Thinly veiled: No ban can be an acceptable way to ‘liberate’ women

This week, the lower house of the French parliament voted by 335 to one to approve a law which bans “the concealment of the face in public”.

niqab french ban

The resulting debate has of course caused stark divisions, not least within the liberal camp. But the split now is not so much between those that are in favour and those against (with an excellent piece by Madeleine Bunting in the Guardian), but between people who have a hard-line view on the subject and those who are as yet undecided.

It’s a multi-faceted problem which is not easy to pick apart.

Some view the face covering veil as a refusal by those who wear it to accept Western culture, the divisive marker of an unmanageable fissure between Islamic culture and our own.

The ban itself could of course indicate a deep seated fear of the stranger in Western culture, of dislike of the unknown and a rejection of those who are different to ourselves. My optimistic inclination is to disagree with this thinking.

The ban itself can be seen as the demand from Western society for a level of openness which is, in that arena, expected. This is a demand for women to contribute to certain cultural norms, norms which dictate that the face is a vital element of communication and engagement with others.

These questions have contributed to just some of the noise surrounding the issue and are of course central to the argument – an argument which cannot be comprehensively dealt with in one blog post.

The view which has attracted most attention this week, however, is that for which the face veil is a “walking coffin” – acting as a powerful symbol which represents the subjugation of Muslim women.

It is one many commentators have supported and against the backdrop of recent human rights atrocities in Iran – in regard to the stoning-to death of adulterous women –  my gut instinct would be to agree, strongly.

Yet gut instinct must take a back seat. After piecing together this puzzle of grey on grey I have cautiously made my decision that a ban from the State on women wearing face covering veils is unacceptable.

It goes without saying that we should not, as a culture, tolerate oppression. However, it is not the role of government to impose restrictions on women, especially if it is in a misplaced attempt to ‘liberate’ them. It is in no way progressive and wholly counter-productive.

Furthermore I find it arrogant of anyone who is a non-Muslim living in Western society to make blanket assumptions about why Muslim women choose to wear a veil.

To homogenise veil wearing women with such generalised statements and presuppose that none are making their own decisions is to infantilise each and every one of them.

I am not saying that oppression does not exist in Islamic culture, more that the wearing of a niqab is not a black and white indicator of that oppression, nor will simply banning the face veil prevent it.

The face veil can be a powerful symbol of an oppression that can exist but stripping it away will not prevent the subjugation of women in Islam as a whole and furthermore it smacks of hypocrisy.

Realistically, a ban could be more damaging, forcing women into seclusion as they feel increasingly alienated from ‘accepted’ Western culture and seen as weak instruments of male domination.

We do not live in a society where the state should intervene on this level – by telling women what they can and cannot wear.

However we go about tackling these issues, it is crucial that the State is not the function by which the rights of the woman are removed.

International Attention on Israel’s Blockade is Not Enough

The outrage caused by Isreal’s deadly attack on the Gaza aid flotilla last month has forced the international community to pay attention to the unacceptable nature of the blockade itself.

However attention alone is not enough, now is the time for the UN and the EU to take action.

Gaza flotilla Israel blockade

Israel has once again set itself as an outsider, refusing to abide by international law despite global demand for an impartial investigation into the May 31 commando raid.

Following international pressure, Israel announced this week that it is slightly easing the blockade of the Gaza Strip but the reality of how this will play out is yet unclear. Instead of promising aid, the US and UK should be demanding an entire policy shift.

The tight restrictions on Gaza will remain as long as there are ‘security concerns’ but this vague description of Israeli justification also allows the prohibition of purely civilian goods and it is not simply weapons that are being blocked. This is a poorly constructed veil for the broader punishment of the people of Gaza.

If the US is to send $400m of aid, which signals a shift in approach, then questions need to be answered in regard to how this aid is used and delivered.

The continued efforts to strangle any economic growth in the region, preventing any industry to develop by imposing well thought out restrictions – on coffee beans, but not ground coffee – is chilling. The erratic nature of restrictions mean that the US will effectively have very little control the aid and what it does not replace is political responsibility.

More to the point, this is no longer a simple issue of aid. This is a deeply felt humanitarian crisis. Of course, aid is useful, and the message it sends about America’s position on developments in the region is positive but what would be more effective is a direct and unquestionable condemnation of Israel’s blockade of Gaza.

There undoubtedly needs to be an impartial investigation into the flotilla raids and a careful approach to lifting the ‘unsustainable’ blockade. Israel cannot continue to use force to play out its political objectives which is only contributing to its isolation. The result of this is brutally damaging for both developments in the region and for international diplomacy.

The Rise of the Great Paywall

I have seen the future, sort of, maybe. No-one is really sure, but it is all anyone media types are talking about.

The Great Wall has landed;  The Times and Sunday Times paid-for websites have been revealed.

But before Murdoch‘s (or Harding’s, really) iron gates descend in June, we are free to browse.

