You’d think, the way some people are talking, that we’re all unable to step outside our front doors without seeing someone dressed in a burka (a word I fear I may spell differently each time I use it on this post). The issue of the ubiquitous burka (or burkha) – or should that be the ubiquitous issue of the burqa (or burqua) – has certainly been in the media recently. Last week, the once-reputable Allison Pearson wrote of “Burkha Rage” in her Daily Mail column; then, on Monday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy took advantage of an historic special session of the French parliament to speak of banning the item of dress; and by yesterday that story featured on both Question Time and This Week, both of which I actually managed to bother watching for the first time in an age.
The Allison Pearson piece has already been taken apart by Anton Vowl, amongst others, so I will try to be brief. Pearson opens her article with a little story.
On a train to London, a young woman wearing a burkha, with only her heavily made-up eyes peeping out, did not have a valid ticket.
Challenged by the guard, the young woman gave a litany of excuses. She had left her bag at her boyfriend’s, he had bought the ticket, she had no money on her…
My friend Jane, who was in the same carriage, noticed how the guard became nervous as the Muslim girl presented herself as an innocent in a society she didn’t understand.
Instead of issuing a penalty fine, the guard backed off, shrugging his helplessness at the other passengers.
So imagine my friend’s surprise when she got off at the same station as burkha girl and saw this ‘penniless innocent’ whip out a credit card from under the folds of her dress with which she promptly bought a Tube ticket.
Jane was so incensed she sent me a text message, explaining what she’d witnessed. It ended: ‘Attack of Burkha Rage. Grrr.’
Grrr indeed. Now, to me this seems to be a straightforward case of common-or-garden fare-dodging, an activity that I suspect cuts across all demographics and which many of us have engaged in to some degree. I know I have; in my cash-strapped days on the dole my favoured technique was to simply stare out of the train window as the guard approached in the hope that he would mistakenly assume he had already checked my ticket, something that worked a surprising number of times. That said, fare-dodging is wrong. No question. What I can’t see, though, when reading this story, is how the fact that this particular fare-dodger sported a burka is in any way relevant, other than the assertion that “the guard became nervous as the Muslim girl presented herself as an innocent in a society she didn’t understand”, a questionable claim that seems to be undermined by the previous statement that “burkha girl” had issued a “litany of excuses” to try to escape paying, all of which suggest a definite au-faitness with British society in general and what is expected of one when boarding a train in particular.
Now, it is increasingly a good idea at such a juncture to point out I am not bandying about any allegation of racism here, lest I am accused of closing down debate on such an important matter. However, I also feel it is important to call things as you see them and that to hide behind euphemism can render any debate worthless, and so I do hope Allison Pearson and others will allow me to be suspicious of the motivation behind choosing to define the term “burkha rage” by illustrating it with an incident in which a burka itself, while present, appears to play no significant part; or indeed any part at all. While it would be wrong to jump to any obvious conclusion and cry “racism”, so it would be wrong to prematurely exclude the possibility that an element of racism may be present. Otherwise, Pearson’s friend’s story could just as appropriately be about “Hush Puppies Rage”, “Timex Watch Rage” or “M&S Underwear Rage” if we were to discover that these items too were worn about the person of the protaganist in this tale, and for all it would matter. Anyway, Pearson assures us that at the end of the day her friend Jane “is not a BNP voter.” No? Well, perhaps she should be.
Meanwhile, Sarkozy’s suggestion that – were he to get his own way – the burka would “not be welcome on the territory of the French republic” because it oppresses woman is similarly stupid; a piece of logic so daft that debunking it shouldn’t really need doing. Sadly, based upon the reaction of much of yesterday’s Question Time audience to the issue (not to mention that of Michael Portillo following on This Week) I’d better had. As I see it then, there are two broad groups that any potential ban on the burka is going to affect. On the one hand there are those women who choose to wear the burka of their own free will; here, the government will be instructing people on what they can and cannot wear, a bizarre state of affairs. On the other there are those women who are forced to wear the burka, trapped as they are in some form of domestic subservience; they will perhaps welcome being freed from the tyranny of having to wear the burka, but will still, all other things being equal, remain trapped in that same form of domestic subservience. So why fucking bother?
If, then, the intention of such a ban is to empower women who are stuck in an abusive relationship, then it seems to me to spectacularly miss the point. There are many, varied and complex ways that we can assist people in such situations that I can and will readily support. In any event, however, the empowerment of women didn’t appear to be a concern of many of Sarkozy’s supporters in the Question Time audience last night who seemed far more keen on fighting other battles. “When in Rome…” complained one opponent of the burka who, in the interests of ensuring a free and open debate, may not be racist. Perhaps he feels that Muslim interlopers should adopt indigenous methods of domestic oppression? There are plenty to choose from. Another audience member decried the fact that politicians refuse to debate this issue for reasons of political correctness, apparently oblivious to the fact that he was a member of the audience of a political debating programme featuring a debate between politicians on the very issue he complained no one would talk about. I wonder if he gets similarly confused and incensed when he hears the likes of Nick Griffin complain about a political correctness that means that only the white, native population of this country is discriminated against in being denied the opportunity to form their own exclusive organisations; perhaps so much so that he has considered taking the opportunity to join Nick Griffin’s BNP, an exclusive organisation formed exclusively by and for the white, native population?
If so, then perhaps he can take Jane along.