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GUEST POST – Real women have balls

September 22nd, 2009 Posted in UK Politics by

hijabheelsWhat is the most pressing issue affecting women today in Britain and the world over? If you attended Lib Dem Conference on Saturday, you would have been told that a leading candidate must be the way we are constantly bombarded with female images of unattainable beauty. Apparently, a cruel and insidious pressure is being applied to young girls by a cynical and manipulative fashion industry to look physically attractive – at least according to Jo Swinson’s policy document, “Real Women.” Following on from last week’s TUC motion taking a stand against high heels, you might be forgiven for thinking that the entire political establishment has comprehensively lost the plot.

Was there ever a more embarrassing and self-indulgent debate at Conference? I feel sure someone will tell me about it. But for me, as the afternoon progressed, the proceedings became increasingly conspicuous for what was not being discussed – a glaring and yet entirely predictable omission. In the context of a debate about the subtle (or not so subtle) coercion experienced by women to get them to conform to some expected body image required by an external agency with its own evil agenda – was anyone, anywhere, going to mention . . . the Islamic Burka?

I simply loathe the Burka. It insults and indeed harms women who are forced to cover themselves from head to toe in the hottest weather. It is an instrument of oppression and a symbol of female subservience. It even manages to insult men who, the logic goes, might turn into sex maniacs if men and women were allowed to mingle freely. But the cosy liberal consensus that prevails in Britain places this topic strictly off limits. Not so in France however. In my wildest political fantasies, I hear Nick Clegg taking his cue from what President Sarkozy said earlier this year: “We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity.”

Responding to this issue on BBC Question Time in June, Julia Goldsworthy said something which now sounds absolutely hilarious. “There is an issue about whether women have the freedom to choose whether or not they wear [the Burka],” she said. “The problem is if you start with the Burka, where do you stop? Are we going to end up with a fashion police?” Fashion police!!! Who would have thought that only a few months later, official party policy would effectively require fashion police to trawl adverts and magazine articles, rooting out the signs of excessive airbrushing and retouching that are making young women today so miserable.

If this debate has served any purpose, apart from making us look foolish, it is to highlight yet again the astonishing double standard that still seems to shield religious and cultural issues from excessive criticism. Arguing against the Burka is always going to be tricky. The reason is that there is no shortage of strong independent-minded Muslim women who insist that they are perfectly happy to wear it. Some even claim that the Burka is a sort of feminist symbol for Muslims (don’t make me laugh). But the point is that for every such strong Muslim woman, there is a Muslim woman (or maybe two, three, or four) who has been coerced into the Burka after years of religious indoctrination which began pretty much as soon as she could walk.

Saturday’s Conference debate proved that Liberal Democrats are perfectly capable of articulating this kind of argument – after all, nobody is forcing any girl to go on a diet. But liberals know instinctively that individuals need protecting, and not merely from the state. There are also corporations and of course the media, all ready and able to exploit the young unformed mind to further their own deeply vested interests. And then there are . . . religions – no hang on, what a clanger, please forget I said that, we can’t possibly criticise people’s beliefs, religion is bloody marvellous, don’t you know? Thus at Spring Conference, we nodded through our support for faith schooling; while at Autumn Conference, we are all in a twist about subliminal advertising messages.

The debate came dangerously close to self-parody at times. The policy paper, printed in lurid pinks and greens, resembled more the type of teenage magazine I thought was supposed to be the enemy, than a serious policy document. And given the nature of the discussion, it was impossible not to pay at least some attention to the physical appearance of the delegates themselves. The BBC had the same idea as they ironically focused upon Elaine Bagshaw’s bright red heels before slowly panning the camera up her lovely legs – easily the high point of the afternoon for me watching at home. There should have been much more stuff like that.

The overall motion (including a vital amendment to include netball in the London Olympics) was approved overwhelmingly with only two against. But I don’t believe Saturday’s debate is going to help a single woman anywhere, except of course for those delegates in the conference hall who got to feel really good about themselves. Certainly there was no help on offer to any vulnerable Muslim woman who might presently be cowering under the Burka – that horrid garment of fear and oppression with which we have allowed the entire beauty and identity of a woman to be airbrushed, and all without so much as a squeak of protest from Liberal Democrats.

Real women would not stand silently by. Real women would have more balls.

Laurence Boyce is a member of the Liberal Democrats

35 Responses to “GUEST POST – Real women have balls”

  1. RobW Says:

    Hmmm… The Air Brushing idea is ridiculous. But then how do you prove that anyone is “cowering under the Burka”? You’re making an assumption about people who may well be quite content.

    In addition is this really a very big issue? The amount of Muslims living in the UK is still small and the amount who wear the Burka merely a proportion of that.


  2. Laurence Boyce Says:

    Rob, the purpose of the article is to draw parallels between the (non-existent) Burka debate and the debate on Saturday. So I might well ask the same question. What serious evidence is there that airbrushed photos are seriously harming young women? Once you factor in the fact that women have always been under a certain pressure to look attractive (arguably an even greater pressure in times gone by), I think the case made by the conference delegates is tenuous to the point of being quite absurd.

    By contrast, I do not think it is at all unreasonable to suggest that the Burka is oppressing women. The very nature and ethos of the Burka makes this a reasonable argument from first assumptions. How many atheists do you know who wear the Burka? You’d think there might be a few, given how wonderful Muslims say it is. Is Sarkozy totally wrong to raise the issue? I don’t think so.

    Is the Burka a big issue? Again compare with the airbrushing debate. Are the Lib Dem measures going to make a substantial difference to women’s happiness? The delegates on Saturday would have said, “one small step at a time,” and that’s fair enough. It’s not a very good argument to say that only a small number of people are affected. That way, we would ignore a whole range of abuses that women suffer.

    No, I think there’s another reason why Lib Dems won’t go near the Burka as a women’s issue. And I think we all know what that is.


  3. Philip Walker Says:

    I’m not a Lib Dem, so I don’t have to rail against the cognitive dissonance required to be a party with the name Liberal, and yet consistently vote for restrictions on people’s freedoms. But you seem to be calling for the same, it’s just a different target. Swinson takes aim at air-brushing while your scope is trained on the burqa. To be honest, I think you’re both wrong, although with the burqa my main concern is not that I might get blown up [1], but rather that any sort of ban in public places will basically confine an already-oppressed group of women to their homes, which is hardly going to do their personal liberty any good, is it?

    [1] I’m one of those much-scorned evangelical Christians, which means that a fanatical suicide bomber has a far better reason to want to blow me up than the fact that I don’t care for their womenfolk’s dress sense.


  4. Laurence Boyce Says:

    Well I would say the Burka is both a different target and a better target. But I don’t think what Conference did on Saturday was wrong in principle. It’s just that the airbrushing debate was so manifestly silly. I’m not one of those libertarian types. I recognise that there are difficult issues which do not resolve themselves easily by the simple application of something like the no-harm principle. We don’t need to jump straight to a ban. But suppose we just started talking about the Burka and how it affects women’s lives, instead of running a mile from the issue?

    Do you not think that the Burka is in any sense a symbol of subservience? And do you not think it is therefore reasonable to challenge to what extent a woman can “freely choose” this state of existence?


  5. Philip Walker Says:

    I’m going to avoid your question, because I think it’s the wrong one to ask. It doesn’t matter whether the burqa makes me think a woman is subservient to her husband (or father, etc.), what matters is whether she really is subservient, and whether she has chosen that subservience or whether it is imposed upon her by fear or violence.

    So I think the best people to talk to about that side of the burqa are women who wear it and women who have chosen to stop wearing it. It’s a fair conversation to have, for sure. And yes, in that conversation I am happy to talk about the effects of the burqa on Westerners who see a woman wearing it. But not about ‘subservience’, because a perception of subservience doesn’t harm anyone else. What does cause problems is the message that covering one’s face sends in our culture: a combination of danger, suspicion, deceit, and things like that.

    But while you appear to be asking for a social conversation in your comment, I don’t think that discussing the effect of the burqa on society with women who wear it is quite the same thing as discussing policy options for a manifesto commitment concerning the burqa, which is what you appeared to be asking for in your article.

    That policy debate is (by my reckoning) only going to end up in one place, which is the question of whether the burqa should or should not be banned. I’d be interested to hear alternatives, but I really don’t see, especially among the UK public, how it will end up anywhere else. In that context, I think any attempt to stop women wearing the burqa through the law will back-fire badly and result in less freedom for those women as they are confined to their homes: either by brutal husbands, which is probably a matter for the law, or by the force of their own convictions, which is certainly not a matter for the law.


  6. McDuff Says:

    The reason is that there is no shortage of strong independent-minded Muslim women who insist that they are perfectly happy to wear it. Some even claim that the Burka is a sort of feminist symbol for Muslims (don’t make me laugh).

    Being a secular man, of course, makes you an expert on the opinions of Muslim women and what exactly they find to be empowering and otherwise. Heaven forfend that we should listen to the opinions of a range of Muslim women and try and take those on board. No, because there are some women who are oppressed by religious patriarchy who wear a burka, the problem must be with the bloody burka rather than the religious patriarchy, and if we have to parochially ban women who want to wear it for whatever reason from doing so then that’s just for their own good. They might be “strong and independent minded” but they shouldn’t forget that we know what’s best for them.

