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Angela Merkel's burqa ban is sexist, racist and wrong

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.

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The government is abdicating responsibility for the Irish border after Brexit

The invisible border plan is full of holes and only a softer Brexit can avoid chaos.

The Government’s Brexit position paper yesterday on Northern Ireland that included its border proposals has only multiplied the number of questions that need urgent answers.

The questions people in Northern Ireland, particularly those in border communities, have asked me over the past year are in many ways similar to those I'm asked in my constituency in St Helens; what impact will Brexit have on them, their families, their jobs and businesses and their freedom of movement. But one issue looms larger than any other - the border.

These new proposals have now opened up a fresh set of questions on the border that are being asked not just by people in Northern Ireland but across Britain, Ireland and the EU too.  

The most obvious is that if you do not have checks on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland or between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, where do you carry out checks on immigration, goods and services?

The Government talks about an invisible border and using technology to make it work, proposing to have barrier-free access to the EU while negotiating free trade agreements. In that context, these ill-conceived proposals are more a reflection of a fantasy politics where the solution, not the border, is invisible. 

Based on its proposals yesterday, the Government is effectively handing back the decisions over a porous border of 310 miles and over 200 crossings to the European Union and abdicating responsibility for a mess of its own creation.

The Government paper stresses its commitment to maintaining an open border. But their relentless progress towards a hard Brexit raises a number of practical obstacles.

The first is immigration. A majority of my constituents in St Helens North and the UK as a whole voted to leave the EU in the referendum last year. I understand the fact that for many of them their main motivation was to achieve better control of immigration.

The Prime Minister herself has been very clear that her Government’s policy remains to cut annual net migration to the "tens of thousands" - a metric I believe to be artificial and flawed. But the Government’s policy on maintaining the Common Travel Area will create a gaping hole in Britain’s immigration policy.

Yesterday's proposals suggest that when we leave the EU, people wanting to come to Britain from EU countries will have to do no more than to book a flight to Dublin, take the bus to Belfast, and then cross the Irish Sea to enter Great Britain - with no checks at any point.

Far from taking back control of its borders as it claimed, the Government will be giving it away. Far from making our borders more secure, the loss of our place in the Single Market will open up a new route to illegal immigration and people traffickers. This is not what my constituents, or anyone else, voted for in the referendum.

At present, around 35,000 people cross the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic every day to work, study, visit relatives and do business. Over 200 crossing points handle 177,000 lorries, 208,000 vans and 1.85m cars per month.

Any immigration checks on the border whatsoever would be a practical nightmare. They would also be a collective psychological nightmare for people living in proximity to the border on both sides, erecting barriers between people - families and friends - in the North and South and potentially reopening divisions of the past.

This is the appalling Catch 22 the Government has placed itself in. Their position paper contains no evidence that they have a clue how to solve the problems they have created.

On customs, there is currently no barrier whatsoever to exporting and importing goods across the border. Huge numbers of firms rely on this frictionless cross-border trade. However, the Government’s plan raises the prospect that new controls will come into place, introducing additional cost and bureaucracy for companies and hitting the economy.

While they are trying to reassure small firms in particular that this will not be the case, it is inconceivable that Britain could leave the EU’s Customs Union and not impose customs checks.

Besides, Ireland is a member of the EU. Any deal cannot simply be arranged bilaterally between London and Dublin. It will need to apply to all the other EU nations.

The Government is casting around for a workable solution to the problems Brexit presents for Northern Ireland. But the easiest and most obvious answer is staring them in the face.

If Britain stayed within the Customs Union or the Single Market, the Common Travel Area would be mucheasier to maintain, and customs checks of any kind would not be required. To truly rule out a return to the borders of the past, the Government needs to swallow its pride and drop its commitment to a hard, destructive Brexit.

Theresa May made a huge strategic error in caving in to the Tory right-wing by ruling out a customs union or membership of the Single Market. She could have worked with EU partners who also have concerns about freedom of movement and want reform to get a good deal on good terms for Britain.

She has squandered goodwill in Europe and united the other 27 EU nations around a harder position against the UK.  The lack of a viable answer to the pressing questions over the Irish border is just the start of what I fear will be a very painful road ahead.

Conor McGinn is Labour MP for St Helens North.and a supporter of the Open Britain group.