Friday, October 13, 2006

What Not To Wear

On Saturday October 8th, the Sun ran the headline

HOUNDED OUT
Hero soldiers' home wrecked by Muslims.

The substance of the story was that a house earmarked for servicemen returning from Afghanistan had been vandalized. The Sun drew the conclusion that the vandals were Muslims, although their only actual evidence was a quote from an un-named source and a non-committal quote from the police. ('One line of inquiry' is that the attack was racially motivated.)

Underneath this front-page story was a four column strip. On the left was a picture of a woman wearing a burkha. (This picture was approximately three times as large as the photo of the vandalized house.) In the middle was a caption which reads THE BIG BURKHA DEBATE – PAGES 6 and 7. And on the right was a photograph of Labour MP Jack Straw.

Elsewhere in the paper, you could read about Muslim cabbie's guide dog ban.

On 10th October, the front page of the Sun featured another picture of a woman in a burkha. This time, the headline was HIDDEN DANGER. The previous day, a Sun reporter had caught a plane to Paris wearing a niqab. Customs inspectors didn't ask her to raise her veil to check that her face matched her passport picture, although regulations say that they should have donei. This is chilling, apparently. 'I hope this is an oversight, and not political correctness' says the inevitable Tory MP. If you read the 'full story' on page 9, you would also have learned about a terror suspect (unnamed) who, it is claimed (we aren't told by who) tried to escape capture by disguising himself with a burkha. And who should be at the top of column 1 but Labour MP Jack Straw?

So, images of veiled women are being placed alongside stories about Muslim yobs and vandals; stories are dredged up in which burkhas are tangentially associated with terrorism. Anyone looking at Saturday's paper would have taken in the words Hounded Out -- Hero soldiers' home wrecked by Muslims -- The Big Burhka Debate in a single glance. The vandalism story is printed in a frame; and the 'burka' caption overlaps that frame: quite clearly, we are being invited to forge a mental link between the two stories. Muslims are dangerous and frightening. Muslims are alien. Muslims are chilling. And wherever there are stories about dangerous, frightening, chilling, alien Muslims there will be a little picture of a woman in a veil. The Sun has made veils into a hieroglyphii which means 'Muslims are scary'. And alongside this icon of Islamophobia there is always a picture of Labour MP Jack Straw.

Interestingly enough, the HIDDEN DANGER story only takes up about 1/3 of Monday's front page. The other 2/3 are given over to a promotion for something called Page 3 Idol. ('Turn to page 3', the caption very logically advises.) Female Sun readers are being invited to send nude photographs of themselves to the paper. Male readers will then vote for the picture they like the best, and the winner will be offered a job as a model. You couldn't, as I believe someone once said, make it up. This is illustrated, naturally, by a picture of a lady with no clothes on. (Page 3 itself has a total of 14 tits on it, which must be some kind of record.) So, when we look at Monday's front page, what we actually see is a small picture of a dark skinned lady wearing a veil, underneath a large picture of a light skinned lady wearing nothing at all. The message is clear: totally covering yourself up is 'chilling' and 'dangerous', whereas stripping naked, having your picture taken and sending it to a national newspaper so that strangers can masturbate over it is perfectly normal.

Meanwhile, the Daily Express has had one of its famous phone-in-polls in which it has turned out that 97% of readers think that Muslim women should uncover themselves -- though not, presumably, to the extent that Sun readers are going to -- because it would 'safeguard racial harmony'. In order to further safeguard racial harmony, the Express reported these findings under the headline BAN THE VEIL! The accompanying text is vintage Daily Express stuff:

CONCERNED Britons gave massive backing last night to calls for Muslim women to ditch the veil.

An astonishing 97 per cent of Daily Express readers agreed that a ban would help to safeguard racial harmony.

Our exclusive poll came a day after Leader of the Commons Jack Straw spoke out against the veils.

Note how 'Britons' are contrasted with 'Muslims' in the first line, and that 'ditch the veil' (choose to stop wearing it) in line 1 slides into 'ban' (prohibit it by law) in line 2. Observe the presentation of the story: 97% of readers 'gave backing' and 'agreed' to the idea of 'a ban': even though no ban has been proposed and there is nothing to back. And once again, it is all associated with Labour MP Jack Straw. It is literally true that he 'spoke out' against veils in the sense that he remarked that he would rather talk to people whose faces he could see. He quite explicitly didn't call for any kind of ban. But the trajectory of the opening paragraph goes 'Ban the veil – ditch the veil – a ban -- Jack Straw.'

