Introducing Trans Issues Week

Every day this week, the New Statesman website will host a blog exploring gender issues.

In the twelve months preceding November 2012, at least 265 transgender people were murdered across the world. That figure comes from the Trans Murder Monitoring group, and covers only documented cases in 29 countries, so the true tally is likely to be higher.

For anyone interested in equality, it should be obvious that trans people are subject to harassment simply for the way they express their gender identity. If they do not "pass" in the street, they can be subject to everything from cruel comments and sideways glances to assault or rape - just for standing out. The kind of dehumanising language which most people would find outdated and offensive if used against women, or a racial group, is routinely used when talking about trans people.

In recent decades, there have been great improvements in the way that both the medical community and the wider public deal with issues around gender identity. But sometimes it seems that a lack of knowledge, or awareness, is preventing people from engaging in what should be an important cause. Many people I know would never deliberately set out to offend, but are clueless about what pronouns to use, or how to refer to trans people. 

For that reason, the New Statesman blogs will be hosting a week devoted to trans issues, with a new blog every day on the subject. We hope to dispel some myths - and also offer some hope. Talking about trans issues purely in negative terms does not do justice to the many trans people living happy and fulfilled lives, and so there will also be pieces celebrating positive trans role models in pop culture, and describing the reasons to be optimistic about the future of trans people in Britain. 

The aim of the series is to reach out in a straightforward and friendly way to people who haven't considered these issues before: potential commenters should know that no one is waiting to jump down your throat for an innocent mistake. 

There won't be room this week to cover the breadth of trans experience, and so the articles that follow should be viewed only as trying to start a conversation. We hope that you will continue it in the comments here, on social media, and in your own lives. 

Monday: How a trans teacher showed adults have more hang-ups about gender than primary school kids by Jane Fae

Tuesday: Everything you've always wanted to know about trans issues (but were afraid to ask) by Jennie Kermode

Wednesday: Trans people, pronouns and language by Juliet Jacques

Thursday: Trans role models: Janet Mock, Paris Lees, CN Lester and Luke Anderson by Matthew Reuben

Friday: Trans people and the current feminist movement by Petra Davis and Non-binary: An introduction to another way of thinking about identity by Sky Yarlett

PS. I should add upfront that this theme week was planned before the recent Twitterstorm about Julie Burchill's article. We won't be hosting a response to that, as the idea of a New Statesman comment piece about an Observer comment piece about a Guardian comment piece about Twitter comments made after a New Statesman comment piece might be testing the patience of a casual reader.

PPS. You can find our previous theme weeks at the following links: Britishness; censorship and pornography; masculinity and British comics.

Backstage at the Pink Pageant, sponsored by human rights group Blue Diamond, in Kathmandu. Photograph: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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France’s burkini ban could not come at a worse time

Yet more legislation against veiled women can only further divide an already divided nation.

Since mayor of Cannes David Lisnard banned the full-body burkini from his town’s beaches, as many as 15 French resorts have followed suit. Arguments defending the bans fall into three main categories. First, it is about defending the French state’s secularism (laïcité). Second, that the costume represents a misogynistic doctrine that sees female bodies as shameful. And finally, that the burkini is cited as a threat to public order.

None of these arguments satisfactorily refute the claims of civil rights activists that the bans are fundamentally Islamophobic.

The niceties of laïcité

The Cannes decree explicitly invokes secular values. It prohibits anyone “not dressed in a fashion respectful of laïcité” from accessing public beaches. However, the French state has only banned “ostentatious” religious symbols in schools and for government employees as part of laïcité (the strict separation between the state and religious society). And in public spaces, laïcité claims to respect religious plurality. Indeed, the Laïcité Commission has tweeted that the ban, therefore, “cannot be based upon the principle of laïcité”.

While veils covering the entire face such as the burqa or niqab are illegal, this is not to protect laïcité; it is a security matter. The legal justification is that these clothes make it impossible to identify the person underneath – which is not the case for the burkini.

 

By falling back on laïcité to police Muslim women in this way, the Cannes authorities are fuelling the argument that “fundamentalist secularism” has become a means of excluding Muslims from French society.

Colonial attitudes

Others, such as Laurence Rossignol, the minister for women’s rights, hold that the burkini represents a “profoundly archaic view of a woman’s place in society”, disregarding Muslim women who claim to wear their burkini voluntarily.

This typifies an enduring colonial attitude among many non-Muslim French politicians, who feel entitled to dictate to Muslim women what is in their best interests. Rossignol has in the past compared women who wear headscarves through choice to American “negroes” who supported slavery.

Far from supporting women’s rights, banning the burkini will only leave the women who wear it feeling persecuted. Even those with no choice in the matter are not helped by the ban. This legal measure does nothing to challenge patriarchal authority over female bodies in the home. Instead, it further restricts the lives of veiled women by replacing it with state authority in public.

Open Islamophobia

Supporters of the ban have also claimed that, with racial tensions high after recent terrorist attacks, it is provocative to wear this form of Muslim clothing. Such an argument was made by Pierre-Ange Vivoni, mayor of Sisco in Corsica, when he banned the burkini in his commune. Early reports suggested a violent clash between local residents and non-locals of Moroccan origin was triggered when strangers photographed a burkini-wearing woman in the latter group, which angered her male companions. Vivoni claimed that banning the costume protected the security of local people, including those of North African descent.

Those reports have transpired to be false: none of the women in question were even wearing a burkini at the time of the incident. Nonetheless, the ban has stood in Sisco and elsewhere.

To be “provoked” by the burkini is to be provoked by the visibility of Muslims. Banning it on this basis punishes Muslim women for other people’s prejudice. It also disregards the burkini’s potential to promote social cohesion by giving veiled women access to the same spaces as their non-Muslim compatriots.

Appeals to public order have, occasionally, been openly Islamophobic. Thierry Migoule, head of municipal services in Cannes, claimed that the burkini “refers to an allegiance to terrorist movements”, conveniently ignoring the Muslim victims of recent attacks. Barely a month after Muslims paying their respects to friends and family killed in Nice were racially abused, such comments are both distasteful and irresponsible.

Increased divisions

Feiza Ben Mohammed, spokesperson for the Federation of Southern Muslims, fears that stigmatising Muslims in this way will play into the hands of IS recruiters. That fear seems well-founded: researchers cite a sense of exclusion as a factor behind the radicalisation of a minority of French Muslims. Measures like this can only exacerbate that problem. Indeed, provoking repressive measures against European Muslims to cultivate such a sentiment is part of the IS strategy.

Meanwhile, the day after the incident in Sisco, riot police were needed in nearby Bastia to prevent a 200-strong crowd chanting “this is our home” from entering a neighbourhood with many residents of North African descent. Given the recent warning from France’s head of internal security of the risk of a confrontation between “the extreme right and the Muslim world”, such scenes are equally concerning.

Now more than ever, France needs unity. Yet more legislation against veiled women can only further divide an already divided nation.

The Conversation

Fraser McQueen, PhD Candidate, University of Stirling

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.