Saturday, 23 January 2010

The French Veil Ban, and other well-meaning interventions

This is a response to a post over at Feminazery, a little later than I'd hoped. The details of the proposed ban on 'people on the public street whose face is entirely covered' in France are pretty much irrelevant - I was having a think about the idea of banning any aspect of personal appearance. The post has been difficult to write because it's more personal than I would normally consider being. Nonetheless, there's a couple of things I want to say on this topic.

Should we consider banning any items of clothing related to a particular religion, we will have to word the legislation very carefully indeed. I'm sure that there is no way to make such a law both workable and non-discriminatory. Say we decided that women covering their hair with a headscarf was 'intimidating' and that banning this practice in public would be a step forward for women's rights. Either many things would be included unintentionally (Hair nets and swimming caps? Will the headgear of Queen Elizabeth, and many other women her age, be banned too?) or the headgear will have to be defined as a symbol of a particular religion. Practically speaking, the only way to determine whether something is being worn as a religious symbol is to determine the religious beliefs of the wearer; if two women are both covering their hair, and only one is a Muslim, only one would be breaking the law. Clearly, that sucks.

My second point is aimed at those who would like to see some practices banned because they are a symbol of female subjugation. It is widely accepted that Muslim women follow rules on covering skin and hair because they will be punished if they don't, and if you are sure of this fact then it must be upsetting to see evidence of this walking around. But forcing a change in behaviour is not the answer. Not only is it denying that women have the right, even the ability, to choose for themselves, but it completely disregards how they may feel about the new, enforced level of exposure.

This is where my personal experience comes in, which should explain why I'm (quite arrogantly) attempting to speak for a group of women I don't belong to. I wear a wig. I have done since the age of about three, due to some piffling genetic oddity, the only symptom of which is that it makes my 'natural' hairstyle resemble that of a mad scientist caught fraternising with the enemy. And there lies the probem - lack of hair in a woman has certain cultural associations. We no longer shave the heads of female fraternisers, prisoners or asylum inmates, but it is still considered a sign of criminality, illness, deviance, or extreme politics. Just look at the perplexed derision that awaited Britney Spears when she shaved her head, even though leaving it an inch longer would have been accepted. As I don't want to attract such associations purely based on my appearance*, I cover my own hair most of the day.

Looking at it logically, it's silly that I should feel this way. Natural -looking wigs aren't cheap. They're also hot in the summer, and uncomfortable under winter hats. They make me worried about going on roller-coasters (and I LOVE roller-coasters) and getting caught it the rain loses much of its romance. My life would improve if I just did away with the blasted things, and the only thing stopping me is the culture I grew up in; because of the way long, thick, shiny hair is fetishised in western culture, and the fact that lack of hair is still considered a legitimate target for ridicule**, I would rather walk down the street with a bare arse than a bare head.

...And I think the same goes for any culturally-imposed rules on clothing. However unfair and unnecessary they may appear to those looking in, imposing change from the outside amounts to a twisted form of bullying. No state has the right to force people to feel uncomfortable, all day every day, as they go about their normal, law-abiding business. Anyone who thinks it a good idea to force women to feel exposed had better be prepared to go naked the next day.

*And because I don't have Sigourney Weaver or Natalie Portman's beautifully-shaped cranium.

** That episode of Johnathan Creek where they repeatedly take the piss out of a bald girlfriend was easily the most traumatic TV experience of my early teenage years.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Resolution for Britain #1 - Positive Patriotism

I'm English, and I love Britain.

For four out of the past five years I've been loving it from afar, from various parts of the EU, teaching foreign kids and business people about our funny language and our even funnier ways. I've been one of those really irritating long-distance lovers, who enthuse, starry-eyed about the object of their affection to anyone who'll listen (and the best thing about being a teacher is the captive audience). I even spent hard-earned cash on British cheese, beer and fruitcake for my students to prove to them that whatever overpriced cardboard they ate and despaired of on their one trip to London is not the sum total of our culinary offerings. I found it a little frustrating that, unlike that of other countries, our produce is not widely promoted abroad*, to the extent that many Europeans think we all live off 'ham and eggs' and perfectly square pieces of dry 'toast' bread.

(Cheddar makes everything British)

The thing that frustrated me much, much more than that though was the attitude of the British media - my main link to what was going on back home. Holy smoke, the place fell to pieces the second I left. And - allegedly - thousands of Brits were leaving their beloved home country, being forced out by the changes they had seen to "their" "culture" and the mismanagement they were no longer prepared to put up with. Which was news to me, as I thought I'd left to try my hand at being an immigrant. We live and learn.

It amazes me that people who claim to be patriotic Brits - both in the media and in real life - also tend to be the people who complain about it the most. For all their yammering at how our culture is being destroyed, our institutions undermined, and how we need to stand up for ourselves and MAKE BRITAIN GREAT AGAIN, there's rarely a mention of what might make Britain 'great' in the first place**. And until those elements are defined, no way am I going to advocate curbing the rights of anyone living here in order to 'defend' the British 'way of life'.