    All cultures have their ways of exerting control over women, and Islamic society is no exception. But you pooh-pooh the concerns of people conscious of how our society swims with imagery designed to reinforce particular gender norms which negatively impact both men and women while claiming that it is somehow a better debate to talk about a specific piece of clothing. That’s like having a miniskirt debate – academic but not much concern as far as policymaking goes. There’s nothing fundamentally oppressive about bikinis or miniskirts or high heels. There’s something inherently sexist about a BBC camera lingering on a woman’s high heels and paying attention to the sexual characteristics they enhance, though. I don’t know if you managed to grasp the irony of some ostensibly liberal type cheering it on and saying there should have been more ogling of the pretty ladies in a debate about how media imagery negatively impacts people’s perceptions of what womens’ bodies are for in our society.

    One of the reasons many Muslim women who have the choice (and I’m not saying that all do, but giving women the agency to behave as they wish should surely be the point) choose to go with the burka or abbaya is that they feel it provides modesty that western standards of dress do not provide. It provides a way for them to hide from the leers of men. And while that may or may not be correct, a man cheering on the leering of a woman in western dress is hardly in a great situation to be telling them that their concerns are all nonsense and that they need to dress in a way they would consider less modest in order to support those women who don’t have a choice.


  7. Andy Says:

    Laurence where is your evidence for it being a symbol of subverience? Do you have any evidence to show whether women are forced against their will to wear it? Do you know how many women wear the Burka? Do you also view the hajaba in the same light? The cross? The kipot?

    If were going to debate the Burka then we’re going to have to debate all religious dress.

    You starting from the point of view that all relgions practices subversion and that I’m afraid just ain’t the case.


  8. Laurence Boyce Says:

    McDuff,

    “Being a secular man, of course, makes you an expert on the opinions of Muslim women and what exactly they find to be empowering and otherwise.”

    Do you know, you have me banged to rights there. I feel really awkward making this argument. I’m not a natural born feminist; in fact I’m not sure that I’m even a feminist at all. And that’s just the point. Where are all the bloody feminists? Where are the sisterhood when you really need them? They have absolutely nothing to say, not just about the Burka, but about the whole range of abuses which women suffer under Islam. Why would that be? Is because there isn’t much of a problem to speak of, or is it because they are abject cowards? I think we should be told.

    “The problem must be with the bloody Burka rather than the religious patriarchy.”

    Er, no. We need to discuss the whole set-up. But we’re not discussing any of it. We don’t criticise religion, and we absolutely never criticise Islam.

    “I don’t know if you managed to grasp the irony of some ostensibly liberal type cheering it on and saying there should have been more ogling of the pretty ladies.”

    Yes, I did grasp the irony. In fact it was deliberate. You’ve got to laugh about a bunch of women piously condemning the values of the fashion industry, while secretly reassuring themselves that they don’t scrub up too badly.


  9. Laurence Boyce Says:

    Philip,

    “A perception of subservience doesn’t harm anyone else.”

    Well obviously I happen to think that the perception is a perception of reality. How can a woman dressed in a Burka take her full place in society? Could she be an MP or even Prime Minister? There was a time when no woman could be Prime Minister. Women in Burkas have effectively been pegged back to that point, with their range of life options severely curtailed. They are, in other words, subservient to men – as all women were at the start of the previous century.

    “I don’t think that discussing the effect of the burqa on society with women who wear it is quite the same thing as discussing policy options for a manifesto commitment concerning the burqa, which is what you appeared to be asking for in your article.”

    No, I am absolutely not talking policy at this stage. It’s always a bit academic for us in any case, seeing as we are not going to be in power any time soon. By the way, I’d be amazed if the airbrushing proposals made it into the manifesto. I should imagine that Clegg’s advisers are telling him to let the whole thing drop quietly.


  10. McDuff Says:

    I feel really awkward making this argument. I’m not a natural born feminist; in fact I’m not sure that I’m even a feminist at all.

    Yeah, I guess with women getting the vote and all, there’s no reason for anyone to be feminist any more unless their shoes are uncomfortable. I can see why you wouldn’t feel the need to identify with the politically radical ideas that women are still treated badly in this country and that this needs tackling. I mean, hey, it’s not like we make women here wear a Burka! That’s a serious issue, not like the nonsense mere feminists concern themselves with.

    And that’s just the point. Where are all the bloody feminists?

    Listening to the Muslim women rather than trying to hold a conference among secular or Christian people about what we should do about their Burka problem? I know it seems like a peculiar strategy, what with not making headlines or promoting easy one-shot solutions, but just because you don’t know about something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

    They have absolutely nothing to say, not just about the Burka, but about the whole range of abuses which women suffer under Islam.

    You’re not the first white male to make this argument this weekend.

    My answer to every male non-feminist who nonetheless understands implicitly that western feminists are preening cowards is to
    learn to google and you’ll find that not only is there activism on behalf of western feminists and Islamic feminism, there is also a big fat debate going on about the extent to which westerners can just stroll in and say what’s what.

    If you haven’t heard about it it’s not surprising, because you’re desperately quick to throw off the objections of “strong independently-minded Muslim women” because they don’t fit your pet hobby horse.

    Why would that be? Is because there isn’t much of a problem to speak of, or is it because they are abject cowards? I think we should be told.

    Actually, it’s because they’re a strawman you constructed in ignorance.

    We need to discuss the whole set-up. But we’re not discussing any of it. We don’t criticise religion, and we absolutely never criticise Islam.

    Who’s this “we”, White Man? I criticise it all the time. So do you. So do a shitload of Feminists, including ones of Arabic or Persian descent.

    But let’s take a step back from our personal biases against religion for a second and look at whether, say, launching on a campaign against religion is either politically expedient or indeed strategically worthwhile. When was the last time you heard of someone converting from Islam or Christianity because some chap on the TV said that religion is a bad thing? Me and you could agree until all the cows come home to roost that Judaism is a backwards desert religion that codifies the whims of a bunch of violent, barely-literate desert-bound patriarchs as the ideals of a benevolent creator God. Would we realistically expect to take to the streets and be greeted with swarms of Jews abandoning their synagogues and saying “of course, I see it all now, how could I be so foolish”? Of course not.

    So let’s assume that even if we, in our infinite wisdom, are emphatically 100% correct about everything to do with religion, that won’t make a lot of difference and any policy debate involving religion will in fact have to deal with the fact that Islam will still exist and that some women will choose to wear the burka, just as Orthodox Jewish women choose to cover their hair and their arms. (Where is your rant against the Tzniut laws of Orthodox Judaism, by the way? Too scared of being seen to be anti-semitic? Or do the clothing styles of orthodox Jewish women not intersect with any particular hobby horse of yours?)

    See, I think there should be more voices in public who are willing to stand up and say that religion should not be put on a pedestal, and that criticism of religious voices and authorities should be made more forcefully. One of the reasons we don’t have that is not because people are scared of being bombed (although that’s a nice straw man), but because there are no grounds for criticising one that don’t lead to criticisms of all of the other ones, and everyone knows how popular Richard Dawkins is and how much attention people paid to Daniel Dennett. Taking on radical islam is easy, but leads you open to arguments that you’re focusing on one section of a more complicated whole. Taking on islam opens you to arguments that it’s no more batshit insane than Christianity. Taking on every single religion in the world is… doomed to failure, because there are lots of people who have some kind of vague religious sensibility that they’d rather not think about too hard thankyouverymuch and will just think you’re a bit of a prick for ranting on about it.

    Even so, the burka issue is tied in with all that mess about how much we privilege religious teaching over personal freedom and how much we privilege modernity over tradition, and while I’m personally right on the radical side I’m not dense enough to believe that making change happen is going to be as cut and dried as all that.

    What the burka issue is not tied up with, except massively tangentially, is how the media helps to perpetuate gender-normative roles and stereotypes which alter the perceptions of both men and women about the behaviours which are “good” and “bad”, whether we should pay attention to these gendered assumptions, whether there is anything we can do to regulate the messages swirling around our society, whether there is anything we should do, and the host of other complicated issues which are all symbolised and tied up with airbrushing. Bringing up the burka here isn’t anything to do with media perceptions of women, it’s riding a hobby horse about religion in general and islam in specific into an issue you clearly don’t understand and have no desire to understand, just because there happens to be some vague connection with gender buried in there somewhere.

    Yes, I did grasp the irony. In fact it was deliberate. You’ve got to laugh about a bunch of women piously condemning the values of the fashion industry, while secretly reassuring themselves that they don’t scrub up too badly.

    This is why we can’t have nice things! The levels of gender privilege are fucking rampant here, Laurence! The secret assurances, the pettiness, the insincerity – yup, you’ve gone down the checklist of female stereotyped behaviour there haven’t you. Any reason to assume that Elaine Bagshaw is “secretly reassuring herself” about anything?

    You know what would happen if women started talking about airbrushing and the construction of women in the media while being all frumpy and not conventionally attractive? The narrative would say “it’s just jealousy, they obviously can’t get a man so they want to bring the pretty girls down to their level.” Do you think Elaine Bagshaw doesn’t understand that it’s a lose-lose proposition for those who genuinely don’t want to hear it? Honestly? Do you not think that blaming women for being dressed nicely and conventionally attractive is rather a little obscene? That using it as a weapon against them when they’re arguing about the media’s presentation of women’s bodies, and simultaneously arguing that women who cover up for reasons of modesty are just being silly, is actually beyond the pale of clueless, privileged male behaviour?