Jack Straw knew what he was doing. New Labour is the political wing of the middle classes. Every New Labour speech goes out of its way to praise the car-driving home-owning hardwor kingfamily. These are the votes which win elections. White – people who read papers in which lapsed Anglicans from England are 'us' and dark skinned Muslims are 'them'. Paranoid – people who feel that their way of life is under threat from gypsies, gays, terrorists, asylum seekers, the political correctness brigade, Europe, foreigners in general. Four million of them pay money to read the paranoid fantasies of Richard Desmond and Rupert Murdoch on a daily basis. Ten days ago the average Sun readers didn't remember Jack Straw's name, let alone his job title. But for a week, they have had his face in front of them every day, linked with stories about Hidden Danger and Banning the Veil. What he actually said no longer matters, any more than it ever mattered exactly which river it was that Aeneas had seen frothing with much blood. Straw wasn't presenting an argument, but positioning himself. He has brilliantly associated himself with the paranoid middle-class. The people whose votes he most needs now think of him as 'That fellow who spoke up for ordinary White people and against chilling Muslim yobs who sneak through customs and vandalize guide-dogs.' And this, unless he is very stupid indeed, was precisely what he knew would happen.

I live in Bristol. Burkhas are quite rare, although there are increasing numbers of Somali women whose robes cover the whole of their body except their faces. (I think that they look very attractive and exotic.) Headscarves are so common that I no longer notice them. I admit that, when I see a black hat and ringlets, I still think 'Jew' before I think 'man'; but when I see a headscarf, I no longer think 'Muslim woman' or 'religious woman' or 'Asian woman' but just 'woman'.

When I first moved to Bristol the man in my local corner shop had a West Country Accent. If you want to buy a pint of milk after half past ten, the person who sells it to you will be an Asian: it's a stereotype, but it's true. 'What's a Pakistani man doing with a West Country accent' I said to myself. 'Everyone knows that Pakistanis have South London accents.' Since then, I have noticed that some teenagers combine Brizzle dialect with British Asian, even when their vowels are RP. 'Where's Rashid to, innit?' White kids are also picking up the 'innit' habit, which seems itself to be a bit of cockney dialect pressed into service to represent a Punjabi tag word. I find this aesthetically displeasing. The whole purpose of teenage slang is to irritate people over 30. That is what 'assimilation' means. You spend decades worrying about the fact that New York has been overrun by Italians who don't speaka the lingo proper, and then wake up to discover that Pizza is a classic American dish. I shouldn't be surprised if next year, white teenagers decide it's fashionable to cover up their faces. If it irritates Jack Straw, I may start doing it myself.






i Private Eye points out that the story is not attributed to Anila Baig, the dark-skinned journalism who carried out the stunt, but is claimed as an exclusive by light skinned Julie Moult.

ii Actually, the icon is a partial photograph: the paper tends to show a narrow strip of two eyes looking out from a slit, rather than the whole head. The papers' layout therefore distances the woman more than the actual veil does.

20 comments:

John P said...

Thank you. I'm glad there's at least one other sane person in the world. It's beginning to feel like everyone's gone mad.

Phil Masters said...

Just out of curiosity, Andrew - of which social class do you consider yourself to be a member?

Sam Dodsworth said...

New Labour is the political wing of the middle classes.

I'd say 'lapdog of the lower-middle classes', myself. 'Lapdog' because they're not Daily Mail readers themselves but they hold power by making sure to keep Thatcher's old constituency reasonably happy. (I'll grant their authoritarianism is genuine, but I think that's managerialism rather than the conservatives' fetish for discipline.)

'Lower-middle classes', specifically, because Old Labour was an alliance of working-class and middle-class academia/intelligensia. That's no longer enough to get elected: there aren't as many actual working-class people as back when we still had manufacturing industry, and the "reform" of the university system means academia is no longer a fast track out of the working class for bright students. Or that's how it looks to me, coming from a family of Old-Labour-supporting middle-class intellectuals.

Meanwhile, may I point out that this use of 'muslims' to mean 'brown people' is exactly what the much-reviled "Incitement to Religious Hatred" laws were aimed at?

Phil Masters said...