Both sites, which are now independent from one another, are usable, look slick and as promised are far improved from the current Times Online format. Being frank, if they had stayed in the same clunky, unattractive style, no-one would have paid.

But yes, the paywall. Whether this is a genuine attempt to increase revenue, or a great PR exercise and fun media pawn-playing game for Murdoch, we will soon be asked to pay one pound per day, or two pounds per week for access.

The question isn’t really whether it is worth two pounds. In my mind, it obviously is but no-one yet knows how the digital masses will behave. In fact, I think varied as we are, there may well be room for both paid-for models and free online content.

Jeff Jarvis sees the move as lazy and weak displaying a lack of innovation and inspiration from The Times to compete in the online world. This is far removed from where editor James Harding positioned the decision:

“The Times was founded to take advantage of new technology.  Now, we are leading the way again. Our new website – with a strong, clean design – will have all the values of the printed paper and all the versatility of digital media.”

Jarvis’ point that Murdoch had until recently never used the internet does not lure me to his way of thinking. I highly doubt this was Murdoch’s decision alone, sent in a demanding note via pigeon to Wapping, in the same way I presume he isn’t spearheading the well received technical improvements to the website.

Harding accepts that 90% of Times Online visitors will be lost, but that these people will have been ‘window shoppers’.

But aren’t we all now part of this clan, curious consumers who are able to grab information, digest it quickly, share and move on? The variations lie in where we place our allegiances and which sources we value most.

Trying to align a business model which pays for journalism with the intangible value of the work itself and the requirements of its audience and in such a vastly uncontrollable and unchartered space is a mind-bogglingly complicated issue.

If The Times website does indeed lose 90% of readers, how will its journalists feel? What use is an exclusive story behind a paywall and… good God what will happen to sharing news on Twitter?

Realistically, this comes down to revenue. Journalism does need to be paid for, but whether this is the right format remains to be seen.

If this fails it may simply highlight the shift in the way the majority of internet users consume news, and the the digitally savvy reader will just go somewhere else for now. But I forsee that what may start with a loyal, dimished readership forking out for access will eventually grow into a trend, and more papers will follow.

Eitherway the installation of this paywall around one of the UK’s most influential news sites marks an unavoidable shift in the media landscape and perhaps worringly, Murdoch is at the helm.

Clegg, Cameron and a whole lot of knickers in a twist.

Rest finally came to the political commentators and journalists this week when David Cameron, our Prime Minister, appointed Nick Clegg as his deputy in a coalition government. So far this has been a bit of a love-in, with Cameron promising a Liberal-Conservative government and a ‘seismic shift in politics’.

Concessions have been made by both sides up to this point, and it’s all very happy families but it will be interesting to see how this continues when talks on international and defence policy begin.

What is strikingly obvious and disappointing, although not wholly surprising about our hybrid cabinet, which can be seen in full here, is that it is rather male-centric in make-up.

Labour are, if nothing else, supportive of women in politics but in general Britain has a poor track record of keeping women in cabinet and there have been angry reactions following the announcement of Cameron’s team.

Before we get those proverbials in a twist, and in fear of getting a bashing from my fellow ‘wimmin’ I think this subject should be approached with a reasonable head. What is interesting, and potentially disappointing are the possible reasons for this.

Of course we need to encourage more women to enter politics, in order to send the message that  door is open but I am not about to endorse a quota-filling approach to appointing female front-benchers, I want the best possible candidate for the job – male or female.

The paths into politics and the professional opportunities available to women may need to be questioned and discrimination on any level is unacceptable, but blind, bra-burning fury at a majority male cabinet is not helpful either.

Decision time: will it be a Clegg-Cam union or a potentially disastrous blind date?

After days of flirtation Nick Clegg will soon choose a bedfellow for the Lib Dems. The man who is heading the party that David Blunkett has branded a “harlot” can now be seen as the kingmaker in this election. He is making an unenviable decision that will cause rifts with at least some of his party and its supporters, no matter what the outcome.

Passions are running high, with journalists and political commentators on over-drive after a remarkable few days at Westminster. The cracks certainly began to show yesterday when Adam Boulton picked a furious row with Alistair Campbell on Sky News; I only wish Campbell had gone so far as to wipe the almost tangible spittle from his brow as Boulton unleashed.

Still, as Clegg is continuing talks with both parties, he is holding his cards close to his chest and we are waiting with baited breath as all three parties sit in Westminster.

The real beneficiaries of the discussions should be the electorate, as all parties focus on policy areas that will be popular publicly, with PR and economic stability heading up the news agenda.

Yet stability is exactly what is it at stake if talks go on much longer and Clegg continues to play footsie with both parties. This eager excitement will undoubtedly lead to grumbling tensions as the potential of fruitful partnerships between the parties turn into memories of a regrettable fling.