    Seriously, it’s not big and it’s not clever. Now go and sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done.


  11. McDuff Says:

    How can a woman dressed in a Burka take her full place in society? Could she be an MP or even Prime Minister?

    Why not? Nothing to do with the Burka, more likely to do with her interpretation of Islam which would forbid her holding the office. In other words, a question of personal religious conviction, not of dress.

    We’d never elect any woman who dressed like Benazir Bhutto to Prime Minister in this country, yet she made it in Pakistan twice. We’d keep trying to make her take the scarf off.


  12. Philip Walker Says:

    Laurence,

    Well obviously I happen to think that the perception is a perception of reality.

    I accept it may be a perception of reality; but what does the harm is the reality, not the perception of reality. Would it make you feel any better if every single woman currently in a burqa dressed like a typical Western woman, but was in fact bound to her husband’s will through fear or through violence? I hope not. We need to deal with the root issue, which is not the burqa, but power.

    More generally, I think a lot of what I might call “liberal illiberalism” stems from an inability to recognise one’s own shortcomings. Take this as an example: neither of us understands why a woman would want to choose a burqa (not least because neither of us is a Muslim, or a woman). I know I don’t, and you’ve said as much. But I recognise that my imagination is limited, and therefore I can suspend my disbelief to accept that a woman could choose the burqa. You appear to be saying that because you don’t understand why someone might choose the burqa, they cannot have chosen the burqa.


  13. Laurence Boyce Says:

    Philip,

    “We need to deal with the root issue, which is not the burqa, but power.”

    I’m very familiar with this kind of sideways manoeuvre. “No dummy, it’s not X that’s the problem, it’s Y. Doh!” Meanwhile, nothing gets said or done because the initial analysis was too simplistic. How convenient.

    “Neither of us understands why a woman would want to choose a burqa.”

    Sorry, but I think I do have an inkling as to why women choose the Burka. I understand very well the effect of long term religious indoctrination, having been raised a Catholic myself. At least part of the reason why women wear the Burka, is because it comes as part of a none-too-pleasant religious package which they inherit at birth. That is why you will never see an atheist wearing a Burka, unless it’s for a laugh. Islam is not about making free choices; it’s about submitting one’s will to Allah.

    The interesting bit is the way that nobody gets it, or wants to get it, in the religious context. But show me a bit of exploitative advertising with an attractive model, and suddenly you can get the whole conference hall piously nodding their heads in agreement.


  14. Philip Walker Says:

    Meanwhile, nothing gets said or done because the initial analysis was too simplistic. How convenient.

    So the solution is to tackle the wrong problem instead? I don’t think it’s a reasonable response to agree that the initial analysis is too simplistic, and then to say that we should follow it because it’s better than doing nothing. A great many injustices and follies have taken place because something was better than nothing. (To name two: Dangerous Dogs, and Vetting and Barring.) And I’m not advocating doing nothing, anyway; I’m advocating addressing the underlying issues of power and control.

    Islam is not about making free choices; it’s about submitting one’s will to Allah.

    Okay, how far do you carry this? We choose our jobs, of course, but once in a job, employment is not exactly a paradise of free choice: both sides are bound by contractual and legal obligations. I don’t hear you decrying the evils of contractually-bound labour, though.


  15. Laurence Boyce Says:

    Philip,

    “So the solution is to tackle the wrong problem instead?”

    But the Burka is very much a problem for a vulnerable young Muslim trapped beneath it, who doesn’t have either the courage or the intellectual fire power to escape. And why should she? She should just be enjoying life. But of course we’ll talk about the whole picture which is religion, culture, power, men, etc. No problem at all.

    “A great many injustices and follies have taken place because something was better than nothing.”

    Yes, a bit like the airbrushing debate. More a grand folly than an injustice I would suggest.

    Okay, how far do you carry this?

    Of course choices are always limited. But they are especially limited in a Burka. The Burka both literally and figuratively narrows women’s horizons.


  16. Laurence Boyce Says:

    McDuff,

    “I can see why you wouldn’t feel the need to identify with the politically radical ideas that women are still treated badly in this country and that this needs tackling.”

    No, I don’t necessarily need to identify with all feminist causes, because thankfully there are so many people doing just that and at the highest levels. It’s a given that all good liberals wish to bring about gender and racial equality. That means I might be better employed talking about something really unfashionable, that nobody else (including the fashion critics ironically!) wants to mention, even though it might just be the elephant in the room.

    “Learn to google.”

    Sorry, an internet debate is not good enough. We need political leadership.

    “Where is your rant against the Tzniut laws of Orthodox Judaism, by the way? Too scared of being seen to be anti-Semitic?”

    Nope, I’m not scared of anything. I’m perfectly aware that Orthodox-any-religion is a nightmare, so let’s throw your example and any other examples into the mix.

    “Bringing up the Burka here isn’t anything to do with media perceptions of women.”

    Yes, there is a connection at an abstract level. There is a massive blind spot which seems to prevent liberals from seeing that religions can be just as coercive and manipulative as corporations or the media. I think the reason for the blind spot might be that corporations and the media exist to make a monetary profit and, as we all know, profit is really evil. Religions, by contrast, tend to be non-profit organisations, and are therefore really nice.

    “An issue you clearly don’t understand and have no desire to understand.”

    No, I think I do understand why it might be massively advantageous for men to keep women subservient, and how religion might be a really handy way of enforcing this dismal pattern.

    “The secret assurances, the pettiness, the insincerity – yup, you’ve gone down the checklist of female stereotyped behaviour there haven’t you.”

    Sorry, I’m allowed poke fun. Hey, what about us men! How inadequate do you suppose I feel watching guys in the movies, and then contemplating my own mediocre physical form? Real men don’t have six-packs, you know! Well, apart from the one they keep in the fridge.

    “Do you think Elaine Bagshaw doesn’t understand that it’s a lose-lose proposition for those who genuinely don’t want to hear it?”

    The reason it’s a lose-lose proposition is because it’s a shite argument. There has always been pressure on women to look good and there always will be. It’s an evolutionary thing. If anything, things are much easier now than they used to be. Back in the 19th century, the only path to success for a woman was to make a good marriage (see any Jane Austen novel). The pressure to be attractive was huge, perhaps even a matter of life and death. Thankfully today, a woman can make her own way in the world without having to depend on some lousy guy. Unless of course you’re stuck under a Burka.

    “Seriously, it’s not big and it’s not clever. Now go and sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done.”

    Ooooooh!

    “We’d never elect any woman who dressed like Benazir Bhutto to Prime Minister in this country.”

    I’d give anything to have leaders like Bhutto in this country as opposed to the mediocre crap that we get served up with. She’s dead of course. Probably killed by men who want to get women back into Burkas.


  17. Matthew Huntbach Says:

    My understanding is that the word “burka” refers to a loose tent-like garment which hangs from the head and covers the whole body. I do not think I have ever seen someone wearing this in Britain. However, I frequently see people wearing the garment with a separate piece which wraps round the head leaving only the eyes visible, and the rest of the body covered, but with identifiable sleeves. If this is what people mean here when they write “burka”, whatever else one may think about such garments, it is incorrect terminology.


  18. Laurence Boyce Says:

    I’m not too fussed about terminology. I’m talking about full body and face covering. In Afghanistan, it tends to be a blue garment with a mesh grill. In Britain, you’re more likely to see a black garment with eye slits. But it goes under other names too. I’m surprised you’ve never seen it. Perhaps you don’t live in Birmingham.


  19. McDuff Says:

    I’m very familiar with this kind of sideways manoeuvre. “No dummy, it’s not X that’s the problem, it’s Y. Doh!” Meanwhile, nothing gets said or done because the initial analysis was too simplistic. How convenient.

    Convenient?

    What are we stopping you doing, with our criticism of your over-simplistic argument? Oh no, we have prevented you raising an issue in a non-binding policy debate for the Liberal Democrat Party. My word, how will those poor Muslim women survive? Or, alternatively, we’re attempting (and failing) to stop you shooting your mouth off on issues you have no conception of and causing more damage than you seek to solve.

    Islam is not about making free choices; it’s about submitting one’s will to Allah.

    This is offensively simple. Not because I’m offended on behalf of Allah or Muslims or Islam, but because you are explaining your two-bit undergraduate understanding of religion to us as if we’re the ones who don’t get it. If there’s one thing worse than pomposity, it’s pomposity based in utter drivel.

    You cannot make up your mind whether you are opposing the burka or the whole of Islam – indeed, the whole of religion. Every time someone tries to nail you on the issue you switch tracks. But if we are to take you at all seriously, if we are to assume that you have some basis for rational opposition to this aspect of Islam beyond “eek, scary foreign people mistreetin der wimmens!”, then your argument does, by your own admission, take in not just the burka but the abbaya, the Jewish Tzniut laws saying married women should cover their hair, and indeed spreads out into opposition of religion and religious tradition in totality. But then when challenged on this, you change and actually say that the Burka is the cause of the problem.

    And, further, it appears you genuinely can’t see any substantive difference between Proctor and Gamble and the Islamic Faith, or not enough that would cause one to be part of a different set of policies from the other. To say that you’ve oversimplified things would almost be an insult to the term. You’ve abstracted things to such ridiculous levels of simplicity that it’s hard to believe you’re actually referring to the same things we are when we say “advertising” and “faith”. You’ve almost broken the English language in your attempt to blithely conflate the two concepts.

