What 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