When TCW’s Laura Perrins appeared on both Newsnight and Radio 4’s Today this week, she made the irrefutable point that the burka is dehumanising. As it is. Just because a woman may choose to dehumanise herself doesn’t somehow negate that act of dehumanisation. Whether the face veil is self-imposed, the consequence of subtle cultural and religious pressure or of outright male oppression, it remains an objectionable, dehumanising garment.
The BBC and the veil-covered guests it invited on (as well as the shrill and hapless Matthew D’Ancona) are not in the least interested, however, in getting to grips with and addressing the nature of face covering, the nature of making oneself essentially faceless. Fine if you believe there is no such thing as society. And maybe that’s where the burka defenders are now at; they’re not really fussed about integration and assimilation. Fine if you utterly reject the words of Donne that ‘no man is an island’.
The burka is a horrible symbol of oppression. It is not the case that it has no impact beyond the woman behind the small slit of gauze. What about the Muslim girls who, as a direct result, are under more pressure to succumb to pressures from the men (and sometimes women) in their families to make themselves faceless when they go out?
Any outcry from feminists on this? Of course not. Social conservatism in the shape of misogynistic patriarchy is fine, you see, if it’s coming from an ethnic minority. It’s only when it can be portrayed in something like the Right/white dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale that it’s something foul and chilling.
Columnists Deborah Orr and Zoe Williams both found it too difficult by half to have a think about what the burka is and what it does to a woman. They took the easier route of denouncing Boris Johnson as an Islamophobe/racisT/attention-seeker. Williams did a final bit of weary ranting about not policing what women wear. (Zoe, Boris wasn’t. But some Bradford dads, brothers and uncles do.)
The most anguished hand-wringing, though, was left to Polly Toynbee, who at least recognised the awful dilemma for a ‘good liberal’ who needs not to be silenced on criticising religion. Staggeringly, she then went on to say that some people should have free speech, and some shouldn’t. In other words, it all depends who’s saying it (ok for a female Pakistani comedian to make jokes about burkas looking like dustbin liners). The Left never changes. The double standards are always in place. ‘Don’t do as I do (say), do as I say!’ That’s why Toynbee was able to reference her own past comments on the burka as ‘dehumanising’ and something that reduces a woman to ‘an anonymous thing’. Wouldn’t all hell have broken loose if someone unapproved by the Left had said those words?