    I would love to see the political action plan that tried to out-Sarkozy the French by trying to solve religious oppression of women by tackling every outward symbol of orthodox piety. Imagine the uproar if someone said that Jewish men should be required to shave their forelocks in order to fit into our society! Not only would it just point blank not work, the accusations of anti-semitism would reach heaven itself.

    Sorry, an internet debate is not good enough. We need political leadership.

    NOW is not an “internet debate”. Nor is the Afghan Women’s Mission. It is not their fault you don’t know about them. This is why you should learn to Google – you’d find things out that way, you see?

    Sorry, I’m allowed poke fun. Hey, what about us men! How inadequate do you suppose I feel watching guys in the movies, and then contemplating my own mediocre physical form? Real men don’t have six-packs, you know!

    Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot this was all about you.

    The reason it’s a lose-lose proposition is because it’s a shite argument. There has always been pressure on women to look good and there always will be. It’s an evolutionary thing.

    You know, there’s a kind of factoid-centric argument which thrives on the internet simply because it’s so brain-damagingly awful to have to counter. “It’s an evolutionary thing” is something you can toss off – literally – in four words as if that solves the matter, and people who have more than a casual New Scientist understanding of the facts behind evolutionary social development throw their hands up in dismay, because it’s such a facile, flip excuse for how come you get to mock women for having pretty legs while Muslim women can’t wear Burkas. It shows such a superficial understanding of the science that explaining it to you would take far, far more than the four words it took you to reveal your deep, fundamental misunderstanding of the concepts.

    But, frankly, I don’t even have to. Because if you can say “it’s always been that way, what’s the big deal?” about casual privilege and putting pretty women in their place because life isn’t so hard for them, what are they complaining about, it was much worse under the victorians etc, I can turn and point out that if “it’s an evolutionary thing” is an excuse for not changing their behaviour then it surely counts far more solidly for the religious tradition of suppression of women than it does for your right to be snide about a woman in a position of authority as a way of redressing the balance and putting her back in her place. Men have always kept their women under lock and key – it’s an evolutionary thing. Nothing we can do about it, it’s just how these things go, etc etc etc.

    Or are you arguing that we can only fight the genetic determination so far? That men are biologically programmed to be sexist and while we can alter society so that we don’t cover our women in Burkas, it’s just expecting too much that we also stop treating them as objects when they get uppity about how the female form is presented in the media? Because, if so, fuck you dude. I’m more evolved than that! I’m capable of learning and everything. It’s remarkable how malleable behaviour is in social animals, and if you had any more than the most cursory, male-privilege-centric reading of the science behind genetics you’d grasp that too. Maybe someone needs to give you an electric shock when you reach for the food in the “sexism” tray more often.

    Thankfully today, a woman can make her own way in the world without having to depend on some lousy guy.

    But even given the lack of legal restrictions on financial freedom, there is still an immense cultural pressure on women to attain some absolute standard of beauty, and the problem with airbrushing is that that standard turns into something physically impossible. Read through a copy of FeMail or Closer and see just how women come under criticism constantly for being too fat, then too skinny, then for appearing without makeup early in the morning, or for being anything less than 100% arbitrarily perfect 100% of the time. And as you demonstrate, if a woman is 100% perfect, they still can’t win, because some ignorant louse like you will ogle their legs and criticise them for being self-congratulatorily scrubbed up, and then say, to finish it off, “I was just having a laugh!”

    The fact that you think it’s just a laugh is the reason you’re not competent enough to criticise a debate on the construction of the female form in the media. You’re just not smart enough to know what’s going on. You can engage in behaviours which perpetuate negative ideals and still not have a clue that you’re doing it. The best thing you can do is to be very quiet and try and learn how to behave properly, or, alternatively, be loud and raucous about things you actually have a clue about. Shouting your cluelessness from the rooftops won’t help anybody, least of all women in Burkas.


  20. Laurence Boyce Says:

    McDuff,

    “Convenient?”

    Yes, convenient. Convenient for those who wish to shield religion from criticism. This seems to include virtually all religious people, plus pretentious and cowardly secular people, plus the entire political class who are terrified of losing the God vote.

    “This is offensively simple.”

    So let me get this straight. Islam is not about submitting one’s will to Allah? You know, I think it might be. I’ve heard several Muslims say that, including women in Burkas, which of course is tragic.

    “Your two-bit undergraduate understanding of religion.”

    Actually, I do have an above average understanding of religion, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The only thing you really need to understand about religion is that that the claims of religion are false. After that, it rapidly turns into the most monumental waste of time.

    “You cannot make up your mind whether you are opposing the Burka or the whole of Islam – indeed, the whole of religion.”

    All three.

    “But then when challenged on this, you change and actually say that the Burka is the cause of the problem.”

    I’m making an abstract comparison between the Burka and the fashion industry, in the context of debate about coercive forces and their effect upon women’s happiness. I’m sorry I didn’t take in the whole of Islamic culture and then every other religion, but the article might have been a bit long.

    “It appears you genuinely can’t see any substantive difference between Proctor and Gamble and the Islamic faith.”

    I believe I use one of Proctor and Gamble’s detergents in my washing machine. I’m not aware that Islam has ever produced anything so useful. Give me a non-prophet organisation over a non-profit organisation any day.

    “It’s an evolutionary thing. Nothing we can do about it, it’s just how these things go.”

    Now that is a very basic fallacy. There’s loads we can do to mitigate against nature, and we do it all the time.

    “Or are you arguing that we can only fight the genetic determination so far?”

    I suppose I am. Before girls compared themselves to magazine pictures, they compared themselves to the prettiest girl in the class. I don’t really see how we can stop that. Moreover, this peer-group pressure is probably still far more acute than any external pressure.

    “If you had any more than the most cursory, male-privilege-centric reading of the science behind genetics.”

    Oh no, that’s too corny. If you start talking about male-centric and female-centric science, I won’t be able to carry on. And I so want to carry on.

    “Read through a copy of FeMail or Closer and see just how women come under criticism constantly for being too fat, then too skinny, then for appearing without makeup early in the morning, or for being anything less than 100% arbitrarily perfect 100% of the time.”

    Like this you mean? You do realise that the whole airbrushing debate is itself a media creation? It’s like a hall of mirrors. Before long, people will be adding in wobbly tummies with Photoshop. Then we’ll need another Lib Dem motion to deal with that.

    “If a woman is 100% perfect, they still can’t win.”

    Nobody at Lib Dem conference was 100%. I gave them all marks out of 10. The highest score was 7.

    “Shouting your cluelessness from the rooftops won’t help anybody, least of all women in Burkas.”

    The thing that really won’t help women in Burkas is a sort of cowardly cultural relativism which seems to permeate the liberal establishment and inhibit any substantive criticism of Islam. But thank “God” for Sarkozy at least.


  21. McDuff Says:

    “It’s an evolutionary thing. Nothing we can do about it, it’s just how these things go.”

    Now that is a very basic fallacy. There’s loads we can do to mitigate against nature, and we do it all the time.

    EXACTLY! Yet you broke out the evo devo nonsense to excuse your own behaviour and didn’t even notice what you were doing! And you didn’t even spot the sarcasm when I flagged it up with big bright red lights and a klaxxon!

    I suppose I am. Before girls compared themselves to magazine pictures, they compared themselves to the prettiest girl in the class. I don’t really see how we can stop that. Moreover, this peer-group pressure is probably still far more acute than any external pressure.

    Do you have any experience with or knowledge of the research surrounding behavioural genetics whatsoever? Because it really doesn’t sound like it. As soon as someone breaks out the “probably” in a wooly argument like this, it’s shorthand for “I don’t know, but it fits my preconceptions”.

    Tell me, where does peer pressure end and “external pressure” begin? Do you have definitions for those two terms that enable us to compare the two processes? How would you control for feedback and crosstalk between the groups? How does one define a peer group in the 21st century? How does the primate brain’s cognitive bias towards social conformity know the difference between an immediate peer group and the 21st century extended equivalent?

    Your assertions are so unbearably fuzzy as to be absolutely devoid of all meaning. They’re not even scientifically inaccurate because they’re so vague as to be scientifically untestable.

    There’s mountains of recent research out there about the malleability of human cognitive processes, particularly with regards to social adaptability in an age where people’s social influences are much more diverse and diffuse than they have ever been historically. I don’t know whether to recommend you read it or not, though, because I could almost guarantee that you’d cherry pick through for reasons to support your odious rating of women on a scale of 1-10 and then bragging about it in the comments of an article supposedly in favour of the fair treatment of women.

    (You keep acting as if you’re proud of not understanding why criticising a woman making a political statement in terms of her looks is wrong. It’s fascinating, like watching a small child show what it did in the potty to the collected guests at a dinner party)

    So let me get this straight. Islam is not about submitting one’s will to Allah?

    Yes, inasmuch as Christianity is about “submitting one’s will to Christ”. It’s true as far as it goes, but to believe that that is the sum totality of people’s personal experience and understanding of religion is puerile schoolboy nonsense. You’re taking a huge swathe of personal experiences with a complex social structure and reducing it down to the easiest thing for you to dismiss out of hand, which might well make for a pithy slogan but that’s about it. It certainly doesn’t provide any evidence to support your assertion that you’re “above average” at grasping religion.

    I mean, what’s your strategy here? Islam is about submitting your will to Allah, submitting to Allah is wrong, therefore you shouldn’t wear Burkas? By all means, try that on as many devout Muslims as you like, sir. Just be sure to keep your hands free so you can catch your ass when it gets handed to you.