I'd say 'lapdog of the lower-middle classes', myself. 'Lapdog' because they're not Daily Mail readers themselves but they hold power by making sure to keep Thatcher's old constituency reasonably happy.

Well, maybe. Once you start fine-dividing class categories, you're really asking for a lot of quibbling.

Anyway, this rather raises the question of which social class the Sun seeks as its market.

(I'll grant their authoritarianism is genuine, but I think that's managerialism rather than the conservatives' fetish for discipline.)

Up to a point, I think. But the Conservatives were traditionally the party of middle management, so I suspect there's always been a lot of managerialism in their instincts (over the last century). They surely don't all suffer from bizarre barely-subliminated sexual impulses left over from their bizarre experiences at public school. Really, you can probably only distinguish properly by making windows into men's souls.

'Lower-middle classes', specifically, because Old Labour was an alliance of working-class and middle-class academia/intelligensia. That's no longer enough to get elected: there aren't as many actual working-class people as back when we still had manufacturing industry, and the "reform" of the university system means academia is no longer a fast track out of the working class for bright students.

I rather doubt that the education system reforms have been running for long enough to change the demographics that much. If Labour have responded effectively to the shrinkage of the traditional working class by retargetting their appeal to the lower middle class, might it not be simply because a lot of what used to be the working class has now moved into the lower middle class?

Meanwhile, may I point out that this use of 'muslims' to mean 'brown people' is exactly what the much-reviled "Incitement to Religious Hatred" laws were aimed at?

Possibly. The implementation was still bollocks, though.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Once you start fine-dividing class categories, you're really asking for a lot of quibbling.

If it helps, you can think of it as an economic category: people who are doing well enough to support the status quo, but not so well that they don't feel threatened by change.

...the Conservatives were traditionally the party of middle management..

On further reflection, I think I was wrong. I'd still distinguish managerialism from the conservative tendency to see social change as the destruction of the existing order, and therefore as a failure of discipline; but I'm pretty sure Tony Blair shares that view of society as a kind of war between law and chaos.

...might it not be simply because a lot of what used to be the working class has now moved into the lower middle class?

Absolutely. I didn't mean to imply that the former working class just died out, like the dinosaurs.

I rather doubt that the education system reforms have been running for long enough to change the demographics that much.

I don't. The actual cost to students and their families of going to university has been going up steadily since 1979, driving a big move from academic to vocational subjects and a steady de-radicalization of campuses. And, of course, the working class/middle class alliance was already on the way out before Thatcher - that's one of the reasons she got elected.

...this rather raises the question of which social class the Sun seeks as its market.

For selling advertising, I'd suspect it's the lower-income groups. But in fact, I think what it aims for is populism rather than an appeal to an one particular class - which is why a lot of people read the Sun who aren't "Sun Readers".

Sam Dodsworth said...

And (I forgot to add to the previous post) - yes, the implementation of the religious hatred laws sucked; but we might have got a better result all round if more people had recognized that there was an actual problem as well as a question of rights and freedoms.

Phil Masters said...

I'd still distinguish managerialism from the conservative tendency to see social change as the destruction of the existing order, and therefore as a failure of discipline; but I'm pretty sure Tony Blair shares that view of society as a kind of war between law and chaos.

I'm really not sure that there's a strong distinction. Hypothetical bizarre sexual or theological motivations aside, the classic business manager is somebody who wants a reasonably stable environment and set of rules, so he can get on with his job, and who's doing well enough personally that he doesn't have much incentive to want big changes. He might talk about "discipline" or just "not rocking the boat", but the difference is more semantic than real.

Change and disorder stop people doing their jobs and lead to mess. If you think that the status quo is basically okay and your job is worth doing, you're going to disapprove of that, whether you phrase the disapproval in moral or practical terms.

[the question of which social class the Sun seeks as its market] ... For selling advertising, I'd suspect it's the lower-income groups. But in fact, I think what it aims for is populism rather than an appeal to an one particular class - which is why a lot of people read the Sun who aren't "Sun Readers".

There's a slight danger here of saying that things are social-class-related if they are bad things done by a class we disapprove of, or good things done by a class we regard as good. But if they're bad things done by a bunch of people in a "good" class, suddenly class stops being a useful category.

And (I forgot to add to the previous post) - yes, the implementation of the religious hatred laws sucked; but we might have got a better result all round if more people had recognized that there was an actual problem as well as a question of rights and freedoms.

