Bid to appease the far right by hitting at easy target is gesture politics at its most dangerous writes Joyce McMillan
There are moments in history when we have to ask ourselves exactly how we came to this; and this week’s notorious incident on a beach in Nice, where three burly male police officers stood around a young woman in a veil and tunic while she removed her long-sleeved top, and then issued her with an on-the-spot fine for inappropriate dress, is surely one of them. Like any fully paid-up western feminist, I aspire to a world in which all women are free to wear what pleases them or makes them feel comfortable; and I fully understand that in many instances, the veiling of women is a sign – not actually demanded by any faith – of a profoundly unequal culture, and of continuing patriarchal control of women’s bodies.
Yet within those basic convictions, I have also learned to recognise three other truths. The first is that our own society is only a generation or two away from a kind of imposition of gender difference, in social behaviour and dress, that was often extremely rigorous. When I was a child growing up in the west of Scotland in the early Sixties, for example, women in our sort of small town did not wear trousers, did not use heavy make-up for fear of what the neighbours would think, and never went to church without a hat; historically, our western culture knows all about patriarchy, and the strict policing of women’s appearance in the interests of sexual respectability.
Secondly, I have learned to know that there are also many intelligent and thoughtful women who, for their own reasons, wear a veil with pride. A few years ago, the Tramway in Albert Drive in Glasgow – thought to be the most culturally diverse street in Scotland – showed an exhibition featuring full-face photographs of Albert Drive women wearing various different kinds of veils, so long as they were willing to look straight into the camera. There were full burqas, small head veils, beautiful hat-like, jewelled veils from central Asia. And there were the faces, beautiful, composed, and searching; a gaze from veiled women which said, with great clarity, that their experience is complex, and that we should assume nothing about any individual, based on social generalisations.
And then thirdly, I have learned what any observer of politics should know: that even if many in the west think the veiling of women is a uniformly negative phenomenon, the act of forcing people to change against their will is likely to be hopelessly counter-productive. The social forces that have led to an increase in veil-wearing among Muslim women everywhere are of course profound, and often worrying in themselves. Yet it is difficult to begin to fathom the sheer bone-headedness of this French response, which appears to imagine that we can deal with these profound problems by scrubbing away one of its superficial symptoms; and in a way so aggressive, and so evidently sexist in its impact, that it is absolutely guaranteed to cause further outrage and alienation among Muslims in France and beyond.
So how did we get here? In short, through an absolutely flawed and unwise response to recent terrorist incidents, of which France has had more than its share. In the first place, President Hollande immediately responded, after the Charlie Hebdo attack in January last year, by describing France as being “at war” with this tiny group of extremists, and their ideology; and to use that language, rather than dismissing them as criminals, is to read straight from the Islamic State playbook, and from the playbook of racists in western Europe. As Hollande repeatedly says, the vast majority of Muslims in France have nothing to do with any of this, and are as appalled by it as the next citizen; why then call it a “war”, a term used for a conflict between peoples or nations, when it’s clearly nothing of the sort?
Then secondly, politicians across the spectrum – from Hollande’s prime minister Manuel Valls to the mayors of towns imposing the “burkini ban” – have allowed themselves to be panicked by the growing popularity of far-right parties into adopting and reinforcing their language and perspective. To respond to recent terror attacks by banning burkinis from beaches is gesture politics at its most impotent, pathetic and dangerous. It implies the collective guilt of the whole Muslim community in a way that recalls some of the most horrifying chapters in European history; and no-one is even pretending that it really has anything to do with security. Yet for a generation of second-rate politicians, this policy has one virtue: it feeds the beast of ignorance and prejudice created by far-right parties, and the media that love to promote their sensational and hate-filled language.
All of which, I suppose, is enough to make one feel fleetingly glad to live in the UK, where the ethic of “live and let live” seems more deeply entrenched; the nation that gave the world the knotted hanky on the head, and the venerable practice of going for a paddle with your raincoat on, rightly has nothing prescriptive to say about what people should wear at the seaside.
Despite the edge of preposterous comedy to the story of the burkini ban, though – and the policy certainly deserves to be mocked out of existence – in truth the story of how we reached this point is no laughing matter. As dozens of shows across this year’s Edinburgh Fringe testify, the refugee crisis is the great political and social narrative of our time, a tale of human flight from danger, and yearning for freedom, as great as any in history. And so far, with a few honourable exceptions, western Europe’s response to it has been panicky, unwise and mean-spirited to the point of real danger: the point where we know, in our hearts, that our comfortable societies have become nothing but cabals for the protection of privilege, and where we begin to assert ourselves through the kind of bullying gestures that only signal growing weakness, and a steady erosion of the founding principles that once, for a happy generation or two, made our way of life truly worth defending.