    The only thing you really need to understand about religion is that that the claims of religion are false. After that, it rapidly turns into the most monumental waste of time.

    Ah yes, the reason atheists convince so many people. “This thing you conceive of as a fundamental part of your identity is just meaningless nonsense; you’ve wasted your life on it. Hey, why are you ignoring me? Don’t turn away from me when I’m berating you!”

    If that’s the only thing you understand about religion, I’d suggest you have a particularly below-average understanding of it, both on a personal and an anthropological level. Even if the target of any given religion’s worship is entirely false, as a social mechanism for the transmission of cultural values and establishing suprafamilial structures it’s both powerful and useful. This is not to mention the fact that religious-style behaviours appear to be instinctual and a key part of our basic social behaviours.

    I don’t know how you can on the one hand cite evolution as a defense of your own behaviour, then on the other dismiss out of hand religion as “useless” despite its persistence and ubiquity across cultures and histories. It is quite evidently not useless. Your jump from “the literal existence of God is false” to “therefore all the social, cultural and cognitive mechanisms that surround that belief are valueless to all human beings” is immediately falsifiable by the evidence at hand. 3/10, redo from start.

    To reiterate, it is simply not the case that one can extrapolate linearly from one’s own experience and have an exact map of the priorities, desires and understandings of everyone else in the world.

    I’m not aware that Islam has ever produced anything so useful.

    It has obviously passed your attention that “Islam” itself, like Christianity, Black Nationalism and Liberal Democracy, is a variant of an incredibly useful system of social organisation.

    Please note, by “useful” I make no claims as to perfection or even perfectibility. But one might as well claim the nation state to be useless because of all the wars the political structure has caused as to call religious structures useless because of the oppression it can create.

    The thing that really won’t help women in Burkas is a sort of cowardly cultural relativism which seems to permeate the liberal establishment and inhibit any substantive criticism of Islam.

    God almighty. Look, this conversation you want? It’s been had. Repeatedly. Often by feminists and liberals, while you were ignoring them. Here’s how it goes:

    “Is Islam a historically authoritarian religion, in keeping with the traditions of most religious systems, particularly the Abrahamic desert religions with which is shares its roots?”

    Yes.

    “Is the use of the Burka rooted in this historic authoritarianism and a particularly illiberal conception of women and female sexuality?”

    Yes.

    “Do some women in the 21st century nonetheless feel that the use of the Burka is an expression of their personal religious conviction?”

    Yes.

    “Is there any way to substantively address the specific issue of the Burka in a legislative way without running headfirst into the liberal issue of freedom of expression and worship?”

    Nope.

    “Is a man telling a woman who wants to wear a Burka that she’s being silly and that her religious convictions don’t matter any better than a man who tells a woman who doesn’t want to wear one that she has to because her lack of religious convictions don’t matter?”

    Depends on your perspective, but if it goes either way it’s not by much.

    What can we do to address this knotty problem?

    Well, therin lies the rub, see.

    My basic problem is not with you spouting silliness and simplistic interpretations of complex problems – although that’s certainly got a certain nails-on-a-blackboard aesthetic to it. It’s that there’s nothing else to your critique. There is no “…therefore:” to get our teeth into. Your criticisms of the airbrushing panel were that they did not shout ineffectively about things they cannot change. You did not want them to do anything that would change the circumstances of a single woman in a Burka. You wanted them to massage your personal sense of right and wrong.

    If you wish to stake out a position with Sarkozy and declare that bans on particular kinds of religious expression are worth putting into place in order to safeguard particular kinds of women’s rights, feel free to do so. It’s a position to which I have a certain instinctual sympathy, even though I have on consideration and after research come to the conclusion that the benefits do not seem worth the costs to me – especially since I am unconvinced that the women’s rights in question are effectively safeguarded by the bans on religious expression. But stake out a bloody position, don’t witter on about how people aren’t joining you in your ineffective, pointless “criticism of Islam”. Tell us how a liberal, democratic nation state can deal with the problem.

    Because if you don’t, the argument is mere puffery. All you’re doing is pointing out how much more terribly concerned you are about the plight of women than those awful shallow feminists. And, honestly, your epic concern and two pounds fifty will buy you a cheeseburger.


  22. Laurence Boyce Says:

    “EXACTLY! Yet you broke out the evo devo nonsense to excuse your own behaviour and didn’t even notice what you were doing!”

    No, I broke out the evo devo nonsense (actually more just the evo nonsense), to point out that there is an natural evolutionary pressure on women to look good. You’re surely not denying that? The fashion industry are obviously riding on the back of this pressure. I thought you were the guy (or girl?) who wanted to get down to root causes.

    “Tell me, where does peer pressure end and “external pressure” begin? Do you have definitions for those two terms that enable us to compare the two processes? How would you control for feedback and crosstalk between the groups? How does one define a peer group in the 21st century? How does the primate brain’s cognitive bias towards social conformity know the difference between an immediate peer group and the 21st century extended equivalent?”

    You know, this is all very impressive. Maybe you should turn your scientific acumen onto the airbrushing debate. Because I don’t recall anyone in the conference hall even coming close to making the scientific case. Instead, speaker after speaker reiterated the fact that girls were under pressure to conform to a certain ideal (OK so far), and therefore that we should ban airbrushed photos because they were obviously causing all the damage. We really were being asked to believe that retouching leads to anorexia leads to death. It was astonishing.

    “Your odious rating of women on a scale of 1-10.”

    Actually, one of them got a zero.

    “You keep acting as if you’re proud of not understanding why criticising a woman making a political statement in terms of her looks is wrong. It’s fascinating, like watching a small child show what it did in the potty to the collected guests at a dinner party.”

    Well you keep acting like you don’t understand irony.

    “I mean, what’s your strategy here? Islam is about submitting your will to Allah, submitting to Allah is wrong, therefore you shouldn’t wear Burkas?”

    I think women should wear whatever they please. But I don’t think that is happening in the case of the Burka. You never see atheists wearing it, and I don’t think that’s just a massive coincidence. I think it is because women are being required to conform to a certain standard by Islam – one which makes them subservient, unable to play their full role in society, and damages their health. Lib Dems exist to prevent people being enslaved by conformity. Or at least that’s what it says on the membership card.

    “This thing you conceive of as a fundamental part of your identity is just meaningless nonsense; you’ve wasted your life on it. Hey, why are you ignoring me? Don’t turn away from me when I’m berating you!”

    Yes, I agree. Probably a complete waste of time. But there’s all to play for with the next generation. I really don’t see why we need to stand by and watch this dismal pattern of cultural determinism being enforced in one generation after another.

    “This is not to mention the fact that religious-style behaviours appear to be instinctual and a key part of our basic social behaviours.”

    You see now you’re doing it too. But I don’t believe that natural = good. If what you say is true, then I’m interested in how to mitigate against it. I note though that you say “religious-style” behaviours. I hope we can all agree that nobody is born with a copy of the Koran in one hand.

    “God almighty.”

    There’s no God.

    “Tell us how a liberal, democratic nation state can deal with the problem.”

    I have told you. I alluded to it in the article. The number one thing that we should be doing is to phase out faith schooling. I see no reason whatsoever why there should be state-assisted indoctrination of children. But we had that vote at Spring Conference, and nobody seemed too bothered. We couldn’t even get a simple motion through to end discriminatory admissions criteria across the board. It would appear that we are perfectly relaxed about putting a child through 14 years of faith school, but then have a major problem with subliminal advertising messages. My purpose here is simply to point out this breathtaking double standard.


  23. McDuff Says:

    There’s no God.

    There is also no justice. Nor is there liberty, love or goodness in the world.

    Denying the literal existence of abstract concepts is like complaining that your dog will never get a PhD in astrophysics.

    Well you keep acting like you don’t understand irony.

    Oh, irony. You’re right, I don’t get that. I am entirely dense and eager to learn, though. Please, I’m sitting here with my pad and pencil, explain to me how it was ironic for you to behave like you did. I’m desperate to hear this explanation.

    Maybe you should turn your scientific acumen onto the airbrushing debate.

    In the comments thread of a blog? Yeah, I’ll also post the human genome here while I’m at it. There’s years and acres of research on this stuff, you want me to distil it down for you? Who died and made me your mum? You were overawed and impressed by the basics of rudimentary science, with rudimentary being the important word there. I said before, bad arguments are easy to make; disputing them takes time and effort. To actually break up the concepts of cognitive malleability and the different theories about how influential media is on our understanding of “the norm” would take several scientific journals worth of complex writing.

    I’m not surprised that in the context of a political debate the science was mussed up or missed out. It’s complicated. It’s difficult. You need to plough through pages of literature to grasp the concepts being discussed. I wouldn’t know where to start if I had to sum it up for an audience of scientifically illiterate politicians in ten minutes, I really wouldn’t. But then, I don’t have the Feynmanesque level of ability to translate concepts like Quantum Electrodynamics to the layman. Who’d have ever guessed that we could reflect a laser beam off a plane mirror at an angle not equal to its angle of incidence, eh? Take your high school physics and throw it in the bin! But it happened, even if I can’t take you through the quantum formula in this comment thread. Similarly, environment influences perceptions of reality and media constitutes a significant portion of environment in the 21st century, and much beyond those statements you’ll just have to spend a few weekends looking it up.
    But I know this, it’s pointless looking it up if you’re the kind of awful human being who can say “one of them got a zero”. I’m not convinced people who are so self-satisfied with their own troglodytic behaviour are possible to redeem, no matter how self-righteous they get about the behaviour of others.