So the solution was to ban something by law?

I don't share Andrew's reflexive libertarianism, but even I know that leads to trouble.

Kenny Aitchison said...

Good comment Andrew. I think your assessment of the Sun's take on this is spot on, but that's what we expect of them, don't we? What is even more frightening is the slippery appeal of this those that don't automatically think of themselves as Sun readers, but are the dangerous, anti-government / pro-UKIP / proto-BNP supporters who are exemplified by the 90% support he got in a Five Live poll and, apallingly, in the
Mirror's coverage of that poll.

Sam Dodsworth said...

[Managerialism vs. disciplinarianism.]

Managerialism seems to be quite a vague term, now I've gone looking for proper definitions. What I had in mind was the tendency to treat all problems as issues of procedure. In politics, this translates to the belief that law and society are isomorphic; so the solution to any problem is to ban something by law.

Which brings us back to...

[Laws against incitement to religious hatred.]

The thing is... sometimes, banning something by law does help deal with a problem. Laws against discrimination and incitement to racial hatred have played a significant part in what progress we've made since the 1970s - if only by keeping the racists marginalized while everyone gets used to each other.

Which is not to say that I think the law as originally proposed was a good one - I'm just a bit peeved that both the government and the opposers seemed to be committed to issues so general that the actual problem disappeared from view.

Phil Masters said...

I'm just not entirely convinced by Andrew's "New Labour plot to keep the Daily Mail readership on side" theory. Straw's constituency has, I believe, a pretty large Muslim population, so this probably hasn't helped him much with his personal vote, and he isn't the obvious stalking horse for an organised Evil Conspiracy to use to propagate dodgy material. Meanwhile, most of his cabinet-level colleagues seem to have been feebly sidling away from him ever since the speech in question, weakening its apparent effectiveness as a propaganda device for the party as a whole.

This could all be a Machiavellian New Labour exercise in having cake and eating it, of course, but it seems a bit tortuous for that.

Personally, I can't stand Jack "Shop Me Own Offspring" Straw, but I can't suppress the confusing suspicion that, on this occasion, he may actually have been saying what he honestly believed.

It's not like this is a simple left-right issue, either, as witnessed by the names and histories of some of the people who have basically agreed with him...

Sam Dodsworth said...

Meanwhile, a helpful guide on the BBC website reveals that the current fuss is about a niqab, not a burqa:

In Graphics: Muslim Veils

The local schoolgirls wear al-amiras, although on the campus where I work it's mostly hijabs with one or two niqabs.

Phil Masters said...

Yep, useful reference.

What we seem to get is people objecting to niqabs, talking about burqas, and being accused of objecting to hijabs. (The idea of nationalist-traditionalist-monarchist Brits objecting to headscarves does tip over into the surreal, doesn't it?)

John M. said...

That's the trouble with you Brits. You still have this concept of "belonging to a social class". Us Americans abandoned that concept in 1776. Get with the program.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Phil Masters:
(The idea of nationalist-traditionalist-monarchist Brits objecting to headscarves does tip over into the surreal, doesn't it?)

Ah, but these are disloyal headscaves, you see. Not like what the Queen wears at all.

What's more surreal to me is seeing all the right-wing loonies suddenly embrace 70s-style feminism and make powerful and moving statements against the (presumed) oppression of (some (brown)) women.


John m:

Us Americans abandoned that concept in 1776...

"Maid in Manhattan"? "Pretty Woman"? "Trading Places"? "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air"? "The Breakfast Club"? "Dirty Dancing"? etc?

Phil Masters said...

What's more surreal to me is seeing all the right-wing loonies suddenly embrace 70s-style feminism and make powerful and moving statements against the (presumed) oppression of (some (brown)) women.

Though when left-wing Muslim feminists say the same thing, I have to assume that it is, you know, probably happening.

"Maid in Manhattan"? "Pretty Woman"? "Trading Places"? "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air"? "The Breakfast Club"? "Dirty Dancing"? etc?

You forgot "Working Girl", the complete works of Bruce Springsteen, and the most recent presidential elections.

What does get interesting is the way that class tends to trump race in the UK. I mean, we have racism, heaven knows, but it keeps tripping up over things like flagrantly middle-class Asian businessmen who slip smoothly into the natural constituency of the Tory party. The American class system is strong, states of denial notwithstanding, but it still gets confused by vertical divisions by ethnicity.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Though when left-wing Muslim feminists say the same thing, I have to assume that it is, you know, probably happening.

