The City of London is trying to counter its "male, pale and stale" image. Photo: Getty
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How the Square Mile could be an unexpected counter to our “Downton Abbey-style society”

After recent reports that Britain is "deeply elitist", the City of London insists that social mobility is being championed where you would least expect.

Hot the heels of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission study which concluded that the UK is “deeply elitist”, the TUC’s Frances O’Grady has added that we are becoming a “Downton Abbey-style society”. These headline-grabbing comments make for depressing reading, but only tell part of the story. I firmly believe that momentum for social mobility is gathering pace in places people would least suspect.

The aforementioned study paints the picture that the top professions are occupied by the “male, pale and stale”. The financial Square Mile business district is of course not immune to such criticism, but some of the most exciting initiatives to engage young people from deprived backgrounds are, perhaps unexpectedly, happening in the City. Whether the motivation is altruism or just business sense, the City recognises its important role in developing and sourcing talent from some of London’s poorest communities.

Within the Square Mile, we are surrounded by London boroughs like Tower Hamlets where almost half the young people live below the poverty line. There is not only a social inclusion argument to be made, but our long-term economic sustainability is left vulnerable unless we improve diversity and cast the net wider in the search for talent.

Recent reports suggest we have a huge mountain to climb when it comes to levelling the playing field, but I’m reassured that there is the appetite for real change in the business sector. The most successful impact often occurs from multi-organisational partnerships, tackling the issue on a variety of fronts. More businesses need to work with schools to improve dramatically, the life chances of young people. Social mobility starts with young people actually envisaging themselves in top careers and having their expectations raised by teachers and business leaders.

Unfortunately, there are still too many young people who live in boroughs like Tower Hamlets who see the impressive City skyline from their bedroom windows but fail to realise the opportunities available for them. But I’m happy to say that every day I see and hear examples of this reality shifting. Firms like KPMG, our co-sponsors of the City Academy Hackney, provide one-to-one mentoring for the pupils to enhance their wider learning development. Schemes such as City Careers Open House, give local schools the opportunity to spend a day at a City-based organisation, including Bank of England, Eversheds, PricewaterhouseCooper and UBS. They meet employees and find out more about what a City career entails. Around 64% of participating students said the experience gave them much higher career aspirations.

Other established City firms like ING and Deutsche Bank are offering more paid internships to pupils from London’s poorest areas, drawing in a diverse range of talent not just attracting pupils who can afford to work for free. Lloyd’s of London championed a programme that reached 3,000 young people in Tower Hamlets – supporting students with literacy and numeracy, with the key aim of boosting employability from a young age. It also set up a bursary fund giving bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds access to finance (a common barrier to social mobility) to help with university living costs.

Businesses in the City and elsewhere are naturally concerned with hiring the best person for the job, but they have to get creative if they want the widest talent base. Withers LLP, a global law firm has just piloted an innovative work experience scheme. It targets young unemployed parents in Islington, an area with 15,000 households where no-one works. Opening up its doors to an often over-looked group has proved valuable all-round.

I’m confident that real change is pushing ahead in the City and beyond. If we want to maintain and develop our position as a global economic power, we need all our best players on the pitch. Social mobility is not just nice to have – it is an imperative.

Mark Boleat is the policy chairman of the City of London Corporation

Mark Boleat, Policy and Resources Chairman, City of London Corporation.

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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.