    I think women should wear whatever they please. But I don’t think that is happening in the case of the Burka. You never see atheists wearing it, and I don’t think that’s just a massive coincidence.

    What kind of idiotic non sequiteur is that? You never see atheists wearing yarmulkes either, does that mean Jewish men don’t choose to wear them? I don’t disagree that in some and maybe even most cases the burka is a coercive instrument, but dear sweet Christ on a pogo stick, that’s the worst argument in support of that statement I’ve ever seen.

    Further, it speaks the lie to your statement in the article where you patted the “strong independent-minded Muslim women” on the head. Fact is, you obviously don’t think they can be strong and independent-minded because you cannot conceive of the possibility that someone can choose something consensually that you disapprove of. They must be manipulated, we have to save these women from themselves! It doesn’t occur to you that setting yourself up to make women’s decisions for them isn’t exactly what the Suffragettes were fighting for, no?

    The number one thing that we should be doing is to phase out faith schooling. I see no reason whatsoever why there should be state-assisted indoctrination of children.

    I agree with you. Now, remind me, why does this mean people should have interrupted a debate about something unconnected to faith schools to talk about something unconnected to both what the debate was about and faith schools? Other than the fact that it’s your personal hobby horse and you’re the most important person in the world, of course?


  24. Laurence Boyce Says:

    McDuff,

    “There is also no justice. Nor is there liberty, love or goodness in the world.”

    Incorrect. There are loads of those things in the world. They exist in abundance, but they are not always spread as evenly as we might like. They are particularly low in the Islamic world, especially for a woman.

    “There’s years and acres of research on this stuff.”

    Really? There is years and acres of research on the specific question of how retouching photos affects outcomes for young women? Because that is the specific assertion we were asked to accept at Conference, and in consideration of which we now have a specific policy. Go on then. Point me to just one research paper, the best you can think of, and I’ll go and look it up.

    “You were overawed and impressed by the basics of rudimentary science.”

    I’m not impressed with anything you’ve said. It’s all been the most predictable holier-than-thou crap I’ve heard a thousand times. You’d rather go after me, even though I’m wholly insignificant in the grand scheme of things, than address an issue that matters, that is really affecting people’s lives, but that might make you look unfashionable. I believe they call you the “liberal elite.”

    “Further, it speaks the lie to your statement in the article where you patted the strong independent-minded Muslim women on the head. Fact is, you obviously don’t think they can be strong and independent-minded.”

    Clearly there can be degrees of freedom and levels of coercion, if that’s not too difficult a point. I acknowledge that there are strong Muslim women who are happy under the Burka, while there are others who are much less so. But if it took years of religious indoctrination to get to that point, then I don’t call it freedom in either case. I call it what JS Mill called it – the “despotism of custom.”

    “Why does this mean people should have interrupted a debate about something unconnected to faith schools to talk about something unconnected to both what the debate was about and faith schools?”

    Because, as I’ve said many times, there’s a double standard at work. Double standards are bad. They make us look like hypocrites. They distort what should be the level playing field of debate. Ultimately, they mean that important issues go unattended. That is what is happening here. My questions are simple. How is it that we nodded through our approval for faith schools in the Spring, but are now terribly worked up about the possible effects of subliminal advertising? And how is it that in the context of a debate about coercive forces affecting the happiness of young women, nobody thought to mention the Burka? I think those are reasonable questions, but you have reacted as though they were questions of the highest impertinence. And I’m afraid that says it all.


  25. Matthew Huntbach Says:

    Laurence, you seem to have misunderstood my point. I frequently see the black garment with eye-slits. I work in the one Parliamentary constituency held by the Trot/Islamicist alliance, for heaven’s sake. I am simpy saying that the word “burka” is not the correct word for this garment. The media in Britain seems to have picked it up and used it with the wider meaning of any all-covering garment adopted for Islamic reasons, but that is incorrect. I was making the purely factual point that the word “burka” refers to one particular form of such garment, and that form is not the one commonly seen in the Islamic parts of Britain.


  26. Laurence Boyce Says:

    You’re right Matthew. It’s not strictly correct. But for the purposes of this argument, we do need a word for “full facial and body covering which might prevent a lady from taking her rightful place in society.” What would you recommend instead? Great news that the Pope’s coming to Britain, eh?

    By the way, does anyone know the technical name for the garment depicted at the top of the page?


  27. Julian H Says:

    It’s a burkini.


  28. McDuff Says:

    Incorrect. There are loads of those things in the world. They exist in abundance, but they are not always spread as evenly as we might like. They are particularly low in the Islamic world, especially for a woman.

    Bring me a bucket of justice and then we’ll talk. God exists as a meaningful social construct just the same as an abstract principle like “liberty” or “freedom” does, regardless of whether a divine being really created the universe out of his father’s testicles. Lots of things only exist because we believe in them, like nation states. It doesn’t make nation states non existent, it just makes them constructs.

    There is years and acres of research on the specific question of how retouching photos affects outcomes for young women?

    Hah. Probably, but it’s hardly likely that it would be necessary to be that specific or that the results of any study would be especially surprising. Our monkey brains create cultural norms and reinforce and pass these norms on to other people. We are strongly influenced by our internal construction of these norms. So far, nothing has to do with airbrushing – are you in the mood to deny the existence of cultural norms?

    In the specific, women (and men) have their self-perceptions altered by these norms. See Strahan here and here, Bessinoff here, Dittmar and Howard here. It’s not the only factor (but then if any social scientist said that one part of the discourse was the only factor in a wide range of human behaviours they’d be laughed at – what politicians and reporters do with the data is another matter) but the link is there.

    Airbrushing and Photoshopping are ubiquitous now. The upshot is that media images of people – particularly women – are increasingly not just the upper echelon of a particular social construct of attractiveness (where did the drive towards a norm of excessive thinness come from, according to your potted knowledge of evolutionarily theory, Laurence? Does “looking good” include “looking malnourished,” biologically?) but in fact an unattainable, impossible standard of beauty. The aspirational standard isn’t a human being any more.

    So, to sum: media standards impact sociocultural norms, which can have negative impacts on body image, especially with young girls. Media norms are getting thinner and more deviant from the actual norms. Connections are reasonably drawn. The idea of getting the advertising and media industries to self-police is laughed at. Enforcement of a good slap upside the head to force various Tristans and Fifis to consider what they’re actually doing is recommended by some people.

    Go ahead, criticise on that level.

    You’d rather go after me, even though I’m wholly insignificant in the grand scheme of things, than address an issue that matters, that is really affecting people’s lives, but that might make you look unfashionable.

    Oh diddums! I’m “going after you” by, what, criticising your statements that you made in public? I’m soooo meeaann. And I’m just not criticising Islam because it’s “unfashionable!” Why, everyone knows that Islam is like the latest Jimmy Choo shoes, it’s so de rigeur that slating it would be the ultimate foe parr, daaaahhlings.

    I believe they call you the “liberal elite.”

    Now that right there is funny. I suppose it’s better than being the Man On The Street, though. I mean, The Liberal Elite was really tired from rewiring the electronics in a Congolese church this weekend, but it was raining so The Man On The Street had it worse. The Liberal Elite also got to play Fallout 3 until 2am last night. Although wouldn’t that make me the Liberal 7337? W00t, etc.

    Ad hominems work better if you have a vague idea of who you’re dealing with. Otherwise you just look ridiculous.

    But if it took years of religious indoctrination to get to that point, then I don’t call it freedom in either case.

    Is religious indoctrination objectively worse than any other kind of indoctrination? For example, the kind that causes people to become patriots for a nation state theirs only by accident and join the armed forces to defend some kind of national or tribal honour? Or the kind that trains men in a certain kind of masculinity that makes them believe they have a right to define a woman’s body for her? Are these better indoctrinations, or are they just associated more with the kinds of irrational constructs that you’re more familiar with treating as in some way “real”, as opposed to religious constructs which you are accustomed to treating as “unreal”?

    I think those are reasonable questions, but you have reacted as though they were questions of the highest impertinence.

    Ignorance, not impertinence. The biggest problem with your article was that it framed the issue in terms of What Women Should Be Concerned About, and the implication that the women involved were shallow and self-promoting and Just Don’t Care about the plight of Poor Muslim Girls (which you, by comparison, do care about). It was the idea that your personal hobby horse is the most important issue in the world and that if people don’t go with you on it, if they talk about something else you feel is tangentially related, that they must all be hypocrites! It was the belief that you could stroll in and hold forth on issues which, while you may feel they are related, are substantially different as a matter of policy. It was the arrogance of assuming that your views on religion are or should be shared by the whole society at large and that this would, in fact, fix all the problems.

    Your article could be summed up “How dare women talk about things that impact women that I don’t have any firm opinion on? They should talk about the things that I say impact women, and agree with me in the conclusions to that discussion. And if they don’t, they’re just doing it to feel good about themselves. Also, look at Elaine Bagshaw’s legs, phwoar, amirite?”

