

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

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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.