To kick things off, here's a list of some things I think we do well and which it would be a shame to lose:
  1. Food. Specifically our massive range of fantastic desserts, biscuits and cakes which aren't too sweet or made of 90% cream. Also sandwiches with deep, well thought-out fillings (most of the ones I got in Germany were 1 slice meat, 1 slice cheese, 1 gherkin). No-one else does pies quite like we do, and I have never encountered a better variety of sausage. More importantly, we're happy to take elements of other countries' cuisines and make them our own.
  2. Free entry to museums and galleries. This means that nearby residents can just wander in for ten minutes, whenever they're in the area, and soak up some of that culture that's allegedly disappearing. Same goes for our excellent, integrated system of free libraries, which is certainly not a universal concept. Our tourist attractions too are generally well-run with excellent facilities and genuinely informative exhibitions, even if the gift shops are getting a bit silly.
  3. Music. That largely silent phase we went through while geniuses abroad were composing their operas and symphonies? We were just saving ourselves for the second half on the 20th century. Ok, so I grew up to be a bigger than average Brit-pop junkie, but really there's something for everyone there.
And you know what? All of that wonderfulness has only developed in Britain because of our contact with other cultures. Our explorers went out and found the potatoes that we bake so well***, we were happy to adopt the Jewish invention of battered fish, and some incredible curries have been created as an adaptation to British tastes. Those same international connections brought us much of our museums' collections, and their size is testament to the status we reached on the international stage. Much of our musical talent and their influences are of international origin and that mix has helped its constant reinvention and continued popularity all over the world.

Of course, these aren't innocent achievements****. I would be the first to point out that Britain's culture is the result of a lot of suffering, most of it inflicted on the populations of other countries, which we didn't give a monkey's for at the time. But that doesn't mean I'd be happy to see that culture disappear. I believe in political correctness (more on that in a later post) but I wouldn't advocate changing something in the present to appease the past. That's just illogical.

What I find far more illogical though, is the two very contradictory views that many people are able to hold simultaneously; that Britain was once 'great', and that our achievements abroad were a good thing, but also that the country is 'broken' and that the evidence of those international links which remains in Britain (our immigrant communities and mixed marriages, our general willingness to acknowledge the contributions made by other cultures to our own) is something to be attacked and stamped out. The two sides simply don't add up.

We could, perhaps, attempt a 'return' to a culture which is devoid of all foreign influences but most people would agree that living off beans and turnips, with fewer attractions to visit and very little music to enjoy on our 'made in Britain' gramophones, wouldn't be all that 'great' after all.

*Incidentally, after writing this I'm going to bake an apple crumble for a Frenchman. In this area at least, I'm prepared to practice what I preach.

**Sure I know it's a geography term. You know I know that. We're cool.

***Imagine my shock at German restaurants serving them still wrapped in foil and smothered in sour cream. Seriously tricky to eat.

****A severe understatement , I know, but not something I want to get into here.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Resolutions for Britain

Yes, that is indeed a very arrogant title and sounds like a straight-to-recycling election leaflet but a new decade has begun and I'm going to slap down some optimism here and now, before it starts to look just like the old decade.

Most of the time I'm hampered by the overwhelming feeling that our species is doomed, especially those parts of it which have been living well beyond their means for centuries by screwing over other parts and the planet they view as their own life-sized Risk board. Every time I try to write something pro-active and political I remember that groups of people, regardless of the personalities of the individual members, tend to behave as if humans are inherently ignorant, self-centered, self-serving bastards. But as this is the designated time of year for setting unrealistic goals for the future, here are a few of mine for the country. If I stick to one of my personal resolutions, these will be expanded on over the next few weeks.
  • Focus on the real positives - let's try and break through all this hell-in-a-handcart, make-Britain-great-again whining from self-pitying (often ex-pat) wind bags and occasionally celebrate some of the things that Britain genuinely does well. Then maybe we'll accept that none of these things are really under threat from immigration, multi-culturalism or anything else people kick off about when they don't want to admit they're scared of foreign-looking hats. Which brings me on to...
  • Political correctness doesn't mean what a lot of idiots think it means, but that doesn't matter any more. It's still used as an excuse for people to hide behind nasty little euphemisms and pretend they're being a brave spokesperson for the silent majority. Now we're entering an age in which 'human rights' is a dirty word; 'asylum seeker', 'Muslim' and 'terrorist' are practically synonyms and the only tactic employed against this shift in rhetoric is to shout "racist!" and run away. Speaking of which...
  • The left have to get a grip. Seriously guys - we're accused of running the country, we're even accused of having taken over the USA, for heaven's sake, and yet viewed from the inside, we're a fractious bunch of cynical, defeatist, lone-rangers who've forgotten where the common ground is that we're supposed to be defending. We're losing, and it's our fault.
So that's what I'd like to see in the next ten years - a better-defined, more positive and winnable battle against the forces of prejudice, division, and racist self-interest. Please?