    So learn to google. But don’t google the Islamic Feminism, or the feminists working in Afghanistan, or socicultural norms, or the thinning standard of beauty in society over the last 5 decades. Just google “male privilege”. And try and read it without jerking your knees all the way up to your chin and saying “BUT THAT’S NOT ME! I OPPOSE THE BURKA!” Your article dripped with privilege: it was rooted in an assumption that your experiences get to be considered the default experiences, and that everyone else’s are secondary. Get past that, and perhaps you’ll be able to ask questions about women’s issues without slagging off women in the process. Who knows, it might even be good for you.


  29. Laurence Boyce Says:

    Oh God, you’re not still here . . .

    “Bring me a bucket of justice and then we’ll talk. God exists as a meaningful social construct just the same as an abstract principle like “liberty” or “freedom” does, regardless of whether a divine being really created the universe out of his father’s testicles. Lots of things only exist because we believe in them, like nation states. It doesn’t make nation states non existent, it just makes them constructs.”

    Oh, you’re so clever. I think you may find though, that religious people do not believe in these things merely as constructs. And therein lies the problem. But your examples are so poor. Yes, the nation state is something of a construct. But liberty and justice? I wonder how many people deprived of liberty or justice would say, “don’t worry, it’s just a construct!”

    “Ad hominems work better if you have a vague idea of who you’re dealing with.”

    So who am I dealing with “McDuff,” apart from yet another cowardly anonymous critic?

    “Is religious indoctrination objectively worse than any other kind of indoctrination?”

    No, but religious indoctrination is the one we bend over backwards to appease and indeed fund. I heard this great quote from Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) the other day: “The ultimate aim of Islamic education is the realisation of complete submission to Allah on the level of the individual, the community and humanity at large.” I think he deserves another tax break, don’t you?

    “The implication that the women involved were shallow and self-promoting and Just Don’t Care about the plight of Poor Muslim Girls.”

    No, I’m sure they do care. But they definitely lack the courage to take the issue on. Maybe the Burka will be raised at next year’s conference. What do you reckon?

    “Your article dripped with privilege: it was rooted in an assumption that your experiences get to be considered the default experiences, and that everyone else’s are secondary.”

    This is from the guy (or girl) who told me exactly how the standard internet conversation on the Burka should go, and slammed me for deviating from it. You gotta laugh.


  30. McDuff Says:

    I think you may find though, that religious people do not believe in these things merely as constructs. And therein lies the problem. But your examples are so poor. Yes, the nation state is something of a construct. But liberty and justice? I wonder how many people deprived of liberty or justice would say, “don’t worry, it’s just a construct!”

    What has it just being a construct got to do with it being important or not? You think that’s the point I’m making? I’m saying that these things *are* important, that people’s belief in God isn’t as a construct – neither is people’s belief in liberty and justice and democracy. But that is what these things are and that is what motivates people.

    Coming in and explaining to someone like you, who firmly believes that Justice and Liberty have actual existences, that they don’t physically exist won’t make you less likely to believe in them. Telling people that God does not exist doesn’t convince them, but more importantly it misses the case because “God” and “religion” are not simple concepts that you either have or believe in or do not in some binary situation. Religion is something people do. Expecting to wean societies off it with a dose of rationalism is something lots of atheists do, because they suffer from a fundamentally incorrect assumption that humans are, at root, rational creatures and that it’s only evil bad nasty religions that have stifled them. People are insane. If they didn’t have one magical ring to chase after they’d just invent another one.

    Incidentally, how many women in Afghanistan have been bombed in the name of “liberty and democracy” to date? How do you think the construct feels on the other side of white, western imperialism?

    So who am I dealing with “McDuff,” apart from yet another cowardly anonymous critic?

    Oh, “cowardly”, I like that. My dear, there’s a link to my website attached to every single post I’ve made. Fact is, ad hominems are shit anyway. You made assumptions about who I was and they turned out to be hilarious. It’s not my fault you ain’t got no reading.

    No, but religious indoctrination is the one we bend over backwards to appease and indeed fund.

    What, more than patriotism? We defunded the army recently, did we? Gordon Brown decided that “citizenship lessons” aren’t a good idea after all? Don’t be silly.

    But they definitely lack the courage to take the issue on.

    Or maybe, as I’ve suggested, they disagree with you that “taking the issue on” a la Sarkozy is the correct way to do it! Thinking you’re wrong is not the same as avoiding the issue.

    Your attitude reminds me in more ways than one of the anti-immigration lobbyists. How often do they call for “an open and honest debate” on the issues, when what they in fact want is not for a debate, but for people to agree with them. The open and honest debates happen every day and the rough and tumble of real life forces the issues quite often. But life is complicated, and banning the burka is probably the wrong way to go about it.

    Besides, you moved off the Burka as soon as the flimsiness of the argument was challenged, showing that you’re using it as a wedge issue to insert your “faith schools” hobby horse into as much as you can. Get over yourself.

    This is from the guy (or girl) who told me exactly how the standard internet conversation on the Burka should go, and slammed me for deviating from it.

    No, I told you how all the conversations of any substance – internet or otherwise – *have* gone, and why your oversimplified harrumphing at people for not wanting to have the same “conversation” – a conversation in this case meaning a white man berating other white women for not berating muslims for being so damn oppressed! – again was so painfully tedious. But, of course, it’s beneath you to find out what other people have talked about before, isn’t it? No, you have an opinion, and if someone else disagrees that makes them a coward and a simpleton. It’s impossible that they could have looked at the same facts and reached a different conclusion. You’re objectively right!


  31. Laurence Boyce Says:

    “What has it just being a construct got to do with it being important or not? You think that’s the point I’m making?”

    I think the point you’re making is that saying, “are the claims of religion actually true?” is the sort of boring, impertinent, missing-the-point-entirely question that no sophisticate such as yourself would ever ask.

    “People are insane. If they didn’t have one magical ring to chase after they’d just invent another one.”

    This is just so condescending, as well as completely untrue. There is every reason to believe that primitive patterns of thought and behaviour can be overcome through education. Possibly not a faith-based education though.

    “How many women in Afghanistan have been bombed in the name of “liberty and democracy” to date?”

    Well I’m totally opposed to all the Blair/Bush/God wars.

    “There’s a link to my website attached to every single post I’ve made.”

    Oh yes, Neville the part time barman. That’s a lot clearer. Where’s the pub? I’ll drop by for a drink. Hey, maybe I’ll wear a Burka for a laugh!

    “You made assumptions about who I was and they turned out to be hilarious.”

    I’m sorry I accused you of being a member of the liberal elite. It’s just that you were doing such a brilliant impersonation.

    “You moved off the Burka as soon as the flimsiness of the argument was challenged.”

    No, I can move straight back on to it at any time. The Burka is a symbol of subservience, a living prison for women who, unable to play their full role in society, have little choice but to be dependant upon their wretched men.

    “It’s impossible that they could have looked at the same facts and reached a different conclusion.”

    But I don’t actually hear anyone reaching a very different conclusion. A radically different conclusion to mine would be to say that the Burka actually assists and enables women to play their full role in society. Wearing a Burka is not merely compatible with being a teacher, doctor, barrister, MP, or even Prime Minister – it’s a positive help! Soon everyone will be doing it! Even men! Nobody makes that argument. For one thing, it’s patently ridiculous; and for another, it would draw far too much attention to the real life options available to women in Burkas in Britain today.


  32. McDuff Says:

    There is every reason to believe that primitive patterns of thought and behaviour can be overcome through education.

    Who said it was primitive? I just said it was insane. The brain is a self-organising associative device, fitted with hyperactive pattern recognition pathways. If you look at what happens when we move through the world, cognitively, we don’t so much observe the world as interpret it, overlaying meaning according to expectations. That’s structural, you can’t educate that out of a brain any more than you can educate colour blindness out of someone. Religious behaviours are expected in the general. In the specific they’re anthropologically fascinating.

    The actual existence of a god or god-type creature is the least interesting aspect of religious behaviour. It’s the cultural equivalent of a McGuffin – it doesn’t matter what it is as long as it’s a “something”. The behavioural patterns can coalesce around priesthoods, tribes or sports teams. Literally anything will do, because the god is no more the point of a religion than the grain of sand is the point of a pearl.

    Well I’m totally opposed to all the Blair/Bush/God wars.

    Bully for you, I’m sure this has stored up karma for you in liberal heaven. What’s it got to do with anything? You want a cookie?

    Oh yes, Neville the part time barman. That’s a lot clearer.

    Or do you want a photocopy of my passport? Is it really so unusual that some people would want to keep a degree of separation between their googleable online life and their real life? I don’t even facebook under my real name. Nonetheless, people who need to know who I am can figure it out. You, as I’ve said, have no need to know the specifics of my birth certificate.

    I’m sorry I accused you of being a member of the liberal elite. It’s just that you were doing such a brilliant impersonation.

    What, of all of them? Sounds improbable, but then I guess I must be very talented to pull it off, so let’s say there’s a compliment buried here.

    But I don’t actually hear anyone reaching a very different conclusion. A radically different conclusion to mine would be to say that the Burka actually assists and enables women to play their full role in society. Wearing a Burka is not merely compatible with being a teacher, doctor, barrister, MP, or even Prime Minister – it’s a positive help! Soon everyone will be doing it! Even men! Nobody makes that argument.

    Ah, yes, the straw man. Nonetheless, your fallaciousness is irrelevant. Let’s concede it as true. It’s entirely possible that everyone bar a few holdouts in the Muslim world feel the same way.