All in all, it’s crunch time and eyes are firmly on Clegg holding the power card. This would have been unthinkable just a few months ago and for that fact, amongst others, this week has been a game-changer, altering the face of politics for decades to come.

Following Brown’s resignation yesterday the prospect of a Lab-Lib coalition became more realistic. This would, of course, be a coalition of the great unknown. With Brown successfully out of Number 10 (sort of) the scramble will soon commence to replace him.

Ed Balls as PM - a terrifying prospect

Whether it is Ed Balls that will eventually take the keys to Downing St, a resoundingly unpopular choice, David Miliband or of course, his brother Ed we do not know but no-one is staking a claim as of yet.

In any event, it is clear this will most likely effect Clegg’s decision. However what that may be, or when that come, is currently anyone’s guess.

General Election 2010 and an evolution in political participation

We are now firmly within touching distance of judgement day in what our could-be PM David Cameron calls “the most important general election in a generation”. (And what better reason, I thought, to break my hiatus and re-instate my lurching excuse for a blog…)

So, as 100 business people and entrepreneurs gathered on not-quite-the-top-floor of the Gherkin last night for a  panel debate hosted by Coutt’s Forum for Entrepreneurs, what will happen on May 6 was the driving force behind the discussion.

A panel comprising former Tory Mayoral candidate Steve Norris, Labour peer Baroness Kingsmill, former Apprentice-winner Tim Campbell, serial entrepreneur Doug Richard and Sunday Times Enterprise Editor, Rachel Bridge was chaired by Michael Hayman, co-founder of new PR consultancy, and my gainful employer, Seven Hills.

The Coutt's Business Question Time panel

The debate touched on cutting regulation on business, changes in capital gains tax and the laboured topic of National Insurance rises but it was with mention of the televised leaders debates and one of the hottest topics in this first ‘e-election’, Twitter, that an audible wave of disgruntled seat-shifting took place and hands shot skywards.

Overall consensus was that the leaders debates were dull, over stylised and far too ‘X-factor’ in style. But it needs   to be noted that this was a room comprising highly successful, well-educated and wealthy individuals each holding a keen, long-held interest in politics, not least because of their strong stake in the UK’s economy.

So it strikes me as somewhat narrow-sighted to write off these debates as the next generation of reality show. For many people these TV debates will have been the first, direct engagement they have had with this election, if not with politics in general. Many argued the TV debates were far too focused on style over substance but this to me is nothing new. Surely, historically the smooth delivery of policies has been almost as important as the changes and decisions being communicated?

What holds importance in my mind is the clear evolution in how people are participating with politics. The uses of Twitter, blogging and TV debates are as yet each unrefined and potentially flawed ways of politicians speaking to the general public, but the fact that communication is taking place needs to be celebrated.

I was shocked by one panellists admission that they hated twitter and hoped it would ‘disappear very soon’. Social media has proved to be a highly democratic form of communication and way of holding those in power to account, whether this is by outing the bigoted views of politicians, allowing us to fact-check their statements in real-time or be ahead of the curve with breaking news.

At least by watching our potential leaders on television, or discussing the topics through social media, the general public can feel they are taking part in an election which for some can be prohibitively elitist. Whats more, within this realm people do feel their voice is of value, more so arguably than they will by marking their ballot paper tomorrow.

Gee whizz: Sarah Palin and Fox News cosy up

Former Republican vice-presidential candidate and governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin has just been taken on by Fox News. Anyone who saw her car-crash interview with Katie Couric during the election campaign would advise her to stay away from unscripted broadcast and stick to shooting wildlife.

Palin: A force to be reckoned with, or preaching to the converted?

Of course, Fox is a different ball game altogether. Having signed a “multi-year deal” with the channel she will now provide political commentary and analysis across a number of stations.

It must be said, what with reading the newspaper – ‘all of ’em’ – so avidly, Palin is well placed for such a role.

The additional news that she will host  episodes of the channel’s Real American Stories, a series exploring inspirational real-life tales of American’s overcoming adversity, is truly wretch-worthy.

Of course, Fox is the perfect home for the would-be beauty pageant winner and gun-toting all-American gal.

Here’s what she had to say:

“I am thrilled to be joining the great talent and management team at Fox News. It’s wonderful to be part of a place that so values fair and balanced news,” she said.

The less said of that comment the better but rest assured, as Ed Pilkington noted, it is voiced with apparent lack of irony.

Most of the discussion about her appointment across the pond has surrounded what this means for her hopes for a 2012 presidency.

I tend to agree with ABC News’ Rick Klein who sees this as a move away from running, and rather as a way ‘to build upon her political brand’.

There is something terrifyingly steely about Palin, and this new development, which will see her pearly whites grinning out to America’s largest TV audience almost certainly means she’s here to stay.

Whether this means anything for expanding the reach of her political agenda I am not sure but she is no doubt intent on building her profile – and she knows who will listen.