Rod Liddle says that the French President may be right about Islam’s ideological content but that his proposal is shockingly illiberal and wrong-headed
I’ve been in the Middle East for the last three or four days — just trying to help out, you know, anything one can do — and staying in a hotel which is renowned for its profusion and diversity of whores. Stick a pin in one of those United Nations lists of comparative prosperity, healthcare, life-expectancy rates etc, and I guarantee that a female representative of that country will be — as the Bangladeshi bellhop put it — ‘slinging pussy’ in the lobby or the late-nite bar, or as you are forlornly requesting hot coffee at breakfast time.
This is all a problem for me, because while I would like to talk to some of these whores — just to be companionable — there are also plenty of normal non-whore women staying in the hotel. And it is impossible for me to tell these two very different classes of people apart: they seem to me to be dressed identically. I daresay for someone more observant there would be differences of nuance, but nothing that I can discern. What should I do? Mistake some middle-class fraulein for a 30 quid an hour slapper and I could be in serious trouble. They should have little plastic ID tags, the whores, like the ones worn by people attending conferences about dental hygiene and what have you.
I was mulling over my problem when I read in the morning newspaper that the President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, has told the French parliament that he intends to ban the burqa from his adopted country, because he believes it is symbolic of the subjugation of women. Well yes, probably. But where does this leave my whores, and the non-whores, and the stuff which they are wearing? The necklines so low it would make a baby cry, the micro-skirts, the shoes — what do they call them again? Tart’s trotters. F*** me shoes. This is stuff worn primarily for our benefit, the same sort of couture you will see on the streets of Paris. I daresay some grim old feminist hag on the Guardian is already making the same point this week, that burqas are not the only clothing which one might argue are symbolic of the subjugation of women. What is Nicolas Sarkozy going to do about split-crotch panties and boob tubes? I could go on. The rather crass, generalised truth is that women wear clothes which men quite like them to wear, be it the burqa or the leather basque. Those women who feel comfortable doing so — the majority, in each society — argue that this is a form of differentiation, not subjugation, and that in any case it is their choice. Up to a certain deluded point this is true. But I think it is also possible to argue that both forms of dress point to a relationship between the sexes which is not entirely equal.
I don’t doubt for a moment that the burqa is, as Sarkozy insists, symbolic of female subjugation; but if that were his sole concern, then he would have to broaden the remit of his fashion police. But he will not be banning the miniskirt and suspenders, because his concern is not about female subjugation; it is a spiteful pandering to racism, pure and simple. He is attempting to chime with the mood of a nation which feels that Islam is alien, averse and potentially hostile and dangerous. I am not sure I disagree with him about this, but it would be more honest if he came right out and said it, rather than clinging to somewhat jejune feminist arguments for moral support.
There have been similar calls to ban the burqa over here — and you may remember Jack Straw a couple of years ago announcing that he requested Muslim women who attended his constituency surgery in Blackburn to de-veil because he found it troubling talking to them. Jack has been the MP for Blackburn, with its large deep-rooted Asian community, for as long as most of us can remember, but it is only recently that he has found hijabs offensive.
As Sarkozy has said, the burqa is merely symbolic of female subjugation — so what is the point of taking action against a symbol? The real subjugation comes from within Islam, from within the Koran and the way it is most usually interpreted. It is the ideology to which the politicians — both here and in France — should object, not its symbolism, or indeed the blameless actions of the majority of women who wear the burqa because they feel comfortable, among their peers, so doing. And yet here, both governments have gone out of their way to insist that Islam is a lovely, peaceable religion which we should all (by law in Britain) respect.
You cannot have it both ways. You cannot have French writers or British politicians hauled before the courts because they say uncomplimentary things about Islam and then, as president or politician, start slagging off the burqa and insisting that it should be banned from the country. The right thing to do, I would suggest, is to make it absolutely plain that there is no compulsion to respect Islam as either a religion or a political ideology and that our governments, both of which are liberal democracies, will at every juncture attempt to counter the poisonous sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, misogyny and furious reaction to apostasy which is more or less inherent in even the more moderate strands of this religion. But, these being free countries, people should be allowed to believe whatever rubbish they like — be it Islam, Scientology, Rastafarianism — and dress accordingly if they wish, without being bullied.
It is the division between the public and private — a tolerance of what people wish to believe in, what they should wear, but a steadfast refusal to append to these beliefs a sort of official moral equivalence — which should determine how we deal with Islam the ideology. In practical terms it might well mean the removal of the burqa from within state schools, so that all kids are treated equally and the state is not seen as conniving in the subjugation of women. Just as any girl who went to school dressed like one of the ladies in my hotel bar last night would be sent home sharpish. It seems, though, that whenever our politicians attempt to get to grips with Islam, when it is required that they ‘get tough’, they end up being illiberal, bullying and devoid of principle.