    Of course, our innermost thoughts and feelings are very precious and all, but that’s not really, what’s the word? Useful.

    Where you and I and, honestly, quite a few other people differ here is: what next? Assume for the benefit of the doubt that the Burka, alone in all religious expression, is uniquely terrible.

    So what do we do about it?

    It is the answer to this question where the differences lie. Also in discussions about the “do” there, perhaps wondering whether we should be using “can” or “should” or “must” or some other variation.

    Your suggestion of “ban faith schools rrawr” is duly noted. But that doesn’t directly address the Burka, does it? It’s a bit of a roundabout way of getting to the problem, in fact. And it’s the kind of thing that someone would only think of putting into a discussion about airbrushing if they had your very particular and specific set of biases leading them down that relational path. Which is cool, and makes you a lovely unique sunbeam for having the talent to connect those disparate things, and had you managed to connect them in an article without slagging off everyone who didn’t make your two-degree connection for being insufficiently feminist, and following it up with snide remarks chiding women for daring to dress nicely, it might have been worth a bucket of warm piss. Y’know, in an academic kind of way, but still.

    Shouting about how bloody terrible the Burka is and how “strong independent-minded” Muslim women aren’t clever enough to agree with you about their religion of choice being a pack of lies is something you are totally free to do, and which will be totally ineffective, so I really don’t see why you’d get your panties in a twist about everyone else not joining you on that particular Quixotian jaunt. That is, unless your concern for making a difference in the lives of women is secondary to your concern that everyone acknowledge your personal moral greatness in shouting about what injustices women face.


  33. Laurence Boyce Says:

    “The god is no more the point of a religion than the grain of sand is the point of a pearl.”

    You see no religious person ever talks like that. Only condescending atheists talk like that. Talk to any devout religious person, and they will insist that the existential claims of religion really matter. That if they could be shown to be false, everything would fall apart. But then you come along and say: no, no, no, that is all so simplistic and naive. In short, it’s not X, it’s Y. And it’s not even Y, it’s Z. And so on.

    For all my slagging off of religion, I do at least pay religious people one basic courtesy – I acknowledge that they believe what they say they believe, and that this motivates their subsequent behaviour. Of course I can see that there are other factors at work – that religion has certain social benefits, for instance. But that is a very weak insight. It goes without saying that if religion really was the equivalent of relentless poking one’s eye with a stick, then it would have died out by now.

    Religion is clearly a complex set-up, but at the heart of religion lies the core dogma – what you have to believe and why it matters. The problem is that there are a number of religions making different claims, and this is bringing the world into conflict. There are many gods, and they are at war. And now you’re going to tell me that there are other reasons for human conflict, such as the basic struggle over resources, as if I don’t already know that.

    “What’s it got to do with anything? You want a cookie?”

    Yes, if you’re offering. What it has to do with anything is that the Blair/Bush/God wars were yet another example of the disastrous consequences of religious thinking. Of course it’s a little tricky to prove that God was directly involved, but there is some evidence to suggest that he might have been.

    “Which is cool, and makes you a lovely unique sunbeam for having the talent to connect those disparate things, and had you managed to connect them in an article without slagging off everyone who didn’t make your two-degree connection for being insufficiently feminist, and following it up with snide remarks chiding women for daring to dress nicely, it might have been worth a bucket of warm piss.”

    Oh man, I thought we were reaching some sort of rapprochement.

    “Shouting about how bloody terrible the Burka is and how “strong independent-minded” Muslim women aren’t clever enough to agree with you.”

    No, it’s not about cleverness. Just basic honesty and clarity. It is everything that you have written which is too clever by half. You’re forever pointing out that my analysis is too simplistic, that I am making schoolboy errors that nobody with even a basic grasp of social anthropology (or whatever) would make, and that the “real truth” is far deeper than I can comprehend.

    But I can comprehend exactly what you’re saying. I’ve heard it all before, and I think you’re just wrong. The existential claims of religion really do matter. Every religious person thinks so, and I think so too – it’s our rare point of agreement. It follows that behaviours and attitudes really can be changed once the underlying beliefs are shown to be false.

    People who know that the claims of religions are false have two options. They can either stand up and say so, loud and clear. Or they can be clever. They can say that it’s more complex than that, that religion will always be with us, that there are many factors at work, that religion is not about beliefs anyway, and so on. And thus the self-fulfilling prophesy is self-fulfilled.

    The emperor really does have no clothes and everyone is screaming at the little boy to shut up about it, but I don’t see why he should. He’s the only guy talking any sense.


  34. McDuff Says:

    Religious people quite often talk like that, it’s just that they do it about other people’s religions.

    Talk to any devout religious person, and they will insist that the existential claims of religion really matter. That if they could be shown to be false, everything would fall apart.

    Yes, they often say that. And it often turns out not to be true after all.

    The reason I’m berating you for being oversimple is because you’re not cutting through the chaff and getting to the crux of the matter, but because you’re losing enough detail to make you factually wrong.

    The existential claims of religious people are not irrelevant to them; they are, however, the least interesting part of the development of their religion.

    Let’s take the counterexample. Suppose that Christianity could be reduced down to a simple set of beliefs about the divinity of Christ, the origins of the universe, the canonicity of the scriptures etc. The kinds of basic beliefs shared by 90+% of Christians worldwide. If your hypothesis that it is these beliefs that matter most when it comes to religious behaviour, then we would expect the behaviour of all Christians to be broadly similar. A brief survey of mainstream Protestant sects in the UK puts the lie to that, and expanding the sample to the US, Africa, South America, Eastern Europe etc reveals a vast divergence in religious behaviour, all of it supposedly rooted in the exact same set of beliefs.

    At the same time, anyone with experience with families and friends of different religions will be struck by how similar many of the trappings and behaviours of middle class Jews and Muslims and Christians in, say, Leeds or Bristol will seem eerily similar as you move from chapel to synagogue to mosque.

    Is this evidence in keeping with the hypothesis that it’s the existential claims that dictate religious behaviour? Or should we perhaps be looking deeper than self-reporting?

    For all your criticisms of my “too clever by half” commentary, it seems that I’m at least rooted in an understanding of religion that comes from a broad experience of living with people as if they are human beings, rather than, as yours suggests, having long conversations with them about their religion. And possibly reading about them in books.

    But frankly, that doesn’t matter. If the core influence on behaviour was core belief, variation in the behaviours of sects with the same core belief would be far lower than they, in fact, are. Therefore, the hypothesis is discarded. Self-reporting is a lousy way of conducting research in any event.

    The problem is that there are a number of religions making different claims, and this is bringing the world into conflict. There are many gods, and they are at war. And now you’re going to tell me that there are other reasons for human conflict, such as the basic struggle over resources, as if I don’t already know that.

    Since you can immediately see the inherent problem with your assertion, why not take it out, rather than making your entire paragraph into meaningless guff?

    What it has to do with anything is that the Blair/Bush/God wars were yet another example of the disastrous consequences of religious thinking

    Indeed, this is what we call confirmation bias. Did the religious sensibilities of Bush and Blair have some impact on their decision-making process? It would be foolish to deny it. Would it, though, seem a trifle biased to comb through the process looking for examples of religious language to say “aha! Told you! Religion causes wars!” while ignoring the massive influences that the Cheney/Kissinger/Scowcroft/Perle neoimperialist set had, the money and resources and the functional geopolitical layout of the land at the time? Religious verbiage happens in every war, but as a fundamental root cause for conflict it is neither necessary nor sufficient.

    People who know that the claims of religions are false have two options

    There are two kinds of people in the world. People who believe the world is made up of two kinds of people, and everybody else. See also: false dichotomy.

    Don’t you find it at least a little interesting that in a conversation in which you’re stating your supposed intellectual understanding of the fundamental truth, both better than any religious person and than myself, that your criticisms keep coming back to this anti-intellectual root? That it doesn’t matter how “clever” I am, that you understand a truth viscerally in your gut, and no amount of complexity can alter not just the fundamental truth of the matter, but also what the acceptable behaviours based on that truth should be? You don’t believe there are any observable parallels between that and any other kinds of anti-intellectual behaviours, no? Because you’re not supporting that behaviour with a belief in God, of course, the parallels can’t exist, since we all know that behaviours emerge from fundamental beliefs rather than the environmental stimuli on pre-existing cognitive pathways. Which is exactly why all Christians behave the same after reciting the Nicene Creed.


  35. Laurence Boyce Says:

    “Since you can immediately see the inherent problem with your assertion, why not take it out?”

    I’ll tell you why not. Because it is the most stupid argument in the whole world to say that we should not attack a particular problem because there are other factors involved. “Religion is divisive, but hang on. Other things are divisive too – race, class, etc. – so give up on attacking religion.” In abstract terms, that is the executive summary of your argument, and it is nothing short of extraordinary the lengths to which you have gone to make such a banal point.

    Great article in the Observer on a similar theme. The problem: “More than 20,000 British girls under eight are estimated to be at risk of genital mutilation, though there have been no prosecutions so far. There are thought to be around 12 honour killings in the UK each year. Other British women are subjected to forced marriages, polygamy, spiritually sanctioned brutality and, most commonly, complete veiling.”

    The solution? Well apparently it is for “300 gorgeous glamorous women” to hold a posh dinner where with tremendous bravery they attempt to “raise awareness of maternal health.” Suppose you go and “berate” Catherine Bennett for a bit? Hey, at least she has a readership worth speaking of!