Well... yes. Sort of.

Muslim veils and headscarves are worn for modesty. They're oppressive to the extent that the code of modesty they support is, like most codes of modesty for women, a patriarchal creation that privileges men. But wearing a veil or headscarf here-and-now in the UK is a voluntary act in the minimal sense that it's not enforced by law, and veils and headscarves are also badges of ethnic/cultural/religious identity. So wearing a veil is not, in itself, purely and necessarily an act of oppression.

So it's "presumed" oppression to me because the feminists-of-convenience (and some real feminists, including the ones who got co-opted into supporting the French ban on headscarves in schools) don't make that distinction and treat wearing veils as an evil in itself. This lets them ignore the fact that discrimination against veil-wearers is just as oppressive as the patriarchal attitudes that they take the veil to symbolize.

What does get interesting is the way that class tends to trump race in the UK...

We were lucky - we had the Empire so we didn't need cheap immigrant labour until relatively recently, and we never had slaves back home in Britain even when we were trading them.

Although my limited experience is that class and race interact in odd ways: I've met anti-Black racists who admire Asians for their success and anti-Asian racists who don't distinguish between Black and White working class.

Phil Masters said...

But wearing a veil or headscarf here-and-now in the UK is a voluntary act in the minimal sense that it's not enforced by law,
The very minimal (as in "sometimes actively misleading") sense. If it's being enforced by bullying patriarchal types within the religious community, it's not really voluntary.

So it's "presumed" oppression to me because the feminists-of-convenience (and some real feminists, including the ones who got co-opted into supporting the French ban on headscarves in schools) don't make that distinction and treat wearing veils as an evil in itself. This lets them ignore the fact that discrimination against veil-wearers is just as oppressive as the patriarchal attitudes that they take the veil to symbolize.

Assuming, of course, that they actually support active discrimination against veil-wearers, as opposed to lesser forms of criticism of the practise. Which is rather a large assumption.

One much-repeated line in this argument is "At least a veil is less obnoxious than a micro-skirt, crop top and thong". Now, are the people saying that oppressing the community of thong-wearers?

Sam Dodsworth said...

If it's being enforced by bullying patriarchal types within the religious community...

...then what we need to do is make sure people understand they have a choice, and make it easy for them to leave that community if they want to. (And it's likely that most aren't being bullied and won't want to - just as with devout conservative Christians.)

That's a matter of social services: adult education, help with housing, women's shelters, and so on. Any community tends to close ranks in the face of perceived hostility, so public censure can very easily be counterproductive. And it's not as if the hostility is just a matter of perception at the moment, either.

...are the people saying that oppressing the community of thong-wearers?

I think it depends to what extent thong-wearing is part of their identity as opposed to a fashion choice, and how much day-to-day discrimination they're experiencing. That question isn't so ridiculous if you apply it to transvestites, say, or even goths.

NickPheas said...

Oh dear it's just become complex...

I've found byself worrying for some time that I may be turning into a Daily Mail reader. Damnit, there is something rather sinister about the ghostlike formes of heavily robes and veiled, vaguely human shapes being lead about the shops of Bradford by spotty men dressed appropriately for the Yemeni hill country. I know it's illiberal to think it, but there is something odd and off putting.

But Tony Blair thinks so to. So where does that leave us?

Completely off topic, is anyone else disappointed that only one newspaper thought to headline the story about Mr & Mrs Ritchie's adoption/abduction from Malawi with 'Madonnna and Child'?

Sam Dodsworth said...

I've found byself worrying for some time that I may be turning into a Daily Mail reader...

Well... you know. Lots of churches have a huge statue of a guy nailed to a plank looming over everyone. Sometimes with blood. And if that's not enough, there's the Sacred Heart.

I don't think finding veils creepy makes you a Daily Mail reader, unless you're trying to convince everyone that they actually are creepy. Or you think we should be a nation with a dress code. It's a natural human instinct to find strange customs uncomfortable - what matters is what you do about it.

For myself, I find it takes a little effort to be tolerant; but it gets easier with time and I'm convinced that it's the right thing to do. It also helps that the few niqab-wearers I see are mostly students on the campus where I work, and are usually standing around laughing and chatting with their non-veil wearing mates - much less sinister than an extreme close-up on the front page of the Mail.