Thursday, June 03, 2010

Lost in a masquerade

Feline identity by Pants

The question Why and I have been sitting here patiently waiting for the whole burka argument to go away or, at the very least, to stop spinning on its axis. We really don't do roundabouts. We do not like to spill our chardonnay. We have waited for weeks for someone else to bring this to a reasonable conclusion to no a-veil.

It is with huge reluctance that we throw our own Herm├Ęs scarf into this three-ringed circus. Whereas we are willing to sacrifice our own modesty to the greater cause, we wish it known that we deeply resent having to waste good gastrotime. Barney has just produced the most spectacular plate of eggs Vladivostok of his entire short existence and has assured us that he plans to follow it up with a vodkamisu that could bring on Armageddon. Let's hope he's right.

So, to today's problem. It is so confused no one can even agree on a standard spelling for it. Is it burka, burqa, burqua or even berka? We like burka. Sorry Barney that wasn't a request. What are you saying? There's a drink called a burka? Okay, bring it on.

Where were we? Oh yes. The question Why and I have been following the arguments around for several weeks and, after finding we had worn a Scalextric track around Seat of Pants, decided we should sit down and see if there wasn't another way of looking at the problem.

We found a very good distillation of the crude pros and cons of banning the burka that have been doing the rounds and a nice summation of the frustrations the whole business induces in people with more pressing intellectual matters to be getting on with here at Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony.

The question Why and I, having reviewed the situation with due solemnity, propose a 'do nothing' approach. Bring on the eggs Vladivostok Barney, our work here is done.

What's that you say dear reader? You would like more information? Oh, well, since you ask... It's okay question Why, you eat, I'll deal with this.

We are talking a zero-sum game here. The European countries that are either proposing to or have already banned the burka in public places are those obsessively tracking citizens already. Italy, France, Belgium, Spain - countries where you can hardly cross the street without having to show your ID card are nervous because they have the most to lose if their citizens are suddenly able to subvert surveillance. They can and will act to close that opportunity down.

The veiled woman is merely a pawn. I don't know much about chess but I do know it's not the pawn that ends up in the final showdown. The test case will probably centre on that woman in Italy who was fined €500 for standing in a Post Office queue in a burka. Her husband famously said he would 'have to keep her indoors to stop men looking at her' and the whole planet gasped, as if there was nothing that could be done. The free world as one seems to have failed to recognise that this man has globally signalled his intention to break both Italian and European law and will almost certainly have triggered a constant surveillance on his house by a battalion of social services.

The big clash in Europe will be between state and religious interests. The collective of European states will win that fight. They will not allow citizens to absolve themselves from the duty to identify. The fight will not be about women and how they dress. It will come down to a question of - if not your face then what, fingerprints? If the greater citizenry is forced to choose between these then don't expect a resounding solidarity for the sisters who give their identity up for Allah.

Britain has a new government which may pull back a bit on the CCTV surveillance. The previous administration would have found the potential for more of its citizens being able move around below the ID radar utterly infuriating. Still, even in countries like Britain and Australia where citizens have strongly resisted government attempts to impose compulsory ID cards, there is enough cultural conditioning to carry a general consensus that people ought not to be free to move around 'in disguise'. Not so much a clash of cultures as a clash of practicalities.

I worked for a long time in Britain in Muslim communities but never came across the problem described in this article by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown writing in The Independent,

A traditional Pakistani friend of mine – who always wears the shalwar kameez – recently refused service from a burka-ed librarian in one of our big libraries. The next time she went in, the face was no longer hidden.

Who knows how someone in a burka ends up on the front desk of a public library in Britain? It's clearly a failure of the principles of equality in public service. Users of public libraries have the right to expect a full range of communication capabilities from front-line staff. You find a lot of hearing-impaired people in libraries.

The interesting thing about the anecdote above is that, if true, it would appear to suggest that resistence on a local level might be effective in places like Britain. Perhaps that veiled woman went home and said to her husband, 'I will lose my job' and he thought, 'well, it's the face or the mortgage'.

The question Why has rejoined the conversation just as I'm about to collapse in exhaustion. Not to pose a question, thankfully, but to suggest that the young Anglo-European Islamic-convert women that everyone is so worried about are really a side issue. They are souls in search of belief and Islam just happens to be the faith du jour. Twenty years ago they would have become Orange People and twenty years before that, brides of Christ.

It will work itself out. Barney, I'm ready for my eggs now...