The royal baby is part of a fairytale of privilege and patriarchy. Photograph: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on the babies we don't care about today

Of all future subjects of our new infant overlord, none are more scapegoated than teenage single mums. Let's not forget about them and their children today.

The consensus that it is feckless and irresponsible for couples who rely on state benefits to reproduce clearly does not extend to the monarchy. For weeks before the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s first child, news teams from across the globe camped outside the luxury hospital where the sprog was set to make its entrance. As the due date soared by, hacks of every stripe filed and refiled speculative copy that managed to combine sycophantry with prying in that uniquely British manner; amongst the realms of opportunistic merchandise produced for the occasion were “Royal Morning Sickness” bags in pink and blue, printed up with the legend “shake rattle and rule!”. The punnery was presumably designed to ensure that the sick bags will be used for their intended purpose, if only by common wenches like me who are incubating a sense of impending national collapse into crypto-fascist kitschery where our blue-blooded fetuses should be.

It is sourly ironic that in a week when the whole nation is mandated to celebrate the birth at lavish state expense of Baby Cambridge, the hard right of the conservative party is set to launch a new attack on “teenage single mothers”. Of all future subjects of our new infant overlord, none are more scapegoated than teenage single mums. They have always been targeted by the more purse-lipped guardians of the nation’s purse strings, in part because they lack the resources to fight back, and in part because we live in a sexist, post-feudal society where contempt for sexually independent women and for poor people is expertly stage-managed.

Not only have teenage single mums broken the moral codes laid down on their behalf, they dare to ask for our help in order that they and their children might not have to go hungry. Because that’s what we’re really talking about when we talk about taking away benefits from single mums, as the Tories are right now: making women pay for sexual transgression by forcing them into poverty. As policy proposals go, it’s as retro as royal-baby bunting. The fact that the line of monarchial succession now passes to whatever comes out of the royal vagina, be it boy, girl or timorous beastie, is supposed to be the ultimate victory for modern feminism, but the spectre of a future queen ruling over a society where single mothers have to choose between sexual bargaining and starvation is no such thing.

Let’s step back for a second and talk about numbers. Teenage pregnancy has, in fact, been steadily decreasing since 2008, and public perceptions of the phenomenon tend to be wildly overestimated - this month, an Ipsos MORI poll showed that on average, British people think teenage pregnancy is 25 times higher than it is, with just 0.6 per cent of girls under 16 falling pregnant each year. This is still hundreds every year, but the figures are small enough to disprove the longstanding notion that waves of school-age strumpets are slutting it up to get on the public housing lists. We do have a housing crisis in this country, but it’s more to do with soaring property prices and lack of council building. By contrast, 100 per cent of royal mothers are housed at public expense, and the Daily Mail has so far failed to rifle through their bins for anything except mementoes.

Some might argue that this is the wrong moment to raise the stubborn issue of children born in poverty to single and teenage parents. Let the people have their bread and circuses, just for a week or two; let them live the vicarious fairytale. There will be time enough, after the tornado of media hyperventilation about nappy rash, couture booties and lines of succession has died down, to talk about the 700 other babies who will have been born into poverty in Britain on the day the notice of a new heir of Windsor was nailed to a slab in front of the palace. There will be time, surely, to talk about those other babies, perhaps on a day when mentioning them won’t sour the celebration punch.

Except that, somehow, that time never seems to come. We never do seem to talk about those babies and their mothers, or allow them to tell their stories, and this is precisely the week when we should. Because single mums and pregnant teenagers are the other side of the story we’re being told, endlessly, about the royal family and their perfect lives, the divorces, disputes and deaths of the 1990s seemingly entirely forgotten. It gives the lie to the aspirational fairytale of Kate, William and their as-yet-unnamed offspring, by showing that for some women, the handsome prince just doesn’t show up. Some women have children in poverty and raise them alone, and this government is doing everything in its power to make life more difficult for those women. Pass the royal sick-bag.

Baby Cambridge does, in fact, have a few things in common with the children being born to teenage single mothers this week, apart from its star sign (Leo on the cusp of Cancer: a sign that loves to be the centre of attention, which is probably a mercy). They will both be born to mothers whose bodies are treated as public property, scrutinised, shamed and judge even more than other pregnant women who fall somewhere in the middle of the social spectrum. They are both being discussed as symbols, rather than as real children who will grow up to become real people. The royal baby may not be a subject, but it’s still an object: an emblem of everything ordinary little girls and boys are meant to aspire to be, rich and cosseted, born to a loving, stable heterosexual couple whose story is a fairytale of privilege and patriarchy pushed at us in every paper, wrapped up in the sort of twee, creepy retro-Britannalia that has overwhelmed public discourse in past three years of royal pageantry, all cupcakes and co-opted war propaganda, like a nationalist hymn sung in the voice of a child.

The children of teenage single mothers are symbols, too, of everything that women aren’t supposed to do: have sex, live independently from men, and dare to rely on state assistance without already being the heir to the Duchy of Lancaster. The royal baby, being a baby, is not an appropriate target for contempt - but nor are the children of the poor, and I would like to live in a world where every child’s arrival is an occasion for happiness and hope, where every mother is respected, whatever her life choices. Give me a chance at that future, and even I might crack out the bunting.
 

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.